Thursday, 3 June 2021

Bite-sized Elton

These are most of Elton John's studio albums, together with short accompaniments from my longer reviews (which can be accessed here) :-

Empty Sky (1969)

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.

Elton John (1970)

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 - "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". 

Tumbleweed Connection (1970)

Up there in Elton John/Bernie Taupin's top five albums (along with Elton John, Honky Château, Goodbye 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.

Madman Across The Water (1971)

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. 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.

Honky Château (1972)

Honky Château 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.

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

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. It was a bridging point, musically and conceptually.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

In 1973 Elton John could do no wrong on both sides of the Atlantic. Honky Château 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 pudgy-fingered colossus. Do not let the over-the-top preposterous image overshadow the music, however, or indeed its tremendous lyrics. 

Caribou (1974)

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.

Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)

After the stunning 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.

Rock Of The Westies (1975)

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

Blue Moves (1976)

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. There is some hidden treasure on here, for sure. Things could have been a lot worse and indeed, they would be...

A Single Man (1978)

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.

Victim Of Love (1979)

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 Complete Thom Bell Sessions (1979)

A few months before the totally disastrous, half-baked disco excursion that was Victim Of Love, Elton 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.

21 At 33 (1980)

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 Crown, Two 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.

The Fox (1981)

Elton John spent the eighties trying to re-focus, changing things around - using songwriter Gary Osborne as well as Bernie Taupin. The results were mixed, you have to admit, and in some ways this is a "treading water" album, in other ways, though, there are a couple of hidden gems on it. Overall, however, it is a pretty unremarkable offering, albeit brightly lit up by the excellent non-hit single Just Like Belgium and the equally attractive The Fox.

Jump Up! (1982)

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. 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)

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.

Breaking Hearts (1984)

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 Murray, Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson are all present here, which is always a good thing.

Ice On Fire (1985)

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".

Leather Jackets (1986)

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.

Reg Strikes Back (1988)

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. Subsequent albums would contain less low points than some of those eighties offerings did.

Sleeping With The Past (1989)

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 One (1992)

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.

Made In England (1995)

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 Big Picture (1997)

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.

Songs From The West Coast (2001)

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.

Peachtree Road (2004)

This, like all of Elton John's post 2000 albums, is 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 Captain And The Kid (2006)

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.

The Union (with Leon Russell) (2010)

Elton John finally got to record with his long-time hero Leon Russell, the soulful and bluesy piano man who influenced his sound more than anybody, on this most appealing album. A breath of fresh air pervades all around as you listen to this and it is just supremely enjoyable from beginning to end. Just check out the lovely The Best Part Of The Day or The Union, tracks that see Elton at his absolute best, with Russell's touching help. Just beautiful in every way. 

The Diving Board (2013)

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 Russell, The Union, however. 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 On, First Night At Hienton, Where To Now St. Peter, Have Mercy On The Criminal and Susie (Dramas). If you are familiar with Elton's seventies material, you will know what I mean. 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.

Wonderful Crazy Night (2016)

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. 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 opposed 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment