Thursday, 20 October 2016
Elton JOHN: The Very Best Of Elton John
(#416; 10 November 1990, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Your Song/Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long Long Time)/Honky Cat/Crocodile Rock/Daniel/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting/Candle In The Wind/Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds/Philadelphia Freedom/Someone Saved My Life Tonight/Pinball Wizard/The Bitch Is Back/Don't Go Breaking My Heart/Bennie And The Jets/Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word/Song For Guy/Part Time Love/Blue Eyes/I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues/I'm Still Standing/Kiss The Bride/Sad Songs (Say So Much)/Passengers/Nikita/I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That/Sacrifice/Easier To Walk Away/You Gotta Love Someone
And so, back to Elton John. During the liminal period there are going to be (and there already has been, thinking of The Carpenters, David Bowie, et al) a lot of pauses to look back and take some stock in the 20th century before it inevitably disappears. Certainly this is the case here; as much as this might look like it's capitalizing on the success of Sleeping With The Past, it is, to quote Elton himself, different. "My old life stops with the release of this history...A new life starts here, thanks to a willingness to change..."
Which is one way of saying, I've had enough of being a pop star now and would like to do other things; this, for better or indeed worse, is what I have done. This is fine, and it is fairly accurate to say that this is indeed what people will remember him for, more or less - being a compilation for the UK, it doesn't have a lot of his US hits - no "Island Girl" (perhaps this is just as well) or "Tiny Dancer," no "Mama Can't Buy You Love" (Thom Bell, sigh) or "Ego" (which only helped to invent the Pet Shop Boys) either. If I was to put together a best of it would be quite different, but this isn't to say this is a bad compilation; it's a fairly standard one though, and so much of it has been written about here on TPL already that I am only able to skim through it and highlight what John and TAUPIN* have accomplished, as best I can.
"Your Song" is already proof that the divide between the two here is going to be a partnership, sure, but also a battle. Ha, says TAUPIN, I am going to write a conversational lyric which breaks the fourth wall and is a song as much about how useless words are as how great they are, a song about honesty and love and you, Elton, are going to have to set it to music and sing it just so." This was the deal, that John had to set TAUPIN's lyrics to music, and it works so well here, you'd want someone to dedicate it to you, even though there are a thousand somebodies to whom it too is their song. I don't think of these two as Friendly Forebears, but every once in a while they most certainly are.
I wrote about "Rocket Man" here and I can only note there's yet another best of by Elton John with that title.
"Honky Cat" is a fun song and since TAUPIN is from Sleaford and grew up in the countryside of Lincolnshire, all I'm-just-a-dumb-hick-me references are sincere. It also has two voices - one of the cat himself, and one of those who are telling him to go back home.
"Crocodile Rock" is pure cheese, all Sha-Na-Na and Pat Boone, and Marcello wrote about it excellently here.
"Daniel" is about Vietnam, but like so many songs about that war, it hides it; or perhaps the condition of the war by now is so pervasive that just about every song of the time can be referred to it. This is Stevie Wonder's favorite Elton John song, btw.
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is one of those defining songs - of its era, and of Elton and TAUPIN's career. Again, the reference to a plough is a genuine one, as if Honky Cat has grown up here a little and can appreciate what the rural life has, instead.
"Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" is the first all-out rock song here, as in "OMG this rocks, must play air guitar NOW" sort of way. It is a shot, a jolt of pure energy, with Elton gleefully WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOing and a lot of references to working class youth, braces and boots (is this about skinheads?) and motorbikes and getting pissed, one way or another. The mellow part of the 70s, officially, is done. Not for Elton is the Glam Slam stomp (though he was friends with Marc Bolan, of course); when Elton rocks, he ROCKS.
"Candle In The Wind" comes next, a bit jarring, and here Elton I sense that this is really TAUPIN speaking through Elton, as was his power to do, at times. I appreciate that he is trying to get across the nobility of Marilyn, who as I remember was the movie star the feminists most wanted to rescue from being merely seen as a sexpot. This song helps that cause; and of course will one day be rewritten to suit another woman who died in the midst of trying to refashion her own life.
"Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" is a BIG ballad, complete with the Beach Boys singing in the back. It's a song of romantic torment, with "I can't find, Oh the right romantic line" and this is again clumsy, but in the talk of blinding lights and ladders, it's a song of hope and dread, of a terrible fear of loss. Elton and TAUPIN were now in the big leagues, no longer just two people brought together in 1967 (when TAUPIN was just 17) to write songs but outdoing just about everyone else in writing huge songs like this.
"Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is a loving version of the song, able to rest in it longeurs, dip into reggae for the chorus, and it's always the case that in a cover version, the qualities the singer brings to it are ones that were always lurking there, brought into light by Lennon (who does background vocals here). Elton is that sturdy voice, believable, as if there really were newspaper taxis, marshmallow pies and the amazing Lucy herself, floating in the sky. Elton had guested on "Whatever Gets You Through The Night" and this was the sequel in a way. It was the last time Lennon appeared on a US #1 in his lifetime....
Big breath here.
There are certain songs which have a very strong effect on me, and "Philadelphia Freedom" is one of them. It is credited to the Elton John Band, and this is important; it was orchestrated by the same man who worked with Barry White, so you know it's going to be huge and sweeping and bigger than life. It was written deliberately as a single, unlike everything else here (Elton and TAUPIN just wrote songs, man, and the label picked the songs they wanted as singles).
First, the bass; Dee Murray, the late Dee Murray, is AWESOME here, and I am now going to give props to his band, who tend to get overlooked, in general.
TAUPIN was told to write a song about Billie Jean King's tennis team the Philadelphia Freedoms, and then replied that he didn't write songs about tennis. I can see Elton rolling his eyes now, telling TAUPIN to just write something with that name, then.
It's a song about joy, about making decisions, and about what and where home is. Is it in a place, or in an ideal?
I'm crying already.
As you can see, it's ultimately a song about being free, a topic that has a lot of different meaning in the contexts it appeared in - the US Bicentennial (those flutes conjuring up a Bicentennial minute, seen by me on our family trip across the US in the summer of '75) and the US being proud of itself after the nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate. But something else is here too, "the ones left behind" - those who aren't free, but who have the beacon of the US to look to - "won't you shine the light---" and the equal conjuring up of immigrants. Not just of the past, but of the present. Even right now, as you read this. The melody is foursquare and solid, so it can leap up and soar and it works; and TAUPIN didn't mean it to become a patriotic song, but it cannot help but be heard this way if you're an American. This is a distinct case of the music taking the words right over, and Elton sings it as if it's a new anthem. Considering it's about a feminist heroine, about sport, about a woman who eventually comes out (sung by a man who will, one day, do the same) it's about sexual freedom, as well.** He even got to perform it on Soul Train, which adds another dimension altogether.
I really can't say enough about this, in part because I must relate it to my own father (not that he had much to say about popular music) and his own needs to be free and happy, his own push-and-pull relationship to the US. And again there is the city vs. the "good old family home" and the urge, the need to get out and see the world. This is what my father has ultimately given me, I feel....
"Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is also about freedom, and it's a rare case where Elton seems to have told TAUPIN about that time he nearly died, were it not for the intervention of Long John Baldry saving him from death. So Elton speaks with a rare authority here, and thus the song is a hymn. "Thank God my music's still alive." Just how he got into such a terrible way (the lyrics are about his getting out of what sounds like a wedding from hell) I don't know. But death was an option until Baldry talked him out of it. As bitchy as the lyrics are (there are lines about stocks and bonds which may be metaphorical or not, I don't know) the gratitude here is real.
"Pinball Wizard" is from Tommy and it is fairly straightforward, with a bit of "I Can't Expain" thrown in to boot. I have never seen the movie, though of course Elton towers over everyone, only to be outdone either by Ann-Margret or Tina Turner, depending on how you see things. Ah, the 70s.
Speaking of Tina, she used to open her show with "The Bitch Is Back" and while this is about a woman and on paper TAUPIN makes her look mean, Elton takes it as a compliment and rocks out to an extent that even Dave Marsh, from Detroit man, likes it. "It's the way that I move, the things that I do!" growls Elton, as the band explodes.....(and if you listen, you can hear Dusty Springfield in the back there. HAH!)
Thus endeth the first tape....
"Don't Go Breaking My Heart" zips and zooms away with more WHHOO-HOOs and Kiki Dee is there to cheer Elton up. It brings back that hot summer of '76, with the strings as a cool breeze. It's moving to hear Elton have someone with him - bringing her into his Imperial Phase existence, which this certainly is. He is once again unsure, and she is reassuring him that she is loyal; they did this themselves, and "nobody knoww---whhhhhhhoaaas it." Punk may be exploding in the streets, but this song is what I knew of the time - an actual love song, with courage and vulnerability in it. That they dress down for the video is equally fitting.
For me there are two main Elton John songs - one is "Philadelphia Freedom" and the other one is "Bennie and the Jets."
