Thursday, 2 August 2018

Elton John




"I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it. I didn't ever want to be anything else" - Elton John

My first memory of seeing Elton John was around 1970, when I was eleven, and he appeared as a guest on a chat show, looking serious and bespectacled, singing Your Song. I remember my Father, who hated modern music, quite liking him, probably because of his studious appearance. A year or so went by, and one of my friends' elder brother had the Honky Chateau album. I developed a liking for Honky Cat and, of course, Rocket Man became a huge hit and Elton John was everywhere.


I loved Crocodile Rock and Daniel and bought the Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting) single, with its excellent picture sleeve (a rarity in those days). Back then, Elton John was portrayed as a "lad" and his music was lad's music, often rocky and pugnacious and he liked football. Nobody was aware of his sexuality and indeed, when the news about it broke a year or so later, nobody cared. He retained his lads' audience in the mid-seventies.

For a while, Elton was as much of a glam rocker as anyone else around at the time and his six albums of piano-driven ballads were almost forgotten as he rocked the airwaves and concert halls of the UK and the US, where he was even more popular.






















He had developed his preposterous stage persona and costumes in that period and it went along with the whole glam thing. For me, he went hand in hand with Bowie, Roxy Music, Mott The Hoople and Cockney Rebel as a credible glam artist. As punk and new wave took hold of my tastes in the late seventies and early eighties I drifted away from him, but I still enjoyed his output in the eighties and, as he ascended to "national treasure" status in the nineties, I realised that I had sort of stuck with him all those years. I have always thought of him as a bit of a spoilt, tantrum-prone absurdity, to be honest, but that has never really mattered, as his interpretations of the magnificent Bernie Taupin's wonderful songs are timeless and often magical. Despite his clear, self-admitted character flaws, his music has been a delight for many, many years.

THE LONG WALK TO THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (1969-1973)



This first collection of Elton John reviews covers the first period of his career, from 1969 to the success of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in 1973.

Empty Sky (1969)


Empty Sky/Val-Hala/Western Ford Gateway/Hymn 2000/Lady What's Tomorrow/Sails/The Scaffold/Skyline Pigeon/Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed/Reprise

"I remember when we finished work on the title track - it just floored me. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever heard in my life"  - Elton John   

Elton John's debut album begins, on its title track, Empty Sky, with a minute of bongo drums before we get some piano and the song breaks into what would be a recognisable sound - mid paced piano-driven bluesy rock. There are some dreamy, hippy sixties flute moments in places but it is pretty much dominated by that bluesy sound. It has a Stones-ish fade-out part at the end too. It is in many ways a typical late sixties album - touches of vague psychedelia, hints of country rock, nods to the blues, ambitions of grandeur (a seven minute opener), everyone trying to out-do Sgt. Pepper and release an album that made a statement of their creativity. You have to assess whether Elton John's potential is showing through here. On balance, yes it probably is.


             
This was the first album also for songwriter Bernie Taupin. Many of the songs were very much in the style of the material that would appear on their second album, Elton John. One such an example is Val-Hala, with its Elizabethan keyboards and Elton's Dylan/Mott The Hoople-esque vocal. There is definitely potential on this one, with its appealing hook, melody and beguiling lyrics.

Western Ford Gateway is instantly recognisable as an Elton John song, with that bluesy rock style and already distinctive vocal delivery. It is Beatles-esque in places too, though. Hymn 2000 has hints of Cat Stevens about it, in a dreamy, folky rock sort of way. Something about the vocals and lyrics too.

The even more folky, melodic Lady What's Tomorrow also ploughs a Cat Stevens furrow, it has to be said. Sails is an upbeat rocker with more bluesy insistence. The Scaffold is very much a thing of its time, its twee catchiness is probably best forgotten, lets be honest. The grandiose keyboard sounds of Skyline Pigeon give us the best track on the album and one that Elton has occasionally played live over the years. It was reprised as the 'b' side to Daniel in 1973, with a piano backing. It is a truly lovely song, Bernie Taupin's first great one.

The final track, Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed/Reprise, starts as a ballad, then turns into a jazzy instrumental and then, bizarrely, plays a small bit of all the album's tracks. An odd ending to a curiosity of an album.

There are several non-album cuts from the album's sessions - the single Lady Samantha, which has hints of Elton's trademark sound; the gently melodic but powerful ballad All Across The Havens; the plaintive piano, drums and strings ballad It's Me That You Need and the guitar-powered catchy late sixties pop of Just Like Strange Rain.



Elton John (1970)


Your Song/I Need You To Turn To/Take Me To The Pilot/No Shoe Strings On Louise/First Episode At Hienton/Sixty Years On/Border Song/The Greatest Discovery/The Cage/The King Must Die

"The album was not actually intended to launch Elton John as an artist, but rather as a collection of polished demos for other artists to consider recording his and co-writer Bernie Taupin's songs" - Gus Dudgeon      

Often thought to be Elton John’s debut album (it is his second), this was a remarkably mature offering from Elton and songwriter Bernie Taupin when one considers they were barely into their twenties and composed many of the songs in Elton's tiny bedroom at his parents’ house in Pinner, Middlesex. The feelings and issues that the songs approach seem like the work of someone far older than the callow Taupin and, musically, the album is also incredibly mature and it shows just what a precociously talented composer the young Elton John was. It is surprising, therefore, to consider how the album was initially perceived when taking into account producer Gus Dudgeon's quote (above).
                           
It is a beautiful album, full of simply lovely songs of a breathtaking sensitivity, such as the gorgeous Sixty Years On, with its touching lyrics about ageing, and the impossibly tender First Episode At Hienton about a young girl’s emergence into womanhood (bear in mind this was written by a boy probably in his late teens). The ugliness of Southern US racism is tackled in the gospelly Border SongThe Greatest Discovery is another extremely observant, sensitive song, as indeed is The King Must Die. Listen to that beautiful harpsichord and strings introduction to the gorgeous I Need You To Turn To. The material on this album really is some of the best stuff Elton John ever recorded.

 

Then there are also a couple of the bluesy, upbeat semi-rock ballads that Elton would come to specialise in - the catchy, appealing Take Me To The Pilot and The Cage, which is also funky and horn-driven in that Leon Russell way that so influenced the young (and older) Elton. The remastering of the keyboard/percussion/horn break in the middle of this track is spectacular. Of course, no collection of Bernie Taupin will be complete without a country-style ditty. Here it is the jaunty "yee-haw" stylings of No Shoe Strings On LouiseOh, and then there is Your Song. Such an iconic song really needs no introduction or description from me.

The remastered sound on these Elton John “Deluxe Editions” is simply stunning. Crystal clear as well as being full and bassy. They do such great works complete justice. 

An essential piece of work. Don't be without it.



Three excellent non-album cuts from the era were the staccato, drum-driven chunky rock of Bad Side Of The Moon, which is fun of typical Elton bluesiness and a singalong chorus refrain; an early, attractive prototype of the beautiful Grey Seal, which was re-recorded for the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album in 1973 and a live and, as far as I know, only version of a great rocker called Rock 'n' Roll Madonna. I have just found out that it is a "false" live recording, with crowd noise dubbed on to it, like Bennie And The Jets, which is a little disappointing, but it is still a great song. 

Also included on the Deluxe Edition are BBC Sessions live takes of Border SongYour Song and Take Me To The Pilot, all of which are excellent. Your Song is particularly good.



Tumbleweed Connection (1970)


Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun/Come Down In Time/Country Comfort/Son Of Your Father/My Father's Gun/Where To Now St. Peter/Love Song/Amoreena/Talking Old Soldiers/Burn Down The Mission

"Half of the songs don't follow conventional pop song structures; instead, they flow between verses and vague choruses. These experiments are remarkably successful, primarily because Taupin's lyrics are evocative and John's melodic sense is at its best" - Stephen Thomas Erlewine - AllMusic

Up there in Elton John/Bernie Taupin's top five albums (along with Elton JohnHonky CatGoodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic, in my opinion.). This was an album that did not feature the excellent Elton John Band (some of the appear sporadically), but the hired session musicians were of an exceptional quality. The whole album is played immaculately and the sound on the "Deluxe Edition" is simply superb - full, powerful and punchy along with having a melodic subtlety when necessary.

The album is notable for not having any commercial, hit single on it, which was unusual for those days. It was a genuine adult, "serious" album, largely exploring Bernie Taupin's fascination with the Old West of the USA in an often sad, sensitive and nostalgic manner (for an era he did not live in). For a lyricist still so young. the songs are remarkably mature and perceptive and it is very much influenced by The Band's first three albums, both lyrically and musically.

 

The album opens with the upbeat blues rock of Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun, full of potent drums and Elton on great form on the piano and vocally. It is another in a long line of Leon Russell-influenced numbers. It features some impressive lead guitar from Caleb Quaye, used by Elton John a lot in the early years. Come Down In Time is a beautiful sparsely-backed ballad and Country Comfort is a country-influenced rock song, with a great bass sound from resected session man Herbie Flowers and Luddite-influenced lyrics concerning the mechanisation of farms. It was originally written for Rod Stewart's Gasoline Alley album, on which he impressively covered it.

Son Of Your Father has some funky wah-wah style guitar and some blues harmonica and that Elton mid-Atlantic vocal styling. It is a country rock blues song, powerfully played. My Father's Gun is a slow, mournful and sad song featuring a character lamenting the loss of his father in the US Civil War. Where To Now St. Peter is a mysterious song, very folky and beguiling, lyrically, but with a strong rock "chorus" part. More wah-wah on this track too.


The beautiful Love Song is only song not written by John/Taupin, being written by singer-songwriter Lesley Duncan and sensitively sung here by Elton against a pleasing acoustic guitar backing.

Amoreena features Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson from the future Elton John Band, and is a strong rock song with powerful backing vocals too. Talking Old Soldiers is a sombre, bleak ballad, nicely performed, but a tiny bit dull in comparison with the rest of the album. Slightly harsh, as it still a good song.

Apparently, the composer of Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of HellJim Steinman, credits the monumental, dramatic Burn Down The Mission as being a huge influence on the over-the-top instrumental parts of Bat. It is certainly Elton's musical tour de force on this album. Again, considering the age of its two composers, in their early twenties, it is a remarkable achievement. Full of lyrical imagery and a huge instrumental build-up and chorus delivery. It was this progression to the high points of the song that Steinman liked, plus the piano-driven instrumental bit five minutes in. Best track on the album.



The non-album material from the time included Into The Old Man's Shoes, a track that would have fitted perfectly on the album. It is a string-backed, piano ballad with the Old West atmosphere once again. It also has a great guitar solo on it. There was also a version of Madman Across The Water that I have talked about in more detail on that album's review.



17.11.70 (1970)


Bad Side Of The Moon/Amoreena/Take Me To The Pilot/Sixty Years On/Honky Tonk Women/Can I Put You On/Burn Down The Mission          

Recorded in New York City, this was a live album not really intended for release. The recorded live tracks eventually came out on this abridged version of a live show containing only six tracks, but a fair old slice of rousing live atmosphere from Elton and his three piece outfit, with Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass. Elton has stated in interviews since that he considers this to be his finest live album. It certainly highlights just what fine musicians Olsson and Murray were at the time. Guitarist Davey Johnstone didn't join the band until 1972. The later, remastered edition, the one I have, contained an extra track (Amoreena). This was also recorded in the period when Elton John was bigger in the US than he was in the UK, which was certainly true at the beginning of his career.

So, on to the album. It kicks off with the muscular, thumping power of the rousing Bad Side Of The Moon. The bass is huge and the drums resonant and solid. Add Elton's clunking piano to that and you have one hell of a full, pulsating sound for a three-piece. His vocal is also outstanding too, full of bluesy grit. Amoreena continues that classic early seventies Elton John bluesy groove. Nigel Olsson's drumming is on fire on this one and Elton's piano at its rollicking, melodic best. There is a real energy and attack on these live cuts, an enthusiasm that you get in someone at the start of their career. Comparatively youthful verve and vigour.

