He had one of the greatest streaks in rock history…and then he fell off a cliff. We comb through Elton’s late period albums for gems so you don’t have to.
Two things are a source of wide agreement amongst fans of classic pop and rock: Elton John had one of the most astounding streaks of great albums in pop music history…and then he didn’t.
Opinions differ as to where the drop-off occurs. The more bloody-minded might assert it’s all downhill after 1971’s Tumbleweed Connection, others point to 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy as “the last great album”, but pretty much all agree that 1976’s despondent double album Blue Moves, and Elton’s subsequent retirement for two years, was the final turning point.
Elton’s return to music in 1978 did lead to a second act in which he went from being a mere rock star to a living legend, toasted by royalty, writing music for films and plays, and all that good stuff. That is an impressive resumé of which any artist can be proud, but through it all, his prior legacy loomed large as he prospered with those experiments and weathered less successful ones such as wearing contact lenses, performing in a Donald Duck costume, and making a disco album.
It’s of course an over-simplification to say that Elton John’s music completely sucked after 1976…but it isn’t entirely off-base, either. After the comeback, something definitely had changed. I’ll get into some of the reasons below; but while fans of Elton’s early days probably have good reason not to follow his journey past a certain point, there is music worth checking out. If only someone would make a list of some sort. But who could do it? Who?
I know a guy.
Your Mileage Most Certainly Will Vary
What follows is my list of “50 Elton John Songs After 1976 That Don’t Suck.” They are in descending order of quality (or at least in order of my ability to defend them), from least good to most awesome, mixing it up slightly to prevent songs that are too similar to one another from being next to each other.
I’m assuming a lot of my readers have a similar aesthetic to mine (e.g. we like organic, smart pop, and ’70s Elton = good), but before we start, I should lay out some perimeters.
First, if a song you think should be included isn’t on here, it’s not meant to be an exhaustive list. You can get further insight on my rationale(s) by reading the postscript at the end about “15 no-brainer songs I left off this list, and why.” Unless it’s listed in the post-post script “10 songs you should never listen to under any circumstances, seriously,” you may feel free to slot your favorite song mentally wherever you think it should go and drop any song in its place (I have a feeling #49 is going to be a favorite choice for this exercise). All lists are subjective and though I’ve tried to make a case for each one of them, ultimately something that works for me might not work for you. That’s music for ya.
I did try to put together a list that covers most of the eras, that might expose people to some things they’d never otherwise hear, and that would make a decent mix CD or two (particularly if you drop the ones off that don’t work for you).
There Are Reasons Why Later Elton Isn’t As Cool As Earlier Elton
Most agree on this thesis, but few can say why exactly, other than to point at dated production and overreliance on ballads (both true) and the laziness and excess that arise from mass success (also often true, though with an artist as driven as Elton, not always). As I was listening back to the songs, I started to zero in on some specifics.
The obvious culprit that many single out is the production technology – too much synthesizers and electronic percussion gumming up the works – but while this is accurate I also think something more subtle is at work. Like many artists, Elton began writing with a drum machine in the ’80s. That tended to affect his writing in that he was no longer playing off his rhythm section in the studio as he did in the early days.
Up until about 1982, Elton was writing songs and bringing them to a band to work up, allowing the arrangements to build more dynamically and letting the musicians interlock with Elton’s highly syncopated playing style. Once Elton was writing to a fixed beat, even when there’s a capable band at play, more often the records are based rhythmically on Elton playing against a static groove, rather than bouncing off another syncopated timekeeper such as Elton’s first drummer, Nigel Olsson. The songs don’t get enough opportunity to open up dynamically or build to a climax. This is really noticeable on some of the rock tracks that hum along quite nicely but for the drummer not breaking for the choruses or otherwise adding much energy to the proceedings. The drumming is human for the most part, but they seem to be coming late to an arrangement already dictated by a machine.
The other issue is Elton’s voice; though nearly all singers degrade with age to some degree, few classic rock vocalists have changed so much over the course of their career. Much is made of Elton’s throat surgery in 1987 that supposedly robbed him of his falsetto, but there is more going on than that. Elton was advised by producer Thom Bell during sessions with him in 1977 to start favoring his lower register, which immediately manifested on 1978’s A Single Man. With the loss of producer Gus Dudgeon (whose able touch double-tracking Elton’s vocals in key spots was a major part of his classic sound), vocally Elton was different from day one of his comeback.
At first all was well – in the early ’80s Elton was at his peak as a vocalist, with a sky-high falsetto and a deepening baritone to play with – but constant touring, drug use, and refocusing around his lower range combined to make it more and more difficult to sing in the upper register. The throat surgery accelerated that process, and Elton phased out the use of his upper register not long after. This diminished his ability to write the soaring melody lines that made so much of his ’70s work memorable, and with the increased dominance of synthesized keyboards, the lower singing was less able to rise above the mush. It makes a lot of his later work, even when it’s quite good, sound a bit dull.
The real problems start in the new millennium, however. Though he by then rarely used falsetto, Elton still possessed a clear and resonant normal range through the ’90s. This all changed around 2000, and his voice increasingly grew raspy, throaty and slurred. His comfortable singing range also dropped even further so that many of his melodies were limited to the baritone register, and the higher midrange notes tended to sound pinched and stuffy.
This makes it hard to find too much for this list after 2001’s excellent Songs From The West Coast, which effectively repurposed the new vocal style into a more in-your-face storytelling persona. After that, Elton’s vocals become such an issue that they often mar otherwise fine songs, either because they don’t cover enough melodic ground, or they are just plain bad/unpleasant to listen to, or both. A cracking, almost new-wave flavored late period track like 2016’s “England And America” doesn’t make the cut because Elton’s low baritone can’t clear the band; it’s a rumble that should be a roar. 1973 Elton could have made it work.
So with that (as usual) long-winded preamble, let the carnage begin!
album: The Big Picture
If this song doesn’t work for you, stay with me, because it’s really here as a stalking horse for the entire Big Picture album, which is, it must be said, pretty dreadful (particularly as it’s sandwiched between two of Elton’s finest later albums, Made In England and Songs From The West Coast).
That said, in reviewing it for this article it became apparent what an interesting misfire it is, and what a missed opportunity. Firstly, Elton is in excellent vocal shape on this album – probably his finest singing since the early ’80s, with a high clear tenor that lets some of the songs soar like the old days. He would never sound so unencumbered on record again. Elton also experiments with surprisingly unorthodox chord changes and complex melodies on many of the songs.
The problem is that (as Elton’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin himself pointed out) the production is so clinical – the sparse arrangements mostly being filled out by icy digital synths that offer no sense of rhythm and too much deep-field spatiality – that it magnifies the songs’ inaccessibility until there’s nothing there to grab onto. True, the album’s singles are catchy – “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” is the one you know – but they all go on a little too long and are just a little too dull around the edges. With a more sympathetic and organic production, The Big Picture could have been a quirky dark horse like Blue Moves. Instead, it’s more like Elton John with its orchestral arranger Paul Buckmaster replaced by a digital workstation on a cold, cold day.
Of all The Big Picture’s failed experimentation, “January” is the track that offends the least, with its more muscular and organic arrangement (and thankfully more real strings than fake ones) supporting its intriguing movement through four separate and distinct sequences.
#49. Heartache All Over The World
album: Leather Jackets
Let’s get Elton’s bad albums out of the way right off the bat, shall we? Leather Jackets is widely agreed to be Elton’s worst album of his own material (most, but not all, view 1979’s discofied Victim of Love as even worse, but he didn’t write any of the songs – and at least you can dance to the thing).
Leather Jackets frankly deserves that distinction…it’s a synthesized, gunky mess, with Elton completely coked out (according to returning ’70s producer Gus Dudgeon, whose solution in 1986 was to make everything sound as sterile and synth-drenched as possible…what happened, Gus?) and his voice increasingly shredded.
“Heartache All Over The World” is also widely regarded as one of the very worst Elton singles of all time, one of two that Elton personally disowned (we’ll get to the other one presently). It is a ridiculous ’80s mess, pandering to trends that didn’t even make sense for him at the time, inappropriate not only to Elton’s musical traditions but to his sexual proclivities (the sampled “girls girls girls” montage that opens the song merges the ludicrousness).
So why is it on this list? Because cripes, it’s a great pop song, a showcase for Elton’s compositional smarts even when he was dozing off behind the piano with powder running down his nose.
The verses set up the pre-chorus wonderfully, the pre-chorus sounds like a chorus on its own, then it turns into a chorus which pays off the hook (song title) perfectly. We chug along happily this way for two minutes or so, until Elton suddenly modulates, collapses into a shorter chorus, and then further bifurcates it into a memorable tag that turns over and over onto itself.
That, my friends, is great pop songwriting. And as for the dated production, well, it chugs right along, the sonics managing to create an ambient mood without turning the whole track to mush (a rare accomplishment), and it has a decent amount of energy. “Heartache” aspires to be a silly uptempo pop single, nothing more – and succeeds wonderfully on its own semi-ridiculous terms.
#48. The Emperor’s New Clothes
album: Songs From The West Coast
Elton’s 2001 album Songs From The West Coast was hailed at the time as his best in years and a return to his ’70s form. It isn’t quite the latter, but it’s a fine album in its own right and deserves its solid reputation.
The diminished quality of Elton’s voice is a large reason why subsequent albums do not work nearly as well as the prior ones, but here producer Patrick Leonard peels back the layers of production to put Elton’s aged, raspy baritone front and center, recasting him not as a pop singer but as a storyteller. This more conversational, less melodic approach makes songs like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” draw one in the way a Leonard Cohen or Harry Chapin record would. With Elton’s excellent piano front and center and much of his old band playing sympathetically (if less memorably than before), it may not completely recall the old days, but it works very well on its modified terms.
