Monday, June 9, 2008

Goodbye

"Goodbye" closes out Madman Across the Water in similar fashion to the way that Shakespeare has his Puck close out A Midsummer Night's Dream, beginning with

And now that it's all over
The birds can nest again
I'll only snow when the sun comes out
I'll shine only when it starts to rain


Pointing out his, and his mouthpiece's often contradictory nature.

He then works in some self-effacing, and just a bit smirky, pseudo-religious imagery:

And if you want a drink
Just squeeze my hand
And wine will flow into the land
And feed my lambs


And references, in self-deprecating fashion, the Tin Pan Alley-esque nature of his profession:

For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I'll be your silver spoon


But then closes with more mock humility, again with a smirk:

I'm sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn't rhyme
Just turn back a page
I'll waste away, I'll waste away
I'll waste away, I'll waste away
I'll waste away, I'll waste away

(lyrics © 1971 Dick James Music Limited)


And thusly delivers a kind of calling card as well as a mission statement, ostensibly to close out the record but also serving notice that the John/Taupin team have arrived as songwriters, far advanced from their early efforts. And although their greatest successes were still ahead, this was very true.

This message is delivered by Elton on piano, with a measured, calm-after-the-storm feel and with the full Buckmaster Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying him; appropriate since Elton would never again make use of Buckmaster's talents as extensively as he did on this album. Desiring to streamline and simplify, he cut out the ponderous strings on his next album, Honky Chateau.

Here's the song on YouTube:





And with this, the Solar Prestige a Gammon blog is concluded. I've pretty much made it through every Elton song that I consider of consequence in the 1969-1977 period; I have omitted some non-cover live tracks and a couple of Rare Masters demos that EJ recorded that were released by other people but not by Elton himself. I've had a small but steady readership, and a lot of great feedback and comments, and for that I'm thankful. It's been fun revisiting most of these songs (most of which I'd probably listen to fairly often anyway!) but listening harder, trying to glean some insight into them. It's a testament to the stylistic and lyric diversity of the John/Taupin team's body of work that it could provide enough grist for me to be able to write somewhat intelligently about it.

Anyway, thanks again to everyone who's been reading, even those who keep clicking on the link to the John Brown painting in the "Burn Down the Mission" entry, thus driving up my visitor stats. I don't know if I'll do any more dedicated music blogs, but you never know. Until then, don't forget the Johnny Bacardi Show and the Johnny Bacardi LiveJournal Show, still my primary outlets, and by all means if you so desire, continue to leave comments; I'll be notified and will respond when necessary.

From all of me to all of you, goodbye.

Curtains

Captain Fantastic's closing track doesn't exactly conform to the unwritten rule of concept records, that of a grand statement to provide contrast and clarification, not to mention closure, to the other songs in the album.

It's a slow-building track, which seems to be constantly working up to the Grand Statement about Their Career to that Point one expects, but Taupin undermines this by instead providing a backward-looking rumination on his childhood and his first songwriting efforts, culminating in this verse:

But that's okay
There's treasure children always seek to find
And just like us
You must have had
A once upon a time


...and if there's supposed to be some sort of summation or observation about where they stood in 1969, on the cusp of stardom, I'll be darned if I can see it.

Elton seems to be striving for a "Hey Jude" approach, with each verse accompanied by instrumentation that's similar in nature to their "Lucy in the Sky" cover, and eventually punctuated by chorus "whoa-oh-ohs" following directly after the verses are done. Then, in what surely seems to be a move to get lighters and hands swaying to the concert audiences to come, the chorus singers take over as Olsson's staccato drum fills and Johnstone's guitar/Elton's piano riffs play, Elton sings a line over and over again in a falsetto voice (which defies my best efforts to make out exactly what he's saying- sounds like "love to love again" or something like that), all building to...not much, really. The song plods on to its extanded fade conclusion, and Captain Fantastic is done. The lyrics are vague, the message is therefore muddled, and the music builds up to a cathartic moment that never really comes.

It's a lovely melody, but I don't think it achieves what it sets out to do. Others, I'm sure, will disagree.


Lyrics/sample

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Just Like Strange Rain

The breezy, blues-rocking "Strange Rain" was the B-side of Elton's third solo single, "It's Me That You Need", from 1969.

It's another searching-for-a-signature-sound attempt, again sounding a lot like Joe Cocker, Baldry or Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac; i.e., the British Blues Boom sound. As such, it's a success if a bit slight; Caleb Quaye's stinging guitar stands out, as well as Elton's fey Empty Sky-style vocal delivery.

Insofar as the subject matter goes, Taupin's lyrics are trying to emulate the Lysergic-tinged wordsmithing of the late 60's with its mention of colors and rainbows and "strange rain washing his thoughts away". In the Rare Masters booklet notes, he admits as much: "...very much an acid piece, we were trying to be part of the times. I think it was probably influenced by people like Traffic."



Lyrics/sample

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Seasons

A lyrically spare ode to young love, tricked out with the full Buckmaster Philharmonic treatment.

The first two and a half minutes are instrumental, strings and oboe predominant; the next minute-twenty five is Elton on piano crooning Bernie's almost sonnet-like lyric, a pledge of love and devotion that ends with the film's concept and title repeated twice. Just the thing for a movie soundtrack song.

It's a very lovely track, all things considered.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Honky Chateau opens up with the Honky Cat, ready to leave the hicks from the sticks in his rear view mirror and make his mark in the big city, specifically New York. And on this, the album's penultimate track, he finds that having made that mark it's not all it's cracked up to be, and disillusionment has set in. The Cat has seen the casual hardheartedness that exists in certain circles, and sums his experience up thusly:

Subway's no way for a good man to go down
Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown
And I thank the Lord for the people I have found
I thank the Lord for the people I have found


But he's not entirely soured upon the experience, taking pains to inform that there are some good people...just not enough of them. Feeling discontent, he decides

This Broadway's got
It's got a lot of songs to sing
If I knew the tunes I might join in
I'll go my way alone
Grow my own, my own seeds shall be sown in New York City


Taupin has often seemed to have a love/hate relationship with New York City many times, and this is an eloquent summing-up circa 1972.

Music is Elton on piano plus chiming mandolin by Johnstone and understated percussion by Olsson. As befits the subject matter, it's given a melancholy melody, one that's quite catchy and creates an air of reflection, almost a calm-after-the-storm feel. I suppose that it doesn't close the album (which would seem most fitting, given its bookend status with "Honky Cat") because of this downbeat feel; it would seem that John wanted to finish on an upbeat note, hence the upbeat, somewhat silly doo-woppish finale of "Hercules".

