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 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.