Looking back at the Rocketman’s first middle age offering that ushered in his 1980s
When the descriptively titled 21 at 33 was released on May 13, 1980, many critics complained that Elton John had passed his peak.
Once the international wunderkind responsible for hit after hit along with any number of classic albums, John was indeed in a creative nadir. His previous album, the ill-conceived Victim of Love, was a mishmash of disco and synthesized set-ups that represented the worst selling album of his career up until then. The album that followed, The Fox, was similarly shunned, perhaps because it contained a pair of songs recorded but ultimately rejected for 21 at 33.
That said, 21 at 33 was clearly the best of that bunch. Taking its title from the fact that Elton had turned 33 and released 21 albums in just over a decade, it bode some promise early on. While none of its songs would prove to have the lasting appeal of any of his earlier classics, one track in particular, the elegiac and endearing “Little Jeanie” managed to climb to the upper reaches of the charts, helping to restore John’s pop prominence at the same time. Another, a ballad bearing the longwinded title “Sartorial Eloquence (Don’t Ya Wanna Play This Game No More?)” did modestly well in adult contemporary realms, although it peaked prior to making any real impact.
Even so, it was clear John was no longer the outrageous amalgam of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and any number of glam rocker wannabes, but instead a middle of the road piano man whose audience had mellowed with maturity. Not that he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — rock; several of the songs — “Chasing the Crown,” “Two Rooms at the End of the World” and the tellingly titled “White Lady White Powder” (this was the height of disco decadence after all) — found him pounding the keys with the same veracity as before. Nevertheless, it was the beauty of his ballads, as represented by “Little Jeannie,” “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” and the easy and amiable “Take Me Back” the helped sustain his enduring appeal.
Likewise, the fact that John was tapping the talents of other co-writers — Gary Osborne, Tom Robinson and Judy Tzukie all subbed for Bernie Taupin, who was represented on less than half of the album’s entries — might account for some of the inconsistency. Likewise, given that it boasted only nine songs offered proof that his prolific prowess was in short supply. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, several of the other songs recorded during these sessions had to be rebooted on other albums.
Nevertheless, the album did moderately well sales-wise, achieving gold status in several countries worldwide, even though it failed to make the top ten in either the U.S. or the U.K.
VIDEO: Elton John at Central Park 1980
Although longtime guitarist and ongoing sideman Davey Johnstone was absent from the mix, two other former members of the Elton John Band, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, were back in action. At the same time, Elton enlisted an astonishing array of high profile guest stars, including Eagles Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmitt, Herman’s Hermits’ Peter Noone, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, ace guitarist Steve Lukather and such distinguished singers and instrumentalists as Bill Champlin, Byron Berline. Curt Boetcher, Jim Horn, James Newton-Howard, Reggie McBride, and Alvin Taylor. If their efforts failed to lift the album to the dizzying heights of earlier Elton efforts, at least it wasn’t due to lack of talent.
Ultimately then, while 21 at 33 didn’t match the success that John achieved early on, it did show that he still had enough strength and stamina left to create a worthy reminder of those earlier glories.
It may not have been the artistic milestone its title might have otherwise measured, but even so, four decades on, it can still provide a welcome return.