Thursday, April 03, 2014

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

File:Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.jpg

To anybody under the age of thirty (Sir) Elton John is probably best known as the composer of music for the funeral of the 'People's Princess' but there was a time, long, long, ago, when he was the biggest pop star in the world. 

Between May 1972 and October 1975 EJ had six consecutive Number One albums in the United States, three of which made Number One in the U.K, two of the other three peaking at the Number Two position. In the same period he made the Billboard Top Ten singles chart on nine occasions, including three Number One singles - the Americans seemed to get his act a lot more than we did here in Blighty where his only, pre funeral Number One, was a duet with Kiki Dee in the long hot summer of 1976. He was at a strange place in terms of his public appeal, he could sell records by the lorry load but admitting that you actually liked him was like saying you fancied the chemistry teacher when everybody knew it was the French teacher who was the hot one, why would you like Elton John when there was T.Rex or Bowie or the nascent Roxy Music?

The answer was that Elton John was the closest we had in Britain to the American troubadour singer, he was James Taylor with platforms, Don McLean with stupid glasses, his melodies put to Bernie Taupin's lyrics were knowing, capable of both subtlety and pastiche, he recorded songs that demanded that you listen to them, seated in front of your stereo or in the arms of somebody you had a crush on - urban myth had it in 1972 that two of my classmates had 'snogged' all the way through Side One of Honky Chateau, all twenty two minutes of it!  

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded in France and London during the Spring of 1973, released that Autumn it reached Number One on both sides of the Atlantic. Two things stand out from that time, looking back now as the fortieth anniversary edition hits the shops (or Internet outlets), firstly the fact that the album was being recorded barely a couple of months after his previous album, "Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player' had made Number One and secondly the fact that, despite such a prolific output during the early seventies, this was a double album. 'Double's were pretty much de rigueur for rock artists, from The Who via Hendrix to ELP, The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, The Allman Brothers and onto Led Zeppelin but for non-rock artists the field of double albums was limited to Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and of course a certain 'White Album'.

GYBR was EJ's seventh album and whilst Honky Chateau, released in May 1972 and the second of four albums released in under two years, is considered the peak of the John/Bernie Taupin songwriting axis this double, or seven tracks from it, runs it a pretty close second in my opinion.  Part of the success of the album and its enduring legacy is down to the production of Gus Dudgeon and the engineering of David Hentschel, coupled with the fact that Elton's 'band' of Dee Murray (bass), Davey Johnstone (guitars) and Nigel Olsson (drums) really were a tight outfit and this was the third of five consecutive albums that they would be the core musicians and it shows.

The album opens with the double header 'Funeral for a Friend'/Love Lies Bleeding'. Coming in at just over eleven minutes it is longer than the careers of most X Factor winners and is much a product of its time as anything on the album. It's all pomp and circumstance to begin with, almost slipping into prog. rock before happenstance, the first song ends in the key of A and the second starts in A apparently, takes over and we have a traditional rock song about love, death and musical differences. Incidentally I can't be the only one who smiles at the line, "But my guitar couldn't hold you so I split the band" being a nod in the direction of Ziggy Stardust and the line, " When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band"  - or perhaps I am.

Track Two on the album is 'Candle In The Wind' a track that for most of the past sixteen years has been almost unlistenable and unlistened to by me due to its association with that funeral. However in the interests of fair play I revisited a track that had meant so much to me during my early teenage years and it still sounds good, perhaps I will play it again in 2031.

Bennie and The Jets closed Side One of the original vinyl release, opening with crowd noises from a Jimi Hendrix concert it was one of the most popular of all EJ tracks at the time being a hit in the US singles charts and I can remember it being played at every school or youth club disco I went to in those pre-punk days.

Side Two of the vinyl album, and track four of all CD and download releases, opens with the albums title track and is probably Elton John's finest three minutes as a vocalist. Taupin's lyrics have been examined extensively over the years, who are they about? what are they about? etc. Given that we know Bernie Taupin was fascinated by the Wizard of Oz and that Elton John himself despised the adulation that was given to him simply for him being himself I think the songs meaning isn't too difficult to fathom - it's about rejecting style over substance, rejecting the empty wealth that often accompanies those with little genuine talent and it is therefore as relevant today in its 'clear as mud' message as it was when recorded over forty years ago.

'This Song Has No Title' and 'Grey Seal' are the last two tracks before the album seems to suffer from 'mid-album' fatigue. The former might not have a title but it has some great lines:  
"Tune me in to the wild side of life
I'm an innocent young child sharp as a knife
Take me to the garretts where the artists have died
Show me the courtrooms where the judges have lied
Let me drink deeply from the water and the wine
Light coloured candles in dark dreary mines
Look in the mirror and stare at myself
And wonder if that's really me on the shelf
And each day I learn just a little bit more
I don't know why but I do know what for
If we're all going somewhere let's get there soon
Oh this song's got no title just words and a tune"
The problem with youth is that you have very little in the way of life experience and you take what you are given, or what life deals you, mainly on face value. It is only as you grow that you become more 'wordly' or cynical - listening to this album with fresh ears its clear that the three tracks that open side two of the old vinyl release really are reflecting how difficult it was for Bernie Taupin to deal with the express train that was fame during those highly successful years between 1972 and 1974.
'Grey Seal' was used as a theme tune by the BBC back in 1986 for a programme about the history of the World Cup. Again, as with the two previous tracks, it contains a verse which seems to suggest that Bernie Taupin felt a little out of his depth in the exalted company he was now keeping as Pinner's very own Reg Dwight became a global superstar.    
"I never learned why meteors were formed
I only farmed in schools that were so warn and torn
If anyone can cry then so can I
I read books and draw life from the eye
All my life is drawings from the eye"
'Jamaica Jerk-Off'' hasn't survived the intervening forty years as well as some of its track mates and there's no doubt that some would find the cod-Jamaican accent of the backing singers slightly offensive. Forget those claims, the track simply isn't very good and it is what the forward button on your remote was designed for.

