Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tower of Babel

In keeping with the "Elton/Bernie: The Early Years" concept, here we have Bernie indignantly (and self-righteously) firing bromides at the music biz types, most likely those at Dick James Music that lived high on the hog while they were scuffling, writing mindless pop hits for them, summed up in the infamous chorus:

It's party time for the guys in the tower of Babel
Sodom meet Gomorrah, Cain meet Abel
Have a ball y'all
See the letches crawl
With the call girls under the table
Watch them dig their graves
'Cause Jesus don't save the guys
In the tower of Babel

This was making both of them unhappy and frustrated, which he sums up in lyrics like these:

Junk, angel, this closet's always stacked
The dealers in the basement
Filling your prescription
For a brand new heart attack

But where were all your shoulders when we cried
Were the doctors in attendance
Saying how they felt so sick inside
Or was it just the scalpel blade that lied

The metaphors are not exactly as sharp as one would like, but they get the point across- it's plain that they were stifling under the system they were laboring in.

The Biblical connotation of the "Tower of Babel" reference makes him seem like a dour preacher on Sunday morning, railing disapprovingly at any and all sinners...but then again, I haven't walked in his shoes so who am I to judge?

The song itself is set by Elton in alternating styles; verses are cast in a slowish, resigned feel with minimal accompaniment save piano and rhythm section. The tempo accelerates slightly in the last two lines of each verse, until a fat Johnstone lick before the "Party time at..." line ushers in the jaunty, R&B style chorus.

If you don't listen too closely, this is a fine, catchy track. However, to me Bernie's bile lessens the experience when attention is paid to it.

A thousand thanks to Jim Akin for clearing up my fuzzy thought processes (see comments).


Jim Akin said...

I found this post while re-acquainting myself with Elton's '70s albums, and "Captain Fantastic" in particular.

FWIW, I always assumed the subjects of this tune were Elton and Bernie themselves ("Cain" and "Abel"), during their days as piecework tunesmiths -- and that the titular Tower of Babel was a (figurative if not literal) hit factory -- a (more?) jaded, downmarket version of NYC's Brill Building.

Ignoring the awkwardness of the metaphor, it makes sense to me to think of the Tower's drug-fueled physicians-in-attendance, with their corrupted instruments, as hack composers, cynically doctoring phony sentiments into radio fodder. And to think of the lyrics as viewing the not-yet Captain and Kid as just one more pair o' docs, as unworthy of salvation as any of their fellow letches.

Viewing the song's withering contempt as self-directed seems in keeping with the disgust an artist might feel upon realizing he'd sold himself into indentured crap-mongering -- the sort of self-loathing that might even give someone a case of "Bitter Fingers."

Johnny B said...

I'm not so sure the chorus is self-directed, but I think you're right on the money about the surgical metaphors. It seems that Bernie is casting invective not only at Dick James, but at themselves as well for their indentured servitude.

I think I may have to revise this one...!