When Elton John’s eponymous album was released 50 years ago this past April, it was assumed by many in the U.S. to be his debut, not realizing his first album, 1969’s Empty Sky, hadn’t been released in America. That album wouldn’t make it to record store shelves here until 1975, at the peak of Elton mania.
With this album we hear a significant shift in Bernie Taupin’s lyric writing. While there are hints of the esoteric themes prevalent on Empty Sky such as in First Episode at Hienton and Take Me to the Pilot (a song whose meaning even Taupin has stated he has no idea of), the songs on this second release – tracks such as I Need You to Turn To, The Greatest Discovery, and the instant classic Your Song – are of the variety that listeners can relate to directly. And, the socially conscious Border Song is no less relevant today than it was 50 years ago. Indeed, Elton and Bernie dove right in to what would be loosely termed the singer/songwriter era. In addition to Gus Dudgeon’s production, the album’s immediately recognizable sound is due in large part to the string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster, who I wrote about in a recent post.
One of my favorite tracks on this album is Sixty Years On. Elton performed a powerful version of it on his 1979 Russia tour with Ray Cooper. An official album from that tour was released in recent years, but unfortunately this song was left off. As a result, it’s not in my collection.
Elton John was certified gold in February 1971 and received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2012. It also spawned a few of Elton’s concert staples over the following five decades. If interested in where I ranked Elton John within his discography, see this series I did a while back.
Music fans, as with any other group of enthusiasts, vary in degrees of interest level. If there’s a scale of music listener nerdiness, I might rate myself a bit more “into it” than someone who grew up listening to music on the radio and owned a handful of albums and/or 45s, and maybe attended the occasional concert. But I’m less so than, say, musicians whose knowledge allows (causes?) them to be quite analytical beyond liking/disliking what they hear, or those who build shelving for their LP collections that take up entire walls in their home, floor to ceiling (something I greedily envy). I don’t know how else to quantify or categorize my level of interest other than to say that since I was a kid I’ve always been fascinated with the who/what/when/where/why of albums, many of the answers to which as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s I found in album liner notes. That is to say, to some extent, I’m a geek. This is something that is largely lost in today’s digital music world.
I know many people can relate. It was about foraging through the album collection of an older sibling, parent, or uncle. Or, hanging out at a friend’s house after school, listening to music and comparing knowledge about music trivialities (just don’t touch his big brother’s albums!). Painting with a wide brush, when shooting the breeze about bands the focus was usually on the primary band members, though occasionally a session player or the producer’s name would come up. In some cases, years later we pieced together just how respected, talented, and ubiquitous some of these “other” names are. Growing up, one of the handful of artists everyone in my home liked was Elton John. All of Elton’s albums up to A Single Man were in my brothers’ combined collection and played regularly, and yours truly was usually right there listening with them, curiously studying the busy artwork on such jackets as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. What is going on with all these cartoon characters? Look at those clothes! How did Dee and Davey get their hair to look like that? Doesn’t Nigel’s drum kit look cool? Why did Elton’s band completely turn over on Rock of the Westies? Gus Dudgeon? That’s kind of a funny name. And, Who is this Paul Buckmaster guy, and what’s so important about an “arranger?”
Sure, I noticed the strings on such songs as Levon and Tiny Dancer, among other Elton tracks. I liked the sound o.k., but had no real opinion. My mom played a lot of classical music, so I just accepted strings as part of music in general. Fast forward into early adulthood when it had been a long time since I’d given any thought to the particulars of Elton’s recordings. One day in the mid-90’s I was listening to an album by one of my favorite current bands, The Jayhawks. The song was Blue. Violins played from nearly the beginning, but a little over a minute into it the cellos kicked in and it sounded very familiar. “Is that…Paul Buckmaster’s work?” Sure enough, it was. Another time I was listening to the Stones’ Sticky Fingers album, and there he was again, this time on Sway and Moonlight Mile. Who is this guy, and what other albums has he worked on? I wondered. As it turned out, quite a few.