Take Me To The Pilot is a piano and drum driven ball of funky, staccato energy. Sure it is a bit raw and edgy, but therein lies its rough and ready appeal. Elton's piano work is outstanding on here. Sixty Years On is as evocative as it is on the Elton John album. The drums on it are absolutely powerhouse, possibly too much so, compared to the original, but it suits the tone of the album. The band's cover of The Rolling StonesHonky Tonk Women is given the full bluesy bass, piano and drum treatment and, funnily enough, it works, without any guitar riffage. Elton's vocal suits the song perfectly.

  

Can I Put You On is a classic of Elton John's style from this period. It never appeared on an album apart from this live cut, which was a shame. It has that driving piano-driven bluesy sound that characterised so much of his output at the time. The final cut, the mighty and dramatic Burn Down The Mission lasts a full eighteen minutes and includes diversions into My Baby Left Me and Get Back. Despite is length, however, it never loses your interest. Some great interplay between the three musicians in it. Overall, this is one hell of a quirky little live album from a time when Elton John was not a huge superstar. Highly recommended.

Madman Across The Water (1971)


Tiny Dancer/Levon/Razor Face/Madman Across The Water/Indian Sunset/Holiday Inn/Rotten Peaches/All The Nasties/Goodbye 

"Back in the seventies, when people were saying that 'Madman Across the Water' was about Richard Nixon, I thought, That is genius. I could never have thought of that" - Bernie Taupin         

This is very much an understated album. There is nothing remotely commercial about it. Nine extended ballads dominated by immaculately produced strings, powerful drums, clunking piano,  strong and bluesy vocals from Elton. Every now and again a bit of potent guitar comes in. There is no Crocodile Rock or anything like that. This is a collection of sombre, reflective songs.
                                  
Everyone now knows Bernie Taupin’s paean to his wife in the beautiful, delicate melody of Tiny Dancer, a truly lovely song. The catchy Levon is lyrically bizarre - “Jesus wants to go to Venus...” And so on, but it has an irresistible, soulful atmosphere to it. Nobody knows what Levon was about, neither does it really matter, it sounds good anyway.

Razor Face is full of power and some impressive organ flourishes. It is one of those typical early seventies punchy Elton John ballads, full of orchestration and a pounding drum sound. The title track, Madman Across The Water is similar - emotive, dramatic and vibrant, yet calming down in places to being subtle and tender, but not written about Richard Nixon as people at the time suggested.

Indian Sunset has Taupin in full American West obsessive mode, telling a lengthy narrative tale from a Native American’s point of view. It is marvellously cinematic, but as uncommercial as it was possible to be. This is remarkably mature, adult music and lyrics from two such young men, who were still in their early twenties, it must be remembered. Quite remarkable, in fact. Indeed, it almost makes you wonder had they had not dabbled in all that glam rock, would they have continued putting out quality in this style? Mind you, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was also seriously good, despite its more commercial moments.


Holiday Inn is a melodic, soulful, country-ish rock ballad, with some fetching mandolin backing. Again, Elton’s vocal delivery is strong and confident, that strange twang of his now fully developing, far more, say, than on the Elton John album. The backing on this is just wonderful, and the sound quality on the remaster is second to none. Rotten Peaches is one of those Leon Russell-style piano-driven slow rock numbers that Elton just did so well, in the fashion of Burn Down The Mission or Border Song.

The Bowie-style titled All The Nasties is a strange one, building up as a quiet ballad, it ends up as a gospel celebration with a lengthy “oh my soul” ending that lasts a couple of minutes. A bit like the way Curtains closed the Captain Fantastic album. Goodbye is a short, vocal, strings and piano lament to close what was an often overlooked album that conceals hidden depths under its lush, grandiose soundscapes.

Regarding the non-album material, Rock Me When He's Gone is a bluesy, gospelly, piano-driven piece of boogie written for old Bluesology mate Long John Baldry, It rocks from beginning to end. I love it.  David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson plays on an extended version of Madman Across The Water. It is a sublime version, with lovely bass and some searing guitar from Ronson. I prefer it to the actual version used on the album. It is full of heavy rock vibes, one of the heaviest cuts Elton ever recorded. I have to say that it is really, really good.



Honky Château (1972)


Honky Cat/Mellow/I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself/Susie (Dramas)/Rocket Man/Salvation/Slave/Amy/Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters/Hercules 

"It is a rich, warm, satisfying album that stands head and shoulders above the morass of current releases" - Jon Landau -  Rolling Stone           

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.
              
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 ConnectionAmy 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.



An interesting alternative version is a faster take of Slave. It is a sub-three minute piano-powered romp through the song, sung at breakneck pace. It has its appeal, but I probably prefer the original on balance.

Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player (1973)


Daniel/Teacher I Need You/Elderberry Wine/Blues For My Baby And Me/Midnight Creeper/Have Mercy On The Criminal/I'm Gonna Be A Teenage Idol/Texan Love Song/Crocodile Rock/High Flying Bird 

"'Crocodile Rock' was written as an overt homage to '50s records, and his vocal intentionally mimicked singer Bobby Vee. 'High Flying Bird' was intended to sound like a Van Morrison record, and 'Midnight Creeper' was a tip of the hat to The Rolling Stones" - Elton John       

This was the album, released in January 1973, that saw Elton John begin his transition from "mature before his time, bespectacled balladeer" to outrageous glam rocker, still singing many of the same ballads, and interpreting Bernie Taupin's wonderful lyrics, but now with huge platform boots, gold lame suits and massive novelty glasses. The music was now not just adult, sincere ballads but was developing a commercial edge. Yes, Your Song and Rocket Man had been huge hits, but they were not upbeat, "glammy" rockers like the exhilarating, singalong fun of Crocodile Rock. Even the album's other big hit, the moving Daniel, although a slow number, had an irresistible hook that made it a perfect single.
                       
To be honest, both Teacher I Need You and Elderberry Wine were rollicking, piano-driven instantly memorable rockers and certainly would have made great singles. There was certainly nothing like these tracks on late 1971's Madman Across The Water or also particularly on mid 1972's Honky Chateau (although there were a few signs of a new direction on that album). Teacher has a glorious refrain and Elderberry has one hell of a brass section on it.

Blues For My Baby And Me is a throwback to those introspective, mournful, brooding Madman Across The Water ballads, full of Bernie Taupin's Western imagery and a lovely, captivating, soulful chorus part. Just gorgeous. Elton at his mid-seventies best. Uplifting and infectious. Midnight Creeper is a strident, pumping piece of brass-driven blues rock, with a name check for Tina Turner. Nobody did this sort of funked-up, ballsy and bluesy rock like The Elton John Band in those days. Their sound was quite unique. The horns and guitar interplay is energising. Great stuff. As with some of the Caribou material, I had forgotten how good some of these lesser-known tracks were.


Have Mercy On The Criminal is another that harks back a bit to the Madman album, in its bleak subject matter, and somewhat inscrutable sound. This one certainly had no commercial pretensions whatsoever. It sits a little incongruously with the rest of the album. I remember at the time, when I heard it, at 14, I hated it. Now, in later years, I have reassessed, unsurprisingly. I'm Gonna Be A Teenage Idol is a pounding, brassy number that sounds like Honky Cat in places. The lyrics ruminate on the pop fame Elton was about to have. Texan Love Song is a whimsical, country ballad  with an acoustic backing that has hints of the material from the Elton John album. The lyrics also concern redneck homophobia in considerable detail but this went largely unnoticed at the time. "Goddam it you're all gonna die" sings the bigoted protagonist. A dark song sung over a light, buoyant melody. It had considerable irony.

 

After the rousing beginning to the album, it was in danger of getting in to a bit of a rut by now, but this is all saved by the rousing Crocodile Rock, with its instant, "la-la-la" chorus and fairground keyboard riff. High Flying Bird was an inspirational, soaring ballad, with snatches of the piano notes from Candle In The Wind in places. It was one of those songs that seemed to fit being the final track on an Elton John album, like Curtains from Captain Fantastic and All The Nasties from Madman (yes I know it was the penultimate track, but it fits the bill). Elton John was on the way to flying higher than he had ever done.

  

An interesting non-album track from this period was the piano-driven boogie rock of Let Me Be Your Car, written in early 1973 for Rod Stewart, that the latter eventually recorded on his 1974 Smiler album. Also, from mid 1972 was a re-recording of Empty Sky's Skyline Pigeon. It was released in January 1973 as the b side of Daniel. It has a lovely piano, bass and drum backing and it always was a gorgeous song. This makes it even better.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)


Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding/Candle In The Wind/Bennie And The Jets/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/This Song Has No Title/Grey Seal/Jamaica Jerk-Off/I've Seen That Movie Too/Sweet Painted Lady/The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)/Dirty Little Girl/All The Girls Love Alice/Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock 'n' Roll)/Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)/Roy Rogers/Social Disease/Harmony

"Bernie wrote the lyrics in two and a half weeks, while I composed most of the music in three days while staying at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica . I had wanted to go to Jamaica, in part because The Rolling Stones had just recorded 'Goats Head Soup' there" - Elton John

In 1973 Elton John could do no wrong on both sides of the Atlantic. Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player had paved the way, but this tour de force really put Elton and his magnificent lyricist Bernie Taupin into the limelight. Not forgetting the marvellous band - Davey Johnstone on lead guitar, Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. They were red hot on this album.

Putting out a double album was always a risk but no such worries here. There is not a duff track on it. Even now, it is such a fulfilling listen. Amazing that something now forty-five years old still sounds so good. The remastering is amazing too as it is on all the Elton John Deluxe Editions. Yes, it does attract accusations of being bloated and indulgent, but I really can't find fault with any of the tracks  It was here that Elton John the great flamboyant entertainer was truly born, the old slightly introspective bespectacled figure behind the piano was now strutting round on huge platform boots in enormous comic glasses like a gigantic camp Frankenstein's monster. Eventually that monster would have to be destroyed, but for now it strode the world like a colossus. Do not let the over-the-top preposterous image overshadow the music, however, or indeed its tremendous lyrics. 

  
  
The old “side one” is wonderful. Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding (Jim Steinman admits Bat Out Of Hell’s long intro was influenced by this, along with Elton’s earlier Burn Down The Mission), the iconic Candle In The Wind and the image-packed bucolic reverie Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are timeless. Subsequent highlights are the updated early song, the vaguely funky Grey Seal (complete with wah-wah solo), then my own personal favourite, the simply beautiful Sweet Painted Lady, full of evocative lyrics and the equally atmospheric The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34). How could I forget Bennie And The Jets, with its clunking piano refrain and "false" live effects? Elton's vocal on the track is superb.

Your Sister Can Twist is a frantic, irresistible fairground rocker and then you get the titanic riffy assault that is Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting) based on Bernie’s Lincolnshire upbringing and nights out in towns like Spalding and Market RasenDavey Johnstone’s guitar in this is stunning. Roy Rogers sees Taupin revisit his Wild West fascinations that we had experienced on Tumbleweed Connection. It is a moving, singalong ballad.



Even lesser-known titles like I've Seen That Movie Too and This Song Has No Title, with its Billy Joel-style piano rolls and lyrics are corkers. The riffy and powerful, in places, All The Girls Love Alice was ground-breaking, lyrically, for the time, dealing explicitly with lesbianism. Yes, Jamaica Jerk-Off is a bit silly but it is infuriatingly catchy. Social Disease is a bit strange as it starts at really low volume and you think something is wrong with your sound system until it finally kicks in with its solid, bluesy, typically Elton thump. Dirty Little Girl is a big, chunky piece of Elton rock - pounding and featuring those big drums that Nigel Olsson gave to so many of the songs from this period. It has a Bennie And The Jets piano and vocal fade out that virtually replicates the earlier track, however - "...dirty, dirty, dirty little girl...Bennie, Bennie, Bennie and the Jets...". It is a little-mentioned track, but is a good one. The more I listen to it there more I like it, although at the time I overlooked it in favour of the more popular tracks. Finally, the melodic Harmony is a lovely end to this fantastic album.