Elton and Bernie updated/revisited this track several years later, in the late 80's, on his Reg Strikes Back album; I've only heard a couple of excerpts, and a look at the lyrics reveals a too-broad, almost crass update, set to a blaring typical 80's Big Production Sound...a disappointment typical of Elton's output in that decade. The Indigo Girls did a decent live cover that appeared on their Rarities album.


Lyrics/sample

Friday, May 23, 2008

One Horse Town

Ushered in by the sudden return of James Newton Howard's bombastic orchestral arrangement, which almost makes it seem like an extension of the album opener "Tonight", "One Horse Town" is an equally abrupt departure from the dominant Blue Moves psychodrama in its depiction of a dissatisfied young man who lives in a rural community and yearns to escape to the bright lights of the big city.

And that link is quite remarkable in its own right; it's a swaggering cock-rock electric guitar riff, accompanied by dissonant keyboard sounds (or perhaps percussion) that reminds me of someone striking a soda pop bottle with a drumstick, and the strings swirl and eddy around this in the background. Then, abruptly, the tempo increases, the strings become more prominent as the guitar steps back into rhythm mode, and we're off with the song proper as Elton steps up, spitting out the lyrics.

It's an odd vocal performance; Elton sometimes struggles to keep up with the headlong rushing tempo, and in doing so alternates between lower register asides and falsetto passages...along with his notorious penchant for weird pronunciation quirkiness that comes to the fore as he sings about the old folks on the porch and how "they'll peeek (pick)...ahwl noyt..."

In Taupin's lyrics, there's a bit of casual condescension directed at the local yokels of this "Alabama mud-bed town", but this is Bernie writing in character with a smile rather than a scowl so it's easy to look past it. For example:

Saw a Cadillac for the first time yesterday
I'd always seen horses, buggies, bales of hay
'Cause progress here don't move with modern times
There's nothing to steal
So there's not a great deal of crime


As far as the rest of the arrangements go, it at least rocks out a bit but the bells and vibes and busy strings kinda work against it insofar as the subject matter goes; it would have been a wonderful country-rock Tumbleweed Connection or Madman Across the Water-era track, but it sounds a little off on the more urbane and polished pre-Disco Blue Moves. Still, I like this track and this album could have used a few more of these.

Lyrics/sample

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grey Seal

"Grey Seal" is one of a select few Elton songs which exist in two released versions. Originally written in 1969, and issued as the flip side of his "Rock and Roll Madonna" single in January of 1970, lyrically it's very much in the anti-Higher Education (a la Roger Waters' "Another Brick in the Wall" years later), anti-authoritarian, vaguely sci-fi mode that Taupin seemed to find himself in in those early days (a la Empty Sky's "Hymn 2000"), with lines like these:

On the big screen they showed us a sun
But not as bright in life as the real one
It's never quite the same as the real one


and

I never learned why meteors were formed
I only farmed in schools that were so worn and torn


All very yearning and searching for meaning and truth in that late-60's early 70's youth-must-be-served way.

Musically, the original version is more restrained and conventional when compared to the 1973 remake, which speeds the tempo up and takes advantage of Davey Johnstone's studio prowess as the lanky guitarist serves up soul-brother wah-wah guitars and jazzy flourishes in the breaks between verses. Elton plays frantic triplets ("Pinball Wizard" style) on a regular piano instead of the somewhat dinky-sounding electric piano of the original. The first version's ending is somewhat different; Elton sings scatted vocals over strings and vibes and the song works towards a faded-out conclusion, but the remake features the whole band vamping towards a frenetic finish, with minimal string accompaniment.

Don't know why they chose to redo it and add it to the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album; maybe they felt like they needed another track to pad the running time, who knows. I haven't read anything about it one way or the other. The new version is, I think, an improvement but the song itself, in either rendition, just isn't that strong.

Lyrics and samples of both versions

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lady What's Tomorrow

A folky, gentle ballad with lyrics that seem to convey a "let's live for today" type message, best summed up by somewhat bucolic lines like

Now look and see the lilac tree
The lily pond, the skylark's song
The open air but no one cares
If branches live and die out there


Unfortunately, this being early Bernie we get a clunker like this repetitive stanza:

Look up little brother
Can you see the clover
Oh sorry but it's over
Now there's concrete and no clover


Despite a decent enough melody, and although the sentiment of the song gets across, this remains one of Elton's less memorable selections.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

High Flying Bird

Don't Shoot Me's album-closer is a plaintive little elegy, which tells us of an apparently high-spirited young lady that meets with a bad end.

Bernie floridly describes her in the opening verses:

You wore a little cross of gold around your neck
I saw it as you flew between my reason
Like a raven in the night time when you left


Apparently the singer is trying to be a steadying or calming (or restrictive, more like) influence on her, because in the chorus he laments:

My high-flying bird has flown from out my arms
I thought myself her keeper
She thought I meant her harm


And indeed, someone seems to have meant her harm, as the second stanza informs us:

The white walls of your dressing room are stained in scarlet red
You bled upon the cold stone like a young man
In the foreign field of death


Perhaps Bernie means to imply that she's a suicide, or the singer him/herself may have done the deed, in jealous rage- or perhaps he's adopting a paternal voice, saying in so many words "I told you so". I guess it's open for interpretation. Either way, this "you should have behaved yourself and listened to me" tone is a little troubling, and unfortunately consistent with so many of Taupin's songs that dealt with women.

Elton bails this song out, though, providing the pathos with a strong, beautiful melody and once more, using those stellar Elton/Johnstone/Murray/Olsson group vocals in all the right places.


Lyrics and a sample.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hard Luck Story

"Hard Luck Story" is, I believe, a very good example of how far Taupin had come as a lyricist since the late 60's. Ultimately a continuation of a theme that ran through "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and "Snookeroo" (written for and performed by Ringo Starr on his 1974 album Goodnight Vienna), that of the working class joe and the things he has to do to get by, when you scan the lyrics on their own, you get a vivid portrayal of a fellow who's determined to keep on doing what he has to do and doesn't want to hear any complaining. Taupin eschews clever wordplay and metaphor, and writes directly to the listener.

So curiously, Elton casts the track in the same kid of hopped-up disco-flavored boogie shuffle that comes across as a warm-up for the excesses of next year's Blue Moves finale, "Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)". Of course it's tuneful, and of course it does rock out, but the "Oo-ee-oo-ee-ooh"s that he begins every line of the chorus with wear out their welcome quickly, and become annoying as he repeats it ad infinitum as the song slowly fades out.

