Reg Strikes Back by Elton John

September 11, 2009

Leather Jackets was two years in the past and Victim Of Love had been mercifully fading from memory. Reg Strikes Back, issued in 1988, was billed as Elton John’s big comeback album.

The comeback technically started in 1987 with the release of two non-studio releases. Greatest Hits Volume 3 served as Elton’s last release for the Geffen label while also keeping him in the public eye. Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra marked his return to the MCA Label, becoming a huge hit in the United States as it produced a top ten single with a live version of “Candle In The Wind.” And so it was against this background that he returned to the studio.

Reg Strikes Back became a hit, selling over ten million copies worldwide. It used his classic formula of containing two hits singles which, as they received massive airplay, drove its overall sales.

Elton John produced a very consistent album here. It had the tone and textures of his seventies work and, while it may not have contained the overall quality of that time period’s music, it was still very good.

Side one of the original vinyl release is just terrific. “Town Of Plenty,” which is the lead track, is a simple up-tempo song on which Elton sounds engaged and at ease. He had undergone vocal surgery before the recording of this album but his vocal on this track shows that everything is fine. “A Word In Spanish,” which is a nice and mellow love song, became a top twenty hit in the States. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (Part Two)” is a continuation of the 1972 song of the same title. Here, however, the music and song structure is very different and has almost a funky feel. Davey Johnstone’s work on the mandolin is some of the best of his career.

The final two songs are as good as anything he and Bernie Taupin ever produced together. They are classic cases where good lyrics and music come together. “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” was his biggest hit in a decade, reaching number two. It returns to the topic of a relationship falling apart and Elton’s piano playing looks back to his best work. “Japanese Hands” is sultry, erotic, and almost as good.

Side two is a little spottier. “Goodbye Marlon Brando” is at least interesting as it is a frenetic rocker. The album closer, “Since God Invented Girls,” is a wonderful tribute to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and features lush harmonies. The three tracks in the middle are the weak points of the album. “The Camera Never Lies,” “Heavy Traffic,” and “Poor Cow” all suffer from either weak lyrics or music, barely falling into the average range.

Reg Strikes Back was indeed a credible comeback by Elton John. It proved that as the ’80’s were coming to a close he could still produce relevant and entertaining music. It also looked ahead to the ’90’s when he would create some very good music indeed.

Leather Jackets by Elton John

September 9, 2009

If you ranked all of Elton John’s studio albums, Leather Jackets would land in the bottom three. It was an album the American public did not appreciate or buy in great quantities as it was his lowest charting album, only reaching number 91 on the charts. Elton himself would ultimately pronounce it his least favorite album.

His contract with the Geffen label was running out and neither he nor the company were particularly happy with the relationship. It may have been that he submitted this release to fulfill his contractual obligations. Even still, he owed the label one subsequent album, to which Geffen wisely released Greatest Hits Volume 3.

The album credits and information read like an encyclopedia. There was even a person in charge of programming all manner of synthesizers, which was not a good sign. Elton played very little piano and thus the keyboards had an impersonal and mechanical ’80’s sound. The long list of instrumentalists and singers did not bode well either as the tracks lacked cohesiveness and consistency.

He had already issued several average albums in the 1980’s by this point, but those efforts were ultimately saved by one or two superior songs that became hit singles. No such luck here. “Heartache All Over The World” was one of the best of a mediocre batch of material but it could not crack the American top forty. It is upbeat and somewhat catchy but ultimately the song is lost in the company it keeps on this album.

I find only two more really listenable tracks. “Slow Rivers” is an adequate ballad. What made the song unique was the duet with English legend Cliff Richard. “Paris” is almost good but it has a somewhat unfinished feel to it.

On the other hand, “Gypsy Heart” and “Hoop of Fire” are tepid ballads. “Don’t Trust That Woman” is a dance track with lyrics by Cher and one can only ask why?

Leather Jackets is an album best avoided unless you want absolutely everything released by Elton John. The music is faceless and forgettable. It makes me yearn for Victim Of Love. Well, almost!

Ice On Fire by Elton John

September 9, 2009

Elton John continued to issue an album per year and by 1985 his eighties output, past and future, was beginning to sound like one continuous release. It all amounted to a little good, a lot of average and forgettable, as well as a few misses altogether. It all added up to presentable efforts — some good, lots of them average and forgettable, and a few misses — but nowhere near the quality of their classic seventies predecessors.

Ice On Fire is an album grounded in the sounds of the mid-eighties with glossy, slick production plus a reliance upon synthesizers. It just seemed like music that Elton John and Bernie Taupin could crank out without much effort.