Buckmaster, who passed in 2017 at the age of 71, was a British cellist, arranger, conductor and composer. His father was an actor, his mother a concert pianist. He studied cello at the Royal Academy of Music and was a talented musician, but found his career path in orchestral arranging across multiple genres, as well as film scores. His debut as an arranger was on David Bowie’s Space Oddity. How’s that for an auspicious beginning? Shortly after that, Buckmaster attended a Miles Davis concert where he met a young Elton John, at the time working on his second album. He was invited to be the music director on what became the eponymous Elton John album. And the rest, as they say…
For those like myself who aren’t well versed in the nuances of orchestral arrangements, check out any number of tracks mentioned in this post and listed in his wiki page linked at the bottom and hear for yourself if there’s a familiarity, a Paul Buckmaster stamp, on the music. Or, try to imagine Your Song, Border Song, Tiny Dancer, You’re So Vain, Terrapin Station, Harry Nilsson’s version of Without You, and many, many other great songs including Train’s Drops of Jupiter, for which he won the Grammy for Arrangement of the Year in 2002, without Paul Buckmaster’s distinctive sound. He described his approach in a 2010 article in The Guardian:
“One general rule is to hold back as much as possible,” he said, “to give the listener the chance to let the song grow and unfold, introducing new sonic elements, such as new instruments or sectional groupings. If you use everything from the beginning, you have nowhere to go.” Yep, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say.
Lady Samantha was Elton’s second single. It was written by John and Bernie Taupin, and released this day 50 years ago (and a year later in the US), six months before the release of his first album. He performed the song on various British radio broadcasts, and while critics liked it, it didn’t garner much attention by the record buying public.
This is an early Elton/Bernie collaboration with an esoteric bent I like quite a bit. It’s about the ghost of a lady who frightens everyone who sees her, but in reality she’s a sad figure. I first heard this song on the To Be Continued… box set and liked it immediately. Caleb Quaye’s electric guitar is a cool counter to Elton’s funereal organ playing. I thought it would’ve fit in perfectly on his first album, Empty Sky. It was in fact added to 1995 reissue of that album along with a few other early singles and b-sides.
Side A: Lady Samantha
Side B: All Across the Heavens (UK), It’s Me That You Need (US)
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.”
Picking up where we left off yesterday before I change the order again, first with a quick recap: 15. Live in Australia 14. Friends (soundtrack) 13. Here and There 12. Caribou 11. Honky Château…
10. 11/17/70 (1971)
This was EJ’s first live album. It was taken from a live radio broadcast and was only officially released due to the flood of bootlegs which followed. It captures Elton on his first, highly acclaimed US visit. His performance at L.A.’s Troubadour on that tour is legendary. At the time, the band was a no-frills trio consisting only of Elton, Dee Murray on bass, and Nigel Olsson on drums (guitarist Davey Johnston wouldn’t join the group for two more years). They were hungry and played great. They flat-out rocked the small studio audience with tunes such as Take Me to the Pilot, Honky Tonk Women, and Bad Side of the Moon. My favorites on the original release are Sixty Years On and the medley: Burn Down the Mission/My Baby Left Me/Get Back. Dee and Nigel’s contributions not just as the rhythm section but also as backing vocalists cannot be understated.
Elton’s 1970 debut US tour visited an odd mish-mash of small to medium-sized venues including the Troubadour in L.A., the Fillmore West and East, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and the Boston Tea Party, but they were all in major cities, except for one: Champ Auditorium at Westminster College in Fulton, MO. Why do I mention this fact? Because it’s about three blocks from where I grew up (population approx. 10,000). The show was on 12/1/70, and I was born just under three months later. My future high school cross country coach was in attendance, and I walked across the same stage to receive my high school diploma. Here’s a photo of the performance taken from the balcony:
Unfortunately, only six of the thirteen songs from the performance at A&R Studios in New York were included on the original album. It was re-released with all the songs included in conjunction with Record Store Day in 2017, but only on vinyl (Grrr!).
9. Empty Sky (1969/UK, 1975/US)
Elton’s first album was not released in the US until 1975 at the peak of his 1970’s fame, and it’s really nothing like the other classics. Caleb Quaye and Roger Pope are on guitar and drums, respectively, and they would subsequently re-join Elton in 1975. Tony Murray of the Troggs played bass on the record. When asked about the album’s style, Elton has compared it to Leonard Cohen’s work, albeit a little more amateurish.
