Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Stinker

Once in a while it was incumbent upon Elton to simply rock out and show his listeners a good time, and this is one of those songs created for that purpose. More often as not, he chose a Baldry/Stones blues/rock sound for this, and ably aided by the Tower of Power horn section, that's what he gives us here.

Bernie piles on every filth-related metaphor he can squeeze out of his thesaurus, cuing the listener that he's a loveable, filthy rascal a la the characters in Don't Shoot Me's "Midnight Creeper" and Yellow Brick Road's "Social Disease".

I don't think this will ever be on anyone's short list of Elton classics, but it does rock out convincingly in a swaggering, bluesy way, and EJ can sing the line "burnin', vermin stink" as good as anybody out there...

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).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Feed Me

No, it's not a song written for the Little Shop of Horrors soundtrack.

What it is is a Steely Dan-style jazz-tinged track, the lyrics of which seem to deal with drug addiction withdrawal-induced paranoia, to wit:

Don't close the shades
I'm scared of the darkness
I'm cold as a razor blade
Inches from madness


Now, there's no doubt that lots of drug abuse was a significant part of the Elton John (and by that I mean Elton John in a collective sense, not Reg Dwight the person) experience, would still be for several more years, (this was the mid-1970's after all) but it's a bit dismaying to scan the lyrics and get the impression that this was perhaps some sort of observation by Bernie, or maybe even an attempt at a cautionary tale. Heroin addiction hasn't normally been associated with the Elton camp. Perhaps it was a stab at a fictional account, writing a character, who can say.

It contains a passage that only Bernie would choose to write:

Feed me
Feed my needs and then just leave me
Let me go back where you found me
'Cause I miss my basement
The sweet smell of new paint
The warmth and the comforts of home
So feed me
Give me my treatment and free me
My arms are so hungry so feed me


I can think of many things one could bring to bear when describing withdrawal, but home improvement descriptions aren't among them- I wouldn't think. He's trying to contrast the character's bleak situation with a fond memory of his home, but it just seems incongruous when placed with the rest of the lyrics. Oh well.

As stated above, it's a Dan-style, mid-tempo track; electric piano by James Newton Howard, a nifty fuzz-guitar riff from Davey Johnstone and cool BVs from the Kiki Dee/Elton/Davey/Caleb Quaye/Clive Franks aggregate make it sound that way.

Nice track; not a standout- it's a bit slick and repetitive for that- but as is so often the case with Elton the melody's good and stays with the listener.

I Need You to Turn To

It's odd that this track is sequenced directly after opener "Your Song"; this stately waltz is every bit as much of a valentine as its predecessor, similar in tone although it can be seen as a bit more romantic in a traditional sense, which is to say less off-the-cuff and formal and scanning more like poetry by Keats or Shelley, perhaps.

Instrumentation is sparse, for the most part; Elton plays harpsichord, Skaila Kanga harp, and there's understated guitar present by someone named Roland Harker in the mix as well- and of course, the Buckmaster string section. The melody itself reminds me more than a bit of the carol "What Child is This" aka "Greensleeves".

It's a lovely song, a bit on the short side, but I've always liked it- it was the first track on this album to make an impression on me when I first heard it back in 1974.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Slave

"Slave"'s strength is also its failing. It's so literal- it's another of Taupin's Civil War-set songs, this time decrying slavery from the point of view of one such person. And that literal approach, devoid of shades, nuance, or even clever turns of phrase work to make this song a bit leaden and uninteresting.

There's a river running sweat right through our land
Driven by a man with a bullwhip in his hand
And I've taken just as much as I can stand
Oh we've got to free our brothers from their shackles if we can


Elton doesn't innovate either, providing a lazy-tempo country-blues sound, with banjo and dobro-style slide guitar providing color, just like you'd expect.

While the sentiment is certainly laudable, as far as I'm concerned the execution is uninspired and dull. It's a decent enough melody, but I'm rarely called back to listen to "Slave", and tend to tune it out when playing Chateau in its entirety.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Valhalla

Bernie must have been reading up on his Norse history, because here he has taken its mythology (making it a spiritual cousin to Led Zep's "Immigrant Song" in a lot of ways) and has crafted a ruminative paean to a favorite subject in the 60's: searching for your own way in life. Honestly, in my opinion it's an unlikely marriage and not all that successful.

Fortunately, Elton saw fit to craft a beautiful, harpsichord-enhanced melody to go with it, and sings it warmly. The production sound, which strikes me as intimate and nuanced a la Phil Spector's work with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass, also helps a lot. In fact, the accompaniment works so well that this listener, at least, can enjoy the song without paying attention to the words.

I've seen this cut spelled out, in various sources both on and off-line, as "Val-hala"; I've never seen it spelled this way anywhere outside of this context. My 2nd pressing (cream color label instead of rainbow on black) MCA vinyl copy of Empty Sky spells it correctly, so that's what I'm going with.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Love Song

Here's another rarity in the Elton catalogue: a cover.

