Blue Moves by Elton John

September 2, 2009

1976 would find Elton John depressed, substance addicted, and the center of unwanted attention due to his sexuality. All the while, his professional relationship with long time lyricist, Bernie Taupin, was deteriorating. It was against this personal background that he released his second double album, Blue Moves.

It would be a long and somewhat rambling affair. It was also introspective and an unintended look into his troubled psyche. It was a lot less commercial that most of his past work and would be his first album since Honky Chateau not to reach number one in the United States.

I can’t help but think that it would have made a pretty good single disc release unlike his other double album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was solid from beginning to end.

So what songs should have made the cut if this had only been one disc?

“One Horse Town” is a tune about boredom; its textures are anything but, however. There is a sophisticated use of strings and the tempo goes through a number of complicated changes. “Chameleon,” which follows it, features some wonderful harmonies courtesy of some of the Beach Boys. “Cage The Songbird,” a semi-accurate biographical song about French singer Edith Piaf, is somewhat reminiscent of the tone that “Candle In The Wind” previously evoked. The vocal support by David Crosby and Graham Nash, in particular, help the song to soar.

“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” is a classic, if depressing, ballad about unfulfilled love and revenge, its single reaching the U.S. top ten. “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)” is a club-type track that comes close to disco in its sound, especially in the second half. It was also issued as a 12” single, which was typical of the time period. “Between Seventeen and Twenty” is a poignant song about the break-up of Bernie Taupin’s marriage although it could also be applied to his partnership with Elton John at the time. Finally, “Boogie Pilgrim” and “Crazy Water,” while average at best, are at least a little fun when compared to the rest of this release.

And that’s about it — a single album’s worth of good material culled from the original’s four sides.

Today Blue Moves is only for the serious Elton John aficionado. If you just want his best or are seeking an enjoyable listen then there are a number of studio albums and greatest hits compilations that are more worthy of your time.

Rock Of The Westies by Elton John

September 2, 2009

After the serious nature of his autobiographical album, Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy; Elton John returned in 1975 with a much more relaxed work. It would also be his hardest-rocking one to date.

Rock Of The Westies sounds as if Elton John is having some fun and most of its tracks come across as pleasant and enjoyable. His fans scooped it up upon its release and the album debuted in the number one position on the Billboard Magazine album charts in the United States. It would be his last number one album for almost twenty years.

After Captain Fantastic, the first four tracks on side one is this release are like a breath of fresh air. The opening “Medley” and “Dan Dare” have lightness and a raucous appeal to them. Can anyone say toga party? “Island Girl” — a song about a prostitute — is some of the best music of his career. The steel drums and Caribbean approach make it one of the better pop/rock concoctions of the mid-seventies, ultimately becoming his fifth number one hit single. “Grow Some Funk Of Your Own” is a hard-edged rock song in the same vein as “The Bitch Is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” The song is driven by Davey Johnstone’s guitar as he receives a rare songwriting credit.

The only serious song here is the one genuine ballad. “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)” is about the breakup of a relationship yet the lyrics cleverly use the Old West story of Robert Ford’s murder of Jesse James. It features a strong and soulful vocal and deservedly became a hit single.

Before I plucked this album from the shelf I could not have named one song from the second side. “Street Kids,” “Hard Luck Story,” and “Feed Me” may be lost in John’s vast catalog but they are nonetheless pleasant and enjoyable pop/rock. “Billy Bones and The White Bird” is a cut above the first three as the imagery is first rate.

Rock Of The Westies was Elton John’s eighth number one release in a row and concluded one of the greatest succession of albums in music history. He would continue to craft brilliant songs but would not achieve the overall consistency of these releases. Rock Of The Westies may not be the best of the lot but it still holds up very well.

Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy

August 31, 2009

Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy is an album I respect and one I consider to be possibly the most creative of Elton John’s career. It is also an album that I rarely, if ever, listen to as John has a number of releases that are just more entertaining and enjoyable.

This is a concept album. He and his musical partner, Bernie Taupin, created this autobiographical opus about their early problems pursuing a career in music. As such it is an intimate and mature affair, with music and lyrics that are both complicated and sophisticated. It is in stark contrast to the albums which preceded it, especially his huge selling Greatest Hits, which was a seemingly random collection of many of his hit singles.

It may not have sold as well as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road but many of his fans embraced the release as it continued his string of number one albums in the United States. The critical reaction was positive and Rolling Stone Magazine ultimately ranked it at number 158 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

There was only one single issued, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” which was a huge hit and dealt with a suicide attempt and recovery by Elton John. Its music is almost symphonic yet it is, above all, a haunting look at the breakdown of a relationship.

