A new deluxe edition celebrates the release of an early Elton blockbuster
If Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection had been a portrait of America’s mythic past, Madman Across the Water, released in November 1971, was a depiction of America’s present, to the point that some mistakenly thought the “Madman” in the album’s title referred to President Richard Nixon.
Its belated 50th anniversary is being celebrated with a reissue in the usual variety of formats: single album (on blue and white vinyl), two CD set, four LP set, and a super deluxe edition with three CDs, one Blu-ray, a book of liner notes and a poster. All but the single album version feature bonus tracks (18 of them previously unreleased), offering a new perspective on this transitional period in Elton’s career.
Madman was Elton’s first new studio album in a year (Tumbleweed had come out in October 1970, and a few months later in the US). Not that he’d been taking a break; the interim had seen the release of the live 11-17-70 album and his first soundtrack, Friends, in addition to the expanded touring that followed in the wake of his breakthrough success in America in 1970. Once he was able to take a break, Madman marked the first time the classic 1970s lineup of Elton’s musicians — Davey Johnstone (acoustic guitar, mandolin), Dee Murray (bass), Nigel Olsson (drums) — all appeared together on an album. This was the lineup that would lead to a record streak of seven number one albums in the U.S. between 1972 and 1975. Ray Cooper, who would go on to work extensively with Elton, also appears on percussion, as does Rick Wakeman, on the Hammond organ.
All that traveling had provided plenty of new inspiration for the Elton John/Bernie Taupin songwriting team. There are tales of life on the road. “Tiny Dancer” recounts lyricist Taupin’s meeting his first wife and sweeping her along on their rock ’n’ roll adventure. “Holiday Inn” details the boredom of touring when you’re not onstage, moving from one bland hotel room to another. There are snapshots of the United States. Life among the down-and-outers, those left to their own devices on America’s streets, is a subject explored in both “Razor Face” (the homeless), and “Rotten Peaches” (the ex-cons). “Indian Sunset” is a moving piece about the modern plight of Native Americans, matched to music that swells with emotion.
“All the Nasties” was a pushback against the media. The musical backing isn’t entirely successful, a curious mix of plaintive singing during the verses segueing, into overly lush choruses that feature a church choir. The real note of interest in this song are the veiled references to something in Elton’s life that he was keeping hidden; it’s a subtle coming-out song, as Elton later confirmed. “Levon” and the title track are the album’s most anthemic numbers. Producer Gus Dudgeon said the title of the former song was a reference to The Band’s Levon Helm, which Taupin later denied. But the song certainly emulates The Band’s rock/folk/jazz mix. And the “Madman” in the title song appears to be in absolute thrall to his insanity, as illustrated by the dramatic music and Paul Buckmaster’s swirling orchestrations.
It’s something of a surprise to find that “Levon” and “Madman” sound just as robust in the stripped-down piano demo incarnations presented as bonus tracks. In fact, there are piano demos for each of the album’s songs, giving you what’s in effect an alternate version of Madman. It’s essentially an “unplugged” rendition, revealing that the songs are so well-crafted these performances can easily stand as a complete work in their own right.
The bonus tracks also present a live performance done for the BBC, with the band doing all the album’s songs, save for “Rotten Peaches” and “All the Nasties.” There’s a real freshness to this performance, especially as most of the album’s songs weren’t subsequently performed in Elton’s concerts. It’s a sign of just how hard Elton and Bernie were working during this period; they had material to spare.
VIDEO: Elton John “Tiny Dancer”
There’s also an exciting extended version of the title track recorded with Mick Ronson on guitar. It’s a fine, harder rocking rendition, but Elton was dissatisfied with it and re-recorded the track; had he kept it, it definitely would’ve given the final album more of an edge.
Madman Across the Water gave Elton his third Top 10 album in America, though “Tiny Dancer,” released as a single, just missed cracking the Top 40 (the song’s rebirth wouldn’t come until 2000, when it was prominently featured in Cameron Crowe’s love letter to classic rock, Almost Famous). But the album stalled outside the Top 40 in the UK, nor were there any accompanying hit singles. Odd as it may now seem, there was something of a backlash against Elton in England at the time, from those who dismissed him as a pop star who spent too much time currying favor with the Americans. It was a disappointment to Elton, who briefly wondered if he was on the right track: “I thought of quitting. I really thought I’d gone as far as I was going to.”
Little did he know that superstardom was just around the corner. The subsequent wave of success is why Madman Across the Water has tended to be overlooked in an assessment of Elton’s career. But it shows him going from strength to strength, leaving the more fanciful singer-songwriter material of his early albums behind, paving the way for the glories that were to come.
Partly adapted from Elton John @ 75 (Motorbooks) by Gillian G. Gaar