In the late 1970s and 1980s, Elton John released inconsistent albums, with a few great songs on each of them, annually or biannually. Like the discography of many R&B or country stars of the time, the London-born piano man’s LPs increasingly became vehicles for their singles, with the rest being filled out by tossed-off genre experiments and retreads of past territory. Of course, Elton only hit autopilot once the trappings of success caught up with him, and after proving his abilities with a number of conceptually strong releases in the first half of the ‘70s. During this time, he transitioned from modestly baroque singer-songwriter fare to consummate power-pop grandeur. Curiosities like “Border Song” and “Your Song” were a gateway more stadium-friendly works—songs it felt like you almost had to be standing up at the piano in a sequin outfit to play properly. As the butterfly spread its wings, albums like 1971’s Madman Across the Water, 1972’s Honky Chateau, and 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road proved that he could make excellent full-lengths of different vintages, from the crisp and streamlined to the grandiose and overstuffed.
But even in this period, John was moving at a headspinningly fast pace. By the time Elton put out his first Greatest Hits collection at the end of 1974, he had put out eight albums in five years, along with a live album and a soundtrack. It was just then beginning to get a bit hairy. The first warning sign that John’s prolificacy was catching up with him was 1974’s Caribou, an album made in nine days at the Caribou Ranch studio, a coke haven in the Rocky Mountains built primarily to be used by the band Chicago. Neither John nor his producer Gus Dudgeon, who was left to do most of the clean-up work on the rushed sessions himself, was happy with the finished product. Still, a closer look at even a critically dismissed John release (it hit #1 on the albums chart) like Caribou reveals diamonds in the rough—here it’s the soulful “Pinky,” a semi-nonsensical song about a tryst that boasts one of Elton’s greatest choruses.
In fact, if you stare close enough at nearly all of Elton’s 33 studio albums you’ll find something to add to a shortlist of favorites. The ‘80s were a time of patchy experimentation, as they were for so many songwriters of his generation, and the ‘90s are a wasteland of torch songs suited for the most blasé possible Hollywood and Broadway melodramas of that particular time period. But throughout Elton’s increasing quotient of hastily conceived LPs, there is almost inevitably some moment of consummate greatness—a musical distillation of the particular breezy, pop storyteller sensibility which brought him to prominence, or a convincing bit of rave-up piano rock that makes a case for him as Little Richard’s greatest disciple.
After a critical comeback with the back-to-the-piano-bench LP that was 2001’s Songs from the West Coast, John was permitted to rest on his laurels as a crack live performer and elder statesman. Nowadays, he reveals himself to continue to be a progressive listener, favoring the stylings of Tech N9ne and Young Thug (with whom he found a way of collaborating), as well as DJing for Beats Radio. With his farewell tour, which concluded last year, he signaled a desire to seal his legacy and cultivate the air of the coolest possible elder statement in rock rather than keep pumping out new LPs until the bitter end.
So to celebrate the release day of Dexter Fletcher’s new, and presumably disappointing, Elton biopic Rocketman—which, being a biopic, will necessarily give the narrow view of his musical corpus—here’s a list of songs which will hopefully add a little more depth to the picture. This list could have easily consisted early of songs recorded before 1976, but we’ve attempted to make room for other phases in his career with this humble round-up, too.
“Burn Down the Mission” (Tumbleweed Connection, 1970)
Elton John’s 1970 concept album Tumbleweed Connection, complete with sepia-toned cover and Civil War-spoitation, stands as one of his most consistent releases, as well as the best spiritual tribute to the Band of all time. With no singles having been released, it could reasonably be an Elton John deep cuts list in itself. It’s hard to pick a favorite on this collection, which set the template for even more elaborately charted, grand-scale pop experiments to come on albums like Madman on the Water and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but one that finds its own special kind of catharsis is “Burn Down the Mission,” a piece of born-again cosplay. Complete with a decadent double key change in the chorus, the Southern revival meeting mythos here is as charming as it is ridiculous (sung, as it was, by a 23-year-old kid from northwest London). When Billy Joel got into character to attempt Americana, he only managed to be absurd or infuriating, and the proof was never in the musical pudding as much as it was when Elton was in folksy raconteur mode. On Tumbleweed Connection, in particular, Elton and his career-long lyricist Bernie Taupin’s imaginations seemed to be overflowing.
