Sunday, September 30, 2007

You're So Static

This just in: Bernie doesn't like or trust the "working girls".

Well, that seems to be the gist of this one, anyway, as he tells the story of a young man who has an "aching head" as the result of an unfortunate encounter with "some Park Lane lady in a shady bar" who "took a fancy to the watch I wore".

But I can still remember how she laughed at me
As I spun around and hit the bed
She said thank you honey, forget about the money
This pretty watch'll do instead


The narrator then goes on to warn the listener about the predatory habits of these evil "City living women", who "match their men with a hook and eye" as they travel around in taxicabs.

Of course, I don't know, I wasn't there...but I would imagine there was a fair amount of clandestine eye-rolling going on when these lyrics were read aloud. That said, the final verse:

It's a Show me what you want, I'll show you what I've got
I can show you a real good time
She's a friend indeed of a friend in need
But you'll be sorry when she leaves you crying


does have a nice flow to it, especially the way Elton sings it.

Musically, it's cast in a fast-moving foxtrot-type rhythm, and features almost circus-style horns by the horn section du jour of Caribou, the soul-funk outfit Tower of Power. It's their contribution, and Bernie's unfortunate lyrics, which leave the deepest impression of this one.

Hercules

In which "Amy"'s tough-guy James Dean type makes a return to close out the Chateau album, still lusting after some unattainable inamorata who just can't see him for dirt.

Elton casts this uptempo tune in a driving 50's-style doo-wop setting, with said doo-wopish ba-ba-bas provided by the classic band of Elton, Johnstone, Murray, Olsson plus producer Gus Dudgeon and British songwriter and occasional performer Tony Hazzard. Dudgeon also chips in with a "rhino whistle" (provides that "whooee" sound you hear in cartoons when someone runs or flies away at top speed) at one juncture. You know what I'm talking about.

Dudgeon's overall production on this song is somewhat different from the other tracks on Chateau; at least to my ears- while the sound is mostly clear detailed elsewhere, this one has a compressed, muddy mix- almost mono-esque, to no great advantage or clever aesthetic reason that I can discern. Guess it made sense at the time to do so. Some of the tracks on the next LP, Don't Shoot Me, had a similar sound.

I'm unsure exactly what significance this song had for the principals involved and Elton in particular; perhaps it was some sort of in-joke or something like that. Elton's Wikipedia entry notes that "Hercules" was the name of a cart horse in the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, and that was where John got the inspiration for his adopted middle name. What this song, if anything, had to do with this is uncertain. Perhaps it's just coincidence.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Burn Down the Mission

Another Old West fantasy from Taupin, from the point of view of a poor dirt farmer who decides to lead an uprising against the rich man that lives nearby in prosperity while he, his family, and neighbors starve.

Even though it isn't about him, for some reason when I hear this song I always think of Thomas Hart Benton's famous mural painting (below)



which featured Civil War-era Abolitionist John Brown (and yes, I first saw it on a Kansas album), a quite appropriate image for the lyrical content, methinks.

It gets a multi-textured arrangement; with Paul Buckmaster scoring, the early verses are sung to quiet piano and muted drums/bass/acoustic guitar setting, and Buckmaster's strings rise and fall subtly in the background. But when Elton gets to the chorus and the verses which lead up to it, the orchestra builds, brass enters the picture, the tempo accelerates, and the sense of urgency comes full bore. Then, it dies down again for one more verse in which the singer states his case and leads us to think that perhaps he's not exactly all there, if all the insurrection talk wasn't convincing enough:

Deep in the woods the squirrels are out today
My wife cried when they came to take me away
But what more could I do just to keep her warm
Than burn burn burn burn down the mission walls


The music speeds up again, and crashes through until the fadeout ending, with Elton banging furiously on the piano. Great performance and arrangement, and unlike "My Father's Gun", despite its length it doesn't descend into numbing repetition.

Randy Newman covered similar territory in his song "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield", and perhaps it was an influence but I'm dubious- if it was, it was a small one. Newman's protagonist is subtle and creepy, but Bernie and Elton's has let desperation turn him into a Type-A nutcase.