The bonus material of the 1973 Christmas Eve was what attracted me to buying this album again, however. I clearly remember watching it in my teenage bedroom on a tiny little portable TV we owned. It had a six inch screen but it was great to see Elton in concert. Now, all these years later it is wonderful to hear it.

  

The non-album single from this period was the now iconic Christmas song, Step Into Christmas. Elton thanks his fans for the year in the first lines of the song and I imagine it is Christmas 1973 again - I love hearing its atmospheric, singalong chorus every December. 

Recorded in May 1973 and included on the Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting single were the country finger pickin' romp of Jack Rabbit and the bar-room boogie of Whenever You're Ready (We'll Go Steady Again). The b side of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road single was Screw You (Young Man's Blues), also dating from May 1973. It is a solid, muscular bluesy rock number. 

 



CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (1974-1979)



This was the era that began with Elton John ruling the world but ended with his stock having fallen considerably.

Caribou (1974)


The Bitch Is Back/Pinky/Grimsby/Dixie Lily/Solar Prestige A Gammon/You're So Static/I've Seen The Saucers/Stinker/Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me/Ticking 

"A piece of crap ... the sound is the worst, the songs are nowhere, the sleeve came out wrong, the lyrics weren't that good, the singing wasn't all there, the playing wasn't great and the production is just plain lousy" - Gus Dudgeon   
                                                          
In many ways, Elton John's 1974 Caribou album was his equivalent of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait from 1970. After some really impressive mature albums in the early seventies, followed by one hell of a crossover to merge reflective, moving adult balladry with glam rock in 1973's multi-million seller, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, so much was now expected of Elton John, both in the UK and, more importantly in the USA, where he was now huge. In the seventies, artists were expected to put out albums virtually every year and one got the impression that this often half-baked album was Elton and Bernie's attempt to say "it doesn't matter, if you pressure us to release an album before we're ready, we will release any old rubbish". Indeed, the track Solar Prestige A Gammon was populated with nonsensical, meaningless lyrics - written in an invented language - as if to exemplify that notion and prove their point. The problem with this album is that after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road they just weren't ready to put out any more material. Captain Fantastic should have been the follow up, and great it would have been too (as indeed it was). It was Elton's Goats Head Soup.

   

There are, of course, two absolute classic Elton/Bernie hit singles on here - the exhilarating, in-your-face rocker that is the riffy The Bitch Is Back and the now absolutely iconic Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me. The latter is a moving, singalong and lengthy ballad and even now is regarded as one of their best ever songs. Yes, we've all heard it a thousand times, but it is still sort of spine-tingling when Elton starts singing "I can't hide...". The Bitch Is Back just does it every time for me, too, as soon as the riff and the brass kick in.

The upbeat, lively Grimsby is a good one too, a slice of perky nostalgia from Bernie about the Humberside fishing town near where he grew up in Lincolnshire. The tuneful and most endearing ballad Pinky is not at all bad either. Dixie Lily is a jaunty slice of energetic country rock, with Taupin's Western lyrics to the fore once again. He had been mining this seam for several years now, lyrically.

As I said, Solar Prestige A Gammon, despite its rollicking, catchy melody and piano-driven beat was a total waste of everyone's time. You're So Static is more than acceptable, however, a brass-driven funky and bluesy rocker that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player, from early 1973. The brass parts are pumping and punchy and Elton's piano is manically impressive. I haven't heard this track for years and I am quite enjoying it again, to be honest.

I've Seen The Saucers is a bizarre song about UFOs, and although I feel they were going down the space path one too many times it has a sort of weird, late sixties Beatles-ish appeal. To be honest, it is a really difficult one to categorise. Is it good, or is it throwaway rubbish? Actually, it's sort of ok.

Stinker is, would you believe, a bit of a little hidden gem, full of searing guitar licks, irrepressible horns and Elton on bluesy top vocal form, while pounding his pudgy fingers on those keyboards. It totally kicks ass from beginning to end, giving the lie to the notion that this was a 'half-baked album'.



Ticking has a most entrancingly beautiful and melodic piano introduction, and the song, in contrast, tells a tragic tale of a previously well-behaved young man who goes off the rails and pointlessly murders fourteen people in a bar. It is actually one of Bernie Taupin's most disturbing songs, and indeed is one of his lost classics. I had utterly forgotten this wonderful song. I am so glad I rediscovered it. Add it to any "Elton John obscure greats" playlist.

You know, I have really enjoyed playing this album again. Give it a listen. It has had a bum rap for too long.

The non-album material from this album's sessions are the punchy, brassy soul of Sick City (the b side of Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me) and the slightly reggae-influenced slow rock ballad of Cold Highway (the b side of The Bitch Is Back). I have to say that all these tracks would have possibly been better than some of those eventually included on the album. The latter two were released as a double a side single in France.

 

Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)


Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy/Tower Of Babel/Bitter Fingers/Tell Me When The Whistle Blows/Someone Saved My Life Tonight/(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket/Better Off Dead/Writing/We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains

"I've always thought that 'Captain Fantastic' was probably my finest album because it wasn't commercial in any way. We did have songs such as 'Someone Saved My Life Tonight,' which is one of the best songs that Bernie and I have ever written together, but whether a song like that could be a single these days, since it's [more than] six minutes long, is questionable. 'Captain Fantastic' was written from start to finish in running order, as a kind of story about coming to terms with failure—or trying desperately not to be one. We lived that story" - Elton John         

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.

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 also 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 Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. 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 as 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 which is 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. It 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 and somehow was/has never quite been given the credit it deserved. Along with Yellow Brick RoadElton JohnTumbleweed 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.



There was some really high quality non-album material from this period. Firstly, a superb cover version single in The BeatlesLucy In The Sky With Diamonds. It was done with energy and enthusiasm and stands up fine against the iconic original. Then there was the song Elton wrote for tennis star Bille Jean King's professional tennis team, the appealing soulful but rousing Philadelphia Freedom. The b sides were the John Lennon collaborations, the entrancing One Day At A Time (that Lennon included on his 1973 Mind Games album) and the live I Saw Her Standing There respectively. The b side to the Someone Saved My Life Tonight single was the attractive, melodic mid-pace and typically Elton rock/pop of House Of Cards.

  

Rock Of The Westies (1975)


Yell Help/Dan Dare/Island Girl/Grow Some Funk Of Your Own/I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)/Street Kids/Hard Luck Story/Feed Me/Billy Bones And The White Bird/Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Bonus Track)

"I had wanted to release 'Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future)' as the album's first single instead of "Island Girl", because I thought it had more commercial appeal" - Elton John      

Released only five months after the phenomenally successful (and indeed magnificent) Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy this album followed what was proving to be a typical path for Elton John in the mid-seventies and eighties - one superb album, followed quickly (often too quickly) by a patchy one. As Caribou followed Goodbye Yellow Brick Road almost before it should have done, this did the same, and the pressure to put out more product resulted in another dip in quality. Bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson from the original Elton John Band had left, probably unfairly fired by a truculent Elton. Indeed, Olsson has since said it came as a complete shock.

 

The album was what was now the formulaic but balanced mix of rocky material and big, punchy ballads. Yell Help is an unremarkable slice of funk-driven rock. It ends ends with some madcap clavinet and shrieking backing vocals interplay. A petty underwhelming start to the album, to be honest. Dan Dare is a Honky Cat soundalike typical piece of Elton John bluesy mid-paced piano-driven rock. Again, it just doesn't really ever get anywhere. Island Girl is different, however, a moderate hit single, it is a lively tale of a Jamaican prostitute in New York's City - "she wraps herself around you like a well-worn tyre...". If you say so, Bernie. Even less of a hit was another single, Grow Some Funk Of Your Own. This was a shame as it is a vigorous and enjoyable bluesy rocker with some wryly amusing lyrics.

I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford) is actually an excellent mid-tempo, dramatic power ballad, like some of the material on Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player. I am thinking particularly of Have Mercy On The CriminalStreet Kids is a ballsy and bassy rocker with Elton hollering and yelping throughout his vocal, these were the days when he could reach those high notes. It ends with some decidedly Sympathy For The Devil "woo-woo" backing vocals. Hard Luck Story is a pounding slab of boogie rock that Elton could now do in his sleep.

 

Feed Me is a laid-back ballad with some funky guitar, without the guitar it would sound like something from Tumbleweed Connection. It features some fetching percussion from new percussionist Ray CooperBilly Bones And The White Bird has a sort of Bo DiddleyMona/Not Fade Away riff/beat to it. Heaven knows what the song is about.

Overall, I find this album more patchy and less appealing than Caribou, but it is worth the occasional listen.



The non-album material from this album's period was notable for another cover version hit single - a storming cover of The Who's Pinball Wizard. The b side of the Island Girl single was the plaintive piano ballad Sugar On The Floor. It had been recorded by Kiki Dee on her 1973 Loving And Free album. Previously unreleased, Planes dated from his album's sessions in July 1975 and is a slightly country rock-influenced, laid-back ballad.

 

Blue Moves (1976)


Your Starter For.../Tonight/One Horse Town/Chameleon/Boogie Pilgrim/Cage The Songbird/Crazy Water/Shoulder Holster/Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word/Out Of The Blue/Between Seventeen And Twenty/The Wide-Eyed And Laughing/Someone's Final Song/Where's The Shoorah?/If There's A God In Heaven (What's He Waiting For?)/Idol/Theme From A Non-Existent TV Series/Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance)

"I haven't been touring for a long time. It's been a painful decision, whether to come back on the road or not... I've made a decision tonight – this is going to be the last show... There's a lot more to me than playing on the road"  - Elton John
                       
This was an ambitious double album from an admittedly exhausted Elton John in 1976. There are lots of classical influences on it - particularly in the opener, the evocative, piano-led ballad Tonight. Even on the next track, One Horse Town, which has some typical Elton riffage in it, it also has sweeping strings in the backing. It has an extended intro before the vocals kick in. In many ways, it is an archetypal Elton seventies rocker, but it is the highly-orchestrated backing that renders it different from earlier material. This is definitely a "big production" album. The sound quality on it is superb, by the way. It has been a great start to the album, in the Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding style. It almost has a "rock opera" feel about it, as if the songs are somehow linked (they are not).

 

Chameleon is a beautiful, harmonious ballad with some of those moving Bernie Taupin lyrics. Boogie Pilgrim harks back to those Honky Chateau days with a powerful slab of chunky bluesy horn-backed rock. It is very representative of much of Elton's seventies output. Cage The Songbird is a tender ballad with definite echoes of the Elton John album. Elton's vocal is excellent on this one. Crazy Water is a rhythmic song in the Philadelphia Freedom mode with that same drum and funky guitar sound. The wah-wah really kicks in mid-song and most exhilarating it is too. So far, this is a pretty good album.

 

Shoulder Holster is one of those Bernie Taupin songs of the old West. It is backed by a big punchy horn sound and Elton's voice is in full-on twangy style, straight out of Tumbleweed Connection. The saxophone on it is excellent. I didn't know who played it, but upon hearing it again, I said "David Sanborn" (David Bowie's Young Americans/Ian Hunter's All American Boy). I was right - it was his highly distinctive style. Then there is the iconic Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, which everyone knows. I was always irritated by Elton's pronunciation of "absurd" as "abZurd", however. If the album had ended here, or with the TV theme tune-sounding instrumental Out Of The Blue, (which features some great guitar) then I think it would have garnered far more critical acclaim than it did, for from here on it gets somewhat bloated. Not that the next bunch of tracks are poor, they are not, but it just felt more stodgy than Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, his other double album, had been.