“Razor Face” (Madman on the Water, 1971)
This Madman on the Water gem is smooth and vaguely seedy, a tone which feels directly opposed to its tuneful and starry-eyed A-side “Tiny Dancer.” Instead of looking toward a brighter future for its subject, the narrator on “Razor Face” is just looking for a place to stow the song’s eponymous craggy veteran (is he real or a euphemism?) away for good—to find him a permanent resting place. The music is bluesy and restless, off the coast of something Steely Dan could have reasonably turned in around this time. (They put out their own minor classic “Razor Boy” two years later). On the song’s first version (released on CD decades later), Elton’s band, which includes Yes’ Rick Wakeman, jammed for a full seven minutes on its slippery groove; it’s easy to hear why they couldn’t resist the urge.
“Susie (Dramas)” (Honky Château, 1972)
A bit of referential plagiarism—’50 novelty-pop crooner Guy Mitchell’s line “pretty little black-eyed Susie”—is the crux of one of the several swampy funk masterpieces that make 1972’s Honky Château a candidate for Elton’s strongest studio album. There’s no exact correlate for this particular sound outside of Elton’s best ‘70s music, and the album is the finest possible distillation of this element of his style. The LP boasts two of his all-time great singles: one of his most ubiquitous (“Rocket Man”) and, for this writer’s money, his most underrated (“Honky Cat”). But the fact that John and Taupin were able to toss off a series of backtracks on the album’s first side that were nearly as strong as the singles—all in the “Susie” vein—is what elevates Château above the rest of his studio albums. It speaks to both a crispness of vision and a passing moment of focus and humility that allowed John and Taupin to execute it properly.
“Grey Seal” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973/Elton John, 1970)
Perhaps the best known track on this non-mammoth-singles compendium, Elton John recorded the catchy, word-salad epic “Grey Seal” twice in the first five years of his career. The two drastically different versions illustrate the drastic transformation his music went through stylistically during that time. The first recording, which was included on John’s second, self-titled album, has the boxy honky-tonk quality of a modest turn-of-the-’70s singer-songwriter record—perhaps a Jimmy Webb demo made for use by another singer. Elton strips back the chorus, allowing a muted modernist orchestration to peek through the mix; in the better known Goodbye Yellow Brick Road version (released three years later), the same refrain is a blistering deluge of athletic piano arpeggios. The 1960s was a different decade, indeed, and Elton John was always destined to be something more than an erudite ivory tickler; by the time of the second “Grey Seal,” he was manning his grand piano like a tank, slamming the ballads home as hard as the barnburners.
“Pinky” (Caribou, 1974)
There’s a standard way many Elton John choruses end: a cathartic descending melody line that lands triumphantly on the main note and chord, coupled with a particular kind of vocal lilt (a default example: “Your Song”’s “How wonderful life is / While you’re in the world”). Elton uses the technique because it inevitably leaves a satisfying impression; it’s like the songwriting equivalent of an envelope being licked. In “Pinky,” Elton employs this stock mode but varies it meaningfully: The chords shift restlessly underneath him, with Abbey-Road-like wordless harmonies on top. This is the kind of Elton John song where one is basically just waiting with bated breath for the chorus to come around again. John also flips his usual formula by integrating a leapfrogging acoustic guitar lick that is as much the song’s dominant hook as the vocal line. Taupin’s default as a lyricist at the time was often imagistic free association that gave the aura of meaning rather than the genuine article, but some lines really hit home here, even if it’s impossible to figure out who Pinky is and what she means to her lover-narrator: “For when Pinky’s dreaming / She owes the world nothing / And her silence keeps us guessing.”
“Bitter Fingers” (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, 1975)
For any other musician but Elton John, a self-mythologizing concept album about your hardscrabble early career, recorded just six years after that career had properly started, would be an intolerable excess. But in those six years, John had recorded eight studio albums that ranged from “good” to “historical masterpiece,” charted enough smash singles to fill a ridiculously stacked greatest hits collection, and become one of the biggest stars in the world. He’d earned the right to make Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, an album he later said “wasn’t commercial in any way,” whose only single was a sweeping seven-minute ballad. But Captain Fantastic isn’t really the indulgent art-music epic that implies. The arrangements are big and ambitious, and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are more novelistic than usual, but the music is just as easy to love as that of John’s earlier, more hit-packed albums.