I find the title track catchy country/rock but the two songs that follow, “Tower Of Babel” and “Bitter Fingers,” are biting criticisms of record companies. The irony of course is that he would later become a label owner himself.

“Writing” is a mid-seventies look at him wondering how long he could sustain his success. The answer would be the rest of his life.

The final two tracks contain some of the best piano work of his career. “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” and “Curtains” are possibly the two best tracks on the album.

Early CD reissues were enhanced by the inclusion of two of his biggest hit singles. “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” made the release much stronger musically but on the other hand they did not match its theme.

Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy may not be the most accessible Elton John album but it is by far the most personal and allows the listener a look into the psyche of one of the most talented musicians of his generation.

Greatest Hits By Elton John

August 31, 2009

Elton John spent one month inside a studio in January 1974 to record Caribou before setting off on a world tour. In order to keep him in the public eye, he and his label decided to release a Greatest Hits album. It was a wise decision as it would become his biggest selling album with 24,000,000 copies sold. And it was the number one album in the United States for ten weeks.

By 1974 Elton John had amassed a large number of hit singles and ten of them were gathered to create this release. When looking at the tracklisting, each one is instantly recognizable thirty-five years later and still forms part of the foundation of his live act.

The album is also an indication of what a formidable presence he was on radio play lists. This was during the era when singles mattered both financially and for publicity. Even people who did not buy his studio albums would be familiar with these songs and more likely to purchase them all together, which is exactly what happened.

“Your Song” was from his first release in the U.S. and was originally the B-side of the “Take Me To The Pilot” single until radio disc jockeys flipped the record over. It is a gentle and innocent love ballad which set the tone for many more that would follow. “Border Song,” a gospel tinged track complete with a choir, was the other early inclusion.

I am always amazed that “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” could come from the same studio album. The first is 1970’s soft rock at its best and the second is just a wonderful foray into explosive rock ‘n’ roll.

“Honky Cat” is a song that has grown on me over the years. John delivers a jazzy vocal and some of the best piano work of his career. Its lack of guitar is made up for by its creative use of a horn section. “Rocket Man” continues to build and soar almost four decades after its release. When you add in “Daniel,” “Bennie and The Jets,” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” you have an album with no weak tracks.

The great ’50s-sounding romp, “Crocodile Rock,” brings the set to a close. It’s infectious, nostalgic, and upbeat, all of which allowed it to spend three weeks as the number one song in the U.S. in early 1973.

When this album was released in 1974 it made for an appealing compilation and millions flocked to purchase it. Vinyl copies can still be easily found at flea markets and tag sales. While it has been superseded by more extensive and complete greatest hits compilations by Elton John over the years; if you want a glimpse of his very best, then this is the place to start.

Caribou by Elton John

August 31, 2009

1973 was probably Elton John’s most creative and commercially successful year. Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road both topped the charts, produced hit singles, and sold in the combined neighborhood of 24 million copies.

1974 found him preparing for a grand world tour and so Caribou was, in effect, a hurried and less ambitious affair. As such it didn’t have the creative consistency of the previous year’s two albums despite being brilliant in some places. Nevertheless, it marked his fourth consecutive Number One album in the United States.

Two classic songs tower above the rest of the material. “The Bitch Is Back” is one of his best known and enduring rock songs. The title came from a comment by Bernie Taupin’s wife about an Elton John rant. The guitar introduction is classic and the energetic vocal is backed by the legendary Tower Of Power brass section. And Dusty Springfield provides some of the memorable background vocals. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” is a timeless love song, featuring background vocals by Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, and Toni Tennille. It made a return on the charts in 1991 as a live duet with George Michael.

The rest of the album is a pick-and-choose affair but none of the songs measure up to the aforementioned two and, when taken together, make for an average group at best. “Pinky” has a nice melody but for once Taupin’s lyrics failed to match the quality of the music. “Ticking” is a piano based story song about a teenager on a shooting rampage. “I’ve Seen The Saucers,” whose title is self explanatory, and “Grimsby” which is about a man and a boat and not much else are both entirely forgettable.

The CD reissue of this album benefits from two of its bonus tracks. John’s cover of “Pinball Wizard” is memorable and well done. Also included is his Christmas song, “Step Into Christmas,” which is campy yet infectious.

