Still Standing: Elton John’s Too Low For Zero at 40

Inside the album that got the Rocket Man out of his New Wave era slump

Elton John Too Low For Zero, Geffen Records 1983

By the time Too Low For Zero was released on May 30, 1983, Elton John was in a decided slump.

His four previous albums — the disastrous Victim of Love and the only slightly improved 21 at 33, The Fox and Jump Up failed to attract much notice, mostly due to the fact that they didn’t yield any hits of substantial notice. Longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin had been mostly missing from the fold in recent years, replaced by other collaborators that included Tim Rice, Tom Robinson and Gary Osbourne, given that Taupin made only occasional contributions. A few incidental tracks had emerged in recent years — “Little Jeannie” and “Empty Garden” ( his tribute to his late pal John Lennon) — but by and large, Elton’s creative continuum had long since come to a halt.

Too Low For Zero on vinyl (Image: Discogs)

Naturally, that wasn’t surprising. After some sixteen albums, it was to be expected that his originality and creativity would take a hit. With Bernie back in the fold and his classic backing band — guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olson — now reconvened, he had the instrumental impetus needed to return him to form. Likewise, other old associates returned as well, among them percussionist Ray Cooper, singer Kiki Dee and Skaila Kanga, who had previously played harp on Tumbleweed Connection.


VIDEO: Elton John “I’m Still Standing”

The efforts clearly paid off. Too Low For Zero became his best selling album of the 1980s until it was unseated by Sleeping with the Past in 1989. It banked on a patented formula, given that Elton was surrounded by familiar faces and found producer Chris Thomas sitting at the helm. Thomas, after all, had A-list credentials, given his efforts with The Beatles, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Badfinger, the Pretenders, Pete Townshend and any number of others. 

As a result, Too Low For Zero was a markedly improved effort, one that boasted an infectious array of songs in the classic John-Taupin tradition. “I’m Still Standing” was the most ready rocker and the song that made the most immediate impression. In many ways, it could be considered a reaffirmation of sorts. “Kiss the Bride” also underscored the album’s up-tempo intents, although it’s somewhat despondent narrative about a man who still longs for his ex even though she’s at the altar gives it a somewhat bittersweet aftertaste. Happily, the rollicking title track provides a more positive perspective. 


VIDEO: Elton John “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”

In fact, despite its sense of resurgence and revival, some of the better songs possessed a decidedly downbeat demeanor. “Cold As Christmas (In the Middle of the Year)” is far more morose than merry, using the holiday symbolically as opposed to touching on any seasonal celebration. On the other hand, arguably the best song of the album, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” celebrates circumstance rather than borrowing the bluesy template hinted at in the title. In this particular case the focus is on reflection rather than remorse. 

Nevertheless, taken in tandem, all these songs gave reason to suggest that Too Low For Zero — its title aside — provided a comeback that was long overdue. While it’s not necessarily the cohesive collection that typified Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, or the recently reissued and expanded Honky Chateau, it does indicate that Elton had regained his muse and was capable of finding his greater glories. 

Ultimately then, Too Low For Zero provided proof that from this point on, there was nowhere to go but up.



Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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