Friday, 20 December 2019

Elton John - Captain Fantastic (1974-1979)



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

The albums covered here are:-

Caribou (1974)
Live Here And There (1974)
Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1974)
Rock Of The Westies (1975)
Blue Moves (1976)
A Single Man (1978)
Victim Of Love (1979)
Live In Moscow (1979)
and The Thom Bell Sessions (1979)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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CARIBOU (1974)

1. The Bitch Is Back
2. Pinky
3. Grimsby
4. Dixie Lily
5. Solar Prestige A Gammon
6. You're So Static
7. I've Seen The Saucers
8. Stinker
9. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me
10. Ticking    
                                                            
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 nonsense, meaningless lyrics, in an invented language, as if to exemplify that notion and prove their point. The problem with this album is that after 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 classics.

The upbeat, lively Grimsby is a good one too, a slice of nostalgia from Bernie about the Humberside town near where he grew up in Lincolnshire. The tuneful and endearing ballad Pinky is not 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 waste of everyone's time. You're So Static is acceptable, actually, 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 again, to be honest.

I've Seen The Saucers is a bizarre song about flying saucers, and you feel they were going down the space path one too many times, but it has a sort of weird, late sixties Beatles-ish appeal. To be honest, it is really difficult one to categorise. It is 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.



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.

 

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LIVE HERE AND THERE (1974)

 

This is possibly my favourite Elton John live album. The latest edition has two full concerts (or virtually full set lists, probably not quite) from London's Royal Festival Hall in the summer of 1974 and New York's Madison Square Garden from the November of the same year.

The London gig is truly excellent. Elton announces at the beginning that they are going to start with some of the old material from the start of their career, and he begins with the lovely, underrated Skyline Pigeon.

Other highlights are Take Me To The PilotLesley Duncan's Love Song featuring her, Country ComfortBad Side Of The Moon and a barnstorming Burn Down The Mission.

The band are on great form, as is Elton, and there is a real intimacy to the show. Crowd pleasers at the end are Crocodile RockCandle In The WindYour Song and a rocking Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting).

The New York show is outstanding too. It is notable for the historic introduction of a special guest at the end, the hitherto self-imposed recluse John Lennon, to the delight of the crowd. They do Lennon's Whatever Gets You Thru The NightLucy In The Sky With Diamonds and a lively, joyfully nostalgic I Saw Her Standing There. It is also good to hear the opening Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, an extended, even punchier version of Take Me To The Pilot than was played in London, the lovely Grey Seal and a rare outing for You're So Static from the Caribou album.

The sound quality from both concerts is excellent. A highly recommended live album.

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CAPTAIN FANTASTIC & THE BROWN DIRT COWBOY (1975)

1. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy
2. Tower Of Babel
3. Bitter Fingers
4. Tell Me When The Whistle Blows
5. Someone Saved My Life Tonight
6. (Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket
7. Better Off Dead
8. Writing
9. We All Fall In Love Sometimes
10. Curtains          

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 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 anything else Elton had laid down since Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  As a statement of defiant intent it was pretty potent. Tower Of Babel continues the quality in a mid-paced, touching ballad with Elton adopting a higher pitched vocal than usual. Some outstanding guitar and drums on this and some genuine melodrama in Elton’s delivery.


Bitter Fingers is great. Building up to a huge rock chorus with guitar, piano and Elton’s vocal telling us of their days hawking their material around music publishers in London’s Denmark Street. Great harmony vocals and lead guitar from Davey Johnstone at the end. Tell Me When The Whistle Blows is a semi-funky, wah-wah guitar backed, slow blues grinding track, often overlooked, but one of the best, featuring more stunning guitar work, the Elton John Band were at their peak right now. Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and powerhouse drummer Nigel Olsson. The afore-mentioned Someone Saved My Life Tonight is just simply wonderful, it has to be reiterated. That iconic piano intro, the plaintive, soulful vocals, the lyrics. The marvellous harmonies at the end. Up there with the best songs they ever came up with.

The old "side two" of the album kicks off with the rocking piano-driven (Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket referencing Elton and Bernie's times struggling to make ends meet and even feed themselves. Better Off Dead is a somewhat strange song with a Teutonic operatic-style chorus (influenced slightly by Queen). That said, it is an intriguing song and sticks in the head. Once again, the instrumentation on it is superb. Writing has a light, rhythmic and guitar groove, almost reggae-ish and very summery with some lovely guitar parts, bongo percussion and a top notch vocal from Elton yet again. Listening to the album again, I am realising just how damn good it was. If it was not quite the equal of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road it was certainly not far behind.