#47. Looking Up
album: Wonderful Crazy Night
The lead single from Elton’s last (to date) album Wonderful Crazy Night, “Lookin’ Up” moves right along, opening with a Wurlitzer (!) figure establishing a credible groove, and then Elton chimes in with a cheerful piano hook that repeats throughout the song. His woozy late-period bluesman vocals prevent things from soaring (as they regrettably do throughout this otherwise admirably upbeat album – the vocals on its best ballad, “Blue Wonderful,” are particularly disturbing), but they don’t screw things up too much either. Though slight, the song is so relentlessly good-natured and enthusiastic for itself that while it may be hard to love, it’s nearly impossible not to like.
album: B-side of “Song For Guy” (bonus track on CD reissue of A Single Man)
1978’s A Single Man marked a starting-over period for Elton. Without his longtime producer Gus Dudgeon, lyricist Bernie Taupin, or any of his old band save Ray Cooper (and Davey Johnstone on one song), he completely changed his work method – self-producing, having a new lyricist (Gary Osborne) write to his melodies rather than vice versa, and handling most of the electronic keyboards himself. Reviews at the time were not really kind, but in retrospect it’s an interesting work that some people feel should be counted along with his better respected preceding albums. (No one makes this argument for the discotheque horror that followed, Victim of Love)
Part of the reason for A Single Man‘s retrospective acclaim is the CD reissue contains several non-album tracks from the same period that have much the same sound and feel of the album but are more interesting in various ways, most notably Bernie Taupin’s presence as a lyricist and in one bizarre case, Elton himself. “Lovesick” was the B-side of the British instrumental hit “Song For Guy,” which I happen to know as I was the only person in the United States who actually bought the thing.
The song has a peculiar structure, with a driving 4/4 beat offset by abrupt chord changes occurring at unexpected times, dominated by a driving conga and tambourine (presumably Ray Cooper) and an elaborate orchestral arrangement (presumably Paul Buckmaster) which dominates more and more until it enters into a long duel with lead guitarist Tim Renwick (presumably) on the fade-out. It’s the kind of quirky orchestrated pop-rock that really could have only been made in 1978, and it’s all the better for that.
#45. And The House Fell Down
album: The Captain And The Kid
2006’s The Captain and the Kid was ambitious attempt to make a sequel to 1975’s autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, recounting in song vignettes from Elton and Bernie Taupin’s subsequent 30 years. The songwriting is decent-to-good throughout, Elton’s in fine form on the piano, and the band plays well although with less of the flair displayed on the album that inspired it all. The problem here is mostly Elton’s voice which is so throaty and phlegm-impaired that it is almost unlistenable in spots.
There are areas where the concept all comes together, though. “And The House Fell Down” is a blackly humorous recounting of Elton’s ’80s drug-and-alcohol-addicted years, which starts out with a jaunty/macabre piano figure before it shifts gears into a powerful pre-chorus and chorus somewhat reminiscent of “I’m Still Standing.”
Taupin contributes some excellent lyrics here (“I don’t recall who said it at this time/that your enemies grow strong on what you leave behind” is a favorite) that both encapsulate Elton’s paranoid frame of mind and give the chorus the weight of a true harrowing experience. Elton’s singing is problematic in spots – the chorusing effect most noticeable on “huffed and puffed” is a tough listen – but it also stakes out a lounge-lizardy persona that fits the song musically and lyrically. When he ruefully croaks “I’m bottoming out” he manages the near-impossible task of being funny and terrifying at the same time.
#44. Goodbye Marlon Brando
album: Reg Strikes Back
Bernie Taupin’s piss-taking of what Elton then called “all the things that are overkill in America” (in 1988 that is) hasn’t aged well – if Mr. Taupin had had access to Facebook in the ’80s I suspect this vent would have been exercised via a pithy status update – however one can still very much relate to its exasperated chorus “Don’t it make you wanna/crawl back to the womb/Find a sanitarium/Rent yourself a room.” Yes it does. Or move to Bali.
Dated pop culture references and list-making aside, it’s a fun romp, with Elton gleefully and sometimes hysterically bashing away at various obvious targets (“goodbye to Rocky V, VI, VII and VIII!”) and even having the cheek to tell the Beach Boys to f**k off and then having Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson (who memorably guest elsewhere on the album) do a two-second vocal cameo to punctuate the line! Good sports, those lads. Worth a listen for Davey Johnstone’s admirably unrestrained (and uneffected by ’80s standards) guitar riffing – it sounds like a more polished version of Alex Chilton’s “No Sex” – and the general mood of recklessness. The kind of song one embarks upon singing after having slightly too much wine, and as such, of a piece with Elton’s concurrent trashing of old friend John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”
#43. Burning Buildings
album: Breaking Hearts
Elton reunited with his mid ’70s band (drummer Nigel Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone and bassist Dee Murray) for two albums in 1983 and 1984. The first product of the reunion, 1983’s Too Low For Zero, is rightly regarded as a near classic that stands up to some of his (lesser) ’70s work. Opinions are more mixed on the eclectic, rocking follow-up, 1984’s Breaking Hearts, which contains a mix of catchy but slightly off-center tunes that either work for you or they don’t.
“Burning Buildings” is not one of the better known tracks on the album, but if you want a song that credibly updates what was good about his ’70s album-track balladry, this is as good as it gets. The band – particularly Davey Johnstone – contribute inventively musically and vocally, whereas Elton offers a great descending melody, using some of his old lofty vocal technique to nail the hook.
Unlike many ballads that followed, “Burning Buildings” is full of offbeat touches that maintain interest – the chorus that oddly careens to a halt on an unexpected chord that leaves Elton’s piano dangling in mid air; the slightly dissonant, soaring “do not disturb” dominant 7th harmony on the second verse; Davey Johnstone’s delicate, almost Steve Howe-like acoustic break that breaks in after the second chorus – it all adds up to a dramatic, spiraling sleeper track with a lot more going on than it initially appears.
album: The One
The difficulty with The One, Elton’s first post-rehab album, is the degree to which it’s a piano, synth and drum machine creation hatched between the artist and programmer Olle Romo. Newly healthy, Elton is in a serious frame of mind and he turns in a set of well-written, if perhaps overly somber, new tunes whose impact is somewhat blunted by the dense atmospherics (most noticeably on the up-tempo tunes such as “Whitewash County”, whose jaunty Tumbleweed Connection-esque vibe is blown by too-distant vocals and synthesized fiddles).
There are exceptions, however…songs where the opaque, slightly mystic atmosphere creates a soundscape that enhances the subject matter. “Emily” is one such track, a tale of a dying spinster given a sympathetic treatment by both its lyricist and its singer. Conjuring up a similar hazy mythos as Double’s 1985 hit “Captain Of Her Heart,” “Emily” turns its “Eleanor Rigby” conceit on its head by portraying death as something more of wonder than of dread. Elton’s vocals, at first direct and cheerful, gradually turn into an echo from behind the wall of synths, like a ghost calling the protagonist’s name from beyond, dragging her willingly into a better infinity.
#41. All Quiet On The Western Front
album: Jump Up!
Before finalizing my list I went through youtube and my own music collection to review my own recollections and see how they held up to one another to come up with some kind of order. I did as thorough a job as my sanity would allow but to check myself (and also to troll for eyeballs, always important) I announced my intentions on Facebook so that Elton geeks could chime in on songs I might have missed.
For the most part, I’d already considered the suggestions, but when this track was mooted I decided to give it another listen. It had irritated me back in the day for some of its too-cheesy-or-bombastic synthesizer touches, but I’m going to give Elton a pass for Toto-izing his sound around this period later in this list (I don’t think this is a fatal mistake), so I should offer this tune the same clemency. Listening back the synths are not egregious and this is clearly a better song than the late-period ballad I had planned to put in this slot. In fact, some of the keyboard touches – the electric piano that underpins the Beach Boys-esque sleigh bell break to name one – are positively sublime. Notwithstanding “Empty Garden”‘s presence on the album, I think that this song was just too much of an emotionally heavy outlier on the otherwise pop-friendly (and for me, somewhat meh) Jump Up! for me to appreciate it at the time.
“All Quiet On The Western Front” is of course inspired by Eric Maria Remarque’s book of the same name about soldiers in World War I, and it’s one of Taupin’s more on-target social observations (he’s definitely better when he speaks on the overall human condition than when he hones in on, say, gender relations), zeroing in on the unglamorous banal cruelties and fatal stupidities of war as seen from the ground level. Musically Elton turns in a beautifully understated vocal – thank God he did not record this 20 years later. Though “Gone To Shiloh” on The Union marks similar territory, by that point the thoughtful and sober delivery on “All Quiet” has turned somnolent and dirgelike.
On “All Quiet” the arrangement is respectful to its topic without ever becoming morose. I particularly love the genuinely LOUD guitar divebomb that comes near the end, shaking us out of reverie and reminding listeners at home that in war, you don’t get a calm respite for very long. It may come crashing down at any moment.
#40. 16th Century Man
album: The Road To El Dorado
One of the problems with post-sobriety Elton is though his public, openly gay persona became more liberated and outspoken (and in his infrequent acting turns on TV shows such as Will and Grace and films such as Kingsmen: The Golden Circle, devastatingly funny), his own music lost much of its sense of humour. Even on the occasions when Elton still chose to rock out, there’s a sense of restraint and lugubriousness that prevents a lot of the songs from really taking off. “16th Century Man” largely avoids this. Navigating a ridiculous set of movie-related lyrics by Tim Rice for the film The Road To El Dorado, Elton feels like he’s having a grand old time on this simple but convincing mid-tempo rocker that is rooted in, but is never bogged down by, the blues. He even anchors the hook with repeated falsetto stabs like the old days. Good times.
#39. Postcards From Richard Nixon
album: The Captain and the Kid
As I’ve already mentioned Elton’s otherwise respectable effort to record a 2006 follow up to 1975’s autobiographical Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy was seriously hampered by the distractingly impaired state of his pipes. Unlike Live In Australia, where Elton faced the end of his singing career with a desperate and brave raw singing performance, when Elton gurgles or splutters trying to grab a not very high note or difficult sibilant, it just becomes something you have to consciously try to ignore to enjoy the rest of the song. That’s not good.
On the opening track “Postcards From Richard Nixon,” however, Elton reverts to the storyteller singing mode that he employed successfully on Songs From The West Coast and comes up with an unassuming winner. It doesn’t hurt that his wonderful extended piano intro puts one smack back into the time period of the song (1970-71) and that Taupin comes up with a marvelous set of lyrics that convey both his wide-eyed innocence and the more worldy-wise adult perspective of their initial arrival in the U.S.