In the final analysis Caribou remains an average listen at best and aside from the few better tracks is mostly forgettable.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John

August 29, 2009

1973 was a good year for Elton John. January found him releasing Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player. It sold millions of copies as it and its lead single, “Crocodile Rock,” both reached Number One on their respective American charts. It established him as a formidable creative and commercial presence.

Ten months later he returned with his grand opus.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road would ultimately become one of the best-selling studio albums in music history, confirming Elton John’s status as one of pop music’s leading superstars.

Elton John has issued close to forty albums but this may be his most famous. It was originally released as a double album and is a rare effort where the quality of music actually warrants two discs. As such it is a sprawling affair that ranges from tender, simple ballads to all-out rock ‘n’ roll. Many of its songs still receive radio play today and are among the most famous in pop history.

The album is fueled by three memorable songs that became successful singles. “Bennie and The Jets” marked his second release to top the singles charts. Its staccato rhythm and almost jazz-type vocal help it endure as one of his his signature songs. The title track is a grand ballad and seventies music at its best. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” just rocks from beginning to end. I saw Elton John perform this song live a number of years ago and it was the highlight of the concert.

“Candle In The Wind” received a lot of airplay at the time of the album’s release. This gentle and sensitive ballad was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, yet in 1997 it was re-worked as a tribute to Princess Diana and became one the biggest-selling worldwide singles in history.

The album contains a number of other strong tracks as well. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is bluesy, mellow, and brilliant soft rock. “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll)” is a nostalgic trip back to the days of sock hops. The opening track, “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” checks in at over eleven minutes and is one of the longer recordings of his career. The instrumental introduction segues into a song about the end of an affair. The song’s length allows him to stretch and experiment as the music ebbs and flows. Finally, “Roy Rogers” is a cinematic tribute to old television heroes and movies.

Elton John’s career and music flow through this album. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road remains one of the classic releases in pop history and is still more than worth the price of admission.

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player by Elton John

August 29, 2009

Song for song this may be my favorite Elton John studio release. Bernie Taupin and Elton John created an album aimed at popularity and they had me the first time I heard “Crocodile Rock” played on the radio. And popular it was as it became his second consecutive Number One album in the United States, selling in the vicinity of eight million copies.

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player builds on the musical foundation laid down on Honky Chateau. It would continue his move in a pop/rock direction and away from his early work which primarily presented him as a piano-based balladeer and crooner.

The album features some of the best lyrical imagery of Bernie Taupin’s career. Many of the songs create pictures in your mind that stay with you.

There is also innocence about it. This is helped by the album’s sparse production which adds to its overall charm.

Prior to the dominance of album only radio, singles were an important part of pop music. They drove sales for many artists as they received more and more airplay. Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player produced two of the most commercially successful and memorable single hits of Elton John’s career. “Crocodile Rock” is a song that I have never grown tired of listening to. It is basic rock ‘n’ roll and has a wonderful fifties feel. It is up-tempo, catchy, and nostalgic as it looks back to a happy time that is long gone. This piano driven track would be the first Number One single of his career. “Daniel” would be almost as successful as it would reach Number Two. This mid-tempo ballad was a poignant tribute to a returning Vietnam War veteran.

There are number of other quality tracks to be explored. “Elderberry Wine” was the B-side to the “Crocodile Rock” single, making it one of the better two-sided releases of the seventies. It is post-Beatles pop at its best. John’s piano work and bluesy vocal push this melodic song along. “Midnight Creeper” is about as hard as Elton John rocks. “High Flying Bird” closes the album on a haunting and beautiful note.

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player remains one of his better studio releases. It confirmed that he was a musical artist of note as the consistency of his material and high quality of his performances are excellent. Released in January of 1973, it set the table for one of the most popular albums of all time which followed only ten months later.

Honky Chateau by Elton John

August 29, 2009

The release of Honky Chateau in May of 1972 signaled Elton John’s emergence as one the most popular artists in the world, a status he has maintained for nearly four decades. It marked the first of seven consecutive Number One albums in the United States, all of which would ultimately sell close to seventy million copies.

Elton John also began to take his sound in a different direction. Gone was the piano balladeer and in its place was the pop/rock artist. While he would continue to produce elegant and beautiful ballads, his up-tempo material would be more energetic than in the past and would have some musical bite.

This is also the first album where guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson were recognized as his personal band. Their contributions to his live and studio sound over the years cannot be underestimated.

It may be that he and Bernie Taupin purposely set out to create a more commercial sound but whatever their intent they succeed in producing an accessible album that crossed musical styles and appealed to several generations of music buyers.

