Playlist: B&V’s Favorite 20 Elton John Deep/Album Tracks

image.jpg

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.

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “Friends” – A beautiful ballad from a forgotten movie soundtrack extolling the virtues of having friends.
  6. “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.
  7. “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.
  8. “Midnight Creeper” – Also from Don’t Shoot, I may take crap for including this Stones-inspired rocker, but I just dig it.
  9. “All The Girls Love Alice” – A rocking, tragic tale detailing the short life of a young lesbian.
  10. “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.”
  11. “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.
  12. “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.
  13. “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.
  14. “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.
  15. “Song For Guy” – I love Elton John’s piano playing. This is a rare instrumental that I always loved for that very reason.
  16. “Kiss The Bride” – A punchy, later period rocker. And who hasn’t been there?
  17. “Orignal Sin” – The first of two tracks I included from Songs From the West Coast. This is the best song from a great album.
  18. “Love Her Like Me” – Again from West Coast. This one is a little more upbeat, albeit still on the mellow end.
  19. “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.
  20. “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.

Cheers!

Elton’s Retirement From Touring Takes Me Back to His KC Starlight Theater Show July 6, 1982

elton-john-1982-v2

I heard recently that like Paul Simon, who has decided to call it quits on touring, Elton John has announced he’s retiring from the road. While this is sad news for all rock and roll fans in general and Elton fans more specifically, the news could be worse. Poor Neil Diamond just announced he was retiring from the road due to Parkinson’s. I hated to hear that. A friend of mine saw Diamond in Wichita once… he said the blue hairs went crazy after Neil stood up and said, “If you want to, you can sing along, but if you’ve got any guts you’ll stand up and dance…” My buddy says it’s as close as he’s going to get in his lifetime to seeing Elvis. I was also told by a backstage hand once that during soundcheck, Neil chain smokes and cusses like a sailor…Oh, to be a fly on the wall. You gotta love Neil Diamond, but I digress.

Again, while the news that Elton is retiring from the road is sad, in light of some of the huge losses the rock and roll world has seen over the last few years – Petty, Prince, Chris Cornell, Lemmy, Glenn Frey, Bowie (to name but a few) – at least Elton is going out on his own terms and not feet first. Elton is a rock and roll survivor, managing to get through drug addiction and alcoholism to find joy, contentment, marriage and fatherhood waiting at the other end. Good for him! I certainly hope he continues recording because I’ve loved his late career LPs, from Songs From the West Coast all the way through Wonderful Crazy Night. It’s nice that he’s going to take this “victory lap.” The man is simply put, an Icon. The tour is supposed to last three years…And here I thought I struggled to say goodbye. The Rock Chick says it always takes me about a half an hour to leave a party… gotta get one more hug/handshake/joke told…

For those of you who only know Elton from The Lion King (and I feel sorry for you), let’s step back a bit… It’s hard to overstate how huge Elton was in the early 70s. From 1970 to 1976 he was the king of not only the rock charts but the pop charts as well. He was even big in the Soviet Union, which in the Cold War was no minor feat. Not only was his music popular, the albums he produced during that period are some of rock’s greatest: Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, 11-17-70 (Live), Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy. That’s a pretty staggering discography. Elton was to the first half of the 70s what Michael Jackson was to the 80s, The Beatles to the 60s, Elvis to the 50s or dare I say, what Sinatra was to the 40s. And like Sinatra or Elvis, you only need one name to identify Elton… although now I guess it’s Sir Elton.

He and his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin rank up there with Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards as far as I’m concerned. His backing band during most of his “golden” period were also a pretty top-notch outfit: the intrepid, often overlooked but fabulous Davey Johnstone on guitar, Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass. These guys could play great, hard rocking tunes like “Funeral For a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” or one of my favorites, “Elderberry Wine” or turn it down for any of Elton’s intricate, beautiful ballads. In the early 70s they really were untouchable. But, like happens to all artists, both physical and artistic energy begins to wane. It’s hard to sustain white-hot, fiery success like that forever.