Elton was there, too, and since his sometimes detached interpretation of Taupin’s material tends to vanish when he’s singing about an experience they both shared, he gives the reminiscence a sense of immediacy. When he sings trenchant lines like “our heroes led us by the hand/through Brian Wilson’s promised land” he connects with warmth and fondness to a long-lost, more innocent time in their (and some of our) lives.
#38. Wrap Her Up
album: Ice On Fire
Widely regarded (as are a few other of my choices here) as one of Elton’s least worthy hits, I almost left this one off the list because of the shitstorm reaction it might entail. Having listened to it one more time, though, I have to go to bat for it. While the digital padded room of an album it comes from, Ice On Fire, is one of Elton’s worst, its lead single “Wrap Her Up” is kinda awesome.
One reason that’s not immediately obvious is “Wrap Her Up” is not really an Elton John single; it’s an Elton John tribute single recorded by George Michael, who does a fantastic imitation of the goofy, and much missed, Elton falsetto that made so many of his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road-era tracks (think “Jamaica Jerk Off”) such cheesy fun.
Elton himself merely grunts a generic non-melody in response, playing straight man to his younger avatar, but who cares? Elton and George are clearly having a great time with it, as is the band (some of whom are co-credited as songwriters, indicating this arose from a jam session), who take advantage of the song’s simple two-chord structure to add lots of loopy touches (what’s with the bizarre “synthesized arrow” at 2:43?) and genuinely funky riffing.
The song is better appreciated with its video, which is hilarious (particularly the guest star that appears at 3:56). Everyone in the band gets caught up in the ridiculousness of two very gay men one-upping each other trying to think of the sexiest women in history (at one point Elton seems to run out of ideas, finally plumping for “Joan Collins!” Um, OK, sure).
Much of ’80s pop (particularly on the metal end of things) tended to be, musically, relentlessly dumb and sexist. If you look at this as a romp for two gay men standing on the sidelines taking the piss out of hyper-sexualized straight female objectification (similar in its way to the 4/5 homosexual B-52’s awesome hetero-romance parody “Song For A Future Generation”), much of your ’80s prejudice against this song and its dippy concept will likely vanish. “Wrap Her Up” is in on the joke.
#37. Town Of Plenty
album: Reg Strikes Back
Many of Elton’s ’80s albums opened with a rocker that raised hopes for a sterling return to form only to usually be dashed as song two started up (A lot of those songs are on this list, in fact).
As such, “Town Of Plenty” opened Elton’s first post-surgery album Reg Strikes Back, a middling-to-bad affair loaded with good intentions but weighed down by a few too many keyboards and the singer’s ongoing drug habit. “Town Of Plenty” isn’t really a rocker per se, more of a slightly overloaded freight train at cruising speed, but its faintly lumbering quality is overcome by the enthusiasm with which Elton sings a singularly daft and impenetrable set of lyrics that nonetheless sound wonderful and conjure up baffling, but intriguing, imagery: “And laid across the airstrip/were the passports and the luggage/All that once remained of the rugged individual.” Huh?
In this case, the detachment Elton sometimes brings to Taupin’s lyrics works to advantage as he just sails right in, not bothering to assess whether the words mean anything but just assuming they do and delivering them with gusto. The song also benefits from tight backing vocal support (by his old bandmates Davey, Dee and Nigel, their last such appearance before Dee Murray’s death from cancer in 1992) and from one of Elton’s most basic hooks, a three-note nursery rhyme melody that may have inspired the equally head-scratching kiddie-filled video that accompanied the song’s failed release as a single.
If memory serves Pete Townshend played on this track, though you’d never know.
#36. The Retreat
album: B-side of “Princess” (Bonus track on reissue of “Too Low For Zero”)
year: 1982 (recorded 1980)
When I asked for Facebook suggestions for this thread, this somewhat obscure song – the B-side of a single that never charted in the U.S. – came up a few times. As it happened, I had already flagged it for inclusion, but it shows to what degree fans of Elton’s earlier work will seek out the flashes of brilliance that come later. The fact that so many of Elton’s most interesting work in the ’80s wound up on the flip sides of singles (Leather Jackets‘ B-side, “Lord Of The Flies,” is better than nearly the entire album, though still not good enough to make this list) rather than as part of proper albums speaks somewhat to the commercial pressures of the times (or that Elton placed on himself).
A Civil War narrative (this being a favorite topic of Taupin’s), “The Retreat” mines similar territory to “All Quiet On The Western Front,” but while the mood here is similarly restrained (except for a couple of similarly regrettable but thankfully brief synthesizer flourishes), the song conveys a hint of hope built of resignation. While “Quiet” memorializes the banality of the horror of people caught up in war, “The Retreat” is both more conflicted and more life-affirming. It reflects on the waste and death while still quietly celebrating the moment when enough is finally enough, and the war-weary can pack up and go home to rebuild a quiet mundane life in relative peace.
#35. Dear John
album: Jump Up!
As I mentioned earlier, Elton tended to open even his mellower later albums with a rocker to show he was still awake, and these often slight but energetic creations tended to be highlights of the proceedings. Jump Up‘s kickoff tune “Dear John” starts out as an amiable rocker that gradually accelerates into a wannabe barn-burner with some of the manic piano-bashing energy of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” and it also shows to what extent Elton’s slightly demented-sounding falsetto could still drive the proceedings. The now slightly flat but still serviceable high notes that tauntingly end the chorus cascade into a breathless round at the fadeout when the hook truncates and repeats. It reminds us of the by-gone sound of Elton going full out hanging on for dear life but hanging on just fine nonetheless.
The main thing keeping the song from truly kicking into the stratosphere is a somewhat too-polite backing from the band, most noticeably Nigel Olsson’s somewhat clunky performance on the drums (one of the reasons for his initial dismissal in 1975 was his perceived inability to really drive a rock song). That said, it’s a quite enjoyable track for what it is.
#34. Just Like Belgium
album: The Fox
1981’s The Fox was one of Elton’s most commercially disappointing records, likely due to the brave but probably unwise choice of a downbeat Eurodisco remake (“Nobody Wins”) as its first single. That aside, it’s one of his most underrated albums, full of good tunes, interesting production that straddles eras, and dynamic playing.
This love letter to youthful bohemia didn’t grab me at the time, but it has grown in stature over the years. It’s a perfect straightforward pop tune that hums along without ever missing a step or flagging in energy, from its hook-laden chorus to its Billy Joel-esque sax riffing.
The Fox was also released (a year after its release and commercial failure) as a video album called Visions, and thus “Just Like Belgium” also has a quite enjoyable video attached to it. The sound quality is poor, however, so I’ve linked to a non-video rip from the CD.
#33. Hey Papa Legba
album: B-side to “Blue Eyes”
Another quirky ’80s B-side, another impenetrable Taupin lyric about a voodoo doctor in jail or…something like that. The whole point is to let Elton sing “Hey Papa Legba, hoo-boop-a-do”; as satisfying a piece of gibberish as ever to fall from Elton’s drawling lips to form a hook.
Setting aside its “Solar Prestige A Gammon”-meets”I Am The Walrus” non-lyrical pretensions, the song benefits from the chaotic sonic fullness that characterizes Elton’s most compelling rockers, and a vague sense of menace that usually doesn’t. Besides Elton’s eerily redoubled piano driving the hook, there’s a shredding metal guy on the guitar (Richie Zito or Steve Lukather, in all probability), aggressive bass (Dee Murray most likely) and a full horn section vying for attention in the busy mix. This sounds like a mess, and it is…but when it all comes together on one of Elton’s epic fade outs with the man randomly spouting more vocal gibberish over the top of it all, it’s a glorious one. Add in the midrangey sense of distance that comes from a vinyl rip and it actually becomes the blast from another vague world that Taupin implies with the goofy title.
album: Made In England
1995’s Made In England is not as well-known as 1983’s Too Low For Zero or 2001’s Songs From The West Coast, but along with those albums it has the distinction of being about as good as or a bit better than one of Elton’s lesser ’70s records (say, Caribou or Rock of the Westies). It’s a far more organic-sounding album than its recent predecessors, with chiming acoustic and electric guitars featured as often as the sometimes still too-weighty keyboard textures.
“Latitude” is a bit of a sleeper track that did not draw my notice at first listen but has lingered with me over the years. A waltz driven by mandolin, stately orchestration by George Martin, and wonderfully relaxed harmonies from Elton, it conjures up a Sunday walk on a cloudy day by someone who has lived long enough to be satisfied with no destination. “Weight of the World” from 2004’s wildly overrated Peachtree Road covers similar ground, but even though “Latitude” speaks of the loneliness of a long distance relationship and “Weight” speaks of contentment, the latter song’s lack of ambition is slightly depressing, while “Latitude” is quietly uplifting – an ode to gentle observation, reflectiveness, and the simple pleasures and sadnesses of life.
#31. Simple Life
album: The One
The opening track from Elton’s post-recovery comeback album The One, “Simple Life” is one of its tracks whose ambitions are enhanced, rather than hampered, by the lush electronic atmospherics of that album’s production.
After reaching a turning point in his own life, Taupin’s lyric about leaving urban chaos for a simpler existence must have resonated for Elton. The ephemerality of this yearning is emphasized by the eerie harmonica hook (an instrument rarely heard on Elton’s records) and the deep surfy twang of Davey Johnstone’s guitar, which lock in with the dreamy and slightly sinister keyboard patches to create a soundscape of longing. That reverie is periodically disrupted by the songwriters’ simple but emphatic chorus hook that insists the dream of escape will absolutely be willed into reality at a later date.
The song’s ambiguous sonics, contrasted with the determination of its refrain, begs the question whether this is a dream that is always destined to stay unfulfilled, or whether the sense of longing is just a deferred happy ending. Within the terms of what makes a satisfying listening experience, that’s a good thing.
