“Song For Guy” Remains The Sole Instrumental Piece By Elton That Has Cracked The Charts
“Song For Guy” is a six-minute instrumental piece that closes Elton’s 1978 album, “A Single Man”. It is preceded by a short introduction which is named “Reverie”.
If you have “A Single Man”, you will be able to read in the credits that the song is dedicated to Guy Burchett, a seventeen-year old boy that worked at Rocket (Elton’s record company) as a messenger. He died in a motorcycle accident.
There are two common misconceptions surrounding “Song For Guy”. The first is thinking that Elton wrote the song after Guy had died. He did not. He had a strange inspiration the night before the accident, and he wrote it right then. He named it upon learning the devastating news the following day.
The other misperception involves the sole lyric of the song. This is often transcribed as “Life is a delicate thing”, when Elton is actually singing “Life isn’t everything”.
For The First Time, Elton Recorded An Album Without The Help Of His Life-long Collaborator Bernie Taupin
A Single Man was issued in 1978, two years after Elton had announced his first retirement.
The title of this album should be taken almost literally – Elton had sacked not only his entire backing band, but also his loyal lyricist Bernie Taupin. For a couple of albums, that crucial chair was to be occupied by Gary Osborne (one former half of Vigrass & Osborne, the duo that came up with the original version of “Forever Autumn”).
Technically, I find Osborne more interesting than Bernie – he has a firmer grasp on complex rhyme schemes (“Madness”), and alliterates purposefully (“Shine On Through”). In terms of content, now, his songs can be even more misguided and clueless than Taupin’s when he is not careful. You have two glaring examples here: the single “Part Time Love” (banned on some territories such as Russia on grounds of condoning underage sex) and the plain silly and puerile “Big Diper”.
On the contrary, the songs in which Osborne bites the bullet and ventures on his own instead of referencing Taupin are mostly tasteful. “Madness” is a good example, and the first truly good song that he and Elton crafted together. An anti-war protest, “Madness” is the sole foot-stomper of the whole album, and one of the songs that sticks for everybody.
The other is the aforementioned “Part Time Love”. Leaving aside the unfortunate lyrics, the song combines one of Elton’s most fluid melodies in years with one of Paul Buckmaster’s most grandiloquent orchestrations. Note that “A Single Man” was to stand as Buckmaster’s final collaboration with Elton for over a decade – they reunited for the “Made In England” album in 1995, when Elton was sold as an adult entertainer on the strength of “The Lion King” OST.
And the album also has some shades of that stylistic diversity that defined the most emblematic works of Elton during the previous decade. There is gospel on “Georgia” and some Latin percussion on “Return To Paradise” (a song which could have been way better – it ends up sounding too saturated for its own good). And “It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy” is a blues number that actually works, although not necessarily owing to Elton’s contribution – it is guitar player Tim Renwick who provides the song’s most memorable passages, aided by another fine arrangement by Buckmaster. Continue reading →
As good as “One Horse Town” is, the song is a lone exponent of loud music within the two records that make up “Blue Moves”. “Tonight” gives you an exact idea of the kind of compositions that define the disc, and it markedly highlights the somberness I mentioned in the first part of the review. It is not that Elton did never cut something somber before – “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” dealt with its fair share of touchy issues. But the instrumentation steered everything into a more joyous destination. The opposite can be said about “Blue Moves”.
And maybe one of the clearest examples of the contrast between the two double albums (they have to be contrasted – they were the only Elton ever issued) is found in the eulogies that are featured. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” had “Candle In The Wind”, and “Blue Moves” had “Cage The Songbird”. “Candle In The Wind” was for Marilyn Monroe. “Cage The Songbird” was for Edith Piaf. The first was lush and elegant instrumentally, the second was contrite and subdued, and were it not for Graham Cosby and Steve Nash’s harmonies it would even have been drab. Of course, “Candle In The Wind” was a lyric Elton had not a lot to refer to, not especially when placed against something like“Cage The Songbird”. The song dealt with Marilyn Monroe, and it focused on the price paid by those enslaved by showbiz. The perspective was 100 % Bernie, and if it had something to do with Elton, it had to do with the outward image he projected, and how the media used that persona to fabricate what it wished. “Cage The Songbird”, on the other hand, dealt with the passing of a master songstress. It wasn’t that difficult for Elton to get introspective at all.