'I've Seen That Movie Too' closes Side Two of the vinyl and is a traditional love song about break-up and deception all told using the not to subtle metaphor of B movies, it's also the second longest track on the album coming it at a second under six minutes.

One of the things that has always fascinated and horrified me in equal measure over the years has been Elton John's tendency to sing in a cod-American accent. I fully understand the reasons why, he grew up in an era and musical tradition where to get on you had to either sing like Elvis or if you sang the blues you had to sound as if you'd eaten grits for breakfast but it still sounds bizarre.

Whilst the opening two sides of the old vinyl release still sound good side three sounds awful and hasn't survived the test of time. 'Sweet Painted Lady' is cringey, a product of its time. Back in 1974 I went to see Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel in concert, the audience was 90% teenage girls, perfect for me as I was 100% teenage boy, but the support were a band called Sailor best remembered, if indeed remembered at all, for a song called Glass of Champagne. Most of Sailor's songs were about prostitution, sex and generally being a sailor on leave in a town that consisted mainly of bars and bordellos - 'Sweet Painted Lady' is in that tradition of 'tart with a heart' - the repeated line - 'Getting paid for being laid' would have 'Mothers against anything slightly suggestive' reaching for their twitter and Mumsnet accounts.

'The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)' is the story of a fictional gangster, a born and raised Robin Hood type character from Kentucky. What makes this song just about bearable is the melody and piano playing style of Elton John which fit perfectly in with the lyrics.

'Dirty Little Girl' and 'All The Girls Love Alice' are the songs making up the second half of side three. The former is, like 'Sweet Painted Lady', a misogynistic product of its time made worse than it should be, if that's possible, by the 'dirty old man' vocal style Elton John decides to use, reminiscent of Mick Jagger at his grubbiest.

'All The Girls Love Alice' must have been Bernie Taupin's fantasy about teenage lesbians and you can't wait for it to finish so you can wash your ears out after listening it really is that grubby. Given the sensitive times we live in I can't help thinking that somebody releasing a song with the following lyrics in 2014 would expect a visit from Operation Yewtree: 

"And who could you call your friends down in Soho
One or two middle-aged dykes in a Go-Go
And what do you expect from a sixteen year old yo-yo
And hey, hey, hey, oh don't you know".

Having disinfected our ears, Ipods  and anything else that has come in contact with Side Three of the vinyl (or tracks 7-12 of the CD/digital release) we are on the home straight, just six tracks and eighteen minutes to go.

In the among the eighteen tracks that make up the original album are nine that probably shouldn't have been there had some sort of stringent quality control been in place, in fact both its predecessor 'Don't Shoot Me..." and the subsequent release 'Caribou' had ten tracks that left you wanting more, with GYBR I never played the third side of the album and the only track that got a regular playing on Side Four was 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting' a departure from the usual ballad AOR style that suited Elton John well throughout his career.

'Roy Rogers', 'Social Disease' and 'Harmony' conclude the album although I doubt anybody bothered playing any of them more than once either on original release or in one of the subsequent releases.

At seventy six minutes long and with sales in excess of thirty million worldwide this represents the possible artistic and certainly commercial peak of Elton John's career, the problem is that there is more filler than killer. Elton John once said that GYBR was his 'White Album' and in many respects he is right, that was an album that was two sides quality and two sides overblown rambling rubbish by an artist at the peak of their powers who thought they could record and sell anything to a record buying public in thrall to their every utterance. What a pity he didn't set the bar higher and imagine he was recording his own version of 'Blonde on Blonde' an album that some forty nine years after its release still has me looking (and listening) for the duff track, I mean surely his Bobness must have recorded one in among those fourteen gems.

He recorded better albums both before and after this but if he had only recorded and released the first six tracks plus 'Saturday Night' we would have had an album of seven very good tracks and a true musical legacy rather than one that has seven very good tracks and ten really not worth ever playing again tracks.    


Span Ows said...

Great informative post. I have always liked Elton John (no!) mainly because he was the local boy, lived half a mile from me and my local was where he first played piano in public; The Northwood Hills pub (of course I was too young to be drinking at 3 years old when he was actually playing there!), a photo of which - and the NH tube station - are on the Captain Fantastic album cover.

Span Ows said...

there you go:

Paul said...

Thanks Span. I think most people liked him before punk came along, he did write some good melodies that stand up to repeated listening.

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