Elton again abandoned the core-band concept and the list of musicians used on this work seems almost endless. Roger Taylor and John Deacon of Queen, Deon Estus, George Michael, and a large cast of supporting players provided the instrumental backing. Only guitarist Davey Johnstone remained from his stellar backing band of the past.

The best track by far was the hit single “Nikita.” This ballad, which would reach number seven on the American charts, was a love song about a homosexual crush on an East German border guard. The accompanying video misinterpreted the song’s meaning, however, and starred a blonde woman as the guard. Nevertheless, Elton John’s vocal and the backing by George Michael are first rate on the track.

A lot of the material on this album has very dark lyrics. “Shoot Down The Moon” is about being killed in an attempted robbery. There is a ballad dealing with falling in love but with someone who turns out to be underage. “Cry To Heaven” is another ballad that deals with the dark side of life. All in all, it’s not exactly the most uplifting listening experience.

“Wrap Her Up,” the longest track at over six minutes, is an eighties time capsule, the dance track proving popular in the United States. While it has a dated feel today, when compared to what was being released at the time it comes off as pretty good.

Ice On Fire is far from being a grand epic. It is competent eighties pop/rock but more was always expected of Elton John. As such it is a forgettable release in his vast catalog.

Breaking Hearts by Elton John

September 9, 2009

Elton John had been cranking out at least a studio album per year for over a decade and sometimes you have to wonder about his commitment and interest level. 1984’s Breaking Hearts would be a solid affair, but would not have the highs of 1983’s Too Low For Zero or the consistency of 1982’s Jump Up.

Despite its plodding nature at times, it would be a commercial success reaching the ten million mark in sales. While it would only reach number twenty in The United States, It would climb to number two in his native England.

Except for an appearance by saxophone player Andrew Thompson on one track; the only musicians featured on the album were Elton and his core band of guitar player Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson. This would be the last hurrah for the trio as Olsson would depart after this release before returning in 2000 as Elton’s drummer in the studio and on stage.

Murray would die of skin cancer in 1992 at the age of 45. Jonestone, Murray, and Olsson deserve all the credit they receive for their work as his backing group on many of his classic albums and memorable songs. Johnstone and Olsson continue to perform and record with John to the present day.

He and lyricist Bernie Taupin would create only two really excellent songs. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” is catchy, smooth, and one of his rare creations to be recorded in waltz time. This tune about listening to old songs on the radio and another tribute to Edith Piaf, was a huge hit reaching number five on the American charts. “In Neon” is a wonderful, if somewhat forgotten love song, and is equal to his best eighties work.

The solid nature of the album encompasses most of the material. “Restless” is a traditional rock song that has a typical 1980’s synthesizer sound. It would become a part of his concert act for years, but was played live at a faster pace with the guitar as the dominant instrument making it much better than this studio version. “Passengers” may have been a tad quirky, but it was a top five hit in his home country. The title song and “Burning Bridges” are both love songs that are adequate, if not spectacular.

The poorest of the ten tracks, “Who Wears These Shoes,” was inexplicably released as a single. Elton John had a knack for issuing his best and strongest songs as singles which usually garnered significant radio airplay. But here he made one of his few poor decisions as the song failed miserably.

Breaking Hearts is not offensive in any way but is probably not an album that will often grace many turntables or CD players as there are so many more superior releases in his catalog.

Too Low For Zero by Elton John

September 8, 2009

Elton John would begin his 1980’s comeback with 1982’s very solid Jump Up. The comeback continued a year later with the release of Too Low For Zero.

He would reach back into his past for this album. Bernie Taupin would return to full time duty and provide all the lyrics. Their relationship continues to the present day. He also reassembled his classic backing band from the seventies. Guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson quickly slipped back into their roles as a great supporting cast of players.

While some of the material may fall into the average range; there were three classic songs that made the album a must buy and still make it an interesting listen over a quarter of a century later. Elton John and producer Chris Thomas recognized the superiority of these tracks as all were released as singles and would become worldwide hits.

“I’m Still Standing” was an upbeat song about still being around after all these years. This hit single is still popular and remains a part of his live show. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” is as good a ballad as he has produced and remains one of his most popular eighties songs. Using only his basic band and some harmonica playing by Stevie Wonder it would reach number four on the American charts.

“Kiss The Bride” is probably the forgotten one of the three singles but remains my personal favorite. It features some nice rock ‘n’ roll and is about falling in love with the bride as she walks down the aisle. It reminds me of the great Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds song “I Knew The Bride.”

