Elton John: Justified by 75

As he dances into his golden years with a long goodbye tour, Captain Fantastic remains as vital as ever

Artwork for the 1991 Elton John box set To Be Continued (Image: Discogs)

In the midst of the long goodbye of a farewell tour, Elton John said “Hello” again in 2021.

“Cold Heart”, a duet with Dua Lipa, in a remix produced by Australian dance trio Pnau, became John’s first bonafide pop hit here in the U.S. in decades. Peaking at No. 7, it was the first Top 10 hit for him since “Something In The Way You Look Tonight/Candle In The Wind 97” charted 24 years prior. It gave John a number one hit in his sixth decade in the UK.

As a result, John, who topped the singles chart in 14 countries with “Cold Heart”, became the oldest artist to ever top that chart in some of those countries, like Australia. As far as I can tell, he became the oldest to have a Top 10 hit here, as Louis Armstrong was 62 when “Hello Dolly” hit No. 1 in May 1964.

It certainly didn’t hit to collaborate with a current young pop star who also headlines arenas and to do so in a modern dance pop setting.

 

VIDEO: Elton John with Dua Lipa “Cold Heart”

But it also shows that John, who turns 75 on March 25th, is capable of adaptability and surprise even as he continues a farewell tour. It also serves as a reminder that the pop smarts of John,especially when teamed with co-writer Bernie Taupin, endure.

Think about this. What were you doing in 1970? Or, if you didn’t exist yet, what were your parents or grandparents doing then? That’s the year John first stepped into the spotlight.

It’s the year of John’s legendary Troubadour shows in L.A. (his first star turn). His second and third albums, his first to become hits, were released. And it was the first time he cracked the American Top 40.

“Your Song”, the classic ballad off his self-titled second album, was released as a single that fall.

It hit the 40 at the end of the year, eventually spending three weeks at No. 8 when the chart was being topped by Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” and the Osmonds’ literal Jackson 5 reject “One Bad Apple.”

 

VIDEO: Elton John performs “Your Song” on Top of the Pops 1971

When “Cold Heart” peaked, it was in a Top 10 including the likes of Doja Cat, Ed Sheeran, Lil Nas X & Jack Harlow and topped by Adele’s “Easy On Me,” a top 10 where the average age of the lead singers was 27.

“Your Song” would kickstart a hit-filled and tumultuous decade for John — all but one of 12 albums reaching the top 10, including six in a row at No. 1, 24 top 40 hits (16 of those Top 10), a breakup of his artistic relationship with Taupin, the burnout and the negative effects of drug and alcohol addiction that would remain until he got sober in 1990.

And so, with all due respect to the successes, commercially and artistically that happened later on, it’s the 1970s where the focus will remain here.

“Hold me closer, tiny dancer…”, an Elton John classic. A surefire hit, right? Well, it never even cracked the Top 40. That’s the kind of run we’re talking about.

And so it was with the self-titled album at first. “Border Song”, the first single, did nothing. Aretha Franklin, went all-in on its gospel flavors later that year and had the light chart hit (it would also earn a place on her classic Young, Gifted and Black album).

 

VIDEO: Elton John “Border Song” (Live on BBC)

But debuting in the 40 that same week, one spot below Aretha’s cover, would be “Your Song.”

While the John/Taupin team had stepped up their songwriting, the success of “Your Song” revealed another good move — bringing in Paul Buckmaster to do the orchestral arrangements.

One can’t picture “Your Song” without them, tastefully atmospheric without sinking into pure schmaltz.

Even when Buckmaster’s arrangements were less subtle over the years, well, bear in mind they were in service of ambitious songs from a pop tunesmith who had started wearing enough sparkles, glitter and similar accoutrements onstage to be a Wayland Flowers character.

Producer Gus Dudgeon, who worked with John for all but his final two albums in the decade, was no small part of the equation, either, as John often trusted him to assemble the final mixes himself.

Surrounding himself with talent wasn’t limited to the string arrangements and production. By 1971, John’s band had its key core of drummer Nigel Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone and bassist Dee Murray, who also supplied crucial harmonies. Percussionist Ray Cooper would appear a couple years later. 

This wasn’t an E Street Band situation — John would change his backing more than once. Olsson and Murray would both be fired in 1975, rehired in 1980, then fired again in 1984 (Olsson’s been a permanent member again since 2000 while Murray died in 1992).

