You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that Elton John’s new biopic Rocketman came out on Friday. In the interest of “full disclosure,” I have not seen the movie. I’m not even sure I want to see the movie. I really liked the Queen/Freddie Mercury flick, Bohemian Rhapsody but it has some historical flaws… stuff that admittedly only a rock and roll obsessive would notice (Movie: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – The Story of Freddy Mercury and Queen). I pushed through that and enjoyed the movie. Then Motley Crue’s The Dirt came out and other than the four new tracks on the soundtrack there was nothing to like about that movie, which was a real missed opportunity (Review: Motley Crue’s ‘The Dirt’ – Movie and Thankfully, A Soundtrack). That movie was painful. So much so that it may have turned me off of rock and roll biopics for good, the same way that Keith Richards’ biography Life turned me away from rock biographies for good.
I’m sure it’s a great story. From 1970 to 1975 Elton John owned rock and roll. He was the biggest thing on the planet. He was what Elvis was to the late 50’s, the Beatles were to the mid to late 60s. Yes, Led Zeppelin was huge in the early 70s, but Elton John had a more pop sensibility to his music. Zeppelin was this behemoth of blues, rock and folk. Elton rocked, not quite as hard, but he wrote hits. He was played on both AM and FM radio. Pink Floyd had all the stoners, Elton had everybody. He’s got as many greatest hits albums as the Stones do, albeit the Stones never really had “hits” as much as songs that got played on the radio. Elton released three greatest hits albums before 1985, each of which had different songs on them and this was before the giant two and three disc CD sets became fashionable.
Elton could and still can, really do it all. He could do rockers, ballads and even country. He had one of the most talented bands in rock history and nobody ever talks about those guys. I would be remiss if I didn’t start off by mentioning Bernie Taupin, his superb lyricist and songwriting partner, although not technically “in” the band. Davey Johnstone on guitar is one of the most underrated anywhere. Nigel Olsson on drums and the late, great Dee Murray on bass were a rock solid rhythm section. He often augmented that core band with Ray Cooper on percussion and various second keyboardists. Those guys could play anything. I had the honor of seeing that line up in 1982 at Starlight Theater and it remains a highlight of my concert career, Elton’s Retirement From Touring Takes Me Back to His KC Starlight Theater Show July 6, 1982.
While Elton had a lot of big hits, he was also an album artist as well. If you look at his albums from 1970 to 1975 there are a lot of classic LPs that you can listen to from end to end. For those of you questioning if Elton was rock and roll, he released what I consider to be the essential thing for rock act – the double-studio-LP – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and what an album that was… it’s truly his magnum opus. He had so many great albums: Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, 17-11-70 (a brilliant, overlooked live album), Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and of course, Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. Captain Fantastic is kind of like a Pink Floyd record, you have to listen to the whole thing at once. It works a piece…
While we tend to focus on Elton’s early work, unfortunately many of us have missed out on his late career renaissance. Starting with 2001’s Songs From the West Coast Elton has put out a string of really strong albums. While he doesn’t have the radio exposure that he had in the ’70s, he should have, there’s some great music on these albums. He did a fabulous album with the late Leon Russell, The Union. If you’re fond of piano playing, I would urge you to check out The Diving Board from 2013. His late catalog is very worthy of exploration. And yes, I’ll admit it’s skewed toward the mellow end of the spectrum, unlike so much of his early work, but it’s still beautiful music.
While Elton is known for all of his hits, with that many great albums, you know there has to be a ton of deeper, album tracks that are just as outstanding. Many of which you’ve heard on your radio over the years – “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” the brilliant first track from Yellow Brick Road, or “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters,” the brilliant Honky Chateau track. While I was sitting around reading all of this press around the new movie and a few “best of” song lists in different magazines, I realized all we were talking about were the hits. If you dig a little deeper into Elton’s catalog you will be rewarded. I assembled this brief list of 20 songs and built a playlist on Spotify to celebrate the B&V favorite deep tracks by Elton. I truly tried to span his entire career, including those great late career records I mentioned before. I was hoping to stay away from songs everyone has heard… although there were a few I couldn’t resist. This is not meant to be definitive, but it’s a damn good listen. If you have favorites that aren’t on this list, by all means please mention them in the comments. Everyone has that hidden, Elton deep track… “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” has some sentimental meaning for me from an episode long ago in a galaxy far away, but I didn’t include it as it’s too well known.