"Love Song" is unusual in that it wasn't written by Bernie and Elton, but by session vocalist (and original cast member of Jesus Christ Superstar) Lesley Duncan, who managed to parlay the favor into a record deal. She went on to record a handful of albums on Columbia, and later MCA, none of which were huge successes but are well regarded in many circles.

"Love Song" is pretty much as advertised lyrically; as so many songwriters would have us believe, from Paul McCartney (who is fixated on this very subject) on, "love" is the answer to all life's problems and to give love is an ultimate goal. A little idealistic and naive, but hey, it was just four years after the Summer of Love and she was far from the only one pushing this hippie philosophy.

Accompaniment is serene and austere, just acoustic guitar faded in from the beginning and faded out on the outro with Elton singing the lead and Lesley providing outstanding harmony on the second and fourth verses. It's a beguiling melody, but perhaps because of its plainness doesn't really stand out when placed with the other songs on that side of Tumbleweed.

Elton continued to work with Duncan throughout the 70's, even as late as 1976.

Unless I've overlooked something, always a possibility, this was the only non-Taupin song that Elton released on one of his "classic" albums until his infamous 1979 disco-fever cover of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode". Of course, there was his 1975 Beatle cover "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and John Lennon's "One Day (at a Time)", but neither were released on an album proper, although "Lucy" was included on the second Greatest Hits LP.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Daniel

Certainly one of the most unlikely and unusual of Elton's hits, both subject matter-wise as well as in terms of its musical accompaniment, "Daniel" attempts to address a serious subject, that of soldiers who were returning home from the Vietnam War in the 1970's. According to the EltonLinks.com FAQ:

It is inspired by news coverage of the war that Bernie (Elton's lyricist) watched in the early 70s.

One can infer that Daniel has returned from the conflict with, as the song goes, "scars that won't heal". Another reference is made to "eyes (that) have died" which suggests he has been blinded, and/or perhaps his youthful innocence or idealism has died. Apparently Daniel has taken up residence in Spain, to get away from those who would seek to persecute or exploit him for being a war hero. The song is written from the point of view of Daniel's younger brother, who seems to miss his older bro terribly. Even though these aren't exactly Bernie's most accomplished set of lyrics, they manage to sum up the feelings of all concerned quite nicely, and this verse is quite good indeed:

Daniel my brother you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal
Your eyes have died but you see more than I
Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky



Elton casts this story-song in a mid tempo, ballad-type setting with a gorgeous melody and a slight Carribean feel. Most of the main melodic lines are played on an ARP synthesizer, an instrument that was still new and very popular at the time. A rather low-key way to open an album, but as one of the (relatively) strongest tracks available it works.

The public responded- "Daniel" hit #2 in the US and was also top 5 in the UK.

Cold Highway

"Cold Highway" was the B-side to "The Bitch is Back". It was recorded, according to Cornflakes & Classics, during the same sessions in which they recorded the two major hits from the Caribou album; "Bitch" and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me".

It's a stomping R&B/Blues workout, with a touch of reggae rhythm in the verses. There's also a bridge in the middle that's taken in an odd, swaggering tempo. Instrumentation is pretty much the basic band, with more of the gorgeous BV's that they provided during this period (see "Pinky").

According to the Caribou CD liner notes, it was written by Taupin about a friend who died in a car crash on notoriously unsafe stretch of highway. The lyrics seem to point to some sort of controversy surrounding this person, but who or what isn't revealed.

Not a bad track, better perhaps than one or two of the songs which did make the cut, but that points to how strong Elton's mojo was at the time. It can be found on Rare Masters as well as the remastered "Classic Years" edition of Caribou.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

All the Girls Love Alice

A wave of reverb-enhanced guitar noise ushers in the chicken-scratch, slightly Bo Diddleyesque guitar riff that is the main focal point and driving wheel of "Alice", an account of a young lesbian call girl who meets an untimely end on a subway train.

Taupin relates her story with a reproachful tone:

Raised to be a lady by the golden rule
Alice was the spawn of a public school
With a double barrel name in the back of her brain
And a simple case of Mummy-doesn't-love-me blues


Don't really get the "double barrel name" reference, but here she sounds like an early version of a type we're all familiar with these days, a la Paris Hilton and others. The scolding continues, as he concludes:

And who could you call your friends down in Soho
One or two middle-aged dykes in a Go-Go
And what do you expect from a sixteen year old yo-yo
And hey, hey, hey, oh don't you know


While I'm sure he wanted to sound dispassionate, the undertone of his distaste mars what is otherwise a very good rocking tune, with backing vocals that sound like the Ikettes, but are actually provided by Davey Johnstone's then-girlfriend Kiki Dee and the band.

Sirens and other street noises accompany the riff until the fadeout, and while it's a successful track with interesting sonics, one wishes that Bernie had listened to Otis Redding and "tried a little tenderness".

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)

Almost as if in apology for the weepy tone of Blue Moves, or more likely a bet-hedging would-be single in case "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" stiffed, this would-be R&B/disco dance party does begin energetically enough, with Elton banging away on the piano, gospelish choir vocals on the chorus, and Johnstone contributing some slide guitar licks- but goes on way too long at almost seven minutes, at least half of it endless repetition of the title as so-very-1976 disco strings swoop around in the background.

