Song Lookback: Pinball Wizard – With 3 Versions To Pick From, What’s Your Favorite?

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I was listening to my MP3 player on “shuffle” the other day while I was reclining in the sun. All these years after those summer jobs, toiling in the heat and here I am still working on my tan. While listening to an MP3 player seems to run against our vinyl ethos here, I’m on record as listening to multiple sources of music as it’s hard to take a turntable everywhere you go. While my turntable may fit in the overhead space on an airplane it’s generally frowned upon to bring it with you on the flight…it is certainly frowned upon by my wife. There is something to be said about the convenience and portability of your music. I have to “not so humbly” admit, my MP3 player is the best “radio station” around right now, but I digress. Anyway, I’m basting in the sun, half expecting a chef to come rotate me ala rotisserie while pouring butter on me, and up pops the great Who song “Pinball Wizard.” It got me thinking about that particular tune and the different versions by different artists that I’ve heard over the years. Most of my ideas for B&V come when I’m listening to tunes and I guess this is no exception.

There are certain songs that are just classic in and of themselves regardless of who records it. The song seems to take on a life of it’s own. I remember long ago before I met the Rock Chick, having an argument with a woman in a bar – not an irregular experience at the time, sadly – and she was insisting that the song “Black Magic Woman” was first and perhaps only recorded by Santana. I was gently trying to explain to her who Peter Green was and that there was a Fleetwood Mac before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. She was having none of it. I’m not sure she even believed me about Peter Green founding Fleetwood Mac and she certainly didn’t believe that he’d written that song. If I may quote the movie Cool Hand Luke, “Some (wo)men you just can’t reach.” It was indeed “a failure to communicate.” I finally demurred and backed off realizing it was better for her to live in ignorance and for me to head to a different bar stool.

As I thought about “Pinball Wizard,” I was reminded of a similar post I’d done a few years back. I had the good fortune to be able to go on a beach vacation. One rainy afternoon I ducked into the lobby bar and the guy was playing the old Smokey Robinson tune “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.” That melody quickly lodged itself into my rum-addled brain. I started thinking about the three versions of the song I like the most: the original, the Beatles’ version and finally Eddie Money’s version. To the surprise of most people, I like the slinky almost bluesy version done by Eddie Money(!) best. That may seem crazy and perhaps hurts my rock n roll credibility, but that was the first version of the song I was familiar with – being a product of the late 70s/early 80s – and the version that appeals to me most. Sometimes, a version of a song you hear first is the one you attach to.

In the 60s when the British invaded they brought with them all these great blues and soul tunes that they’d been listening to. Most white folks over here weren’t listening Little Richard, Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters but Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Keith Richards and Paul McCartney (among others) were. When young teenagers in the suburbs heard all those great cover versions on early Stones’ or Beatles’ records it’s doubtful many of them realized they were songs by great African-American artists right here in their own backyard. It was kind of subversive if you think about it. There are probably a large number of people who think “Roll Over Beethoven” was strictly a Beatles tune… and word to the wise, if you happen to get into an argument in a bar about it, just quietly change seats. It’s not worth it.

When I was growing up, the source, yay the font of rock n roll music was local radio. For us here in Kansas City it was KY/102. There was a more pop oriented station Q104 but that was for wussies and soccer moms. I’m sure most cities around were similar. They may have had more than one rock n roll station, and probably more than one pop station, but the radio universe was similar wherever you went. As a young teenager in the late 70s, I didn’t have a vast knowledge of all the music that came before me. I was into what was on the local radio. While they played the Who they really didn’t play “Pinball Wizard” very often. I heard “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Who Are You” on high rotation but “Pinball Wizard,” not so much. I even heard “You Better You Bet” from one of the LPs only I like, Face Dances, more than “Pinball Wizard,” but it was then-current. The version of “Pinball Wizard” that did get airplay was the one by Elton John, recorded in 1975. To this day, it’s the Rock Chick’s favorite version of the tune. That freaks the purists out but I get it – it was the first version of the track she heard.

