Songs Up Close: “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”

Amongst an unbroken string of incredible singles, this 1975 epic towers over all.

Along with new entries daily and features weekly, I will be periodically adding content to this site that I previously posted on Facebook and elsewhere. This was originally published in Scholars and Rogues in May 2017.  Note: If you’re as switched on by this song as I am, you can order the custom light switch featured above at https://www.etsy.com/listing/466080756.

When the Adam Marsland Chaos Band did our Elton John shows we learned more than 70 of his songs, and I had a chance to really break down what was going on there. Some of those songs are compositionally, frankly, genius…Brian Wilson level. If you don’t believe me, work out “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” sometime (if you can). Notice how effortlessly the tonal shifts cascade, minors on the verse subtly shift to majors on the chorus, and then out of nowhere, a crashing key change to Db. It’s an incredible composition

So what’s his best ever song? I’m gonna go there. It’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” This song, released in 1975 as a nearly 7-minute (!) single, is simply a masterpiece, an astounding recording, arrangement and composition – perfectly accessible yet endlessly complex (there is no home key), epic in scope but intimate in execution, drawn out (the drums don’t fully come in until 2:20!) and dramatic but never boring or overwrought.

It starts with simple piano figure and cymbals on the drums – but within 20 seconds it has imperceptibly settled into a B section. Nigel Olsson’s brushed cymbals on the quarter note create airiness and tension…the airy feel is accentuated by Elton’s high, fragile vocals, relatively far back in the mix. (Producer Gus Dudgeon deserves major props throughout for his use of mix perspective and reverb to create space here).

At 1:04 we get to the chorus, and the first entry of the exquisite three-part backing vocals of Elton’s band at the time (Nigel, Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone). And it’s the chorus I really want to talk about. It manages to spin on endlessly – only Barry Gibb could keep a chorus going this long without a resolution – the changes dancing in suspension around Bb without ever actually landing there, keeping the listener in suspense the whole time, drawn in on every word. Listen to how he keeps finding new ways to keep the chorus from resolving – it takes 40 seconds to finally land on “bye bye” – and then he’s immediately descending out of the key again. Fucking brilliant!

2:10 – Second verse. No new development and then…BAM! The drums land unexpectedly at the start of the B-section, along with more of those vocals. Whoa. 2:35. Elton says “damn it” – might as well be “fuck” coming from him – and then goes to double track for “listen to me good” and you hear a guy that doesn’t always resonate with the words he is singing – written by someone else – connect with the material, which has personal meaning to him. “Thank God my music’s still alive” – indeed. High stakes.

And now we’re in the second chorus. Nigel has deigned to move to the ride cymbal, but it’s more about what he doesn’t play, the endless space between each 2/4 on the snare or stately tom fill, Elton’s high strained voice carrying the drama, the backing vocals resolving into a Brian Wilson-like falsetto (Nigel?). Then we’re back into the intro. OK, is the song over now? Maybe, but…

WTF? Four minutes in here comes a bridge in yet another key, still understated except two bars in, a Leslie guitar emphasizing a discordant, jarring chord change. Then back to the slow, stately groove…”they’re coming in the morning with a truck to take me home…”

And back to the discordant Leslie. “Someone saved my life tonight…” “So save your strength and run the field you play alone….”

The backing vocals build, the changes perfectly cascade back into the last chorus….but Nigel hesitates a fraction of a second on the final fill before landing on the 1. Pow!

And in comes the ARP synthesizer – the sound of outer space, of infinity, as we go again through that endlessly suspended chorus, Olsson and Murray keeping things aloft – whoa, 5:17, that fill, that bass gliss…and then Elton goes for the high note at 5:30 – the chorus reaches its climax, but the band (with the ARP now leading the way sonically), just rides the changes down, no big statement, just trusting the song will take them there, saving up space ’til the fadeout…

And here it comes – finally back to the intro, except now it’s expanded infinitely, cascading harmonies in each channel, Elton’s high descending vocal leading the way. You’re there for every second of the fade, and then at the very end, at 6:37, Nigel Olsson delivers an epic tom fill. And then it’s gone.

There was never a distorted guitar, a speedy drum fill, or a move out of its stately beat. Nearly 7 minutes of suspension, of holding back for maximum effect only to deliver more tension and release. An absolutely masterful composition, arrangement, performance and production.

Ladies and gentlemen, a perfect record.

5 thoughts on “Songs Up Close: “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”

  1. Excellent! This is true music geek stuff. Great summation of this mighty track, always a favorite but sadly, for me, nothing can top “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Those modulations and key changes are brutal but Elton makes it sound like a piece of cake.

    1. Thanks Kerry! And your being the first commenter allows me to see that the comments are displaying off-center on the phone. Thanks buggy theme! More css coding in my future.

  2. That’s always been one of my favorite songs from the 70’s. I love the way you broke it down technically. It makes me appreciate it even more. Thanks Adam.

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