Rock Court: The People vs. Elton John

Written by Music, Rock Court

Welcome to the debut of a new series in which we place musicians on trial for their crimes against rock & roll. This week, Jeff Giles and Jason Hare argue over the fate of Sir Elton John.

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For the prosecution: Jeff Giles

Ladies and gentlemen of the goddamn jury,

Please excuse my profanity. It’s just that I’m having a hard time understanding what we’re even doing here. Look, don’t get me wrong — I love Elton’s 1970-78 period as much as anybody; in fact, I think I’ve purchased Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on three separate occasions. But let’s face it: That period ended with “Philadelphia Freedom,” and although Elton has had his share of hits since then — more than his share, if you want the truth — I don’t believe there’s a person in this room who would put “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” on the same level as his early stuff. Show of hands — what would you rather listen to, a late-period Elton hit like “Wrap Her Up” or early Elton filler like “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”?

Oh, am I not allowed to do that? Okay, okay. I’ll withdraw that line of questioning. Again, ladies and gentlemen, I apologize, but I’ve just spent the last several days listening to all the crap Elton released between 1978 and 1986, and it’s left me feeling rather cranky. You would be too if you’d forced yourself to endure every note of woefully misguided albums such as Leather Jackets, Ice on Fire, The Fox, and — may God have mercy on my soul — Victim of Love.

Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. I need to take a breath. I feel sick.

We might as well just jump right in with Victim of Love, I guess. I mean, before Elton decided to record a disco album of other people’s material, we all sort of knew he was running out of energy, but Victim was the first hard shot against the bow of his artistic credibility, and as my job here is to try and make sure he pays for his crimes against rock & roll, I suppose it makes sense to relive this horror, much as I hate subjecting you fine people to it.

Much has been made of the fact that Elton chose to lead off Victim of Love with an eight-minute disco cover of “Johnny B. Goode,” and while that was certainly a questionable decision — and while it’s certainly an offensive desecration of a classic song — I’m not submitting it for evidence here, because it’s actually the best song on the album. No, I’m fucking serious. Your honor, as exhibit A in the people’s case against Elton John, I give you…hold on, it’s hard to say the words…”Street Boogie” (download).

I hate you so much, Elton John.

I am perfectly willing to concede, gentle jurors, that Elton is still capable of making good music, and even during the dark period between ’78 and ’86, he usually didn’t suck as hard as he did on Victim of Love — but it is my contention that this makes Elton even guiltier of high crimes against rock music, because he not only had the talent to entertain us, but he still had enough wits about him to occasionally remind us that he used to be great. How cruel do you have to be to put a cool album track like “Passengers” next to something as worthless as “Did He Shoot Her”? Or to slip the loathesome “Too Young” (download) on the same album as an innocuous Top 40 hit like “Nikita”?

And God, I haven’t even gotten into the crap he’s squeezed out in the last 20-odd years — partly because I think we’re all still getting over the horror of “Circle of Life” and the Princess Di-inspired re-recording of “Candle in the Wind,” and partly because I’m nervous about the effects of repeated exposure to 1992’s The One (also known as the “what’s that thing on Elton’s head?” album) and 1997’s The Big Picture (also known as the “really even worse than you remember” album). At the time, albums like Reg Strikes Back and Sleeping with the Past were regarded as returns to form for Elton, but that was just the trauma of the early ’80s talking, and if you don’t believe me, I have seven words for you: “Club at the End of the Street” (download).

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know the defendant has given us plenty of wonderful music. Some classics, even. But he also gave us “Leather Jackets” (download) and “Candy by the Pound” (download), and despite what the defense will try to make you believe, he hasn’t bothered to record anything truly worth listening to in over three decades. Isn’t it time we made him pay for his crimes? Isn’t it time we made an example of him, so future generations know it’s wrong to abuse the public’s trust — and that those who sing lines like “slip on my soul glove” will be punished to the fullest extent of the law?

