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Touted as one of the greatest independent singer/songwriters of the 20th century, Elton John was to most the geeky but overly flashy looking guy in ‘larger than life’ glasses who jumps wildly on the piano. Forever enshrined in ebony and ivory alongside Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder, these men were the innovators of legendary MOR, or as we lesser mortals know it, middle-of-the-road music.
After tripping up writer Bernie Toppin in 1967, the two were soon to become almost as much hosts as the Lennon and McCartney machine. Throwing out bluesy rock, prog, slowing down, knuckle-slicing ballads came easy for the songwriting duo, and the 1973 album’s out-of-control mash-up, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, was no exception.
By the time it was released in October of that year, Elton John was already basking in the glow of having achieved one previous number one album, the undeniably exceptional ‘Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player’, in February 1973 and five ten best singles. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ was just another number one album it seemed, both over there and over there, where it held the number one spot in the US for an impressive eight weeks.
By introducing us to Lowry’s illustration on the front cover, Ian Beck provides, in my opinion, the perfect setting for the musical content within. Showing us a young ‘Elt’ stepping through a torn poster into another world, not unlike Dick Van Dyke in ‘Mary Poppins’, he has a sparkly pair or red platform boots and a little wind-up piano. Faded, on purpose, this album, even on its first release, showed all the progressions of what a classic album should look like. It is known that all the greatest albums ever recorded had such uniquely presented album covers. I can’t think of an album where that wasn’t the case.
This colorful album, in more ways than one, can certainly justify its pride of place as one of those great albums of all time. Lavish in its content, it glides through every conceivable genre worth trying. It proves to us that his music, which was really only found in those early years, could be just as outrageous as his growing wardrobe. Disjointed and inconsistent it can be to the expertly trained ear, but these little epics of genius observations overcome this potentially disastrous point and allow the album to take a prominent place in any diverse record collection.
However, on the other hand, it is dated and this is always a difficult concept for a classic album to shake off. Many under-thirty listeners will happily dismiss this perfectly formed album as one of those records best left to dad’s brooding moments, but even so, there’s a lot to be learned from this dangerously arrogant legend in his young, free-spirited youth. . Let’s also not forget that this was Elton in his expressive, ‘can’t-give-monkeys’ era and long, long before the terrible cartoon soundtracks….Anything before that first fateful collaboration with Sir Tim Rice is worth a listen.
The first artist-produced double album, and terrifyingly not the last, opens with the depressing title, ‘Funeral For A Friend’. Introducing us to the very depressing bells, wind chimes and organ that one would expect on a truly sad occasion, what we end up hearing is something, somewhat in the vein of Rick ‘The Rock Wizard’ Wakeman. It’s Elton’s attempt at ‘Yes’ style prog rock. Interweaving swirls of screeching synths and squealing guitars, it’s a classic example of prog rock at its worst. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if an Alan Parsons project is inadvertently hiding in your record collection, you should be pleasantly surprised.
‘Love Lies Bleeding’ opens the show with what we’ll come to know as the glam rock ‘ghost’ of John in glittering seventies boots. Other tracks on this same sequin-wrapped theme will feature ‘Grey Seal’, the lesbian-themed ‘All The Young Girls Love Alice’, the uncomfortably fast ‘Your Sister Can’t Twist’ and the always impressive, ‘Saturday’s All Right For quarrel.’ Yes, but not on those platforms, no…
The reflection bug, which not only waves over fathers around the world, also gave Elton John a quick pat on the back when we hear a powerful throwback to the soft, melodic 1972 album ‘Honky Chateau’, in songs called ‘Harmony,’ ‘Social Illness’ and the biographical Monroe theme, ‘Candle in the Wind.’ Heavily suffused with piano backing and lazy lyrics, these tunes are probably the best of Elton John’s ballads. Somehow, in those early years, he could create a soothing yet dangerously meaningful song with very little around him. The only difference here, in the album as opposed to ‘Honky Chateau’, is the prominent string element. Considering these ballads in ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, they result in a fullness and smooth sound, thus blazing a path to the future with John’s well-known ballads that we both fell in love with and hated. I personally enjoyed the somewhat raw approach to the songs on ‘Honky Chateau’, but that’s all down to personal preference.
Reggae (I see you cringe!) also makes a guest appearance on this eclectic album, although we were relieved when Elton decided not to embrace the calypso lifestyle permanently. Strangled beyond recognition, reggae as we know it tries to make the best of John’s piano mold.
Meant as a play on words about a certain incident during the recording of an album from a Jamaican studio that refused to cooperate, the song doesn’t work for me. Having said that, we have to appreciate that this was as experimental as this songwriter would ever get after this point, so we forgive him, just this once. ‘Jamaican Jerk Off’, which is the title, perhaps says it all about the general sense of difficulty of being stuck in a hotel room writing, rather than being in a studio that just wouldn’t play.
We can enjoy this musical roller coaster ride with great enthusiasm when we notice that time is also an artist. Surprisingly non-commercial, it was complete breathing space for an artist in the most creative period of his life. Burdened in later years by too much money and regimented industry, artists over a certain age are simply not allowed to be free thinkers, well, not today anyway. Perhaps what we have here on this album is a large, transparent slice of music history. When we remember who was at that time with exceptional albums; Mike Oldfield, Genesis and the irresistible Pink Floyd, then we can throw in ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ with calm ease.
It indicates a specific point in experimental time. It’s just a pity that today the music world shrinks at the sight of such expressiveness because there is no place for it anymore. Money and the proven speed of making the green stuff crowded out talent once and for all.
For this album, put on a caftan, light a stick, and if you’re of a certain age, enjoy a trip back to when music was actually…well…music.
Music by Elton John and words by Bernie Taupin.
Elton John – piano
Davey Jonstone – electric guitar/acoustic and backing vocals
Dee Murray – bass and backing vocals
Nigel Olsen – drums and congas
DJM records 1973.
Recorded (eventually) at Strawberry Studios somewhere in France.
Bought on vinyl for four quid, Record Collectors Fair, South Coast.
©Michelle Hatcher ‘sam1942’ 2006.
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