Between Seventeen And Twenty is, nevertheless, a fine track - emotive and melodic with a soulful organ backing. Elton's voice is impressive again. It goes on a bit too long though, sort of losing some of its early potential. The Wide-Eyed And Laughing has some sixties-style Eastern strings and a sort of hippy, George Harrison feel about it. This is another one that has influences from the Elton John album on it. It doesn't surprise me that Graham Nash appears on backing vocals here, you can clearly hear him. Someone's Final Song is a sad farewell to a departed person, identity unknown. It is tender, sensitive and beautiful. Where's The Shoorah is a slow, gospel-influenced tribute from Bernie to his wife.

 

If There's A God In Heaven is a slightly funky mid-paced track. It is not too bad. You know, this double album would have functioned fine as two albums, in many ways, but as one double album it doesn't quite get away with it like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road did. The jazzy Idol, presumably about Elvis, only a year before his death was ominously prescient and a great track too, with more excellent Sanborn saxophone. Theme From A Non-Existent TV Series is a minute or so of instrumental waste of time, as indeed had been the short opener, Your Starter For... .

The final track, Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance) is a rocky dance number in the Grow Some Funk Of Your Own mode, full of trademark Ray Cooper percussion and some barroom piano. It is a lively end to an album that is certainly worth a reassessment. There is some hidden treasure on here, for sure. Things could have been a lot worse and indeed, they would be...

Notable during this period, in the hot summer of 1976, was the huge hit with Kiki DeeDon't Go Breaking My Heart.

  

A Single Man (1978)


Shine On Through/Return To Paradise/I Don't Care/Big Dipper/It Ain't Gonna Be Easy/Part Time Love/Georgia/Shooting Star/Madness/Reverie/Song For Guy
         
Elton John had such a run of success in the seventies, releasing some sensationally good albums. By 1978, however, punk had arrived, Glam rock had gone and he was struggling just a little to retain the huge popularity that he had a few years earlier. He was going through a bit of a troublesome time in his life too, battling with alcohol and generally annoying people who cared about him. It is, maybe, no coincidence that this was the first album not to feature Bernie Taupin as songwriter or Gus Dudgeon as producer. Gary Osborne was Elton's choice as songwriter and would continue to be so for three or four more years. While this is not a poor album, it certainly lacked a little, in comparison to many of those that had gone before.
                                                                  
The opener, Shine On Through, is a powerful, dramatic piano-driven ballad that sounded pretty much like typical Elton, while Return To Paradise is a vaguely Latin-ish rhythmic and melodic number with some fetching brass and Spanish-sounding guitar and some calypso-style percussion. I Don't Care has a quintessential Elton John rousing piano intro and has a funked-up feel of Philadelphia Freedom about it. It is instantly recognisable as Elton John, so, up to now, nothing too much seems to have changed. It actually had been quite a good start to the album, if you forget the fact that, in 1978, it just didn't seem to have much contemporary relevance. I remember listening to it at the time (my girlfriend at the time had bought it, and loved it) and, as an angry young punk, I couldn't see the point in it, but, as a lad who had been a big Elton fan in his teens I stuck with him out of loyalty and actually quite liked it. I have always had a soft spot for it ever since.

Big Dipper sounds very much to me like something that might have been on Don't Shoot Me in its insistent, clunky piano. It had some catchy New Orleans-style brass backing, although the mass vocals on the chorus are a little irritating. It Ain't Gonna Be Easy is possibly the best track on the album - a moving, bluesy ballad with some great string orchestration, searing guitar and an impressive deep vocal from Elton. The sound quality on this remastered edition is excellent too, it has to be said. Yes, best cut on the album, for sure.

The catchy Part Time Love was a great choice for a single. Georgia is a ballad at times reminiscent of the Tumbleweed Connection album, but it suffers, like Big Dipper from another of those mass choruses. It would have been much better without them and the chorus just sung straight, in my opinion. Shooting Star features some fetching tenor saxophone and is a pleasant ballad, with Elton singing in a strangely high-pitched style. Madness is an upbeat, dramatic orchestral piano rocker that allows Elton full rein to pound the ivories. Reverie is a short instrumental that leads into the big, evocative instrumental closer - Song For Guy that surely everybody knows by now.

This was a good album, actually. It was a pity that Elton's next one, Victim Of Love, would be one of his worst ever, if not the worst.

The non-album material from this period included the quirky, staccato showbizzy ABBA-esque beat of Ego, which was released as a single, but only reached number 34; its b side, Flinstone Boy which was an attractive, low-key, bassy ballad with a bit of an early seventies country feel to it; the b side of Part Time LoveI Cry At Night, a piano-driven ballad very similar in its minimalist style to the material Elton would release in the 2000s and Lovesick, which had a Philadelphia soul beat like the material from The Thom Bell Sessions from the same period. It was the b side to Song For Guy and was a lively, appealing number.

 

Victim Of Love (1979)


Johnny B. Goode/Warm Love in A Cold World/Born Bad/Thunder In The Night/Spotlight/Street Boogie/Victim Of Love           

This is one of Elton John's most odd, and least successful albums. After some reasonable success with 1978's A Single Man, Elton ignored the punk revolution going on all around him and released an album of seven extended disco-rock songs. Quite why is unclear. Maybe he just felt like it. Apparently he had met producer Pete Bellotte (well known for collaborations with disco guru Giorgio Moroder) and Bellotte and persuaded Elton to do a disco album. Elton agreed on the premise that he just sang the vocals and did not play piano. The whole projects reeks of being an exceptionally poor decision. Even disco's light was fading by now, Elton was a year (or three) too late. Even now, you have to wonder what possessed him to do this.
                         
The opener is a punchy, thumping cover of Chuck Berry's classic Johnny B. Goode. Is is not too bad, although has no real rock'n'roll feeling to it but it allows whoever replaced Elton on piano to rock out with some boogie-woogie piano in the middle. Then we get some programmed drums and some wah-wah guitar before Elton returns on vocals. It is an interesting, upbeat oddity. Warm Love In A Cold World is all Giorgio Moroder-influenced disco rhythms - pounding drums and electric keyboard swirls backing repetitive vocals and some typical disco "thumb" bass.

Born Bad is next (all the tracks segue into each other). It actually sounds pretty much the same as the previous one. The beat has not changed all. The "born bad" refrain is repeated just like the "warm love" bit on the previous song.

Thunder In The Night has some Russian classical overtones and Elton's vocal is quite convincing on this one. It is probably the album's catchiest song. At least it is recognisable as Elton John.

You know, this album lasts only around thirty-five minutes, but after around twenty, I have had enough. The beat simply does not change. The vocals float around above it but it actually is a very boring album. Spotlight borrows the guitar riff from Caribou's Grimsby in places, I believe. Street Boogie is as remarkable as the rest of it. Victim Of Love has slightly more disco appeal, with a convincing refrain, but overall I am sorry to say that this was a completely uninspiring project. I have tried to be as positive as possible, but sometimes you just have to be honest.




The Complete Thom Bell Sessions (1979)


Nice And Slow/Country Love Song/Shine On Through/Mama Can't Buy You Love/Are You Ready For Love/Three Way Love Affair         

A few months before the totally disastrous, half-baked disco excursion that was Victim Of LoveElton John recorded the six tracks that appear on this appealing album in Seattle with legendary "Philly" producer Thom Bell and they were remixed in Philadelphia. They are much better than the "Victim Of Love" material. Full of sweeping Philadelphia strings and sumptuous backing. Elton's band was not used and the backing vocals were provided by members of The Detroit Spinners. Thom Bell apparently coached Elton in how to make his voice more soulful.
               
Nice And Slow is an upbeat soul song that was actually written by Elton and Bernie Taupin. On this, and on the next track, Country Love Song, Elton adopts a high-pitched nasal vocal slightly different from the deeper tone he had used on his previous album, 1978's A Single Man. On this song his voice, tone and phrasing sound identical to that on many contemporary Detroit Spinners recordings such as Then Came You and Lazy Susan.

Shine On Through from A Single Man is included from these sessions. At the point when the drums kick in on that album, it has a much quieter rise in sound here, with plucked strings, subtle cymbal percussion and a melodic string backing. It is orchestrated soul here, not a piano-driven full band rock ballad. I like both versions, but this one maybe just edges it, particularly with the instrumental break and gospel choir in the middle helping to swing it. Mama Can't Buy You Love is a relatively uptempo soulful number that a Elton trying to "soften" his voice. Teddy Pendergrass or Billy Paul he ain't, however. He was probably best sticking to his original bluesy Elton voice, to be honest. This doesn't really work for me, despite being a pleasant song with a good hook.

Are You Ready For Love? is just great and many people know it now, due to its popularity in later years. The Detroit Spinners did it first, of course, and their influence is all over it. It has a great funky break at the end of it. Three Way Love Affair is another excellent soul song that probably would have been better in the hands of a "proper" soul singer. Don't get me wrong, Elton's performance is ok, but that's all it is - ok. It was a interesting experiment, but Elton John was made for different material. We knew it and he knew it too.

THE EIGHTIES (1980-1989)




Elton John released an album in every year of the eighties, with the exception of 1987. The problem was, though, most of them weren't very good. I have tried to find the positives, however. They do improve as the decade progresses, so stick with it.

21 At 33 (1980)


Chasing The Crown/Little Jeannie/Sartorial Eloquence/Two Rooms At The End Of The World/White Lady, White Powder/Dear God/Never Gonna Fall In Love Again/Take Me Back/Give Me The Love   

After the disastrous experiment that was Victim Of Love and its disco meddling, Elton John returned to a certain amount of normality with this album. Still part-estranged from Bernie Taupin for a while, (he contributed three songs) Gary Osborne was still his main lyricist. It is not a bad album though, in places. It is notable, though, that the Taupin songs are three of the best ones - Chasing The CrownTwo Rooms At The End Of The World and White Lady, White Powder. We were heading into the eighties, though, and the worst aspects of that decade were beginning to make themselves known via drum machines, layered synthesised keyboards and the like. A Single Man, from 1978, for example, had none of that sort of thing. It had the band playing "proper" rock, still.
                                 
Chasing The Crown is a thumping, bassy rocker to open with which was relief after the previous album. He was playing piano again, too, which he hadn't done on that previous one. The beguiling, melodic Little Jeannie was a single and a most fetching one it was too, with an addictive hook and Elton on fine vocal form. There are slight hints of Daniel on the song, just every now and then. My personal favourite on the album is is the big, dramatic ballad Sartorial Eloquence which has an excellent build up to a very catchy chorus. Two Rooms At The End Of The World is a riffy, rocking number while White Lady, White Powder is an exhilarating, singalong ode to cocaine from an Elton who was getting increasingly dependent. It was a song addressing his problem, but almost admitting there wasn't much he could do about it. The desperate plea of Dear God comes next, maybe quite appropriately.



Never Gonna Fall In Love is an appealing ballad and Take Me Back is an upbeat, country-ish number with Elton adopting that strange, twangy voice he does on occasions and a fiddle break in the middle. Give Me The Love is a slightly dull but perfectly pleasant closer, albeit with some nice orchestrated backing, to what was actually quite a short album. It certainly wasn't a special album in any way, it had its high points, but it is not one out of  Elton's many albums, all of which I own, that I return to very often.



The Fox (1981)


Breaking Down Barriers/Heart in The Right Place/Just Like Belgium/Nobody Wins/Fascist Faces/Carla/Etude - Fanfare - Chloe/Heels of The Wind/Elton's Song/The Fox 
            
Elton John spent the eighties trying to re-focus, using songwriter Gary Osborne as well as Bernie Taupin. The results were mixed. In some ways this is a "treading water" album, in other ways there are a couple of hidden gems on it.
                                  
The first track, Breaking Down Barriers is rather nondescript and suffers from  muddy production somewhat. Heart In The Right Place is a heavy, clunky rocker with some killer lead guitar on it.

