Reviewed on this page:
Empty Sky - Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection - 11-17-70 - Friends - Madman Across The Water - Honky Chateau - Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Caribou -
Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy - Rock Of The Westies -
Rare Masters - Here And There - Blue Moves -
The Complete Thom Bell Sessions - A Single Man - Victim Of Love - 21 At 33 - The Fox - Jump Up! - Too Low For Zero - Breaking Hearts - Ice On Fire -
Leather Jackets - Live In Australia With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra - Reg Strikes Back - Sleeping With The Past - The One - Duets -
The Lion King - Made In England - The Big Picture -
Elton John And Tim Rice's Aida - Elton John's The Road To El Dorado -
Songs From The West Coast - Peachtree Road - The Captain And The Kid
Kids of my generation grew up through the early and mid-70s listening to the former Reginald Kenneth Dwight's endless radio hits, like "Your Song," "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Bennie And The Jets," etc., etc., ad nauseum. Some of us developed an aural Elton John allergy as a result of this over-exposure, and twenty years down the road I only consider myself partially cured: I'm still sometimes tempted to write him off as a cheesy popmeister. But Elton's records more or less defined the era, and he really earned his popularity with a fantastic singing voice, unerring pop sensibility, and outstanding production values.
Not only that, he's continued to pump out quality product to this very day. He really deserves some serious attention, and because there's already an ambitious Elton John LP discography that eventually will include extensive background info, what we're hoping to deliver here is an objective critical assessment from two guys who aren't diehard fans.
Any mention of Elton John usually brings three things to mind - his huge commercial success in the 70s; his flashy costumes, including ridiculous platform shoes and massive, ever-changing glasses; and his open bisexuality (or homosexuality, or whatever - Elton endured a short-lived marriage in the mid-80s). None of these things have anything to do with his artistic merit. However, I personally think that Elton should get major credit for being one of the first major rock artists to come out of the closet, way back when this was not at all a safe thing to do.
He's also become heavily involved in AIDS charities, including his own Elton John AIDS Foundation and numerous benefit albums, which is more than you can say for a lot of other rock dinosaurs like the Stones.
That said, it should be noted that Taupin saddled Elton with some amazingly misogynistic and otherwise clueless lyrics back in the 70s. But my honorable co-author David Wilson makes the following reasonable argument: "Taupin's misogyny is part of the shtick, whether we like it or not -- if you want to get into Elton you need to be prepared for that."
All of Elton's big 70s hits were produced by Gus Dudgeon; all his lyrics through that interval (and on many later records) were written by Bernie Taupin; and most of the arrangements were by either Paul Buckmaster, who recently scored the soundtrack for 12 Monkeys, or Del Newman. Dee Murray (bass), Nigel Olsson (drums), and alternating guitarists Davey Johnstone and Caleb Quaye were additional standbys.
The chart information I give below is based on the U.S. market. I'm aware that chart performance was sometimes very different in Britain and the international market. Thanks to Michael Crosson for helping with some of the fact-checking.
There's been a recent re-issue of EJ's "classic period" albums, including several bonus tracks on most of the CD's. You might want to keep an eye out for these - especially Captain Fantastic - because a lot of John's biggest singles didn't initially come out on albums. However, the re-issues seem to be hard to find.
Elton is big news. For starters, Philip Norman has written an extensive biography, and I discuss it on our book reviews page. On top of that, there are roughly a million EJ web pages. One place to start wading through all of them is with an Australian clearinghouse of Elton links.
The Levon Home Page is a lot of fun; another site includes a daily Elton John newsletter and massive quantities of other info; and there's a excellent, illustrated discography site with lyrics and album covers (see 'em while you can; big corporations love to threaten lawsuits over this kind of thing). (JA)
Actually, most of those sites have moved: check the Eltonography or Hercules.
And I've finally caught an Elton live show, and reviewed it on our concert review page.
The early 70s band - Dee Murray (bass), and Nigel Olsson (drums). Band formed in 1970, but only infrequently used in the studio until 1972. Davey Johnstone (guitar) added, 1972. Ray Cooper (percussion) added, 1974. Murray and Olsson replaced by Kenny Passarelli (bass) and Roger Pope (drums), Caleb Quaye (guitar) added, 1975 (Quaye had appeared on studio albums, 1969 - 1971). Band collapsed, 1976; Johnstone, Murray, Olsson, Cooper, and Newton-Howard reformed, 1983 - 1984.
The late 80s/90s band - Davey Johnstone (guitar), Fred Mandel (synth), Charlie Morgan (drums), David Paton or Paul Westwood (bass). Band formed, Westwood dropped, 1985. Ray Cooper (percussion) added, 1987. Cooper dropped, Morgan and Paton replaced by Jonathan Moffett (drums) and Romeo Williams (bass), Guy Babylon (synth) added, 1989. Mandel, Moffett, and Williams replaced by Pino Palladino (bass), Olle Romo (drums), and Mark Taylor (synth), 1992.
The Classic Era
Through 1976, Elton was one of the biggest stars in the entire recording industry, pumping out hit record after hit record. However, his breakthrough eponymous LP was his second release, and his debut was largely ignored...
Empty Sky (1969)
- Yes, Elton John really is a leftover 60s rock star - further proof of my myopic theory that everything worth listening to has direct ties to that era. Actually, he'd already released a few UK-only singles by the time of this debut (they've been added to the recent CD re-issue, but I don't have it). And at this date, Elton even had normal eyeglasses. Empty Sky features a pickup band that wasn't used again, save for guitarist Caleb Quaye and drummer Roger Pope. However, he was already collaborating fully with Bernie Taupin, who here contributes hi-falutin', often Dylan-esque lyrics ("The Scaffold") that completely avoid love-song sentimentality, except the tasteful "Lady What's Tomorrow."
Some of the record sounds oddly like watered-down Traffic (the lengthy, shuffling, and catchy title track; the instrumental "Hay Chewed"). There's also an experimental "Reprise" that proves conclusively what a stupid idea it is to replay brief snippets of all the preceding songs at the very end of an LP. But the rest is straightforward, mid-tempo pop, carried by occasionally loud, kick-ass electric guitar ("Sails"), woodwinds ("Hymn 2000"), and Elton's piano, organ, and harpsichord (the fantastic "Skyline Pigeon," with a soaring vocal). It's set off from later records by the lack of any orchestration, and also by 60s gimmicks like backwards guitars and stereo effects. A cut-rate recording that flopped and wasn't released in the U.S. until 1975, Empty Sky is pleasant and professional, with Elton's singing and song-writing skills already fully developed. (JA)
- Actually, I think Elton's songwriting skills had a ways to go at this point, though "Sails" is brilliant in his trademark epic style. The exciting melodic leaps that are so key to his 70s work are almost absent here (the terrific "Skyline Pigeon" is an exception), and the bargain-basement production doesn't exactly help matters. Plus, I don't really go for the lengthy, jam-like title track. That said, there is a lot to like about this record, from Quaye's chunky rhythm playing to Taupin's unusually thought-provoking lyrics
to several solid tunes ("Western Ford Gateway"). If you're a 60s hard rock head suspicious of Elton's pop reputation, start here; most folks would do better to pick up some of his early 70s records first. (DBW)
Elton John (1970)
- John was still a couple records away from his long string of effortless #1 chart-toppers, but he had his act completely figured out here. It's telling that the cover photo features his lead guitarist, lyricist, producer, arranger, and "co-ordinator" (Steve Brown, producer of the previous LP), but not the rest of his large backing band - this is a crafted pop vehicle without the slightest conscience.