#30. Never Love Her Like Me
album: Songs From The West Coast
“Never Love Her Like Me” is a bit of a sleeper track from Elton’s near-return-to-form album Songs From The West Coast. It shares some guitar (and sitar?) atmospherics with Davey Johnstone’s prior performance on “Simple Life,” and while the track has a similar slightly spooky vibe, it’s a vastly clearer recording overall, with the synthesizers way in the background and real drums and piano right up front. With its soaring, gradually unfolding minor-key chorus (abetted by some subtle but able backing vocals), the song has a winning rainy day vibe similar to that of Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation In the Backyard.
#29. Since God Invented Girls
album: Reg Strikes Back
Elton John is a major Beach Boys fan, and occasionally that influence spilled over into outright pastiche. One of two such tracks on this list, “Since God Invented Girls” is the closing track on Reg Strikes Back and the only song on the album to offer evidence that Elton’s falsetto had made it through his recent throat surgery intact.
To enjoy the track we must first dispense with Taupin’s truly unfortunate lyrics, which no doubt are coming from a genuine place of female admiration but just don’t sit right and honestly even in those less PC times never really did. The imagery is just…well, I get what he was going for, but the word choices like “give a little heat boys/to straighten out them curls” sound a bit transgressive and gross.
Setting that aside, Elton, guitarist Davey Johnstone and producer Chris Thomas do a truly astounding job conjuring up the slightly mystical vibe of a late period Beach Boys track (think Pacific Ocean Blue or the Wilson brothers’ songs on L.A.), particularly impressive considering the prevailing production values of their time. It does also of course feature backing vocals from Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnson along with a few longtime BBs sidemen, and they most assuredly bring the goods. A wonderful listening experience and a happy triumph for all concerned, save perhaps the lyricist.
#28. Ball And Chain
album: Jump Up!
A failed third single from Jump Up!, “Ball and Chain” got a considerable amount of AOR airplay at the time, probably due in no small part to the prominent acoustic guitar that drives the song courtesy of the Who’s Pete Townshend. “Ball and Chain” is in fact a bit of a curio in Elton’s catalog in that it barely features keyboards at all (a harmonium does come in about halfway through), and in fact with its heavy emphasis on rhythmic accents, delayed vocals and slightly distant, sped up harmonies, it sounds a bit like what Lindsey Buckingham was doing about the same time with Fleetwood Mac, or perhaps like Nick Lowe. Not a track that I appreciated much at the time, but crisp and appealing to these ears now.
I did not realize they made a video (which cuts off the beginning and end, sorry about that) for the song that amusingly plays up Elton’s non-playing on the tune. Oddly, Elton’s former band members Davey Johnstone, Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray appear prominently on camera, but they are not in any of the videos for the next album which marked their much-ballyhooed return to playing together on record.
#27. Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher
album: Billy Elliot – The Musical, Special Edition
To do my due diligence for this article I scanned through Elton John’s later extensive work writing music for plays and film. For the most part, it’s about what you’d expect – highly competent craftsmanship appropriate to the art forms that’s otherwise likely of limited interest to anyone who would happen across this blog (and if you have kids you’re sick of The Lion King by now anyway, regardless of how much it hit you at the time).
There is an exception, however. Elton prepared a series of production demos for his work on the 2005 musical Billy Elliot, based on a hit British film of the same name. The demos have a high level of production value but stop short of being overly polished for an official release – which is to say they have just the right amount of roughness – and Elton brings a great deal of verve and personality to the proceedings. It’s likely that Elton related deeply to the story of a young English misfit who wants to buck convention and become a ballet dancer, and he brings a level of engagement and personality to the demos that doesn’t manifest on most of his later work, where he tends to take himself a little too seriously.
“Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher” is a highlight of these tracks, and saw official release (barely) on a deluxe edition of the soundtrack. Working with an unusually direct political statement courtesy of lyricist and screenwriter Lee Hall (Taupin’s lyrical politics, when stated, tend to be of a vaguely outraged “pox on all their houses” variety), Elton – probably with vivid memories of Thatcher’s gay-unfriendly policy making in the ’80s – tears into the song’s vicious lyrics with gusto. The production is organic, jaunty and season-appropriate – sort of a mean-spirited “Step Into Christmas” if you will.
#26. Kiss The Bride
album: Two Low For Zero
The now mostly-forgotten single released between the two stone classics “I’m Still Standing” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” from Elton’s excellent 1983 reunion with his original band, Too Low For Zero, “Kiss The Bride” is a pounding, offbeat little rocker that blows through like a blast of fresh post-new wave air (though again one could wish for less of a clunky effort from drummer Nigel Olsson but he is who he is…one of rock’s great ballad drummers). Here Elton plays synth rather than piano so as to not undercut the rock vibe (a strategy he used again on the follow-up, Breaking Hearts). It’s easy to miss how great the hook is until you watch footage of the band performing it at Wembley Stadium the following year, and thousands of people raise their fists in the air and even mimic Elton’s piano leap when the chorus gets to the “yeah!” response. Jump up, indeed.
#25. Elton’s Song
album: The Fox
I first heard this song when Elton performed it, with no explanation or attribution, on an awards show he hosted a year or two prior to its release. I thought it was one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard and was disappointed that each successive release failed to feature it. To be fair, it would have been on an odd choice for inclusion on Victim of Love. It finally turned up on The Fox inexplicably titled “Elton’s Song” and it did not disappoint.
Co-written with Tom Robinson of “Glad To Be Gay” fame, the song is not just beautiful – the keening falsetto that tops off the end of the verse alone is worth the price of admission – but its subject matter, a homosexual schoolboy’s crush, was very daring for a mainstream pop tune in 1981, particularly since Elton’s admission of his bisexuality five years earlier had led to a dip in popularity he was still recovering from. The song was actually banned in some markets.
The video for the song, included in the Visions video album that was released the following year, made the topic of the song crystal clear for anyone who had any doubt – so explicit for its time that the private school where it was filmed demanded it be cut from the British release. It seems likely that Elton connected on a deep level with its tale of a lonely boy and a forbidden, impossible romantic longing (the song’s title suggests as much), and he was still performing it at solo shows years later, still managing its gorgeous high notes even as he eschewed them on all other songs.
The track is also groundbreaking for another reason: the lush string section that backs Elton’s piano is actually entirely synthesized. While this kind of faux-orchestral arrangement is commonplace now, this was pre-sampling 1981, when synthesizers had only just barely gone polyphonic and had a limited and somewhat cheesy tonal palette. The fact that the synthesizers sound so authentic and organic given the primitive tools at his disposal is a testament to keyboardist James Newton-Howard’s formidable arrangement and programming skills, and it’s no surprise that he went on to a distinguished career as a film composer.
#24. Part Time Love
album: A Single Man
When asked in an interview some years ago what hit songs Elton would like to disappear from his discography, he singled out “Heartache All Over The World” and this song for the trash heap. They both appear on this list nonetheless, and for the same reason: they’re great pop songs.
With its dry production, chorused lead guitar (courtesy of Davey Johnstone, his only appearance on the album) and blowsy orchestration, “Part Time Love” is very much a product of its time, 1978, which happened to be a great year for pop music.
While Elton’s self-production was certainly more straightforward than what Gus Dudgeon had accomplished before him (though Blue Moves had already started a trend towards just pointing a mic at the band and letting the faders fly), most of the criticism of the song and the album from whence it came was leveled at Gary Osborne’s somewhat mediocre lyrics, judging wanting by comparison to the temporarily departed Bernie Taupin. Given how many times Bernie himself swung and whiffed (albeit more interestingly), Osborne gets something of a bum rap – he cowrote “Forever Autumn” after all, and that’s a pretty fricking awesome song – but the enthusiastically pro-infedility lyrics here do indeed raise an eyebrow.
All that said, “Part Time Love” zips along with some of the same careening energy of the single that preceded it, “Ego,” albeit with a few layers of inaccessibility removed. Another connection to “Ego” that’s not immediately obvious is its complexity. My band undertook to learn all of Elton’s chart singles of the ’70s for a show and “Part Time Love” was by far the most difficult to learn and execute. There is a lot going on here structurally that whizzes by in its quest for frothy pop perfection. Elton’s confident piano comping and Ray Cooper’s tambourine – who else plays a tambourine like that? – keep things moving along, while the impressive orchestration, tight rhythm guitar and gospel-tinged backing vocals which fill out the song’s busy but effective arrangement fly by like telephone poles on the freeway. So much to take in and to listen for again and again.
#23. This Town
album: Ice On Fire
Yet another impressive opening song on a (far) less impressive album, it’s easy to forget how good “This Town” is given how stultifying the remainder of Ice On Fire turned out to be. Returning producer Gus Dudgeon (again, Gus, what happened?) plumped for a clinical digital approach, making an album that actually features quite a large and accomplished band (including a live horn section) and some impressive guests (Queen, Nik Kershaw, George Michael) somehow sound like a bunch of sequencers anyway.
“This Town” is such a great song, and the band is cooking so hard, it works anyway – the digital flourishes at the beginning and end are just that, flourishes, and they actually do add something. It’s got one of Elton’s best-ever choruses (yet another exploration of the power of the 7-4-1 progression), his gutteral vocals manage to convey real excitement, and the band generates heat, particularly on the outro. The horn section and drummer Charlie Morgan – who brings the kind of adventurous in-the-moment drive that was lacking on the previous two Olsson-propelled releases – deserve special praise.
And as good as the album version is, I am linking to a live television performance of the song instead. It dispenses entirely with the studio version’s minor techno touches in favor of Elton’s piano (he even nails the song’s fiendishly difficult synth bass line) and with able backing from the band, knocks the song into the next century. It’s tremendous. Enjoy.
#22. Take Me Down To The Ocean
album: “Summer Lovers” Soundtrack
This virtually unknown B-side, which also escaped notice on 1982’s hugely successful soundtrack to the film Summer Lovers (remember “Hard To Say I’m Sorry”? Sure you do. That soundtrack), is even more of a glorious mess than is usual for such things. It’s not hard to see why this never made it on to an album – the mix, which amps the guitars and buries the drums, is atrocious, and the bass player (hate to say it, it sounds like Dee Murray) is ruinously overplaying throughout, including some puzzling dominant 7ths played insistently in favor of the root on the choruses. The chorus may have also been a bit too similar to the recent released “Breaking Down Barriers.”
