Sir Elton Hercules John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, in London. He learned the piano as a child and started his career in the R&B band Bluesology as a teenager. In 1967 he began a songwriting partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin. At first the pair wrote songs for other artists, including Lulu, then John recorded his solo debut, Empty Sky, in 1969.
The debut was unsuccessful but 1970’s Elton John, and its top ten transatlantic hit ‘Your Song’, signalled the beginning of years of commercial domination. John’s contract required two albums per year, and he was remarkably prolific through the 1970s. His early work dabbles in singer-songwriter and country, but by the time of 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road he’d swapped intimacy for glam. John continued to be remarkably successful, scoring a top 40 single every year through until 1996. I’ve only covered John’s early work through until the mid 1970s.
Perhaps because of his demanding contract, many of John’s albums, even in his 1970s prime, don’t measure up to his amazing singles. They contain worthwhile album cuts, but they aren’t on the same level as transcendent singles like ‘Tiny Dancer’ and ‘Rocketman’.
John’s a great vocalist, with an elastic voice, and a skilled pianist, but at the same time he’s an unlikely looking pop star – it’s not surprising that it took him a while to break through into the big leagues. John’s synergistic relationship with Taupin is fascinating – no other major league rock vocalist has depended on one single lyricist so heavily. Taupin’s lyrics are unusual, veering between strikingly unusual imagery, and some incredibly clunky lines.
Elton John Album Reviews
Empty Sky | Elton John | Tumbleweed Connection | 11-17-70 | Friends | Madman Across The Water | Honky Château | Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player | Goodbye Yellow Brick Road | Caribou | Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy | Rock Of The Westies | about another 30 records…..
1969, not rated
In the wake of his 1970 self-titled breakthrough, it’s easy to forget about John’s debut album. The best-known song is ‘Skyline Pigeon’, later re-recorded as a b-side for 1972’s ‘Daniel’. Bernie Taupin later said: “I think, funnily enough, Skyline Pigeon was the first really good song that we ever wrote. I think it was a landmark as far as our writing was concerned – it was a good blend of lyrics and melody.”
Elton John’s sophomore album was never intended to be a hit – instead it was planned as a set of polished demos that John could use to shop his songs around. The polished demos were worked up by several key members of Elton John’s support team; Gus Dudgeon would stick around as producer for most of the 1970s, while string arranger Paul Buckmaster would feature on John’s next few albums. The album’s not the glam-rock John’s best known for – it’s a mix of singer-songwriter material, country, and dramatically orchestrated material.
The breakout piece for John was ‘Your Song’, a gentle song that’s perhaps lent intimacy by unpolished lyrics like “If I were a sculptor/But then again, no.” The best song though, is ‘Take Me To The Pilot’, a rocking gospel piece where John’s driving piano takes centre-stage over the strings. I’ve always enjoyed the intimacy and harpsichord of ‘I Need You To Turn To’, while ‘Border Song’ is a great gospel tune with a bombastic arrangement. On my CD edition, the comparatively raw b-side ‘Bad Side of the Moon’ is a blast of fresh air after the series of overblown orchestrations that close the disc.
Elton John had enough great material to launch the career of a superstar, but John would quickly surpass it with subsequent efforts.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin were big fans of Bob Dylan and The Band, and with their third album they created a country-flavoured concept album about the Old West. Unlike John’s other early 1970s records, Tumbleweed Connection doesn’t feature any well-known radio hits – the closest is ‘Country Comfort’, covered by Rod Stewart. But it’s one of John’s best records regardless – the toned down strings and coherent direction are a step forward after Elton John.
Within the overlying country music textures, there’s plenty of stylistic variation – ‘Son of Your Father’ and ‘Amoreena’ are muscular piano-driven workouts that provide impetus in between delicate ballads like ‘Come Down In Time’ and ‘Talking Old Soldier’. The opening line to ‘Where To Now, St Peter?’, “‘I took myself a blue canoe”, is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic moments in John’s catalogue. The best is saved for last – ‘Burn Down The Mission’ showcases John’s vocal athleticism, finding a middle ground between country and gospel.
It’s lacking in hit singles, but Tumbleweed Connection is one of John’s best records, a committed expedition to the American frontier.
1971, not rated
John and Taupin had agreed to soundtrack this unsuccessful teen-romance film before they became successful. It’s never been released as a standalone CD, although it was included on the 1992 compilation Rare Masters. The title track was a minor US hit, John’s first since ‘Your Song’.
