Monday, December 31, 2007

I've Been Loving You

From March of 1968, the very first single to come out in the U.K. under the Elton John name, with lyrics (according to the liner notes of Rare Masters) by Elton, not Bernie and produced by Caleb Quaye. Sadly, it did not chart.

After a somewhat tentative staggered tempo piano intro, this lurches into the same type of radio-friendly bubblegum pop that the likes of the Grass Roots, Ohio Express, and the Archies would have been right at home with. Although the lyric content is a bit contradictory in its message for bubblegum, it has a decent hook and is quite catchy, and while I'm certainly no expert on what the British pop listeners were buying in enough numbers to get songs on the charts, I can only surmise that unfamiliarity with the artist was the only reason that it didn't get sufficient airplay.

Not the most auspicious of debuts, but a fine song nonetheless.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Philadelphia Freedom

The Philadelphia Freedoms were one of the charter members of the World Team Tennis League, a league founded to provide team-oriented professional tennis in the USA. One of its most notable players in the early years was Billie Jean King, who ended up serving several years as commissioner after she retired as a player. One of her friends was Elton, and it was for her that he and Bernie composed this song.

Recorded late in 1974, released in February of 1975 and curiously credited to "The Elton John Band" on the picture sleeve, it was a romping, stomping Philly soul track, complete with Gamble and Huff-style strings, and augmented by some abrasive guitar licks from Davey just to keep them honest. The Muscle Shoals Horns are also somewhere in the mix. It was yet another Elton cut that presaged the Disco music phenomenon that the Bee Gees and Chic took even further a year or two later. It is also a valentine to the USA from Bernie, who eventually came to live over here, as did Elton.

Of course, it wouldn't be Bernie without some sort of "Say what now" lyric, and the line about how the "...Whippoorwill of Freedom zapped me right between the eyes" serves very well in this case. But the chorus is an excellent piece of writing, especially if one is inclined to wax patriotic.

Even though I wasn't particularly crazy about this song as a teenager, and never was much for Disco music either in general, over the years this one has really grown on me and I never mind hearing it on the radio or on compliation albums.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Teacher I Need You

One quarter doowop, one quarter show tune, one quarter Chuck Berry, and one quarter Elton-pop, "Teacher" is Bernie's take on the age-old trope of the student that's in unrequited lust with his teacher- Van Halen took it to the bank eleven years later with "Hot for Teacher".

Prominent in the arrangement are Elton's cascading piano triplets, in tandem with the Davey/Dee/Nigel/EJ backing vocals whoa-oh-oh-ohing throughout, accompanied by subdued Mellotron, set to sound like horns and strings. I like they way they're recorded, with a spacey, echoing sound a la Spector.

As I recall, this was one of my favorite tracks when I first acquired Don't Shoot Me oh so long ago. It's not so much anymore, but it's still a fine track with a memorable melody.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Rocket Man (I Think It's Gonna Be a Long Long Time)

It's difficult to regard what is arguably Elton's most popular and well-known hit without acknowledging David Bowie's 1969 hit "Space Oddity", of which this seems to be a prequel, and Bernie's avowed inspiration, Ray Bradbury's short story "The Rocket Man", one of the tales included in his The Illustrated Man. I don't know how much Bowie's song was on their minds when they conceived this, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't there.

Lyrically, it's fairly simple, without a lot of the alienation-themed baggage of Bowie's song- an astronaut has mixed feelings about his job and how it affects his wife and children. Taupin comes up with some nicely evocative lines which get this across efficiently.

Instrumentation is pretty much the standard Davey/Dee/Nigel era band, with their excellent harmony on the backing vocals, and augmented by David Hentschel on synths. It's taken at a midtempo ballad style. One of the most effective parts of the song, at least to me, is towards the end when Taupin gets reflective with the lines "And all this science I don't understand/It's just my job five days a week/A rocket man...", Elton pauses for a beat after the word "science", while Hentschel plays a countermelody on the synth, eventually playing longer, more sustained notes to match Elton's held out words as he sings "A rocket- maaan". It's just a small moment, but it makes the astronaut's dilemma all the more poignant and sets up the chorus repetition on the fadeout.

Released in April 1972 in advance of Honky Chateau, "Rocket Man", surprisingly, wasn't a #1 hit- it went to #2 in the U.K. and #6 in the USA. But it's certainly had a long life afterwards, appearing in tons of films and television shows. And who can forget William Shatner's legendary version?