This one is credited to "Ann Orson and Carte Blanche", which are the pseudonyms Elton and Bernie used when writing for others, especially Kiki Dee (who contributes to the BV's on Elton's version)- and sure enough, here's this track, apparently released as a 1974 non-LP single. I don't know how Kiki finessed the gender-specificity, since I haven't heard her version, but it does point out that this track predates Captain Fantastic as well as Westies.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Grimsby

According to Wikipedia, Grimsby (or archaically Great Grimsby) is a seaport on the Humber Estuary in Lincolnshire, England. Bernie Taupin, who lived in nearby Humberston and Tealby near Market Rasen, would have of course been familiar with and spent time in this town, and for some reason decided to write this tune as a tribute to the everyday pleasures that the community offered.

It does have a tongue-in-cheek, slightly bemused feel to it, and it's good to see that Taupin could be as nostalgic about his background as he was the American Old West. As we all know by now, Bernie could be very snide lyrically when he chose to be- and really, I don't get that here. As verses like this bear out:

Take me back you rustic town
I miss your magic charm
Just to smell your candy floss
Or drink in the Skinners Arms
No Cordon Bleu can match the beauty
Of your pies and peas
I want to ride your fairground
Take air along the quay


The main reason this travelogue works as well as it does is the bopping musical arrangement that Elton gives it, with a wonderfully dipsy-doodle guitar riff, punctuated by a little whammy-bar action, by Davey Johnstone and those ubiquitous Classic Elton Band harmony vocals echoing several lines in the verses and chorus.


Lyrics/sample

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Talking Old Soldiers

Elton on solo piano, singing the imagined conversation of a couple of Civil War (I'm assuming, given the Old West theme of Tumbleweed, but it's not specific) veterans, in his best Ray Charles voice.

It's meant to engender sympathy for the speakers, perhaps even to deliver a subtle anti-war message as well. It certainly is a bleak set of verses:

Yeah that's right, you can see me here most every night
You'll always see me staring at the walls and at the lights
Funny I remember oh it's years ago I'd say
I'd stand at that bar with my friends who've passed away
And drink three times the beer that I can drink today
Yes I know how it feels to grow old


But the decision to perform it in solo piano, I believe, works against it- rendering it static and dull and blunting the impact. It's not a favorite track of mine from this album, sorry to say.


Lyrics and a sample

Whenever You're Ready (We'll Go Steady Again)

This one's a homage to the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, and it certainly follows his pound-the-piano template. There's also room made for the squalling slide guitar of Davey Johnstone, which accompanies throughout. Lyrically, it's a not-bad "you done me wrong, but I love you anyway" type work.

It's a hard-rocking and fun, if not especially memorable, track that was paired with "Jackrabbit" on the B-side of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting".

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Take Me to the Pilot

With its stop-and-start piano intro, chunka-chunka wah-wah guitars, passionate Leon Russell-style vocal and gliding Buckmaster string arrangment, "Pilot" is the album's most prominent rocker and a favorite of Elton fans, especially among the songs on the Elton John LP.

Because it's such a head-nodding rock song, I think a lot of people are able to ignore the lyrics, which find Bernie sending lyrics-readers scurrying to their dictionaries with lines like

Like a coin in your mint
I am dented and I'm spent with high treason


and head-scratching with lines like

Through a glass eye your throne
Is the one danger zone


But it's all right- Taupin was still working out his writing voice, trying to make what seems to be a standard woo-pitching song more interesting- and a good beat can often make the most questionable lyric content palatable.

This was released as the second single from Elton John in 1970, with a little ditty called "Your Song" as its flip. DJs preferred the B-side, and thus was history made.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Birthday Greetings


Happy 61st birthday to Sir Elton John!




Only one song left on each album, and a handful of singles! We're in the home stretch. Thanks to all who have stopped by, and especially those who have commented, so far!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Honey Roll

Appropriately funky and salacious piano boogie workout, which for some reason reminds me a little of "Take Me to the Pilot" but without the Buckmaster strings. It does feature the chorus vocals prevalent in his music at this time, along with a first (at least to my knowledge): a sax solo. Lyrically, it's a simple come-on, nothing fancy even though there's some odd references to "paying alimony" in the first verse, not a subject you'd think someone would breach when pitching woo.

Obviously, as Taupin notes in the Rare Masters booklet, one of the tunes designed to appear "in the movie whenever someone turned on the car radio, or something". Even though it's an obscure track, it's a pretty good one considering its humble beginnings.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me

Well, I'm sure you're all familiar with this one- it's one of Elton's biggest hits, was fricking all over the radio in not one, but two, decades via the remake duet with George Michael, who is at his most obsequious, seemingly in rapture at being in the presence of his idol. I don't know if there's much I can tell you about it that you don't already know, but I haven't let that stop me yet so here goes...

It's difficult to guess exactly what inspired Bernie to write this- the singer seems to be simultaneously coming on to and apologizing to the subject. Apparently there has been some sort of misunderstanding between the interested parties, and the singer fears being shut out and cut off from any further affection. Maybe it's directed at Maxine, maybe even at Elton. Hard to say, and I've been unable to turn up any anecdotal evidence with my meager resources.

The song's strong points are the lovely backing vocals, featuring Beach Boy Carl Wilson and arranged by another sometimes Boy, Bruce Johnston, as well as its stately and strong melody; it sounds a lot like a processional, especially during the chorus. The recording of most of Caribou sounds like it was a rushed affair between mammoth tours, but this one sounds like a bit more time and care was spent on polishing it up- I'm sure all concerned had this earmarked as the lead single from day one, which it was, coming out a month before the album's June release.

In its initial release, it hit #2 in the States but could not dislodge John Denver's "Annie's Song" at the top of the charts. The UK showing was less impressive, only achieving #16 over there. The aforementioned 1991 duet remake, however, capitalized on Michael's additional star power and went straight to #1 in both countries.

Here's to the Next Time

If the late 60's found the newish John/Taupin partnership frantically trying on many musical hats in order to find the best fit, "Next Time" sounds like an attempt to approximate the British Blues boom a la Joe Cocker, Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, and of course Long John Baldry, Elton's early mentor. Taupin's Rare Masters liner notes claim, while not addressing this cut specifically, that Dick James had been pressuring them not to experiment but to shoot for an Engelbert Humperdinck or Tom Jones sort of sound. The A-side is Engelbert all the way, but the flip is more up Jones' alley.

