Saturday, October 13, 2007

Madman Across the Water

Originally intended for Tumbleweed Connection, this track became an FM radio staple in the 70's and beyond, most likely due to its ambitious arrangement and its length, which put it in the same playing field as such epic tracks as Traffic's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" and Led Zep's "Stairway to Heaven".

Actually, this is also an anomaly in Elton's "classic" catalog in that it boasts two versions- the one which appeared on the album that bears its name, and another, earlier try (recorded during the March 1970 Tumbleweed Connection sessions) which could only be heard via bootlegs until it finally saw release on 1992's Rare Masters compilation, and features the late Glam-rock legend Mick Ronson on guitar. Yes' Rick Wakeman, keeping busy playing sessions at the time, was also on hand to play organ on both versions. This version eschews the ominous Paul Buckmaster string arrangements for some low-key Ronson guitar pyrotechnics.

However, it's the more familiar album version we're concerned with here. At some point, it was decided to re-do the song with Buckmaster arrangements, and the ponderous strings add a definite mood of oppression and paranoia, especially during the long instrumental passages- they dart and collide with the stop-start rhythm (provided by Terry Cox of Pentangle fame) and help establish the mood of Bernie's ambiguous lyrics, which on the surface could be said to assay the ramblings of a deranged person. Since Taupin sometimes chose to express his inner feelings through his lyrics, one has to wonder to what degree that came into play here. A popular supposition at the time was that it was about Richard Nixon, but that's never been verified.

Of course, this was the sort of track which signaled a sort of creative dead-end for Elton, and determined to shed the somewhat lugubrious image of the collective sound of the Madman album, decided to lighten things up on his next LP, Honky Chateau.

4 comments:

Roger Green said...

FYI- Madman appears on the reissue of Tumbleweed that I got out of the library in the last year.

Johnny B said...

Yeah, that was the next place that version appeared, on the "Classic Years" series from 1996. Wish I had that one! My CD of Tumbleweed was from the late 80's, when they first reissued Elton's albums on CD...

Thanks for the heads up, though!

brendan said...

I was just reading Mojo the other day; there was a nice interview with Rick Wakeman talking about all the hit singles he'd played sessions for. Wakeman reckoned his only serious rival in this respect was... Tony Cox.

Always liked the big, dramatic arrangement of this, and the lyrical ambiguity seems to suit the mood. One friend of mine always insisted the song was just about someone who didn't get on with his in-laws - fair enough...

Johnny B said...

I started to name a few of those Wakeman sessions (that I was aware of)- of course, He was with Strawbs for a little while, and also played on Bowie's Hunky Dory, Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and probably a thousand others of which I'm unaware or have forgotten.

It also occurred to me the other day that perhaps the lyrics could be about frustration at not being taken seriously- perhaps that might have been the seed of the piece, I can't say.