It's full of memorable hit songs like the mumbling, self-referential Top 10 smash "Your Song," raving "Take Me To The Pilot," and gospeley "Border Song," which are largely derived from the Beatles' Abbey Road, Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends, etc. But it's entirely enjoyable, with enthusiastic vocals; superficially intriguing ("First Episode At Hienton"), albeit annoying ("The Greatest Discovery") lyrics; Buckmaster's clever, occasionally overblown orchestral arrangements on almost every track ("Sixty Years On"); and flawlessly professional instrumental backing ("The Cage"). By any measure, this a "must-have." (JA)
- John was never much of an innovator, but at his best he's a hell of a tunesmith: "Border Song" and "The Cage" are dramatic, melodic and instantly memorable. "Your Song" would have been a great song if Taupin had bothered to finish the lyrics, instead of leaving in idiotic lines like "If I were a sculptor/But then again, no." But the record is marred by the horrible mock-western "No Shoe Strings On Louise," where John proves conclusively that his Southern accent is even worse than Mick Jagger's, and several other minor tracks ("I Need You To Turn To"). To my taste, Elton's vocals and Buckmaster's arrangements continued to mature after this point; any Elton fan needs this record, but it's not the best introduction to his talents. (DBW)
16 Legendary Covers From 1969/1970 (rec. 1969/1970, rel. 1998)
Elton was a heavily sought-after session player between 1968 and 1970, graduating from backing vocalist and keyboard player to lead singer on a series of quickie cover versions that were recorded for Top 40 LP compilation discs - back then, record companies figured it was cheaper to re-record than license.
Almost all of the tracks in this compilation date from the first half of 1970, while his second album was being recorded and right before his big breakthrough show at the Troubadour in L.A.
On 2/3 of the tracks his vocals are so distinct it's immediately clear it's really him.
That said, the production standards are much more slap-dash than on his contemporary albums, and the material is disappointingly mediocre, with a lot of tunes by obscure one-hit wonder acts ("Spirit In The Sky") and second-rate songs by better-known acts like Cat Stevens ("Lady D'Arbanville"), CCR ("Travellin' Band"), the Hollies ("I Can't Tell The Bottom From The Top"), Badfinger ("Come And Get It"), and Stevie Wonder ("Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours").
recommended only if you're curious to hear Elton pull off a head-spinning series of vocal imitations, few of which are really all that convincing.
I've got the US release, which unfortunately omits four tracks that appeared on the 1994 UK release Reg Dwight's Piano Goes Pop. (JA)
Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
- None of the tracks here were released as singles, but it's a classic anyway, featuring some key tunes like the longish, rabble-rousing "Burn Down The Mission" - one of my favorite Elton John songs - and a flood of roaring Paul Buckmaster orchestrations, balanced by some low-key stuff like the piano-and-vocal "Talking Old Soldiers." With so many Civil War and Old West references it's almost a concept album, even though the instrumentation is fully up-to-date. It only veers towards country-western on "Country Comfort," which was done more tastefully by Rod Stewart on the previously released Gasoline Alley under the title "Country Comforts."
But it never really gels because Taupin flutters from one sentimental image and roughly sketched character to another, pointlessly romanticizing the Confederate cause on the epic "My Father's Gun," and hinting at sexism on the deadbeat-dad-as-gunfighting-hero "Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun" (Dusty Springfield is among the many backing vocalists here). And the nicely spartan duet with Leslie Duncan on her generic "Love Song" - the first cover tune to appear on a studio Elton John record - makes the album even more of a grab-bag.
There's again no set band here, with three different rhythm sections including Herbie Flowers, Roger Pope, and the road band of Murray and Olsson, who play on the memorable love song "Amoreena" and sing backup elsewhere; Caleb Quaye playing guitar on most tracks; and a million backup vocalists and bit players (harp, steel guitar, acoustic bass, congas, oboe, fiddle, etc.). (JA)
- This is one terrific record, with some of Elton's most gorgeous vocal hooks ("Where To Now St. Peter?"), anthemic refrains ("My Father's Gun") and the downright touching "Talking Old Soldiers." I find that the low-key production (not as bombastic as the surrounding studio LP's) and Americana bent give the record a pretty coherent sound - Buckmaster's quiet arrangement of "Come Down In Time" is stunning. (As usual, though, I recommend tuning out Taupin's lyrics as much as possible.) The closest thing to a weak track, "Love Song," though highly derivative, with an acoustic guitar lifted from the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" and CSN-style harmonies, is still enjoyable. This is proof positive that Elton's more than just an AM-friendly grandstanding pop star. (DBW)
- The title refers to the date of recording; this was a live radio show cut in New York. After the performance was widely bootlegged, the record company decided to go ahead and release it. Some of the material is from the preceding albums ("Take Me To The Pilot"; a long, heartfelt "Sixty Years On"), but it also includes the Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," literally done as a tightly harmonized, light-hearted honky-tonk singalong, and the Beatles' "Get Back," which is interpolated briefly into an 18-minute "Burn Down The Mission."
Fans will find the disc fascinating, not just because of the track selection, but because Elton's youthful enthusiasm and recklessness can't be found on any later live recording; he practically jumps out of his chair here to grab your attention. But too often he's just grandstanding, stretching the tunes needlessly with crowd-pleasing jams. The backing consists only of the two-man rhythm section that appeared on many later records - Dee Murray (bass), and Nigel Olsson (drums). (JA)
- The jam on "Burn Down The Mission" is way overdone, but this is a record no Elton fan will want to be without, because his singing and piano playing are so squarely front and center. Also, it's interesting to hear Murray and Olsson stretch out, since they so rarely do on his studio albums. (DBW)
- A movie soundtrack that's about half instrumental, but it's not a tossoff: the vocal tracks are as carefully produced and enjoyable as Elton's "real" albums. Highlights include the gentle title track (a Top 40 single), the rocking "Honey Roll," and the anthemic "Can I Put You On." Taupin's lyrics are unusually direct meditations on love and friendship; if you like his more intellectual lyrics, you'll be disappointed, but if you find them annoying, this is an improvement. The low point is a syrupy Mantovani-like stringfest, "Seasons." Paul Buckmaster contributes an 11-minute neoclassical opus ("Four Moods") - if you hate classical music you'll find it tiresome; if you're well-versed in classical music you'll find it amateurish. But if
you're fascinated by his orchestrations on Elton's other records, you'll be interested to hear how he sounds on his own, which is basically like a second-rate Mahler. Not a classic album, but lots of fun for fans of Elton's early period. (DBW)
- I basically agree; the five vocal tracks are solid, classic-period Elton, with quality tunes like the irresistable ballad "Michelle's Song" that would have fit in fine on the eponymous record.
The title track is a little sappy, and the Stones-like "Honey Roll" veers toward R & B parody, but the explosively funky "Can I Put You On" more than makes up for it.
It is distracting to have Elton's stuff interrupted by Buckmaster's orchestrated numbers, which waste time with repeated variations and even a grating spoken poem ("I Meant To Do My Work Today").
Still, though, Buckmaster was at the height of his powers by now, and "Four Moods" is as interesting as any stand-alone classical music I've ever heard on a rock record; plus the orchestral "Seasons" is harmless and relaxing (there's also an enjoyable vocal version). (JA)
Madman Across The Water (1971)
- Just over a year after breaking through with his eponymous record, Elton had already released three more - and the well was temporarily running dry. Madman is listenable, but track after track goes on past four minutes, and the orchestration here is starting to seem routine instead of enlightening. On "All The Nasties" it's downright annoying, with an uptight classical chorus awkwardly humming nonsense syllables - the missed goal here was to emulate "Hey Jude."
The good news is the first two tracks: "Tiny Dancer," an A-side with a prominent steel guitar and a long, anthemic fade that's carried by a great string arrangement; and the equally memorable Top 40 single "Levon," with its high-energy strings and irresistable, but somewhat unintelligible refrain. The title track is also worthy, and in much the same vein. Taupin's lyrics are decent this time around, although "Indian Sunset" is full of ridiculous, wildly inaccurate stereotypes, and there's also some unimpressive rock star whining ("Holiday Inn"). Elton's regular gang - Taupin, Gudgeon, Quaye, Buckmaster, Brown, etc. - all take their places here, but bass, drum, and guitar players are alternated frequently, and future band members Johnstone, Cooper, Olsson, and Murray - and even Roger Pope and future Yes member/cult favorite Rick Wakeman - all appear. (JA)
- I can't agree with Alroy here; I think there are standout tunes all over the place. Besides the singles and the title track (all among his best work ever), the ambitious suite "Indian Sunset" is complex and fascinating, with a marvelous orchestration; the midtempo rockers "Razor Face" and "Rotten Peaches" are also compulsively listenable. "Holiday Inn" and "All The Nasties" are nothing special, but the high points here are so high, you won't go wrong buying this record. (DBW)
Honky Chateau (1972)
- The first of Elton's seven (!!) #1 hit albums, including a 1974 greatest hits package. "Honky Cat," a cheerful boogie-woogie number with a swinging horn section, was a substantial hit; but certainly the record's most memorable tune was the epic "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long Time)." Like most of the rest here, it's graced with a stripped-down, orchestra-less arrangement that highlights Elton's strong singing and piano playing. That makes it a uniquely refreshing experience compared to almost any of Elton's other classic albums except Empty Sky.
