Saturday, February 19, 2011

Re-Visiting Elton John's 1970-1976 Albums

Once upon a time I owned every single Elton John album....the 1st 7 or 8 anyway. In fact, my 1st album purchase was 1972's "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player" when I was 9. Unless you are older than 40 years old (or so), you don't realize how HUGE Elton John was in the 70's. And how great many of his albums truly were (and are). So, as a favor to those of you who don't know where to start with EJ, here is a brief review of each of his 1st few albums. If your collection doesn't contain at least 3 or 4 of these, it is a deficient collection. Rather that go in chronological order, I will assort them from best to "worst."

1. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) - Has definitely aged better than any other EJ album because I would have put this maybe 3rd or 4th if you had asked me to rank these albums in college. The album artwork and liner notes, I am convinced, have lessened the positive impact of this album initially and over the years. I'm not sure I could say that about the artwork of any other album I know of! The band is tighter than ever, instrumentation perfect, production not as over the top, the lyrics are autobiographical so Bernie Taupin can't kill things with his cynicism and triteness, and the melodies are magnificent. And Elton actually sings his ass off for once. The only hesitation I have in giving this album the top rating is the last 2 songs which I find to be pretty weak.

2. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) - Makes the "100 Best Albums of All Time" lists in many publications, and there was a time when I would have told you that it was the best album ever made. The reasons for putting it #2 upon further reflection over the years are as follows: 1. Clearly over-produced 2. Bernie Taupin's ridiculously (and un-necessary) sordid lyrics and subject matters. 3. Too many fillers....I think this should have been a single album.'s difficult to find any fault with the first 7 songs....a must-listen for any music fan before they die. Just the first 7 songs anyway.

3. Elton John (1970) - Tough call here, but the beauty of most of these songs (recorded in a 2 day period with the London Symphony) is too hard to ignore. "Your Song," "Border Song," "I Need You to Turn To," "Take Me to the Pilot" - one could argue that he never again penned songs as lovely as these.

4. Tumbleweed Connection (1970) - The follow-up to the 1st is the favorite Elton John album for many bohemians and gen-Xers - maybe it's the stripped down sound and alt-country feel - who knows? The 2 highlights for me are "Where to Now St. Peter?" and the epic finale 'Burn Down the Mission" which wowed Bob Dylan when he heard Elton play it at the Traubadour Club in L.A. in 1970. Other than that, it's sort of hit and miss for me...I just think some of the songs are way too long and waaaay too dull.

5. Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player (1973) - Wow, does this album have some great, great moments. Of course a lot depends on what you think about the opener "Daniel." I'm not quite sure why this song about a Vietnam vet polarizes folks, but whatever. "Teacher, I Need You" is one of my all-time favorite songs by anybody - maybe the apex of EJ's career. But this is the point where Bernie Taupin's lyrics become a needless distraction, and "Crocodile Rock".....let's just say it hasn't aged well. "High Flying Bird" is a very nice closer.

6. Madman Across the Water (1971) - Since I was 11 I have given this album chance after chance to be great and to grow on me....but after the first 2 classic songs ("Tiny Dancer" and "Levon") the album really drags. The title track is nice, as is "Indian Sunset," but that is IT. Too bad.

7. Honky Chateau (1972) - Y'know, now that I think about it, a very good case could be made to move this up to #4 or #5 on this list. "Honky Cat" and "Rocket Man" are 2 of his very best songs by a mile and that should count for something. It comes down to the "filler" songs I suppose, and I have always found the other songs on here to be depressing over the years. The tragedy here is that I love the sound/vibe/production on Honky Chateau....the last "non-Phil Spector" sounding album of this whole period.

8. Blue Moves (1976) - His last album with producer Gus Dudgeon and the curtain closer on the "Great Era." Completely over-produced....I think Dudgeon used every single knob/track at his availability on this one. the years go on this album has an endearing quality to it - hit and miss to be sure, but I really like a lot of the tunes. It's a double-album, so I'd better like SOME of it! The 1st 2 sides I like actually better than #4-7 on this list! Go figure.

9. Caribou (1974) - The first album after Elton had conquered the universe with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." I was so freaking excited when I put this on the turntable for the first time - first day it came out in fact. "The Bitch Is Back" is fantastic as is the next song "Pinky." "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" - classic. And "Grimsby" is pretty good. But oh my gosh...the rest of it is a complete mess. It gives me a headache.

10. Rock of the Westies (1975) - Elton fires his band for some reason, gets a new one, and decides to rock out. That's 3 strikes by the way. Honestly, there isn't one highlight on here unless you want to count the song about a 6-3" Jamaican hooker - "Island Girl." And yes, that sentence is accurate. A total embarrassment.

That happens to be a whopping 10 albums in 7 years. Amazing.


  1. EJ's output was just shy of the Beatles' in terms of quantity. There was also a live album & an early 1st album, but they don't, understandably, rank. I don't think the quality was nearly as consistent, however. His highs have been very high & his trash was almost always forgotten (or intentionally ignored) for good reason. He's one of the few artists I can think of that a good Greatest Hits gives you all you need- not gonna find hidden gems in the box set. That sounds much more negative than I intend. The good stuff is wonderful on different levels- lyrically, improvisationally, musical texture, etc. Reg Dwight gives us much to think on. Favorite songs of mine: Levon, Don't Let the Sun, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

  2. On the whole, I agree with everything you say bro. He seems to me to be neither over-rated nor under-rated.