Rocket Man: Revisiting Elton John’s Honky Château
A new 50th anniversary deluxe edition offers another perspective on classic LP
Elton John called Honky Château “A really important album for us,” and so it was.
It was the first time the members of his touring band — bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson — became his studio band as well, marking the beginning of a new musical direction for the group. Davey Johnstone was added as a guitarist, relieving John from always having to carry a song’s melody on piano (Johnstone also brought some multi-instrumental skills to the band, playing mandolin and banjo as well). And it was first time John ventured outside the safe, familiar studio environments of London to record an album.
Honky Château is being celebrated in a new 50th anniversary edition, expanded to include session demos and excerpts from John’s February 5, 1972 show at London’s Royal Festival Hall, where the album’s songs received their live debut. It’s always nice to have extras, but it’s the album itself that’s the jewel, enshrining John’s place as one of decade’s top artists, and the first of seven albums that would hit the Top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic.
John had decided to record outside of England for tax purposes, and when his producer, Gus Dudgeon, first looked around Château d’Hérouville while scouting likely sites in France, he knew it would be perfect. The Château, built in 1740, was located in the village d’Hérouville, twenty-four miles from Paris. It had a storied history, as a romantic destination for the couple Frédéric Chopin and George Sand; Vincent van Gogh also strolled the grounds and may have painted there. Film composer Michael Magne bought the property in 1962, and converted it into a recording facility, named Strawberry Studios in 1969.
The idyllic setting was to everyone’s liking. Lyricist Bernie Taupin, would tap out lyrics on a typewriter upstairs, like a poet in a writer’s garret; in the morning, John would find the completed works on the piano next to the dining room and compose the music. The band would then rehearse the song and record it the same day. The relaxed atmosphere enhanced creativity; John recalled that one day he wrote the music for “Rocket Man,” “Amy,” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” before the band had even come down to breakfast.
VIDEO: Elton John “Rocket Man”
“Rocket Man” was destined to be the album’s key track. The melancholy song about an alienated astronaut drew immediate comparisons with David Bowie’s similarly-themed “Space Oddity,” not least because the two songs shared the same producer, Gus Dudgeon. But Taupin always denied any connection, saying the song’s first lyrics came to him as he was driving to his parents’ house one night, and noticed some lights in the sky (either from an airplane or a shooting star, depending on the account). Repeating the lyrics so he wouldn’t forget them, he raced to his destination, then rushed inside, saying, “Please don’t anyone talk to me until I’ve written this down!” The title came from a song of the same name by Florida band Pearls Before Swine (who themselves cited Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Rocket Man” as their inspiration).
In any case, the dreamy, almost languid number went on to be one of John’s signature songs. It sets up a nice contrast with the album’s other single, “Honky Cat,” which opens the album with panache; a bright, buoyant number with John’s honky-tonk piano adding a touch of nostalgia in this song about reinvention, as John sings about leaving behind his “redneck ways”: “A change is gonna do me good.”
The rest of the album is also a series of contrasts. Despite its downbeat subject, “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” is decidedly breezy in its depiction of a moody teen contemplating “a little suicide” because he can’t use the car, with lyrics that are both prescient and unnerving: “People rushing everywhere/swarming around like flies/Think I’ll buy a .44/give ‘em all a surprise” (hard to imagine that getting on the radio these days). Conversely, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” is Taupin’s bittersweet pen portrait of his first visit to New York City, in all its tawdry glamor, a place of “trash can dreams” where roses never grow. “Hercules,” the album’s closer, is a rollicking number about a hellraiser who likes his women, his wine, and “washin’ in a bucket of mud” — not necessarily in that order. And “Mellow” is just as it sounds.
Unlike some of John’s previously albums, there are no elaborate orchestrations. Hence, the session demos don’t sound that different from the final versions; the arrangements are all in place, though the playing may be a bit looser. But thumbs down to the decision to only present the Honky Château songs from the 1972 live show. It was probably done to keep the release to two CDs, but a show this well recorded should really have been offered in its entirety (other physical editions include a two-LP set, and a limited edition single album on gold vinyl).
Honky Château was John’s first chart-topper in the U.S. and finally solidified his success in the UK (where the response to his previous album, Madman Across the Water had been lukewarm). Elton John was carving out a distinctive career path for himself, hitting his stride as an artist who wasn’t going to be bound by any readily defined musical category, using Bernie Taupin’s lyrics as a starting point to freely mix and match musical styles in creating some of the most well-crafted songs of the 1970s.
Adapted in part from Elton John @ 75 (Motorbooks) by Gillian G. Gaar
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