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.
By my own reckoning, there are only three tracks which are noteworthy, and out of these three tracks I only really listen to two enthusiastically. One is the single “Heartache All Over The World”, which is an entirely pedestrian ’80s song, but which is also entirely entertaining (specially considering the company it has got on the album). The other is “Hoop Of Fire”, a slow-burner with a gospelly backing that wouldn’t be out of place in one of his “good” albums of the decade like “Too Low For Zero”.
The other track which stands out is the ballad “Slow Rivers”, a duet with Cliff Richards, one of England’s true surviving stars of the ’50s. It starts out with some panache, but that panache is spent by the end of the first chorus and I am not drawn into the song at all beyond that point. Which (as dreadful as it might sound) is not really that aggravating in the context of the album – the title track, the bomb single “Go It Alone”, the song co-written with Cher which aims to ape some of Elton’s most recognizable compositions (“Don’t Trust That Woman”)… they all start and end limply. Not even the song to which Roger Taylor and John Deacon from Queen lend their rhythmic talents (“Angeline”) is remotely engaging.
When reviewing this album, John Alroy jokes that the only thing which is any fun about it is the sleeve (in which Elton and the band are depicted as leather-clad bikers). That is a truly tragicomic comment, and one that I am afraid will hold true to most people who give “Leather Jackets” a try. As a big admirer of Elton and his music I tried hard to distill its good bits and present them back to you on this review. And the sad conclusion is that bits of such nature are conspicuous by their absence. You have to be the biggest completist around to go for this.
Leather Jackets isn’t great by any means…I mean, my God, look at the horrendously dated album cover. But there are more songs on it that I enjoy than skip over and a couple,’Slow Rivers’ and ‘Paris’, should have gotten more attention than they did. Elton admitted afterwards that he was snorting tons of cocaine during the LJ sessions which resulted in some mediocre and uneven (to say the least) results. I also very much enjoy ‘Heartache’ and ‘Gypsy Heart’. Nothing great but still fun songs to listen to.