1971, not rated
A live broadcast of a 1970 Elton John concert had become a popular bootleg, so it was released as an official album. The 48 minute live album includes a cover of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and an 18 minute version of ‘Burn Down The Mission’. Instead of the string infused arrangements of his studio albums, it’s the work of a three-piece band – Elton wasn’t allowed to use his live band of drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray on more than one song per studio album until 1972, but they’re featured here.
Madman Across The Water
If Tumbleweed Connection was John and Taupin’s country album, 1971’s Madman Across The Water flirts with progressive rock. Many of the tracks run over six minutes, and Rick Wakeman guests on Hammond organ. Perhaps due to an oversupply of Elton John albums on the market – Madman Across The Water was his fifth release of the 1970s – it was commercially lacklustre, failing to crack the UK top 40. Madman Across The Water is the most uneven of John’s records from the 1970s – the three key tracks are some of John’s absolute finest, but the remainder are unremarkable.
Opening track ‘Tiny Dancer’ is one of John’s very best tunes – a tribute to Taupin’s girlfriend Maxine Feibelman, a seamstress for the Elton John Band. Buckmaster’s orchestration is an integral part of this multi-part epic, as is BJ Cole’s pedal steel, while John effortlessly hits the high notes in the chorus. Almost as good is second track ‘Levon’, Jon Bon Jovi’s all-time favourite song, another richly orchestrated and melodic ballad. The title track is also excellent, with its ominous synths and John’s vocal intensity. Elsewhere ‘Indian Sunset’ is an interesting attempt at an orchestrated, native-American themed epic, and ‘Razor Face’ and ‘Rotten Peaches’ are serviceable album tracks, but it’s hard for the album tracks to gain attention when surrounded by three towering epics.
The best parts of Madman Across The Water are untouchably good, making it an essential Elton John record, despite some dispensable album tracks.
Honky Château marks the start of a new era for John. Buckmaster’s string arrangements are gone, while he uses the Elton John Band for an entire album for the first time. Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson are featured along with guitarist Davey Johnstone. The result is an energetic record that propelled John into the big leagues – it was the first of seven consecutive US number one albums. Honky Château touches on a variety of styles – there’s more of a rock and roll sound with the stripped down band, but there’s also country, New Orleans funk, and soft rock.
Like every Elton John studio album, Honky Château isn’t perfect – in particular, the country songs ‘Mellow’ and ‘Slave’ drag a little. But it’s the best record from his prime era – the extra energy helps deep cuts like ‘Amy’ and ‘Hercules’ to shine. The two singles are great; the New Orleans flavoured ‘Honky Cat’ and the space themed ‘Rocket Man’ are among John’s tunes, and the simple acoustic strumming in the chorus of the latter is a great arrangement touch. ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ is a widely loved deep cut, but ‘Susie (Dramas)’ is my favourite of the album tracks, featuring some great piano riffs and a snappy guitar solo.
Honky Château captures John at an ideal juncture in his career, infusing the endearing sincerity of his earlier albums with some rock and roll energy.
Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player
The title for John’s sixth album came from a dinner out with his friend Groucho Marx. After an evening of teasing from Marx, culminating in his holding his hand in the shape of a gun pointed at John, Elton threw up his hands and exclaimed “don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player”. Musically, the record’s like a more lacklustre version of Honky Château, trading that record’s energy for an adult contemporary sheen.
Even the singles are the weak links in Elton’s majestic run of 1970s radio hits; ‘Daniel’ is insipid soft-rock, while ‘Crocodile Rock’ is a 1950s throwback. Better is ‘Elderberry Wine’, an energetic slice of piano-pop that succeed in spite of Taupin couplets like “You aimed to please me/Cooked black-eyed peas me.” ‘Midnight Creeper’ mines the same New Orleans territory as ‘Honky Cat’ did on the previous record, adding some Rolling Stones muscle, while I also enjoy the closing piano ballad ‘High Flying Bird’, featuring the warm harmonies of Olsson, Johnstone, and Murray.
A merely good album in Elton John’s strong early 1970s catalogue, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player is John’s most dispensable record from the period.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is John’s most iconic, packed with hits. It was originally planned to record Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in Jamaica, following the example of The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup. John composed most of the tunes while staying in the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Kingston, but recording was moved to Château d’Hérouville, the same place as the previous two records, after technical issues and political tension.
