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Reg’s Retirement Plan: Elton John In His ’60s

February 12, 2016

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Photo Credit: The Guardian

Author’s Note: I desperately wanted to keep writing and researching this piece, but I’ve never missed a deadline, even if it was self-imposed.  There were a lot of other avenues I could have gone down, but decided to polish it off and send it off into cyberspace on time.  And I would like to blame WordPress’ style difficulty for the lack of italicizing for album titles, etc.  A longer version will most likely end up in my next book Travesty.  I hope you like it! -Tom

Any fanatic will tell you about the law of diminishing returns. Elton John fans are no exception. After hearing the classic songs, the classic albums and the go-to ballads for lazy radio DJs, we get burnt out. I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing either version of ‘Candle In The Wind’, but as a completionist, I own the 40th Anniversary Edition boxed set for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (with the original track, remastered), the quickly rushed post-Diana B-Side ‘Goodbye England’s Rose’ (the A Side was ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’ from the Big Picture album), the moving version mere days before throat surgery from Live In Australia, and every live album and DVD wherein Elton has trotted the ballad back out. During a vicious feud with The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Keith told an interviewer that Elton made his career and his fortune from ‘dead blondes’. Hardly true, but it’s another factoid floating around in my head from my years as a faithful fan.

The point is that any fanatic is hungry for new material or a different spin on the greats, whether it’s a new studio release that’s just so-so, a just-because live album or the opening of some metaphorical vault full of master tapes, alternate tracks and raw cuts. I’ve heard ‘Your Song’, ‘Bennie And The Jets’, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ (the radio has made me hate it) and the dreaded ‘Candle In The Wind’ almost as many times as Elton has performed them, which is why I don’t listen to them that often. So when there’s a new addition to the discography, I greet it with open arms. I run the album into the ground on repeat in my car, scour the internet for videos (since that’s where they premier now) and troll for print interviews from the latest junket. I’ll say this much: for two guys who are a whisper away from 70, Elton and Taupin are still giving 100%. Is it is good as their first wave of success from ’69-’74 when they were churning out two albums a year for their contractual obligations with Dick James? It’s not a fair comparison.

Despite all the coke and the casual hook-ups from the ‘80s and his Never-Ending Shopping Spree, Elton might bury us all. With sobriety, a steady tennis regimen and a quadruple bypass he’s still going strong. Thank God. We’re lucky to have him. It’s incredible to ponder that little Reginald Kenneth Dwight started out playing saloon songs in corner taverns when he was 15 and he’ll still be pounding the ivories this March when he turns 69. He’s had more Top 40 hits than Elvis Presley, he’s been knighted (which used to be reserved for the rare elite and not just every other British musician over 50) He won an Academy Award as well as a Grammy for Album Of The Year for The Lion King. His musical Billy Elliot has been in production for over a decade. He’s outlasted almost all of the artists from his era and shattered so many records that he’s become peerless. He’s been called a living legend and a national treasure, but to most he’s known as the ‘Rocket Man’. Once he broke his habit of staying on the Billboard Charts (or once they stopped being relevant in the wake of the music industry imploding as a result of iTunes), his new releases tapered off to a trickle. He reached a stage as an artist where he took his time to make sure each album was what he wanted before he put it out. Let’s look at the last ten years.

Elton and Vegas were bound to find each other. It just makes sense that Elton would sign a 3 year deal with Ceasar’s Palace in so that nations of adoring fans could find him instead of touring around from ‘the end of the world to your town’ (‘Captain Fantastic’). The first show took place in February, 2004. 3 years came and went and kept on going. In addition to limited-city world tours by himself and a tour with Billy Joel in between, The Red Piano revue in Vegas morphed into The Million Dollar Piano in 2011. It was filmed and re-marketed as a concert film with the usual lineup of popular hits. Surprisingly, a long-playing gem from Caribou (‘Indian Sunset’) was included on the main concert film. A bonus concert covered some songs that were off the beaten path.