Regardless, John always had capable musical backing for his and Taupin’s ambitions. See his second album of 1970 — Tumbleweed Connection, which indulged Taupin’s fascination with America and the imagery in the myth of the American West. John’s soulful singing and playing keeps the ambition grounded. Even though there weren’t any singles from it, it remains one of his best albums with a couple of stone cold classics in “Amoreena” and “Burn Down the Mission.”

 

 

1971’s Madman Across The Water, in a way, combines the approaches of its predecessors. It may not have the widescreen sweep of Tumbleweed, but it applies its sense of ambition to the more singer-songwriterly  feel of Elton John. It’s still theatrical, but darker and more introspective. If not everything lands (“Indian Sunset” is rather clunky, cringeworthy and long), it contains plenty of highlights, not just the more well-known “Levon”, “Tiny Dancer” and title track, but deeper cuts like the character piece “Razor Face” and the dip into the gospel-flavored well again with “All the Nasties.”

A few years in and John was establishing himself as the sum of all his influences — blues, country, gospel, old-time barrelhouse,  straight-ahead rock and roll, the baroque and the grounded.

By the time of 1972’s Honky Chateau, Johnson was finally allowed to record with his core road band, rather than having to restrict the number of tracks he could record with them. 

The difference shows as the material sounds more cohesive through the different styles. It’s not just in the hits “Honky Cat” and “Rocket Man”, but in “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself”, its darkness made even darker by the juxtaposition of the lyrics against the disarmingly chipper music,  and the utterly beautiful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”, a ballad that’s arguably the best shoulda-been-a-single of his career.

John and Taupin kept up the prolific pace with two more albums in 1973, starting with Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.

“Daniel”, another one of John’s classic ballads,this time about a man returning home from the Vietnam War. Its flute opening, played on Mellotron, remains recognizable and nickable (as on the opening of Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby”, on the short list of most execrable No. 1 songs ever, did a year later).

Likewise, “Crocodile Rock” remains a fun take on ’50s rock-and-roll. The rocker “Elderberry Wine” (another missed opportunity for a single), the strutting “I’m Gonna Be a Teenage Idol” and the “Blues For My Baby and Me” plays like an intended epic album closer, even though it’s sequenced earlier.

Elton at Dodger Stadium statue (Image: Entertainment Earth)

Don’t Shoot Me did, however, feel a bit padded and inconsistent, something that John’s even longer follow-up managed to improve on despite its massive length.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is, simply put, one of the best double albums of all-time, an often dazzling showcase for the writing, performance and diversity of styles for John as he goes even farther as a Capital-S Showman.

The album’s loaded with classics. There’s the FM rock standard epic “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, followed by the heartfelt tribute to Marilyn Monroe and keen-eyed take on celebrity that is “Candle In the Wind.” Even with more overtly soul-influenced songs in his catalog, it was the lightly cynical take on the music business “Bennie and the Jets” that cracked the R&B Top 20) as well as being a pop hit. “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” is the sound of John & Co. committing to a rocker to a degree they hadn’t before — power chords, emphatic piano, deftly stomping rhythm section and nary a “what the hell did Taupin mean?” line in the lyrics. 

Then there’s the title track, a classic breakup song that John delivers with arguably his finest vocal performance, especially in that soaring, swooping wordless wail in the bridge that feels more like the chorus than the actual chorus does. In retrospect, it can definitely be read as a queer breakup song, altough John was still a couple of years away from the breakup of his first serious gay releationship — with his manager John Reid.

Where Goodbye Yellow Brick Road stands out to its predecessors is in the depth and quality of the album cuts. Taupin himself admits to having no idea what “Grey Seal,” which dated back to the self-titled sessions is about, but between the evocative turns of phrase and intensely locked-in performance it represents one of John’s best pop songs. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is a sad, bluesy torch song. “All The Girls Love Alice” ups the queer ante, albeit with the tropes of a young sex worker and the Bury Your Gays trope. “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)” is an underrated return to Tumbleweed territory. “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll)” is a more pastiche take on the ’50s than “Crocodile” (but still fun). The aptly titled “Harmony” wraps things up beautifully.

In short, it’s an album where you could take off the hits and it would STILL sound like an album full of hits that’s one of John’s best.

 

VIDEO: Elton John “The Bitch Is Back” Live at Dodger Stadium 

1974’s Caribou was an admitted rush job, recorded in nine days before a tour of Japan. It represented a  dip in quality and consistency, but still offered some highlights — “The Bitch Is Back” is “Saturday Night’s Alright” 2.0, only gayer, with a bit of false advertising (“stone cold sober, as a matter of fact” he was emphatically not). “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” is another terrific John/Taupin, this time augmented by the Tower of Power Horns and backing harmonies from a group that included the likes of Carl Wilson and Toni Tennille. “Dixie Lily” would have fit in nicely on Tumbleweed while “Pinky” is perfectly lovely. But the ratio of filler on the non-hits is way too high.