Just Like Belgium is one of my favourite, "undiscovered" Elton John songs. It is a Bernie Taupin song and you can tell. It is catchy, singalong and just very enjoyable. Nobody Wins is a late-era ABBA-esque, European-influenced melody but it is buried in eighties production and just sort of passes you by. Fascist Faces is a hard-hitting grinding rocker, with some searing guitar at the end and is a rare time when Taupin has written blatantly political lyrics.



Carla/Etude/Fanfare/Chloe form a neo-classical, highly orchestrated piece that has four parts. It has its ups and downs, but it is pretty unremarkable, to be honest. It is less than the sum of its parts. It is certainly no Funeral For A FriendHeels Of The Wind is a lively, upbeat Taupin song, but it is another one blighted by eighties production. It would have been a lot better with a conventional "rock" approach.

The final two tracks are excellent - the plaintive lament of Elton's Song and the slow-burning but melodic The Fox. Again you can tell it is a Taupin song as soon as Elton starts singing. Overall, it is an unremarkable album lit up by Just Like Belgium and The Fox.

Jump Up (1982)


Dear John/Spiteful Child/Ball And Chain/Legal Boys/I Am Your Robot/Blue Eyes/Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)/Princess/Where Have All The Good Times Gone/All Quiet On The Western Front  

"It's a terrible, awful, disposable album, but it had 'Empty Garden' on it, so it's worth it for that one song" - Bernie Taupin                    

This is one of Elton John's unfortunately half-baked albums that were juxtaposed with good ones throughout the eighties. He still had not properly reunited with Bernie Taupin (he wrote lyrics on five of the tracks) and the results are predictably uneven, as Taupin later admitted.

Dear John starts off with a Saturday Night's Alright drum shot and is a riff-laden, upbeat rocker, but is somewhat blighted, as many eighties recordings were, by synthesisers in the backing. Elton's vocal is strong and confident and, while the track is enjoyable, it is nothing special. It has a nice bit of  piano boogie at the end, though. Spiteful Child, a John/Taupin song, again has an intro that reminds you of an older, better track, this time it is Honky Cat. Thereafter it is pretty much downhill. The song is ponderous, despite its occasional killer piano licks. It is listenable enough, but not anything that makes you particularly want to listen to it again in a hurry. Ball And Chain, again, is catchy enough, with handclaps and "doo-doo" backing vocals, but there is just something missing, that certain je ne sais quoi. It is hard to put my finger on it, however. Legal Boys is a collaboration with Sir Tim Rice and sounds like it - dramatic and theatrical, as if it were written for a musical. It actually has a bit of an appeal, particularly when the chorus kicks in.

 

The inane (both musically and lyrically) I Am Your Robot, astonishingly, is a John/Taupin song and probably, despite a few lively rocky riffs, best left undiscussed. Blue Eyes, of course, written with second songwriting partner Gary Osborne, is a different matter and was the tender, romantic, yearning hit single from the album. There were always one or two excellent tracks, even on these slightly under-par albums. Continuing the quality is Elton and Bernie's poignant tribute to their old friend John Lennon in Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny).  It is a moving song, especially at the end, when it speaks of Lennon's Empty Garden. Elton and Osborne's Princess is actually quite appealing in a schmaltzy early eighties sort of way, with that cute little guitar bit on the chorus.

Where Have All The Good Times Gone amazingly, also starts like an older song, it's Philadelphia Freedom this time. The whole song has vibes of that hit from 1975. It is a nostalgic song for times gone by and in that respect, is sort of self-perpetuating. Then, it's All Quiet On The Western Front, one of those big, piano-led slow ballads that Elton and Bernie did so well in the early/mid seventies. It sounds as if it should be on Don't Shoot Me. It is a good one, let's be honest. Big and dramatic, with one of those really moving Elton vocals. It has some killer guitar/drum interplay right at the end.

There are some good moments on the album, yet it is always labouring in the shadow of the next album, Too Low For Zero (largely because of that one's hit singles). A treading water offering. (It has an awful eighties-style cover, front and rear, too).



Too Low For Zero (1983)


Cold As Christmas/I'm Still Standing/Too Low For Zero/Religion/I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues/Crystal/Kiss The Bride/Whipping Boy/Saint/One More Arrow  
                                           
After several years in the (comparative) wilderness, people were beginning to wonder if Elton John was still relevant or whether he now was just another washed up has-been. There was a convincing argument to say that he hadn't put out a decent album since 1975's Captain Fantastic. Some occasional moments of brilliance, but not too much more, let's be brutally honest. Punk and its rages had been and gone, new wave too, even New Romanticism was getting passe. It had all morphed into pop - synthesised, often electronic, drum machine pop. Elton John could actually find his place back in this milieu - as a grand old queen, loved by the old, middle-aged and young alike. He reunited his Bernie Taupin (not before time), got together his old band and released this album that got close to recapturing the feeling of those halcyon days. Not quite though, the album was still somewhat blighted by the excesses of eighties production to be another Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Let's concentrate on the good points though. The opener, Cold As Christmas was a melodic, but quite bleak and poignant piano-driven ballad to begin the album on a laid-back note. I'm Still Standing changed that - a perfect eighties upbeat pounding pop song, that would suit both the clubs and the mainstream radio. Too Low For Zero was catchy and tuneful, but with a bit too much eighties percussion for my liking and grand synthesiser sweeps. There is still room for some classic Elton piano work, however. Religion was a chugging rocker with some Stonesy guitar in the background and a wry lyric about evangelism. It is ok, but Elton's voice sounds far weaker than it did ten years earlier and that whole bluesy rock groove the band used to have had disappeared to be replaced by a much slicker, polished sound, but one that, for me had lost its grit and soul. There is something a bit muffled about the sound on this album. Play this track, or I'm Still Standing and then play something from Don't Shoot Me or Caribou and I guarantee you will notice the difference.

I Guess Why They Call It The Blues suffers in the same way from a half-baked production, but even that can't detract from what was a classic Elton John single. Soulful, catchy and instant. No arguments to this song's classic status. Crystal, however,  is far too "synth pop" for my liking. A bit of a throwaway this one. It begins with foreboding wind sounds, like Funeral For A Friend and then goes all Euro Pop, electronic keyboards and all. Shame.

For many people, though, this album was the first Elton John album they bought and it consequently means a lot to them and they think it's great. For me, I find it quite a disheartening experience listening to this having just listened to Madman Across The WaterHonky Chateau and Don't Shoot Me. Also, later albums like the excellent Peachtree Road are vastly superior to this, in my opinion. Not just in terms of the quality of the songs, but in the sound quality too. Give me Peachtree Road over this any day.

Kiss The Bride was a single and a punchy, singalong rocker it was too (although, once again, strangely muffled) and Whipping Boy is similar, although much faster, and played at a fair old pace. Elton almost falls off the edge. Again, both of them are acceptable, but I can't get too far beyond the lifeless sound. I really miss the bluesy Elton on albums like this. It is far too pop for my taste. Saint is another track that I feel could have been produced better. There is also something about Elton's voice during this period that I just found too high in pitch. It had lost its bluesy growl of the seventies and had yet to get to the warm depth of the late nineties and beyond.

The closer, the grand piano and strings ballad One More Arrow again has a high voiced Elton grating somewhat on what is not a bad song. It could have been one of those great album closers, Like Curtains or High Flying Bird. However, it doesn't actually even sound like Elton. As I said, I know many, many people love this album, but it is not one of my favourites, and I own every album he has released. I understand the album's appeal, but like mid-eighties music in general, it wasn't quite to my taste.



The non-album material from this album's sessions were -

Earn While You Learn, a lively organ and piano dominated instrumental. It is ok, but it goes on far too long at getting on for seven minutes, by the end of it much of its appeal has gone. Even longer at over seven minutes is Dreamboat, a track with a nice, gentle vocal and some attractive slightly funky guitar parts. It has vague hints of Betty Wright’s Clean Up Woman. Despite its length, it strangely doesn’t get tiresome. It just sort of drifts gently along. The Retreat is a more typical Elton John piano ballad with hints of the Tumbleweed Connection era about it until the eighties synthesisers take over. It is the best of these three tracks.

Breaking Hearts (1984)


Restless/Slow Down Georgie (She's Poison)/Who Wears These Shoes/Breaking Hearts/Li'l 'Frigerator/Passengers/In Neon/Burning Buildings/Did He Shoot Her?/Sad Songs             

This is another of those patchy eighties albums from Elton John, that somehow didn't do it, either for me, or for many others, it would seem. However, listening to it again, I am pleasantly surprised to hear that is much better than I recall. I have owned it for years and not dug it out too often. I am finding it has hidden depths. Bernie Taupin was back with Elton full time now, as he had been on the previous album, the successful Two Low For Zero. Also, the Elton John Band - Dee MurrayDavey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson are all present here, which is always a good thing.
                                  
Restless get the album off to a fine start with some chunky Stonesy riffs and a confident, lively vocal. Slow Down Georgie (She's Poison) is lyrically banal, but is actually quite an exhilarating, upbeat number that gets you singing along, embarrassingly. Who Wears These Shoes is, funnily enough, also strangely addictive in its funky liveliness. Maybe it is not quite as ordinary an album as I remembered. Breaking Hearts is a bleak, sad song, hauntingly sung over a sparse piano and choral backing. Li'l 'Frigerator up the tempo once more, with a frantic, typical Elton seventies-style rocker.  He does this sort of thing so well. You know, I'm not that big a fan of Too Low For Zero and I find I am enjoying this album more, to be honest.

Passengers, I have always felt, was a really odd song, with its slightly reggae-ish beat and strange, chanted lyrics. It also has a captivating air about it, though. Maybe this album has a few hidden secrets. In Neon (or "Ne-awwwn" as Elton sings it, Jagger style) is a fetching, melodic slow number with that slightly country-ish feel to it that we are so familiar with in John/Taupin compositions. Burning Buildings is a big production, dramatic number reminiscent of the material on Captain FantasticDid He Shoot Her? is another surprisingly appealing one that I have found I have enjoyed all these years later more than I ever did. Elton's voice sounds excellent here, even though it was only a couple of years away from an operation.

Sad Songs is one we all know - melodic and singalong. It doesn't need further comment from me. What does need to be said, however, is that this is a far better album than I had remembered, or is popularly conceived as being. In my view it is the superior, not only of Jump Up! but also of Too Low For Zero.



Ice On Fire (1985)


Your Town/Cry To Heaven/Soul Glove/Nikita/Too Young/Wrap Her Up/Satellite/Tell Me What The Papers Say/Candy By The Pound/Shoot Down The Moon    

This was one of the slightly less patchy eighties albums from Elton John, but, being released in 1985, it is still blighted by the worst excesses of eighties electronic, synthesised keyboard instrumentation. It is very much of its time, unsurprising, as Elton very much liked to ride contemporary waves. There is supposed to be guitar (Davey Johnstone) on the album, but he is only audible occasionally. There are no Saturday Night's Alright riffs, that's for sure. Before this came Breaking Hearts. After it came Leather Jackets. This was, unfortunately a dour period which led to it being just "another Elton John album".
                                                       
The opener, This Town has a funky, disco-ish rhythm with a good rubber-band bass sound, but its horn breaks sound synthesised as do some of the drums. It is ok, but certainly nothing special. Cry To Heaven is lovely, actually, and it has a bit of discernible guitar. One instrument that survived unscathed during the eighties was the bass. There was a distinctive eighties bass sound, such as heard on The ChristiansIdeal World that dominates this song beautifully and melodically.

Soul Glove is a hooky song, but again, very much of its time. That bass line returns, wonderfully, for the gorgeous Nikita that rode high above the eighties fog. It is still one of my favourite Elton songs. It is evocative, atmospheric and makes me so nostalgic for those October/November days of 1985. Certain songs just do that, this is one of them.

Too Young is pleasant enough, but sort of forgettable. Wrap Her Up is a dreadful eighties dance song, featuring additional vocals from George Michael. It is positively awful, particularly in its embarrassing namechecking of various female celebrities at the end. One of my least favourite Elton songs of all time. Satellite is Talking Heads-ish in places and has a reasonable groove to it. It is certainly better than the previous track.