"Mission" was a concert staple for a long time after, and remains a favorite among Elton fans of all ages.

Midnight Creeper

This one's Stones all the way, a R&B-flavored rock song which would have suited Mick Jagger just fine, had he chosen to cover it.

Essentially, the singer is a badass mofo and give it up or fuck right off, and why don't you want some of me, honey, I'm not such a bad guy...and you get the picture, I think. That such sentiments are being given voice by that most atypical of '70s Rock Gods- pudgy, short, balding Reg Dwight- is the joke, I suppose, but Elton sings it for all he's worth, really selling the track.

And make no mistake, it's a fine rocker- it settles into a determined funk-rock groove from the intro and doesn't let up until the fadeout at the end. It also benefits from another clever brass arrangement, utilizing the Bolognesi/Jullien/Chautemps/Hatot section, with that distinctive Dudgeonesque compressed sound, to great advantage.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Jamaica Jerk-Off

On the surface, this one seems to be about masturbating whilst in Jamaica, placing it among the all-time great songs about beating off. But to those more observant, like Michael Ritchie of Movie Palace and Mixed Media Playroom fame, it can also be interpreted as an ode to the joys of goofing off in a tropical island location, far more likely.

I think perhaps it could also be a good-natured pisstake at the Stones, who had recorded much of their Goat's Head Soup LP there earlier that year, and indeed Elton and Co. had planned to do the same with Yellow Brick Road before technical problems and political unrest had made it unrealistic to do so.

Still, it's pretty much the definition of a filler track, but Elton and Co. still make it enjoyable with the requisite reggae accompaniment, a bit more uptempo and with roller-rink sounding Farfisa organ added, making it sound kinda like a Jimmy Cliff version of "Crocodile Rock".

Hardly essential, but fun and tuneful just the same.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tiny Dancer

Its clever appearance in Cameron Crowe's film Almost Famous merely served as proof of what we know: that "Tiny Dancer" is certainly one of Elton's most beloved songs, and a highlight of not only his early albums but his career as well.

It's a heartfelt valentine to Maxine Fiebelman, who was a dancer on one of Elton's tours and who Bernie married later that year. The sentiment is warm, except for one troubling line,

Tiny dancer, in my hand

which inspired Christgau to ask, derisively, "Just how small is she, anyway?" but to me suggests that Bernie felt like he wanted her "in hand", i.e., under his thumb, which adds a note of disquiet in an otherwise benign song. Tellingly, five years later they would divorce.

Prominent in the musical arrangement is the usual Madman mix of piano, Buckmaster strings, and massed choir vocals...but one notable addition is the pedal steel guitar of B.J. Cole, whose twangy licks accompany John's vocal on the verses and adds a warm, down-homey touch. I believe that this particular tonal color makes this song as memorable and as affection-inspiring as it is.

Here's another EJ song which was not a hit single, stalling at the lower reaches of the top 40 in the US and not charting at all in the UK, but has gone on to acheive favorited status among Elton aficionados everywhere.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Out of the Blue

A common accusation leveled at double albums is that they're unnecessarily loaded with filler tracks that probably should have been left in the can or used as bonus tracks on greatest hits compilations. This charge was certainly leveled at the Blue Moves album as well, and I'm sure this, an almost seven-minute instrumental workout, certainly didn't help that perception.

However, and this is an entirely personal thing on my account, I happen to really like this cut- it's sequenced perfectly between the forlorn "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word", which leads off side three of the vinyl version, and the downbeat, introspective "Between Seventeen and Twenty"- breaking up the glumness with a driving, jazz-tinged band showcase. As "Word"'s last accordion lick fades, "Blue" builds slowly with a rollercoaster synth, piano and bass line, with drums building up gradually, until the rest of the band kicks in and propels the song for the next six plus minutes. It may be a little bit overlong but it's certainly not excessive, and helps clear the palette for the next track. Elton in particular (unsurprisingly) stands out, playing a barrage of piano notes against the beat of the song throughout.