While it’s not folk music per se, the somewhat esoteric themes are reminiscent to me of those heard on late 60s/early 70s English folk rock albums by the likes of Fairport Convention, whom I like quite a bit. This was the first Elton album in my fledgling collection, and I think I must’ve absconded with it from my brothers’ collection. I’m not quite certain how I ended up with it, but I’ve liked it a lot since I was a child. The original Skyline Pigeon, with Elton on harpsichord, is heard here. Western Ford Gateway, Sails, Gulliver, and the title track are my favorites.
8. Blue Moves (1976)
Astoundingly, this was E.J.’s 11th official album release in seven years. It was also his second double album. Not surprisingly, Elton was in meltdown mode by this point from the pressures of recording, touring, and all the trappings of stardom, and in my opinion it is his last really good album. To borrow from McCartney’s description of the White Album,Blue Moves is “very varied.”
It’s a blend of rockers (Shoulder Holster, One Horse Town), blue-eyed soul (Chameleon, Boogie Pilgrim, If There’s a God in Heaven [What’s He Waiting For?], Where’s the Shoorah?), instrumentals (Your Starter For, Out of the Blue, Theme from a Non-Existent TV Series), and sad songs (the hits Tonight and Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word, as well as Cage the Songbird). But perhaps my favorite song of the bunch is his late-to-the-party stab at raga-rock, The Wide-Eyed and Laughing.
A few of the interesting guest appearances on the album include Michael and Randy Brecker on sax and trumpet, David Sanborn on sax, and David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bruce Johnston, and Toni Tennille on backing vocals.
7. Rock of the Westies (1975)
The title of this album is a play on the phrase, “West of the Rockies,” as it was recorded at Caribou Ranch in Colorado (as was his earlier album, Caribou). The album debuted at #1, his second album in a row to do so and a feat which had never happened before. Looking to change things up, he fired Nigel and Dee and recorded this album with a host of musicians including Caleb Quaye and Roger Pope from his Empty Sky days.
Island Girl is the hit song here, but I love this record because it’s easily his grittiest, crunchiest batch of tunes overall, and I’m not sure why it isn’t mentioned more among his best albums. Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future), Grow Some Funk of Your Own, Street Kids, and Billy Bones and the White Bird are cool guitar-oriented songs. I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford) is one of my favorite Elton sad songs (they do say so much, after all), and Feed Me takes me right back to my childhood home with the lyric, “…’Cause I miss my basement, the sweet smell of new paint, the warmth and the comforts of home…”
6. Elton John (1970)
This self-titled album is Elton’s second overall and first to be released in America. It was also his first to be produced by Gus Dudgeon, with whom he would work for the majority of his 1970s heyday. Elton and Bernie made a rather sizeable leap in their songwriting from Empty Sky to Elton John. It opens with the immortal Your Song and ends with the epic The King Must Die. Sandwiched within are classics such as Take Me to the Pilot (a song whose meaning Elton and Bernie hilariously acknowledge they have no idea of, even though they wrote it), Sixty Years On, and Border Song.
Paul Buckmaster’s beautiful string arrangements are heard throughout the album, including on a song which I have a personal affinity for, The Greatest Discovery, with its lyrics about parents introducing their young son to his newborn baby brother. The first time I heard this after my second son was born in 2000 it choked me up quite a bit. I was cured of it soon after, however, as they’ve been scrapping for the past 17-plus years.
The top five are coming up, and I wonder if I’ll change the order any more than I already have. I listened to Honky Château last night and reaffirmed its greatness in my mind despite its exclusion from my top ten.
As things will be slowing down a bit for the next couple of months on the 50th anniversary album front, I’ll wander off course now and then into other topics. Today I think I’ll take a shot at my favorite Elton John albums. This would probably be a very difficult task for those who are fans of his work from A-Z, but for me it’s a little easier. With one exception (and it’s really not much of an exception as you’ll see), there’s not one post-1976 album in my ranking. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was when he parted ways with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, as well as drummer Nigel Olsson and the late bassist Dee Murray for a few years. But his output in those first 7-8 years is amazing.
