Recapping 6-15: 15. Live in Australia 14. Friends (soundtrack) 13. Here and There 12. Caribou 11. Honky Château 10. 11/17/70 9. Empty Sky 8. Blue Moves 7. Rock of the Westies 6. Elton John…
5. Madman Across the Water (1971)
Reading the liner notes to this album has reminded me there wasn’t a clear delineation in personnel among Elton’s early albums. This one features a crossover of many of the musicians who played on his previous recordings into what became his most well-known Elton John Band: Davey Johnston on guitar, Dee Murray on bass, Nigel Olsson on drums, and Ray Cooper on percussion. Johnston, who is Elton’s lead guitarist to this day, and Cooper, the percussion maniac, make their debuts with Elton here (if you’re not familiar with Ray Cooper, look him up on YouTube sometime where he’s playing with Elton or Clapton – he’s a true original).
Two of Elton and Bernie’s most famous songs lead off: Tiny Dancer and Levon, both featuring the oft-mentioned Paul Buckmaster strings. Razor Face, Madman Across the Water, Holiday Inn (how has that one never been used in a commercial?), Indian Sunset…all quintessential E.J.
4. Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
Released in January of 1973, Don’t Shoot Me… was Elton’s second consecutive #1 album. There were two hit singles in the US: Crocodile Rock (#1) and Daniel (#2). But in my mind this album – the top four albums, actually – contains zero filler. By 1973, Elton had created self-inflicted distractions when it came to his music with all the stage costumes and antics. No doubt that trademark of his attracted plenty of new fans at the time, but the reality is for fans of the music these are fantastic albums. Though he’s still about the bling onstage, the days of Donald Duck suits and platform heels are long gone and the substance, as is usually the case, has outlasted the style.
A few of the standout tracks for me on this album include Blues for Baby and Me, the rocker Midnight Creeper, and the cinematic Have Mercy on the Criminal. I always thought Texan Love Song was a hoot, and since I’ve resided in the Lone Star State for 15 years now it’s even funnier. Critic Robert Christgau gave this album a C+, therefore I give it an A.
3. Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
Tumbleweed illustrates, possibly better than any other of E.J.’s albums, just how tuned in he and lyricist Bernie Taupin were with what we now refer to as “Americana.” It’s a concept album based on themes of the mythical American south and west, and Bernie’s lyrics nailed it. What’s even more fascinating to me is that it was recorded in March of 1970, five months before they would even set foot in the US for the first time. Besides their God-given songwriting talents (and old black and white movies on the telee), what else fed their interest in American themes? As it turns out, George Harrison and Eric Clapton were not the only English musicians to be heavily influenced by the Band’s first two albums. With Bernie Taupin you can stir a little CCR into the mix as well.
Most of my top 15 Elton John albums, especially these final three or four, could change places depending on my mood. Probably the only reason Tumbleweed Connection didn’t vie for one of the top two spots is because I’ve “only” been listening to it for the past 30 or so years as opposed to from the moment I emerged from the womb. There were no singles from this album, and time has proven that none were needed. I love every one of these songs, so I’m not going to mention just a few. They even got the cover right despite the fact that the photo was taken at a railway station in England instead of a country store in Alabama or Nevada.
2. Goodbye Yellowbrick Road (1973)
Goodbye Yellowbrick Road is Elton John’s highest selling and most iconic album. As of 2014 it was certified 8x platinum. Bernie wrote the lyrics for all the songs on this sprawling double album in two and a half weeks, and Elton composed the music in three days while the band was stationed in Kingston, Jamaica, where the Rolling Stones had just recorded. However, the equipment was not up to standard and the sociopolitical environment not exactly safe in Jamaica at the time, so they split before recording commenced and set up shop at the Château d’Hérouville, Hérouville, France.
GBYBR is not a concept album, but as with #’s 3 and 1 on my list, its themes revolve around nostalgia. Bernie’s lyrics cover a wide range of topics within that theme plus society’s underbelly, including the death of a friend, a mythical glam band, Hollywood, sailors and prostitutes, gangsters, the murder of an underage girl of the female persuasion, boozin’ it up on a Saturday night, and once again, the Old West. The only weak links for me aren’t really weak links, they’ve simply been played to death on the radio. Every one of these tunes stokes my imagination, every time.
1. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
And finally, #1. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is an autobiographical album based on the lives and songwriting partnership of Elton and Bernie, the “city mouse and country mouse” as they’ve described themselves. For years before I owned a CD player, my copy of this album was a cassette recording of my brothers’ LP, which of course maintained the skips and all. It took me a few digital listens to get used to a couple of songs where the needle no longer jumped. The CD remaster issued a few years back includes a second disc which contains a live concert Elton did at Wembley Stadium where he introduced this then-new album to the audience by playing the entire thing from start to finish. That took nerve, and thankfully he had it in him.
The themes include the development of their songwriting craft (the title track and Writing), the perils of the entertainment industry, including unscrupulous record company executives – a topic commonly covered by a number of artists in the 70’s such as Pink Floyd, George Harrison, and Lynyrd Skynyrd (Tower of Babel and Bitter Fingers), and E.J.’s failed attempt at suicide (Someone Saved My Life Tonight). Two of his most emotional songs finish off the album, We All Fall in Love Sometimes and Curtains, and they still get to me all these years on. As does the memory of the father of the family I grew up next door to who, as far back as I can remember, teasingly referred to me as “Captain Fantastic.”
Cheers, and as always, thanks for reading!