Tell Me What The Papers Say is pretty awful too, buried in eighties keyboards and drum dance rhythms. Sorry, but it is just pretty damn ordinary. "Coal mines closed down, nobody's working underground today..." was not one of Bernie Taupin's best lines. Candy By The Pound is once again nothing special. It is almost not really like the Elton John we knew from the seventies. Most artists put out some bad albums in the mid-eighties, but because Elton has always put out albums very regularly, he seemed to release more than most that were thus afflicted. Shoot Down The Moon is a mournful, classical-sounding piano ballad and ens on a high note what really was quite a mediocre album, in retrospect.



The non-album extra material that appeared with this album's later release included -

The Man Who Never Died, a Song For Guy type grandiose instrumental. Like that track, it has minimalist vocals right at the very end. Restless, an upbeat live cut of the track from Breaking Hearts and Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word and I’m Still Standing also appear in impressive, enjoyable live versions.

Leather Jackets (1986)


Leather Jackets/Hoop Of Fire/Don't Trust That Woman/Go It Alone/Gypsy Heart/Slow Rivers/Heartache All Over The World/Angeline/Memory Of Love/Paris/I Fall Apart 

"There was a chance he could polish himself off. He'd go out and do some coke and it'd be all over his mouth, his nose would be running and I'd go: 'Oh God, this is just awful'" - Gus Dudgeon         

By his own admission, Elton John has himself condemned this album as his worst ever. He has confessed to be completely coked-up during much of the recording and expressed a sympathy for producer Gus Dudgeon, who had to try and cope with him as he took "a bag of coke a day". Amazingly, it is co-written with Bernie Taupin. The muse seemed to have temporarily left both of them. It is not quite as bad as many would have you believe, but it suffers from the awful eighties malaise of layered swathes of synthesisers in the backing, which swamped Elton's piano almost completely. Lots of bands/artists fell victim to this at the time - The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Queen, David Bowie and even Bob Dylan, so Elton was not alone. The red cover also was a victim of ludicrous eighties posturing.
                                          
Leather Jackets is, funnily enough, quite a good one an upbeat rocker that would have sounded pretty good with electric guitar and piano instead of synthesiser riffs. I actually quite like the hooky, lively ballad Hoop Of Fire. It is one of the best tracks on the album. Don't Trust That Woman is, let's face it, pretty awful, both musically and lyrically - one of Bernie's worst ever. It is full of terrible eighties instrumentation and an affected disco-ish vocal from Elton. The lyrics are best not commented upon.

 

Go It Alone is vibrant and riffy enough, but the whole ambience and electronic keyboard backing is just pretty uninspiring and, again, the lyrics are totally unimaginative, which is unusual for possibly the finest lyricist this country has produced. Thankfully, on Gypsy Heart we actually get to hear Elton's piano. It is nice, slow, melodic ballad with a strong vocal. It is one of the stronger songs on the album. What is odd about Elton's albums in the eighties, though, is that they veer from good to patchy in a literally one good/one patchy series, starting with 1981's The Fox  (good), to Jump Up (patchy), Too Low For Zero (good), Breaking Hearts (patchy), Ice On Fire (good), this one (patchy), Reg Strikes Back (good).

Slow Rivers is a duet with Cliff Richard and it is acceptable, but, as with much of the material, just seems somehow unrealised. Elton has said that Heartache All Over The World is his worst song of all time. It is hard to disagree with him. It is like some of the supposed "disco" stuff that Queen put on their Hot Space album. Positively dreadful. Angeline is not much better, possibly even worse, with an awful "oh-oh-oh" vocal intro. Yes definitely, this worse than Heartache. Ironically, John Deacon and Roger Taylor of Queen play on the track. Memory Of Love is a completely ordinary ballad. It is not so much the music here, it is actually the lyrics. Quite where Bernie's mind was at the time is unclear.

The last two tracks see an improvement. Paris is an appealing, melodic number with quite a catchy hook, while the stark, solemn ballad I Fall Apart seems to sum up Elton's situation at the time. I can't really recommend this one, other than as a perversely interesting curiosity.



Reg Strikes Back (1988)


Town Of Plenty/A Word In Spanish/Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters/I Don't Want To Go On With You Like That/Japanese Hands/Goodbye Marlon Brando/The Camera Never Lies/Heavy Traffic/Poor Cow/Since God Invented Girls    

This album was hyped very much as Elton John's "comeback" album after some torrid years in his personal life - the break up of his odd marriage and a huge cocaine consumption. It was unfairly criticised by many in the media and bracketed with 1986's execrable Leather Jackets. That was an unfair comparison. This album is a million miles better. The difference between both is light and day.
                                                           
Town Of Plenty is a catchy, upbeat opener, with, unfortunately, a synthesiser riff, but it is a good one, and the lyrics show a vast improvement on Bernie's last incomprehensibly bad effort on the previous album. Elton's voice is one fine form now, after a successful operation. This track is a real breath of fresh air, after the last outing. A Word In Spanish is an evocative, melodic and appealing Latin-flavoured ballad. Re-recording a beautiful classic like Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters from Honky Chateau was usably not the best of ideas, but if you take this punchy, horn-driven bluesy thumper as a completely new track, it works fine. The trumpet solo is impressive. It just doesn't match the original, of course, so it is best viewed separately, if that is possible. I like the version of it, though, it has some soul, and power. Similarly, I Don't Want To Go On With You Like That is a singalong slice of insistent piano and drum boogie, with another great vocal. Many have put this track down, why I am not quite sure. I have always liked it.


Japanese Hands is a lovely, atmospheric song, that sees Bernie Taupin back on lyrical form. Heaven knows what happened to his muse in 1986. He was back now, no doubting that. This is a fine song. You feel both Elton and Bernie have their mojos back. Goodbye Marlon Brando has a welcome seventies-style guitar riff and rocks, healthily. It also has some cynically witty lyrics. The Camera Never Lies is another rocking corker of a track, Elton back to his best. There really was nothing like this on Leather Jackets. Some great boogie-woogie piano on it too. This is more like it.

Heavy Traffic harks back in places to Honky Chateau in its slightly funky sound. Poor Cow has a decidedly odd vocal from Elton, but it has another vibrant urban funky flavour to it. Since God Invented Girls is a haunting, moving ballad to end on. This was, contrary to much popular opinion, an impressive album. It has good sound quality too.

The non-album extra track was Rope Around A Fool, a nice chunky number, delivered with a healthy enthusiasm and considerable vitality that adds to the “Elton is back” feeling of the album.



Sleeping With The Past (1989)


Durban Deep/Healing Hands/Whispers/Club At The End Of The Street/Sleeping With The Past/Stone's Throw From Hurtin'/Sacrifice/I Never Knew Her Name/It Amazes Me/Blue Avenue

"Bernie would listen to '60s soul songs and use those songs from the past to inspire new lyrics for their album. He would then write down which artists or songs influenced him" - Elton John
                   
The 1980s were a strange period for Elton John, each higher quality album seemed to be floored by a patchier one. There are some highlights - the Too Low For ZeroIce On Fire and Reg Strikes Back albums, but for long periods of the decade he was involved in length legal proceedings against the UK's "Sun' newspaper for defamation (which he won). So, by 1989, a weight seemed lifted from his often troubled shoulders and he returned with one of his most successful albums. He seemed to have straddled the generations well, and now had the respect of the younger generation. indeed, the forthcoming decade was the one that would see him elevated to the somewhat ludicrous, media-created and perpuated position of "national treasure". He seemed to enjoy that sort of thing, though, despite his battles with the media, and the old creativity came rushing back.

Back with Bernie Taupin once again  for this album, having re-united for the previous year's Reg Strikes Back there was some great, often upbeat material. There was a bit of unfortunate late eighties synthesised influence on the percussion at times, but you just have to accept that from this era. Everything was awash with synthesisers.
              
The opener, Durban Deep  is a rocking song about South African miners, strangely. It is a good one, with Elton on fine vocal form. His voice sounding strong and confident. Healing Hands is even more lively and captivating, with an instantly singable chorus and a pounding beat. The tempo drops for the melodic, delicate Whispers. The synthesised percussion is a bit off-putting on this one, but it has a soulful hook that rescues it. The good-time, toe-tapping beat returns with the atmospheric and effervescent Club At The End Of The Street, with its addictive sixties soul feel and lyrical references to Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. This is my favourite song on the album. It never fails to lift the spirits.

Sleeping With The Past is a pumping, bluesy (as far as late eighties music could be bluesy) metronomic rocker.  Elton's vocal attack on it is enthusiastic and strident. He sounds as if he is enjoying himself. Stone's Throw From Hurtin' is another rumbling rocker with even more of a deep, swamp rock, bassy feel than the previous track. Both of these tracks are not the instantly recognisable ones from the album, but they are well worth checking out. It is a shame songs like these just get forgotten, even by Elton himself, who does not play them live.

The sombre but tuneful Sacrifice was actually his first number one (apart from Don't Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee). It is tender and attractive, staying in the mind as soon as you hear it. Elton's voice is clearly ageing, even at this point, but has an attractive lisping slur to it, that it still has. This was never there in the seventies. His voice throughout the album has lowered in timbre from the one we were used to previously. It has been lower ever since. I Never Knew Her Name is a big, booming, horn-driven upbeat number. It Amazes Me is a gospelly, Southern states-style bluesy ballad in the typical eighties/nineties Elton style. Blue Avenue is a gentle number to end what is a pleasant and stimulating album. There is some delicious trumpet/French horn? on the backing to this one. This album probably just makes in to Elton's top ten albums, just. Or maybe not. There and thereabouts though.

 

The non-album tracks were the upbeat, beaty synth pop of Dancing In The End Zone and the muscular, brassy rock of Love Is A Cannibal. There was also Give Peace A Chance, which appeared as the b side of Club At The End Of The Street in some countries. It is a cover of the John Lennon chant, packed full of idiotic voices. Completely unessential.

NATIONAL TREASURE (1990-2016)



Elton John's final phase of his long career has seen him elevated to the position of "national treasure". It has coincided in an upturn in the quality of his output too.

The One (1992)


Simple Life/The One/Sweat It Out/Runaway Train/Whitewash County/The North/When A Woman Doesn't Want You/Emily/On Dark Street/Understanding Women/The Last Song                       
This is one of those Elton John albums which is regularly trotted out and quoted as being one of his low points. I would have to disagree slightly with that. It has hidden depths. Apparently, Elton said that it was the first one in a long time not to have been recorded under the influence of drugs or alcohol. To a certain extent you can tell There is clarity and purpose to many of the tracks and a strength of vocal delivery. It came three years after 1989's massively successful Sleeping With The Past and has suffered as a consequence, which has always been slightly unfortunate. There are not the hit singles on the album, and not as many instantly memorable tracks, so therein lies its problem. That said, it should certainly not be considered a bad album, there are some good songs on here.

The opener, Simple Life is a slow burning beauty, full of addictive Springsteen-esque harmonica, catchy chorus refrains and a sumptuous, moving vocal from Elton. The One is melodic, haughty and dramatic. Sweat It Out is a beguiling, slightly funky slow tempo number with a soulful, gruff Elton vocal. Tracks like this are great album tracks but they don't attract the "greatest hits" crowd, hence the album's comparative unpopularity. Runaway Train features Eric Clapton on searing guitar solo in the middle and is upbeat, strident and certainly one to remember, as far as I'm concerned. Great track. The same applies to Whitewash County, a country-ish, rhythmic rocker that has real echoes of Elton's mid-seventies material. I love this one too.


The North is a stately, majestic ballad with real atmosphere and another of those instantly recognisable Elton vocals that are just so moving. This is a lovely song with a beautiful piano solo too. The slow, reflective material continues with When A Woman Doesn't Want YouEmily is melodic and catchy enough, but doesn't stick in the memory as much as some of the others. On Dark Street is a soulful, orchestrated number but you do feel that the best material on this album was to be found in its beginning to middle. The drum-machine-dominated slowie Understanding Women and the mournful but totally beautiful The Last Song, while perfectly pleasant, would seem to probably back up that assessment.