And yes, Elton John is a rockstar. Hell, you can even call him a superstar. But as you dig deeper into his records, you realize, he’s also one hell of a musician.
- “Empty Sky” – The title track from Elton’s forgotten first album is an epic, low key rocker. It’s a template he would return to. I’ve always liked this song.
- “Bad Side of the Moon” – A classic from the Elton John album (with a great live version on 17-11-70). I can’t believe this song didn’t get more radio play.
- “Take Me To the Pilot” – Also from Elton John. This is probably more familiar to most people, but it’s one of my all time favorites, despite lyrics that are at best… confusing.
- “Country Comfort” – A track Elton gave to Rod Stewart to record first (and Rod does a nice job with it). This is just a great example of Elton doing a country rock song. The Eagles could have done this song. It’s one of my favorites.
- “Friends” – A beautiful ballad from a forgotten movie soundtrack extolling the virtues of having friends.
- “Madman Across The Water” – The title track from the 1971 album. A brooding, dark opus that runs almost six minutes. This was a true FM, non-hit favorite of mine.
- “Elderberry Wine” – Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player was dinged because it was such a sprawling mix of styles and songs. Elton is really testing his voice on this album. This has always been a favorite of mine and as it’s a drinking song, it belongs on B&V.
- “Midnight Creeper” – Also from Don’t Shoot, I may take crap for including this Stones-inspired rocker, but I just dig it.
- “All The Girls Love Alice” – A rocking, tragic tale detailing the short life of a young lesbian.
- “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” – The greatest kiss-off, go fuck yourself song ever. It even gets quoted by Axl Rose (no stranger to angry break ups) in a Guns N Roses’ “You Could Be Mine.”
- “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” – From Captain Fantastic. While I’ve always approached this album as a suite, this track and the next one on this list alway jumped out at me. I love the guitar tone by Johnstone. Drenched in strings, it’s almost soulful.
- “Captain Fantastic And the Brown Dirt Cowboy” – This is another of my favorite country-rock songs from Elton. It’s a mostly acoustic driven number that builds steam as it goes on.
- “I Saw Her Standing There” – A duet with John Lennon, sadly from Lennon’s last live performance. From the live album, Here And There. Elton had duetted with Lennon on the track “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” He said, when he was leaving the session, “when this hits #1, you have to sing it with me at Madison Square Garden.” When it topped the charts, Lennon complied.
- “Tonight” – The longest, saddest song on this list. An epic ballad about battling lovers, in a relationship that isn’t going well… One lover asking his partner to “approach with less defiance.” It’s so striking, I had to include this Blue Moves track.
- “Song For Guy” – I love Elton John’s piano playing. This is a rare instrumental that I always loved for that very reason.
- “Kiss The Bride” – A punchy, later period rocker. And who hasn’t been there?
- “Orignal Sin” – The first of two tracks I included from Songs From the West Coast. This is the best song from a great album.
- “Love Her Like Me” – Again from West Coast. This one is a little more upbeat, albeit still on the mellow end.
- “Gone to Shiloh” – A very affecting duet with Leon Russell. If that’s not enough, Neil Young shows up in the middle to provide some additional vocals.
- “Home Again” – I ended up on a slightly melancholy note, but this track from The Diving Board has some beautiful piano and deeper vocal approach from Elton. The song jumped off the album for me the first time I heard it so I included it.
I know I’m all over the place stylistically here, but so is Elton if you think about it. There are so many more songs I could have included but I drew the line at 20 to force myself to try and net it out. Admittedly I chose nothing from Honky Chateau, but I wanted to spread this out over Elton’s entire career. I still wonder if I should have included “Blues For Baby And Me” instead of “Midnight Creeper.” That’s the joy in Elton’s catalog… so many choices and options. For those of you who go to the movie, enjoy. For those who don’t, I advise you to listen to as much Elton John as you can.