For me, there are really three essential versions of the song. They are, as follows, the original by the Who, a version recorded by Rod Stewart with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and finally the aforementioned Rock Chick favorite by Elton John.  Let’s look at all three:

The Who, 1969

“Pinball Wizard” was the first single released from the Who’s fourth LP, the epic rock opera Tommy. It’s hard to overstate how innovative it was for Pete Townshend and the Who to marry low brow rock n roll with the high brow concept of opera. Tommy is one of the earliest examples of a “concept album.” I remember being somewhat disappointed that the main riff, played by Townshend, was on an acoustic guitar instead of an electric but when I was a teenager I liked it loud and I too was raised on Elton’s version. It’s one of the Who’s great singles. It’s hard not to love this track. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks or rock n roll.

Rod Stewart & the London Philharmonic Orchestra , 1972

This is a version of “Pinball Wizard” that I’m going to guess not many people have even heard. I hadn’t ever heard it until I bought Rod’s box set Storyteller. Rod had been approach by the Who to sing the song with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – a project they were fully involved in – and appear in the movie version of Tommy. The Who did a few versions of songs from the rock opera with the Orchestra as well. Rod agreed to sing the song (in a more rock n roll version) and be in the movie but his drinking buddy Elton John talked him out of it. Elton told Rod he’d be too identified with and tied to the song if he appeared in the movie. I like this version of the song because well, I like Rod but also like the dramatic tension the Orchestra brings to the music. It’s a really elevated, cool version.

Elton John, 1975

Having screwed his buddy Rod Stewart by talking him out of the role and performance of the song, Elton slipped in and recorded his version. And he also appeared in the movie, pictured above. This is a more 70s rock n roll version. The piano and electric guitar fuel the classic riff instead of Townshend’s acoustic guitar on the original. There are a lot of people from the 70s who grew up listening to this version rather than the Who’s version who will swear it is the ultimate version of the song. I bet there are a few drunk people in bars who think that but hey, I don’t hang out in bars any more… OK, at least I don’t argue with women in bars anymore other than my wife. This really is a great version of the song. Davey Johnstone, Elton’s great guitarist, plays a tasty solo toward the end.

Conclusion?

As you listen to these three versions of the song back to back – as I did over and over this week while waiting for Ozzy’s new album to drop (review forthcoming soon) – you come to realize this is really one of the absolutely great rock songs of all time, whoever is performing it. I would advise any rock band whether they’re just starting in a garage or if they’re a bar band or playing arenas to learn how to play this song.

So what’s my favorite? Will I make a radical choice like the Eddie Money pick from the “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” post? For me, the favorite is clear, it’s the Who’s version. Although I’ve always been more partial to Quadrophenia than Tommy. For all of those who vote for Elton, I get it, it’s a tremendous version of the song and it gave me pause when trying to decide which version I liked best. For those who dig the Rod version – kudos on thinking outside the box.

If you want to voice an opinion of these three, I encourage everyone to contribute in the “comments” section. Enjoy this and be good out there.

Cheers!

Review: Elton John, ‘Madman Across The Water – 50th Anniversary Edition’ – Is It Worth It?

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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.

B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums

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“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved, See my heart I decorate it like a grave” – Alice In Chains, “Down In A Hole”

A few weeks ago I posted a playlist about heroin, entitled “Chasing the Dragon,” B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin. When I was compiling that playlist I ended up thinking a lot about Alice In Chains and their best album Dirt. Yes, I’m with everybody else in thinking that Jar of Flies was their creative peak, but that was an EP like Sap (another great bit of music), not a full blown album. When doing a playlist about heroin it’s hard not to think about Alice In Chains and their late lead singer Layne Staley who died of an overdose. When I put that list together I realized that I had put not one but two Alice In Chains tracks on it, both from Dirt. I really dug those two tracks on the playlist, “God Smack” and “Junkman.” I hadn’t listened to that whole album in quite a long time and so with those two tunes bouncing around my skull, I had to put it on. I love that record, but I realized about halfway through…this is an unrelentingly dark album. Why they didn’t just name it Smack I’ll never know.