Lyrically, there's just a tinge of misogyny ("Amy"; "Hercules"), with few embarassments and several interesting trinkets like Taupin's ode to New York City, "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters," and his lighthearted toss-off "I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself." This and the following two albums were recorded in a French castle, hence the record's name. The backing is by Davey Johnstone (guitar), Dee Murray (bass), and Nigel Olsson (drums); with the addition of Johnstone, this was the first appearance of the classic mid-70s Elton John band (future member Ray Cooper plays congas here on "Amy"). (JA)
- Besides the missing orchestra, the disc is notable for the appearance of Jon Luc Ponty on elecric violin (notably on the sly "Amy") and tap dancing by "Legs" Larry Smith on "Kill Myself." There are many fine tunes here, but without much variety in the arrangements, the string of subpar country rockers gets oppressive: "Susie," "Slave," the corny "Salvation," and "Hercules" are a bit wearing. Still a must for fans, but not one of his best during this period. (DBW)
Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player (1973)
- This is solid all around, but not exactly a high point. The big number is "Crocodile Rock," Elton's first #1 single and an uncharacteristic exercise in 50's nostalgia. It's stuffed with crafty hooks, but bits like Elton's silly falsetto scat singing are a bit hard to take. The breezy "Daniel," with a flute-like mellotron and maraccas, was also a hit, and the uplifting ballad "High Flying Bird" is quite memorable. But a lot of the other material is in a slightly monotonous, brassy R & B style. Plus Taupin's mean streak comes to the fore on the redneck parody "Texan Love Song," and his sexism on "Elderberry Wine," although he's mostly bearable. Bonus tracks include a few up-tempo B-sides with the band basically letting its hair down ("Screw You"), and an orchestrated, harpsichord-less 1973 version of "Skyline Pigeon." The band is Johnstone, Murray, and Olsson, with Paul Buckmaster making his last orchestral contributions for a while. (JA)
- Maybe not as consistent or varied as his very best records, this is a really good buy anyway. "Crocodile" was seriously overplayed at the time, but twenty-five years later it's easier to appreciate the drop-dead perfect arrangement and Elton's wonderfully out-there falsetto. "Have Mercy On The Criminal" is Elton's high drama at its best, and "Elderberry Wine" is wonderfully catchy rock and roll, though Taupin's lyrics
are indeed regrettable. Even the lightweight tracks have something going for them: fine piano fills on "I'm Going To Be A Teenage Idol," a sincere arrangement on the vicious and arrogant "Texan Love Song." (DBW)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
- A hugely successful double LP - at least musically and commercially. The title track was a big hit, and the marching, stuttering, mock-live performance "Bennie And The Jets," graced by a brilliant falsetto, went to #1. The loud rocker "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" also was big news, and even the 11-minute "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" suite, with synthesizers and a crunching rhythm guitar, got significant and well-deserved radio play. There are plenty more fine tunes like the closing ballad "Harmony."
But despite the fact that the famous Marilyn Monroe tribute "Candle In The Wind" is downright sympathetic, Taupin's lyrics are often contemptible: he's frequently misogynistic (title track; "I've Seen That Movie Too"; "Dirty Little Girl"), and other outrages include the patronizing class distinctions of "Saturday Night's"; an ode to prostitution ("Sweet Painted Lady"); a sneering reggae sendup ("Jamaica Jerk-Off"); and a clueless take on lesbianism ("All The Girls Love Alice," another radio favorite with a catchy beat and fine harmonies, featuring Ray Cooper).
I'm docking Elton a half-star on Taupin's account, and occasional triteness doesn't help ("Your Sister Can't Twist," with ridiculous Beatles and Beach Boys references). But in any case, this is a fantastic bargain on one CD. Same band as before, with Del Newman taking over the orchestration. (JA)
- There are so many great tunes here (including "Grey Seal," a rerecorded 1969 single side) it's hard to pass this album up despite the awful lyrics and a string of second-rate tunes ("I've Seen That Movie Too," "The Ballad Of Danny Bailey"). Newman's orchestrations are also disappointingly routine ("Roy Rogers"). (DBW)
- Looks like burnout here, and critics at the time hated it. It does have some high points, though. The record leads off with the not-actually-misogynistic hit "The Bitch Is Back," whose smooth female backup vocalists (including Dusty Springfield), brassy horn section, and bouncy beat reduce it to the level of baby formula. The catchy ballad "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" was an even bigger success: it features Toni Tennile and Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston on backup vocals. Carl soars, but it's a bit lightweight.
The rest sounds a lot like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but it just isn't as substantial, with a few throwaways like the chugging, unimaginative R & B number "Stinker." On the other hand, there are some clever touches like Bernie's nonsense-Italian lyrics on "Solar Prestige A Gammon" and Elton's jack-hammer piano fills on the longish "Ticking." Same basic band again (Johnstone, Murray, Olsson, Newman), but they're joined by Ray Cooper (percussion) and frequently by the Tower of Power (horns) or Dave Hentschel (synth; he also played some synth on Honky Chateau).
Bonus tracks include a lousy novelty tune ("Step Into Christmas") and some more substantial stuff like Elton's version of "Pinball Wizard," from the Tommy film soundtrack. (JA)
- Elton's tacky pop mercenary side takes over most of the LP: the hits are predictable, and the Beatles ripoffs are blatant: "Solar Prestige" is a painful updating of Lennon's "Sun King," while "Ticking" is a lame character sketch recalling "Day In The Life." And though the lyrics aren't nearly as offensive as on the last record, does anyone really need to hear the word "bitch" repeated 42 times in one song?
But Elton doesn't completely bury his talent: "Pinky" is lovely soft rock, "I've Seen The Saucers" is appropriately eerie, "Stinker" is foot-stomping fun, and his energy and the TOP horns almost redeem the by-the-numbers misogyny of "You're So Static." Overall, though, this is only a find for his most devoted fans. (DBW)
Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
- This was the first LP in history to debut at #1, and it's easy to see what all the hoopla was about: for the first time in five years Taupin managed to come up with a bona fide concept album and avoid either noxious stereotypes, dumb love songs, or silly character sketches. But what a dull, depressing theme - Captain Elton and Cowboy Bernie's early, struggling period as a songwriting duo. It's distractingly self-congratulatory, and Taupin's obliqueness and generality pre-empt any real narrative.
Still, though, Elton rose to the challenge with some determined, earnest craftsmanship.
"Someone Saved My Life Tonight," the big hit here and easily the strongest cut, is an epic about Elton's barely-avoided, ill-conceived 1969 marriage. That gives it some real poignancy despite all the light, Beach Boys-like harmonizing.
There's a lot more to like, especially the slowly-building title track and the lengthy, "Hey Jude"-like album closer ("Curtains"), and the only things dragging it down are the lyrics and the sometimes strange, often melancholy tunes.
The original Elton John Band appears here for the last time, joined by Hentschel on a couple songs and an orchestra on one. Bonus tracks include Elton's consecutive #1 singles, released shortly before the album: a gimmicky remake of the Beatles' "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," complete with sitar, mellotron, and John Lennon on guitar and backing vocals; and the wildly orchestrated "Philadelphia Freedom." (JA)
- Outside of the majestic finale, this is generally underwhelming; the best tracks are low-key efforts like "Writing," a lovely pop tune recalling "Daniel," and the jaunty, classical-derived "Better Off Dead." Still, the predominate small band approach makes for an intimate listening experience,
and it's nice to have a classic Elton album where you don't have to apologize for Bernie's lyrics (though I find the attack on Elton's fiancée a bit much).