I’m glad for Reg that he’s been able to reinvent himself over the years, and we’re fortunate he’s still with us. But 1976 is a demarcation for his music in my mind, both in the studio and on stage. I bought The One upon its release, as it sounded like he was returning to his early-70s sound. Alas, it came up a bit short. I’d probably enjoy The Union with Leon Russell, but I have yet to listen to it all the way through. I’m sure it’ll end up in my collection at some point.
That said, ranking my 15 albums is not easy. All of these titles are very dear to me; each one of them elicits good memories from my youth, and I still enjoy listening to them. All of them. I’ll try not to keep repeating my nostalgia attached to these records, but isn’t that what most of us of a certain age or older experience when listening to our favorite music from “back in the day?” It’s hard to avoid.
For the sake of keeping it a tidy, 15 album list, my parameters for this ranking include:
No greatest hits albums included. This alone is not easy, as his Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Vol. II are iconic in my world, the latter containing the non-album tracks Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Pinball Wizard, and Vol. III contains the post-1976 hit singles which I like.
No box sets or other compilations. The To Be Continued box and the Rare Masters set are wonderful. They were my first exposure to those cool esoteric singles from ’68-’69.
No bootlegs. There are some pretty good ones out there on YouTube last I checked, including a full show from the Russia tour he did with Ray Cooper in 1979. If that were cleaned up and officially released, it would automatically be on my list (time to open the vault, Elton!).
Let’s get to it…
15. Live in Australia (1987)
Apart from the occasional good single, the 1980’s weren’t kind to Elton. He was productive, but his mental and physical health were in steady decline. Then one day this live gem appeared. It’s a celebration of his and Bernie’s early tunes, complete with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which brought back to life those fantastic Paul Buckmaster arrangements. The show was recorded in Sydney in December of 1986, shortly before he had throat surgery which permanently dropped his voice from tenor to baritone. His voice was pretty rough, but it’s a great performance. I’ve heard Elton describe how that surgery forced him to use his singing voice properly for the first time in his life, but an awful lot of songs never sounded the same again live without his occasional falsetto.
14. Friends (1971)
This soundtrack to the film of the same title (which I’ve never seen) received a Grammy nomination for best film score in 1972. It became his third gold record in as many months in 1971. Elton and Bernie were just about to bust loose in America when this came out. It’s got that great, mellow, early Elton sound. The title track and Can I Put You On are highlights.
13. Here and There (1976)
As I’ve mentioned before, live albums in the 1970’s were a different animal. The excitement level kicked up a notch for me as a kid with live recordings, so much so that it didn’t occur to me that some day I could actually be in a live audience. This release, recorded at the height of Elton mania in 1974, captures a somewhat buttoned-up Elton performing for the Queen on side one, and buttoned-down Elton at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day on side two. Skyline Pigeon is my favorite tune on the original release, and Ray Cooper’s duck call on Honky Cat I found somewhat mesmerizing as a kid. I was also enthralled by the photo of the band equipment, especially Nigel’s drum kit. When the album was re-released in the mid-90’s, it stretched to two discs and included John Lennon’s guest appearance during the MSG portion, the final time he would grace a stage.
12. Caribou (1974)
Another chart-topper, this album is a good example of how putting together a list such as this can cause me to re-examine my opinions. I’ve always considered Caribou a so-so album. It contains the singles The Bitch is Back and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. I tired of the former years ago, but looking at the track list the only real stinker here in my mind is, well, Stinker, and even that’s a rocker. Pinky is a great love song, I just think it would’ve been better with a different (female) name ending in “y.” It always makes me think of the Fonz’s brief love interest on Happy Days, Pinky Tuscadero. Grimsby, I’ve Seen the Saucers, and Ticking are other favorites of mine. By far the worst aspect of this album is the cover. What was he thinking?
11. Honky Château (1972)
The first of seven consecutive number one albums for Elton, I can’t really justify why I don’t have it ranked better other than to say this is an honest assessment which includes how often I listen to it in relation to his other albums. Honky Cat, Mellow, Rocket Man, Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Slave, Hercules, etc. What’s not to like? This is a great album deserving of more frequent listens in my home.