A couple of non-album hit singles followed — the soaring “Philadelphia Freedom”, in which the string-laden soul coming from the likes of Philadelphia International gets the John/Taupin treatment and a cover of “Lucy in the Sky”, featuring John Lennon, in which sequins and glitter have replaced acid as the drug of choice. Bizarre and pointless faux reggae bit at the 3:30 mark aside, it’s fine.

With the place holders out of the way, John’s next absolute classic was ready — 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. It’s John’s first concept album since Tumbleweed and the focus suits him very well.

There was only one single — the autobiographical hit “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, about his failed suicide attempt and his inability to get out of a pending marriage to a woman (he was realizing he was gay by this point) until his friends, Long John Baldry in particular, talked him out it. The emotional ballad, which John refused to edit down to a more radio-friendly length, became a Top 10 hit anyway.

Bally’s Captain Fantastic pinball machine art (Image: eBay)

Captain Fantastic is both greater than the sum of its parts and chock full of great parts. The lack of additional singles had as much to do with the ongoing cranking of product, between the non-album hits prior and another album coming out before the year’s end.

It all fits seamlessly, with not a disposable song in sight as the John-centric and Taupin-centric songs are spaced perfectly. 

The title track sets the table nicely with its storytelling  and deft soft-loud dynamics, what follows is some of everything — from the melodic drama of “Tower of Babel” to punchy “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket” to soulful groove “Tell Me When The Whistle Blows” to the stick-in-your-brain theatrical pop of “Bitter Fingers” and more.

This is John and Taupin at their most consistent peak as writers, infused with melancholy as in the closing 1-2 punch of the intimately gorgeous “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” into the soaring goodbye of “Curtains.”

It’s also, sadly, the final go-round for the classic Elton John Band lineup, as all of the key players had a palpable chemistry that enabled them to take things where John and Taupin wanted to go. It’s thoughtful professionalism played with passion and skill.

John was so prolific and so commercially successful to this point, one had to wonder how much longer he could keep it up.

The bottom had to fall out sometime, right? Well, meet John’s second album of 1975, Rock of the Westies, the pothole after mostly cruising all the way until and through Captain Fantastic.

This is the point, even more so than Caribou, where one wishes John had said “No” to recording another album and “yes” to some time off.

 

AUDIO: Elton John “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)”

It’s not a terrible album, by any means. The poignant “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)” is an underrated ballad. “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” is a perfectly serviceable, if less intense rocker. “Street Kids” works a steady album rock groove. “Billy Bones and the White Bird” is where John does the requisite Bo Diddley rip for artists of his generation. “Island Girl”, the one hit, is catchy enough, although one wishes Taupin had taken another pass or five at the lyrics.

In the end, Rock of the Westies just isn’t as focused or consistent as its best predecessors, partly due to the changes in his band.

Rather than take a break, John went back to the double-album well for Blue Moves in 1976, a double album that’s more of a slog than Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road.

John’s romantic relationship with Reid was at an end. He’d been on a relentless recording and touring pace for six years. His substance abuse wasn’t helping matters.

The downward mindstate is reflected in the poignantly weary and intimate “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word”,which seems to waft in over empty glasses of wine in a Parisian bar at midnight.

The album as a whole is lusher and darker. “Tonight”, which aches even more than “Sorry”, feels like the centerpiece for an Elton John jukebox musical. “Cage the Songbird” is “Candle in the Wind, Pt. 2”, this time about Edith Piaf. “Idol” adds some swing to the balladry.

It’s not all ballads. After flirting with gospel feel on previous songs, John finally brought in actual gospel singers for “Boogie Pilgrim” — Rev. James Cleveland directing the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist and the Southern California choirs. It pays dividends.

“Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)” is an underrated string-drenched rocker with Cooper throwing in enough percussion to make it sound like he’s auditioning for Santana in 1970.

Still, it doesn’t connect as often and too many songs could have used some editing to cut down on the runtime.

John, finally, took a break. He didn’t release an album for over a whole year, returning with A Single Man in 1978.

It’s the first album after the break in the John/Taupin partnership, which wouldn’t resume for good until the 1983 comeback Too Low For Zero. 