Crosby and Nash also sing backup on “The Wide-Eyed And Laughing”, the one true curveball of the whole album, and a clear standout track both for Caleb and Davey. They play 12-string guitar and sitar respectively, laying the foundation for a Eastern-derived song which reminds us of the willingness to experiment that was at the core of everything that Elton did during his classic years. That was sadly being displaced further and further until it was too late to put in back into position.
And two tracks are graced by the Beach Boys singing backup, too, and much like “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” on “Caribou” these songs were to be refined and defined by their contributions. They are “Chameleon” (a song that was actually offered to them by Elton; they turned it down but agreed to sing on his own version of the song), and “Someone’s Final Song” , a valedictory tune where Bernie sounds jaded like never before – he was actually going to take a few years off after “Blue Moves”. The harmonized coda puts a fine (if utterly eerie) point to it all. Continue reading →
"Blue Moves" (1976) Was One Of The Moodiest Albums Of Elton John's Career, And Something Entirely Removed From "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (The Only Other Double Album He Ever Issued)
When being interviewed in 1991, Elton John remarked that he had not released a good album ever since 1976’s “Blue Moves”. He also termed it an album where he did absolutely what he wanted to do. He went to say that he wasn’t really thinking about pleasing anybody but himself, to come up with a record that he would like to listen afterwards. That might go some way into explaining why the double album yielded virtually no hit singles (“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” was the lone exception, peaking at #6) and why it would take time for “Blue Moves” to grew into stature until it became one of his most respected works among critics and fans alike.
Certainly, if we were to compare “Blue Moves” with the only other double album Elton issued in his career (1973’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”) the difference is entirely apparent. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was an album for everybody, or (rather) an album where Elton performed in ways everybody was sure to appreciate. It was to become his most representative work to the public at large, and a true embodiment of every facet that defined his classic years. It was pop music at his best, and the way in which he approached issues like mortality and transience (“Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, “Candle In The Wind”…) did attenuate the gravity at play. If anything, the music was so full of life that he could sing about just anything (“Social Disease”) and get away with it. A truly negative connotation could only surface if you looked for it, and if you looked for it in an extensive way at that.
On the contrary, “Blue Moves” was an album in which you could read negativity at every turn. Because it was an album where Elton clearly spoke to himself. There are fewer examples of John’s music sounding this introspective. And when it did, Elton was singing about a character (“Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy”). Here, you listen to him in the most direct and unstripped setting. No wonder “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was critically acclaimed from the beginning, and “Blue Moves” could only be appreciated in retrospective. Continue reading →
The Disheveled Image Of Elton On The Cover Of "Rock Of The Westies" Couldn't Stand Farther Removed From The Illustration Used For The Previous Disc, "Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy".
Immediately after the release of the “Captain Fantastic” album in 1975, Elton made the career-changing decision of reshaping his backing band. He would drop Nigel and Dee and retain Davey and Ray. That was bad enough any way you looked at it, but the worst thing might as well be how he did it, notifying his loyal drummer and bassist over the phone. Hard feelings were to linger for a couple of years before the “classic” band reassembled itself during the early ’80s. For (make no mistake) the “new” band that debuted on “Rock Of The Westies” was no match for his previous outfit. It was incredibly tight and professional, but the chemistry was no longer there. In addition to drummer Roger Pope and bass player Kenny Passarelli, he was to bring a second guitarist in, someone that (like Roger Pope) had already played with him as a session musician: Caleb Quaye. But what was most tellingly was that he brought in a second keyboardist too, James Newton Howard. It is agreed that Howard (who was also to double as an arranger) would be too distracting during his stint as a member of Elton’s band, shifting the focus from Elton’s piano for no real reason.
This expanded band was to be the one Elton used to tour “Captain Fantastic“, and then brought over to Caribou Ranch to record “Rock Of The Westies” (a silly pun, but nowhere as silly as the biographical notes for each band member’s profile on the booklet). Having two lead no-nonsense guitarists on the band made for a considerable change of sound, as out of nine tracks only one was to be a piano ballad. “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)” (yes, Bernie and his fixation with American themes again) was to be one of the high points of an album dominated by loud rockers which (to be frank) were not that memorable. Leaving aside “Grow Some Funk Of Your Own” (a song that recalled The Rolling Stones at their cockiest) and the closing “Billy Bones And The White Bird” (a composition that put a Bo Diddley beat to an imaginative use), those rockers were to sound rote and by the numbers. That was the case of “Street Kids”, “Hard Luck Story” and most of the opening medley “Yell Help”. Continue reading →
A Heavily-panned Record At Its Time, “Caribou” Now Proves To Be A True Gem Within Elton’s Catalog.
Quite probably one of Elton’s most underrated albums, “Caribou” was released in 1974, and in hindsight it is easy to understand why it collided with such a wall of negativity. The record ended up sandwiched between two magnum opuses like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973) and “Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy” (1975). If you listen to it now, it dawns on you that the material was not really substandard (despite the fact that the whole album was recorded in about a week), and the hits it yielded (the irresistible, horn-augmented rocker “The Bitch Is Back” and the powerful ballad “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”) were representative of the quality of the whole disc, not songs that were labored at longer knowing they were going to be “the” singles (as would happen often during the ‘80s).
“The Bitch Is Back” (whose title was inspired by a remark made by Bernie’s wife Maxine) will always stand as one of Elton’s most driving rockers, not only on the strength of the main riff but also because of the accompaniment provided by the Tower Of Power horns, a new American association Elton had made. (“Caribou”, incidentally, was the first album he recorded in the US.) The Tower of Power horns were also going to be exemplary on “You’re So Static”, a misogynistic song about a prostitute that prefers to have her client’s watch rather than money for the rendering of her professional services. The coalition between the pounding horns and the swirling organ during the choruses make the song stand out, and the bluesy “Stinker” (although clearly not a highlight) is also enjoyable on grounds on the TOP contribution. Otherwise, “Stinker” sounds too much like a thematic retake on “Midnight Creeper”, and we already have “The Bitch Is Back” here to begin with.
The country interlude of the album comes in the shape of “Little Dixie”. The song is better than “No Shoe String On Louise” but still far from fulfilling – it would take Elton more than two decades to come up with stuff like “Birds” and “Turn The Lights Out When You Leave”. The best part of “Little Dixie” might as well be the sax solo, provided (again) by a member of TOP.
But “Caribou” saw the addition of another top-notch musician to Elton’s ranks aside from the Tower Of Power horns. I am talking about percussionist Ray Cooper, who made his debut on “Caribou”, and who was to become one of the most-revered bit-players associated with Elton outside of those who made up the “classic” band. Some ‘80s and early ‘90s tours comprised only Elton and Ray – that was the case of Elton’s Russian tour (he was the first rock and roll performer to play there), and also of Elton’s first visits to South America. His first show here in Uruguay had people shouting for Cooper over Elton, much to Elton’s amusement – they played the Estadio Charrúa and people stood up cheering “¡Pelado! ¡Pelado! ¡Pelado!” [¡Baldy! ¡Baldy! ¡Baldy!]. Continue reading →
"Leather Jackets" Was Issued In 1986, And It Is Regarded As One Of Elton John's Biggest Failures. It Was The First Album Since "Tumbleweed Connection" To Yield No Top 40 Singles.
It is generally accepted that the ’80s were spotty years for the vast majority of artists that had careers which had commenced in the previous decade (or decades). The other day I was talking with a fan of Bowie that made some of the most venomous comments I had ever heard in my life about anybody regarding Ziggy Stardust and his output during that decade. And from an entirely objective viewpoint, I can’t speak much better about my favorite bands – The Who released only two albums back then, and they are traditionally considered artistic dead ends in themselves. Although I am fond of “Face Dances” (and quite fond of it at that), if you were to look at it objectively the disc is just an intermittent reminder of what used to be, whereas “It’s Hard” is inexcusable. For its part, even XTC (a band that is characterized for not stepping out of line) missed the boat with the release of “The Big Express”. And there is Elton John.