Sweet Painted Lady

We've established this much by now: Bernie was disapproving of whores, or at least he was in the lyrics he wrote. So naturally, anytime a prostitute or prostitution is the subject of one of his songs, you know you'll get lyrics like this:

Oh sweet painted lady
Seems it's always been the same
Getting paid for being laid
Guess that's the name of the game

But really, when you look at the words objectively, there's a romanticism and sentimentality that's missing from, say "Island Girl" or "You're So Static", and that gets this one across. It's written from the point of view of a sailor on shore leave, who is apparently ruminating on the ladies of the evening he and his mates avail themselves of while off the ship.

It helps that Elton crafted a lovely melody for the tune, with accordions gently swaying in the background, a somewhat bawdy-sounding trombone punctuating many of the lines, and of course his 3 AM honky-tonk-style piano carrying the rest.

In keeping with the not-specifically-stated but present nonetheless 30's-40's Hollywood movie feel of many of Yellow Brick Road's tracks, this one does conjure up a hundred and one shore-leave type B-movies of those years, and maybe Bing Crosby or Dean Martin might have been a suitable choice to sing it. At least in my mind, anyway...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Ho, Ho, Ho (Who'd Be a Turkey at Christmas)

If you thought "Step into Christmas" was slight...well, you should get a load of its B-side; it makes "Step" seem like "Rocket Man" in comparison.

Recorded at the same November 1973 sessions as "Step", and probably after many pints (among other substances) had been consumed, it's a very loose performance featuring silly lyrics that tell the story of a brandy-fueled encounter with Santa Claus, described as the "Bearded Weirdie":

On my roof there's snorting sounds, and bells inside my head
My vision's blurred with colour, and all he sees is red
There's a pair of large sized wellies coming down my flue
And the smell of burning rubber, oh is filling up the room

All sung in speeded-up and slowed-down voices, something like the fan club-only holiday songs the Beatles and especially John Lennon used to cook up. It's set to a lockstep "Bennie and the Jets" type tempo, and was probably a gas to record. To listen to, not so much, although it is hard not to smile once in a while at how goofy they're all being and how much fun they seem to be having.

Guess he got the urge to do holiday recordings out of his system with this and its A-side partner, because to my knowledge Elton never attempted to do another Christmas song, at least during his "classic" years.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Step into Christmas

At some point in their career, just about every performer of any consequence at all gets around to doing some sort of Christmas song and/or album, and this was Elton and Bernie's stab at writing a perennial. Didn't quite happen, but this isn't completely without merit.

It opens up with the standard Phil Spector Wall of Sound treatment- acoustic guitars strum, castanets and other percussion accentuate the beat, and everything sounds like it was recorded in a large, echo-laden hall. The beat is kept lively, and it boogies along agreeably, but Elton's melody is not the most memorable he's ever written even though the chorus is quite catchy, through repetition if nothing else- in fact, that's my biggest problem with this cut: it's about two minutes too long, and Elton & Co. simply sing and sing and sing the chorus over and over as if they have run out of song but don't know when to end it. Some judicious editing might have helped, is all I'm saying. He must have had some trouble with the key; Dudgeon speeds his voice up quite noticeably.

Lyrically, it's basically a thank-you to his fans, as it comes out of arguably his most successful period, late 1973, as well as an invitation to all listeners to indulge themselves in holiday revelry in front of their stereo speakers. I doubt Taupin spent much time on the words.

And say, since it's Christmas Eve, how about a little gift: here's a link to the promotional video clip they made for the single, in which the classic band, along with Bernie, mugs mercilessly for almost five minutes. Enjoy, and happy holidays to all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The King Must Die

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word "ostler" thusly:

Main Entry: hos·tler
Variant(s): also os·tler
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, innkeeper, hostler, from Anglo-French hosteler, from hostel
Date: 14th century

1: one who takes care of horses or mules
2: one who moves locomotives in and out of a roundhouse; also : one who services locomotives

I cite this because when I reflect on this, Elton John's closing track, I remember looking the word up in the dictionary because I had never heard of it before. How about that- pop music as educational tool! It also shows how hard Bernie must have hit the ol' thesaurus in those days, trying to find a) alternate ways of phrasing things; and b) a voice with which to express himself. Fortunately, he decided fairly early on that the pretentious road was not the one for him, and he managed to mostly avoid it for the rest of his writing career. I also have to wonder how much an influence Progressive Rock was on him at this time; the lyrics for this song strike me as perhaps an earnest, but clumsy, attempt to simulate the inspired wordplay of King Crimson's Peter Sinfield, via such efforts as "Epitaph". Elton had tried out for the slot of lead vocalist of the post-Greg Lake incarnation of Crimson; perhaps some other cross-pollination occurred, assuming Bernie was around and acquainted with the KC lyricist. Who knows.