As with its A-side (Elton's first single release), "I've Been Loving You", this one's Elton all the way on both music and lyrics. Recorded in 1967 and released on the DJM label in 1968, it's a not-bad horn-driven blues with a generic sort of "You can leave if you want but you'll be back, baby" lyric slant.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tonight

Out of all the morose songs to be found on Blue Moves, none, not even the downright suicidal "Someone's Final Song", are more genuinely miserable than this track, which is the de facto album opener after the brief fakeout instrumental "Your Starter For...".

The singer and his significant other are trapped in a relationship which has broken down seemingly beyond all repair, and despite the singer's forlorn hopes of reconciliation, lines like

It's late, too late
To chase the rainbow that you're after
I'd like to find a compromise
And place it in your hands
My eyes are blind, my ears can't hear
And I cannot find the time


suggest that the damage is done, and his/her hopes are doomed to failure. Knowing what we know about Bernie's relationship issues, which inform much of this album, it's difficult not to see that he's pouring his heart out on the paper this time out.

Elton, for his part, sets this in music that is as elaborate, heavily orchestrated, and theatrical as anything from the Madman Across the Water album- strangely enough, even though Paul Buckmaster did contribute to the album, this score isn't his- it's by keyboardist James Newton Howard, who signed on as part of the Westies band. It's a beautiful arrangement, with ebbs and flows and washes of strings, punctuated by horns. Elton accompanies on piano. The melody itself is tender and poignant, perfectly complimenting the song.

"Tonight" is a rewarding and outstanding track, if you're able to listen objectively as one man lays out all the hurt, confusion and despair he feels at the breakdown of his marriage. It's defintely uneasy listening, for sure.

Lyrics and a sample

Monday, March 10, 2008

Social Disease

As the thundering hoofbeats of "Roy Rogers" fade into the aural distance, we're left with a bleary voice, mixed down very low, singing the first few lines of "Social Disease", as if the drunken reprobate we will come to meet is slowly coming out of an alcoholic stupor, perhaps one spent zoning out to old cowboy movies. Eventually, the vocals are joined by a vaudeville-style banjo, but it stays distant and low-volume only until the last line of the second verse:

I get juiced on Mateus and just hang loose

When it suddenly lurches into the chorus, at full strength:

And I get bombed for breakfast in the morning
I get bombed for dinner time and tea
I dress in rags, smell a lot, and have a real good time
I'm a genuine example of a social disease


And that pretty much sums up the gist of the song, in which the singer describes what a neer-do-well and rascal he is, but fortunately he's a likable one who's resigned to living out his life this way:

And the ladies are all getting wrinkles
And they're falling apart at the seams
Well I just get high on tequila
And see visions of vineyards in my dreams


It's a lighthearted, jokey lyric, and Bernie does a real good job getting it across; even the slight misogyny of the description of his landlady is balanced with humor.

The arrangement is livened with the aforementioned banjo throughout, and also with a nifty sax solo that pops up in the middle section, in which Elton and the band provide a funky foundation and make this another enjoyable cut on a side full of them. If Yellow Brick Road was a double album that would have been better served as a single, then it's always been my opinion that side 4 (all cuts beginning with "Your Sister Can't Twist" to the end on CD) should remain intact.

The inner gatefold of the LP, which featured the lyrics along with an illustration for each track, had an amusing hand tinted picture of Elton, in a goofy hat and sunglasses, swigging from a big bottle of wine, perfectly summing this one up.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sick City

This, the B-side to 1974's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me", finds Bernie taking the opportunity to get in some digs at New York City, or to be specific the groupies and panhandlers that they encountered. It's textbook not-nice Taupin, but I would imagine that he (and Elton) certainly encountered a lot of unsavory characters back then, and can't be blamed for being less than magnanimous.

Musically, it's a swaggering mid-tempo rocker that chugs along nicely, augmented by the Tower of Power horns. The melody isn't especially strong or memorable, and combined with the acidic lyric content is probably the reason why it was relegated to B-side status.

Lyrics and a sample

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rotten Peaches

Easily the most "country-rockish" track on the Madman LP, "Peaches" sounds like a throwback to Tumbleweed Connection in a lot of ways, most notably the influence of the Band yet again.

The lyrics deal with the tribulations of a chain-gang prisoner, on the run from the law and apparently still shackled to his mates. You could make a case for this being written from the point of view of a Civil War-era slave as well; that sort of story was on Taupin's mind at the time, leading to the next year's Honky Chateau track "Slave". Either way, the singer is going through a definite time of trial and tribulation. Another subsequent song, Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player's "Have Mercy on the Criminal", is evoked in the chorus, in which he sings:

Mercy I'm a criminal, Jesus I'm the one
Rotten peaches rotting in the sun


I've always heard this as "mercy on the criminal", but the former is the way most sources reproduce it, so it could be I was letting the Piano Player song title influence me. The reference towards the end to "cocaine and pills", of which the singer has "had me my fill", is a little curious, because it's something an escaped prisoner or slave wouldn't, you'd think, have access to. Perhaps he's repentant of the mistakes that led to him being jailed in the first place, or maybe this refers to some sort of illness (tooth-related?) and its treatment...little unclear on this. Also, after viewing O Brother, Where Art Thou? some thirty years later, I can't help but think of Clooney, Tuturro and Nelson in their prison stripes.

Anyway, this song benefits from an all-star lineup: session guitarist extraordinaire Chris Spedding on (very prominent) slide guitar, Strawbs/Yes man Rick Wakeman on organ, the Pentangle's Terry Cox on drums, and the Madman Across the Water Congregated Chorus Vocals are provided by Lesley Duncan, Sue & Sunny, Barry St. John, Liza Strike, Roger Cook, Tony Burrows, Terry Steele, Dee Murray, and Nigel Olsson. It's these backing vocals, as so often is the case with the tracks from Madman, that leave the strongest impression when regarding this particular song as they la-la-la-la over the fadeout and usher in Elton's impassioned lead vocal on the chorus with longer, sustained notes.

This isn't a cut that stands out compared to the other, more highly regarded Madman tracks, but it's always summed up the overall feel of the LP as well as any and in fact (again, to me) is very representative of the entire early, pre-Don't Shoot Me Elton period.

Someone Saved My Life Tonight

Inspired by a real life late Sixties pre-fame incident in which Elton, despondent over his impending marriage to the girl he was living with at the time, and of course the attendant sexual identity issues, tried to kill himself via a gas oven (he was "rescued" by Bernie, who noted with some amusement that John had placed the appliance on its lowest setting, and had placed a pillow inside for comfort) and was later persuaded to call the whole thing off by his mentor Long John Baldry, the chorus' "sugar bear".

