Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Released October, 1973

I’ve got such great albums to review this year. I think I love all of them. And why would “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” be any different? I’m a huge Elton John fan and I finally got to see him live last year, where he played a fair chunk from this behemoth of an album. 76 minutes, 17 tracks, 94.2% brilliant. Yep. I did the maths. But more on that later. Reginald Dwight was born in Middlesex in 1946 in a fairly large class family. He began showing musical aptitude very early, learning piano by ear from three years old, he only started formal lessons at seven. When he was 11 he scored a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, but though naturally gifted, was a terrible student, getting by on ability but putting in no further effort. Fair enough.

At 15 Reggie was playing in a local pub for not much cash, and by 18 he’d formed Bluesology with some mates. Bluesology ended up supporting some quite big names on UK tours, like the Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle. After failing in an attempt to become the lead singer of King Crimson(!), he answered an ad in a music paper. He was given a bunch of lyrics and told to write music for them. As it turns out, those lyrics were written by one Bernie Taupin. The arrangement was Taupin wrote music, mailed it to Dwight to write the music. It was at this point Reginald Dwight adopted the name Elton John after Bluesology saxophonist Elton Dean and Long John Baldry. The two became staff songwriters for DJM Records, turning songs out in under two hours. John supplemented his income at this time as a session musician, most notably playing on ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’. It was recommend to the pair that they write songs for John to record and they did with little initial success.

It wasn’t until his self titled second album that he was noticed, when ‘Your Song’ cracked the Top 10 singles chart. 1970 came and John held his first US concert, and his incredible band was assembled, featuring Nigel Olssen on drums and Dee Murray on bass. The next three years were highly prolific for John and Taupin, releasing “Tumbleweed Connection”, “Friends”, “Madman Across The Water” (containing my favourite Elton John song, ‘Levon’), “Honky Chateau”, “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player”, and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was an insta-hit”, going straight to number one in the UK and US, and spawning four major singles, ‘Candle In The Wind’, ‘Bennie and the Jets’, ‘Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting’ and the title track, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. I mentioned earlier that this album was 94.2% brilliant. Are you a maths guy? If you are, then you figured out that there’s only one track on this album that didn’t classify as brilliant. Look, I don’t love ‘Candle In The Wind’. I don’t love this version, I don’t love the Princess Diana version. I don’t know why I don’t like it either. Musically it’s very pretty, and I normally life Elton’s ballads. Maybe it was the over playing when Diana died.
But what it loses the, this album more than makes up for everywhere else. Even the tracks that weren’t huge single successes are brilliant. ‘Jamaica Jerk-Off’ was probably my favorite of these, displaying a prefect example of reggae from a bunch of white English dudes.

The highlight of the album for new though is the band. This band is so heart-achingly good it nearly brings tears to your eyes. Lead from the front by Elton’s virtuoso pianoing, right behind it is Dee Murray’s bass, some of the cleanest, must exquisite bass you’ve ever heard. Nigel Olssen is still playing for Elton to this day, nearly 40 years on, as is Davey Johnstone who’s also played with blokes like Alice Cooper, Meat Loaf and Bob Seger. With names like that, you’re guaranteed a good album.
Elton John had been a big part of my music library since as long as I’ve had one. There’s never a time it’s not appropriate to listen to him. A larger than life entertainer.

That haunting opening organ solo makes every hair on my body stand on end! What an epic opening to what is a legendary and genius album.  The opener ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ was the song I listened to most, and one that I remember really vividly from my childhood, it’s my Dad’s favourite Elton track. It forms a fitting overture for the whole of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Princess Diana’s death and the resulting overplay notwithstanding, ‘Candle in the Wind’ – originally written to honour the passing of Marilyn Munroe, is a beautiful and moving ballad and I found a new respect for it this time around. And then, the amazing ‘Benny and the Jets’ with it’s simple yet pronounced staccato piano riff that made it so recognisable. Such a classic song just speaks for itself. Which brings us to the title track ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. It’s always been a bit of a ‘meh’ song for me, but clearly it’s also a classic and one of the more well-known Elton songs.  After that I tuned out for a bit, until I got to the ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’, which as the names suggests, is the perfect warm up song for a night out! One of the more rockier Elton songs, he leaves nothing in the tank with this cranked up rock and roll hit.  The rest of the tracks are still highly enjoyable, but none are as memorable as the ones I have mentioned above.  Elton has always been one of those artists that I’ve taken for granted but never really taken the time to fully appreciate. His knack for melody and story- telling style ensures that he remains one of the immortal artists of the 70’s whose work will never out-date.

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is one of those special albums where everything comes together. You have an artist at the top of his game, a stunning band, fantastic songs and excellent production. The first four tracks are absolute killers, with the epic ‘Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ opening the record with eleven minutes of operatic wonderment. I’m reminded of the score from A Clockwork Orange when those synthesizer chords start playing at the one minute mark. After the wind and bell chimes, it creates a very unsettling, eerie atmosphere, but then those lovely high keyboard arpeggios appear, and the tension is broken as the next movement begins. The second half of the song, ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ could almost be one track in its own right, but the way the two pieces blend into one is magical. We knocked are then out by stellar harmonies and the tragic plight of Marilyn Monroe, as seen through the eyes of Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin with ‘Candle In The Wind’. A true classic, this track has become one of the cornerstones of the 1970’s rock ballad. The idea to use crowd noise and claps on ‘Bennie and The Jets’ was a brilliant one, as it lifts the song up from a mere rock/pop ballad of a star and fuses it with a sense of audience adulation. Rounding out the first four songs is the wonderful title track, which boasts a vocal delivery from Elton that he can no longer perform. It’s an amazingly high melody line, and he pulls it off effortlessly. The rest of the album is also very consistent, with other highlights for me being ‘Sweet Painted Lady’, ‘I’ve Seen That Movie Too’ and ‘Grey Seal’. The rowdy ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ is Elton’s best balls-out rocker and the closing track ‘Harmony’ is one of the prettiest ballads he’s ever recorded. Fantastic stuff!

Elton John is a prolific maker of music. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is his seventh album, coming a mere five years after his debut. John is a larger than life entertainer and is know as much for his life off the stage as on it. It’s important not to allow this to overshadow his music though, as the man on the stage is brilliant. Being familiar mainly with John’s more well songs, I wasn’t sure what the expect coming into this week. The opening track “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” didn’t sit well with me at all. I couldn’t tell if it was a prog rock song or a Meat Loaf song. It’s a weird way to open an album. Luckily the next few tracks ticked along nicely, with my album highlights ‘Benny and the Jets’ and title track ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ sitting up front. It’s undeniable that “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is a brilliant album. The fact that it’s a double album though lets it down for me. The highs on this album are bloody glorious, but the sheer weight of the lesser tracks drag it down. I think the thing that redeems it is the innate perfection in John’s band and the production. At the risk of losing all respect from you Elton John fanatics out there, whilst I liked this album I didn’t love it. There are tracks I will keep on my ipod to listen to again but out of the 17 tracks there would only be around 10 I’d keep at a push. It’s becoming more and more obvious to me that whilst I can appreciate piano based music, it’s guitars that light a fire in my belly.

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