Album of the Week, July 21: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John

EltonGYBRBy 1973, Elton John’s star was clearly ascendant. Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born in Middlesex in 1947. By the age of 15 he was playing piano and singing in pubs. His first band, Bluesology, became the backing group for Long John Baldry. When the band broke up, Dwight partnered with lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1967 as staff songwriters for Dick James; he assumed a new name, honoring his former bandmates Elton Dean and Long John Baldry. The songwriting team was fairly successful and the newly minted Elton John decided to pursue his own career with his lyrical partner. From 1969 to 1972, he recorded seven albums and released a number of singles with good success in the UK and US. Both Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player went to #1 on the Album chart and Crocodile Rock from the latter became his first US chart-topping single. In May 1973, he went to Jamaica to work on his next album, taking a stack of lyrics from Taupin. Circumstances on the island were not conducive to recording, so he took his music back to France, where he had recorded his last two discs and created a tour de force.

Title Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Act Elton John
Label RCA Release Date Oct. 5, 1973
Producer Gus Dudgeon
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #1
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]

Disc One

  1. Funeral For A Friend /
    Love Lies Bleeding
  2. Candle In the Wind
  3. Bennie and the Jets [#1]
  4. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road [#2]
  5. This Song Has No Title
  6. Grey Seal
  7. Jamaica Jerk-Off
  8. I’ve Seen That Movie Too

Disc Two

  1. Sweet Painted Lady
  2. The Ballad of Danny Bailey
  3. Dirty Little Girl
  4. All the Girls Love Alice
  5. Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock’n’Roll)
  6. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting [#12]
  7. Roy Rogers
  8. Social Disease
  9. Harmony

By this point, Elton John had worked consistently with producer Gus Dudgeon and lyricist Bernie Taupin. His backing band — guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson — were a cohesive unit at this point, perfectly attuned to his singing and keyboard work. They settled in for a few days and quickly created nearly two dozen songs, eighteen of which made it onto his masterpiece. While not truly a concept album, it focuses clearly on nostalgia, often using metaphors drawn from cinema.

Funeral For A Friend is a sweeping anthem that John composed while considering what he might want played at his own funeral. The synthesizer lead was unusual for the time, creating a nearly prog-rock feel. It segues into the boisterous Love Lies Bleeding, an angry breakup song that uses funeral imagery fitting nicely with the opening instrumental. Clocking in at eleven minutes, this opener sets the cinematic tone for the rest of the album and shows off Elton and his band at their best.

Candle In the Wind is a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, later redone as an ode to Princes Diana. It’s a bittersweet song that avoids being maudlin, a wonderful celebration of the actress and a look at the pressures stardom that would prove eerily prophetic for John as the decade progressed. The next track is an ode to a fictional star, Bennie and the Jets. Proving that silly can be successful, the track became John’s second #1 in the US. It’s a great rocker, showing off his piano work to great effect and celebrating show business with tongue-in-cheek delight.

The title track comes next. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is one of Taupin’s best lyrics and Elton provided the perfect music for it. Looking at the tradeoffs made on the path to success, it completes the opening section of the album brilliantly. It also features some of his best singing and is one of the finest singles in an illustrious career.

The witty This Song Has No Title comes next, a lovely celebration of the power of music. Grey Seal follows nicely. It’s a look at heroism that forms a nice dyad with This Song, both celebrating the power of the human spirit. Jamaica Jerk-Off is a knock-off novelty inspired by the album’s origins. A well-crafted bit of fun, it celebrates the sound of the islands and provides some musical diversity.

The first disc of the original vinyl ends with the centerpiece of the album, I’ve Seen That Movie Too. The most explicit expression of the cinematic themes of the album, it’s one of John’s best songs. Building slowly, he dismantles a broken relationship using theatrical images as a perfect backdrop.

Disc two opens with a set of character sketches. Sweet Painted Lady is a charming ode to a hooker with a heart of gold. The Ballad of Danny Bailey celebrates the life of a fictional gangster in stunning pop-operatic style. Both harken to John and Taupin’s fondness for Americana, especially outlaws and the old west. Dirty Little Girl dismantles the celebration of Sweet Painted Lady,  looking at the darker aspects of the profession. All the Girls Love Alice is a more specific depiction of a young lesbian trading on her looks. This quartet of songs is powerful, showing Taupin’s skill as a lyricist (and avoiding his occasional overblown mystery) and underscored by John’s great music and amazing vocals.

Your Sister Can’t Twist is another knock-off, a fun if insubstantial song that evokes the era of American Bandstand. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting picks up that theme and darkens it. Taupin set it in a pub from his youth, and the song does a great job of capturing the perilous side of youthful exuberance. The pair of songs works well together, demonstrating how this much talent can take apparent fluff and make something powerful out of it.

Roy Rogers is another overt cinematic celebration. A nostalgic look at the simple heroism that never truly was, it’s a fine song delivered lovingly. Social Disease is a white trash anthem, letting the band cut loose and have a bit of fun.

The album ends, fittingly, with Harmony, an ode to music and a celebration of human spirit. It was intended as the final single from the album, but Elton was so prolific that his next disc was ready to go, so it remained unreleased. It’s a beautiful song and another perfect vocal, capping off a fantastic musical journey in high style.

FURTHER LISTENING: Sir Elton ruled the 1970s, following up this album with four more #1s including one of the biggest greatest hits albums ever and the first album to debut at #1 on the Billboard Album chart. He’s the #1 Billboard artist of the 1970s and in the Top 10 of the following two decades. As a master of the rock single, much of his best work is captured on his variety of greatest hits compilations. The four-disc To Be Continued… is a great single collection, highlighting his biggest hits and some great albums tracks. His work in the 70s was remarkable, and Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy are all solid albums. Of his later work, 1983’s Too Low For Zero is easily his strongest.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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