Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids....
Released May 1972
Recorded at Chateau D'Herouville, France
Running time 45.15
Honky Chateau was the album which saw Elton John finally go “rock” and employ the Elton John Band of Davey Johnstone on lead guitar, Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. For some reason, they were not allowed to be used on any more than one track on the previous albums, session musicians were used instead. I suppose when they were of the quality of Caleb Quaye then it didn’t matter so much.
Elton had been perceived, particularly by the mainstream media, as a studious, bespectacled singer-songwriter safe enough to appear as a guest on the Mike Yarwood show, or “Cilla”. Now, however, it was getting near the time for him to don the outsized sunglasses and platform boots and become the somewhat preposterous “glam” rocker he would continue to be for many years. Not quite yet, though, he still appeared earnest, serious and hippily bearded on the cover, a bit like Van Morrison at the same period. The music, though, was given a full rock treatment, pounding drums, rocking as opposed to tinkling piano, classic rock guitar and was augmented by Elton’s more bluesy voice. The songs, too, included some jazzy, blues rockers.
In all these respects, this was a transitional album for both singer and songwriter.
1. Honky Cat
3. I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself
4. Susie (Dramas)
5. Rocket Man
9. Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters
The lead off track, Honky Cat was a horn and piano-driven piece of New Orleans-style funk rock which saw Elton aping his heroes Leon Russell and Dr. John. Totally different from much of the material on the four preceding albums. Mellow was a piano ballad with the addition of Olsson's steady drums. It wouldn't otherwise have sounded out of place on Madman Across The Water but, again, there is a blues rock, thumping backing that makes this a different album. The sound quality on this album is, I should add at this point, simply superb. Crystal clear while retaining an essential fullness and warmth. There is an excellent electric violin solo from Jean-Luc Ponty on this track also.
I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself is the sort of upbeat, honky-tonk piano-driven rock that Elton would specialise in for the next however many years. Catchy and rollicking with Elton's voice fully using that strange mid-Atlantic twang now. Lyrically, it is not one of Bernie's best, however. Susie (Dramas) is a full-on, potent, kick ass slab of blues rock with as heavy a riff in the chorus as Elton had ever used so far. Olsson and Murray provide top-notch backing in this. One of the best cuts from the album. It is very much influenced by The Band, I would say.
Then, of course, we have Rocket Man. It remains to this day, one of Elton's (and Bernie's) most loved songs. Continuing the trend for space themed songs begun by The Rolling Stones in 2000 Light Years From Home and taken to number one by David Bowie with Space Oddity. It took me until 2011 to finally see Elton John in concert and, even then, there was just something special about Rocket Man, sung at Sussex County Cricket Ground as the sun set. "All the science, I don't understand, it's just my job five days a week...". Great lines.
Salvation is an uplifting song, with its gospel chorus and piano build up and Nigel Olsson's relentless drums. Again, great stuff. Listen to that sublime bass at around 2:40 from Dee Murray. Beautiful. Like Susie, another overlooked song by both fans and Elton himself. A lovely bass and acoustic guitar introduce Slave, a country-ish cousin to Border Song from the Elton John album. The Southern States images of slavery hark back Tumbleweed Connection. Amy is a bit of a Honky Cat re-visit, vocally and musically. Pleasant enough in its bluesy, funky way. More swirling electric violin too.
Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters is, quite simply, one of Elton and Bernie's finest ever songs. Just beautiful, everything about it - the instrumentation, the lyrics, the atmosphere and Elton's voice never sounded better. "I thank the Lord for the people I have found". I could quote so many lines from it. Peerless.
Hercules is a rousing, funky rock closer to what is, definitely, one of Elton John's top five albums.