Working primarily with lyricist Gary Osborne, A Single Man feels like a retreat to his early ’70s works, but despite some pleasant melodies, it all feels muted. Most ballads never quite take off. The intensity is lacking in what would have been the more soul- and rock-oriented efforts. John’s piano playing is terrific throughout.

There are some good songs here — “Georgia” is a lighter-waver (that’s what used to get waved before cell phones long ago, kids). “Big Dipper” has a welcome strut. “Part Time Love” got undeservedly lost in the chart shuffle that year.

“Shine on Through,” a lovely spare ballad, was the lone track to make it to the album from a missed opportunity.

It came from sessions that John did with Bell, who had a hand in classics for the Stylistics, Delfonics and the Spinners. The sessions, sadly, didn’t result in a full album.

The complete sessions, released in 1989, show strong hints at what could have been, with lots of stellar Philly talent backing John. “Shine on Through” is way more joyous and soulful here.  “Nice and Slow” is a nifty Bell rearrangement of an existing John/Taupin track. The highlight remains the “make you dance” midtempo of “Mama Can’t Buy You Love”. It was a deserved hit single, written by Philadelphia International staff writers Leroy Bell and Casey James, who’d have a hit as performers themselves the following year with “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night)”

In all, there’s no doubt that a full Elton Does Philadelphia soul album would have been a far better way for him to end his best decade than he actually did.

This brings us to 1979’s Victim of Love.

Where to start? Nobody thought to tell John, “Excuse me, sir. But a disco cover of “Johnny B. Goode” is probably not a good idea.” But, nope. Not only that, it’s the lead track.

In the annals of popular music history, there have been some painfully inessential albums from essential artists. Think Velvet Underground’s Squeeze or The Clash’s Cut The Crap. But unlike those albums, which had crucial people missing, John was present.

“Present” is a relative term. Producer Pete Bellotte approached John to do a disco record and John unwisely accepted. As you might guess from the Bell sessions (or even “Philadelphia Freedom”), disco wasn’t the problem. The problem is the choice of collaborator. John provided vocals, but did none of the writing. That’s one thing if you’re ceding the writing to people from Philadelphia International. It’s another when you’re mistakenly working with Bellotte instead of his former production partner Giorgio Moroder. 

 

 

The only salvageable moment is the title track, which is just dynamic enough to make you wish Donna Summer were singing it. That’s it.

And lest you think I’m being too harsh or grading on too sharp of a curve, John himself quickly moved on from the scene of the crime, never playing any songs from Victim of Love live.

It was a rather unfortunate end to a decade in which John had turned multiple styles into pop gold, able to merge the over-the-top theatricality with cynical wit and heartfelt honesty. It’s not easy pulling off sincerity while dressed up as a human peacock or as Minnie Mouse.

From there, it wasn’t long that John resumed his partnership with Taupin, a wise move that continues to this day. Even when Taupin’s lyrics don’t make the most sense (“Hunting a horny back toad”?!?!?), John gives them the melody and conviction to make them work. Before synergy became an eyeroll-inducing corporate term, it fit the pairing perfectly — Taupin, who could come up with the words but was not a performer and John, a melody machine who, by his own account, was not a good lyricist.

John finally achieved lasting sobriety in 1990, which helped him be comfortable in moving his sexuality from open secret to open. It also helped him to be a  more stable partner. He’s been in a relationship with husband David Furnish since 1993 and now a father, a life far removed from the days being fueled by cocaine and alcohol and being the target of homophobic and shockingly invasive tabloids.

He’s continued to produce albums ranging from merely okay (nothing as low as Victim of Love, though 1986’s Leather Jackets comes close) to pretty good (Songs From the West Coast and Peachtree Road) since 1980, complete with a few comebacks. But with all due respect to the quality output he has managed over the last 40-plus years, John’s ’70s output remains the most consistent and respected part of his massive canon.

Even if John is mostly looking forward these days (listening only to the older material mostly to refresh his memory for the farewell shows), 1970s Elton John is mostly a really good place to visit, be it for the first time or the 100th.

In a decade where multiple artists were consistently producing the best work of their careers– Neil Young, Al Green, David Bowie and especially Stevie Wonder, John’s work stands with them.

Even so, as “Cold Heart” shows, the newly 75-year-old John, with that line in “The Bitch Is Back” no longer false advertising and ever-interested in new music, ain’t done yet.

 

VIDEO: Elton John “Tiny Dancer”

 

 

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