Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Honky Cat

Piano, both acoustic at first and then a jaunty electric, usher in the lead cut from the Honky Chateau LP, as well as a whole new direction for Elton after the often ponderous Madman Across the Water album. It's a new, friendlier, more open and accessible Elton we get this time out, and the success of this record paved the way for the hit records to follow.

"Cat" tells a story that Taupin liked to visit and revisit, that of the small-town greenhorn who goes to the big city, likes what he sees despite the warnings of the jaded jet-setters, but soon realizes that it's all sizzle and no steak and yearns to return to a simpler lifestyle. As far as this song's concerned, though, it's all good for now. As lead cut it provides a bookend with the world-weary, penultimate track "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters", and he would return to the theme on the title song from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, as well as several years later on Blue Moves' "One Horse Town".

Musically, Elton provides a bouncy New Orleans R&B, Meters-like shuffle; the bass part almost sounds like reggae, and its punctuated by a lot of brass. It's catchy and infectious, and was a #8 hit in the USA, for good reason.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Better Off Dead

The CD liner notes for the Captain Fantastic album describe this track as sounding like Queen- and that's somewhat valid- but the charging, staccato piano riffs and crashing, bashing drums, along with John's clipped singing, reminds me of nothing less than something conceived for an operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan.

Of course, Captain Fantastic is a concept album, said concept being vignettes-in-song dealing with the early days of the John/Taupin songwriting team up to the 1968 release of Empty Sky. This particular track seems to describe witnessing some sort of violent event, and being moved to write about it, certainly something which Taupin (and many other songwriters) would have done.

Altogether, an effective, if overlooked track. Well done, but Olsson's percussion becomes overbearing after a while.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Holiday Inn

Songs about life on the road have always been a big part of the rock music lexicon, but never more in the 1970's, when everyone seemed to have at least one- from the Kinks ("Sitting in My Hotel", to name just one) to Paul McCartney ("Helen Wheels") to David Bowie ("Aladdin Sane")...many more than I can name. This Madman Across the Water track is Elton's contribution.

Taupin paints a pithy account of arriving in the town, checking in to the ubiquitous titular lodging establishment, and waiting around to do what they came to do:

Boredom's a pastime that one soon acquired
Where you get to the stage where you're not even tired
Kicking your heels till the time comes around
To pick up your bags and head out of town

I'm not so sure about the grammatical correctness of those first two lines, but he gets his point across and evokes the mood well, since by 1971 and at least two US tours and who knows how many others, his was certainly an informed experience. I'm also fairly certain that naming the song after the US based, budget-priced Holiday Inn hotel chain was perhaps a tip of the hat, since I'm sure that by 1971 they most likely weren't staying in Holiday Inns anymore, or wouldn't be soon.

But it's not the lyrics that make this song as good as it is; it's the musical accompaniment. It's dominated by Davey Johnstone on mandolin, and Paul Buckmaster's strings (as much of Madman was), and provides two really nice instrumental breaks in between verses- in fact, the high point of "Inn", for me, is the extended outro, after the final choir-sung chorus, after which we only hear John's piano for a couple of seconds, then each musician joins in in turn, and Davey Johnstone's mandolin solos furiously against the backdrop of John's piano and Buckmaster's symphony orchestra, all playing for all they're worth.

"Holiday Inn" is another really overlooked album track that has always been one of my absolute favorites.

Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future)

Dan Dare is a British spaceman comic book hero with whom young Reggie Dwight and Bernie Taupin would have been very familiar with, I'm sure.

"Dare" fits right in on the mostly sunny vibe of the outstanding Westies album- it bops along agreeably, with low-register voice-box guitar work (all the rage then courtesy of Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh- Walsh's former bassist Kenny Passarelli played on this LP, and was Dee Murray's replacement in this period) and chiming, burbling high-register synths (courtesy of new sideman James Newton Howard) punctuating its bouncy melody. There is a little tinge of melancholy to the lyric, which seems to have the singer saying goodbye to his childhood hero and, I suppose, childhood concerns in general, with more than a touch of cynicism apparent...yet another example of Elton's apparent love of providing contrasts between words and performance. Fortunately, it never gets maudlin or mean-spirited. A nice touch is the a capella ending (complete with playful yelps), and Taupin gets in a cute joke as the singer confides:

Dan Dare doesn't know it
He doesn't know it
He doesn't know it
But I liked the Mekon.

The Mekon, of course, being Dan's arch-enemy.