As one of the few non-melancholy tracks on the Blue Moves album, it certainly earns its place.

Bitter Fingers

Continuing the autobio theme of the Captain Fantastic album, this is an account of the relatively brief amount of time that Bernie and Elton spent as songwriters-for-hire for Dick James, and also while Elton was performing with Bluesology. Apparently, this got old pretty fast and the lyrics reflect the discontent they shared while doing so, as expressed by some amusing lines such as

Those old die-hards in Denmark Street start laughing
At the keyboard player's hollow haunted eyes


and

And there's a chance that one day you might write a standard lads
So churn them out quick and fast and we'll still pat your backs
'Cause we need what we can get to launch another dozen acts
Are you working?


Elton casts the verses in another Gilbert & Sullivan (or yes, Queen)-type setting, with cascading piano triplets accompanying his clipped diction. More relaxed than "Better Off Dead", but close. Johnstone mimics the keys on that buzzy, pinched guitar sound he was fond of using in this period, and Ray Cooper chimes in occasionally on percussion. But when the chorus kicks in with the ascending melody line on "It's hard to write a song with bitter fingers" the band, rhythm section and all, speeds up to nearly twice the tempo then slows back down for the verse again, as if they're trying to goose the song along.

If it's trying to infer that the process flowed smoother when they were writing for themselves, the "bitter fingers" lyric doesn't make that apparent. As is, the tempo shift just seems arbitrary, as if someone just thought it would be a good idea and nothing else. Still, even with this minor flaw it's an entertaining track.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hymn 2000

The most interesting thing to me about this track is the intro, which sounds a lot like Jethro Tull with its flute and piano duet. Tull's first jazz-blues-styled effort This Was came out in 1968, so it's possible that Elton heard it...but Ian Anderson was hardly the only person plowing that particular field at the time.

Lyrically, it finds Bernie weaving some sort of Dylan-inspired vaguely science-fictionish scenario, with lyrics like

And the comfort of mother
Was just an appeal for protection
For the cat from next door
Was found later at four
In surgical dissection


and

For soon they'll plough the desert
And God knows where I'll be
Collecting submarine numbers
On the main street of the sea


For the body of the song, John provides a deceptively amiable folk-rock setting. If you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics, it's a passable track.

Pinball Wizard

Elton was tabbed to portray the title character's pinball playing arch-nemesis in Ken Russell's overripe film version of the Who's Tommy, and of course got to record a version of the Pete Townshend song for its soundtrack.

His part in the film was memorable, but this is a fairly standard issue EJ Band run-through of this classic song, with keyboard replacing Townshend's guitar riff in the beginning, and suffers without the visuals that accompanied it- Elton was a hoot in those giant boots and toboggan hat with the pinball on top, spitting out the vocals to the oblivious Daltrey as Tommy in the big pinball championship. John's vocal was speeded up in the studio, why I can't say. Tommy may have played a mean pinball, but Elton certainly burned up the ivories throughout this track.

I remember hearing this on FM radio all the time, leading me to believe it was another EJ hit single, but apparently that wasn't the case; according to Wikipedia it was released in the UK only, reaching #7 over there.

John's buddy Rod Stewart did a more unusual cover about three years prior, with the London Symphony Orchestra- a big overblown version complete with massed choir vocals. It was OK, but for my money it's hard to beat the original Who recording. I seem to recall reading somewhere (the liner notes of the Caribou CD reissue, actually, and I know I've read it elsewhere, too) that Rod was considered first for the film but was talked out of taking it by Elton, who then promptly went to Russell and got the part, much to the ire of Mr. Stewart.

Here's a link to the scene in the film.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dixie Lily

Bernie attempts to evoke fond memories of Mark Twain with this ode to a Mississippi River steamboat.

Elton sets it in an appropriately folksy setting, with harmonicas and banjos and so on, and sings it with gusto. Davey Johnstone's phased guitar and a mid-song sax solo by Tower of Power's Lenny Pickett are the only modern concessions. It's a memorable melody, and makes this minor tune a lot better than it probably should have been.