"King"'s actual subject matter is not very clear; music press speculation at the time posited that it was an attack on Richard Nixon, but Bernie shot that theory down. It seems to be a meditation on being made humble by self-awareness or external forces, perhaps aimed at any number of targets: self, politicians, hard to say.

Elton sings this all in oh-so-serious serious fashion, playing piano backed with Paul Buckmaster strings and horns. The arrangement works, but flirts with self-parody and it's telling that the Elton/Bernie team pretty much abandoned this approach within the next couple of years.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Island Girl

In these would-be enlightened times, it's pretty common to see any mention of race in popular music or films or anything being decried as racist, as if mere acknowledgment deserves condemnation. The racist charge has often been levied against this, the first single from Rock of the Westies, but honestly I don't see it. If Bernie's guilty of anything, it's a slight air of condescension in the tone of his appraisal of the Jamaican prostitute whom he feels could and should be doing better things with her life, and the boyfriend she left behind who tells us all about her.

Elton affects a faux Jamaican accent as he sings, and combined with Bernie's attempts to imitate the patois, that practically guarantees that this will always remain on those "frequently misheard lyrics" lists that pop up here and there. The accompaniment mostly consists of James Newton Howard playing a lot of synths, some set to approximate steel drums, and the rhythm section of the post-Dee/Nigel band. Even though it was quite atypical for radio at the time, it's very catchy and wound up being a huge hit, despite its somewhat risque lyrical content.

Friday, December 21, 2007

All Across the Havens

"All Across the Havens" was the B-side of Elton's "Lady Samantha", released in January 1969.

It starts out with a twangy slide-guitar-and-piano-driven country-rock intro, which pops up again at certain intervals. The verses, though, are in a meandering, mid-tempo organ-enhanced Procol Harum mode.

Bernie's lyrics find him learning just how pretentious he could be and get away with it; while there are several self-consciously arty passages overall they're not bad. What it's about, well, your guess is as good as mine- it seems to be written from the point of view of a young man who's feeling guilt about things he's done, or the way he's treated his love, or something like that, and is seeking peace and forgiveness "across the havens to the waterfall". It's pretty typical of his Empty Sky-period output.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ballad of a Well-Known Gun

Bernie's telling Old West yarns again on this, Tumbleweed Connection's lead cut. The singer is a gunfighter who is wanted by the law- for what, it isn't specified although a "starving family" is mentioned in the chorus- and gets busted by the Pinkertons as he gets off a stagecoach. Apparently tired of being on the lam, he resigns himself to his fate.

Musicwise, Elton sets this in the default Tumbleweed Band/Dylan country-rock style, with chickenscratch guitar licks leading off and cowbell providing percussion throughout. This track is also another example of the really nice backing vocals he had on his early albums, featuring some of the best session singers of the day- and the back-and-forth between Elton and them as they repeat the chorus on the fadeout is very catchy.

I've always thought this was one of the best cuts on the album, even though lyrically it could have been sharper; lines like "I tapped my feet in dumb surprise" (say what now?) and "I couldn't have faced your desert sand/Old burning brown backed beast" (who the what the where?) kinda clunk it up a bit in my opinion, although Elton sings them convincingly.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Your Starter For...

By now, if you've been keeping up with what I've written on the subject, you know that the Blue Moves album was an album full of songs dealing with a significant amount of angst and bad feelings, recorded at a tumultuous time in the lives of both Elton and Bernie Taupin.

Often, the lead track on an album is designed to set the tone for the songs to follow. In this case, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

"Your Starter For..." is a sprightly, bouncy little one minute twenty three second instrumental ditty, dominated by the synths of James Newton Howard and written by guitarist Caleb Quaye. It couldn't be farther in tone from the morose vibe of the majority of the album's tracks.

I suppose it was felt that some lightening of mood was needed, considering the next, and first full-length cut, was the morose "Tonight"- which will be covered soon.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sugar on the Floor

Elton gets his Ray Charles on in this soulful piano ballad, recorded during the Rock of the Westies sessions at Caribou Ranch and eventually released as the B-side of "Island Girl" in both the US and UK.

Although its unfulfilled-relationship lyric content would seem like a Taupin warm-up for the angst of Blue Moves, it's actually credited to Elton's '75-'76 cohort Kiki Dee. Accompaniment is primarily John on piano, and Davey Johnstone contributes a Harrison-esque slide guitar solo in the middle.