The bonus tracks are a waste of time - that the two "A" sides went to number one is a credit to his earlier work building a fan base, not to the tunes themselves. (DBW)
Rock Of The Westies (1975)
- "Island Girl" was a #1 hit single, and the album scored yet another amazing debut at #1. But it was Elton's last record for almost two decades that sold so well, and warning signs are everywhere - from the weak chart performance of the follow-up single "Grow Some Funk Of Your Own" to the self-deprecating liner notes to the replacement of the Elton John Band. Cooper and Johnstone were still around, but the bass player here is Kenny Passarelli (ex-Joe Walsh band), and veterans Caleb Quaye (guitar) and Roger Pope (drums) returned. And stranger still, James Newton Howard was brought in to double Elton on keyboards. It ends up sounding slick, self-consciously earnest, and slightly anonymous, with a big crunchy guitar sound and a driving beat ("Billy Bones And The White Bird").
Despite all this, the music is actually interesting. There are plenty of weird little riffs and bizarre instruments, like vocorders, vibes, and flaky synths; the tunes are consistently catchy; and the energy level is high throughout, although the band sometimes drags a riff past the breaking point ("Street Kids"). There aren't any masterpieces here, just a few really solid tunes like "Feed Me" and "Yell Help"; but relatively speaking it's a breath of fresh air. It's too bad Taupin ruins "Island Girl" with a lyric that's simultaneously racist, sexist, smutty, and jingoistic. At about this time, Neil Sedaka was topping the charts with "Bad Blood," which featured Elton on backup vocals (!). (JA)
- The singles are unimpressive, but Elton still has tons of ideas, like setting ethereal chord changes over a Bo Diddley beat ("Billy Bones"), putting his own touch on 70s fusion ("Feed Me") or Rufus-style funk ("Dan Dare"). The big guitar sound of "Street Kids" is fun, though you wouldn't want to sit through a whole album full of it. And he crafts still another wrenching epic, "I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)." (DBW)
Rare Masters (rec. 1967 - 1975, rel. 1992)
A nicely packaged, two-disc compilation of assorted rarities (mostly B-sides) that didn't make it to the classic albums, padded out with the full Friends soundtrack.
It's now been rendered mostly superfluous by the dispersal of the rare tracks among the reissues of the classic LP's.
However, the Friends soundtrack remains hard to find in any form, and it's intriguing to hear the progression from Elton's earliest solo work through to the early stages of his mid-70s artistic decline.
Also, by my count as many as six tracks somehow did not make it to the classic album reissues: Elton's first single ("I've Been Loving You/Here's To The Next Time," which shows him in flashy Tom Jones mode), one 1971 outtake ("Rock Me When He's Gone"), one excellent demo ("Let Me Be Your Car," used to guide Rod Stewart's inferior version), one embarassing novelty tune ("Ho! Ho! Ho! Who'd Be A Turkey At Christmas," the B-side to "Step Into Christmas"); and "House Of Cards," a B-side that should have gone on Blue Moves but (I guess) didn't fit.
One mediocre soundtrack album and six bonus cuts do not justify the price of a double CD, but it's a fun listen, and obsessives should keep an eye out for the thing. (JA)
Here And There (1976)
- A live album recorded at two shows in 1974 (one on each side). The original, one-LP/CD version was dominated by predictable early 70s hits, and it was pretty conservative outside of a dull duet with Lesley Duncan on her "Love Song," the heavy-rock intro to "Take Me To The Pilot," Ray Cooper's bizarre duck call solo on "Honky Chateau," and some relatively stripped down arrangments ("Skyline Pigeon").
With a short running time and virtual replication of the studio arrangements, it just didn't have much emotional impact.
The new double-CD version has 25 tracks, with a lot more classics and some Caribou tunes ("Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me"). Much more importantly, there are three "new" songs featuring John Lennon: his then-current #1 single "Whatever Gets You Through The Night," Elton's take on "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," and "I Saw Her Standing There."
Together with the fuller running times, this is enough to raise the excitement level to the point of transcendence - I can honestly recommend replacing your old one-CD copy of the record. The huge #1 hit single "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (with guest Kiki Dee) was released shortly after Here And There; both Wilson and I were seriously turned off at the time by this sappy, overplayed disco tune. (JA)
This is a lot of fun, revealing how good Elton's tunes can be even without snappy production: these versions of "Skyline Pigeon" and "Rocket Man" excel the studio takes. On the down side, "Crocodile Rock" just sounds cheesy and obvious. I have the one-disc version, which I assume is obsolete: the disc's for fans anyway, who would presumably prefer to spring for the two-disc version. (DBW)
Blue Moves (1976)
- A double album, and there's not a single must-have track on the whole thing. The best songs here would've been acceptable but unremarkable additions to any of his classic albums: the ballad "Chameleon," the soft-rock "Cage The Songbird" (yet another bird song, with Crosby and Nash on backups), "If There's A God In Heaven (What's He Waiting For?)" which works despite incredibly trite lyrics. There are a bunch of overblown sentimental ballads ("Tonight," the #6 single "Sorry Seems To Be The
Hardest Word," "Between Seventeen And Twenty") and no less than three pointless instrumentals ("Out Of The Blue" is the most egregious). Elton and Dudgeon suddenly sound out of ideas (the only new ground is broken on the diffuse sitar/synth experiment "The Wide Eyed And Laughing"), and Taupin sounds bored with the whole business ("Someone's Last Song") - wisely, Elton jettisoned Dudgeon after this release, and Taupin also took a few years off. The band is the same Westies band, and unfortunately Newton Howard is
far more prominent, adding so many electric piano and synth lines that it's hard to hear Elton's piano, and contributing ridiculous disco strings arrangements to several tracks, including the flop followup single "Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!)." Guests include Toni Tenille and the Brecker Brothers. For fans, the album's not a total waste, but you shouldn't go after this until you already own all his earlier albums. (DBW)
- Wilson's not wrong about any particular point, but as a whole the album strikes me as badly underrated.
For starters, "Tonight" is one of Elton's best, if sappiest orchestrated ballads, touching and interestingly arranged; "Sorry Seems" is almost as good.
"Chameleon," "Cage The Songbird," "Between Seventeen And Twenty" (with a joyful, imitation Beach Boys arrangement), the stylish, 50's jazz-pop tribute "Idol," and the Philly soul-style "Crazy Water" are all solid, and Buckmaster shows up just long enough to blow away James Newton Howard with a great arrangement ("One Horse Town").
The other material is admittedly uneven, longwinded ("Bite Your Lip"), and often recycled from his earlier hits.
The Brecker Brothers ruin a couple tunes with a tacky, mid-70s TV theme song vibe ("Boogie Pilgrim"; "Shoulder Holster"), and "Where's The Shoorah?" is a really embarassing gospel number.
But the record is rarely as grating as Wilson suggests, with just enough humor and variety to make it mostly succeed. (JA)
The Burnout Era
Despite going through one transition after enough in this period, Elton continued to put out new recordings at a steady
pace, with substantial but decreasing commercial success. In the mid-80s he got married, shocking his fans, but was
divorced again within a few years. Meanwhile, his cocaine addiction got out of hand, distracting him throughout this
period. It's amazing that he put out any records at all, much less a new one every year. (JA)
The Complete Thom Bell Sessions (rec. 1977, rel. 1979, 1983)
For his first post-Dudgeon outing, Elton turned to Philly soul producer Thom Bell, who had
huge hit singles for the Spinners and Dramatics. They apparently cut an album's worth of material, mostly written by Bell,
but when Elton heard the results he wanted to shelve the whole project. Eventually three tracks were released on a 12"
single, followed a few years later by this 6-song EP. Bell's production is lifeless and overly sweet, with a mild disco
rhythm section and masses of strings simply repeating the main melody line. Meanwhile, John's vocals are often
perfunctory: he might as well not have been on "Are You Ready For Love" at all, as it's really a showcase for the
Spinners. So as a whole, the album is nowhere near Elton's classic sound, and reflects his artistic confusion during this period.