Technical flaws aside – and no one can say this track lacks for energy – this is still one of the all-time great Elton throwaway tracks, blending Elton’s melodic smarts – compositionally, all the various sections of the song shine separately while flowing together as a whole – with the sensibility of a New Wave band trying to do a Beach Boys tribute.
Speaking of which, there’s some question over who is doing the unusually elaborate – and extremely good – Beach Boys-styled vocals that transcend the flaws of the track to make this a special record. At some point some wag on youtube claimed it actually was the Beach Boys, and although this has never been disproven (it does have a little bit of the Al Jardine sound in spots), a lively discussion on the old Smiley Smile board produced a credit from somewhere that said the backing vocalists were Elton’s old standbys from the ’70s, Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson (excepting the falsetto vocals, which are Elton himself). They certainly had the chops to do it, but as far as is known Davey wasn’t back in the studio with the band until 1983. It’s surprising then that so much effort was put into the backing vocals given the issues with the basic track and its ultimate destination as a B-side. Perhaps, besides wanting to homage the Beach Boys, it was an effort to fix things in post that failed. Regardless, the song remains a curious – and wonderful – little artifact despite its technical shortcomings.
#21. I Want Love
album: Songs From The West Coast
As the lead single for Elton’s impressive late-career artistic comeback Songs From The West Coast, I find “I Want Love” to be an ever-so-slightly overrated track. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an impressive piece, particularly its endlessly unwinding, Beatles-inflected chorus (the song, particularly given the sound of the piano, mid-bar drum fills, major scale wandering bass and its unadorned bluntness, is an obviously intended Beatles-Lennon homage). But the track is a little dirge-like and doesn’t really have a lot in the way of hooks, nor does Elton’s somewhat monotonous, hoarse baritone add much dynamics, though it’s effective enough tonally in conveying the song’s sense of exhausted resignation.
It’s a well-respected track mostly for its brutal honesty, courtesy as always of Bernie Taupin, and for the outstanding video pantomiming of the song by Robert Downey, Jr. It’s a worthy, well-arranged track that makes an impact – the band plays great – but there are better songs on the album, and for that matter on other albums from this period. The uniquely world-weary, no punches pulled emotional exhaustion of the song resonates with a lot of people, however, and that more than anything is the mark of a successful song.
album: Made in England
Paul Buckmaster, whose idiosyncratic and groundbreaking orchestral arrangements were a key part of Elton’s early albums, announces his return to the fold on this song with an extended orchestral intro and outro. After years of mushy synths, to hear Buckmaster’s lush but edgy and slightly dissonant flourishes given full reign again on an Elton album posivitely sends chills of anticipation up one’s spine.
At two minutes in, the orchestra gives way to Elton and his piano, making its way through a poignant melody that would not have been out of place on Elton John. The song, a valentine to then war-torn northern Ireland, makes the most of Elton’s and Taupin’s balladeering strengths. Taupin is at his best when he writes about difficult topics with an honest lack of drama, and Elton’s at his best when he’s singing about something he actually cares about. Both are in play here, and unlike many late period ballads, nothing feels facile or gratuitous. Elton’s vocal is dignified and sensitive, with no trace of overemoting.
Returning to the song, the string section gradually folds back in as the second verse progresses. The middle eight enters with its first hint of Gaelic instrumentation, which then beautifully mingles with Buckmaster’s orchestration through an instrumental passage that leads into back to Elton’s piano and voice. From there on out, it’s simply pure beauty, Buckmaster and Elton re-enacting the same gorgeous dance that highlighted their early work together. At six (!) minutes in, the conversation finally ends, and then a fugue of Irish music comes from nowhere, plays for about thirty seconds, and fades into the night – a Buckmaster-instigated inclusion to end the somber song on a positive note. A majestic, quiet triumph.
#19. Fascist Faces
album: The Fox
Few artists have explored the power and majesty of the 7-4-1 chord progression more often and more effectively than Elton John. It’s a sound that drew me to his music from the very beginning, and to the extent a set of chord changes can communicate anything specific, 7-4-1 means some big shit is going down, and you’d better pay attention (example: the intro to the Spinners’ “Rubberband Man”). And with due respect to “This Town” above, perhaps Elton’s most effective and portentious use of this admittedly well-worn musical trick is on this largely forgotten track on the largely forgotten 1981 album The Fox.
The obscurity of “Fascist Faces” puzzles me, because to my ears, it’s an all-time great in Elton’s discography. True, Taupin’s lyrics overreach a bit (Turtlesque/Hare’s breadth? Really?), but the lament about being “linked to the KGB” sure sounds a lot less paranoid now than it did then – and oddly Elton’s tight, arms folded stance in the video does look a bit like the current U.S. president’s. But once you buy into the “some big shit is going down” meme, if indeed you do, the recording sells it like crazy.
The production on this track, by newcomer Chris Thomas (who went on to do some very good work on subsequent albums) is phenomenal. Elton’s piano sounds like it’s down a well in a good way, playing spatially off the drums, which are HUGE (at least for 1981), to create a sense of drama. Richie Zito’s shredding guitar may be offputting to pop purists, but wow! If you’re gonna shred, shred on something like this, right?
Yet when the time comes for the solo, it’s Elton who steps up, with an indiosyncratic, jazz-inflected piano meandering that shouldn’t work on such a heavy track, but totally does. Then in comes Rev. James Cleveland and his gospel choir – last heard on the 1976 hit “Bite Your Lip,” to slam the chorus home. Cleveland even adds a bit of a benediction, and then we’re into the outro. Zito goes full metal fire bomb, the drums go for the big fill and I’m sorry, it’s glorious. Fists in the air, dude!
Incidentally, wikipedia claims Nigel Olsson drums on this track. Given his draggy performance on some of the heavier tunes on the albums that follow, that’s surprising, but Chris Thomas’ production trickery notwithstanding, this is an inspired performance. (Lest it seem I am overly bashing Nigel, he’s one of my favorite drummers of all time – but his strength is in the ballads)
#18. Earn While You Learn
album: B-side of “I’m Still Standing” (bonus track on reissue of “Too Low For Zero”)
year: 1983 (recorded 1978)
With the enormous amount of success Elton John has had as a songwriter and singer, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he is a phenomenal musician. He is to piano what John Bonham was to the drums – someone who could physically attack the instrument with the brutest of force yet still play with finesse and precise time.
Though he usually confined himself to piano, Elton did occasionally dabble in other keyboard instruments and for a brief period in 1978 and again in 1983-84 got heavily into synthesizers and performed all the keyboards on his albums itself. “Earn While You Learn” is a product of this period of experimentation, a B-side of such jaw-dropping technical brilliance and what-the-fuckery that the first time I heard it come over my iTunes I had to pull over to come to grips with exactly what I was listening to.
An instrumental (except for Elton announcing the take at the outset), “Earn While You Learn” goes on for nearly seven minutes and never overstays its welcome. The guitarist (Tim Renwick) starts things off with a quasi-funk riff by way of Andy Summers, and then the band comes in, with Elton on piano, what sounds like a Farfisa organ, and a stabbing synth, all comping effectively.
Everything’s percolating well until at :43 a rapid-fire melody on what sounds like a Wurlitzer appears out of nowhere. It’s a technically murderous and bizarre musical statement worthy of Frank Zappa, and it keeps restating itself in various ways throughout as Elton and Renwick percolate on their instruments with increasing complexity. Then, at 1:40, everything crashes to a halt. Suddenly, a Mellotron appears and, offset by the Farfisa, we’re the half-time Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. And then Renwick-Summers starts back up, and we’re off again.
The song goes in this increasingly demented but technically precise manner for another five minutes, with the various parts developing more and more until by the end, all Elton’s keyboard parts are interlocking, seemingly both randomly and with machine-like precision all at once. It’s a dizzying, spell-binding performance, a testimony to Elton’s prodigious chops and sense of musical adventure that were sometimes hidden from easy view.
#17. Made In England
album: Made In England
Lyrically an update of sorts to “I’m Still Standing,” Elton (with Bernie Taupin’s help) looks back on overcoming bigotry and a wounded childhood through a life of constant forward movement with a sense of triumph. Like many of the songs on Made In England, synthesizers take a back seat to Davey Johnstone’s Beatlesque guitar flourishes, providing its title track with a greater sense of immediacy and momentum than many of the otherwise worthy rockers that peppered Elton’s ’80s albums. Musically simple, Elton nonetheless gives us a deadly effective chorus hook, two modulations (up and back down) and a fabulous harmonized tag against Davey Johnstone’s repeating guitar riff, with a little bit of patented controlled fade-out chaos from Elton’s piano and various string flourishes. Drums could be a bit less metronomic (as usual) but they drive the band so well that it’s a minor quibble. A track that delivers on every level.
#16. It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy
album: A Single Man
This is one of those tracks I had to go back and listen to to make sure it was really as cool as I remembered it being. An endlessly repeating downtempo track that goes on for 8 minutes? Is this really going to stand up to scrutiny? I went back and yes, it’s just that good. 8 minutes of good.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first: the lyrics are mediocre, and occasionally bad. In this case, they exist to give Elton something to sing and write to, no more. And if you’re expecting the song to have a B section, it doesn’t. If those are deal breakers, skip this one. This track is all about performance. Still with me? Let’s proceed, then:
While it’s structured differently, “It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy” calls to mind a midtempo uptown blues, the kind of sophisticated, 1-4-5-defying round that B.B. King perfected. As such, it depends entirely on the execution and mood of the players to hold one’s attention, and boy do they deliver. You have four key elements in syncopated play: Tim Renwick’s perfectly tasteful and tone-rich lead guitar, Elton’s reliable piano comping, Paul Buckmaster’s distinctive and endlessly inventive orchestration, and Ray Cooper’s gauzy vibraphone (with erstwhile Wings drummer Steve Holley providing some welcome development just at the point when things start to get monotonous). And one more thing: Elton’s vocal. 1978 was nearly his peak as a vocalist, where he started to explore his low register while still having full command of his falsetto range, and as the track goes on he improvises more and more freely and impressively.