It is a vamp of a song, weirdly reminiscent of "Station To Station" by Bowie; and it is a riposte to Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. This may have been meant by TAUPIN as a satire on the megaglitz of 70s rock, but Elton turns it into a jazz song, and there's clapping from the Hendrix Isle of Wight concert thrown in by Gus Dudgeon and then Elton goes into the voices of the teenagers who read it in a MAGAAAAAAAAAAAAAZZZZIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNEEEEEE OH HO and the splendour of the music takes right over from any satire whatsoever. And the fourth wall gets knocked down again.
This wasn't meant to be a single, by the way, but a station in Windsor, Ontario decided to treat it like one, and then Detroit, just across the river, picked it up, and then it crossed over to the black radio stations and eventually got to #1 in the US. It's weird and wonderful and is so part of US popular culture now that this may be his best known song there, and both Mary J. Blige and Frank Ocean have sampled from it. And yes, it's a jazz song, going right back to the roots of where a teenage Elton started, before he knew TAUPIN. You're soaking in it! The reason it's here in the chronology was (inexplicably) it wasn't released as a single until October of '76, two and a half years after it was a hit in the US. It's not like any other single, and I'm glad it's here. It is perfect.
"Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" I associate with a totally hapless Elton appearing on the legendarily batshit Christmas '76 episode of Morecambe and Wise. If you haven't seen it, it involves prophecies of some one coming and going, Subbuteo legs, dancing turning into boxing, John Thaw and Dennis Waterman up the creek without a paddle and an ending that simply could never happen now.*** At one point Elton says "Can we say funky?" and you just know the Imperial Phase is over. The ridiculous costumes and whizz-bang days are gone. TAUPIN gives him nothing but breakup lyrics to compose songs to, and this is one of them. It has a French feel to it (the accordion helps) which reminds me that TAUPIN is the son of two French immigrants. Yeah you folks, half of the UK's most successful writing duo involving the postal service is secretly French.
Elton does moping music really well though, and everybody who has been dumped can relate to it.
At this point Elton and TAUPIN take their own break from each other, and while they do "Ego" together, Elton gets to work with various people including Thom Bell. I'm not sure what else happens, but he gets to do a few more good songs...
"Song For Guy" is an instrumental that ambles along to a cha-cha beat straight from that button on the organ there; Guy being a motorbike courier for Rocket Records, the label Elton set up for himself once he finally escaped his draconian two-albums-per-year old contract. Guy died in a traffic accident, and this is Elton's tribute to the teenager. It is wordless, save for the words "life isn't everything." It is sad, but not mournful - it has that absent quality that sounds as if there is indeed something missing...
After this, it is all very hit and miss. "Part Time Love" is Gary Osborne's lyrics of everyone cheating on everyone else, as if the 70s culminates in nothing but a lot of wacky bed-hopping. Already the music sounds like it's from a musical, with a chorus line in the back singing along. It's just embarrassing.
"Blue Eyes" is something else though; suddenly it's 1982 and Elton is taking his time, going into his lowest register, pausing and confusing those who forgot he could still do this and pull it off. It is not soppy or dull, which unfortunately a lot of the rest of the songs here are. They are the equivalent to the Stylistics after Thom Bell left them to Hugo & Luigi.
"I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" sees him back with TAUPIN, who encourages people to feel bad, if only so they can then feel better. It's a "I miss you too honey" of a song, with overproduction from Chris Thomas, a bunch of backing singers who aren't as intrusive as David Bowie's but are somehow just as annoying. "Wait on me girl." Elton sings it as if it's just another song, really - it's as if his real enthusiasm is elsewhere, not here. Even the near-obligatory Stevie Wonder harmonica solo can't help it.
"I'm Still Standing" is sonically one big nyah-nyah and is just as headache-inducing for me as "Modern Love." This is Elton in his ha-ha-I'm-okay-look-I'm-marrying-a-woman-and-everything-HAHA period, and it's not pretty. It's not even listenable.
Speaking of denial, "Kiss The Bride" is either TAUPIN pulling a very mean prank on Elton, o r else it's actually what Elton felt. There are plenty of songs about this whole theme of wanting to attend a wedding and cause a fuss, but "It Should Have Been Me" (preferably sung by Adeva) is so much better than this, it's not even funny. Or if you want rock, "I Knew The Bride" by Dave Edmunds. No Elton, you don't want to kiss her, come on.
"Sad Songs (Say So Much)" sounds like a commercial, complete with needless over-explaining, an annoying chorus of backing singers, simple music and the irony that it's a cheery song about listening to the blues. Or Joy Division, I can't tell. "They reach into your room" is a creepy way to sing about music, as if music can actually walk in and touch you, like a ghost. When all hope is gone you don't listen to the blues, you dork. You listen to music that can give you hope, energy, LIFE. Rich people luxuriating in the blues is one of the most irritating things in rock, and this is a big slice of it.