But it's not terrible: the hit single "Mama Can't Buy You Love" is pretty catchy, and could have been really good with
a simpler arrangement and more enthusiastic delivery; "Three Way Love Affair" and "Country Love Song" are trivial but enjoyable
pop. Elton's two compositions have flashes of brilliance, with arresting melodic leaps on "Nice And Slow" (written with
Taupin and Bell) and a fun anthemic fade on "Shine On Through" (which was reworked for A Single Man). The
musicians are Bell's usual stable, with MFSB providing horns and strings, Bell himself playing all the keyboards, Bob
Babbit on bass and Charles Collins on drums.
An EP of dance tunes produced by Thom Bell, the mastermind of five massive mid-70s gold singles by the Spinners. John ended up scoring a pretty substantial hit with "Mama Can't Buy You Love." I haven't seen this one yet, but I'll snap it up as soon as I can. (JA)
A Single Man (1978)
- Elton was going through some big changes in the late 70s, and the title points to the radical hirings and firings. He'd sacked loyal lyricist Taupin in favor of Gary Osborne, most of the band in favor of Tim Renwick (guitar), Herbie Flowers (bass), and Steve Holly (drums), and producer Gus Dudgeon in favor of Clive Franks (an old crony who was the tape operator on Empty Sky). And both percussionist Ray Cooper and arranger Paul Buckmaster do temporary swan songs here. Almost all the tunes are blemished by Osborne's one-size-fits-all romance lyrics (in one case clearly homoerotic), and over-the-top production that struggles to capture the magic of John's early records. But somehow it's a blast anyway.
John's effective piano is mixed prominently, his voice is strong, and both the melodies and string arrangements are attention-grabbing. It's enough, for example, for "Return To Paradise" to survive some ridiculous vibes, horns, and Latin percussion; and "Georgia," some pointless Southern nostalgia lyrics, a sappy pedal steel guitar, and a grating boy-and-girl vocal chorus. Elsewhere there are plenty of clever, up-tempo foot-stompers like the dumb anti-war protest "Madness," and ballads like the oversaxed "Shooting Star." The only real disaster is the repetitive, seven-minute instrumental "Reverie/Song For Guy." Elton's singles in this period were "Ego" (which wasn't on the album) and the breezy, insubstantial "Part-Time Love" (which was); both of them sold relatively poorly. (JA)
- A substantial rebound from Blue Moves; his energy is contagious ("I Don't Care"), he has lots of fine melodies ("Shine On Through"), and the extended "It Ain't Gonna Be Easy" makes effective use of Buckmaster's strings and Renwick's guitar. Up until "Shooting Star" and "Song For Guy," this is about as good as his peak records, and because it wasn't overplayed on the radio, sounds a bit fresher. Any fan should pick this up. (DBW)
Victim Of Love (1979)
- An inexplicably bizarre project: Elton John singing a set of straight-ahead disco tunes, all of them written by an outside producer (Pete Belotte) and his collaborators - the only exception is an eight-minute take on Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." It was recorded in Germany, and the sessionmen were professional disco players with no connection to Elton (including a couple of well-known ones: Paulinho Da Costa
and Steve Lukather). Belotte used all kinds of dumb, annoying, dance-friendly gimmicks, like running all the tracks directly into each other; sticking with the same beat and same tempo on every tune; reusing riffs all over the place; and stripping everything down to Chic-influenced slap bass/hi-hat heavy drums/rhythm guitar instrumention, with just a little piano and synth.
Worse, Elton didn't play any of the instruments, and his singing here isn't terribly interesting. This is the kind of thing only an absolute Elton John fanatic - or a 70s disco junkie - could possibly enjoy. It must have been an attempted cash-in on the disco craze, and it's surely a sign of artistic exhaustion. Not surprisingly, the title track barely broke the Top 40. (JA)
- This is so bad it makes me think I've been seriously underrating Donna Summer as a songwriter all these years: left to his own devices, Belotte isn't able to put together even a marginally effective melody. Elton doesn't lift a finger to help: his singing is flat and perfunctory. The absurd, endless "Johnny" is actually the best track on the record. (DBW)
21 At 33 (1980)
- After bombing with disco, Elton went back to the tried and true. Franks and Osborne were both brought back, although Taupin and two other lyricists did contribute on most of the titles. The result is a slickly produced, generic, and anonymous late 70s-style pop product, with even the lyrics focusing on the mindless hedonism of the era (Taupin's "White Lady White Powder," an ode to cocaine - and it's ironically followed by the lily-white, spiritualistic "Dear God"; "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again," on the swinging singles scene). The hit here is "Little Jeannie," Elton's last gold single for several years and a comeback of sorts; it's a pleasant ballad that's unfortunately drowned in mellow instrumentation (vibes, saxophone, cutesy percussion, etc.).
Some of the material has a good beat (Taupin's "Two Rooms At The End Of The World"; the slick disco number "Give Me The Love"), but Elton's voice seems to be fading at this point, and the heavy production - also including low-key, conventionally distorted "rock" guitars; string sections; synthesizers; horns; backup singers; and even fiddles (Byron Berline on "Take Me Back") - makes the singer sound like a guest on his own record. Supposedly most of the the Eagles are among the real guest musicians, among whom are session heavies like Lukather, Chuck Findley, Jerry Hey, and Jim Horn, and the returning Olsson/Murray rhythm section. (JA)
- Sure, there are dull tracks here ("Take Me Back," "Sartorial Eloquence" with a gimmicky Taupin lyric), but there are plenty of nice tunes of the mellow ("Give Me The Love") or cathartic ("Chasing The Crown," "Two Rooms") varieties. Despite uniformly silly lyrics, Elton sings well and plays some fine piano (best heard on "White Lady"). Clearly a big step down from his classic work, but a huge step up from Victim. (DBW)
The Fox (1981)
This isn't a masterpiece, but it certainly didn't deserve to be such a flop - the only other 80s record that sold less strongly was Leather Jackets. The title track, like several other numbers, is completely listless; and Elton didn't even write "Nobody Wins," a dull synth-ballad with bland love-song lyrics that he inexplicably made the record's major single (the follow-up was Elton's fine, orchestrated ballad "Chloe"). It looks like Franks was replaced by Chris Thomas in the middle of the sessions.
It makes a difference: there are still plenty of backing choruses, orchestras ("Carla/Etude/Fanfare"), vocorders ("Heart In The Right Place"), and loud guitars, but Elton's piano playing is much more prominent ("Breaking Down Barriers," with a cool, speedy riff; the slow, beautiful, overly synth-orchestrated "Elton's Song"). Lyrically it's musical chairs once again, with both Taupin and Osborne participating. Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray appear on most of the Thomas tracks, recapturing some 70s magic (the marching "Fascist Faces"; "Heels Of The Wind"); the many session players include Horn, Lukather, backup singer Jim Gilstrap, guitarist Ritchie Zito, and bassist Reggie McBride; and arranger/synth player James Newton Howard turns up over and over again. (JA)
Jump Up! (1982)
Orchestration is minimal here, with basic rock and roll instrumentation on most tracks. The plus side is that Elton's energetic vocals and piano come through well; the minus side is that many of the tracks come across sounding rather generic: "Dear John" sounds very much like Pete Townshend's "Rough Boys" (appropriately, Townshend himself guests on the three-chord "Ball & Chain"). The single "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" is the well-known cut; elsewhere, Elton often rises above terrible lyrics: Bernie's "Spiteful Child" gets a memorable melody; Tim Rice's "Legal Boys" gets a clever though unsettling meter-shifting arrangement. Even the Styx-like hard rock/synth experiment "I Am Your Robot" is interesting. But there are too many schlocky ballads like "Princess" and the lounge-like "Blue Eyes" (both by Osborne), and Taupin comes up with the incredibly clichéd "Where Have All The Good Times Gone?"
