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.