Record Of The Week # 98

Elton John (Eponymous)

We all go a long way back with Reginald Kenneth Dwight. This second release saw the light in 1970. This was his first release in the USA. For an artist I now wouldn’t pretend to carry much of a torch for I’ve got 19 of his albums! My interest started with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and probably finished with 1983’s I’m Still Standing. Now well into his 70s he’s still touring, Covid allowing, but from what I’ve heard the voice has developed a ‘shout’ quality that takes away much of the sweetness and melody that made so many of his songs compelling. I saw him live once, at Manchester’s MEN Arena. It was November 1998. We’d driven across from Yorkshire and shelled out for expensive tickets. He strode on stage uttered something about never playing Manchester again because of something that had happened. He then proceeded to bash through a set without any breaks or talking to the crowd and then stormed off. Lovely. 

Inevitably he’s scheduled to be there again in 2021. So he’s a man prone to tantrums and rudeness but a man who has been awarded a Knighthood for his services to charity and music. However, to complain he has one would necessitate dragging others into the conversation such as Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison and Ray Davies of The Kinks: all of whom mystify me with their eligibility (and why not Mick Fleetwood?) But back to the plot there’s no doubt that he had a brilliant decade where the quality of tunes and Bernie Taupin’s words made for a staggering body of work. Out of his early catalogue I didn’t own this until 2020’s Record Store Day. The special release was a double with the second disc being of unimpressive and disposable outtakes. However the first album makes it worth the purchase. When you add, for the collector, transparent purple vinyl what’s not to like?

It starts with “Your Song” and it is one of the most attractive and sincere love songs I know.  A self-deprecating reflection on a girl he’s besotted with. For one of Taupin’s earliest classics there are some dodgy lyrics that you’ve all sang a thousand times but never thought about: “If I was a sculptor, but then again no / Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show”. 

The whole album is driven by John’s piano. The arrangements sound dated now. It’s drenched in strings and even a harpsichord gets an outing on “I Need You To Turn To”. “Take Me To The Pilot” borders on doggerel as a lyric – “Through a glass eye, your throne / Is the one danger zone” but the honky tonk piano that drives the song is perfectly complimented by the insistent message of ‘take me to your leader’. On later versions not least his live album recorded later in the year in New York (Elton John Live 17:11:70) he really rocks this and ditches the saccharine strings.

In an era when the genre of ‘singer songwriter’ was originated with the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Jim Croce et al this has many heartfelt simply accompanied songs such as “First Episode at Hienton”. (A quick Google Maps search finds nowhere in the world named Hienton!) A love song about a relationship that started in childhood but failed as she grew to be a woman. Seems perfect ‘bedsit’ material for fellow miserablists Cat Stevens or James Taylor. 

“Sixty Years On” is a classic but the album standout where the strings and choral backing works to perfection is “Border Song”. A killer tune drive by his large and hard played chords and that is tinged by gospel. It therefore comes as little of a surprise that Aretha Franklin covered this in 1972. This must have been a significant boost to help John get a wider audience so early in his career. “The Cage’ keeps up the soul with a heavy dose of pop. For consistency the album is solid and provided a wonderful foundation for the next gems of Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water and Honky Château.

A classic.

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