The final two tracks, the emotional piano ballad We all Fall In Love Sometimes which was more typical of what one had come to expect from Elton John, and the beautiful Curtains sort of segue into each other. From the majesty of Fall In Love's denouement, the mournful Curtains suddenly begins. Beautiful. Reminds me slightly of Roxy Music's Sunset from 1973's Stranded album.  The album quietly, but dramatically fades out, with a sad, repeated backing vocal refrain, as it probably should. In a joyous, sad but reflective mood. All emotions bundled up together. All in all, a magnificent piece of work.

It is truly one of the finest albums of the seventies. Somehow never quite given the credit it deserved. Along with Yellow Brick Road, Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Chateau it is in Elton John's top five albums. Bernie Taupin is also up there with the great British songwriters, he also is regularly overlooked.



** There was some really high quality non-album material from this period. Firstly, a superb cover version single in The Beatles' Lucy 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.

  

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ROCK OF THE WESTIES (1975)

1. Yell Help
2. Dan Dare
3. Island Girl
4. Grow Some Funk Of Your Own
5. I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)
6. Street Kids
7. Hard Luck Story
8. Feed Me
9. Billy Bones And The White Bird
10. Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Bonus Track)           

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.

  

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BLUE MOVES (1976)

1. Your Starter For...
2. Tonight
3. One Horse Town
4. Chameleon
5. Boogie Pilgrim
6. Cage The Songbird
7. Crazy Water
8. Shoulder Holster
9. Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
10. Out Of The Blue
11. Between Seventeen And Twenty
12. The Wide-Eyed And Laughing
13. Someone's Final Song
14. Where's The Shoorah?
15. If There's A God In Heaven (What's He Waiting For?)
16. Idol
17. Theme From A Non-Existent TV Series
18. Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance)  
                         
This was an ambitious double album from 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 Dee, Don't Go Breaking My Heart.

  

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A SINGLE MAN (1978)

1. Shine On Through
2. Return To Paradise
3. I Don't Care
4. Big Dipper
5. It Ain't Gonna Be Easy
6. Part Time Love
7. Georgia
8. Shooting Star
9. Madness
10. Reverie
11. 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 Love, I 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.

 

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VICTIM OF LOVE (1979)

1. Johnny B. Goode
2. Warm Love in A Cold World
3. Born Bad
4. Thunder In The Night
5. Spotlight
6. Street Boogie
7. 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.



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LIVE IN MOSCOW (1979)

1. Daniel
2. Skyline Pigeon
3. Take Me To The Pilot
4. Rocket Man
5. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me
6. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
7. Candle In The Wind
8. I Heard It Through The Grapevine
9. Funeral For A Friend
10. Tonight
11. Better Off Dead
12. Bennie And The Jets
13. Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
14. Crazy Water
15. Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)/Pinball Wizard
16. Crocodile Rock/Get Back/Back In The USSR                          


This is a simply lovely live album taken from Elton John's solo performance in Moscow in 1979 (with occasional support from percussionist Ray Cooper). It was ground-breaking for a Western artist to play behind the Iron Curtain (only Cliff Richard had preceded him) at the eight of The Cold War and Elton is on top form too. His career was going into a bit of a rut in 1979 with the release of the awful cod-disco Victim Of Love album but here he resurrects his classic material from the previous ten years and serves up a treat. He is now at a point where his past material was able to be revisited and re-connected with. It was also clear that it was eminently superior to his current output.

 

The solo aspect of the performance meant that he had the freedom to stretch the songs out and indulge himself a little. He does so on tracks like Rocket Man, Bennie And The Jets and a cover of I Heard It Through The Grapevine in particular, along with the extended encore of Crocodile Rock/GetBack/Back In The USSR. Musically and vocally his performance is faultless, commanding, virtuoso and full of soul. His vocals are crystal clear, with none of the slurring that would blight later performances.

I can't say much more than this is Elton John at his very best (you know all the songs) showing just what a supremely talented individual he was/is. There is a fair argument that this is his finest live album.

 

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THE THOM BELL SESSIONS (1979)

1. Nice And Slow
2. Country Love Song
3. Shine On Through
4. Mama Can't Buy You Love
5. Are You Ready For Love
6. 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.

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