Some of Elton’s best work in the ’70s (and into the early ’80s) is about the interplay of the musicians, of able players stretching out in service of the song while staying out of one another’s way. Even with an unfamiliar band and a long repetitive track, this quality makes “It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy” a satisfying listen.
album: Made In England
Elton John (at least in the ’70s and ’80s) was unquestionably a pop guy, but he was never a power pop guy. It’s hard to be one, anyway, when you don’t play guitar. He was, however, a huge music geek, a fan of the Beatles and Beach Boys who came of age as an omniglot consumer of ’60s pop and rock music. An unassuming grower of a song, “Please” is half delightful semi-homage to that era, half laidback country rock (with a hint of Roy Orbison thrown in for good measure), and all are extremely agreeable hats for Elton to try on, and appropriate to this ode to easygoing romantic familiarity.
Like many of Made In England‘s best tracks, Davey Johnstone’s rich acoustic and 12-string electric guitars anchor things (there’s no piano at all that I can discern), and there are nice subtle touches around the margins such as the rich harmony vocals and Johnstone’s tone pedal swells. The track is a little overly dense and the lead vocals could be less fettered with effects and layering, but these are minor quibbles. The video, which visually references ’60s swinging London and Andy Warhol, is also a nice reminder that though Elton is not associated with that era, he was around for it. I can’t think of any other instance where Elton essayed jangle-pop, but it worked out great here, and given his background, why shouldn’t it?
#14. I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That
album: Reg Strikes Back
Like many artists, Elton integrated the new technology that came of age in the 1980s into his songwriting and recording approach. For a player as syncopated and time-focused as Elton, having a drum machine to write songs to must have been a boon to him – but it also meant that the song arrangements did not benefit from working them up in studio with a like-minded off-center rhythmist like Nigel Olsson.
As I said in the intro, much of the problem with later Elton tracks (and honestly, much of pop music in the ’80s) is even when he has a good tune and the production is sympathetic, the drums don’t deviate much from a straight 2/4. I’m a fan of a 2/4 beat, and simple drumming in general, but there are times that the drums need to break things up to keep momentum going. With a syncopation-obsessed player like Elton, keeping the beat straight at all times is a missed opportunity. The interplay between Elton and his rhythm section (Dee Murray being a particularly thoughtful and adventurous bassist) was a big ingredient to Elton’s successful run of hit singles and albums in the ’70s – “Honky Cat” wouldn’t exist without it. Despite the return of his classic band members, and the involvement of some extremely talented musicians otherwise, this quality of rhythmic interplay all but vanishes after around 1982. I think that most likely is due to the change in the songwriting and recording workflow.
However, sometimes a drum machine and a piano works just fine; ask Bruce Hornsby. It’s hard to imagine “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That,” a surprise smash (#2!) and his first uptempo hit in years, without that ice pick drum machine front and center. Its unwavering pulse allows the simple but effective minor-t0-major chord progression to gather intensity as Elton’s digital piano (and boy, 30 years later, that piano sample really sounds horrible, but whatevs) riffing becomes more and more insistent (and towards the end, slightly unhinged). Secret weapon: the song’s bridge section, which breaks things up with a cameo harmony break by Davey, Dee and Nigel in their last appearance together on a major Elton hit, and sounding like they just parachuted in from 1973.
Greater than the sum of its parts, “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” shows that sometimes all you need is the rock of an idea and a stick to rub it up against. It just plain works.
(Incidentally, Elton took the drum track from this song and as a joke, repurposed it to record a hysterically funny – or deeply offensive, depending on how sacred the song is to you – deconstruction of “Give Peace A Chance” that was included on his 1990 box set To Be Continued. Worth seeking out at least once)
#13. Breaking Down Barriers
album: The Fox
Yet another uptempo opening track from an ’80s album, this one differs slightly from others on this list in that it doesn’t immediately outclass most of the rest of what follows (The Fox is a strong and diverse effort that, if you don’t mind the presence of various Toto members and associates in the credits, rewards repeated listening), and also because it has a more adventurous production than Elton merely bashing away at the piano with the band keeping up as best they can. He even evolves his go-to 7-4-1 progression into something more expansive and modulated. There’s a sense of drama and space with how the arpeggiated piano intro is recorded, and the overall slightly gauzy soundscape manages to make things sound epic without diminishing the song’s sense of momentum or immediacy. Everything here just gives a little extra beyond what’s required of “here’s the opening track”. Like all the best Elton uptempo offerings, there’s lots going on with the band, interesting musical and arrangement developments, the energy never flags…and there’s a great fade-out.
#12. One More Arrow
album: Too Low For Zero
Elton John’s youthful falsetto was a thing of wonder. It could ridiculously power a fun hook on a song like “Crocodile Rock.” Slap on a little reverb and double-tracking and it became poignant and yearning (think “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”). The gradual erosion of Elton’s singing range over time forced a rethink of his songwriting options. He did acquire a much deeper, more robust baritone which served some songs well – but the high swooping melodies, the emotional vulnerability, the sensation of soaring, not to mention a lot of the fun – once the tool of Elton’s upper register was out of the box, all those elements suffered greatly.
This is nowhere better on display than “One More Arrow,” which holds the distinction of being the very last song that makes extensive use of Elton’s falsetto. It’s a commonly held belief that Elton’s 1987 throat surgery caused the shift, but that is not entirely true. Elton had already begun to sing lower as far back as 1977, and he did continue to sing some lower falsetto the first few years after his surgery. This stops almost completely after 1990, making the infrequent high voice cameos on tracks like 1995’s “Cold” a bit shocking when they happen. Rather than losing his falsetto entirely (he still uses it for a few isolated notes live, notably on “Levon”) it seems to have just become increasingly difficult for him to sing that way. Indeed you can hear the signs of strain at points on “One More Arrow,” which – appropriately for such a swan song – is sung almost entirely in Elton’s gentle and increasingly fragile upper range.
“One More Arrow” is a song about loss, and it’s the nakedness of Elton’s lilting vocal throughout that powers it emotionally. The high, keening melody staying aloft – in tune the “arrow” metaphor – is what makes this more than just another Elton ballad. The song consists almost entirely of piano and orchestral backing (with some discreet input from the band later on), and when you compare this delivery to that on a later ballad of similar quality – say, “The One” – you get a sense of what was lost when Elton stopped singing high. “The One” is strong, confident, and the singing is technically better – but like most of Elton’s later ballads, there’s a sense of sameness, of a song being pretty, well executed, but dramatic rather than deeply felt – it’s a big panorama of a dramatic landscape rather than a quiet close up of someone’s tear-stained face.
There are exceptions (“Belfast” above is one) but as Elton came to increasingly turn to ballads, the more robust singing style he turned to both by preference and necessity came at the expense of considerable vulnerability. “One More Arrow” is a lovely elegy both for the fallen father in the lyric, and the final appearance of the singer’s youthful voice brings with ti the aching sense of loss that comes with the realization that all things are temporary. Listen with an open heart, and you’ll come away with a lump in your throat.
#11. Chasing The Crown
album: 21 at 33
The first of a number of album-opening Elton piano barn burners to kick off so-so ’80s albums, “Chasing The Crown” is arguably the best. I say arguably, because unlike every other song here, I’m having trouble saying exactly why – but when I A/B it to the other songs of this ilk, it’s just better. I’ll try to quantify this somehow but not sure if I’ll succeed.
Some context here: Elton’s initial reapparance after his 1976 retirement was really a series of tangents and experiments; 1978’s A Single Man found Elton without his producer, his long-time lyricist, and nearly all of his band. The following year saw the three-song Thom Bell Sessions EP – a flirtation with Philly soul that put Elton back in the top 10, but without much creative or stylistic input from the artist – and the discofied Victim of Love, which was universally reviled, then, as now.
It was time to get serious, and Elton’s new album for 1980, 21 at 33, had a sense of getting down to business and reclaiming his place in the pop music world (it also occasioned his first large-scale tour with a band since his retirement). “Chasing The Crown,” then, was the opening shot across the bow. Elton was back.
Well, not quite. 21 at 33 is actually one of Elton’s weakest albums; grossly overproduced, self-consciously commercial (Elton even does a winceworthy, unironic stab at a quasi-Christian ballad with “Dear God”, dragging Bruce Johnston, Peter Noone and Toni Tennille along for the humiliation), and gimmicky – the Eagles even show up to sing backup on a song about cocaine. Maybe opening the album with a paean to Satan was his perverse means of atonement – certainly this is more Taupin’s speed than casual sermonizing (“Chasing The Crown” is one of three songs on 21 at 33 he provided lyrics for, though to hedge his bets, Elton also writes with Gary Osborne, Tom Robinson and protegé Judy Tzuke), though its position on the album suggests a statement of purpose from Elton that he’s back in the game, and in it to win, whatever it takes.
So, again, why is “Chasing The Crown” so good? It has none of the atmosphere of “Breaking Down Barriers,” the zany energy of “Dear John” or the balls-out intensity of “This Town.” I kind of don’t have an answer. I think it’s the way the song sets the table and then follows through. Elton uses the 7-4-1 progression for the verse this time, starting strong compositionally but leaving himself room to pay off the chorus. Also, with its hoochied female backing vocals, heavy rhythm and harmony guitar (and the first appearance of the quasi-metal shreddin’ that appears on the next two albums, which I personally have no problem with), rumbling bass, and more subdued drumming, it’s a very circa 1980 rock song. Put it this way – while you might deplore that “Chasing The Crown” sounds a bit like an Eagles or Toto track, it’s a sound with its own charms that becomes more compelling once you put Elton in the creative mix. It is indeed the kind of record that FM AOR radio would have looked on favorably, which on an album as calculated as 21 at 33 was probably the point. (By the way, Elton did get the hit he wanted – “Little Jeannie” – but did not fully re-establish himself commercially until three years later)
Incidentally, the video for this song (there was a video?) is a baffling hoot. Elton – looking very rough around the edges – was shot playing the piano in front of a statue whose prominently erect penis sits at the very center of many of the shots. This may have occasioned the otherwise pointless shots of dancing girls that form the rest of the video. As if it couldn’t get any weirder, at the very end the frame pulls away to reveal unmanned video cameras pointing at a confused model standing in front of two more penis statues, then to a different model picking up a piece of paper off the floor, at which point it cuts out. I have no idea what that was about, unless it had something to do with “White Lady, White Powder.”