The non-album tracks from the period were - Suit Of Wolves, a soulful, brooding, smoky synth ballad typical of the era and Fat Boys And Ugly Girls, a light piece of riffy, tuneful pop about a fat boy falling in love with an ugly girl. Strange.

Made In England (1995)

  
Believe/Made In England/House/Cold/Pain/Belfast/Latitude/Please/Man/Lies/Blessed      

Apart from the title track, all the songs have single word titles - maybe Bernie Taupin was trying to "get back to basis". Either way, this is a little mentioned, maybe somewhat underrated album. Often this album is grouped in with Leather Jackets and The Big Picture as a poor quality Elton John album. That does it a disservice. It is nowhere near that bad. It should have garnered the clichéd 'return to form" headlines, but for some reason, it didn't, which is a shame.
                             
The first track, Believe is very John Lennon-esque in its sound and lyrical content. Made in England is an absolute Elton rock classic - upbeat, riffy and catchy. One of the great forgotten Elton John classics. For me, it is almost up there with Saturday Night's Alright and The Bitch Is Back. House has a beautiful string production (legendary string producer Paul Buckmaster, from the Elton John album, is back for this album). It has a lovely, full bass line too. There are some hidden gems on this album, which merit it more than one listen. Considering some of the over-synthesised dross that John put out in both the eighties and nineties, there is a stark mournfulness to this album that renders it worthy of more respect than some of the others. Plaintive ballads abound, and Cold is another of them. Elton's piano is far more prominent on here than it certainly had been on many others before and after this one.


Pain has a Stonesy introductory riff and is a lively, catchy rocker. It is good to hear Elton properly rocking again, with a proper rock backing. This would not have sounded out of place on Caribou or Rock Of The Westies. Elton is on great vocal form. It is like turning the clock back twenty years. A breath of fresh air. Belfast begins with some classic strings sweeping all around before it turns into a tender piano ballad after nearly two minutes. This certainly would have suited the Elton John album. Latitude has a folky guitar backing, some jaunty brass and a shuffling, appealing rhythm. This is another one that harks back to the early seventies in its feel. Please also has that certain something too, complete with a slight Searchers-style guitar twang in its riff (or maybe it is Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers). There really is some undiscovered good material on here. It is a much better listen than the somewhat sterile The Big Picture from 1997.

Man has an Atlantic-style soul beat and an organ straight out of When A Man Loves A Woman in places. It mixes these influences with classic Elton balladry to give us one of the best tracks on the album. It builds up to a big gospelly ending. Great stuff. Lies has a grandiose, Pinball Wizard (Elton's version)-style rolling piano intro and morphs in to another seventies beat mid-paced rocker. Blessed is an atmospheric ballad, with a lovely string melody underpinning it, a great vocal and a sumptuous bass line. Give this album a listen, you will not be disappointed, if you like seventies Elton.

The Big Picture (1997)


Long Way From Happiness/Live Like Horses/The End Will Come/If The River Can Bend/Love's Got A Lot To Answer For/Something About the Way You Look Tonight/The Big Picture/Recover Your Soul/January/I Can't Steer My Heart Clear Of You/Wicked Dreams

"I dislike this album and consider Elton's worst, mainly due to the (poor) quality of my overall lyrical contribution and because the production is abysmally cold and technical" - Bernie Taupin

This is the last album before Elton John's (and Bernie Taupin's) creative "re-birth" with 2001's Songs From The West Coast, which led to a run of albums considerably higher in general quality and critical credibility than those that had populated the eighties and nineties. So many of the albums were simply just "another Elton John album". Unfortunately, this is one of those. It is perfectly acceptable, considerably orchestrated "adult pop". The problem is, one expects more from John and Taupin that that.
                                              
The opener, Long Way From Happiness is pleasant enough, but drenched in sombre synthesisers. Live Like Heroes has more clarity and sounds a bit like a movie theme type of song, full of "big" string orchestration and sweeping musical passages. Indeed, Taupin has stated that this is his least favourite Elton John album, largely because of the overwhelming backing, but also due to the fact he was not happy with his lyrics. Anyway, this track ends with a huge choral backing that Elton has a problem matching. This was also one of the first albums where Elton developed a sort of lisping, sightly slurred vocal. Some of his live performances at the time were blighted by this. Oddly, in a few years, his diction seemed to become clearer again. The End Will Come is a solemn ballad with more synthesised percussion and less piano, to its detriment. The eighties-style machine-generated backing has thankfully diluted somewhat, but it is still rearing its head. There is one burst of piano in the middle of this track, which is a relief.

If The River Can Bend begins with that accursed drum machine again and has a crackling, scratchy backing which is irritating. It is a good song though. A great bit of rollicking piano, however, is buried by more drum machine. Nineties "lush" pop at its worst. Thinking about it, Elton John went from 1978 to 2001 without putting out an album that wasn't blighted by synthesised keyboards and percussion. Love's Got A Lot To Answer For, is pleasant, but again, it has the feel of a movie soundtrack song. It is all a bit middle of the road, to be honest. The great years of the seventies seem a long way off now. Even a comparatively little mentioned seventies album like Blue Moves is a million miles better than this.

Something about The Way You Look Tonight has, as the title would suggest, something about it that lifts it above the rest of the album's material. The Big Picture sounds like another show tune, and while Recover Your Soul has a catchy melody, it sounds very much technically perfect, but lacking in any real soul. January is over-orchestrated, I Can't Steer My Heart Clear Of You similar, and, guess what, so is Wicked Dreams. The latter has a poppy, ABBA-like appeal, I guess. There are probably many who love this album, but it doesn't do it for me. The production is too big an obstacle for me to overcome.



Songs From The West Coast (2001)


The Emperor's New Clothes/Dark Diamond/Look Ma, No Hands/American Triangle/Original Sin/Birds/I Want Love/The Wasteland/The Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes/Love Her Like Me/Mansfield/This Train Don't Stop There Anymore

After two decades of variable material, this was the long-awaited "return to form", to use that horrible, over-used phrase. I guess here it was true. One listen to the opener, The Emperor's New Clothes and one is certainly convinced of that - a moving vocal, an autobiographical, nostalgic lyric (always a strength from Bernie Taupin), no layers of synthesiser, a crystal clear, well-utilised piano and generally a great sound to it altogether. It is a great start to the album, and one of Elton's best tracks for over twenty years. This album signalled the beginning of a run of excellent ones that put the previous twenty years' output to shame. To be honest, you could survive on Elton's pre-1978 and post 2001 material and not miss the in-betweens at all.

 

Dark Diamond is a rhythmic, mid paced rock-ish ballad with hints of the Captain Fantastic album to it and an excellent "proper" drum sound, thank goodness. It also features Stevie Wonder's instantly recognisable harmonica too. You hear stuff like this and think just how the heck did he tolerate some of the material he released in the eighties and nineties. Look Ma, No Hands starts with a Billy Joel-esque piano intro and a has a trademark, strong Elton vocal and those Americana lyrics. American Triangle continues in the same vein, with another excellent vocal from an Elton who seems to have got his clear diction back. Original Sin is another quality ballad. These songs sound so much better without those awful eighties and nineties backings, it has to be said. Maybe some of those earlier albums would have sounded so much better if they had been produced like this.

Birds is a country-ish lively number that harks back to the Tumbleweed Connection days, although I refute the popularly expressed opinion that this album is similar to that one. Nearly thirty years, for a start. It is difficult to explain how, but they are just different. I Want Love is a stark but catchy ballad, with an addictive bass line and is well known by most as it was a hit single. The Wasteland evokes some Elvis Presley in its opening riff, and utilises a classic blues progression in its basic backing and namecheck Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. It is good to hear Elton singing the blues again.


Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes has echos of Danny Bailey from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. There are lot of links to the past on this album, but they are just that, links, not attempts to copy. Love Her Like Me is a lively number, with a Springsteen-esque guitar riff. Mansfield is another of those nostalgic, autobiographical songs looking back at Elton and Bernie's crazy, wild times, of which they have done many, but they are always evocative. Indian Summer from the Madman Across The Water album is quoted in the lyrics.

This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore is a beautiful, typical Elton slow and emotional song to close what has been a most enjoyable album, not only lyrically, musically but also production-wise. There is a clarity of sound that had been lacking for a while and a more basic rock approach. Nice album.

Peachtree Road (2004)


Weight Of The World/Porch Swing In Tupelo/Answer In The Sky/Turn The Lights Out When You Leave/My Elusive Drug/They Call Her The Cat/Freaks In Love/All That I'm Allowed/I Stop And Breathe/Too Many Tears/It's Getting Dark In Here/I Can't Keep This From You     

This, like all of Elton John's post 2000 albums, a fine piece of work. He was back writing with Bernie Taupin again, concocting beautiful, catchy, evocative melodies around Bernie's Americana-influenced lyrics. This is what they did best, releasing albums that were a fine balance between solid, moving ballads and potent, bluesy rock. The albums are never built around singles, they are proper albums and, as they always were, are mature, sensitive and often reflective. Bernie Taupin is simply one of the greatest songwriters of our time, no question about it. All these albums have been hailed as a "return to form", but Elton/Bernie's quality never really left, these albums just reiterate it more than others.

        
The first two tracks are absolute corkers - packed full of Deep South atmosphere from the very first sound of falling rain on the wonderful Weight Of The World, while Porch Swing In Tupelo is similarly entrancing. Elton's voice, despite ageing, is very strong on the album. Answer In the Sky is a majestic soulful and uplifting song, with a delicious hook. Many said it was a return to Tumbleweed Connection or Elton John. It wasn't. It didn't have the country feel of the former or the lush orchestration of the latter. It was a 2000s album, excellent and unique in its own right. An Americana album for 2004, yet blatantly nostalgic. It is, though, very much a singer/songwriter album and one that doesn't pander to any contemporary trends. It is, as most of the pair's albums are these days, very much an American album. Indeed, they pretty much always were. This one very much so, though.

The quality continues on the country-ish ballad Turn The Lights Out When You Leave, once again, the refrain is instant. It grabs you by the senses. Elton's voice is as good as it has been for many a year.

Time for one of those big ballads - My Elusive Drug fits the bill, "my eloozive drug" as Elton sings it. It is both mournful, yearning and grandiose.

They Call Her The Cat is one of those horn-driven blues rockers Elton has done so well over the years, in the Philadelphia Freedom vein. Freaks In Love is a dignified, stately ballad. It has to be repeated that the quality really is exceptional on this album. All That I'm Allowed is also excellent, with a wonderful hook to it. Both of them, Elton and Bernie, have really hit the right spot on this album, musically and lyrically. The perfect partnership at the top of its game. These two great middle-aged men have given us so much over the years.

The remaining tracks are all high quality too - the lovely, tender I Stop And Breathe; the nostalgic and terribly sad Too Many Tears; the mournful It's Getting Dark In There with its start like Bob Dylan's Knockin' On Heaven's Door and the soully I Can't Keep This From You. The album became more reflective and low-key as it progressed, as if it were ageing, along with its composers. It really is a mature and fulfilled album - in Elton's top ten albums, for sure.

Non-album material included The Letter, a moving song from Elton's Billy Elliott musical involvement and the similarly evocative Electricity, from the same show. There is also Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher, a controversial song from the show that looks forward to her death. Now, I loathed her as a politician as much as anyone, but my hatred didn't extend that far.

