At the tail end of the 1960s, youth culture started to take a dramatic turn. The iconic concerts were pretty much done, many icons of new ideas and change failed to make it out alive, the goal of attaining a universal enlightenment through love, sex and drugs pushed the endzone even farther away as the world, despite alteration of fashion and hairstyle, hadn’t really changed that much. In short, the age of Aquarius never dawned the way people hoped it would. The “us” generation became the “me” generation and a demographic turned their gaze inward, their mantra of “finding themselves” becoming more prevalent. Into this came the the beginning of the singer/songwriter movement’s peak period.
In among this time period, Reginald Dwight was no longer the keyboard player for Bluesology and had signed on as a writer-for-hire for the Dick James Music Company, a tin-pan-alley of sorts based in England. He was paired with an eccentric lyricist named Bernie Taupin. The rest is a forty-year marriage of great success, fierce turbulence, flamboyance as well as misunderstanding, and on more than one occasion, the dangerous dance teetering just before the end of the line. It’s a story full of intrigue and apocrypha, including the name “Elton” scrawled just above a urinal, Captain Fantastic, the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the mythology and an almost unbroken string of hit singles beginning with the second release’s first track “Your Song” from 1970.
We know many of these songs by heart: “Daniel,” “Bennie And The Jets,” “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” “Little Jeannie” (co-written with interim lyric partner Gary Osborne), “I’m Still Standing,” “I Don’t Want To Go On With You Like That.” Elton John epitomizes the ‘singles artist’ in a very true sense, indeed he was still releasing them in the 1970s when the idea of recording a song solely for a 45’s offering fell out of favor. That’s how we got “Philadelphia Freedom,” and we know his version of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” even though the movie from which the track was culled has been mostly forgotten (a Beatles cover-fest titled All This and World War II.) Yet, the John/Taupin collaboration produced a wide array of songs, from bluesy torch numbers to West Atlantic Coast country tunes, to orchestral pop, even the occasional disco boogie. It is easy to forget those deep album cuts when confronted with the wealth of the obvious.
“Skyline Pigeon” from Empty Sky (1969), Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (reissue, original album – 1973) Taupin’s pastoral lyrics on the yearning for freedom were given an appropriate hymn-like treatment on Empty Sky, where John’s trilling harpsichord and echoed vocal sounded almost cathedral-like, in spite of an odd hard right/left stereo effect. The gorgeous release in the chorus, however—the “Fly away” lines—totally compensates for any ill in the production. When John re-recorded it for the “Daniel” B-side in 1972 (later tacked onto the 1996 Don’t Shoot Me … reissue), the production was considerably cleaner, but also somewhat lifeless. John’s voice is stronger, but that wonderful chorus is missing something; it’s not as revelatory as the Empty Sky version.
He found the true voice of the song when he performed it at the funeral for teenage AIDS victim Ryan White in 1990. John was a mess—cocaine-addled, his hair dyed a hideous platinum blonde—yet he soldiered through a rendition of “Skyline Pigeon” as heartbreaking as it was hopeful. By reaching deep within himself and the occasion, into something unnamed and agonizing, John discovered once again the redemption and beauty in Taupin’s lyrics and his own melody, and sent his young friend off on the wings of the song, into whatever, if anything, waited beyond. – Rob Smith
“My Father’s Gun” from Tumbleweed Connection (1970) – As sure-bet career moves go, few would have counseled Elton John and Bernie Taupin to make their third LP a loose concept record steeped in the strata of American mythology. After all, what did these two UK boys know about western themes aside from what they might have gleaned from the media of the times? As it turns out, the only authenticity they really needed was that inside the emotional connections – the tumbleweed was just set dressing.
The orchestral bent of the prior eponymous Elton John album is leavened with more modern (for the time) arrangements and themes of love, regret and much unfinished business. John finds a balance between his musical past and present on the epic “Burn Down The Mission” just as Bernie Taupin spins a randy tale of hayloft lovin’ in “Amoreena.” Another classic single appears in the form of “Country Comfort.”
The song that gets the least attention, but makes the most personal impact on me, is the potent “My Father’s Gun.” It isn’t in the internal story of a son of a confederate soldier, having laid his father to rest, taken up his armament to rejoin the war in his stead; last time I checked, I was still north of the Mason-Dixon and had no quarrel with anyone from either side of it. It will also please my dad that, no, I haven’t buried him. The personal stuff comes from the very real trough our ancestors dig with their lives and how we seem to slip right into it, to carry on the familial trials and tribulations – how at some point in every man’s life, he’s found his father’s gun by his side. – Dw. Dunphy
“I’ve Seen That Movie Too” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) – If everything up to this point made Elton John a star, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road catapulted him straight to superstar, and no wonder – “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie And The Jets,” the title track, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and “Harmony” brought out the rock ‘n roller everyone knew him to be. Meanwhile, tucked between sides of this mammoth double-LP, the ghost of Bluesology lives and haunts.