#10. Cold As Christmas
album: Too Low For Zero
It’s a sign of how good the album was, and how good the song is, that instead of the typical rock opener Elton opened his intended “return to form” album Too Low For Zero with this atmospheric ballad (“I’m Still Standing” was the second song!). Not only are Bernie Taupin and the old band back, but so on this song are Ray Cooper, Kiki Dee and Skaila Kanga (harpist on Elton’s first two U.S. albums) for good measure. It might have been a few too many rabbit’s feet, but it worked. As soon as “Cold As Christmas” got rolling and those gorgeous “aah” harmonies of old popped in, you knew that he’d pulled it off and this was one album that wasn’t going to disappoint.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of Elton’s very strongest ballads. The soundscape is lush but not muddy. Some random keyboard touches update things a bit, but it’s the same sense of nostalgic expansiveness that fueled the best tracks on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It’s also one of Taupin’s more offbeat and compassionate lyrics, sung from the point of view of a retired man who takes a tropical vacation to try to rekindle his marriage, but it doesn’t work. Taupin at his best gets at the heart of the human condition without being overly sentimental, and “Cold As Christmas” respects that with a moving, understated performance by the classic team reassembled for the occasion. A proud moment for all concerned.
#9. I Cry At Night
album: B-side of “Part Time Love,” (bonus track on reissue of “A Single Man”)
By all accounts, by the time of Blue Moves the dark side of success had gotten very dark indeed for both Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin, occasioning the former’s retirement and the latter’s retreat to Mexico to sober up and clear his head. There was no 1977 album to chronicle that state of affairs, but “I Cry At Night,” a Bernie Taupin lyric from the time period that was used as the B-side for the jaunty “Part Time Love,” gives us a sense of what that would have been like – isolated, bleak, and one step away from suicide.
It all starts out pleasantly enough. Over simple major chords, Elton sings “this house that I live in has no reason/this house that I sleep in has no purpose.” Then it drops to a minor chord, and he further reveals “it has a bed, and a few old chairs. Three flights up, two flights of stairs.” Uh-oh. If someone has nothing better to do then count steps and furniture, that person is not, in Elton’s words, a “well Budgie.”
As Bernie, speaking through Elton, elaborates further, things get no less bleak. The grim, sepulchral chord changes and minimalist production, consisting only of Elton’s piano, what sounds like a pianet, and Elton’s stark, reverb-drenched harmonies, underlines the sense of isolation and desolation as Bernie lays bare a profound sense of emptiness. Anyone who’s ever suffered from depression knows what “when the lights go out it’s tough to survive” means. Though Elton had his own share of bad moments, as a marker of the lowest ebb of his longtime songwriting partner’s life, “I Cry At Night” is a singularly dark and evocative moment in his discography.
#8. This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore
album: Songs From The West Coast
Ping-ponging between the closing-credits reflectiveness of its intro and chorus, the tasty grooving of the verse, and the drama of the bridge, “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” musically and lyrically deftly unifies two main themes: nostalgia for the past and the acknowledgment that the past is gone and it wasn’t as good as you remember it, anyway.
Speaking with Bernie’s reliably cynical voice on the final track of Songs From The West Coast, the much-praised return to his ’70s roots, Elton reveals that it’s all a con…maybe this is a big deal to you, but it’s just business to him. And yet, the sad resignation of the intro and outro chords and the weariness of the chorus which still carries a hint of the soaring grandeur of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road suggests there’s more going on…and in the bridge, Elton reveals that it’s a con within a con. He cares, all right…but he fears there’s no gas left in the tank. Better to say it was never that important than to admit you just can’t do it anymore, that you’ve lost something you can never get back. That may well be true, but as “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” proves, if you’re honest enough with yourself, there’s still room for a last hurrah or two.
(The video for the song – linked above – features Justin Timberlake playing a 1974-era Elton, and is outstanding.)
album: Made In England
The lead single from Elton’s excellent Made In England album – it also was his first new track following the mega-success of The Lion King soundtrack – “Believe” is one of Elton’s most self-consciously portentious, epic tracks. It could have easily been a disaster, but instead “Believe” is one of his very finest singles, a grand statement that resonates.
It helps that the artistic inspirations for the track were free of bullshit or gloss. Elton’s unusually minimalist chording deliberately mimics John Lennon’s simplistic piano style, and Davey Johnstone’s spiraling gothic guitar is straight out of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Struggling with his father’s terminal cancer, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics waste no time on happy talk – they are borne out of a real sense of outrage and a sense of reaching for a thread to pull in a life struggle borne of futility and false promise. He believes in love not because of some hippie idealism, but because “it’s all we’ve got”.
Lest that still seem too easy, he then calls into question the quest for faith itself, and how even that can twist people. “Fathers and sons make love and guns/Families together/kill someone” is a particularly chilling, brutal line, even more so in hindsight. By the time Elton gets to the payoff line, the song’s only cliché (“I couldn’t believe in you, and I wouldn’t believe in me, without love”), he’s earned the right to say it, and Elton is so committed to the concept that he practically snarls the line. He clearly is on board with what his partner is trying to convey; when Elton sings “I believe in love” over and over, it’s not a happy sha-la-la moment; its descending melody suggests a man falling down a well and grasping for a rope. “Believe” asks all the right questions and acknowledges the imperfection of its own answer, thus earning every bit of its dramatic weight.
album: Songs From The West Coast
The advance buzz on Songs From The West Coast – that Elton had finally reconnected with his ’70s muse – was greeted with collective skepticism. We’d heard it before. Then “Birds” was leaked as an advance track…and everyone suddenly took notice.
“Birds” is the one late period Elton John song that completely hits a bull’s eye in touching what was great about his early work whilst subtly updating it in a way that is neither self conscious nor inappropriate. It wasn’t accomplished by following the old road map, either: Elton’s old records never had hoarse vocals compressed to bejesus this far up in the mix, but after years of bellowy double-tracking and mushy overrelliance on keyboards, this in-your-face approach was like blowing dust off an old book that you hadn’t read in a long time, and finding out there was a chapter you hadn’t noticed previously. The long-lost twangy curl was back in Elton’s voice, and set against the backdrop of piano, harmonium and Davey Johnstone’s slide guitar, it really was Tumbleweed Connection 2000. And the chorus hook was great, too. Even the subtle addition of beat box percussion, coupled with the syncopated interplay between Elton and Davey Johnstone that recalled tracks like “Honky Cat,” worked. By getting the basics right and letting the rest sort itself out, “Birds” threads the needle of getting back to what was special about your early work while keeping it fresh in the present day.
#5. Empty Garden
album: Jump Up!
For those who weren’t around then, John Lennon’s murder in 1980 was a traumatic event that shook the world and music fans in particular. It wasn’t quite comparable to 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination, but it was big.
For Elton and Bernie Taupin, who worked with Lennon and knew him on personally intimate terms, this created both a need to comment creatively and a great sense of responsibility to do so properly. That issue came up again in 1997 with Princess Diana’s death and “Candle In The Wind 1997” which became the second largest selling song in pop history. Both were difficult situations that the songwriters rose to in different ways.
We can give them a pass for the mixed blessing (?) that was the “Candle In The Wind” update – it was a project borne of a very compressed time frame and not a little confusion. They did the best they could and it was probably the best that could be done, and however well it has or has not aged, the song comforted a lot of people at that moment in history. In the case of “Empty Garden” they had a lot more opportunity to think about the statement they wanted to make, and though it was released too late to have a similar level of impact on a mourning public, it stands as a uniquely tasteful and appropriate tribute to a much-loved public figure and personal friend.
This is the kind of situation where Taupin really shines. He opens the song beautifully: “What happened here? As the New York sunset disappeared…” of course, everybody knows exactly what happened, but Bernie-cum-Elton feigns ignorance, as if he was an alien that beamed down into an event that everybody else understood but he had no context for. That sense of innocent bewilderment is echoed in the “can’t you come out to play” chorus, and it’s the singer’s seeming lack of knowledge of the event is what makes the song so powerful – we as the audience know there’s bad news to be related, and the singer’s seeming cluelessness and insistence on an answer means that we will have to break the news and thus relive the horror again. It’s a brilliant conceit to drive home the enormity of the loss without cheapening it with drama.
This doesn’t leave much room for exposition about the actual event and its effect on people, but the economic second verse (“through their tears/some say he farmed his best in younger years/but he’d have said that roots grow stronger/if only he could hear”) manages to cover a lot of ground in a short span of words. He wastes only one word on the killer himself – and it’s devastating: “insect.”
Elton likewise rises to the occasion with a track that starts reflectively, gradually builds in intensity, but never overheats – instead it gives way to a gorgeous vocal round that recalls his own glory days. As tribute discs go, for its sensitivity and good taste, “Empty Garden” is one of the very best.
#4. Healing Hands
album: Sleeping With The Past
Elton’s best singles were not just about hooks and melody. As a slightly ADD individual, easily bored, he shared with Brian Wilson the ability to come up with unexpected transitions that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck – a song that didn’t just get you humming or your toe tapping, but actually excited you. As tiresome as the various comeback narratives were over the years, the fact is whenever that line was trotted out Elton usually came up with the goods, at least partially. Sleeping With The Past was hyped as a tribute (more in terms of inspiration than actual execution) to the soul legends of yore and though its production has not aged well it is actually a pretty strong collection of songs, with Elton returning to his less forced, higher and more American-ized singing style one last time to great result on ballads like “Blue Avenue” and the best-known song from that album, “Sacrifice”
Sleeping With The Past‘s less-remembered opening single (though it was a #1 double-sided hit with “Sacrifice” in England) is “Healing Hands,” a gospel flavored, driving midtempo number. Elton certainly has the musical basis to dabble in gospel music, and he would do so more and more frequently as he grew older, but he tended to connect more with its stateliness and gravity than the euphoria and joy that is the basis of African-American church music.