Roy Rogers

Nostalgia and appreciation for the simple creature comforts of life are the foundation of "Roy Rogers", and it manages to simultaneously celebrate not only old Hollywood, specifically the Cowboy movies starring not only the titular star but Tom Mix and John Wayne (among many others), but also the act of enjoyment of same via lyrics like these:

You draw to the curtain and one thing's for certain
You're cozy in your little room
The carpet's all paid for, God bless the TV
Let's go shoot a hole in the moon

And of course, the chorus:

And Roy Rogers is riding tonight
Returning to our silver screens
Comic book characters never grow old
Evergreen heroes whose stories were told
Oh the great sequin cowboy who sings of the plains
Of roundups and rustlers and home on the range
Turn on the T.V., shut out the lights
Roy Rogers is riding tonight

To the Brown Dirt Cowboy, I'm sure that such films were a definite refuge from the realities of his younger days, as well as the pressures of his later life. It's a nicely written tribute/reminisce, and shows that he can be likable when he wants to be.

Elton helps make it work by casting it in a leisurely tempo, with (unsurprisingly) country-ish accompaniment (with the requisite sobbing steel guitar, by Davey Johnstone- interesting that no studio musicians such as Madman's B.J. Cole were called upon, signs of how comfortable John was with his band by this point) straight outta Tumbleweed Connection. Del Newman turns in another evocative orchestral arrangement.

Producer Gus Dudgeon chips in at the very end, adding hoofbeats fading off into the distance as the faint beginnings of the banjo intro of the next cut "Social Disease" begin. I'll get to that one at some point in the future. It's a nice segue.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Skyline Pigeon

This stately, inspirational track once again revisits the overriding theme of the Sky album, which is of course freedom and escape from restriction, oppression, and in the case of this lyric:

For this dark and lonely room
Projects a shadow cast in gloom
And my eyes are mirrors
Of the world outside
Thinking of the way
That the wind can turn the tide
And these shadows turn
From purple into grey

...boredom, perhaps.

As with GYBR's "Grey Seal", it was released in two different versions. The first, on Empty Sky, is performed solely by Elton on harpsichord, which makes it sound like some sort of processional. In 1972 it was decided to revisit the track, and it was recorded this time during the sessions for Don't Shoot Me (at the same session which begat "Crocodile Rock", "Elderberry Wine" and "Daniel") with full guitar/bass/drums band accompaniment, making it seem a little less baroque but no less hymnlike. This version didn't make it onto the Piano Player album, however, instead emerging as the b-side of "Daniel" in January 1973.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Screw You (Young Man's Blues)

As you can probably infer from the title, this is no "Your Song".

It's an angry-young-man lament, with the singer detailing the hard knocks he's had to endure, and expressing determination to succeed no matter what.

It's given a potpourri-type arrangement, starting out with a Byrds/Beatles 12-string style guitar-driven intro, mid-tempo with just a hint of feedback at the beginning- then it shifts to staccato guitar licks on the choruses. It's got a trademark mid-70's Beatle-harmonies-style middle section, and rocks out with keening sax as the song fades out in the last 2 minutes or so.

Relegated to the B-side of the "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" single and recorded sometime between the sessions for Don't Shoot Me and GYBR, it could have possibly been a good fit on the latter, and certainly would have perked up the first side of the former.

When it was released it was retitled "Young Man's Blues" to avoid controversy over the title.

Monday, December 3, 2007

If There's a God in Heaven (What's He Waiting For?)

In which millionaires Bernie and Elton decry the terrible state of the world in which we live, one in which they see

Torn from their families
Mothers go hungry
To feed their children
But children go hungry

and declare:

There's so many big men
They're out making millions
When poverty's profits
Just blame the children

This bit of myopia aside, Bernie's heart is in the right place, I think, and his outrage is certainly justified. He asks a tough question in the chorus:

If there's a God in Heaven
What's he waiting for
If He can't hear the children
Then he must see the war
But it seems to me
That he leads his lambs
To the slaughter house
And not the promised land

As Pop Philosophy goes, I've certainly read worse.

Elton sets this lament in a vaguely funky R&B-style setting, with slinky quasi-oriental strings in the instrumental bridge. While the acidic tone and the generally upbeat accompaniment would seem to work against each other, to my ears the blend quite well and this is a cut I've always liked from side 4.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Gotta Get a Meal Ticket

Of course, it was vital for Bernie & Elton to find someone to purchase and publish their songs in their early days, and this track details that desire, and the lengths they would go to to obtain it.

It's the hardest-rocking song on the soundtrack; while it's produced to within an inch of its life, with every rough edge sanded off, it still does work up an admirable head of steam. Johnstone's six-note riff is memorable, and his guitar work throughout is top notch.

I don't think it's exactly one of Elton's best, nor do I think it's a particularly memorable cut in regards to the John catalogue- but it does rock out agreeably, accomplishes what it sets out to do, and on the rare occasions when I give it a listen, I do find myself nodding along with it.