Top selling musicians these days have it easy. The average recording artist is expected to release a new album once every two years, maybe one a year if they are a new artist. Back in the early 70s it was a given that at least one album a year was the acceptable rate, that way if you didn’t like one album, then there’d be another along in another twelve months time. It would cause most big acts of today to choke on their over-sized royalty payments to realise that in the early 70s Elton John was putting out two high-quality albums a year. From Tumbleweed Connection through to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John released a string of five albums that still stand up to close scrutiny today. To put it mildly this kind of work rate is nothing short of astonishing and given that the strongest of the five is one of the best double albums ever released only underlines the achievement. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road found Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin at the top of their game, with phenomenally successful parallel careers on both the single and album charts.
While normally a double album would indicate overconfidence and too little good stuff spread too thinly, that’s definitely not the case here. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is bursting with ideas, influences and styles. A smorgasboard of rock and pop goodness it covers prog-rock, ballads, pure pop, glam-rock, show tunes, hard rock even a feeble attempt at reggae.
It opens with the frankly astonishing pairing of “Funeral For A Friend / Love Lies Bleeding”, the first part being a dramatic instrumental of Wagneresque proportions which condenses everything great about prog-rock into five minutes and leaves out the rubbish bits, meanwhile the second half is a blistering rocker reflecting on a failed relationship. Between them they make up the most breathtaking opening track on any of Elton John’s albums. It’s a style that he would not attempt again, but then again given that he got it so right the first time, he probably realised there was no way he could top it.
After that the album cleverly changes pace entirely with “Candle In The Wind”, a song whose impact has lessened due to it’s over familiarity and the fact that it has been regurgitated so many times. From here on in just about every style that Elton John had attempted previously is touched upon and generally improved, from the thrilling layered keyboards of “Grey Seal”, to the stately elegance of “I’ve Seen That Movie Too”, to the raucious rocking of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. Now when an artists attempts so many changes in style over even a double album, you expect at least a couple of duds, but not here. Elton John, Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson and especially Davey Johnstone nail almost everything perfectly. Johnstone rarely receives credit for his fine guitar work, but here he is in such fine form that in places he outshines Elton’s piano work.
There are few albums that I can name that can match the consistent quality of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the fact that this is achieved over a double album makes the achievement even more astounding. This is the sound of the former Reg Dwight claiming his place among the greats and playing on no one elses terms except his.