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Elton John, one of the greatest self-made singer/songwriters of the 20th century, was to most people the geeky yet overly flamboyant looking guy in “larger than life” glasses, wildly bouncing around the piano. Forever enshrined in ebony and ivory alongside the likes of 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 over writer Bernie Taupin in 1967, the two were soon to become almost as much a household as the Lennon and McCartney machine. Releasing bluesy rock, prog, slow-down wrist-snapping ballads came easy for the songwriting duo, and the rampant medley of 1973’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ was no exception.
By the time it was released in October of that year, Elton John had enjoyed the glory of achieving one previous number one album, the undeniably exceptional ‘Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player’ in February 1973, and five. top ten singles. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ was just another number one album, it would seem, both above her and ‘over there’, holding the US number one spot for an impressive eight weeks.
Ian Beck introduces us to Lowry’s color illustration on the front cover and in my opinion provides the perfect setting for the musical content inside. It shows us a young ‘Elt’ walking through a torn poster into another world, not unlike Dick Van Dyke in ‘Mary Poppins’, featuring a dazzling pair or red platform shoes and a small wind-up piano. Faded, intentionally, this album showed, even on its first release, all the assumptions of what a classic album should look like. All the greatest albums ever recorded are known to have had album covers presented in such a unique way. I can’t think of an album where that isn’t the case.
This colorful album, in many ways, can certainly justify its pride of place as one of the great albums of all time. Rich in content, it floats through all possible genres, worth checking out. It proves to us that his music, only emerging in those early years, could be just as outrageous as his growing wardrobe. To the expertly trained ear it can be inconsistent and inconsistent, yet these little epics of genius observations overcome this potentially disastrous point and allow the album to take a special place in any diverse record collection.
However, on the face of it, it’s dated and that’s always a hard concept for a classic album to shake off. Many under-thirty listeners will happily dismiss this perfectly crafted album as one of those records best left to dad’s moments of reflection, but there’s still plenty to learn from this dangerously arrogant legend in his young, free-spirited youth. . Let’s also not forget that this was Elton in his expressive “couldn’t give a monkey” era and long, long before the dreaded cartoon soundtracks…. All before the fateful first collaboration with Sir Tim Rice, it’s worth a listen.
The first double album the artist has produced, and painfully not the last, begins with the depressingly titled “Funeral For A Friend”. He introduces us to the very depressing bells, wind chimes and organ that one would expect on a truly sad occasion, and what we end up hearing is something in the vein of Rick ‘The Rock Wizard’ Wakeman. It’s Elton’s attempt at ‘Yes’ style prog rock. Intertwining swirls of screeching synths and wailing guitars, it’s a classic example of prog rock at its worst. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you have The Alan Parsons Project inadvertently lurking in your record collection, you should be pleasantly surprised.
‘Love Lies Bleeding,’ kicks off the show, introducing us to the glam rock spirit of John in the glittery boots of the seventies. Other tinsel-wrapped tracks on the theme will feature “Grey Seal,” the lesbian-themed “All The Young Girls Love Alice,” the uncomfortably fast “Your Sister Can’t Twist,” and the ever-impressive, “Saturday’s All Right For A Fight .” Yes, but not on these platforms, no…
Not only does the reflex bug ripple over Father Worldwide, it also quickly pats Elton John on the back as we hear a strong throwback to the soft, melodic 1972 album ‘Honky Chateau’ in tracks titled ‘Harmony, ‘Social Illness’ and Monroe’s biographical theme, “A Candle in the Wind.” Heavily laced with piano accompaniment and lazy lyrics, these tunes are arguably the best of Elton John’s ballad work. Somehow, in those early years, he managed to create a soothing but dangerously meaningful song with very little around him. The only difference on this album compared to ‘Honky Chateau’ is the featured string element. Because of these ballads in ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, they result in a fullness and polished sound, paving the way for the future of John’s famous ballads that we have come to love and hate. Personally, I liked the slightly raw approach to the songs on ‘Honky Chateau’, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
Reggae (I see you cringe!) also makes a guest appearance on this eclectic album, although we’re relieved Elton decided not to adopt the calypso lifestyle permanently. Choked beyond recognition, reggae as we would know it is doing its best to break out of John’s piano mold.
The track, which is meant to be a pun about a certain incident during the recording of an album from a Jamaican studio that refuses to cooperate, doesn’t work for me. Having said that, we have to appreciate that this was as experimental as this composer would get after this point, so we’ll forgive him, just once. ‘Jamaican Jerk Off’ as the title perhaps says it all about the general feeling of being stuck in a hotel room writing instead of being in a studio that just isn’t playing ball.
We can enjoy this musical roller coaster ride with great enthusiasm when we notice that it is time and he is an artist. Surprisingly non-commercial, it was complete breathing space for the artist at the most creative time of his life. Artists over a certain age, inundated in their later years with too much money and regimented industry, are simply not allowed to be free thinkers, well, not today anyway. Maybe what we have here on this album is a big, oozing piece of music history. When we also remember who was with exceptional albums at the time; Mike Oldfield, Genesis and the irrepressible Pink Floyd, then we can place ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ with calm ease.
It marks a certain point in experimental time. It’s just a shame that today’s music world cringes at the sight of such expressiveness because there is no place for it anymore. Money and the tried and tested rapid production of green stuff pushed talent out once and for all.
For this album, put on a caftan, light up a joss 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 lyrics 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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