Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

In 1973, Elton John released two, number one albums, each selling several million upon initial release.  That is a pretty good year.

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player was released in January, with “Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock” as major hits, then Elton and Bernie Taupin wrote another 22 songs in a two-week period, 18 that would end up as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  Originally, the album was supposed to record in Jamaica, but that turned out to be a nightmare. No instruments and a hostile environment drove them to pack up and quickly leave. Elton and band returned to France where he had recorded before, where they recorded the basic tracks. At the Chateau d’Herouville, they lived there, while recording the album.

8be0b968c4d44285ff6650b461732ba5If you were alive in the 1970s, you heard these songs everywhere, you might know them better than I do.  In Elton John’s autobiography, he only spends a page or two on his most successful album.  That surprised me.  I learned as much from the liner notes of the re-mastered CD, and in listening to the songs again.

Hard to believe this was Elton’s seventh album, and the fourth with his core band of Dee Murray, Nigel Olson and Davey Johnstone.  All but one of his albums had been produced by Gus Dungeon.  The orchestra was arranged by Del Newman.  Elton had worked with Newman and Paul Buckmaster throughout his career with arrangements.  The band on this album is hitting on all cylinders; the musicianship is superb and they know each other so well, the songs are tight and the instruments fit like puzzle pieces.

The album had very visual songs, like a movie with different vignettes. At this point in his career, Elton’s state presence as well as the songs were coming quite theatrical.  Everything about Elton John was larger than life.

In his autobiography, Elton said, “When it came out, it took off in a way that none of us expected.  It’s quite a dark record in a lot of ways.  Songs about sadness and disillusion, songs about alcoholics and prostitutes and murders, a song about a sixteen-year-old lesbian who ends up dead in a subway.”  But it kept selling and selling.

As was their practice, Bernie wrote the lyrics and gave them to Elton to write the music.  They didn’t write together, that’s not how their writing partnership worked. The songs were written quickly, Elton said they recorded about four songs a day.

Number one in America for eight weeks, this album wasn’t just a hit, it was an event. You heard these songs everywhere, single after single, event non-singles were played on the radio. Eventually, 30 million copies were sold.

Rolling Stone had a bit different take on the album: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a massive double-record exposition of unabashed fantasy, myth, wet dreams and cornball acts, an overproduced array of musical portraits and hard rock & roll that always threatens to founder, too fat to float, artistically doomed by pretension but redeemed commercially by the presence of a couple of brilliant tracks out of a possible 18.”

Not all the reviews were like this, and the buying public couldn’t have cared less what Rolling Stone thought.

All tracks are written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin except “Funeral for a Friend” written by Elton John.

Side one

“Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” 11:09  Somehow, this song got a lot of airplay, all eleven minutes of it.  Kind of risky to open the album with an long instrumental that morphs into a vocal.  During the 1970s, Elton used instruments periodically on his albums.  When Davey Johnstone was recruited for the band, he was mainly an acoustic guitar player, but he took to the electric guitar like a fish to water.  A better guitar player in the decade?

“Candle in the Wind” 3:50  Bernie says it wasn’t about Marilyn Monroe as much as it was someone dying before their time, at the height of their fame.  Years later, released as a tribute and fundraiser for Princess Diana.  Easily the most poignant song Elton/Bernie ever wrote.

Goodbye Norma Jean
Though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled
They crawled out of the woodwork
And they whispered into your brain
They set you on the treadmill
And they made you change your name
And it seems to me you lived your life

Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in
And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did

“Bennie and the Jets” 5:23  Not recorded in front of an audience, the effects were added later.  This was also a hit on the R&B chart.  Elton did not imagine this as hit and he fought the release.  But is was, an unlikely hit. The song has an unusual rhythm, which helps make it so distinctive.  My favorite Elton John song.

Side two

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” 3:13 The title track that was played everywhere, probably the most defining song on the album, and a number one chart hit. A fine arrangement, the Leslie guitar is a nice touch. Ironically, the song’s lyrics describe wanting to leave behind the excesses for a simpler life, the opposite of Elton’s life.

When are you gonna come down?
When are you going to land?
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man

You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign up with you
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing, the blues

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

“This Song Has No Title” 2:23  This song is interesting because it is Elton playing all of the instruments.  It’s a nicely crafted song, yet I have no idea what it’s about.

