It would be impossible for me to overstate how big Elton John was in the mid-70s. Yes, the rock n roll world was listening to Zeppelin, but everybody and I mean everybody was listening to Elton. I really didn’t start listening to rock n roll until 1978-ish so I missed out on a lot of that “Elton heyday.” I remember hearing “Rocket Man” and “Bennie And the Jets” and loving those songs. But in truth, I actually didn’t get into Elton through my junior high or high school years. In those early days of my listening to rock n roll the greatest sin of all was to profess to like music that was considered “pop.” Any artist you were listening to had to be pure rock – Aerosmith, Zeppelin, and Van Halen were all rock approved. You couldn’t be caught dead listening to say, disco or Olivia Newton John from the Grease soundtrack, which I never did. I think back to that macho posturing now and laugh… I mean we thought Journey and Styx were cool. Journey might have been…but Styx?
The “problem” with Elton, even though by ’78, ’79 he’d had a slight decline was that he was still viewed as being this, well, pop juggernaut. And if Elton was pop music then by definition he wasn’t rock n roll. Or at least that’s what the prevailing attitude was back then amongst my gang of miscreant friends. It wasn’t until the summer after my senior year of high school, right before leaving for college that my attitude toward Elton turned completely around. It was on a hot early July evening in 1982 that my parents drug me to Starlight Theater to see Elton. It was my brother’s birthday gift – he, for one, was not afraid of people’s opinion’s of what he listened to, something it took me years to do. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t want to go (forgive me, I have told this story before: Elton’s Retirement From Touring Takes Me Back to His KC Starlight Theater Show July 6, 1982 ). I wanted to drink beer and hang out with a girl I knew. Elton came out that night with his original backing band who’d just reunited – Davey Johnstone (guitar), Nigel Olsson (drums) and Dee Murray (bass) – and they blew the lid off the place. They opened with “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and from that point on I knew, oh yes, this was rock n roll.
It wasn’t until I got up to college and started hanging out in a record store with my roommate Drew that I started to actually collect Elton’s albums. All of those records are so iconic I just assumed they all sold a billion copies. Whether it was Tumbleweed Connection, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Honky Chateau his albums had songs that had been drilled into our collective consciousness by radio. I just assumed that every album from Elton John (his 1970 U.S. debut but actually his 2nd LP) to Captain Fantastic had been monster sellers. I was surprised when I learned later that his first three U.S. records while selling better here than in the UK were not huge sellers – Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water which are now widely considered some of the greatest records of all time. It wasn’t until Honky Chateau that his album sales exploded. Honky Chateau was his first LP that the record company let him record with his backing band vs hired guns. Coincidence that it was the LP that exploded his popularity? I think not.
Back in college I was picking up an Elton LP almost every trip to the record store there for a while. I remember buying Elton John at the used record store. “Your Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot” were essential. The next LP I purchased was his third (fourth in the UK), Madman Across The Water. I loved, loved the title track. I will admit, I was little put off by the LP art – embroidered blue jeans but you can’t judge an LP by it’s cover. The album starts with two of Elton’s most iconic songs, “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” Elton’s piano playing is just stunning. The songs are all beautifully orchestrated. “Tiny Dancer” somehow combines gospel with country flourishes. “Tiny Dancer,” featured on almost all of Elton’s greatest hits LPs wasn’t a huge hit at first. I thought it was since it was central to an episode of the TV show WKRP In Cincinnati, a show I watched religiously. “Levon” is a beautiful song about the passing of generations and how they each want something different than the previous one. It was supposedly inspired by Levon Helm, who didn’t like the song, but there’ some disagreement about that. Admittedly Elton and his lyricist Bernie Taupin were huge fans of The Band at the time.
The epic title track was the gold for me (and no, “Madman Across the Water” wasn’t about Nixon) on this record but I also really liked “Razor Face” about an older musician who was perhaps a mentor who returns to town and being an itinerant musician needs help. I’ll be honest, when I first bought Madman Across the Water I thought side two was weak. Listening now I question my judgement when I was a college kid. Well, let’s face it my judgement was shit back then so why not extend that to some of the music. These songs are Elton’s classic blend of rock n roll, country rock and gospel. It conjures the 70s to me. I think “Indian Sunset” is a great, intense tune even if the lyrics are historically inaccurate. Geronimo was not “gunned down.” “Holiday Inn” is a humorous song about the road. I like “Rotten Peaches” as well, another song about traveling down the road and the interesting people you meet there. The only track that still leaves me cold when I listen to this wonderful LP is “All The Nasties” an apparent swipe at critics.
Last weekend Elton released a 50th anniversary edition of Madman Across the Water. It was released in 1971 so this is actually 51 years but I think the box was a Covid delay. I couldn’t resist this edition. I have to say, this music sounds incredible. Included with the original LP on the first disc is the original version of “Madman” with Mick Ronson (of Bowie’s Spiders From Mars fame) on lead guitar. It’s almost 3 minutes longer than the Davey Johnstone version released and Ronson proves why he belongs on lists of “greatest guitarists” on this track alone. Not that Davey doesn’t belong on that list also… There’s a version of “Rock Me When He’s Gone” a track Elton gifted to mentor Long John Baldry. Baldy employed not only Elton but Rod Stewart in various incarnations of his band. This was the first I’d heard Elton’s version. It might have really picked up the tempo on side 2 if he’d kept it instead of say, “All The Nasties.” I even liked the extended version of “Razor Face,” but then I love that song.
Disc 2 of the new box has a collection of ten “piano demos” of the tracks. One thing I’ve always thought about Madman is that the album captures some of Elton’s greatest piano playing. Unlike the Rock Chick I love the piano in rock n roll. From Fats Domino to Elton to Billy Joel, the piano gives rock it’s roll. On the released versions the wonderful strings conducted by Paul Buckmiester almost overwhelm the songs to the point where you miss what great things are happening on the piano. Don’t get me wrong, I love the released versions, and after a few listens the piano starts to jump out at you but these demos give you a more prominent piano that I liked. But I get it demos aren’t for everybody. There’s also a couple more versions of “Rock Me When He’s Gone,” a piano demo and a longer fully done version on disc 2.
The final disc is a live performance – just Elton and his rhythm section (Olsson on drums; Murray on bass) – taken from an April 29, 1971 performance from “BBC Sounds For Sunday.” There is no crowd or audience for the show, or at least there’s not one that you can hear. It’s an intriguing listen. I like Elton’s introductions of the tracks. I was surprised they did the entire new album on the show, not in order. I have to assume this was widely bootlegged.
The question here is, is this 50th anniversary version of 1971’s Madman Across The Water worth the money. If you’ve never purchased the album before this is a great version to buy. The sound is amazing. I liked the extras on disc 1. I understand if you’re not a fan of hearing demos and the creative process, disc 2 might not be for you. The songs are pretty fully realized, save for the strings on disc 2. The live performance, while intriguing, is probably not essential live Elton. So my answer to the “worth it” question is qualified. I’d say this is a must have for big fans of Elton or of this album in particular. If you’ve never owned it, I’d also recommend this version as a purchase. But for the most part this box is for big fans only. If you’re a casual fan this is not the box for you. There are some great moments in the extras, certainly worth streaming but if you’re not into Elton like I am, that’s as far as I’d go with it.
Cheers and Happy Summer everyone.