When the theorists finally crack the nut of String Theory and travel between concurrent alternate universes becomes reality, they will find Bluesology still around in a few of them, and their big hit will be “I’ve Seen That Movie Too.” It’s a razor-edged dressing down of a lover, the lyrics provided by Bernie Taupin (I know, how does he factor in to this fun-house mirror world? Just go with it.) get to the heart of the matter without resorting to the blunt instruments of “screw you, you liar.” “So keep your auditions for somebody who hasn’t got so much to lose – ’cause you can tell by the lines I’m recitin’: I’ve seen that movie too.” may be the longer way around the intent, but there’s an elegance to the wordplay that heightens the disdain of the protagonist. I’m not going to lower myself to your level to express myself even though, yeah, screw you, you liar.
Elegance, and the blues, drip from John’s piano, so much so that it strikes me odd that the song hasn’t found another life in the standards circuit. I don’t think Michael Feinstein could carry it off but maybe Harry Connick Jr. could. Up to this point in the album, Elton proved he could rock and cajole the 88s with the very best of them. Now he was flying straight over the pack, giving not just a peak performance for the times but for all times… and perhaps all dimensions too. – Dw. Dunphy
“Ticking” from Caribou (1974) – Being the follow up album to a masterpiece like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road pretty much guaranteed it a lesser status. Granted, 1974’s Caribou yielded a couple of huge hits (those being “The Bitch Is Back” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”), but a couple of hits alone does not a canonical album make. And yet, buried at the end of this hidden gem in Elton’s extensive catalog is a song that arguably blasts everything on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road into smithereens. With not much more than his voice and a piano, Elton let his talent do all the talking, and his flair for drama carry the seven plus minutes of Caribou’s closing track, “Ticking.” Bernie Taupin’s lyrics spin a captivating, albeit tragic, tale of a seemingly well adjusted man who snapped one day in a New York bar, killing fourteen people in a spree that, while rare in the 1970s, became a sadly familiar scene in the decades to come. Taupin’s lyrics overflow with striking imagery, culminating in Elton’s reading of the tragic character’s fall as he “danced in death like a marionette on the vengeance of the law.” This is one to hush the room and kill all conversation. – Michael Fortes
“The Greatest Discovery” from Live in Australia with The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (1987) – Bernie Taupin’s lyrics could range from outrageous and flamboyant to almost serene, mere whispers coming off the lyric sheet or gatefold sleeve. That his and John’s partnership was so successful was due largely to John’s ability to marry perfectly suited melodies to those words. In its original form, on the 1970 Elton John album, “The Greatest Discovery” exemplified that most fitting of partnerships. The strings that introduce the melody give way to John’s plaintive vocal, providing a glimpse into the mind of a child as he is introduced to his infant brother. The effect of the strings, the melody, the lyrics, and the vocal teeters on schmaltz before pulling back and bursting open at the song’s conclusion. It is a thing of beauty.