Chris Thomas produces from here on; Zito and Murray are back though Olsson's replaced by studio sausage Jeff Porcaro. Newton-Howard's also back, though more in the background than previously, and former Wing Steve Holly adds some percussion. (DBW)
I've seen the lyrics and they are indeed terrible, but Taupin's "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" is notable as a John Lennon tribute that actually works. (JA)
Too Low For Zero (1983)
- A fairly successful 70s reunion record, with Olsson, Murray, Johnstone, Cooper, Newton-Howard, and even Kiki Dee, and no outside players. Only Johnstone was to stay on board for long. The commercial high point here is the #4 hit single "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues," with a fine but extraordinarily brief Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. It's sappy and a little grating, but memorable. Meanwhile, "Kiss The Bride" is a silly vamp and a weakly clever lyric geared up into a frenetic rocker - fun but pedestrian. "I'm Still Standing," then, is the most durable of the three hits: its passionate Elvis Presley attitude is sweetened by a hand-clapping chorus, but it's still gritty and ear-catching.
Apart from the big numbers, though, there are a lot of thin-sounding and routine album padders. Of the better ones, "Cold As Christmas" is yet another sappy ballad; the title track can't climb out of its fluttery synth percussion vibe; "Religion" is formulaic, smutty, and offensive, if catchy; and "Saint" is pretty but drags at five minutes. Olsson and Murray's backup vocals are tinny and unimaginative, Elton's melodies are often slight, and Taupin's lyrics are sub-par. There aren't too many lapses of taste here, but it doesn't rank with Elton's best work. (JA)
- Maybe not, but it does rank with his most enjoyable mediocre work. Besides the hits, there's a lovely falsetto performance on the album closer "One More Arrow," and a smaller than usual number of losers ("Whipping Boy"). (DBW)
Breaking Hearts (1984)
- This record is stripped down even more (Newton-Howard and Kiki Dee are gone, though the rest of the reunion band remains), and it works: there are loads of enjoyable, straight-ahead tunes, often with a strong Motown influence ("Who Wears These Shoes?," "Restless"). The Top Ten single "Sad Songs (Say So Much)" is typical of the unvarnished pleasures to be had herein. Elton limits himself to one ballad, and its low-key sincerity puts it over ("Breaking Hearts (Ain't What It Used To Be)"). His voice and piano playing are vigorous and prominently featured, Johnstone is solid as always, and the only real problems are the gimmicky "Did He Shoot Her?" (the only high-tech track on the record)
and Taupin's patently offensive lyrics ("Slow Down Georgie (She's Poison)," "Li'l 'Frigerator"). (DBW)
- Taupin is truly vile - "Li'l 'Frigerator" is a racist, sexist rant, complete with a "you're so cold" refrain.
But that's in keeping with the record's incredibly authentic "classic Elton" sound, which just can't be resisted if you've got any liking for his early 70s hits (the dramatic mini-epic "Burning Buildings").
The synth effects are just a little updated ("Restless"; "Sad Songs," the sappiest thing here), the band's backing vocals are straight out of 1974 (the harmonious love song "In Neon"), and Johnstone's super-professional hard rock guitar parts add plenty of zest; they even go with 50's rock 'n' roll via "Crocodile Rock" on "Li'l 'Frigerator."
And as on his best records, there's some substantial stylistic variety (the calypso-flavored "Passengers").
The key thing, though, is Elton's suddenly revived gift for songwriting and singing; one tune after another sports clever licks and impressive performances - the title track ranks with his best ballads, and even "Did He Shoot Her?" has a strong enough melody to overcome the arrangement's synth sitar, heavy-handed 80s synth accents, and stampeding drums. (JA)
Ice On Fire (1985)
- Producer Gus Dudgeon was called back, and he ruins every tune with a monotonous post-disco rhythm section (mostly Morgan, Paton, Mattacks, etc.) and oppressively boring DX-7 parts by Mandel - he even adds lame synth strings to "Shoot Down The Moon" and lamer synth horns to "Tell Me What The Papers Say." Elton doesn't do much in his own defense: mostly it's mellow variations on standard R&B vocabulary ("This Town," "Candy By The Pound," with a real horn section), and lots of trivial ballads (the would-be Cold War anthem "Nikita," which was a substantial hit). The most enjoyable track on the disc is still derivative and slick: "Wrap Her Up" is bouncy but insubstantial, a duet with George Michael, whose falsetto here is straight out of
Prince's bag. There are lots of other guests, including a barely-used Sister Sledge, Millie Jackson (who duets on the corny pseudorocker "Act Of War"), Roger Taylor and John Deacon, and Nik Kershaw. Maybe not quite as bad as the following record, but still not very rewarding even for a diehard fan. (DBW)
- He's right, the loud numbers are an irritating blend of disco and 80s R & B - half the tracks have a real horn section - and the slow numbers are pretty when they stick with Elton's 70s style ("Cry To Heaven"), but sickeningly sweet when they go with 80s synth-pop conventions ("Nikita"), and always forgettable.
"Candy By The Pound" is catchy despite its demeaning lyrics and production standards, guest Pino Palladino adds a nice fretless bass line to "Shoot Down The Moon," and both "Wrap Her Up" and the mid-70s slow-disco revival "Satellite" have camp value, but that's about it.
As throughout most of this period, the lyrics are by Taupin. Commercially, this was a step down even from the previous 80s records (except The Fox) Elton cut the highly successful AIDS charity single "That's What Friends Are For" with Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, and Stevie Wonder in 1985; it appeared on Warwick's Friends the next year. (JA)
Leather Jackets (1986)
- A second second chance for Gus Dudgeon - Chris Thomas returned to take the reins on the following studio records. It was John's biggest commercial disaster of the 80s, failing to even enter the Top 40, and frankly I'm not surprised; the production is total soft-rock hell, with all sorts of 80s electronic gimmicks and about as much personality as tapioca pudding. Practically the only entertainment value is the cover's ridiculous picture of Elton and the band dressed up as leather-fetishist bikers.
Davey Johnstone is on every track, but he's buried in the mix, and instead omnipresent synth player Fred Mandel gets to lay it on as thick as possible. Although one of the tunes is credited to Cher and Elton's then-wife (!), Taupin again handles most of the lyrics. He's either totally burned out, or totally selling out - I can't tell, because the record's just a pile of lousy love songs apart from the fragmentary impressionistic lyrics of the 50's nostalgia title track and "Paris." Cliff Richard duets on the overblown "Slow Rivers," the record's one big James Newton Howard orchestrated number and the closest thing to a memorable song (it also features Kiki Dee on backup vocals); the Queen rhythm section of John Deacon and Roger Taylor shows up on "Angeline" (thanks Michael). (JA)
- There's not one track on the record I'd ever want to hear again; though it's not quite as artistically bankrupt as Victim, it's pretty close. The production is only part of the problem here, as Elton's compositions and performances are equally weak. Interestingly, Cher & "Lady Choc Ice"'s tune, "Don't Trust That Woman," is as vituperous an anti-woman rant as Taupin ever wrote. (DBW)
Live In Australia With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (1987)
This one sold fairly well, and I can hear why: Elton's classic ballads come across excellently backed by the massive power of a live orchestra performing in a huge arena. The fun quotient here is amazing given that the original arrangements are mostly followed note for note, and that Elton's voice was marred by a throat problem, temporarily costing him his youthful smoothness, clarity, and upper register (he had successful surgery immediately after the show).
