“Ridicule,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the tribute paid to genius by mediocrities.” Such would seem to be the case with one Sir Elton Hercules John. Esteemed critic Robert Christgau once wrote him off as a “puling phony,” while Charles Shaar Murray dismissed him as “Elton Schmelton.” Even John understood he lacked respect, and jokingly told Murray, “I’m gonna become a rock’n’roll suicide, take my nasty out and piddle all over the front row, just to get rid of my staid old image.”
Elton never carried through on his threat, probably because he was too busy writing brilliant songs, more than I can count on my six hands even. Besides, who needs critical respect after scoring seven consecutive No. 1 albums in the U.S. between 1972 and 1975—a feat not even the Fab Four could beat?
During those golden years, which extended from Honky Chateau to Rock of the Westies, John (in collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin) churned out hits like a one-man Brill Building, and many of them will still be around long after mankind is gone, leaving our groovy ape successors to do the Crocodile Rock.
John’s high-water mark as a songwriter was 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I consider it Elton’s masterpiece, even if The Evil One, Robert Christgau, dismissed it as “one more double album that would make a nifty single.” A concept album of sorts, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road takes a bittersweet look at a lost past, from its film stars to its dance crazes to its bovver boys in their braces and boots looking to mix it up on Saturday night.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about John’s unprecedented success is that he achieved it with Bernie Taupin—a mediocre lyricist at best, and the fourth place finisher in a 3rd grade poetry competition at worst—as a collaborator. Not only is Taupin the mook who wrote “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them/If you did,” it’s his lyrical DNA police found all over Starship’s “We Built This City,” a song so unfathomably dumb it makes Jon Anderson’s “A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace/And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace” sound like Shakespeare. That said, his lyrics on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are shockingly unterrible, and a few of them are actually quite good.
Yellow Brick Road features three songs about the silver screen: “Candle in the Wind,” “Roy Rogers,” and “I’ve Seen That Movie Too.” I used to love the Marilyn Monroe homage “Candle in the Wind,” that is until the execrable “Candle in The Wind 1997” came along; thanks to that reckless back seat driver Lady Di, I can now barely stomach the original. That said I’ll always love the way Elton pronounces “sexual” as “sezyool,” like he’s drooling or, much worse by far, English. The wonderful “Roy Rogers” is a string-sweetened, country-tinged song about watching the King of Cowboys on late-night TV, and boasts one of Taupin’s better lyrics, not to mention a rousing chorus that ends “Turn on the T.V., shut out the lights/Roy Rogers is riding tonight.” As for “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” it’s a slow piano blues with a surprisingly decent lyrics by Taupin, a long and ethereal guitar solo by Davey Johnstone, and a snide chorus that goes, “So keep your auditions for somebody/Who hasn’t got so much to lose/’Cause you can tell by the lines I’m reciting/That I’ve seen that movie too.”
The LP also includes two songs about dance crazes: “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is a sprightly, reggae-flavored number about a dance of the same name, although it could also be a paean to masturbation, while the fast and feverish “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock’n’Roll)” is a Jerry-Lee-Lewis-flavored, organ-fueled nod to the frantic beat of the fifties, with Elton singing, “I really got buzzed when your sister said/Throw away them records ’cause the blues is dead/Let me take you honey where the scene’s on fire/And tonight I learned for certain that the blues expired.” Good: now would somebody kindly go inform John Mayer he’s dead?
One of my personal faves is “Social Disease,” a rollicking first-person number about a carefree drunk that features Johnstone on banjo, a nice sax solo by Leroy Gomez, and lots of honky-tonk piano by John, who proudly crows, “And I get bombed for breakfast in the morning/I get bombed for dinner time and tea/I dress in rags, smell a lot, and I have a real good time/I’m a genuine example of a social disease.” I also love the fast-paced “All The Girls Love Alice,” a surprisingly frank song about a 16-year-old girl who can’t get enough of, well, girls. “Alice” boasts a pounding beat, some truly nasty guitar work (including some freaky feedback towards the end), and natty backing vocals by John protégé Kiki Dee. “All the young girls love Alice,” sings John, “Tender young Alice they say/Come over and see me/Come over and please me/Alice it’s my turn today.”
The pretty “Harmony” is a lighter-than-air wisp of song, little more really than a couple of nondescript-sounding verses coupled with a soaring and beautiful (if inane—strike up another one for Bernie) chorus, while the fast-paced and very catchy “Grey Seal” is perhaps the only song ever written about seal interrogation. Or so I gather from the chorus—as for the verses, I haven’t a clue. What I can tell you is that “Grey Seal” boasts plenty of perty piano plinking by John, some very funky guitar, and a big chorus that goes, “And tell me grey seal/How does it feel/To be so wise/To see through eyes/That only see what’s real/Tell me grey seal.” To which all I can say is good luck; I’ve spent years trying to talk to seals, and the closest I’ve ever gotten to a response is a big orange ball to the nuts. Take my advice; if you really must speak to a pinniped, be sure it’s an eared one, and isn’t juggling an orange ball. Those balls are harder than they look.