Cuts like this one are often held up as proof that Caribou is one of Elton's most lackluster releases; I don't really agree. Sure, this is a trivial little track, but as I said, it's melodically strong and sonically diverse and best of all, clocks in at a shade under three minutes so it doesn't wear out its welcome.

I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself

In which Elton and Bernie declare, for the first time, "See! We have a sense of humor, too!"

And it comes as no surprise that the humor is definitely dark in hue and somewhat Python or Bonzo-ish; while it doesn't approach the inspired lunacy of Idle, Innes, Cleese and company, it certainly is amusing in its ironic way and does indeed signal a change in the previously established EJ sound...which is what the Honky Chateau album was all about.

Elton casts this first-person account of a dissatisfied young person of indeterminate gender in a somewhat obvious good-time rinky-tink piano-driven English music hall setting, kinda Kinks perhaps, and punctuating the end of the chorus with a little Fifties-style group vocal before launching back in to the verse. Best of all, we get a nifty little tap dance in the middle courtesy of tap-dancer-for-hire "Legs" Larry Smith of the Bonzos, who performed similar duties three years later on George Harrison's Extra Texture cut "His Name is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen)".

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sixty Years On

An ambitious Buckmaster orchestral arrangement is the highlight of another of Bernie's Tales of the Old West.

In this track, a soldier imagines a bleak future for himself at the end of his days, in which he is blind, feeble and useless- as he puts it:

And the future you're giving me holds nothing for a gun
I've no wish to be living sixty years on


Relatively speaking, instrumentation is sparse; after the opening salvo of hornet-like buzzing chamber strings, Skaila Kanga's harp is featured with the full orchestral compliment, then recedes quickly as Elton sings the verses accompanied by a Spanish-sounding guitar, adding to the Spaghetti Western-like feel of the track. Buckmaster returns in the middle section with an arrangement that is alternately staccato, swirling, and gliding, then gives way once more to the guitar with an organ and the strings in the background. He sings the final lines a capella, as if to suggest the dread the soldier has for his vision.

The next cut is the gospel-ish "Border Song", and this serves as a really nice segue into that track. One wishes Taupin had used a bit more care with his rhymes; one stanza has him rhyming the word "gun" twice, and when he writes

You know the war you fought in wasn't too much fun

it sounds more flip than I think he intended.

A lot of rock and roll musicians on both sides of the pond were strongly influenced by film scores, a lot more that I think people realize- and a track like this is certainly an small example of that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)

Just when, by 1975, you think Bernie has pretty much exhausted his bag of Old West references...we get this!

Robert Ford was, of course, the man who fatally shot Jesse James in the back- as we will soon be reminded when the Brad Pitt film about same comes out next weekend. Bernie takes this cowardly act and adapts it to an account of a young man who has broken up with his girlfriend and now feels guilty about it, to the point of wanting to try and "patch it up". How much his real-life rocky marriage situation at the time is being inferred I cannot say, but one would assume that there is a fair amount of self-reference going on...and would really come into the fore on the next album.

Elton casts these sentiments in a beautiful melody, using the Westies band electric piano/synth-strings/guitar/bass/drums mix; it has a somewhat lounge-jazzy feel and John sings with a lot of feeling. Davey Johnstone contributes a lovely, howling sustain-boosted guitar solo.

Even though "Island Girl" was the hit from the Westies album, to me it seems that "Bullet" is the album's emotional centerpiece and certainly one of the best (if not THE best) songs on the record. However, when it was released as a double A-side with "Grow Some Funk of Your Own", it was only a moderate hit.