Keeping with the Captain Fantastic theme, Bernie writes the lyrics as a reminisce, as the singer thinks back to the time and expresses his gratitude to the person who saved him from what apparently would have been a fate worse than death. He's not particularly even-handed as he does so, either, as the chorus:

And someone saved my life tonight sugar bear
You almost had your hooks in me didn't you dear
You nearly had me roped and tied
Altar-bound, hypnotized
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear
You're a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly
Fly away, high away, bye bye


and several points in the verse:

I'm strangled by your haunted social scene
Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen

Prima Donna lord you really should have been there
Sitting like a princess perched in her electric chair

And I would have walked head on into the deep end of the river
Clinging to your stocks and bonds
Paying your H.P. demands forever


bear out.

A cursory Google search turns up little for Linda Woodrow except in the context of this song; it's always been my experience that there are two sides to every story and usually the truth is somewhere in between. I don't know if Woodrow deserved such a misogynistic smackdown, but it would have been nice to have known her side.

Musically, it's Elton in big-piano-ballad mode, with the Classic Band and Ray Cooper providing solid accompaniment. The band harmonies are prominent, and are as outstanding as always.

This is another of Elton's biggest hits and one of his signature songs, although looking at the chart numbers (#22 UK, #4 US, #36 US A/C) it wasn't as big a hit as it seemed to be at the time, when it was ubiquitous on the airwaves. For me personally, it's never been a favorite- it's just too big and overblown, the melody sounds received, and the fey "sugar bear" tag in the chorus is grating. Obviously, I am in the minority.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Crocodile Rock

It's probably a stretch to say that Elton and Bernie were anticipating a trend in 1972, but this was a prescient little track that mined a vein that few, such as Australian revivalist group Daddy Cool, and Woodstock performers Sha Na Na, were working.

As the first wave of postwar baby boomers came into their mid-late 20's in the late 60's and early 70's, many began to look back to their childhood years for reassurance in those troubled times- and nostalgia for the era of sock hops, malt shops, and of course rock and roll on a jukebox was a big part of that. A year later, George Lucas would deliver American Graffiti, a hugely popular film based on a night in the life of a group of teenagers in 1962, and the year after that an American TV show would be launched to capitalize on the success of the film and the wave of 50's and pre-Beatles 60's nostalgia in general- ABC-TV's Happy Days, which ran for many years. But "Crocodile Rock" preceded all this.

Inspired by a Daddy Cool hit called "Eagle Rock", it's pretty simple lyrically- the singer is reminiscing about his long-ago love Suzie ("Dramas", perhaps?), and he's associating her with the music he listened to at the time. Taupin gets in some really nice rhymes here; I'm especially fond of the chorus' "Crocodile rocking is something shocking". Musically, it's dominated by the Farfisa organ and its retro sound, as well as Elton's keening falsetto, Del Shannon-style, in the bridges between chorus and verses. The Classic Band is on hand to give it a solid bass/drum/guitar underpinning, and once more Gus Dudgeon's curiously compressed (mostly exclusive to this album, it seems) production sound is brought to play.

This was Elton's first #1 hit in the US, and reached #5 in the UK. It also was #1 in Canada as well. It was also the first Elton John song that grabbed the ear of young David Jones of Horse Cave, Kentucky USA, and led him to purchase the 8-track of Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player, and set him on the path to Elton fandom in subsequent years.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Let Me Be Your Car

This was a song custom written by Bernie and Elton for buddy Rod Stewart; it ended up on his 1974 release Smiler. It's another in a long, long line of rock n' roll car-metaphor songs, continuing a proud tradition established by Chuck Berry and probably farther back than that, even.

Elton never got around to recording it for himself, except for a piano-only demo which saw the light of day on 1992's odds-and-sods collection Rare Masters. I'm including it in my examinations because it's such a great track- Elton sings the guide vocal on top of a rollicking boogie-woogie barrelhouse piano riff that's a ton of fun to listen to, almost worthy of Johnny Johnson himself, and proof positive what a good player he was, probably still is.

Rod's own fleshed-out version, with Elton singing harmony, Ron Wood and the usual Rod non-Faces session guys on guitar/bass/drums, and the Memphis Horns blowing away in the background, isn't quite as successful to my ears. It suffers from a flat, muddy mix and never quite acheives the takeoff it aspires to- like a lot of that album, the last one Stewart did before moving to the US and recording with a new set of musicians in 1975.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Scaffold

No, this one's not about the late 60's- early 70's British music/comedy group that counted Mike (McCartney) McGear in its ranks...at least, I don't think it is. "The Scaffold" boasts what seem to be some of Bernie's most opaque lyrics. Basically a collection of reflective-sounding quasi-Oriental proverbs, with words arranged into convoluted sentences like

In Orient is as I told
The buckshee hangman swears
For open crypts to silence
Nylon knots to sway by prayer


No doubt another example of the "Very ethereal, very steeped in mythology, very naive childish sorts of things we were writing at the time", as Bernie puts it in the Rare Masters booklet notes.

Musically, it's given a prim, gently swinging kind of arrangement with a pleasant melody, electric piano and smooth guitar predominant and Elton crooning the words like they are nuggets of Confucian wisdom.

It's a good track, just don't scrutinize the words too hard.

I Saw Her Standing There

I'm sure most of you are at least somewhat familiar with the original version of this song, which is of course one of the Beatles' earliest and best. This is a live recording of one of the songs that John Lennon performed with Elton at Madison Square Garden in 1974, due to a bet Lennon made with John about the chart success of his "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" single earlier that year. If it hit #1, he agreed to appear onstage. It sadly proved to be the last time he would ever do so.

This is a pretty standard run-through, all things considered; Elton and the band tear right into it and it's fun to listen to. Of course, the most notable thing about it was the way Lennon introduced it:

I'd like to thank Elton and the boys for having me on tonight. We tried to think of a number to finish off with so I can get out of here and be sick, and we thought we'd do a number of an old, estranged fiancé of mine, called Paul. This is one I never sang, it's an old Beatle number, and we just about know it.

It surfaced as the B-side of "Philadelphia Freedom" in 1975, and was also included on the expanded CD version of Elton's 1976 live album Here and There.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Suzie (Dramas)

As if Amoreena had a sister named Suzie, we're back in to Tumbleweed Connection territory as Bernie pulls out his array of Farmer's Almanac-style references to give us a "Down in the Boondocks"-style account of a young buck in love (an old "hayseed harp player") with a pretty country gal who lives in the poor part of town. And honestly, he does it better here than he does on its predecessor; he conjures up some nicely-done agrarian imagery in every verse.