“Sweet Painted Lady” 3:54  A whimsical, old-fashioned song.  With a jazzy orchestral arrangement.

“The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909–34)” 4:23  A gangster portrait, as painted by lyricist Taupin.  A strong musical arrangement, one of the underrated songs on the album.

“Dirty Little Girl” 5:00  Not exactly radio material by subject matter, not a girl you’d take home to meet mother.  This song rocks hard.  Give Davey credit for the great rock guitar work.  Elton plays a mellotron, good deal.

“All the Girls Love Alice” 5:09

“Grey Seal” 4:00  One of the best of the less known songs on the album, it has a nice melody and some sweet hooks.

“Harmony” 2:46  Although not released as a single, it was a popular song on radio and one of Elton/Bernie’s best songs.  It is sweet and melodic, without being syrupy and trite.  Some artists would give an arm for a song like this.

Hello, baby, hello!
Haven’t seen your face for a while
Have you quit doing time for me– or are you still the same spoiled child?
Hello, I said hello!
Is this the only place you thought to go?
Am I the only man you ever had or am I just the last surviving friend that you know?
Harmony and me, we’re pretty good company
Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea

“Roy Rogers” 4:07 A homage to our youth, of images that will stay in our heart forever.  A nice bit of homespun memories in the orchestra arrangement.

“Social Disease” 3:42 A country rocker of drinking and being a victim to your friendliness.

“Harmony” 2:46  Although not released as a single, it was a popular song on radio and one of Elton/Bernie’s best songs.  It is sweet and melodic, without being syrupy and trite.  Some artists would give an arm for a song like this.

Hello, baby, hello!
Haven’t seen your face for a while
Have you quit doing time for me– or are you still the same spoiled child?
Hello, I said hello!
Is this the only place you thought to go?
Am I the only man you ever had or am I just the last surviving friend that you know?
Harmony and me, we’re pretty good company
Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea

“Roy Rogers” 4:07 A homage to our youth, of images that will stay in our heart forever.  A nice bit of homespun memories in the orchestra arrangement.

“Social Disease” 3:42 A country rocker of drinking and being a victim to your friendliness.

“Harmony” 2:46  Although not released as a single, it was a popular song on radio and one of Elton/Bernie’s best songs.  It is sweet and melodic, without being syrupy and trite.  Some artists would give an arm for a song like this.

Hello, baby, hello!
Haven’t seen your face for a while
Have you quit doing time for me– or are you still the same spoiled child?
Hello, I said hello!
Is this the only place you thought to go?
Am I the only man you ever had or am I just the last surviving friend that you know?
Harmony and me, we’re pretty good company
Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea

A great rocking vibe, this song rips it up.  Great distorted guitar by Davey and pounding beat rhythm by Elton on the piano.

Side four

“Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n Roll)” 2:42  An old-time rock and roll song, it is relentless, and seems to get faster as it goes.  Not a classic but a decent song.

“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” 4:57  Written about Bernie’s memories of youth, conflict between Mods and Rockers, any night on the weekend, trouble would break out.  A class great guitar riff by Davey Johnstone.  If you wondered if Elton could produce a rock and roll guitar riff song, this should answer the question.  A number 12 hit, it should have gone all the way to the top.

Harmony, gee I really love you and I want to love you forever
And dream of never never never leavin’ Harmony
Hello, baby, hello!
Open up your heart and let your feelings flow

Elton-John-hollywood-bowl-crocodile-rockFollowing recording, Elton and band went on tour.   They used the jet that Led Zeppelin had toured in, the legendary plane where all kinds of naughty things happened.  At the Hollywood Bowl in 1973, Elton wore a white furry costume.  Doves were supposed to fly out of the piano wouldn’t.  Bernie had to toss them out.  Elton was introduced by adult actress Linda Lovelace, who made a name as the star of Deep Throat. These were the 1970s.  In early 1974, Elton and band traveled to Caribou Ranch in Colorado, where Chicago, the Beach Boys and many other groups recorded, to begin work on Caribou, the next million seller.  Future albums would be big, but not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, big.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s