Friday, September 7, 2007

This Song Has No Title

Elton plays all the instruments, including flute-like Mellotron, on this breezy rumination on the creative process. He does a very nice job on vocals, alternating falsetto and tenor with exaggerated English pronunciation ("a vahst highpowr'd rocket") and wringing some poignancy out of the lyrics, especially the last couplet:

If I was an artist who paints with his eyes
I'd study my subject and silently cry
Cry for the darkness to come down on me
For confusion to carry on turning the wheel


Of course, this stanza also would seen to cast a negative light on the whole process; I don't know if Bernie really intended this or perhaps it's just a plea to always be receptive to new experiences. Hard to say, for me anyway.

Anyway, at a shade over two minutes it's a catchy, overlooked tune that doesn't overstay its welcome or call attention to itself.

Where To Now, St. Peter?

Another song written from the point of view of a young man in a conflict, probably Revolutionary War (with the line "It took a sweet young foreign gun"), who has been fatally shot, and is now musing on facing death and what lies beyond.

Unlike the majority of the Tumbleweed album, this one veers into pop (possibly Hollies? Small Faces? Early Bowie, even? Remember what a music geek EJ has always been) territory rather than Band/Dylan/Country Stones- appropriate, I guess, for its otherworldly concerns. The melody plays off of John's tumbling opening piano figure, and is really one of the few uptempo tracks on the album. It's also one of the most hooky/catchy as well; I suppose only the concern at the time of flooding the market with Elton product (By the time of Connection he had seen three albums released, with the live 11-17-70 and the Friends soundtrack in the pipeline) stopped the powers that be from releasing it as a single.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Don't Go Breaking My Heart

A cheery, saccharine Donny-and-Marie style duet between Elton and Prince Valiant-tressed protege Kiki Dee, this effervescent (and everpresent) pop ditty burned up the charts in 1976, going up to #1 in both the UK and US.

Credited to "Ann Orson" and "Carte Blanche", actually pseudonyms for Elton and Bernie, and recorded at the same time as the Blue Moves LP, it was the perfect song for the often-vapid Top 40 Disco era.

In case you didn't get sick of it 31 years ago, here's a link to the promotional clip.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Blues for Baby and Me

A young couple boards a bus, heading towards their new life together, even though the young lady's father angrily objects. But love will prevail and we'll be happy, says the young man.

Taupin revisits another favorite theme from earlier efforts, freedom and escape, in this midtempo story song that boasts another big, beautiful Paul Buckmaster string arrangement and some incongruous sitar from Davey Johnstone that works very well nonetheless.

I especially like the orchestral flourishes that Buckmaster adds after the couplet:

And the highway looks like it never did
Lord it looks so sweet and so free


"Blues" has always been one of my favorite tracks from the Don't Shoot Me LP.

The Wide-Eyed and Laughing

I'm almost sure that this title refers to some sort of literary or pop-music reference; but what it is escapes me. For a long time I thought it might be a Byrds song, due to the presence of David Crosby and Graham Nash, but that turned out to be Starry-eyed and laughing, from "Chimes of Freedom".

This song, as much as any other on Moves, highlights the depths of Bernie's relationship issues at the time, not only with his dissolving marriage but his professional relationship with Elton as well:

Are you still in control of the boat that you row
Or do you still cling to me when its sinking
I never condemned you, I only consoled you
When candlelight made me a King


Whoever it's about, the writer is disillusioned with the relationship as it is, and is thinking back to better days and knowing that it was doomed from the start:

For no one knew better than the tealeaves and the tarots
That the wide-eyed and laughing
Were just one step ahead of the wind


John certainly assists in this perception by casting this in a woozy musical setting of Theramin-sounding synths, Johnstone's sitar, and chorus vocals featuring the forever-identified-with-the-hippie-dream Crosby and Nash. It's a serviceable melody, and certainly sounds unlike anything else on the album, or even in EJ's repertoire- but it has a static feel and isn't especially memorable, despite its unusual nature.

Much has been made of the downbeat and depressed nature of almost every cut on this album, and this track is certainly another example of how unhappy both men seemed to be at the time. Bernie in particular (at least in my admittedly incomplete experience) was never again as open and personal in his writing as he was on Moves and a couple of Rock of the Westies tracks; he is baring his wounds for all to see and that never makes for a comfortable listening experience.