Flash forward 16 years, to a stage in Melbourne, as John, at his foppish costumed nadir in a Mozart getup and powdered wig, his voice blistered by nodules on his vocal chords he will soon require surgery to remove, says a few brief words about how wonderful Taupin’s lyrics are, and introduces “The Greatest Discovery.” With the full power of one of the world’s most renowned orchestras behind him, John presses his ragged voice to action, willing it to shape itself to that long-ago-composed music, to forming those beloved words, to telling a small child’s story of wonderment. The music made onstage that night envelopes the listener in warmth, and in melding his frayed instrument with it, John makes a new discovery all his own. – Rob Smith
“Since God Invented Girls” from Reg Strikes Back (1988) – When promoting Reg Strikes Back, Elton indicated that he was viewing it as a comeback album. This was understandable: his previous studio release, 1986’s Leather Jackets, was the first time in his career that he’d released a record where none of the singles made it into the top 40. Fortunately, Elton did indeed find his way back into the charts, thanks to Reg’s singles, “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” (#2) and “A Word in Spanish” (#19), but it’s the album’s final track that leaves the strongest impression. “Since God Invented Girls” is an unabashed homage to the Beach Boys sound, first by offering a chorus which begins with the line, “Now I know what Brian Wilson meant,” then by having Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston provide some seriously gorgeous backing vocals. It speaks to the overall quality of the album that listening to the song leaves you wanting to break out Pet Sounds rather than spin Reg Strikes Back again, but it’s also a testament to the effectiveness of Elton’s tribute. – Will Harris
“Teardrops” from Duets (1993) – The idea of Elton sidling up to various artists for an album’s worth of duets seemed like a decent enough idea, and given the wide variety of folks who’ve acknowledged their love of his music over the years, it certainly wasn’t hard to pull together a stellar list of talent. In the end, though, Duets wasn’t nearly as great as it really ought to have been…not that you would’ve suspected as much when you first hit “play.” Kicking off the proceedings was Elton’s collaboration with k.d. lang, and, man, is it good. “Teardrops” is actually a cover of a 1988 single by Womack & Womack, and although it’s probable that most Americans have never heard it (it hit #3 in the UK, but it didn’t even chart in the States), even those familiar with the original will be startled by the way it’s been transformed into a full-fledged faux disco classic. With production by Greg Penny and a gorgeous string arrangement from the legendary Arif Mardin, “Teardrops” is so good that, by virtue of being the first track, everything else on Duets sits in its not-inconsiderable shadow. As a result, even RuPaul stepping into Kiki Dee’s spot for a remake of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” pales in comparison. – Will Harris
“Dark Diamond” from Songs from the West Coast (2001) – Elton John didn’t need to put in the effort to make a great album more than three decades into his recording career. He was still was able to sell albums and place hit singles on the charts–he holds the Billboard Hot 100 record for having at least one Top 40 hit in THIRTY-ONE consecutive years (1970-2000). He had won an Academy Award, had hit Broadway productions, and was selling out large auditoriums and arenas touring with Billy Joel, a like-minded piano pop star who had decided to simply stop writing songs in the mid-90s, and was still pulling in bank as a touring legacy artist. So what made him put out Songs from the West Coast, the best album he had certainly made since 1982’s Too Low for Zero, and upon further listen, probably even better than that, meaning that it was John’s best album since Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy… back in 1975? Twenty-six freaking years?! What motivates a man to give that much effort and assure himself of the quality of his writing and performance to such a level for possibly the first time in a quarter century?
Two words: Ryan Adams. Two more words: No shit.
In the liner notes to Songs from the West Coast, John thanks Adams for making him want to care again about making music. John was struck by both the quality and quantity of the work Adams was doing, as well as the type of work that he was doing–things which must have made him think about himself during his Golden Age of 1970-1976, when every nine months a new album would come out with both big hits and deep tracks. Remember, unlike Billy Joel, John had achieved critical acclaim, at least during the first part of his career. For John, the time was right not just to make another album, but to make an ELTON JOHN album.
All that preface leads to this, one of the better cuts on the album, and perhaps the finest one not to be released anywhere in the world as a single, “Dark Diamond”. Beginning with a stutter-step drum beat, and moving into a rhythm somewhere between the Purdie Shuffle and Ringo’s steady and deep snare beat, the rhythm track is a slow but steady, slightly funky base onto which Elton’s piano intermingles with a clavinet played by Stevie Wonder, working as a duo for the first time in eighteen years. And while that earlier collaboration was entitled “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” this song is much more bluesy, as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics (written for the first time in his career with Elton John in the same room) describe a position that Elton must have feeling about his own career and legacy: “Oh I’m a dark diamond / I’ve turned hard and cold / Once was a jewel with a fire in my soul.” It’s that sense of reflection that leads to the song’s subtlety. It takes a few listens before you realize that the song doesn’t have a true chorus, just a verse that transforms into a linking-bridge that leads to the repeating of the title. Then Stevie’s instantly recognizable harmonica comes in and plays two gorgeous, descending instrumental lines, and you realize that it didn’t need one.
This is not a song designed for instant pop consumption, but for reflection. It doesn’t deviate from the pattern it created in its first run through, just replicates it slightly differently as the song goes on. It wraps with a harmonica solo in place of a third verse, then with repetitions of the linking-bridge and the descending harmonica lines. Additionally, the fact that Elton wrote the music in the key of B-flat minor, known as one of the “darker” keys (and oddly, the same key Wonder used for “Part-Time Lover”) creates a symbiosis between lyrics, music, arrangement and performance that is stunning, especially for someone who had been previously relying on creating pop-hits and filler for most of the previous two-decades. There was true work involved in getting things just right in this song, and it pays off royally. – Matthew Bolin