We’re asking you to find Elton John guilty of all counts, and I firmly believe that after hearing what you’ve heard today, you will have no choice but to deliver the only just and proper verdict. Thank you, your honor. The prosecution rests.


For the defense: Jason Hare, Esq.

Ladies and gentlemen of the most respected jury (notice I don’t resort to foul language like the prosecution, who is, by all accounts, a fuckface),

Jack Wagner.
’80s Chicago.
Toto post-Toto IV.
Christopher Cross post-Christopher Cross.

Most radio-friendly R&B from the late ’80s and early ’80s.

I don’t bring up these performers and genres so that we can compare them with Sir Reginald Dwight, more commonly known as Elton John. I bring them up to remind you that these are all performers and genres that the fuckface prosecution adores. The prosecution’s frame of reference is clearly suspect (and absent of testicles). I rest my case.

Oh, I’m supposed to say more than that? Okay.

For starters, the prosecution begins their argument by attempting to compare Mr. John’s 1978-86 period with “his early stuff.” Beware of this argument, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, for this is an argument that can barely ever be won — at least not with any artist who made their name in the late ’60s and early ’70s (when both the artist — and you — were younger). Nobody will ever look at any of these artists and say that their newer material surpasses their older material. If anything at all, you’ll hear “It’s their best album since…” and that’s a statement that most critics make to console themselves that it’s virtually impossible for anybody to live up to their early work. Remember, Kurt Loder once said The Who’s It’s Hard was “their most vital and coherent album since Who’s Next,” and that’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read in my life. (Quadrophenia, Kurt! Quadrophenia!)

Therefore, we shouldn’t be attempting to compare “Wrap Her Up” with “Grey Seal” and then, on that basis, determine whether Elton John is guilty of crimes against rock and roll. Every artist is guilty of at least one crime against rock and roll, and the ebb and flow of a career is what truly makes one an artist. Being an artist is about both successes and failures — the true test of success is to determine whether the artist remains, well, a true artist, through and through. Remember this, ladies and gentlemen. I’m coming back to it later.

So, yes, Elton fell from grace. He dissolved his relationship with his great songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. He became a drug addict. An anorexic. A bulimic. A disco fan. Ladies and gentlemen, he even married a woman for a period of time. (I’m not sure if this is worse than the disco thing or not.) But has he redeemed himself? Yes, he has. And I don’t even need to graze over the prosecution’s evidence to prove it to you.

Point 1: 1978-86 was not devoid of great songs. The fuckface prosecution admits this, but tries to mask it by saying that this only made his crimes worse, because he combined good songs with bad songs. Bullshit. There are clunkers on every album. Nobody with talent intentionally releases an album of crap, unless you’re Lou Reed. Read any of the prosecution’s music reviews and you’ll see plenty of examples of bad songs on otherwise fine albums, by artists who we all know are capable of releasing good music. Let’s ignore Debbie Downer for a minute and look at some of the good songs during this period.

“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” The prosecution will most likely point to this song’s lyrics as a crime against rock. I disagree, and the lyrics weren’t written by Elton anyway, but even if I did agree, all we can ask is: does Elton believe what he’s singing? Does he deliver the lyrics with passion? Is the music appropriate to the words contained therein? Do the two artists — John and Taupin — achieve their goal? I imagine their goal was to create a catchy song (check) that resonated with people who were lonely (check) and that would hopefully become a success and earn them more money for their blow habits (check, and take the word “blow” any way you wish). And if you want to hear an impassioned version of this song, true to the word “blues,” take a listen to this performance, recorded by Elton in a solo concert in France in 1999.

“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (solo, live) (download)

“Restless.” A true blue rock-and-roller? In 1984? Funny how the prosecution seemed to forget to mention this one, the lead-off track from Breaking Hearts. No, it’s not “Roll Over Beethoven,” but it serves to prove that Mr. John was certainly capable of strong music during this period.

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“Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny).” A touching tribute to Lennon from the man responsible for getting him on stage for the very last time. Seems like we could almost free Elton from any punishment for this reason alone.