The Captain And The Kid (2006)


Postcards From Richard Nixon/Just Like Noah's Ark/Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way/Tinderbox/And The House Fell Down/Blues Never Fade Away/The Bridge/I Must Have Lost It On The Wind/Old 67/The Captain And The Kid         

Elton John and Bernie Taupin reprised their classic 1975 Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy with this uplifting, inspired 2006 release. The first album was autobiographical and so, is this one, updated. Elton has no shame about singing about the last or indeed sounding like the past, and after several (comparatively) dull albums in the eighties and nineties, it is just refreshing to hear Elton sounding like this again, piano keys pounding, bluesy rock, punchy voice, sad voice on the ballads. The last album I intend to from Elton was 1983's Too Low For Zero. This album blows that away, effortlessly.

    

From the first piano notes of Postcards From Richard Nixon, the album is a delight from start to finish. The song has a great line about "Brian Wilson's promised land..", another line about Steve McQueen, and Elton's voice sounds just great, once again, after a solid performance on 2004's Peachtree Road. A great track. The band are on top form too, Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson from the old Elton John Band are involved again, as they should be. Just Like Noah's Ark is a big, bubbly, bouncy rocker that sounds as if it is straight off CaribouWouldn't Have It Any Other Way is just a lovely rock ballad, a love song to New York City with some great lyrics and a killer bass line. Hearing Elton on such great form again is just so good, and the same applies to Bernie's lyrics too. Both of them were rejuvenated in the early 2000s. The songs often see them comparing one to the other - "silk suits and Wrangler shirts/the piano and the saddle" - the showy dandy and the wanna-be cowboy (who became one). It is all very endearing. You cannot help but be moved by these two old friends baring their souls, once again, maybe for the last time in this blatant way.

Tinderbox is another solid, melodious mid-paced piano-driven slow rock song. It has a full, warm and powerful bass sound that I just love and some seventies-style backing vocals. Yes, all these songs are retrospective in sound, no dance rhythms or club vibes here, thank goodness. It is a retro album, and the sound is blissfully retro. I love it. The lively, boogie piano of And The House Fell Down is very Honky Chateau-ish in its bluesy, upbeat sound. Good to hear Elton rocking out on the piano again, after being awash with synthesisers in the eighties and nineties. Blues Never Fade Away - the title speaks for itself - it is a sad song lamenting lost old friends, some from AIDS. It is beautifully and sensitively delivered - I cannot speak highly enough of Elton's vocals on this album. Nice and deep and throaty, none of that somewhat high voice the slightly blighted some of his eighties work. The Bridge is just beautiful, the piano bit and heavenly choir-sounding backing vocals in the middle are enchanting. I Must Have Lost It On The Wind is a country-ish and sad song about lovers long gone and forgotten. On songs like this and the previous two, Elton seems to be ruminating, via Bernie's lyrics, as to how the hell he survived the years of excess when others were not so fortunate. "How did we get so lucky - targets on the rifle range..." he questions on Blues Never Fade Away. Very poignant.


Old 67 is straight out of Tumbleweed Connection in its vibe, with a great line "nearly froze to death on Oxford Street, now we're sitting in the South of France.." and the closer, The Captain And The Kid is a totally engaging song, referencing tumbleweed, rocket man, the brown dirt cowboy and the yellow brick road. It is just so moving, yet is a lively, upbeat song. Thank you Elton and Bernie. I can't help but love the music you have given us over so many years. My life has been enriched by it.

The Union (2010) with Leon Russell

 

If It Wasn't For Bad/Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes/Hey Ahab/Gone To Shiloh/Jimmie Rodgers' Dream/There's No Tomorrow/Monkey Suit/The Best Part Of The Day/A Dream Comes True/When Love Is Dying/I Should Have Sent Roses/Hearts Have Turned To Stone/Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)/In The Hands Of Angels  

Elton John finally got to record with his long-time hero Leon Russell, the man who influenced his sound more than anybody, on this appealing album.
                                  
The opener, If It Wasn't For Bad introduces us to Russell's slightly hangdog, world-weary voice. The song has a great hook, I find it reminiscent of an old Style Council track for some reason. Elton's Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes is a melodic piano-driven ballad with hints of Elton's early albums. Hey Ahab is a big, rousing blues number that Elton performed impressively in concert for a few years after the release of this. His voice sounds great on this and the song is driven by its strong backing vocals too. Gone To Shiloh is an evocative Bernie Taupin song about the US Civil War, the sort of song he has specialised in over the years. Neil Young contributes vocals to the song, effectively. The country-ish but bluesy Jimmie Rodgers' Dream is another instantly catchy one.



There's No Tomorrow is a New Orleans gospel-flavoured mournful song, with some killer guitar in the middle, while Monkey Suit is another pounding rollicking number that Elton did so well in concert.

Classic, upbeat Elton blues. The album is actually fourteen songs in length, so it lasts a fair old time. I could go on about each individual track but it is probably not necessary, they do not change much in style. Basically, if you like early Elton John, piano-led bluesy rock with airs of country, and lyrics of the Old West, Taupin-style then this is for you. Russell's style, delivery, piano playing and indeed songs are very much in the fashion of John/Taupin's - so they both feed successfully off each other. The piano on the lively A Dream Come True is superb.

A breath of fresh air pervades all around this album. It is enjoyable from beginning to end. Just check out the lovely The Best Part Of The Day, Elton at his absolute best, with Russell's touching help. Just beautiful.



The Diving Board (2013)


Oceans Away/Oscar Wilde Gets Out/A Town Called Jubilee/The Ballad Of Blind Tom/Dream #1/My Quicksand/Can't Stay Alone Tonight/Voyeur/Home Again/Take This Dirty Water/Dream #2/The New Fever Waltz/Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight)/Dream #3/The Diving Board  
                                                                                        
Elton John's first album for seven years, which was by far his longest absence from releasing material, this a more piano-led album than those that had been before. He had released the excellent collaboration with Leon RussellThe Union, however.

Oceans Away is a lovely, melodic, piano-only opener, while Oscar Wilde Gets Out is a darkly rhythmic, moving tale of the unfortunate playwright. This song features strings and a full band backing too, effectively. That production once again harks back to the Elton John album. A Town Called Jubilee has some country-ish blues guitar and some Bernie Taupin Americana lyrics. As with most of the output from 2001 there are significant hints of their recording past in John and Taupin's work on this album - Americana, bluesy tracks, country-ish tracks, rollicking piano, nostalgic lyrics. They are all there, but as with most of Elton's recent backyard-echoing material, they don't recall the hits i.e. Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock and the like. They bring to mind songs like Sixty Years OnFirst Night At HientonWhere To Now St. PeterHave Mercy On The Criminal and Susie (Dramas). If you are familiar with Elton's seventies material, you will know what I mean.

 

The Ballad Of Blind Tom is a appealing blues-based number with an excellent piano backing and some thumping drums. My Quicksand is a stark, mournful lament of a piano ballad. Long and languid, it has a strong vocal and an evocative refrain about "waking up with an accent" after going to Paris once. Elton also lapses into some classical piano at one stage. Can't Stay Alone Tonight gets the mood back up again with a country blues-ish upbeat number. Voyeur is a rich, warm, bassy ballad. Home Again is bleaker, piano and haunting strings only. It has an instantly appealing chorus and is reminiscent of some of the material on The Union.

Take This Dirty Water is one of those piano-led bluesy numbers like Take Me To The Pilot or Honky Cat, enhanced by some gospel-style backing vocals. The melodic, sad The New Fever Waltz has a real feel of an old song but I can't put my finger on what it is. Mexican Vacation is a rousing barroom blues rocker and The Diving Board is a jazzy, late night closer to an atmospheric, beguiling album.

One thing I would say about this album, though, is that, like many of its time, it is probably about two or three tracks too long. For me, it would have more effect if it were a few tracks shorter. Of course, I could always just not play a few of them, but I aways feel that somehow I should play albums through.



A non-album track from this album's sessions was the appealing mid-pace ballad Candlelit Bedroom. It fitted in fine with the rest of the album, so may as well have been included. There were also live versions of Home AgainMexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight) and The New Fever Waltz.

Wonderful Crazy Night (2016)


Wonderful Crazy Night/In The Name Of You/Claw Hammer/Blue Wonderful/I've Got 2 Wings/A Good Heart/Looking Up/Guilty Pleasure/Tambourine/The Open Chord             

Elton John, like Van Morrison, still releases an album every year or so. This is now his thirtieth studio album. You now know what you're going to get these days - piano-driven semi-bluesy rock workouts and some evocative, tender ballads. It was ever thus, to be honest. Many people criticise artists like this for treading the same ground over and over. I take issue with this. They do what they are comfortable with, what attracted people to them in the first place, and they do it well. Fair play to them. It as to be said, though, that the cover is truly awful. One of the worst of all his album covers, totally lacking in artistic invention. Just take a photo of Elton grinning against a background of bright paint streaks and, er, that's it. Poor show.
                       
This album starts with an upbeat, Leon Russell-influenced (what's new) piano blues rocker in Wonderful Crazy Night that sounds like something from the mid-seventies and is none the worse for it. In The Name Of You is a chugging mid-paced rocker that Elton does in his sleep, with some good percussion and an impressive fuzzy guitar solo. Claw Hammer is an interesting laid-back and mysteriously rhythmic track with Elton's voice surprisingly clear and convincing, which is not always the case these days. This is the first album since 2006's The Captain & The Kid to feature The Elton John Band, and you can tell, the musical delivery is exactly as you would expect  from Davey JohnstoneNigel Olsson and Ray Cooper - top quality.



Blue Wonderful is one of the highlights. Elton's voice does admittedly sound a bit croaky at some points, but that it parts of its appeal. It is a beautiful, thoughtful Bernie Taupin ballad and it is great that both of them are still recording excellent material like this all these years later. I've Got Two Wings is another Leon Russell-style country-ish piece of laid back blues rock with typical Taupin US-themed nostalgic lyrics. A Good Heart has a sort of Parisian torch song feel to it, atmospheric and immaculately delivered. Looking Up is an upbeat, riffy rocker with some standout piano licks and a gritty, solid vocal. Guilty Pleasure maybe fast in pace, but there is a sadness to it. Bernie Taupin's lyrics have that intrinsic tendency to keep any song from being too much of a good time. It has always been the way. Most of Elton's material featuring Taupin's lyrics have a percentage of essential melancholy in there somewhere. The moving melody and lyric and vocal performance of Tambourine would seem to exemplify that perfectly.

The album's closer, The Open Chord is a tender ballad, with a fetching vocal from Elton (albeit slightly slurred) and a lovely  piano/strings bridge part.

On the whole, Wonderful Crazy Night is an album of high quality but without any really catchy, obvious "hit single" style tracks. There is a comfortable feeling about it, like you are in safe hands,  and it is a very pleasurable listen, but once it is over, you can't actually remember too many individual tracks, just a memory of having enjoyed it. It is quite nice, also, to have a contemporary album that only lasts 41 minutes (like a seventies album) as oppose to being 70 minutes long and 16 tracks. Therefore, one ends the listen perfectly satisfied.

You really can't criticise Elton John for putting out quality albums like this, however. If he had released it in the late seventies or early eighties it would have been hailed as a great album. Indeed it is far superior to some of his mid-eighties output.

The non-album tracks were the standard Elton fare of Free And Easy and the vibrant, chugging rock of England And America.

3 comments:

  1. Caribou is indeed a pretty good album, not really good enough after yellow brick road but there's only really like two or three sucky ones on it. And you're absolutely right, I've Seen the Saucers and Stinker are actually pretty good despite what I've heard people say. And the singles are Elton John classics. And to be honest, I enjoy and listen to this album a lot more than I do Captain Fantastic and the first four or five albums.

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  2. Right again. I forgot about how Captain Fantastic climaxes so greatly on the last two songs. Curtains is easily the best on the album. In fact, it's amazing. I don't think the album really takes off until Writing. And then it really takes off with the last two songs.

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  3. I'm just giving Caribou a blast this morning (and I've edited my review to correct several typos!). Again, I am really enjoying it. Apart from Solar Prestige A Gammon there isn't really a duff track on it.

    Agreed, Curtains certainly is a great song. A fine end to a fine album.

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