Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

In 1975, an entire album devoted to the early days of a songwriting team was, if not unprecedented, was at least a novel idea- and it was incumbent upon the pair to craft an opening tune which not only set the stage for what was to follow, but to grab the listener's attention and show that they weren't screwing around. What they came up with was certainly one of the most ambitious tunes in the Elton repertoire, and arguably one of the most exciting.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative of the song is split into a stanza for each principal, which at first points out their differences:

City-boy Elton:
Captain Fantastic raised and regimented, hardly a hero
Just someone his mother might know
Very clearly a case for corn flakes and classics
"Two teas both with sugar please"
In the back of an alley

Rural-kid Bernie:
While little Dirt Cowboys turned brown in their saddles
Sweet chocolate biscuits and red rosy apples in summer
For it's hay make and "Hey mom, do the papers say anything good.
Are there chances in life for little Dirt Cowboys
Should I make my way out of my home in the woods"

These verses are set in a gentle, loping, folky style with hi-hat, mandolins and acoustic guitars tinkling away in the background. The tempo picks up slightly with the next lines, as congas start in and the song describes the pair growing up and realize how they want to try to live their lives.

Then, abruptly, with this line:

For cheap easy meals and hardly a home on the range

the guitars become harsh, the tempo accelerates, the band crashes in full-bore and absolutely soars, spurred on by Ray Cooper's whirring percussion effects in the chorus. It's an absolutely thrilling moment, perhaps intended to simulate the heady rush of realizing that one can make a living playing music for people, and having people reciprocate, and remains for me one of the most exciting moments on any Elton album.

Then, after the thunder dies down, it's back to the more relaxed tempo of the introduction- the beat hasn't gone away but it's more subdued, and the lyric content more reflective. Finally, the chorus returns, and the mood seems to be defiant and confident, learning from the past and looking ahead to the future.

I don't see how they could have opened any album, let alone this one, any better and this stacks up as one of the best arrangements of Elton's career, with his classic band at the height of their powers.

Unfortunately, this track arguably sets a high point that the rest of the Fantastic album fails to match. And decades later, Elton and Bernie went to the retrospective bank once more on 2006's Captain and the Kid (which I purchased recently), to diminishing returns.


brendan said...

This was the last of the "vintage" Elton John albums that really interested me, and it has plenty of high points, though you're probably right that the record's running order peaked early with this track.

More worryingly, I used to pick up my uncle's mandolin and play along with the opening of this when it came out. Years later, I'm still playing the *#&$£ thing...

Roger Owen Green said...

I bought this album just two days ago. Listening to the title song RIGHT NOW>

Johnny Bacardi said...

I had it in my truck the other day, listening to "Curtains" so I could write about it eventually.

Small world!