Sunday, December 23, 2007

The King Must Die

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word "ostler" thusly:

Main Entry: hos·tler
Variant(s): also os·tler
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, innkeeper, hostler, from Anglo-French hosteler, from hostel
Date: 14th century

1: one who takes care of horses or mules
2: one who moves locomotives in and out of a roundhouse; also : one who services locomotives

I cite this because when I reflect on this, Elton John's closing track, I remember looking the word up in the dictionary because I had never heard of it before. How about that- pop music as educational tool! It also shows how hard Bernie must have hit the ol' thesaurus in those days, trying to find a) alternate ways of phrasing things; and b) a voice with which to express himself. Fortunately, he decided fairly early on that the pretentious road was not the one for him, and he managed to mostly avoid it for the rest of his writing career. I also have to wonder how much an influence Progressive Rock was on him at this time; the lyrics for this song strike me as perhaps an earnest, but clumsy, attempt to simulate the inspired wordplay of King Crimson's Peter Sinfield, via such efforts as "Epitaph". Elton had tried out for the slot of lead vocalist of the post-Greg Lake incarnation of Crimson; perhaps some other cross-pollination occurred, assuming Bernie was around and acquainted with the KC lyricist. Who knows.

"King"'s actual subject matter is not very clear; music press speculation at the time posited that it was an attack on Richard Nixon, but Bernie shot that theory down. It seems to be a meditation on being made humble by self-awareness or external forces, perhaps aimed at any number of targets: self, politicians, hard to say.

Elton sings this all in oh-so-serious serious fashion, playing piano backed with Paul Buckmaster strings and horns. The arrangement works, but flirts with self-parody and it's telling that the Elton/Bernie team pretty much abandoned this approach within the next couple of years.

1 comment:

thom de plume said...

This is the one that clinched it for me.

It's got everything you need:

- Shakespearean subject matter

- Classical cum gospel piano

- Soulful vocals

- Symphonic textures courtesy of Mr. Paul Buckmaster

Roll up!

PS In fact, one of my earliest compositions ("Confound the King") was heavily modeled on this track. Good times...