By the end of the 70s Elton had started writing songs with other people. I don’t believe he and Taupin were estranged, but Elton decided new lyricists might give him a spark. The almost constant touring and partying probably weren’t helping, but we don’t judge here at B&V, especially Rock Stars. Surprisingly, by the latter half of the 70s Elton had also slowly separated from his backing band… first Olsson and Murray and later with Davey Johnstone. Along with all this change to the creative unit, Elton’s fortunes on the charts began to slow down. The chart topping juggernaut finally came to an end. I have heard some theorize that the cooling in his commercial success was a backlash to Elton’s admitting he was bisexual in a magazine article. 1976’s Blue Moves, his second double-album in 3 years only produced one hit song, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” The album’s melancholy tone seemed to signify that something had ended…

While the backlash was probably real, it’s hard to understate how much music changed in the latter half of the 70s. Punk rock blossomed in 1976-1977 and that changed everything. Elton wasn’t the only artist who was knocked back on their heels by the new attitude and energy of punk. Facing that, while dismantling his backing band and forging new songwriting partnerships was probably difficult and would have been for anybody. Luckily, by the time 1982 rolled around, Elton was slowly (literally) getting the band back together. He’d already pulled Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray back into his band. He had never fully stopped writing songs with Taupin. The final piece was put in place with the return of guitarist Davey Johnstone. In April of 82, with the support of his “classic” line-up, Elton released Jump Up! The album’s hit single was a beautiful Taupin lyric honoring the late John Lennon, entitled “Empty Garden.” I’ve always thought of that record as a minor come back for Elton… but I think I may be the only one who feels that way. The real comeback came with 83’s Too Low For Zero. 

Coincidentally by April of 1982, I had become an adult and could legally buy beer, which seemed like a huge deal at the time…”walk like a man…” By May of that year I had graduated from high school. I was getting ready to head off to a new life at the University that upcoming August. I spent that summer working in a local restaurant as a busboy, utterly filthy work, for minimum wage but I was happier than I’d ever been. I also spent the summer going out every night to drink beer with my friends or as was more likely the case, hanging out with my girlfriend… Ah, 1982. I was in love for the first time. And when I say, “in love,” I mean it in all the tragic, dramatic, painful intensity that youth brings. “Ah to be young and feel love’s keen sting…” One might say I had the tunnel vision of any narcissistic, in-love teenager who was drinking a lot of beer. So I was utterly surprised when my mother appeared in my bedroom to announce we were attending the Elton John concert at Starlight Theater. I had heard my brother, who was always light years ahead of me on music, listening to Elton’s first volume of Greatest Hits seemingly constantly through the shared wall of our bedrooms, but I didn’t remember him asking for these tickets for his birthday. At the time, I was focused on more temporal things…

And, here’s the thing that bugs me to this day. I didn’t want to go. I tried to get out of it. I wanted to go and park in some dark corner of the neighborhood with my girlfriend. I was listening to a lot of Van Halen at the time. I was a Stones and Zeppelin guy. I didn’t think I really knew a lot of Elton’s music, save for what I was hearing coming out of my brother’s room. I mean, everybody knew the hits, they were hard to avoid. To make matters worse, I’d be attending with not only my brother but with my parents. When you’re a teenager the prospect of spending a beautiful summer night with your parents is as appealing as a dental appointment. The show we were attending was the first of two dates at the Starlight Theater. The second show, July 7th was going to be broadcast on a radio station and blasted across America (what I’d give for a bootleg of that show!) so we weren’t even going to be a part of the broadcast. We attended the July 6th show. Last but not least, the Starlight Theater was a gentile, beautiful outdoor theater in Swope Park. Starlight had only recently started allowing rock concerts to be held there – while I’ve seen Bowie, Rush and Soundgarden at Starlight since then, that would have been unthinkable until my senior year in high school. Starlight was more known as a musical theater destination. My Fair Lady, anyone? I remember thinking, well it’s Elton, no wonder he’s playing Starlight, he’s mellow…. or so I thought.