Strangely, the ragged singing emphasizes the exciting live-no-overdubs nature of the recording. The track selection is entirely from the early and mid-70s, with epics like "Tonight," "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word," and "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" being the most recent cuts; much of the rest is drawn from Elton John, with only a nod to Yellow Brick Road ("Candle In The Wind," which was released as a single and promptly broke the Top 10) and other major records ("Madman Across The Water"). Gus Dudgeon produced, James Newton Howard conducted, and Davey Johnstone led the band, which included Ray Cooper. (JA)
The Comeback Era
The last decade has been pretty good for Elton - he's finally gotten his sexuality straight (so to speak), dealt with his drug problem, gotten involved with charities (see above), and embarked on a heavy touring schedule, in the last couple of years often sharing the stage with Billy Joel. But to my ears, Elton's commercial success with the "adult contemporary" format and his suddenly lily-white image haven't translated into any definite musical progress. (JA)
Reg Strikes Back (1988)
- This is a comeback both musically and commercially, and one of the few really listenable post-70s Elton John albums. Going back to Chris Thomas seems to have been the catalyst, but Taupin's lyrics are also clever and cutesy here, if consistently sexist and even misogynistic ("Poor Cow," referring to a pregnant woman!); he goes completely overboard on the offensive "Japanese Hands" (one guess as to what that's about). Another half-star out the window - sorry, Elton... Despite this, the music itself is amusing, energetic, and often nearly tasteful (the brassy, jumping "Mona Lisas"). The singles are "A Word In Spanish," with a good classical guitar part and romantic lyrics; and the solid, but pedestrian "I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That."
The apt album title refers to Elton's given name (Reg Dwight), and the cover art pokes fun at his wardrobe, with the singer nowhere to be seen among the endless piles of hats, jackets, and glasses. Davey Johnstone still sounds good; Murray and Olsson return to sing some backups but don't play. Guests include an unobtrusive Pete Townshend on the fun intro track ("Town Of Plenty"); and the return of Beach Boys Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson, who add excellent, unmistakable harmonies to "Since God Invented Girls." The track mentions Brian by name and has Elton effectively imitating his falsetto, the best singing on the record (the entertaining sendup "Goodbye Marlon Brando" also refers to the Beach Boys and their music). (JA)
- Like any of Elton's later LP's, there's no innovation or artistic growth, and cookie-cutter sameness on many tracks ("Town Of Plenty"). But there are a lot of pretty good tunes and even some decent lyrics ("Goodbye Marlon Brando"), and about as solid as John's 80s work ever got. (DBW)
Sleeping With The Past (1989)
- Hmm, interesting title. Starts off with a blast - "Durban Deep," a moderately loud and startlingly authentic-sounding reggae/pop tune. There's also a decent but completely forgettable single, the soothing ballad "Sacrifice." But the rest is just dreary soft rock with a mild R & B influence, like the trite, up-tempo single "Healing Hands"; it's only occasionally arresting, as with the slick, echoey soul vocal on "Stones Throw From Hurtin'," and the stately, stripped-down "Blue Avenue," one of the few tracks to focus on John's piano playing or to recall his 70s sound effectively.
The record is dedicated to Bernie Taupin, who was not only alive and kicking, but wrote all of the utterly bland love-song lyrics. Why he returned to this pap after showing signs of life on the last record is a total mystery to me. Thomas produced again; the backing band is consistent from song to song, but only Davey Johnstone (guitar) and Fred Mandel (synth) are EJ regulars - here Johnstone is prominent and distinctive enough to sometimes bring back fond 70s memories. Two backup keyboard players appear on most tracks, probably because Elton was going for a live-in-the-studio sound that, ironically, is lost completely in the resulting forest of atmospheric synth parts. (JA)
- John and Taupin dedicated the record to 60s and 70s soul artists, but it's hard to see the soul influence here, outside of a couple of tracks ("I Never Knew Her Name"). It's just more run-of-the-mill Adult Contemporary soft rock, which John can certainly pull off ("Sacrifice"), but here he rarely does. (DBW)
The One (1992)
Elton cut this in France, and for whatever reason he seems to have a bit more energy this time around: he solos joyfully on "Sweat It Out," drags in Eric Clapton to overdub soulful vocals and driving blues guitar on "Runaway Train," lets bass player Pino Palladino mess around with fretless jazz and funk lines, and has fun himself with a grab-bag of synth effects (synth fiddle on "Whitewash County," synth sitar on the upbeat, R & B-influenced "On Dark Street," etc.). Taupin's at his best in years here, balancing his by now usual love songs (title track, the biggest single here) with a few Pompous Statements About Relationships (the single "The Last Song") and a few clever slices-of-life ("The North"; "Emily").
Those who are allergic to synth pop should avoid the record, but most of it's harmless, tuneful background music. Thomas produces; the core backup band is mostly new except synth player Guy Babylon, held over from Sleeping, and Davey Johnstone, who's as classy as ever. Kiki Dee and Nigel Olsson sing some of the backups, and the other superstar guest is David Gilmour, whose brief solos on "Understanding Women" are surprisingly competent. (JA)
A set of vocal duets between Elton and an odd assortment of 15 famous singers - several of them out of the closet - that adds up to an artistic disaster. The perpetrators include Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Kiki Dee, Little Richard, k. d. lang, Leonard Cohen, and even drag queen-turned-singer RuPaul. The material is just as diverse: some standards ("Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing"), some tunes written by the guests themselves (Nik Kershaw, Chris Rea), some old and new John-Taupin songs, and then there's Stevie Wonder's "Go On And On," with the master producing, playing, and singing backup vocals as Elton and Gladys Knight duet - it's easily the best recording.
A zillion recording studios were used; a zillion producers were dragged in (Giorgio Moroder, Narada Michael Walden, Don Was); and among the ten zillion instrumentalists, there's Ricky Fataar, John Guerin, Max Middleton, Billy Preston, and frequently Dean Parks, with no hint of 70s Elton associates (Kiki Dee does get a duet in).
And the sound? Well, light. Light funk, light country, light Top 40 pop, light rock, light ballroom, light soul, light techno, even light gospel...
it's frequently nauseating - Tammy Wynette; RuPaul and Moroder reprising "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" - and at best fun but forgettable: Henley funking up with "Shakey Ground"; Cohen in orchestrated 50's Sinatra sendup mode; the exciting live version of "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," with George Michael; and Elton's solo on "Duets For One." Just keep your finger on the fast-forward button. (JA)
The Lion King (1994)
Elton and Tim Rice cooked up five songs for the hit Disney flick, ranging from plot-moving tossoffs ("Be Prepared," with arch vocals by
Jeremy Irons) to Hallmark-style reaches for depth ("Circle Of Life"). The orchestrations walk the line between dramatic (the African-style
choir on "Circle") and tacky (the forced cheer of "Hakuna Matata," with vocals by Nathan Lane). Three of the songs are also available in
Elton-performed versions, which are relatively spare (the rockabilly take on "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," the huge hit single "Can You
Feel The Love Tonight" - Elton's "I Just Called To Say I Love You"). The disc is filled out with orchestral
music by Hans Zimmer, who seems to alternate between styles and moods at random, and is at his best when ripping off Wagner ("...To Die
For"). Between orchestral players, Elton's usual band, choirs and guest vocalists, there are too many people to list.
Millions of people rushed out and bought the album - don't make the same mistake.
Wildly successful, at least in a commercial sense; it was Elton John's first #1 hit album since 1975's Rock Of The Westies.
The music didn't make much of an impression on me
when I saw it, but the film's ridiculous anthropomorphism and brain-washed plotline should take the blame for distracting me. (JA)
Made In England (1995)
- Another full collaboration with Taupin, who avoids both his sappy romance themes of the 80s and his out-of-control character sketches of the 70s - instead, there's a lot of wrenching, introspective musing, some of it interesting and a lot of it bathetic. But the real story is arranger Paul Buckmaster, who contributes for the first time since A Single Man. Over the years he's become more of a conventional movie soundtrack orchestrator, but he's as bombastic and inventive as ever. Another factor is the new production team - Greg Penny working with Elton himself.