It slowly began to dawn on me, I really like music on that dark edge. It wasn’t always that way. When I first started listening to rock and roll on KY/102 and then later when I started actually buying and consuming music, my tastes ran to the more upbeat. I wanted something that “RAWKED!” Van Halen, Boston and ZZ Top were amongst my early purchases. I wanted that good time, party music. I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to listen to anything acoustic. I think most of my friends’ musical tastes ran in that same direction. We were all young, testosterone driven maniacs. What’s that phrase, “young, dumb and full of cum.” My friend Drew and I used to joke that our pal Matthew’s record collection when he got to college was all heavy metal with one Fleetwood Mac album thrown in. His fixation on Kiss back then still baffles me. For my  part, heavy metal did play a big part in all of my early listening from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to AC/DC.

I have to admit, looking back, that even then I was a sucker for a good ballad. I would have never admitted to liking sad songs back then… no, no, give me songs about chicks with a guitar solo. My first Springsteen album purchase was The River and while I loved “The Ties That Bind,” “I’m A Rocker” and “Out In The Street,” I was really, really into “Drive All Night.” The mellow tunes drew me to that album as deeply as the rockers. It’s hard to explain. You could say I was always secretly drawn to great lyrics, hence my early interest in Dylan, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. I was that odd person who could relate to songs about broken hearts and sad endings to relationships before I’d even kissed a girl let alone had a girlfriend. Maybe I was slightly depressed as a kid and thus I had this feeling that my heart was already broken from a very early age. No one ever really wants to share the dark parts of themselves, especially when you’re young. There are just some of us who feel things more deeply and life itself can break your heart sometimes…

In college I started to branch out in terms of musical tastes and that’s when I started to buy some of the darker music in my collection. I mean, in truth,  it’s not all “dark,” some of it is just sad or melancholy music. It seems even at that tender age I was like Tom Waits who famously said, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” In the old days, when things weren’t going well, I’d put on some mellow, generally sad songs and hearing these artists sing about their heartbreak and losses made me feel, well, less alone. Someone else out there had been through what I was going through now and survived. Of course, you can take the sadder end of the musical spectrum too far sometimes. After one break up, my friend the Accountant (who lived three floors below me at the time) came up to my apartment and I was listening to some funeral dirge, moping about when he said, “Say man, uh, maybe all this downer music is affecting your mood… do you have any Van Halen you can put on?” The Rock Chick used to pretend to weep every time she caught me listening to Ryan Adams.

I realize that now may not be the time to share this particular list of albums. Many of us are feeling isolated and alone (B&V’s Pandemic Playlist – Rock n Roll To The Self-Isolation Rescue). If you’re prone to depression, I would suggest maybe avoiding these albums until we’re all free to walk outside without looking like extras on the set of the television show ‘E.R.’ I know the Rock Chick feels like I do, stuck at home and slightly bored. I take my life into my hands every time I go downstairs… like they say about a blowout football game when the teams start taking cheap shots at each other, it’s getting a little chippy down there. I have always either found solace in these records, or they’re just kick ass albums that everyone should hear. Take the gold where you can find it.