I remember standing in the hot July night, trying to look like I wasn’t really there with my parents, sitting on the other side of my brother wistfully missing my girlfriend… we’d seen each other earlier that day, I have no idea what was wrong with me. Mere hours apart were enough to turn me into Rimbaud. I had to admit, begrudgingly to myself, that we had really good seats – in the center and just far enough back I could see over everybody. I quietly noted to myself to ask dad where he scored the great seats. I was still lukewarm on the whole thing when the opening act came out. I have vague memories of that part of the show, but I remembered it was a female lead singer. I finally Googled it and it was Quarterflash, a one-hit wonder whose song “Harden My Heart” was big at the time. The only thing I truly remember about Quarterflash’s set was that Elton himself came and stood on the side of the stage and watched the show. I went from cynical teenager to utter fanboy at just the sight of Elton. He was dressed exactly like he is in the picture I used for this post. He had the black cowboy hat and a sport coat on. His mere presence changed my attitude.

Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The lights dimmed and the electronic keyboard/synthesizer opening to “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” started and in a fog of smoke, out comes Elton. The band launched into the song with a ferocity I had not anticipated. I was familiar with the song from the local rock station, KY/102 but hearing it live was like trying to pilot a 747. Every other thought in my mind – my girlfriend, my impending departure to college, even thoughts of ice cold beer – all melted away. I was mesmerized. What followed was simply one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. I have thought back and I wonder if it was the low expectations I carried in that made me respond to that show, but I don’t think it was. They were on fire that night. At the end of “Funeral,” Elton picked up his piano bench over his head and threw it to the back of the stage where it crumbled into pieces. I don’t know why, but my father thought that was hysterical. Every time Elton did it, and he did it a lot, my father doubled over. Me, I just thought it was cool.

The mix of hits and deep tracks was amazing. I hadn’t realized how much of his music I knew. He played songs everybody knew, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Empty Garden” (which was the new one), “The Bitch Is Back,” and “Pinball Wizard.” He also played deeper tracks, which, somehow, most of which I knew. “All the Girls Love Alice,” “Where To St Peter” and best of all “Teacher I Need You,” a song he announced by saying, “Most of these songs I pick for you, this song, I play for me…” Even the handful of songs he played that I hadn’t been familiar with, “Ticking,” “Elton’s Song” or “Chloe” were executed with such brilliance, I walked out of there loving them. The band must have been on stage for over 2 hours.

If my misty, gimlet-eyed memory serves me, they ended the main set with a crushing version of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” They returned to the stage and mellowed things out with “Daniel,” before revving it back up with “Crocodile Rock.” Now, I’ll admit “Crocodile Rock” has never been a favorite of mine, but that night, after all this band had put into the performance, I was up on my feet and dancing like everybody else. The last song they played, and I still remember this, was Jerry Lee Lewis/Beatles medley consisting of “Whole Lotta Shakin Going On/I Saw Her Standing There/Twist And Shout.” I walked out of Starlight wordlessly with my parents and brother, all of my self-consciousness about being with my family washed away. I had just witness rock and roll Royalty put on an amazing show. While Elton’s banter in between songs seemed a tad stilted and slightly shy, his playing had been that of a crazed, confident rocker.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons that night. First and foremost, Elton John kicks ass. There is nothing mellow about the guy. I also learned, always buy the ticket and see the show. It’s important to open yourself up to all things music. And, last but not least, try not be to so whipped… Well, ok it took me a few more months and a brutal break up to learn that last one… “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word” actually played on the radio during my break up, so that seemed fitting. I’m sad to hear that Elton is retiring from the road. He’s truly one of the greatest rock’n’roll showmen of all time. It’s my hope I can talk the Rock Chick into going to the KC show. I’ve gotta see him one more time. After seeing him in 1982, I kept my ear tuned to what he was doing… do yourself a favor and check out any of the albums he’s put out since 2001, especially Songs From the West Coast and The Diving Board, you’ll thank me later…

Congratulations Sir Elton John on your impending concert retirement. I certainly appreciate the time I spent with you in 1982.