Madman Across the Water opens with one of the most powerful one-two punches in any artist’s catalog. First comes “Tiny Dancer,” (written about and dedicated to Bernie Taupin’s then girlfriend Maxine Feibelman) which made it to #41 on the Billboard US Pop Singles Chart, and has become something of a cultural touchstone. That’s followed up by the massive hit “Levon,” #24 on that same chart. It’s hard to follow that kind of opening, but follow it Elton John did to create one my favorite albums of his long and distinguished career.
Despite my undying love for the two big hits, my appreciation for the album has always revolved around two songs that are somewhat lesser known. The title track was originally supposed to be on Elton’s previous album, Tumbleweed Connection. It was held back and then re-recorded for this album, but you can still find that original version (with Mick Ronson on guitar). It’s on the remastered Tumbleweed CD. The song is a moody, moving meditation on the vicissitudes of fame. And speaking of moving, the other song that has always been a favorite of mine is the Side Two opener “Indian Sunset.” The song chronicles the final stages of the defeat of the American Indians at the hands of the white man through the eyes of one warrior. It’s a stirring and evocative recitation of the transgressions of this country’s early settlers.
When I listen to an album in order to write this column, often times I haven’t heard it for quite awhile. That is the case with Madman. This usually results in some kind of revelation or new discovery for me. This time I was struck by the thought that the song “Rotten Peaches” could easily have been included on Tumbleweed Connection. The song would have been a great fit for that album’s rustic theme.
All of the album’s songs are of course written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but if you’re looking for Elton’s road rhythm section of Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass, you’ll only find them on one song, “All the Nasties.” The album does see the first appearance of guitarist Davey Johnstone with Elton. It’s a relationship that would last for decades, both on the road, and in the studio. The outstanding production is once again by Gus Dudgeon, but the real not so secret weapon here is the brilliant string arranger Paul Buckmaster.
Madman Across the Water was released by MCA in 1971. It was Elton’s lowest charting album in the UK to that point, only reaching #41. It was a much bigger success in the US, where it reached #8 on the Billboard 200 album chart.