The thing that makes this track go, though, and what makes it an overlooked gem in Elton's repertoire is the arrangement- he begins by spitting out the first line- "I got frostbitten in the winter/Ice skating on the river"- with no lead-in, and only with minimal piano/drum syncopation before easing in to the rest of the verse, giving it an immediacy that serves it well. The rest of the song is set in a vaguely funky, staccato rhythm, something like "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun", with the choruses defined by an ascending set of notes that accompany Elton's singing, ensuring that the song never really lets up except during a brief passage in which they beat slows for a guitar solo before lurching back in to the chorus with its stairstep notes. In keeping with Honky Chateau's stated intent to present Elton without his "bloody 100-piece orchestra", its instrumentation is minimal- only the core Classic Elton Band (Davey, Dee and Nigel) are present.

It wasn't often after this that the increasingly slick and hard-rockish Elton sound went back to its Band-style country/rock roots, and in some ways that's sad.

Theme from a Non-Existent TV Series

One of three instrumental tracks, two of which seem to be intended to leaven the gloom of the Blue Moves album, "Theme" (click here for a sample) is sprightly and fun to listen to, but it's absolutely non-essential and to be honest, wasn't meant to be. At less than two minutes in length, it doesn't wear out its welcome. It reminds me a little of something Todd Rundgren might have done in his A Wizard/A True Star era. It provides a segue to "Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)", which despite trying twice as hard wasn't half as enjoyable.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's Me That You Need

Another early effort, this was Elton's follow up to "Lady Samantha", and it finds him still casting around for a signature sound. It's as heavily orchestrated as the Elton John album would be, except the strings (I can't find out who the arranger was) aren't as heavy and ponderous as Paul Buckmaster's chamber-like arrangements could be. The effect isn't unlike something by the Moody Blues. The chorus is accompanied by cascading strings and most likely Caleb Quaye wailing away on guitar, playing wah-driven Claptonesque licks as Elton sings "and it's me and it's me and it's me that you need", creating a romantic, grandiose effect. The verses aren't quite as memorable, though.

Bernie's lyrics for this one are pretty conventional and grounded; apparently he was saving his flights of fancy for the songs that made up Empty Sky, which this immediately preceded.

It didn't chart in either the US or the UK.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Grow Some Funk of Your Own

Amusing little fish-out-of-water story, as the singer ogles some Mexican senorita in a south of the border bar and runs afoul of her "brass-knuckled boyfriend", who doesn't appreciate it one bit. Really, a lot of the humor here comes from the listener imagining diminutive Reg Dwight in such a situation in the first place- "He was so macho", Elton sings with a put-on 'fraidy-cat accent.

Other than the Bo Diddleyesque "Billy Bones and the White Bird", "Funk" is the hardest-rocking, tempo-wise, cut on what is generally viewed as an album designed to showcase the new band doing just that; it's odd, then, that Johnstone's abrasive guitar, sounding like 1973 all over again, is undercut with jazzy keyboard figures and Ray Cooper's vibes and castanets. The idea is to simulate a kind of Latin sound, but instead it comes closer to Steely Dan, like another rockish Westies track, "Feed Me".

Released as a double A-side with its successor on the album "I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford", it was a top 20 hit in the US, but did not chart in the UK.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Son of Your Father

I'll catch the tramline in the morning
With your leave Van Bushell said
He had further heard the cock crow
As he stumbled out the shed

Then blind Joseph came towards him
With a shotgun in his arms
He said you'll pay me twenty dollars
Before you leave my farm


And that's the crux of the conflict in this Western story-song.

Van Bushell, some sort of ne'er-do-well, is trying to abuse hook-handed, blind Joseph's hospitality by skipping out on the debt he owes him; Joseph isn't having any of it, and backs up his claim with a shotgun. Van Bushell appeals to his sense of family and charity, in the chorus:

You're the son of your father
Try a little bit harder
Do for me as he would do for you
With blood and water bricks and mortar
He built for you a home
You're the son of your father
So treat me as your own


This seems to work, as Joseph lowers his rifle and empties out the shells. Problem is, VB is a jerk and screws up when he says in passing:

He said now hey blind man that is fine
But I sure can't waste my time
So move aside and let me go my way
I've got a train to ride


Joseph doesn't take kindly to this, and the tale doesn't have a happy ending.

Bernie kinda fumble-mouths the moral with some odd syntax in the summup, but it doesn't matter- it's a neat little vignette and it's catchy too, as Elton sets it in a typically Band-like arrangement, with lots of Ian Duck harmonica, chorus-style backing vocals and some honking horns buried in the mix.

I've always thought it was one of the best songs on the album.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Harmony

Coming as it does at the very end of the multi-genre Yellow Brick Road album, "Harmony" feels almost like an exhalation of breath after a strenuous task- a reflective, accomplished melancholy dominates the track.

Lyrically, at least on the surface (and if there's any subtext it's not immediately apparent to me), it seems to deal with a couple of former lovers who have encountered each other again for the first time in a while. Perhaps it's Bernie, yet again, commenting on his relationship with his working partner circa 1973. Anyway.

But the singer is not exactly overjoyed with this reunion; Taupin churlishly has him asking, in a patronizing fashion:

Have you quit doing time for me
Or are you still the same spoiled child?


and

Is this the only place you thought to go
Am I the only man you ever had
Or am I just the last surviving friend that you know?


But the starry-eyed chorus completely contradicts the sour verses:

Harmony and me
We're pretty good company
Looking for an island
In our boat upon the sea
Harmony, gee I really love you
And I want to love you forever
And dream of the never, never, never leaving harmony


Fortunately, the arrangement Elton and Del Newman creates for this schizo set of words is so lush and melodic, and the Classic EJ Band harmony vocal blend so strong, that it sweetens the track and makes the lyric content palatable.

While it's not exactly a Grand Closing Statement, it makes itself felt by virtue of the arrangement, and stands as a great closer.

Border Song

One element which was ubiquitous in Elton's early songs, and one which practically vanished with the 1972 move to a more contemporary, electric guitar-driven sound was en masse chorus backing vocals, and this track was the first in which he (or perhaps Paul Buckmaster) used them. Subsequent tracks like "My Father's Gun" and "All the Nasties" may have employed this sound in order to perhaps duplicate the relative success of this song, which was Elton's first US hit, troubling the lower reaches of the top 100.