“Bitter Fingers,” a classic in the meta-genre of songs about songwriting, is set during John’s time as an unknown composer-for-hire, which came after years as an equally unknown working pianist. Its verses are stately, almost neoclassical, with John and Taupin lamenting the sterile commercialism of the staff songwriter life, wondering if they can inject some of the raucous energy of those early days backing R&B singers in tiny bars. In the chorus, they do. “Bitter Fingers” suddenly becomes a frenzied piano rocker, its traditional music-hall melodicism clashing deliriously with the manic energy of the band: both sides of John’s pre-fame career, duking it out like a couple of drunks. “I’m sick of tra-la-las and la-di-das,” John practically spits, and this disavowal of cheap hooks becomes the hookiest part of the song. “Bitter Fingers” is joyful and ironic, pulling a trick that only John and Taupin could. They tell you that pop songwriting bores them to tears, while at the same time demonstrating—with every exuberant chord change and sly tonal shift—that nothing in the world excites them more. – ANDY CUSH
“Nice and Slow” (The Complete Thom Bell Sessions, 1977/1989)
A forgotten curiosity from the late ‘70s was Elton John’s botched collaborative album with Philly soul producer/songwriter extraordinaire Thom Bell. Bell was the indisputable leader of the sessions, and that much is clear musically, pairing his superstar collaborator with the same session musicians and sweeping orchestral arrangements he used on hit records with the Spinners, the Stylistics, and the Delfonics. Some of the results sound like Elton’s heart really isn’t in it, or that his brand of throaty, melismatic crooning weighs down rather than floats above the sprightly disco backing track. The Thom Bell sessions—released initially as a three-song EP in 1979, and then in full ten years later—are best remembered (or at least were for some period of time) for “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” a track John did not write but which put him back in the upper echelon of the American singles charts. “Nice and Slow” is the one song on the album co-written with Bell by both John and Taupin. Elton situated within this strong, Spinners-like context allows this record to slot nicely in alongside the best work of blue-eyed soul luminaries like the young Daryl Hall and Boz Scaggs. That is to say, when the song is sticky enough, it works.
“Ball & Chain” (Jump Up!, 1982)
The early 1980s found Elton feeling out the New Wave genre, with results that often felt haphazard, obnoxious, or profoundly misguided. Despite the affection for the aesthetics of that period only increasing during this century, many of the best-known Elton John songs from the Reagan years are still hard to sit through, thanks to a prevailing, acerbic synth-rock affect (see “I’m Still Standing”). But other examples of Elton’s stabs at keeping with the trends of his time are somewhere on the continuum from pleasantly hilarious (“I Am Your Robot”) to just regular old good (the autobiographical “Too Low for Zero,” with its shades of Peter Gabriel). “Ball & Chain,” one of the best tracks of this period, emulates another ‘70s superstar trying to stay relevant during that time period: Lindsey Buckingham, in Tusk mode. The song’s central suspension chords, strummed guitar, and brittle groove are adjacent to the Mac’s “I Know I’m Not Wrong” and “The Ledge.” The sing-songy chorus may grate on first listen, but the general musical mise en scene is a good example of ‘80s Elton stepping outside his comfort zone and finding something that suited him.
“Born to Lose” with Leonard Cohen (Duets, 1992)
Outside of the realm of Disney soundtracks and Broadway (the second one really depends on your mileage), I regret to say that Elton John’s 1990s output offers precious little to recommend. Perhaps his culturally relevant piece of non-program music is a remake of an old Goodbye Yellow Brick Road track, the Princess Diana tribute “Candle in the Wind 1997,” that turned the song into one of his biggest hits. Still, let’s tip our cap and acknowledge the time that Leonard Cohen and Elton collaborated on a slow-swinging cover of the ‘40s country standard “Born to Lose,” most famously recorded by Ray Charles on his inspired experiment in genre synthesis, 1962’s Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music. Everyone sounds half-asleep on the duet recording, which is probably the best aesthetic choice this group of people could have made for a performance of this song. Cohen loosely addresses the song’s pitches, rattling off the titular line in an especially anti-musical fashion, but the song is all worth it for his sign-off: “And now Elton, I’m losing you.” Records like Elton John’s Duets are precisely the reason duets album get categorically written off as cynical exercises, but when the cynicism comes this directly and ludicrously, it’s hard not to savor it a little.
“I Should Have Sent Roses” with Leon Russell (The Union, 2010)
The imprimatur of this track is certainly as much Leon Russell’s as Elton’s, but the two were always related. Elton acknowledges the Tulsa singer-songwriter and Wrecking Crew member as one of his biggest early influences, and Russell loved John’s music so much when he first heard it in 1969 that he wanted to sign him. In 2010, the two friends finally made music together, releasing the collaborative LP The Union to Starbucks CD racks across the globe. The centerpiece of the record is the sole track with just the two men credited as writers. Featuring John on lead in the second half, “I Should Have Sent Roses” is a instantly satisfying piece of funereal soul music. The loose-limbed groove and sleazy horn breaks are straight out of Russell’s playbook, but the mournful melody and chords have all the trademarks of a good minor-key Elton ballad. For late-period Elton, robbed of his round tone and high range, this is about as dignified and moving vocal performance as you’ll hear; I especially revere the delivery on “I’d stay true and recall / The fragrance of you on the wind.”