Honky Chateau was propelled by two songs that became huge singles and, in time, classics. “Honky Cat” has almost a New Orleans bar feel with some great piano work and its staccato beat. It still makes me smile. “Rocket Man” is one of his eternal songs as it just soars. The lyrics were about an astronaut leaving his family behind but it is his vocal that gives it an almost sonic feel.

The album concludes with two excellent but often over looked tracks. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” is a ballad as beautiful as anything he would ever create. “Hercules” is just five minutes of powerful rock which further proved that he was moving in a new musical direction.

The other track that deserves mention is “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself” as it’s music and message run counterpoint to each other. In addition, how many times do you get honky-tonk piano, spoons, and a tap-dancing sound in one song?

Honky Chateau is a wonderful album that has stood the test of time as it remains one of the better releases of its era.

Madman Across The Water by Elton John

August 28, 2009

Madman Across The Water was the third studio album released by Elton John in the United States and the second in a row that did not contain any big hits. Despite the lack of successful singles, however, it would sell over three million copies. While this would be his least successful studio album until 1979’s Victim of Love, it was still a breakthrough release as it established him as a commercial force to be reckoned with.

I have to admit that this album is not one of my favorites. It contains four excellent tracks and a number of average ones. What it does have going for it, though, is lyrical precision and the use of strings and orchestra to enhance its sound. It also contains some excellent piano work by Elton John.

John surrounded himself with a stellar cast of musicians in the studio. Drummer Nigel Olsson, bassist Dee Murray, and guitarist Davey Johnstone all appear on various tracks, forming what would become the core of John’s concert band for years. Chris Spedding and Rick Wakeman also make notable contributions.

Two songs were released as singles and while neither cracked the American Top Twenty they would eventually become well-known. “Tiny Dancer,” which eventually gained a wider audience as a part of the soundtrack to the Oscar nominated film Almost Famous, is a beautiful love song with a chorus that just propels it along. It is early seventies pop at its best. “Levon” contained another smooth vocal and was one of the first social statements of his career.

There are two other songs of note. The title track is haunting and melodic as it rocks smoothly along. And “Indian Sunset” is a soaring story song about the Native Americans during the Colonial period.

The remaining five tracks fall into the average to forgettable range. “All The Nasties” is both beautiful and odd but the use of a choir is a distraction. “Razor Face,” “Rotten Peaches,” and “Holiday Inn” are all up-tempo but they pale in comparison to what would follow during the next several years.

Madman Across The Water found Elton John gathering himself as an artist as his next seven albums would all reach Number One, selling close to seventy million copies. Ultimately it remains a flawed album and often overlooked which is probably as it should be given that his catalog is one of the best in music history.

Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John

August 28, 2009

Tumbleweed Connection is not one of the more familiar albums in the Elton John catalog. This may be due to the fact that it contained no hugely successful or memorable hit singles. What it did present, however, was an album of solid songs that deserve more exposure than they’ve received.

The album is noted for its excellent production which allows the acoustic guitar playing and particularly the piano work to shine. Just about each note is crystal clear, providing a stunning background for the vocals.

Tumbleweed Connection is above all an intimate affair that allows the listener to connect to the music on a personal level. The sound just envelops you and draws you in.

“Ballad Of A Well Known Gun” is a bluesy rocker that begins the album on a positive note. This story about a gunslinger at the end of his life is a lost Elton John gem.

“Come Down In Time” is a nice ballad but is also a rare song in that there is no piano present. It is an acoustic guitar sound that propels his gentle vocal along.

“My Father’s Gun” is an epic Civil War tale by a master storyteller (Bernie Taupin). This story of sailing down the Mississippi comes alive through the artistry of Elton John.

“Love Song” is another unusual track, especially at this time in his career, in that it was not written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Penned by Lesley Duncan, the tune is another beautiful ballad with an acoustic guitar in support. Elton’s vocal skims lightly along the surface of the backing sound.

“Talking Old Soldiers” is another song of looking back at youth, this one featuring an emotional vocal that tells the story of a lonely veteran. The piano provides the musical foundation and moves the song along nicely.

“Burn Down The Mission” — arguably the album’s best-known track — is a grand epic and is almost cinematic in scope. This track would be a part of John’s stage act for years and its tempo changes are among the most interesting of his entire career.

Tumbleweed Connection is mostly a peaceful album yet there are some surprises along the way. The songs fit together well and still provide a nice listen 39 years after its release.