One of my favorite albums from the 1970s is the monumental double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John. While I don’t feel it qualifies as a true masterpiece, I think it comes pretty close, and is an album I’d want to have with me on that proverbial desert island. Though my younger sister became a rabid Elton John fanatic from the moment he released his tender and heartfelt debut single “Your Song” way back in 1970, it took me a while to warm up to him and his music. I mean, I liked him well enough, but can’t say I became a huge fan until the release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (though I now more fully appreciate the brilliance of his early albums like Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water.)
Since its release in 1973, the album has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and is widely considered John’s finest work. It contains several of his signature songs like “Bennie and the Jets”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Candle in the Wind” and “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”, as well as the epic – and my personal favorite – “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003, and ranks #91 on Rolling Stone magazine’s most recent list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, although at the time of its release, the magazine gave it a negative review: “This new record is a big fruity pie that simply doesn’t bake. But, oh lord, how it tries.” Well, that reviewer sure ended up with pie on his face!
Bernie Taupin wrote all the song lyrics for the album over a period of two and a half weeks, then John composed most of the music in three days while staying at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica. He’d wanted to write and record the songs in Jamaica partly because the Rolling Stones had just recorded their album Goats Head Soup there. Unfortunately, difficulties with the piano and sound system, as well as logistical issues arising from the Joe Frazier-George Foreman boxing match and unrelated political protests then taking place in Kingston, caused him and his musicians to rethink their plans. They ended up recording the album at Château d’Herouville, the same studio in France where he’d previously recorded Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.
Though not a concept album per se, many of its songs touch on disillusionment and a nostalgia for a childhood and culture left in the past. The artwork for the album was fabulous, both inside and out, and vividly displayed in a tri-fold format. The outside cover art was created by Ian Beck, and inside illustrations were drawn by David Larkham, Michael Ross and David Schutt. Here’s a photo of two-thirds of the inside, which features a drawing and lyrics for each track:
Given all the flamboyance, tabloid sensationalism, fame and infamy of Elton John’s illustrious and colorful career, it’s easy to sometimes overlook the fact that, in addition to being a great composer and vocalist, he’s also an incredible pianist. Perhaps no other song showcases his piano-playing skills than the epic album opener “Funeral For A Friend”. Together with its companion track “Love Lies Bleeding”, the fantastic 11-minute long piece is a grandiose and dramatic melding of classical music and progressive rock, and was reportedly conceived by John as the kind of music he wanted played at his own funeral. I was blown away the first time I heard it, and to this day it remains my all-time favorite of his many great songs. The bittersweet lyrics of “Love Lies Bleeding” tell of a lost love: “Oh it kills me to think of you with another man. I was playing rock and roll and you were just a fan, but my guitar couldn’t hold you so I split the band. Love lies bleeding in my hands.”
Next up are three of his most famous and beloved songs. The beautiful piano ballad “Candle in the Wind” is a sort of tribute to Marilyn Monroe, with lyrics spoken from the perspective of a fan trying to reconcile the myths and legends attached to the legendary and tragic actress. “Loneliness was tough. The toughest role you ever played. Hollywood created a superstar. And pain was the price you paid. Even when you died, Oh the press still hounded you. All the papers had to say was that Marilyn was found in the nude.” (The song was later reimagined in 1997 as a tribute to Princess Diana after her own tragic death.) Davey Johnstone’s guitar work is particularly outstanding on this track.
The stomping glam-rock gem “Bennie and the Jets” is, according to Bernie Taupin, a satire on the greed and glitz of the early 70s music industry. John was initially set against releasing it as a single, as he thought it would flop, but it went to #1 in the U.S. and Canada, and endures as one of his most popular songs and biggest hits. Unfortunately, the song was (and still is) overplayed to death on the radio, and I grew tired of it decades ago, though I still acknowledge its brilliance. The title track “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is probably my second-favorite track on the album, as I love the great piano-driven melody and soaring vocal harmonies in the choruses.
John’s brilliant piano skills are also strongly evident on the folk-inspired “This Song Has No Title”, the exuberant “Grey Seal”, the haunting, cinematic torch song “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” and the dramatic tour de force “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)”, with its bouncy honky-tonk style piano and sweeping orchestrals. “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is a fun, reggae-infused nod to the place where John penned his lyrics, and is one of the lighter tunes on the album. A song that piqued my sexual curiosity when the album came out (I was 19 at the time) was “All The Girls Love Alice”, with lyrics that tell a tragic story of a young lesbian who died in the streets. Though the lyrics are depressing, I love the powerful driving beat, abrasive, wobbly synths and distorted psychedelic guitars that give the song such an edgy and dangerous vibe.
Side 4 is the weakest part of the album overall, keeping it from being a perfect work in my opinion, though none of the tracks are terrible. John and company dial up the energy on “Your Sister Can’t Dance (But She Can Rock’n’Roll)” (probably my least-favorite track on the album, as I’m also not a fan of his big 50s throwback hit “Crocodile Rock” either) and “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”, which I do like, mainly for its hard-driving and edgy vibe, great piano and guitars. “Roy Rogers” and “Social Disease” have an Americana vibe, a genre John has visited many times through his career with varying degrees of success, and he succeeds pretty well here.
The final side is redeemed by the sultry closing track “Harmony”. The song is a piano-driven love song with more of those sweeping orchestrals and John’s wonderful vocal harmonies. He assures his recalcitrant loved one Harmony that she and he are pretty good together and may as well make a go of it: “Harmony and me, we’re pretty good company. Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea.”, ending things on an optimistic note.