And the choir was appropriate, because the arrangement, which has choir, piano and strings prominent and guitar-bass-drums not so much, strives to create a gospel-music feel in service to Bernie's lyrics, which mix homesickness:

I'm going back to the border
Where my affairs, my affairs ain't abused


with the desire for racial tolerance and a plea for brotherhood:

Holy Moses let us live in peace
Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease
There's a man over there what's his colour I don't care
He's my brother let us live in peace


Which was becoming a common sentiment, and rightly so, in the post-1968 pop music landscape. This remains a popular track with a lot of people, and was included on his first Greatest Hits LP as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Friends

Again, I haven't seen the film, of which this is the title cut, so I don't know how it fits in- according to the liner notes of Rare Masters, Bernie didn't really read the script, skimming instead and consulting with the director's son who was coordinating the film's music, and it was he who told him what it was about. So if this seems a bit lyrically generic, it can be understood- it's still a nicely warmhearted statement of the desire of (one assumes) the film's young lovers (and anybody else who chooses to identify, I suppose) to join together in friendship, both as a couple and also with the world, as summed up by the chorus:

Making friends for the world to see
Let the people know you got what you need
With a friend at hand you will see the light
If your friends are there then everything's all right


Arrangement-wise, this is pretty much Paul Buckmaster's show, and he brings the usual array of echoey strings and piping oboes, in tandem with Elton on piano. Sounds a lot like it could have fit on Elton John or Tumbleweed Connection, but the melody (and I'm not sure whether it's Elton's or Buckmaster's) is not a particularly memorable one, although the sentiment it evokes is effective and genuine.

This was the follow-up single to the smash "Your Song", but it didn't duplicate its predecessor's success- it didn't chart at all in the UK, although it did make it into the top 40 in the US Billboard Hot 100, and #17 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

By now, I'm sure you all are aware of the circumstances surrounding Elton and Bernie vis-a-vis Blue Moves; if not, please click on the tag and read some of the other entries for this album.

One of the more genuinely miserable tracks on an album full of them, it begins with this anguished question, asked of the singer's lover:

What have I got to do to make you love me
What have I got to do to make you care
What do I do when lightning strikes me
And I wake to find that you're not there


...and things get bleaker form there. As a breakup song, it certainly does what it sets out to do; the "singer" doesn't seem to want to end the relationship, but has no clue about how to win back the heart of the person it's sung to- "sorry" seems to be an inadequate response, and a difficult word for either to say, even if it would help.

Elton's arrangement is not elaborate; piano, vibes and accordion giving it an odd French feel. James Newton Howard contributes a non-obtrusive string arrangement.

With no hope of resolution, it becomes one of the most forlorn pop songs to ever hit the Billboard top 10 (#6 in the US), no doubt striking a chord with the loveless, abandoned and forsaken music listeners of 1976.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Writing

As if to demonstrate that it wasn't all gloom and doom in their early days, we get this blithely efficient pop song about the good feelings that our heroes get while in the act of plying their trade, and some convenient backwards-glancing with somewhat jaded lines such as

And we were oh oh, so you know
Not the kind to dawdle
Will the things we wrote today
Sound as good tomorrow
We will still be writing
In approaching years
Stifling yawns on Sundays
As the weekends disappear


Just the kind of observation that occurs to a songwriter who's been at it as long as Taupin had been by that point- seven years, more or less. Still, there's enough perceived joy to inspire verses such as these:

We could stretch our legs if we'd half a mind
But don't disturb us if you hear us trying
To instigate the structure of another line or two
Cause writing's lighting up
And I like life enough to see it through


Davey Johnstone's sprightly six-note guitar riff is the main defining point, and Elton sings it with a smile straight through. It's a nice, snappy tune that serves the function of setting us up for the profundities of "Curtains" and "We All Fall in Love Sometimes", which follow.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Bad Side of the Moon

Recorded for, but not used on, the Elton John album, "Bad Side of the Moon" is notable for the introduction of string/horn arranger Paul Buckmaster, who did the honors for Elton's first three albums, and then occasionally on subsequent releases. Noted for his full-bodied- some might even say bombastic- arrangements, Buckmaster went on to collaborate with many other artists including Harry Nilsson, the Stones and Miles Davis.

Lyrically, it's a blues of sorts, dealing with one of Taupin's preoccupations of the time- freedom from being oppressed by parties unknown. Bernie was still learning his craft, though, and experimenting with combinations of words- hence an ungainly line like

To stir your dregs in sickness still
Without the rustic spoon


But Elton sets it in a low-key sort of rock/blues arrangement, reminding me of "Take Me to the Pilot"- complete with congas accenting the rumbling beat and strings enhancing the chorus' group vocals, and sings it a lot like Leon Russell, as he did so often early on, and that makes this one a lot more attractive.

"Bad Side" wound up as the B-side of Elton's first single released from the self-titled album, "Border Song", which hit #92 in the USA.

Candle in the Wind

The short, bittersweet life of actress Norma Jeane Mortenson, aka Marilyn Monroe, is a story full of triumph and tragedy, and the questions that still surround the circumstances of her death have not been satisfactorily explained- and probably never will. The perfect recipe for immortality.

"Candle" is Bernie writing in sensitive/sympathetic mode, as he not only commemorates her glamour and appeal, but also spares a thought for the woman behind the Hollywood-manufactured sex-bomb image and provides a lovely eulogy, all in keeping with the unwritten "old-time Hollywood mystique" theme of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, as summed up in the final verse:

Goodbye Norma Jean
From the young man in the 22nd row
Who sees you as something as more than sexual
More than just our Marilyn Monroe


Elton's arrangement, a bit surprisingly, is relatively simple- just the Classic Band's bass/drums/guitar/piano mix, as well as the outstanding harmony vocal mix they provided, set in a midtempo ballad style. Johnstone's guitar lick that follows the choruses is a nicely done and memorable touch.

This one was a single in the UK; it went to #11. "Bennie and the Jets" was released in the US in its stead. There have been a few cover versions; one which stands out is Sandy Denny's faithful cover on her 1977 LP Rendezvous. Over the decades, Elton has revisited it twice: first, in 1987 in a live version which appeared on the Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra album (you may remember the 18th Century French outfit he performed in), this time reaching #5 in the US and #6 in Britain; and again a few years later in a rewritten version, this time in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, titled "Candle in the Wind 1997".

2007 came and went with no new cover of which I'm aware, which breaks that "every ten years" streak...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

House of Cards

Some B-sides are great overlooked tracks that in many cases were better than the cuts that did make the album...and then there are those that, well, it's not such a mystery as to why they were afforded second-rate status- like this one.