"Passengers" is apparently about South Africa and apartheid and the condition of miners, but it is so repetitive and allusive and so forth that I am not really sure that comes across. This wasn't even a single in the US, and the US loves Elton John. It's no "Biko" or "Free Nelson Mandela" for sure.
"Nikita" is a song from the Cold War, part one (are we in part two yet? I can't tell). Remember in La Femme Nikita how she's supposed to be deaf to any mayhem because she's listening to this song? How could that be, unless she's got it up to maximum volume? Nikita is a Russian woman who has eyes that are like "ice on fire" and she is pitied because she doesn't know the joys of life in the West. At bottom this seems to be some kind of odd pen-pal relationship, with the woman being all Eastern Bloc enigmatic and himself wondering why she hasn't leapt to be by his side. SIGH. Yes, that is George Michael in the background, and Nik Kershaw on guitar.
"I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That" takes us to 1988 (I remember it from my trip to the UK; this and "A Word In Spanish"). Here he contradicts his free-loving self in "Part Time Love" and rebukes an Other who wants lots of lovers. It's got a good beat and you can dance to it, and Elton sounds actually pissed off, for once. But again, for a better song, see the Pet Shop Boys' "Domino Dancing."
Which brings us to "Sacrifice" - one of the coldest breakup songs of all time (yep, TAUPIN is breaking up with someone again). "Mutual misunderstanding" is the theme here, but it sounds to me as if no sweat is broken here, no feelings hurt - the song is memorable, sure, but if there is no sacrifice here, was there something really there to begin with? It all feels so insubstantial. So many of Elton's songs from the 70s were as solid as buildings, as natural as a tree you could lean against; this E-Z Rock ballad swirls around jealousy and temptation but the song waves these human emotions and feelings off, and Elton is singing is fine...maybe this is about his own divorce? About something bigger?
The last two songs are the obligatory "new songs you've never heard before" ones and they are so dull as to constitute a crime. "Easier To Walk Away" attempts a kind of New Jack Swing beat, and is all about love mysteriously "holding you up for ransom." No, I don't know either. What the heck was TAUPIN thinking here? "Oh-ho-hooo, love, it's so oppressive, you can never trust the other, oh poetry I shall die." Since when did he turn into Morrissey?
"You Gotta Love Someone" is about the importance of loving someone before you go do something crazy. Like "stop the world and steal the face from the moon." This is getting to "Instinction" levels of WTF-ness here. "You need two hearts on one side." Well, thank you, TAUPIN. Next time I feel like getting a "slice of the sun" I will remember that I am happily attached to someone. Musically this is a genteel tune that sounds like someone doing an Elton John song. It's bossy and even Don Was' production cannot save it.
What to make of all this? Would it have been better for Elton to have just stopped making music after a while? I doubt that would have happened, but like Bowie I think his heart was elsewhere in the 80s, as it is now; the omission of "That's What Friends Are For" here kind of points to where his interests and energies are - namely in LGBT rights, worldwide, as well as raising funds to help those with AIDS. If your heart is elsewhere and you made your mark musically by the time you turned 30, you just keep going and touring and eventually pause here to mark the end of that life, and a new one of love, both personal and brotherly. You can still dress up and make a spectacle of yourself, of course.
We don't return to Elton John for some time here on TPL. His '90s will be one of heartbreak, triumph and the biggest UK single of all time; his good works will get him knighted in 1998, and even now he is so big and well known, for his WHOO-HOOOs as well as his sensitive ballads, that he can get Putin on the line to talk about what matters - equality, pure and simple. Oh, and freedom, which in his best song is given (by TAUPIN) is given so many dimensions, so many facets, as to be as close to my heart as some woman my own age in Russia, or anywhere else.
Next up: the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.
*In the sleeve notes to Sleeping With The Past there's a Herb Ritts picture of Elton John with his lyricist and he's just called TAUPIN as if he was a brand or a corporation or something. This picture is also used for this compilation, and he looks quite smug, is wearing leather jeans and looks more like Steven Seagal than anyone besides Seagal should. Hence, I will refer to him in all-caps.
**It's even about the right to have a pop single be five minutes long. DJs in the US carped about Elton's songs being too long, so Elton gave them this, a home run of a song, and of course it went to #1. It got to #12 in the UK as he didn't want to have the stunning strings butchered by the Top Of The Pops orchestra.
***Imagine a UK showbiz figure of your choice (my choices here are Will Young or maybe Idris Elba), a machine gun, and Ant and Dec. You're welcome.