The 50 year career trajectory of Elton John has remained fascinating if not consistent. Rising to prominence during the singer-songwriter boom of the early 70s, he and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin developed a sound which started in thrall to rootsy Americana (indeed, the USA embraced him before the UK did), before striking out in their own unique direction which managed to touch on glam rock, the odd dash of hard rock, the occasional prog rock hue and pure pop.
Despite the cliché of Elton John being a sell-out drama queen, that is overlooking the fact that few acts were as consistently brilliant during the period of 1970-1975, indeed while John and Taupin’s contemporary David Bowie arguably had the larger cultural impact on hip young things, Elton John enjoyed the larger scale commercial success in the first half of the 70s with material that was arguably more diverse than Bowie and The Spiders From Mars were releasing during the same period. Another thing which is too often overlooked is the fact that, despite his difficult to handle reputation, Elton John has always had a firm grasp of when he recorded his best material and he loves the same material that his fans love. Yes, he continues to release albums to this day, but Elton John knows in his heart of hearts, that he and Taupin have to really over-achieve to come up with any material that comes close to anything during their ’70 to ’75 hot streak.
Here then are five albums and a compilation which celebrates the best bits of the career of the man formerly known as Reg.
The Tumbleweed Connection
Elton John’s second album of 1970 was released a few months after he had started to make inroads into the North American market. Having been embraced by the movers and shakers of the American music scene, not least Elton’s hero Leon Russell, John and Taupin knuckled down to write a semi-concept album of material which evoked the wild west stories they had both loved in their youth. The result was one of Elton John’s most enduring albums, and remains a firm fan favourite despite the lack of big hit singles, or indeed much in the way of Elton John’s trademark commercial sass. The Tumbleweed Connection is front to back an album length love letter of rootsy Americana written by two awkward and shy English men, and as such is one of the key albums in a huge discography.
Recorded in a radio studio with the nucleus of what would become the Elton John Band, 17-11-70 captures Elton John, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson in piano-fronted power trio form, effectively inventing the blueprint that Ben Folds Five would use to great success a quarter of a century later. Such a bare-boned approach focused the spotlight on the quality of Taupin’s lyrics and Elton’s tunes rather than showbiz spectacle, and captured the sound of a hot young band exploring what they were capable of as a combined force, and pretty much formed a springboard to bigger success. The track listing may not feature many big hits, but this is a live release centred around the dynamic of the band, rather than the songs they are playing.
In truth, this could easily have been the string-laden Mad Man Across the Water, or the well-rounded Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, but instead I have chosen Honky Chateau as an album which bridges the two approaches during the meteoric rise of Elton John’s star. By this time the big hits had started in earnest, with “Rocket Man” being one of John and Taupin’s most recognisable and timeless numbers. It’s not all pop-rock crossover hits though, as “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” show that they were still more than capable of doing understated as well. A diverse album which demonstrated Elton John’s range, Honky Chateau shows that he and Taupin could balance singer songwriter seriousness with numbers that were just all out fun. It’s also notable for being the first album that Elton would record with the Elton John Band – previously a touring only ensemble, which now boasted Davey Johnstone on guitar as well as Murray, Olsson, and John himself.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Not just Elton John’s best album, but easily one of the best albums of all time. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is an album that starts off with “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding”, a unique double-punch which inadvertedly inspired Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell, and from there the album continues to stylistically leap around until everyone is exhausted, but never leaves the listener disorientated. From over-played, but nonetheless classic tunes like “Candle in the Wind”, toe-curlingly brilliant rockers like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and the curiously underrated “Grey Seal”, glam-pop numbers like “Bennie and the Jets”, to heart breaking ballads like the title track and “I’ve Seen That Movie Too”, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a double album which pretty much delivered an open challenge to any act of the era to try and match it. And no one could. It is that rare thing of a studio-based double album that is worth every minute of the time spent listening to it, aside from the disastrous attempt at reggae.
Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy
Effectively the final Elton John album in a sequence of unarguable classics (or at least it is if you choose to ignore the lumpy Caribou which precedes it), Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy is another quasi-concept album, and one which autobiographically covers the pre-fame years of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. It’s a rather grandiose release, and sometimes even laboured, but it also represents the last stand of the Elton John Band, at least for the next few years. While some songs can sound a little bloated, that’s seemingly only because of the amount of care that was nurtured upon them, and really you can’t argue with any album that includes a song like “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
Greatest Hits 1970-2002
Simply put, there are far too many Elton John compilations on the market, and almost all of them do pretty much the same thing. While 1970-75 were the glory years, Elton John has had fleeting moments of greatness since then as well, with songs like “I’m Still Standing” and “I Want Love” demonstrating that he and Taupin can still have moments of pop songwriting genius when the muse hits them, and even if you purchase all five of the albums mentioned above, there’s still a lot of classic tracks unaccounted for, which is where a compilation comes in. Of the multitude of Elton John Best Ofs out there Greatest Hits 1970-2002 is one of the better ones, compiling as it does the obvious pop hits and acting as an effective mopping up exercise of notable songs not on his best albums, so you get key tracks like “Your Song”, “Tiny Dancer”, “Crocodile Rock”, “The Bitch is Back” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues”. There’s even a three disc version which includes other tracks of note from throughout his career, including a number of curios, such as his covers of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” and a solid version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, as well as reminding you of such horrors as his collaborations George Michael and (be still my indifference) Blue.