It boogies along amiably, with Elton tinkling away on electric piano, backed by the classic Elton Band. There's a bit of a twang in the mix, giving it a counry/folk feel, almost a bit like the "Brown Dirt Cowboy" segments of Captain Fantastic's title cut. Altogether a passable arrangement, but the melody is not a strong one.

Bernie's lyrics sketch out a jealous-guy scenario; his girl wants to leave him but he's telling her that:

I hear tell some playboy has kidnapped your heart
With his plane and his plans for games after dark
Just a pain in his pocket, and the price of a room
Where the second hand sheets smell of stale perfume


Reminds me a little of Cat Stevens' "Wild World".

It was the B-side of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", one of Elton's biggest hits, so I'm sure many people got to hear it out of idle curiosity, if nothing else.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Levon

By 1971 Bernie had really come into his own as a lyricist, I do believe, and for proof one needs look no further than this memorable track, in which he uses names and words to maximize listener interest.

The subject matter of "Levon" has been a bit of a mystery over the years- on the surface, it seems to be a simple narrative about an immigrant family. But the nature of the lyrics themselves, with its precise people names and hot-button words such as "Jesus", would seem to suggest otherwise. However, according to the Straight Dope website, it is what it seems, and nothing more. But by placing the name "Jesus" prominently, which is automatically going to suggest the Christian Savior to most listeners rather than the son of Alvin Tostig (a name which led many others to wonder if he was an actual historical person or allegorical entity), Bernie ensures that ears perk up to hear what's being said. And I'm sure many were nonplussed by

And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus
Leaving Levon far behind
Take a balloon and go sailing
While Levon, Levon slowly dies
.

But according to the StraightDope post that I linked to above, the story isn't quite so exotic. According to Bernie, Alvin Tostig is the grandfather, Levon his son, and Jesus is Levon's son. The whole "Levon" name was suggested by the Band's Levon Helm, as I've written many times an obvious influence on Elton's music, and Helm's name inspired the song. Simple as that.

Elton and Paul Buckmaster's arrangement certainly adds to the air of importance and significance; the dominant strings, as is the norm for the Madman album, are soaring and grandiose, almost Wagnerish, and Elton pounds the keys in rhythm right with them. Barry Morgan also makes a solid contribution on several drum fills just before the choruses.

"Levon" was the first single release from Madman Across the Water at the tail end of 1971; it wasn't released in England, but made it to #24 in the US. It was included on his second greatest hits album as well.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Shoulder Holster

With a stop-and-start, horn-driven intro (by slick super-sessioneers the Brecker Brothers) and an arrangement that reminds me of no less than early 70's inspiration the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek", we get a bemused account of young Dolly Summers, a young newlywed whose husband just ups and leaves her for a "downtown blackjack hustler by the name of Candy Floss". Not being the sort which takes this kind of thing lightly, she puts her pistol in the titular (no pun intended) accessory and sets out after him, to bring him back at any cost.

Of course, as these things sometimes do, the outcome of this quest is quite different from the one Dolly, and we the listeners, envision- she learns a lesson, and Bernie takes the opportunity to lecture a little about the problems inherent with blind love and foolish rage. Don't wanna spoil, but if you'd like to find out the resolution, here are the lyrics.

One little gaffe Taupin makes, and I'm sure it was in the name of keeping the rhyming scheme intact, was that he writes

She put a pistol in her shoulder holster
She took her car up from Santa Fe


just after he wrote

Dolly slipped behind the wheel of her Mustang
With a piece between her breast


...which would seem to be two different places. If he had merely substituted "beside" for "between", all would have been well. Not that important in the scheme of things, especially given the circumstances surrounding this record.

Given the glum mood of the album, it's a bit refreshing to see this mostly lighthearted track placed in with the rest, and even more gratifying to see Elton once more referencing the Band, an early influence.

This was the B-side for Elton's initial single release, "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word".

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Jack Rabbit

Any old excuse to get Davey Johnstone to pick up his mandolin, I suppose, as the classic Band rips right through this short cornpone country track in no time- it clocks in at under two minutes!

Bernie takes the rabbit metaphor and runs with it; if there's a deeper meaning it's not evident. Just sounds like he came up with a goofy idea, and Elton arranged it appropriately. Wouldn't surprise me if it was cooked up in the studio. A "rabbit stu-dio", heh heh.

While researching the song, I discovered that it apparently shared the B-side of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" with "Whenever You're Ready (We'll Go Steady Again)", and I don't recall that being standard practice for 45's (in the US, anyway) back in the day. Guess its brevity made it necessary, who knows.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Bitch is Back

Inspired by an offhand remark made by Maxine Taupin about Elton after witnessing one of his temper tantrums, "Bitch" gets Caribou off to a rousing start.

It opens with Johnstone's pinched-sounding, treated guitar hitting a lick then strumming a funk-soul type of riff, augmented by Dee Murray's "phased Pignose bass". I don't know exactly what sort of studio tricks were applied to Johnstone's guitar to get that sound, but he used it quite often on the next three albums. The Tower of Power horns provide backup, along with Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews, Jessie Mae Smith, and Dusty Springfield, of all people, contributing soulful, gospel-ish backing vocals.

It's a great rocker, and a heck of a catchy tune, and was a big hit when released in the US in September, reaching #4 despite some trepidation because the minor swear word "bitch" was used. It didn't fare quite so well in England, only reaching #15, still not so bad. It was also recorded in one of the first sessions that took place in James William Guercio's Caribou Ranch studios that they named the album for.

It inspired a couple of cover versions, most notably Tina Turner's first take in 1978 (she also re-did it for the Two Rooms tribute album). But nobody ever did it better than the Bitch himself.

Between Seventeen and Twenty

More marital misery on display from Bernie- in the words of Claud Bernardin, "...the only way Bernie could deal with his personal problems was hitting the bottle or write about it." Some of Blue Moves' tracks come across as somewhat self-pitying; this one takes a different approach in that it is a relentless self-examination, in which he reflects on the years gone by in their relationship and accepts his share of blame for their problems:

And if I shower around 3 a.m.
It's just to wash away
The trace of a love unwanted
Oh in the times I went astray
The times I went astray


Of all of his lyrics, this song features some of the most up-front and honest, and are especially memorable to me because of it.

And probably very difficult to set to music without succumbing to maudlinity. Elton chose to try and keep it light; taken at a midtempo rhythm, it features the tinkling mandolins of Davey Johnstone, along with Hammond organ fills and some committed falsetto vocals from Elton. The melody is a strong one, but the conflicting vibe of the melody vs. the subject matter makes for an uncomfortable mix sometimes when one listens closely, pretty much par for the course for Blue Moves.