Why don’t we call Elton John and Leon Russell’s The Union (2010) what it was: the resurrection of Leon Russell figuratively and literally. It was also Elton’s attempt of ‘having to go back to go forward’. The album got off to a very bumpy start. According to interviews with John and Russell while they were promoting its release, Elton tried to farm the idea out to occasional touring mate Billy Joel. While his boyfriend David was cycling through his iPod on vacation, Elton was moved to tears when he heard Leon Russell, who was an even bigger star than Elton when they met during John’s big U.S. week-long debut at L.A.’s Troubadour back in 1969. Few pop stars share Elton’s enduring popularity, and Russell faded away from the spotlight into obscurity.
Billy Joel wasn’t interested in the project. I remember a plum line from Joel with USA Today where he claimed that Elton told him he should put out more albums, while Joel told him he should put out less. For those who remember, Joel announced his retirement from songwriting on his final studio album River Of Dreams (1993). I get into this argument often, but I have more respect for Elton because he keeps composing, recording, performing and aiming for new heights instead of giving up and cashing in when his coffers get light. That, and I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that Joel’s lyrics and subject matter aimed squarely and deliberately at the heart (and purse) strings and struggles of the blue collar working class whereas the bulk of John & Taupin’s songs are decidedly more cerebral, poetic and classically centered. But I digress.

 

When Joel passed, Elton came to the conclusion that he’d have to embark on the project himself. Russell jumped at the chance. Elton wanted to introduce Russell to a new generation and bring him back to a kind of relevance. In that respect it was a colossal success, entering the Billboard Charts at #3 and making Rolling Stone’s ’30 Best Albums of 2010’. Russell had to undergo major brain surgery at the start of the studio sessions, so again, resurrection is an apt analogy to make here. The recording process was a star-studded event, with Canadian folk-rocker Neil Young singing backup on Taupin’s double-entendre-ific Civil War ballad ‘Gone To Shiloh’ and Beach Boys burnout Brian Wilson bringing his A-game with contributing harmonies for the sublimely heartbreaking ‘When Love Is Dying’. Rolling Stone critic-turned-director Cameron Crowe filmed a documentary about the process during the sesssions.

It’s a strong album from start to finish and an engaging detour from Elton (and Taupin’s) solo releases. Admittedly, Leon Russell is along for the ride but his piano playing demonstrates a more…hammer-pounding American flavor in contrast to Elton’s classical training and pop sensibilities. He is every bit Elton’s equal at the piano, and his vocals succeeded thanks to some strong mixing at the control board by T. Bone Burnett. While touring, Russell’s vocals were strained and fatigued, which you can’t really blame the man for considering he was recovering from major surgery and touring at the same time. I consider ‘Hey, Ahab’ (Taupin’s wink and nod to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick) to be the best track on the album, with its harpoon-hooking chorus, back-and-forth vocals between John and Russell and the fun the two had that carries over on the track: /In a crumbling city we were trapped for days/with a broken sun above the clouds/Caught like Jonah 40 fathoms down/and a sign on the wall says ‘Hope Allowed’/All the cryptic symbols carved on bone/A far cry from a tattooed rose/And when the boys in rigging catch the wind/We’ll all way anchor and it’s Westward Ho/.

‘When Love Is Dying’ is a heartbreaking and bittersweet rumination on love affairs with an expiration date, and ‘If It Wasn’t For Bad (You’d Be Good)’, penned by Russell, was a wise choice for a single. Contact Music’s Nina Baniamer cleverly described it as a ‘melancholic cocktail party’. ‘Mandalay Again’ is a bit of a misfire, and comes off sounding like the sort of music you hear during the closing credits to a horrible film. ‘In The Hands Of Angels’ (the final track on the album for those who bought the Deluxe Edition) was a gift from Russell who was stymied by what he should get for ‘the man who has two of everything’.

I’m not really sure why a ‘mash-up’ album is somehow credited or even associated with Elton, but Australian group Pnau released a remix/mash-up album in 2012 called Good Morning To The Night: Elton John vs. Pnau. After sampling a few seconds of one track, I passed. The British are pop gluttons, so the album debuted at #1 on the U.K. Pop charts. I’m still recovering from the slush pile of awful remix CD singles from the ’90s that practically every single popular artist unleashed on the world, so I’d rather say good night and good luck to Good Morning To The Night.

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In stark contrast to The Union, The Diving Board (2013) was composed AND recorded in a matter of weeks. T-Bone Burnett returned to the production chair and encouraged Elton to revisit to his early, simpler studio dynamic of piano, drums and bass. After the first ten tracks were laid down and completed, the release date slipped. Twice. Due to ‘promotional windows’ or some similar industry doublespeak. The title of the album changed to The Voyeur and then back again before it’s final release date with a 13-track total in September of 2013. Both The Union and The Diving Board suffered from endless references by critics to the early, stripped-down, grassroots magic of his breakout Elton John album as well as the follow-up Tumbleweed Connection (and a few nods to the live concert recording 11/17/70 in between).