The decade had started on the wrong foot with the release of the “Victim Of Love” album, and it was to be a bumpy ride from that point until he (sort of) reinvented himself in the ’90s as an adult entertainer. Some of his worst-selling albums ever came during the ’80s, and while some of these discs weren’t really that bad (The Fox), some deserved all the stick they got. And this is one of these.
“Leather Jackets” is the kind of album that can only be listened to with one finger on the fast-forward button. It produced no hit singles at a time in which Elton was known for churning them out quite easily, and Elton was later to disown the album completely. The album was also the last Gus Dudgeon would helm for Elton – he was given a second chance after “Ice On Fire”. Sadly, the soft rock approach he applied just buried the bits that could have been interesting (like Davey Johnstone’s guitar), driving another definitive nail in the coffin and ending a truly memorable partnership in an unnecessarily low note. Continue reading →
1982' "Jump Up!" Was A Misstep After "The Fox", Although If Featured The Massive John Lennon Tribute "Empty Garden"
Those who claim that Elton’s albums through the ‘80s were collections of substandard songs that had only a couple of substantial cuts thrown in can point their fingers at albums like “Jump Up!” and goad fans of Captain (formerly) Fantastic to no end.
The record was dominated by songs like “Dear John” and “I Am Your Robot” – cuts that were fluff at best (although “I Am Your Robot” achieved a nice, crunchy guitar sound), whereas bathetic material like “Blue Eyes” basically redefined the meaning of the expression “show me an open window and I’ll go through it”.
Most of the troublesome numbers were penned by Gary Osborne, one of Elton’s most frequent lyricists during the ‘80s. But Bernie Taupin also had some input on the album, and it was him who ultimately provided the best material for Elton to work upon. If we leave aside “I Am Your Robot”, that’s it. “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” (not to be mistaken with the song by The Kinks of the same name) might have been clichéd, but Elton sounded truly at home when singing it, and the same went for the album closer “All Quiet On The Western Front”.
And the indisputable achievement of the whole record (and one of the few compositions that always receives praise, even from big detractors of Elton) was the work of the diminutive lyricist from Lincolnshire. Of course, I am speaking about “Empty Garden”, John Lennon’s eulogy, and a piece that anchors the whole album on a territory that is somehow more respectable. I consider it the best John/Taupin tribute, way ahead of “Candle In The Wind” and “Cage The Songbird”, and a song that proved that while Elton could only produce sporadic hit material during the ´80s, when he did deliver the goods the result was masterful. Continue reading →
Elton John Issued "The Fox" In 1981, At A Time In Which His Original Band Was Coming Together Again. Dee Murray And Nigel Olsson Were Already Back And Davey Johnstone Was To Rejoin Them For "Too Low For Zero" (1983).
To my mind, Elton did only release two “truly” essential albums in the ‘80s. Obviously, “Too Low For Zero” (1983) was one of them – the album saw him reunited with Bernie and his classic band in full for the first time, and many successful singles were released – “I’m Still Standing”, “Kiss The Bride” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”. The other album I hold in true esteem from that period, though, did not produce any radio hit. I suppose that is the reason it is always neglected on “Best Of” packages, while other (inferior) albums from the ‘80s at least have one or two cuts in. I am talking about “The Fox”, issued in 1981 after “21 At 33” and the tepid “Victim Of Love”.
The previous disc saw Elton reunited with both Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson, and they were carried into this release and into succeeding albums. Guitars were to be handled by Ritchie Zito (who you might know for his work as a producer for bands like Cheap Trick, Heart and Poison), and lyrics were penned both by Gary Osborne and Bernie Taupin. One track (“Elton’s Song”) was co-written with Tom Robinson – the song was banned in some countries on grounds of homosexuality. Well, the video was just that little too explicit, wouldn’t you say?
The disc also marked Chris Thomas’ first collaboration with Elton. Thomas was to occupy the producer’s chair for a considerable number of records, effectively becoming the second main shaper of John’s sound after Gus Dudgeon. Continue reading →