John wanted this to be the first single from the LP; wiser heads prevailed and chose "Island Girl", which went on to top the charts. It completes a trilogy of sorts of outer space-themed songs with "Rocket Man" and "I've Seen the Saucers".

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I've Seen That Movie Too

"Ive Seen That Movie Too" is one of a handful of songs on the 1973 double-LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that reference classic Hollywood, which was another fad of the mid-70s as Bogart, Astaire and Cagney and the likes found appreciative new audiences- especially among the Glam Rock crowd, which was going strong in 1972-73.

"Movie", unsurprisingly, literally uses movie cliches and jargon to tell its story, that of a love gone bad and the singer's determination to move on.

It's a habit I have, I don't get pushed around
Stop twinkling your star like you do
I'm not the blue print for all of your B films
Because I've seen that movie too

Taupin does a nice job this time out. Unfortunately, Elton doesn't, constructing a melody which, while memorable enough, is set at a funereal tempo and plods along for about a minute and a half too long. Apropos for suggesting forlorn resignation, I guess, but not exactly fun to listen to. Accompaniment is mostly Elton's piano, played late-night jazz style, and Del Newman's strings along with some crashing Olsson percussion and a backwards-looped Johnstone solo about halfway through.

It's not terrible, just a little wan, and over the years I find myself recalling the melody and words upon occasion.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The Empty Sky album, recorded in 1968, released in the UK in 1969, and not seen on these shores until 1975, is a tentative, if often surprisingly good, beginning effort and "Sails" is one of that album's best tracks.

It's a nifty, Stones-circa-1967-style account of dockside seduction, enhanced and made more memorable by the underrated Caleb Quaye's guitar work, especially the nimble, Claptonesque solo, which was so good that it was chosen to represent the track in the album-closing medley Hay Chewed. Taupin's lyrics are direct and to the point, and it would be several years before John went this blues-rockish again.

I've Seen the Saucers

In the early-mid 70's, accounts of UFOs and UFO sightings were very popular- Von Daniken's 1968 Chariots of the Gods had jumpstarted the dormant craze, and reports of flying saucers and strange lights were all over the place. David Bowie's "Starman" from the Sci-Fi flavored Ziggy Stardust LP was just one example of rock music's infatuation with the lore, and no less than John Lennon stated on the inner lyric booklet of his 1974 LP Walls and Bridges: "On the 23rd Aug. 1974 at 9 o'clock I saw a U.F.O." .

So naturally, the always trend-conscious John and Taupin songwriting team would have taken notice, and out of this was Caribou's seventh track born.

Elton seems to take this one much more seriously than his lyricist; Taupin, in trying to create a Sci-Fi close-encounters scenario, gives him an awkwardly stitched together crazy-quilt of phrases. One example:

Stars climbing into their planets
Systems won, controlled from birth
Empty living on this highway
Can you see me mother earth

John casts these words into a Beatlesque mid-tempo style, with the type of extremely catchy melody that he could write in his sleep. Ray Cooper's congas provide a salsa flavor. As is the case throughout this period, we also get those gorgeous Beach Boys-style backing vocal harmonies by John, Johnstone, Murray and Olsson; unsurprising considering that John was on record as being an unabashed Beach Boys fan. This album was recorded at the Caribou studio in Colorado which was owned by then-BB's manager James William Guercio, and indeed Carl Wilson himself was on hand for the sessions, although he's not present here. John sings the lead vocal with a surprising passion, considering the frivolous subject matter- at some points, he sounds like his life depends on convincing you of his belief.

It could have been very easy for this sort of song to become the low point of an uneven LP, but thanks to his songwriting smarts John managed to make this a winner.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Your Song

This doe-eyed ballad remains one of John's most successful and enduring songs, and for good reason; Taupin's lyric is as unpretentious as he ever got, and combined with John and Paul Buckmaster's arrangement, it gets its heartfelt valentine sentiment across directly and sweetly.

For my part, I've always liked the lilting flute that pops in and sustains a note at the point right after John sings "...that I put down in words" and "How wonderful life is..."; a small, but appropriate Buckmaster touch. His skills and sound really made a lot of John's early efforts as memorable as they were.

Introduced to a whole new generation, I think, via Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!, which worked it into the love song medley; Ewan McGregor's guileless (and vibrato-free) delivery fit the song nicely.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Where's the Shoorah?

The exact definition of "Shoorah", according to Dan Phillips' blog Home of the Groove, is a bit of a mystery; he concludes that it's most likely a nonsense word that is linked with certain types of music identified with New Orleans-style Mardi Gras music.

Taupin is merely using the word for flavor, to give us another ode to an object of desire a la "Island Girl" or "Amoreena" but this time a bit more domesticated-

She's all girl, woman and mother
She's had my children
And she's been my lover

The writer's mama likes her, and asks the titular question in regards to her- or perhaps if she has a certain quality that she considers "shoorah".

Not exactly a shining beacon of complexity or clarity this time. But fortunately, Elton delivers a reflective, gospel-tinged musical accompaniment, complete with gospel-choir style backing vocals, that recast the say-nothing lyrics in a very favorable light. It's a strong melody, and often that covers a multitude of sins. Vocally, he wisely stays out of the way for the most part, except for some falsetto crooning at the end which interacts with the choir nicely.

While I wasn't especially impressed with this one upon my initial listens to Blue Moves, it really grew on me and stands as a highlight of this often downbeat LP.


The influence of the Band- hugely popular in the late '60s and early '70s, especially among other musicians- on the sound of early Elton can't be overestimated. Fold in the pop-smarts of the Beatles and the vibe of other singer-songwriter types like Nilsson and Randy Newman and there you have the pre-Honky Chateau albums' sound in a nutshell.

"Amoreena" is an obscure side two track from Tumbleweed Connection, Elton's third US release and a record which, if not a concept album in execution, is certainly so in theme as Taupin works his preoccupation with the American Old West, the Civil War, and the rural, agrarian lifestyle on practically every cut. He lays on every Mother Earth metaphor you can imagine as he describes the titular inamorata, painting a picture of bucolic lust with lines such as

I can see you sitting eating apples in the evening
The fruit juice flowing slowly, slowly, slowly
Down the bronze of your body

It's sometimes a tad heavy-handed, as Taupin could often be (and believe me, this will be discussed a lot more the farther I go with this blog), but he avoids any really clumsy couplets and is quite successful in this case.

Musically, this is Band lite all the way, performed at a "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" mid-tempo pace. It's also a really early appearance on record by the more-famous Elton John Band rhythm section of Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums, with Caleb Quaye on guitar instead of Davey Johnstone. John sings this in appropriately lower-register lasciviousness, influenced by Van Morrison, he said later. There aren't any solos to speak of, relying on tempo shifts for any dramatics.

It's a nice enough tune, but not an especially memorable one, and seems to be pretty much forgotten these days except by those who listened as much to the Connection LP in their formative years as your humble scribe did.

Edit: Reader "Charlie" reminds me that this song was used, somewhat incongruously, by director Sidney Lumet in the opening credits for the Al Pacino bank standoff film Dog Day Afternoon. You can go here to see it on YouTube.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

(I'm Gonna Be a) Teenage Idol

In 1972, when this track was written and recorded, Britain was in the throes of "T.Rexstasy"- as Marc Bolan and company ruled the charts and sent teenagers into a screaming frenzy unseen since the heyday of the Fab Four from Liverpool. Of course, this was not lost on lyricist Bernie Taupin and Elton, who had already struck up a friendship with Bolan, to the point of appearing with him on TV and in Bolan's Ringo Starr-directed vanity film Born to Boogie. Inspired by him, this account of the fantasies of a wannabe rockstar had a definite air of verisimilitude, even more so because Elton's star was still on the ascent and by 1973 Bolan's was on the wane.

Musically, it's a bluesy shuffle, punctuated by staccato horns and a lockstep drumbeat, which almost gives it a New Orleans-style vibe. The chorus is sung over swaying 50's-style oohs and aahs, which recede before the horns blare back in. Elton, for his part, slurs and shouts his vocals, making the humble everyman dreamer of the narrative sound a little arrogant and haughty. Against all odds, it works- and that's one of John's gifts.

It would only be a matter of months before the title prediction would come true in spades.

What this is all about.

I was 12 years old in 1972, when I first heard the music of Elton John and Band via a chance hearing of "Crocodile Rock" on the radio. There was something about the way it sounded- the Farfisa organ, the falsetto Fifties-style "ya ya ya ya ya-as" in the instrumental breaks, that grabbed me. Perhaps it stirred up fond memories of listening to classic '50s 45s that belonged to my Aunt as a young child, can't say for sure, but there was something that engaged my attention. Not long after, using my fledgling membership in the Columbia House Record Club, I obtained the 8-track of the album from which "Crocodile" came: Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player- and thus my fate was sealed. I took every opportunity to order a new Elton album every chance I got; and fortunately, Columbia House carried every one of his records to date. So I went back and discovered the myriad charms of the musical landscapes that Elton, lyricist Bernie Taupin, and the multitude of backing musicians created- from the sombre tones of his US debut, on through the Band-influenced Americana of Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water to the big, hyper-produced pop-rock of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Caribou, each album offered a kaleidoscope of sonic delights and I came to love each of them in their way.