The first single, ‘Home Again’, is a haunting and nostalgic tour de force. As a man on the road for forty years with three separate homes that are more storage units than domiciles, Elton connected squarely with Taupin’s primal paradox of realizing what you’ve missed because you left it: /If I could go back home/If I never left I’d never have known./We all dream of leaving but wind up in the end/spending all our time trying to get back home again./ The mounting melody at the heart of the piece is one of the most powerful chord structures Elton has put together since ‘The Bridge’ from The Captain And The Kid.

‘The Last Fever Waltz’ is another chilling tale of heartbreak from two of the masters. And of course, the title track that wasn’t a title track and became the title track again, ‘Diving Board’, a slow-paced, slick, jazzy, last call request in a piano lounge, a warning about the perils and pitfalls of fame and adoration from two experts in the art of what not to do when you get your hands on the brass ring: ‘/You’d free fall into the ether/above the people./Out on a limb fragile and adored/but who below knows that./You’re still a mystery/way up on the diving board./’ Not one to shy away from conflict, Elton called out exploding child stars Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus as examples on deck for the diving board.

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Despite their ‘Two Rooms At The End Of The World’ dynamic of Taupin writing lyrics and sending them along to Elton to compose for, John changed up the process by giving Bernie marching orders for Wonderful, Crazy Night (2016). With a few decades of sobriety, a loving husband and two adopted children, Elton was in a good place, and wanted that positivity to carry through on his latest project. He told Taupin that he wanted happy songs. While many would argue that the two do their best work when they’re bumming us the hell out, Crazy Night is musically splendid and lyrically vapid. Taupin exemplifies the tortured poet, cycling through wives, honing in on obscure and popular Americana and shuffling emotional topics such as unrequited love, forbidden affairs and celebrity deaths like a pack of cards. Bernie’s half of the arrangement for the album is almost as empty and cliche’d as 1998’s The Big Picture, which Elton feels was their worst album. I respectfully disagree, citing the doomed disco romp Victim Of Love (1979), which was destined for the cut-out bins on arrival in the late ’70s. The rhyme schemes are beneath Taupin’s track record. Two of the songs (‘Wonderful, Crazy Night’ and ‘Blue Wonderful’) have ‘wonderful’ in the title. Adding insult to injury, T-Bone Walker’s (Elton supposedly co-produced) mixing on the vocals is too soft. The instrumental portions drown out the vocals throughout most of the album, and Elton races through the lyrics which makes one wonder if Taupin’s stanzas are too verbose for the song structure on this outing.

If Crazy Night wasn’t preceded by 5 solid back-to-back releases, I might like it a little bit more. Had it come out during the handful of hits and the blizzard of filler in the ‘80s and ‘90s, my impression would be stronger. But it didn’t. Musically, Elton wanted to convey the excitement and positivity that his veteran touring band was experiencing in concert. And he’s allowed to be happy, but I wish Taupin’s lack of conflict at the typewriter were more interesting. ‘A Good Heart’, the only song on the album with any tinge of melancholy, is one of the stronger compositions of the bunch. It’s either about Elton’s relationship with his husband David or Elton’s brother-he-never-had-growing-up relationship with Taupin, or both: ‘/Oh it’s a good heart/to be a part of./Just a soul full all men tend to love./The kind of love you never knew/oh it’s a good heart from me to you./‘ Again, rhyme schemes that Taupin should be ashamed of.

The music videos for the first two singles may be the most creative outpourings associated with the album. ‘Looking Up’ is a stylish oversimplification of Elton’s image, a firework explosion of pastel colors and reflected pairs of outrageous glasses and outfits set to the song’s improvisational, jazzy organ.

‘Blue Wonderful’ is a case study in kinetic ballet, with the camera following a woman who frets on a couch, dances her way out the door and flies with her lover Peter-Pan-style backlit by the headlights of parked car. John’s deliberate decision to take himself out of the spotlight circa Songs From The West Coast (2001) for his videos was a wise one. Wonderful, Crazy Night is light and fluffy like Angel Food cake. It’s everything the previous two albums weren’t. It is Elton living in the moment and Taupin going against type with less-than-satisfactory results. Repeat listenings don’t reveal any revelatory discoveries. The themes are chipper and rose-colored, like a disposable pair of outlandish glasses.

In the fifteen years from 2001-2016, we see two artists rediscovering what they loved about songwriting, finding a comfort and content that’s eluded them for the better part of their lives and rescuing a fading star in the process. Accomplishing more depth and scope with six albums than they have in the twenty years that preceded them. Aiming high and scoring more hits than misses. Going backwards to go forward. What the boys have up their sleeves next is anybody’s guess.

-Tom Waters

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