At this stage, Elton John has been famous for close to half a century. He has countless hits that still get played on the radio and are instantly recognisable. The other day, I saw a bus stop ad for his latest Australian tour. It’ll undoubtedly sell out, if it hasn’t already, and his ubiquity will be proven once again. He might go through phases of being cool, lame, campily ciche, and deeply respected, but he will seemingly never go away.
Through all of that, I have never once in my life consciously decided to listen to an Elton John song, let alone an entire album. There’s seemingly no need, because an Elton John song will find you soon enough, whether you like it or not. But seeing that tour poster made me realise that he’s too much of a part of music and pop history for me to have never listened to an entire album. So, based purely on it being the most recognisable album title in his vast discography, I dived into Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Even more of a piano man than the piano man, Billy Joel, I was surprised to hear the opening of the instrumental Funeral for a Friend so dominated by wailing guitars and a cheap organ. But it storms in with a vengeance in Love Lies Bleeding. Added to the solid drumming and squealing guitars, this is really cool, really catchy rock music. And it makes me realise that I’ve always subconsciously know that this is what Elton John does.
And while the melodious piano is instantly recognisable on Candle in the Wind, it didn’t make me immediately want to vomit like I expected. The overly sentimental re-recording for Princess Diana in the 90s had me desensitised to this song. That version, and the context of its existence, just seemed so on the nose. But hearing the original here, about a woman John never knew, who was already long dead when this was made, somehow seems so much more genuine and heartfelt.
I don’t know if the version of Bennie and the Jets on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is live, or just recorded and mixed to sound live, but the audience applause and several lo-fi instrumental additions really make it sound that little bit more immediate and real. Whereas the studio polish and layers of production are what make the title track just as genuine, only in a different, more tender way.
Ever since I heard it, my favourite Elton John song hasn’t even been an Elton John song. His version of The Who’s Pinball Wizard from Tommy is one of the best pop / rock songs ever committed to tape. So when I heard the Tommy-esque jauntiness in the intro of Grey Seal, I was immediately pumped. And while it doesn’t quite hit Tommy levels of fun, it’s wahed out guitar and dancing piano come pretty bloody close.
If you’re a fan of Jamaican music, you’d probably be as offended by Jamaican Jerk-Off as a song as a Sunday school teacher would be by its title. It’s such a tone deaf, broad strokes version of Jamaican music, that it sounds more like a cheap commercial jingle than a song by one of music’s most successful artists, on one of his most successful albums. Or maybe I’m taking this song too seriously, and the title is John’s admission that it’s nothing more than tossed off filler.
If Pinball Wizard is the best Elton John song Elton John never wrote, the title for best Elton John song Elton did actually write undisputedly goes to Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. And if you don’t agree with that, I hope you enjoy being a dumb asshole.
A double album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in not short. But that’s OK. It’s also not very wide ranging in its sound musical styles. But that’s OK too. It’s a thin line between everything sounding boringly the same and everything sounding confidently consistent. Elton John definitely mastered the latter on this album. Some songs may be similar to others, but that similarity just made me want more. Except Jamaican Jerk-Off. That’s just out right terrible. And luckily, there’s nothing else consistent with that on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.