Graded on a Curve:
Elton John,
17-11-70

Everything you need (but probably don’t) know about the pre-Captain Fantastic Elton John is right here on 1971’s 17-11-70, the live radio concert recorded before he became a household name. The album includes John, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson performing a bunch of excellent songs you’ve likely never heard of, and the ferociousness of their performance is illustrated by the fact that John cut his hand during the performance, and by show’s end the keyboards were covered in blood. Who would have thought that the pudgy and balding Sir Elton, who went on to become the ultimate caricature of a pop star on the basis of a lot of great but lightweight tunes, had it in him?

Well, I did, but I’ve loved this album since I was a teen, because on it John sings and shouts, and cries and moans, while doing things on the piano that made it possible for the trio to do without a guitarist. In short, he rocks and he rolls, and plays it like he means it; the glam pop camp—nobody ever took him as seriously as those Glam Gods Bowie and Bolan—he would come to exemplify, while I love it, is nowhere in sight.

John himself would later declare this was his favorite live concert, and it’s the only live John show to highlight the sound of his band before they added guitarist Davey Johnstone. The actual concert was longer, and this “artifact” was released only to counter the bootlegs of the show that were flooding the market. I’m reviewing the 1996 edition of the LP, which changed the order of the songs and added “Amoreena” as a bonus track. Original producer Gus Dudgeon also remixed the tracks, adding some echo and other effects.

17-11-70 includes a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” that features some acapella vocals from the group at the beginning, some great vocals by John (including a wonderful “Whoo!), and one helluva piano solo that demonstrates without a doubt that John was aware of that instrument’s percussive potentialities. I love the way the band goes into double time at the end, just as I love his piano antics on “Bad Side of the Moon,” a bona fide rocker that highlights the drumming of Olsson and John’s ability to hit the notes vocally, whether they be low or high. And the song goes out on a wild note. As for “Amoreena,” it’s a rocker too, with a great chorus in which Elton’s every word cuts like a knife.

“Take Me to the Pilot” features some fancy piano work, one funky melody, and some supernatural drumming by Olsson and bouncing bass by Murray. “Take me, take me!” repeats a frenzied Elton as the song nears its close, just before he slows things down to show us all just how tight the trio are, only to speed things up again. While screaming, I might add. “Sixty Years On” is a slow and atmospheric tune with a haunting melody and a long and wonderful instrumental introduction that is followed by John, whose “rosary has broken” and who has “no wish to be living sixty years on.” Then the band goes into a very percussive interlude, and it is, believe me, very cool. John knows how to build the suspense, and he does it superbly here.

“Can I Put You On” opens as a mid-tempo rocker with a chorus that will rock you, then the momentum builds and builds until the song is galloping by, and it’s wonderful. And John closes the show with a medley of his own “Burn Down the Mission,” Elvis Presley’s “My Baby Left Me,” and the Beatles’ “Get Back.”

“Burn Down the Mission” is a lovely song about desperate times and desperate measures; John’s people are starving, while “Behind four walls of stone the rich man sleeps/It’s time we put a flame torch to their keep.” The song goes into double time, slows again, and John is taken away by the authorities, singing, “But what more could I do to keep her [his wife] warm/Than burn, burn, burn down the mission walls?”

Then the song goes into hyperdrive with Murray playing thrilling runs on the bass and John playing a mile a minute, before the band falls into one extended helluva groove and funks things up a bit, causing the audience to shout and applaud their approval. John finally breaks up the party by going into “My Baby Left Me,” and he does The King due justice, shouting “Rock’n’roll!” before the band goes into another hot strut. Then John cries, “Everybody clap your hands!” as Murray plays some more astounding bass while Olsson goes at the drums with the brushes. John goes wild on the vocals as the song speeds up, and up some more, and then up some more, before he stops the train to go into the opening of “Get Back.” His vocals are a wonder to hear, the band’s treatment of the Beatles’ classic is tres funky, and on it goes until John thanks all involved before singing, “1, 2, 3, alright, good night!” and taking the song out with a flourish. Good stuff.

Elton John would go on to become the seventies’ most campy superstar, complete with outrageous outfits and eyeglasses, and it’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, he played it straight and without sequins. I mean, I love the cartoon Elton John on the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, love him to death, but on 17-11-70 he had yet to turn himself into that brilliant caricature, Captain Fantastic. And this precursor Elton, stripped of artifice, delivers some straight-ahead rock’n’roll that will save your soul. He’s the real thing. You can almost hear Jerry Lee Lewis in that demonic piano playing of his. Elton John, kickass rocker. Like I said at the beginning, who’d have thunk it?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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