The end result is nearly the most effective recreation of EJ's classic 70s sound ever: "Latitude" sounds like a Tumbleweed Connection out-take; the Irish political comment "Belfast" is like Elton John with a conscience; etc. There are some lapses into 90s digital multitrack synth pop overkill, but even some of that works, like the sentimental, but instantly engaging ballad "Blessed." Fans will love the record from start to finish. Percussionist Ray Cooper is also back; the rest of the band is Guy Babylon, Charlie Morgan, and bassist Bob Birch. Made In England was a pretty big hit, and the single "Believe" did quite well. (JA)
- There are tons of nice touches including George Martin's orchestration on "Latitude," and several fine moving tunes ("Cold," "Man"). The trouble is that the tracks are all in the same tempo, mostly too long, and often lack Elton's characteristic dynamics changes and melodic leaps - as a result, though the individual songs are fine, overall it can be an exhausting listening experience. (DBW)
Love Songs (1996)
Normally we don't list greatest hits packages, but this one slyly includes two bonus tracks intended to suck in collectors. This approach seems to have been lifted from the longstanding hits-plus-rarities box set strategy and seems to be all over the place nowadays. Avoid. (JA)
The two new tracks aren't even any good: "No Valentines" is syrupy and
dull; "You Can Make History (Young Again)" lifts the melody from The Captain & Tenille's "Do
That To Me One More Time" (I kid you not). (DBW)
The Big Picture (1997)
Elton brought back Chris Thomas as producer here, and although I'm not sure why he didn't just stick with Made In England's production team, it doesn't seem to matter much: the record is largely tasteful and well-crafted.
They do veer into bathos with an annoying gospel number ("If The River Can Bend"), and the entire album is monotonous, slightly saccharine Adult Contemporary that's made to be served up as muzak in the local drugstore.
That means a lot of warm, soothing synth parts, soaring strings, sentimental Taupin lyrics, and uplifting melodies.
Johnstone delivers some 70s-style power chords on the relatively energetic numbers (title track; "January," with a particularly soulful vocal), but hardly anything else marks this as a "rock" record.
Nonetheless, Elton really has retained all of his powers as a consummate pop tunesmith: there isn't one song here that won't eventually get under your skin, even including cornball ballads like "I Can't Steer My Heart Clear Of You."
The band is mostly the same (Johnstone, Bablyon, Birch, Morgan), but Cooper is absent and Desert Rose Band member John Jorgenson joins in on guitar. (JA)
Another collaboration with Taupin; the leadoff single "Something About The Way You Look Tonight" became the biggest seller in history thanks to the
non-album B side, a reworked version of "Candle In The Wind" with new lyrics referring to Princess Diana. (DBW)
Elton John And Tim Rice's Aida (1999)
Soundtrack (not original cast recording) of the John/Rice Broadway musical, with performances by a constellation of pop stars:
Sting ("Another Pyramid," produced and backed by Sly and Robbie),
Tina Turner, Lenny Kravitz, Shania Twain, Kelly Price, and more.
You probably don't need me to tell you that the lyrics don't hold up without a show to give them structure, or that the
various performers and producers put such a strong stamp on the material that John's authorship is barely evident. Dru Hill and Boyz II Men do their usual watered-down soul schtick, James Taylor does his mellow folk rock thing ("How I Know You").
And it can't be a good sign when the most rousing
number on the disc lifts a bass line from the Supremes' "Can't Hurry Love" and is sung by the Spice Girls.
I'd like to say that Elton's melodic magic overcomes all these obstacles, but alas, it's not even close... the tunes are drab and ordinary, and I can't figure out which ones were supposed to be showstoppers.
John duets on four tracks, all ballads (the overwrought "Written In The Stars," with LeAnn Rimes; the similar but more powerful
"I Know The Truth" with Janet Jackson).
Elton John's The Road To El Dorado (2000)
There's a lot more to this animated film soundtrack than there was to The Lion King: eleven original tunes by John and Rice, with just three instrumental cultural appropriation
pieces by Hans Zimmer at the end. Still, there are problems aplenty. The arrangements are resolutely MOR, mostly with sappy sentiments like "Friends Don't Let Friends Say
Goodbye"... uh, I mean "Friends Never Say Goodbye."
The only experiment is "Trust Me," a strange mix of dance beats plus Beatlesesque backwards guitars and Mellotron;
elsewhere producer Patrick Leonard just piles on keyboards, guitars and backing vocals.
Rice can't even rhyme properly ("trodden" is abbreviated to "trod" to match the title of "It's Tough To Be A God"), and his attempts at humorous wordplay are atrocious ("16th Century Man").
But Elton does his best, with vigorous singing, occasional piano playing, and consistent, if sometimes corny, tunefulness: the boisterous title track; the
ballad "Without Question"; the pseudo-calypso Randy Newman duet "It's Tough To Be A God"; the energetic
pro-Conquistador rocker "16th Century Man," with Davey Johnstone banging away on guitar.
Just make sure you skip the Zimmer dreck at the end.
One Night Only (2000)
A filmed live show with lots of guests including Mary J. Blige, Bryan Adams and Kiki Dee. I saw the broadcast, and it was highly professional but a bit perfunctory, just one
four-minute greatest hit after another.
Songs From The West Coast (2001)
Old friends abound - Taupin, Johnstone, Olsson, Buckmaster, Wonder (harmonica and clavinet on "Dark Diamond") - and the sound is yet another back-to-basics stab at his 70s peak, chorused guitars, high harmonies and all.
The minimal, endlessly repetitive "I Want Love" (featuring Billy Preston) was the first single, but don't worry: it's the low point.
The melodies aren't initially striking but grow on you, like Made In England or Big Picture, and there's not much to criticize but nothing to get too excited about either (the rousing, countrified "Birds" is an exception).
Talk about riding a formula: the shortest track is 3:51, the longest is 4:51, mostly at the same moderate to slow tempo.
Again, Taupin's lyrics are mostly worldweary soulsearching ("The Wasteland," "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore") with a side of worldweary romance ("Original Sin").
Produced by Leonard, who also adds some organ; Rufus Wainwright adds backing vocals on the clumsy Matthew Shepard tribute "American Triangle."
Peachtree Road (2004)
Once again, Elton with Taupin, Johnstone, Olsson and company, and once again it's a batch of tunes that are instantly
familiar but unfailingly tuneful ("Freaks In Love"; the anthemic single "Answer In The Sky").
In keeping with the title and recording location (Atlanta),
there's more of a country feel than usual ("They Call Her The Cat," one of the only uptempo cuts),
with Johnstone adding frequent dobro and slide ("Porch Swing In Tupelo").
Retro rules: between the arpeggiated cello, Fender Rhodes, and backing "ooohs,"
"Too Many Tears" would practically have fit on Elton John.
Taupin serves up his now-customary blend of nostalgia, romance ("My Elusive Drug") and venom ("Turn The Lights Out When You Leave"). It's tough to complain about any individual track - the otherwise faceless "All That I'm Allowed" has a gorgeous soaring bridge - but considered as a whole, and particularly with the last several studio albums, the lack of aspiration is sobering.
Self-produced; no high-profile guests aside from Chicago trombonist James Pankow.
In 2005, John released a new duet with Joss Stone on the compilation Elton John's Christmas Party.
Billy Elliott: The Musical Original Cast Recording (2006)
John wrote the music for the successful Broadway show, and sings versions of three songs on a bonus CD included with this original cast recording.
The Captain And The Kid (2006)
A sequel to Captain Fantastic, billed as a return to Elton's stripped-down 70s sound, which is odd because his 70s records weren't stripped down at all: they were stuffed with overdubs and strings and synths. Anyway, this doesn't have any of that stuff, just a rhythm section, and more importantly it doesn't have the miraculous melodies he tossed off so easily thirty years gone. Instead, there lots of simpleminded rockers ("Just Like Noah's Ark") and meandering ballads ("I Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way (NYC)," yet another ode to New York City). By now Taupin is embracing all the cliches he used to studiously avoid, so he doesn't commit the embarassing lapses of years past but takes refuge in commonplace after commonplace ("The Bridge"; the ho-hum anti-drug "And The House Fell Down," which is partially redeemed by a sharp piano solo). The bright spot is the midtempo, soothing "Tinderbox," which really does sound like a mid-70s Elton classic.
The Red Piano (2008)
Documenting John's Vegas show, this is available in (at least) three configurations: 2 DVD/1 CD, 1 Blu-Ray/2 CD, and 3 LP.
The Union (Elton John & Leon Russell: 2010)
Could be worse, I suppose: Elton could have cut an album with Billy Joel. Produced by T-Bone Burnett.
The Diving Board (2013)
Produced by Burnett again; a trio disc with Raphael Saadiq (bass) and Jay Bellerose (drums). (DBW)
Goodbye yellow brick road...