However, as George Harrison once wrote, "All Things Must Pass". And although John sustained this run for over eight years, his music eventually wore down and became less distinctive. Blame personal excess, of which there was plenty in the '70s; blame the shifting tastes of the record-buying public and the trendiness of the music industry itself; blame what you will but one thing was clear to those who cared: after 1977, the music of Elton John, while still interesting, had lost that certain je'nais se quois it once had. Which is not to say that there weren't highlights; he has released a handful of singles that were still fine ("I'm Still Standing", "Nikita") and one temporary return to form (1984's Breaking Hearts) before descending into a morass of big, bloated Disney movie ballads and bland, lifeless, half-hearted "rock". Not unlike many of his contemporaries. Also, in all fairness, by most accounts (I don't own anything but a few (pretty good) tracks from either) early '00s efforts such as Songs From the West Coast and Peachtree Road managed to capture some of the spirit he once commanded so effortlessly. If you want to know more about John's life and career, go here to the Wikipedia entry.

Elton John today doesn't have anything to do with what I want this blog to be. What I intend to do here is take a highly personal and completely self-centered look at each of the songs that saw release on the 11 albums between 1969 and 1977, plus select singles. No greatest hits compilations, no live albums. I'm not going to concern myself with anything after the 1977 45-only release "Ego", which means a cutoff point of the utterly unremarkable LP A Single Man, released in 1978. I don't know how long this will take me; I don't expect to be able to post a new song every day, but I hope to do at least five a week, more or less. I'll post them in random order. I'm hoping that by focusing on individual tracks, I can provide a fresher look than most accounts, which tend to be approached on an album-by-album basis. Now, please understand- I'm no music expert, and I don't bring any sort of professional credentials to this project. While I do know how to read music in limited fashion, and can strum along with myself on a guitar, I'm no practicing musician. Nor am I a "real" critic; my educational background is in graphic design and art. I'm not a professional reviewer or writer, nor have I taken anything but the most rudimentary of English and Journalism courses. However, I do have a professional writing credit to my name in writing about comics, have been blogging about not only that but music, film and TV for almost five years now, and I've managed to absorb, from decades of reading music critics in Creem, Rolling Stone, Mojo and other music publications, enough of the vocabulary to enable myself to recycle enough phrases to make it sound like I have a modicum of ability in that direction. So I guess what I'm saying is I hope you understand, and temper your expectations accordingly. Hopefully, once in a blue moon I'll pull something revelatory and profund out of my ear.

Why Elton John? I have no special reason- I fully realize that John's time in the spotlight has pretty much passed, even though he still enjoys a fairly high level of celebrity and has done a lot of fine work for charity. The non-performance of his last few CDs, however unjust that may have been, have shown that the mass audience is no longer there in the numbers that he enjoyed in his heyday. To those under 40, what I suspect will be the average age of those who stumble across this site, John has long ago ceased to be anything that even remotely resembles "hip", "cool", or even "relevant" or "interesting".

But I can't leave 13-year-old me behind sometimes, and I still get a lot of pleasure from listening to those albums, especially during the Summertime- Summer was, y'see, when I always seemed to be getting new Elton music. Recently, I've come across a couple of blogs- one of them devoted to a track-by-track examination of R.E.M., and another that has been featuring some very trenchant commentary on the Beatles and solo Paul McCartney. This has inspired me to do something similar. When choosing which artist(s) to focus on, I felt it had to be one which I owned a significant amount of music by, and one which I thought the output would lend itself to track-by-track examination. And after a lot of deliberation, I decided that the sonically diverse product of John and Band would fit the bill, plus I had a sentimental connection that would possibly keep me interested and enable me to continue on for however long it would take.

So here we are. Reginald Kenneth Elton fricking Hercules John Dwight. Let's have some fun, shall we?

I'll post some relevant links in the sidebar eventually, and other stuff as I go forth. Look for the first capsule commentary today or tomorrow. Which song? I honestly don't know. Come back and see, whydon'cha?