I could continue to pull out tracks from this period to serve as counter-argument to the prosecution. But let’s move on.

Point 2: Elton has shown creative diversity in his career. I wasn’t going to bring up Elton’s foray into Disney and Broadway, since a song like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” isn’t part of the rock career we’re supposedly arguing over, but since the prosecution sucks and opted to mention it, I’ll say this: the next time you’re in Manhattan, grab a ticket to The Lion King (the prosecution will foot the bill) and let me know if you don’t get chills as you hear this extraordinary cast sing “Circle of Life.” Listen to the crescendo in the chorus of that very song, and musically, it’s not a stretch to compare it to “Your Song” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” Set aside your prejudices for a minute. Don’t think of Disney, of cartoon lions, of overpriced Broadway tickets. Think of the chords over those lyrics.

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life

I’m not trying to be blasphemous, ladies and gentlemen, but if McCartney had written it in 1969, you’d all be creaming in your jeans.

What? Objection? I can’t say “creaming in your jeans”? What kind of fucking Rock Court is this? Oh, it’s a Beatles thing? Okay. I can understand that. Consider that last statement stricken from the record.

Before Elton began this stage of collaboration, it’d be easy to say that he just lucked out with his partnership with Taupin. But he’s been able to bring such vibrant life to words by writers such as Tim Rice, Lee Hall, hell — even Henrik Ibsen. Watch as Elton, on Inside the Actor’s Studio, asks the audience to bring him any book at all, chosen at random, and he somehow brings a new element to a scene from Peer Gynt.

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Now that takes talent, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. It also takes balls. But Elton’s shown this kind of bravery throughout his career. He doesn’t just stay where it’s safe. Sure, it creates failures like the ones the prosecution highlights above — but I believe these failures only drove him to create even better music. Which leads me to…

Point 3: Songs From the West Coast. In 2001, Elton released an album that was regarded as a “back to basics” release, mainly by critics who have an undeniable need to categorize absolutely everything. Essentially, Elton created a simple album that featured his unbelievable piano skills at the forefront, coupled with some of Taupin’s best lyrics in ages. Listen to “Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes” (download), a heartbreaking tale of a dancer ravaged by AIDS. Or listen to my favorite track on the album, “Birds” (download), a slow-burning bluesy boogie which features Elton’s scratch vocal — that’s right, this is the first take. Does anybody else sound this good, after all this time, on their first take?

My point here is that the prosecution’s claim that Mr. John “hasn’t bothered to record anything truly worth listening to in over three decades” is simply not true.No, I haven’t listened to this album as often as I’ve listened to Here and There or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but again, to compare any current album by the artist to their earlier work is a losing battle. Do I listen to this album? Yes. Repeatedly? Yes.

Since this release, Elton’s released other “back to basics” albums, such as Peachtree Road and The Captain and the Kid. I don’t personally like them as much as I like Songs From the West Coast, but I think they’re steps in the right direction, as opposed to steps backward. I believe the arguments I’ve presented above prove that the prosecution’s statement — that Elton John “hasn’t bothered to record anything truly worth listening to in over three decades” — is simply not true.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Elton John has had some failures. He’s had many failures. The prosecution has done a fine job singling these out to you as reasons to find the defendant guilty. But remember what I said before? “Being an artist is about both successes and failures — the true test of success is to determine whether the artist remains, well, a true artist, through and through.” If you and I were sitting here in 2009 listening to the latest iteration of “Street Boogie,” I wouldn’t be making this argument. (I’d probably be sitting in hell playing gin rummy with Andy Gibb.) But we’re not. Hell, if you want to prosecute someone who can’t seem to be creative anymore and is merely rehashing the past, let’s throw his touring partner, Billy Joel, on the stand. But not Elton John. Elton John is a true artist, still evolving, acknowledging his past and moving forward in a creative, productive direction. Also, let it stand on record that I slept with the prosecution’s mother last night. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. The defense rests.

How does the jury find the accused?

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