  1. Alice In Chains, Dirt – I’ve already talked about this album above, but it’s truly AIC’s finest full length album. “Down In A Hole,” “Rain When I Die,” and “Them Bones” are all great tunes. It’s clear the theme of this album is heroin. The only lighter moment is the song “Rooster” about Jerry Cantrell’s father surviving the Vietnam War…if you can consider that upbeat?
  2. Nirvana, In Utero – This album was certainly Cobain’s reaction to being named the “voice of his generation.” They were trying to shrink the size of their fan base by recording some really abrasive music. You don’t record a song like “Rape Me” if you’re trying to bring people onto the bandwagon. “Heart Shaped Box” was the tune that actually turned me around on Nirvana. Something clicked for me when I heard it. I still love that song even with lyrics like, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” While some of the tracks on this LP are impenetrable, “All Apologies,” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are amongst their best. The art work told you all you needed to know about this record. I bought it in a used CD store downtown by the bar Harlings and it took me to the rest of their catalog.
  3. Pearl Jam, Riot Act – I may be wrong about this but at one time this was Pearl Jam’s worst selling record. It’s no coincidence that the first three albums on this list come from the Grunge era. That generation came of age on lithium (hence the SiriusXM station by that name that plays the music of that era). This is a later record by PJ and I’ve always considered it a bummer from start to finish. There are a few light moments like the humorous “Bushleaguer” about George W. Bush (“born on third, thinks he got a triple,” a line I use often). I’ve been listening to this album again and while it’s intense, it’s still a damn good Pearl Jam record.
  4. Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star’s Alex Chilton was so disillusioned about the music business and Big Star’s failure to connect with a larger audience, he holed up and recorded this set of despondent songs. It wasn’t released until years after they broke up. There still isn’t an agreed to, official running order of the songs. “Thank You Friends” drips with sarcasm. “Holocaust” is despair exemplified. Big Star was a band I didn’t discover until after in life, but man I’m glad I did.
  5. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band – Lennon’s first proper solo album after the implosion of the Beatles. He’d been going to Primal Scream therapy and the vocals bear that out. He often goes from a whisper to a scream. “Mother” is haunting. Songs like “Isolation” and “Working Class Hero” reveal a pretty jaundiced world view. I love the song “God,” where he lists the litany of things he doesn’t believe in any more… until he ends with just he and Yoko…”I believe in me, Yoko and me.” I like this album significantly more than Imagine, but that may say more about me than John Lennon.
  6. Nick Drake, Pink Moon – Drake was another artist I came to later in life. In his short tragic life he only recorded three albums. Pink Moon was his third album and it was a departure from his two power-pop albums that proceeded it. Pink Moon is just Drake’s vocal and an acoustic guitar. He was despondent his career didn’t take off but he largely refused to ever play live… He died shortly after this album came out from an overdose on antidepressants. I think that says it all.
  7. Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night – One of Young’s famous “Ditch Trilogy.” This is one of my absolute favorite Neil Young albums, if not my favorite. Drowning in despair, guilt and tequila after he fired original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who then died of an overdose, this is Young at his most raw and emotional. This album knocked me out the first time my friend Drew played it for me and it continues to do so today.
  8. Elton John, Blue Moves – People forget how huge Elton was from 1970-1975. This album isn’t dark but it’s certainly laced with a ton of melancholy. Many people feel it was Elton feeling sorry for himself after the backlash he got for admitting he was Gay. The 70s were at once a freewheeling and closed-minded time. I think he was just feeling some fatigue after 5 tumultuous years. He was bound to have some kind of let down… It’s not a great album but it’s a good one. It’s a double-LP and probably suffers in the shadow of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that preceded it by two years. The second album is particularly down. This album has the saddest song ever recorded, “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word.” I’ve got my own story about that song…but again, we can’t share all the darkest parts of ourselves.
  9. Lou Reed, Berlin – This is the bleakest, most despondent thing I’ve ever heard. Reed’s concept album about a couple (Jim and Caroline) who are German drug addicts. It’s got some great songs, “How Do You Think It Feels,” and “Caroline Says I” amongst them. But this is hard one to get through. It has grown on me significantly over the years but there is no fairy tale ending here… I dare you to listen to the song “The Kids” and not be haunted by it…
  10. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska – I was a huge Springsteen fan in high school. I had all of his albums up to that point. The River had hooked me. Then I went away for that difficult freshman year in college. I struggled my first semester due to some self-inflicted wounds (love gone wrong). I got home at Christmas and was in the mall when I saw that he had a new album out. Ignoring the stark imagery of the front cover, I thought, here we go The River 2.0. When I dropped the needle on the album and heard the stark, depressing title track I remember having the opposite feeling of the joy I felt when I heard The River for the first time. I liked “Reason To Believe” and almost immediately dug “Atlantic City,” but it took me years and years to come to appreciate this collection of songs about outlaws, losers and outcasts. Everybody feels left outside of society here. It’s a masterpiece, but I’d sure like to hear the “Electric Nebraska” – the version of the album recorded with the E Street Band… maybe we can hope for a boxset…

There you have it, my top bleak, depressing albums. Sometimes you’ve got to go dark. Again, if you’re prone to depression, you might wanna wait on these records. I’ve always loved these albums and I hope you do too. If there are albums like this that you’re into, please let me know and I’ll check them out! Otherwise, sit back, put one of these on, pour something dark and murky and contemplate…

Stay healthy and safe out there. Cheers!

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

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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

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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.