As far as lyric content goes, well, there isn't any. Taupin probably wrote this in his sleep.

It was the second single off the Moves album, and did get as far as #28 on the US and UK charts in what, if memory serves, was a wisely trimmed-down version. Still, on the album, it comes across as a sweaty, hysterical, and slightly desperate attempt to convince us they're having a good time.

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.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Can I Put You On

Just before "Your Song" became a smash hit, Elton and Paul Buckmaster were hired to create the soundtrack for the obscure British teenage-love film Friends, which starred Sean (The Abominable Dr. Phibes) Bury and the late Anicée Alvina. Recorded in 1970, between the Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection sessions, it featured instrumental music by Buckmaster and five new John/Taupin compositions, one of which was this R&B/Blues-style rocker.

In interviews, John has cited Leon Russell as an influence on his vocal style, and it's pretty plain here. Backing is provided by the Olsson/Murray/Caleb Quaye band, and this cut in particular sounds like it would have fit in on Tumbleweed Connection with very little fuss- in fact, the melody and tempo remind me of "Son of Your Father".

I've never had the opportunity to actually see the film, so the context of the lyrics, which seem to be a working man's lament that involves a traveling salesman that comes to town every week to sell "fancy city things", reminiscent of the sort of working-class, slice of life, Brecht/Weill-style songs that Alan Price performed in O Lucky Man! or Between Today and Yesterday, pretty much eludes me.

Not a bad song, not a particularly great song, but the extended fadeout lends itself to lots of vamping, which is (I'm sure) why Elton performed it so often in the early days. It was also included in the beat-the-boots 11-17-70, which I haven't covered due to not wanting to include live albums.

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.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Billy Bones and the White Bird

Westies' closer is an odd one- Rime of the Ancient Mariner-style lyric content, married to a slamming Bo Diddley beat, which gives way to a stanza accompanied by a disco-style high hat and the bogus pomp of fanfare-style synth horns, and also spiced with a nifty, jazzy middle section which features a lively synth/guitar duet by James Newton Howard and Davey Johnstone.

What, if anything, the lyrics mean is open to interpretation; I've seen it mentioned that they are perhaps some sort of allusion to John's escalating drug abuse, which is valid, but I suspect that the "white bird" is less a literal reference to cocaine than a reference to the albatross that Coleridge's protagonist was haunted by, and which would seem to represent the bad vibes, unease and dismay with which Bernie surely must have been experiencing in regards to most aspects of his (and John's) career in 1975- events which began with their meteoric ascent to fame and all the attendant insanity, the abrupt early 1975 sacking of half the original EJ Band, and would come to a head a little over a year later, leading to the post-Blue Moves separation of the pair in 1978.

It's interesting that as with Moves' "Crazy Water", Taupin chose to illustrate his unease with nautical-style lyrical content. The Brown Dirt Cowboy didn't seem to be at home on the open seas.

The Greatest Discovery

This account of a young boy who sees his baby brother for the first time can be perceived as cloyingly saccharine or achingly sweet, depending on your disposition, I suppose. Me, I think it's charming, and boasts a few nice couplets in the lyrics, as well as some clunkers, as is so often the case with many of Bernie's early efforts. Still, as far as I'm concerned, he manages to effectively convey the childhood sense of wonder he's trying to get across.

What makes this tune memorable (for me, anyway) is, as (again) is the case with most of the songs on the eponymous LP, is the Buckmaster/John arrangement- cinematic harp, horns and strings giving way to Elton's vocal and rolling piano riff, which builds to the return of the orchestra and a crescendo at the climactic moment when the proud parents reveal that "this is your brand new brother".

I seem to recall reading in an interview that Bernie based this on an event in his childhood. Whatever the inspiration, this is an overlooked, effective track that many fans tend to have high regard for.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Gulliver/Hay Chewed/Reprise

"Gulliver" is a surprisingly effective song about a most unusual subject, especially in 1969: a faithful sheepdog who has passed away. Yep, it's a rock version of Old Yeller.

Elton sets the verses in an ambling, slightly jazz-tinged arrangement that builds up to surging Beatlesque chorus, that really gets across the affection the singer has for his pet and companion, ending with a "Day in the Life"-style section of "aah-ah-ah"s.

Coming in right at the fadeout is a McCartney-esque idea: a reprise featuring excerpts of each Sky cut. The title, of course, is a pun on "Hey Jude". Each snippet of song is only a few seconds long; some are fairly predictable: the title cut is represented with the chorus, as is second track "Valhalla". However, on a couple of tracks less obvious choices are made- the rocker "Sails", for example, is represented by a snatch of its outstanding Caleb Quaye guitar solo, and "Gulliver" gets the surging chorus vocal at the end.

Novel way to end an album, for sure, and one which would point to how well Elton and Co. had assimilated the lessons that Paul and the Lads had taught.