There are a couple other songs of interest. “Cold As Christmas (In The Middle Of The Year)” is one of those songs where the music and lyrics do not match. It is melodic with some wonderful vocal phrasing yet the words tell the story of a failing relationship. The title song is more of the same as it has a great beat and chorus yet the lyrics are about depression and boredom.

The only real miss among the ten tracks is “Whipping Boy” which is about masochism and musically is repetitive which is not the best combination.

Too Low For Zero is an under appreciated release that is often lost in his vast catalog. It is an album with some real high points plus a good supporting cast. It deserves a listen every now and then.

Jump Up by Elton John

September 8, 2009

Elton John returned in April of 1982 with one of his most consistent albums of the 1980s. He seemed to be more relaxed and at ease with himself and the overall quality of the material reflected these facts.

The quality of the album was helped by the part time return of his long time lyricist Bernie Taupin who co-wrote five of the ten tracks. Gary Osborne was on board for four tracks but it was the one song co-written with Tim Rice that would look ahead to the future. While “Legal Boys” was a witty if forgettable tune about divorce; it was the beginning of a relationship which would lead to The Lion King in 1997 and Aida in 1998.

Today Jump Up is best remembered for the two hit singles it produced. “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” was a moving tribute to John Lennon who had been murdered in December of 1980. Lennon’s last live appearance had been on stage at an Elton John concert and this poignant song was about an empty Madison Square Garden. “Blue Eyes” would become a number one adult contemporary hit which was a direction in which his music would move as the decade passed. It featured one of the lower register vocals of his career. Both songs would echo some of his classic singles from the seventies.

The most ambitious track was “All Quiet On The Western Front.” It combined sophisticated lyrics from Taupin and building music from John as it told a tale of the First World War.

The rest of the tracks are at least solid. “Spiteful Child” features some tasty guitar licks from Pete Townshend. “Princess” is a romantic pop ballad that may not be of the quality of his best work but it is still above average for the time period. Even the somewhat odd “I Am Your Robot” contains some good rock ‘n’ roll.

While Jump Up may be somewhat forgotten given the excellence of his vast catalogue; it does remain a very good effort. It catches him at a point when he had become comfortable with the second part of his career and was producing good music again on his own terms.

The Fox by Elton John

September 8, 2009

Elton John did not formally go into the studio to record The Fox, which was released in May of 1981. Rather, he gathered together tracks that had been recorded one to two years before and fine-tuned them for this release. The album ended up turning out better than its two predecessors from whose sessions the material was taken.

The Fox is a versatile album as he uses three lyricists, namely Gary Osborne, Bernie Taupin, and Tom Robinson, who all make significant contributions. There is also a good mixture of up-tempo and slow songs with one of the better instrumentals of his career thrown in for good measure. While these facts take away from the cohesiveness of the affair, it does make it continually interesting.

The best way to listen to this album is to put his classic seventies material out of your mind and let this release stand on its own. Disco was beginning to lose its commercial appeal while punk and new wave were on the rise. John wisely avoided trying to fit in as he did with the nightmarish album, Victim Of Love. Instead he just put together a work that was uniquely his own.

The album contains one of the most controversial tracks of his career. Tom Robinson, a lifelong advocate of gay rights, wrote the lyrics for “Elton’s Song,” which tells a story of the shame and rejection associated with a teenage homosexual crush. Radio stations refused to play the song and the accompanying video was also rejected.

“Nobody Wins” is catchy electronic pop. While the topics are about divorce and lost love, it became a successful hit single. “Fascist Faces” is another of those obscure, hard-rocking tracks that seem to inhabit John’s albums every so often. In turn, “Chloe” takes the sound in a different direction as it is a haunting ballad with rich orchestration.

Side two of the original vinyl release begins with one of the most ambitious instrumentals of his career. “Carla/Etude” finds Elton John on piano, backed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The complex arrangements fit this classical type piece well and this song alone is worth the price of the album.

Commercially, The Fox deserved better as it only reached number 21 on the American charts. It is a musically complex and in many places a thoughtful release that has only improved with age.

21 At 33 by Elton John

September 4, 2009

Elton John returned in 1980 with the now obscure release 21 at 33. The title referred to his 21st album release at age 33. I’m not sure how he counted his former releases as it does not come out correctly no matter how I figure it but he was indeed 33.

While it might not measure up to his classic seventies efforts, when you compare it to 1979’s abysmal Victim Of Love, it sounds pretty good. His fans agreed as it sold double the number of copies of its predecessor and returned him to the top fifteen on the American charts.

It also marked the return of long time lyricist Bernie Taupin, who had been sorely missed on John’s previous two releases. The three songs that he contributes are the album’s most interesting. “Chasing The Crown,” which is the opening track, is a nice rocking number. John’s piano and the guitar playing of Toto’s Steve Lukather blend well. “Two Rooms At The End Of The World,” which is catchy and features some nice brass work, deals with Taupin and John’s reunion. “White Lady, White Powder” is an odd track in that its lyrics about cocaine use run counter to the melodic music. The song is further interesting in that it was released at a time when John was reportedly into serious drug use of his own.

The best track was co-written by Gary Osborne who had replaced Taupin on A Single Man. “Little Jeanie” would become a huge hit in the United States. Having the feel of the best of his seventies work and sounding a lot like his prior hit “Daniel,” the song was a mid-tempo ballad that combined an electric piano and acoustic guitar.

Tom Robinson would co-author two tracks as well. He calls himself bisexual and has been a lifelong advocate of gay rights. At the time he was famous for his 1976 song “Glad To Be Gay.” “His “Sartorial Eloquence” is a nice pop ballad that matched John’s admitted sexuality.

The final track was written with English singer Judie Tzuke. “Give Me The Love” can best be described as a jazzy type of disco tune. If only his last album had featured material such as this it would not have been such a disaster.

21 at 33 is not a unified album which is mainly due to his use of four different lyricists. It is however a solid release and still very listenable today.

Victim Of Love by Elton John

September 4, 2009

1978s A Single Man struggled to be an average album. 1979 found Elton John releasing Victim Of Love which is one of the worst, if not the worst, album in his vast catalogue. His fan base would agree with this assessment as it was his poorest selling studio album and did not even crack the American top forty.

It was the height of the disco era and Elton John made the poor decision to move his sound away from his pop/rock base and conform it to the popular music style of the day. Elton John and disco are two words that should never appear in the same sentence. It was a depressing and cheesy release.

He did not take writing credits on any of the seven tracks. Instead he relied on Pete Bellotte to co-write six of the tunes. He was responsible for such Donna Summer hits as “Heaven Knows” and “Hot Stuff” but his material here does not come close to these classic disco tracks.

The good news is that the lead track is not a Bellotte composition. The bad news is that it was a cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. The real bad news is that he took it in a disco direction and extended it out to over eight minutes. One can only imagine what Chuck Berry thought of this performance.

The only listenable song is the title track. It is smoother than the rest of the material and while it may go on a little too long, it does feature a good vocal.

There is good disco and there is bad disco and the other five tracks fall into the bad disco category. “Warm Love In A Cold World,” “Born Bad,” “Thunder In The Night,” “Spotlight,” and “Street Boogie” are all an uninspired lot and suffer from a lack of energy. Until I listened to these songs for this review, they had thankfully slipped from my memory banks.

I’m really not sure if Elton even played any piano on the album. It is only for diehard fans with the emphasis on die. The only person whose artistic integrity remained intact was Bernie Taupin who wasn’t involved in this sorry affair.

A Single Man by Elton John

September 4, 2009

Elton John had split with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, creating a two-year gap between studio albums. He and his record company filled that gap by releasing his second greatest hits album in 1977 which was a huge worldwide hit.

A Single Man marked the beginning of a new career phase for Elton John. While he would continue to be a top live attraction, his new albums wouldn’t sell as well as those released during his classic period. Nor would they be as artistically strong. Such albums as Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road were brilliant from beginning to end and formed a catalog that has rarely been equaled in pop/rock history.

A Single Man is but one in a series of ’70s and ’80s Elton John albums that contained a few good songs and a lot of average ones. New lyricist Gary Osborne, while competent, was not of the caliber of Bernie Taupin. John is also not consistent here as the music is moody in places while a number of the tracks have a quirky feel to them.

The second side of the original vinyl release was the stronger of the two. “Part-Time Love” was a middling hit in the United States and is the album’s strongest track overall. It is smooth pop/rock with a hint of disco — perfect for dance clubs of the era. “Madness” is powerful with biting commentary and remains an unappreciated gem. “Song For Guy” — a tribute to a young Rocket Record label employee, Gary Burchett, who was killed in an accident — features some of the best piano work of John’s career. While it was a huge hit in England, it was a rare, failed single in the States. Even the countrified “Georgia” and the jazz-oriented “Shooting Star” are acceptable if uninspired.

Side one is a different matter, however. The album begins with the average ballad “Shine On Through” and the “Big Dipper” has an interesting New Orleans feel to it. Yet songs such as “Return To Paradise,” “I Don’t Care,” and “It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy,” can be classified as filler.

A Single Man is not one of Elton John’s shining moments. It lacks energy and an overall appeal. In the final analysis it’s not offensive but not essential either. It’s just an album that is easily ignored.