There’s an amazing single album here, easily John’s best, but it’s padded out with obnoxious filler like the white reggae of the badly titled ‘Jamaican Jerk-Off’, sexist Taupin lyrics on ‘Sweet Painted Lady’ and ‘Dirty Little Girl’, and the hackneyed cowboy of ‘Roy Rogers’. Fortunately, they’re outweighed by the volume of Elton John classics – the glam of ‘Bennie and the Jets’, the Marilyn Monroe tribute on ‘Candle in the Wind’, the rocker ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’, and the soaring title track are all well loved singles. There’s also the opening progressive rock suite ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’, ‘Grey Seal’ (wisely recycled from an earlier outtake), and the overlooked closer ‘Harmony’, one of John’s prettiest melodies that soars with the group’s harmonies.
Keep the first six tracks, ‘The Ballad Of Denny Bailey (1909-34)’, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’, and ‘Harmony’, and you have John’s indisputable best album and one of the best ever made. The double album that was eventually released is merely very good.
Caribou was recorded in a tight schedule – John only had nine days before he embarked on a tour of Japan. The record’s named after James William Guercio’s studio in Colorado where most of it was recorded. Dudgeon, who was left to overdub the initial sessions, was dismissive of Caribou, labelling it as “a piece of crap”, but if you enjoy John’s other albums from the era, this one is also enjoyable. Caribou features more noteworthy backing musicians than most of John’s records from the era; Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, and Toni Tennille are on backing vocals, while Tower of Power contribute horns.
The two singles are both enjoyable and showcase different facets of John. The opening rocker ‘The Bitch Is Back’ uses Tower of Power’s horns, and was titled after Taupin’s wife’s descriptions of John’s bad moods. ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down’ on me is a torch song, although the studio version has largely been eclipsed by the 1991 live duet between John and George Michael. The Tower of Power are also featured on the upbeat ‘You’re So Static’, while ‘I’ve Seen The Saucers’ has an endearing weirdness and melodic flair. There’s some truly oddball stuff on Caribou; ‘Solar Prestige A Gammon’ finds John portentously delivering meaningless lyrics, while ‘Grimsby’ is a bizarre ode to a mundane town.
Caribou is one of John’s lesser albums from the first half of the 1970s, with more than its share of awkward and campy moments, but it’s still worth exploring.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
If Caribou was a rush job, Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy is a piece of studio perfectionism. The group spent almost a month in the studio, carefully crafting the sophisticated adult contemporary sound. It marks the end of an era for John – it was the last 1970s record with Murray and Olsson, who were fired before the next album. Captain Fantastic was immensely successful in the US, debuting at number one, and it tells the story of John and Taupin’s efforts before success. The songs were written, and are sequenced, in chronological order.
As well written and meticulously crafted as Captain Fantastic is, it is a little sedate, and the best parts are the big pop hooks hit. The hit was the almost seven minute long ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’, and it’s great, with its gravelly piano hook and its stacked harmonies in the chorus. There’s a great chorus on ‘Tower Of Babel’ and a triumphant vocal hook at the conclusion of ‘Curtains’. The rock of ‘(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket’ is a welcome change of pace. The CD version includes ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ from earlier in 1975, one of John’s best non-album singles, a Philly Soul tribute to Billie Jean King.
Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy lacks some of the effortless pop sense of John’s earlier work, but it’s a very strong stab at an adult contemporary record.
Rock of the Westies
Elton John was only 27 when he released Rock of the Westies, but it sounds like a midlife crisis. John fired his long-serving rhythm section, and opted for a second guitarist, using Caleb Quaye alongside Davey Johnstone. The result is the most rock-oriented and oddball album is John’s catalogue, but it was still wildly successful – it was just the second album to debut at number one in the US charts, following Captain Fantastic. The title is a pun on west of the Rockies – like the previous two records it was recorded at Caribou Ranch.
Many of the songs bury the keyboards, and focus on the dual guitars. Songs like ‘Grow Some Funk of Your Own’ and ‘Street Kids’ are surprisingly hard-edged, and it’s fun to hear John use his flexible voice on rockers. The one piano ballad is supremely weird – ‘I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)’ features progressive rock guitar solos, and is another Taupin lyric inspired by Maxine Feibelman, about her affair with the record’s bass player Kenny Passarelli. The single was ‘Island Girl’ – it’s a nice tune, but the lyrics are hideously dated.
Rock of the Westies is a fascinating and overlooked record – Elton John at the end of his golden run trying on some different styles.
Elton John’s kept releasing albums, but the 1970 to 1975 period is where most fans focus. He kept on scoring hit singles, and songs from the 1980s like ‘Empty Garden’ and ‘I’m Still Standing’ have held up well. One of his most loved releases is the 1994 soundtrack to The Lion King, with lyrics by Tim Rice.
Ten Best Elton John Songs
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Burn Down The Mission
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Take Me To The Pilot
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