Prima donna Lord you really should have been there....
Released May 1975
Recorded at Caribou Ranch, Colorado
Running time 46.54
After the phenomenal, global success of 1973's remarkable "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", 1974's comparatively half-baked "Caribou" had found some people questioning Elton John's standing as a "Captain Fantastic" of the music world. "His better days were behind him", and "he's all burnt out" were types of the popularly heard refrain at the time.
1. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy
2. Tower Of Babel
3. Bitter Fingers
4. Tell Me When The Whistle Blows
5. Someone Saved My Life Tonight
6. (Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket
7. Better Off Dead
9. We All Fall In Love Sometimes
Huge marketing was thrown behind this album, therefore. "From the end of the world to your town" proclaimed the posters. Elton was back. Let's hope the album lived up to the hype.
Thankfully it did. This was a phenomenally mature, sensitive album loosely based around the early experiences of Elton and his prodigiously talented lyricist, Bernie Taupin, in the music business. Notably, it had no obvious commercial "hit single" in the "Crocodile Rock" vein. The hit single was the extended, evocative, dramatic and atmospheric "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", which tells of Elton being given a late night pep-talk by late 60s blues singer and old mate Long John Baldry. Concentration on “serious“ material, as opposed to the commercial, was continued when Elton played the entire album from beginning to end in front of a huge crowd at London’s Wembley Stadium. At the time, this did not go down particularly well with the fans, many of whom were coming out with the “we wanted to hear the hits” complaint. Similarly, it did not go down particularly well in the music media either, who seemed to think that Elton was becoming a bit too big for his boots, in that he felt he could do what he wanted, without considering his fans. Unfair. He and Bernie were creative artists, and had every right to challenge their own muses and try to push themselves higher. On the deluxe edition of this album, there is the full recording of this concert, and very good it is too. The sound reproduction is very impressive, considering it is taken from an outdoor stadium gig in 1975.
As mentioned earlier, the material on this album is of a reflective mature feel, and this is exemplified in the melodic and powerful title track. This track, and its catchy piano refrain, was revisited on a later album, in 2006, entitled “The Captain and the Kid”. It also has an appealing acoustic guitar intro, before Elton’s instantly recognisable voice kicks in with some great lyrics - nostalgic, emotional and referencing Bernie’s Wild West obsession. Some excellent percussion on the track as well. This was possibly as good anything else Elton had laid down since “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. As a statement of defiant intent it was pretty potent. “Tower Of Babel” continues the quality in a mid-paced, touching ballad with Elton adopting a higher pitched vocal than usual. Some outstanding guitar and drums on this and some genuine melodrama in Elton’s delivery.
“Bitter Fingers” is great. Building up to a huge rock chorus with guitar, piano and Elton’s vocal telling us of their days hawking their material around music publishers in London’s Denmark Street. Great harmony vocals and lead guitar from Davey Johnstone at the end. “Tell Me When The Whistle Blows” is a semi-funky, wah-wah guitar backed, slow blues grinding track, often overlooked, but one of the best, featuring more stunning guitar work, the Elton John Band were at their peak right now. Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and powerhouse drummer Nigel Olsson. The afore-mentioned “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is just simply wonderful, it has to be reiterated. That iconic piano intro, the plaintive, soulful vocals, the lyrics. The marvellous harmonies at the end. Up there with the best songs they ever came up with.
The old "side two" of the album kicks off with the rocking piano-driven "(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket" referencing Elton and Bernie's times struggling to make ends meet and even feed themselves. "Better Off Dead" is a somewhat strange song with a Teutonic operatic-style chorus (influenced slightly by Queen). That said, it is an intriguing song and sticks in the head. Once again, the instrumentation on it is superb. "Writing" has a light, rhythmic and guitar groove, almost reggae-ish and very summery with some lovely guitar parts, bongo percussion and a top notch vocal from Elton yet again. Listening to the album again, I am realising just how damn good it was. If it was not quite the equal of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" it was certainly not far behind.
The final two tracks, the emotional piano ballad "We All Fall In Love Sometimes" which was more typical of what one had come to expect from Elton John, and the beautiful "Curtains" sort of segue into each other. From the majesty of "Fall In Love" 's denouement, the mournful "Curtains" suddenly begins. Beautiful. Reminds me slightly of Roxy Music's "Sunset" from 1973's "Stranded" album. The album quietly, but dramatically fades out, with a sad, repeated backing vocal refrain, as it probably should. In a joyous, sad but reflective mood. All emotions bundled up together. All in all, a magnificent piece of work.
It is truly one of the finest albums of the seventies. Somehow never quite given the credit it deserved. Along with "Yellow Brick Road", "Elton John", "Tumbleweed Connection" and "Honky Chateau" it is in Elton John's top five albums. Bernie Taupin is also up there with the great British songwriters, he also is regularly overlooked.