As for “Sweet Painted Lady” and “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)” I don’t like them and have absolutely nothing to say about them, except to recommend you never listen to them, that is unless Elton John should burst through your front door with a bazooka and threaten to atomize your poodle if you don’t. (Go ahead, scoff: Captain Fantastic once forced his way into my apartment at dickpoint, threatening to ejaculate into my goldfish bowl if I didn’t turn on the terrible “Philadelphia Freedom.” He had the popper in his hand and everything. I did as he ordered, but the damage was already done; the next morning poor Burpy was floating belly up, dead from sheer terror.)
I have similar misgivings about the overly fey “This Song Has No Title,” which I would infinitely prefer be called “This Title Has No Song,” because I would then be relieved of the burden of ever having to hear it. Finally, I’m ambivalent at best about the bluesy “Dirty Little Girl,” which has the advantage of being a bona fide hard rocker—I love it when Elton gets all butch and shit—but the much greater disadvantage of being about as catchy as a fireman’s net with a hole in it. That said, it’s definitely worth a listen, if only to hear John snarl, “Gonna tell the world you’re a dirty little girl/Someone grab that bitch by the ears/Rub her down, scrub her back, turn her inside out.” Something tells me Sir Elton doesn’t play this one live, like ever.
As for the 11-minute opening track, “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” I don’t know what it’s doing on an Elton John album, but I’ve always liked it. John’s a 3- to 6-minute man, and what led him to write an 11-minute tune and then use it to lead off an album surpasseth the understanding of a guy whose last intelligence test placed him at “coma level.” “Funeral For a Friend” begins with a long and lugubrious prog sequence, morphs into a lightning-fast instrumental, then slows down again before segueing into “Love Lies Bleeding,” a very up-tempo rocker that boasts some explosive power chords by Johnstone, impressive drum work by Nigel Olsson, and great backing vocals, not to mention John at his most macho. “I was playing rock and roll when you were just a fan,” he sings, “But my guitar couldn’t hold me so I split the band.”
I’ve saved the very best for last. Title track “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is a variation on (or sequel to) Honky Chateau’s “Honky Cat”—young man leaves family farm for the bright lights of the big city, only to find out urban living isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A beautiful song about a fed-up rent boy, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” features a very pretty melody, heavenly backing vocals, and one lovely chorus: “So goodbye yellow brick road/Where the dogs of society howl/You can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plow.” I have my doubts about the society’s howling dogs bit, but not about the stanza that goes, “What do you think you’ll do then/I bet that’ll shoot down your plane/It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics/To set you on your feet again.” I especially love the way Elton pronounces vodka “vodker,” and his hushed vocals that still manage to brim over with defiance, but could do without the horny-back toad, because I’m terrified that even hearing the words “horny-back toad” could give me warts.
A stutter rock classic and one of the strangest songs to ever top the pop charts in the U.S., the boot-stomper “Bennie and The Jets” is a glam call to teen rebellion along the lines of “All The Young Dudes.” It opens with a single piano note and some canned applause, at which point John commences to play some thumping piano and sing, “Hey kids, shake it loose together/The spotlight’s hitting something/That’s been known to change the weather/We’ll kill the fatted calf tonight/So stick around/You’re gonna hear electric music/Solid walls of sound.” Then comes the wonderful chorus, part of which goes, “Oh but they’re weird and they’re wonderful/Oh Bennie she’s a really keen/She’s got electric boots a mohair suit/You know I read it in a magazine/B-B-B-Bennie and the Jetssssss.” When John’s not lapsing into falsetto he’s imagining a teenage riot: “We shall survive, let us take ourselves along,” he sings to the accompaniment of hand claps, “Where we fight our parents out in the streets/To find who’s right and who’s wrong.” He then plays a very tasty piano solo and the song begins to wind down, with John repeating “Bennie/Bennie/Bennie/Bennie and the Jets” until the fade out and more rapturous applause.
Finally there’s the fabulous “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” a very hard-rocking rave-up indeed and proof positive that The Elton John Band had real rock’n’roll chops. “Saturday Night” goes about a 1,000 miles per hour, features switchblade-sharp guitar by Johnstone—an underappreciated guitarist ace if ever there was one–and some very frantic piano by John, who spits out the lyrics like a bovver boy hankering to stab you in the face with the jagged end of broken lager bottle: “It’s getting late/Have you seen my mates/Ma tell me when the boys get here/It’s seven o’clock and I want to rock/Want to get a belly for of beer.” Then there’s the chorus: “Don’t give us none of your aggravation/We had it with your discipline/Saturday night’s alright for fighting/Get a little action in.” And on it goes, guitar piled upon guitar while John sings “Saturday/Saturday/Saturday/Saturday/Saturday/Saturday/Saturday Night’s all right” over and over again, before throwing in a “Wooo!” and some speedy piano for good measure.
Elton John will likely never receive the critical respect he so richly deserves, nor will he ever again rule the pop charts the way he did in the mid-seventies. So be it. Because his were the songs that mattered to me when I was young, and all these years later they still never fail to make me happy. So thank you, Elton John, for Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou, Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy, and Rock of The Westies. That said, if you ever ejaculate in my goldfish bowl again, I’ll make you sorry you ever wrote “The Bitch Is Back.” And while I’m at it I think I’ll smack Bernie around some too, purely on humanitarian grounds.
GRADED ON A CURVE: