Tuesday, 17 September 2013
100 LPs Shortlist #36: Elton John - "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
Elton John presents a new LP of original material this week, his 31st overall, called "The Diving Board". I've decided to take a look at an older album of his that happens to be a favourite of mine.
This album is considered a classic, and for my money it is the best record he has ever done. This was certainly the high point of his career thus far and, after this, it's pretty clear that he was overworked as the quality of his output suffered considerably.
You see, when he was signed to a record deal with publisher Dick James' label, he was contracted to deliver two albums a year. From 1969 until 1977, a year when he didn't release any new material at all, he issued two live albums, a soundtrack, a hits compilation as well as a stack of studio albums and singles. All told, in that period, he made 15 albums, and two of those were double LPs of original material. In anyone's language, that's a hell of a workload, something that has been unparalleled in the modern era.
Surprisingly most of it is of a high standard. But this is arguably the peak of it.
Growing up in a relatively sheltered cultural environment, I'd heard the big singles the man released in the early 1980s, and I loved them ("Kiss The Bride", "I'm Still Standing", "Passengers" et al) and a schoolfriend of mine was a huge Elton fan and was collecting all his albums on CD. That was no mean feat, considering that CD collecting was an expensive exercise in the late 1980s, and that there were so many of his albums to collect.
He was talking about this song on the album that went for 11 minutes called "Funeral For A Friend". Fascinated by long songs I asked to hear it. He recorded the entire "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" onto a cassette for me to check out. Sure enough, I loved the entire album.
So what's within the covers?
This was always available on double vinyl, but in the CD era, it was a double CD until Sony revised the specs of the technology to allow 80 minutes of playing time on each disc, instead of the basic 74. As this album is 76+ minutes, it had to be a double. The 1995 reissue corrects this and now makes it a single album.
On this album is 17 songs, starting off with the double barreled "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding". Yes it does go for 11 full minutes and there's nary a boring second among them. The first half of the song is an emotional rollercoaster of whooping dynamics. It accelerates and decelerates rapidly and is full of surprises. The latter half, "Love Lies Bleeding" is a comedown of sorts, but it still a highly charged and energetic one. The energy doesn't let up until the final fade out.
After that, the album is top-loaded with classics. The original "Candle In The Wind" is next. And I make the distinction of "original" because this version is far superior to the tawdry navel-gazing and confected tributes of the Princess Diana version. The faux-live "Benny and the Jets" is amazing in the fact that is sounds live, but is far from it. We all know the title track is gorgeous, followed by "This Song Has No Title" which is gorgeous and suspenseful in alternate parts. A stunning track. "Grey Seal" ups the power and again but the Cod-reggae of "Jamaica Jerk-off" is a let down, especially after the quality we've had thus far.
The first half of the album closes out with "I've Seen That Movie Too", which is the moodier and broodier cousin to the closer in the second half of the album "Harmony", although the latter hits the nail on the head, while the former keeps hitting the fingertips...
Side 3 opens with "Sweet Painted Lady", a melancholy ode to trampy prostitutes, as is "Dirty Little Girl" and "All The Young Girls Love Alice" (you don't need me to tell you what that song is about, but it's quite a risque one for its era). The jewel in the crown of this section of the record is the US gangster character sketch of "The Ballad of Danny Bailey" which, along with "Candle In The Wind", "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", "I've Seen That Movie Too" and "Roy Rogers", are story songs inspired by characters from old American movies.
Side four kicks up the rock with "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll)", a 60s rock-and-roll pastiche not unlike "Crocodile Rock" but a hell of a lot less embarrassing. It also rocks a lot harder too. It forms part of a one-two punch with "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting", a classic rocker if ever there was one. Guitarist Davey Johnstone carves it up on this one, with a guitar riff for the ages. If only he'd turn down the treble control on his amp a little.
"Roy Rogers" is a sweet little remembrance-in-song for a TV cowboy. "Social Disease" carries on the blues-and-booze theme of "Saturday Night..." but with a country twang, and the album closes with the sublime ballad "Harmony".
The term "tour-de-force" is one that is thrown around willy-nilly these days but it seems that in this album we have a work that truly justifies having that label affixed to it. Elton and Bernie never equaled it. They once again tried the wide-screen, all-encompassing sweep across another double album in the form of 1976's "Blue Moves". However that album just serves to demonstrate how over-laboured and overwrought both the songs and production could be, and how it was thought it should be in 1976. What was left is an overblown mess.
Despite a few questionable lyrical decisions on this record, this one is a killer. Take a listen for yourself below.