“Healing Hands,” however, is firmly rooted in the latter ethos. From its driving, “Philadelphia Freedom”-inspired intro, the song confidently unfolds and ascends, each section building on the previous one, until the chorus unexpectedly modulates down as it explodes into harmony, with yet another ascending chord sequence once more upping the ante but giving the song somewhere to go from there. It’s a satisfying, thrilling series of developments that we’re more than happy to experience again as we cycle through the second verse and Elton’s elemental but highly appropriate piano solo, which once again ends on an ascending melody line.
This sets up another highly satisfying big chorus, and as it changes to a double chorus, we’ve had our pop payoff and are ready for the inevitable fadeout…but wait! At 3:50 the song unexpectedly breaks into a late bridge with another, different ascending chord sequence – and there goes the hair on the back of my neck. Elton’s so caught up in the moment he even briefly sails into falsetto. We get one big “rock me now” and then Elton, knowing that a thrill becomes tiresome if it’s repeated too often, drops us back into the chorus for the fade out we thought would already have happened by now. Phew! That’s what I want a pop single to do. Hairs, neck.
#3. I’m Still Standing
album: Too Low For Zero
It’s easy to forget now that when “I’m Still Standing” showed up as the lead single for the much-anticipated Too Low For Zero album reuniting Elton full-time with lyricist Bernie Taupin and his old band, its performance on the charts was slightly disappointing, breaking just outside the top ten exactly as his previous two hits “Empty Garden” and “Blue Eyes” had done.
There was plenty of goodwill for this pugnacious little tune – and an entertaining (and deliberately sexually ambiguous) video that got major airtime on MTV – but for such a strategically key release, it’s one of Elton’s most idiosyncratic singles. The minor key intro and chorus hook play off the highly unusual chord progression of Bbm-F#-F over an unmoving tonic of Bb, making the Beatlesque “yeah yeah yeah” harmonies fall off oddly and dissonantly.
The verses are simpler, a development from a simple 1-4-5 pattern (likewise over a non-moving tonic) but the phrasing of the melody and the point where the root changes are unexpected and a little random-sounding, particularly as emphasized by Dee Murray’s atypically simple 8th note bass line. Sonically, the production was a good fit both for 1983 and for an updated Elton song, but as a hit single, it’s just a little too outré to be the breakout to put Elton back on top. That came just a short while later with “I Guess That’s Why They Called It The Blues,” which checked every single box one could hope for in an Elton comeback single.
That’s of course the situation as it stood in 1983; the intervening years have been very kind to the song and its lyrical message. While back then it seemed a little too early and overcompensating for Elton to declare victory over his demons and adversaries, each passing decade has proved him to be exactly as indestructible as the song claims him to be. What once was a song of somewhat youthful braggadocio has over time taken on more and more the weight of proof. It’s now remembered both as one with his earlier legacy, and as a fitting theme song for the entire thread of his life.
#2. I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues
album: Too Low For Zero
By 1983 it was clear that for Elton John to reclaim his place at the top of pop hierarchy and to move forward, he had to come up with one song that completely and inarguably was of a piece with his earlier work. While he had scored a clutch of medium-to-big hits since his initial retirement, the public’s patience had worn thin with various schizoid experiments with different styles, cowriters and musicians. Despite sometimes interesting results, Elton’s reputation was built on pop-rock consistency and even the best tracks of the period, save perhaps “Empty Garden,” had a “close but no cigar” quality to them. If he wanted to be a part of the burgeoning pop royalty (Prince, Madonna et al) that was beginning to coalesce in the mid ’80s, he needed one undeniable return to form that showed he could be that guy again.
“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” is that song. A midtempo, bluesy ballad (recorded, if memory serves, in one take), it has all the earmarks of what we loved about the ’70s records – the syncopated piano and easy, complimentary musicianship of the band, the unfolding and undeniable hook, the gorgeous three-part backing vocal harmony, an arrangement that builds to an earned climax (special props to Nigel Olsson – that fill at 3:40 is masterful, slamming the final choruses home much as he had done on 1974’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”); Stevie Wonder even joins in on a harmonica solo.
When this song was released as the third (!) single from Too Low For Zero, despite the album’s age at that point, everyone immediately recognized that THIS was the song that they had been waiting for Elton to come up with. It rocketed into the top five – and with “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” one of Elton’s simplest and purest celebrations of the pop music art form, waiting in the wings as a followup, he was back on top. Despite dark personal periods and other artistic misfires to come, his permanent position at the peak of pop music’s hierarchy would never be in question again.
album: Non-album single, bonus track on reissue of “A Single Man”
The very first single Elton released post-Blue Moves is not only (in my view) the best of all the songs to come after; a strong argument can be made that it’s the single best single – possibly even the best song – he ever recorded.
Whether you buy that argument depends entirely on what your musical values are – whether you prefer, in a sense, early Beatles or late Beatles (or no Beatles at all). In terms of connecting with a mass audience, “Ego” was a noteworthy flop, reaching #34 in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, his lowest-charting purpose-built single in years. It was a devastating commercial failure given it was his first new release in nearly two years and it had an ample promo push, including one of the first-ever big production music videos (featuring a slimmed down, brown-haired, unbespectacled and scowling Elton, nearly unrecognizable as the ebullient blonde showman of recent memory).
However, if you buy the idea that pop music isn’t simply about mass connection, but about how the familiarity of a good melody can be a gateway to worlds you wouldn’t otherwise explore, “Ego” stands at the pinnacle of Elton’s work, which had already seen such complex pop epics as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford.”
Those intricate tunes slowly drew the listener in over the course of 5 or 6 minutes, but “Ego” collapses all that compositonal ambition into one 3:47 burst of energy. While it’s highly advanced progressive pop, “Ego” isn’t “I Am The Walrus” because Elton is not John Lennon. It’s closer to something Queen might attempt (“Don’t Stop Me Now” has similar frantic energy), but without their bombast, and with a underlying sense of withering self-criticism that is mostly alien to Freddie Mercury but very familiar to Reg Dwight, the shy lad who is always trying to prove himself and do better.
It’s no coincidence that the song dwells on how childhood humiliation leads to a life of trying to fill – unsuccessfully – the hole inside that needs attention. Taupin at his best gets to underlying human truths, and though he certainly had a few celebrities in mind when he put paper to pen, he does not spare himself nor his partner in so doing. The song’s title gets right to the point: ego is where the problem lies, and the problem lies within each and every one of us.
The song opens with an eerie whistle and a fast arpeggiated piano figure that sounds like a silent movie soundtrack, implying a damsel tied to the tracks waiting for the train to hit. A better metaphor for this song is a roller coaster, however, as it consists of six (!) discrete sections with sometimes abrupt shifts of rhythm and mood, each section melodically self-sufficient and interesting.
Elton, ably backed by a new pickup studio band that includes Wings drummer Steve Holley on drums and old stalwart Ray Cooper on percussion (Tim Renwick is on guitar and coproducer Clive Franks holds down the bass), glides through the changes with ease (no small feat, as I can attest, having performed this song live with my own band). There’s more than a hint of the New Wave in its menacing, driving verses, a thin, slightly chorused guitar dominating the minor-keyed arrangement, before the song briefly moves to half time, cascading through a series of chords that normally don’t have much to do with one another. This tick-tock rhythmic pattern – rocking straight-ahead band alternating with the cadence of a seasick sailor – continues a few more times, then it’s back to the top of the verse.
Second time through, the sailor, who is ever more seasick, careens into a new passage: a dreamy, synth-laden breakdown where the singer flashes back to his childhood. This reverie is broken by an ever ascending step-like progression upward, as the memory turns painful and the Elton comes up with a series of admissions and rationalizations for his behavior, until the music abruptly halts and the piano throws a pounding tantrum while Elton pronounces “I had to GROW, to prove my EGO.” And, whoa, we’re already back in the verse again, when did that start up? OK, then…
Back through the whole roller coaster that we barely had a chance to take in the first time, and before we know it we’re returning to the seasick sailor, except now he’s so overwhelmed that he’s stumbling across the deck as the band breaks groove into forceful triplets. (Incidentally, here’s one more explanation for the song’s failure: this song came out at the height of disco. Can you imagine anyone trying to dance to this?) Now we’re back to the childhood dream state, the gradually climaxing admission and denial, this time repeating itself in intensity, and then we’re at the tantrum, which comes to a full crashing stop, Elton’s bellowing final “EGO” echoing infinitely into the darkness.
Holy crap! What just happened? For most people back in 1978, the song was so overwhelming and intense that they immediately changed channels to Fleetwood Mac (little knowing that they were going to get much the same treatment from them soon enough). But for some of us, it motivated us to put the stylus back to the edge of the vinyl and play it again. And again, and again.
And that completes my review of “50 Elton John Songs After 1976 That Don’t Suck.”
Wait, What? But What About _______? How Could You Possibly Leave Out ________?
Well, relax, I didn’t say “These Are The Only 50 Songs by Elton John After 1976 That Don’t Suck.” But there are reasons I left out some obvious candidates, keeping in mind both my own personal preferences and my likely audience for this post. Here they are:
15 No-Brainer Songs I Left Off This List, And Why:
“Mama Can’t Buy You Love” – great 1979 hit single with Elton crooning Philly soul to fine effect. But to my ear it’s more of a Thom Bell/Spinners record with a guest singer – a tangent rather than part of the main stream of his discography. Elton felt the same way, which is why this project was abandoned part-way through. Including it felt like it blew the focus. If I had it would have easily made the top 20.
“Are You Ready For Love” – substitute 2003 for 1979, repeat above (probably more around #45).
“Sad Songs (Say So Much)” – Elton’s purest and simplest ode to pop sounded great coming out of the radio in 1984, and the 1-2 punch with “Blues” is what put him back on top. That said, it’s one of his least developed compositions. That first-draft directness is a lot of why it works, but it has nothing extra going for it that makes me want to include it on the list. For better or worse, “Sad Songs” is Popsong v1.0.
“Restless” – Yep, it’s a great vocal. But there’s no SONG there.
“Tinderbox” – Good track from Captain and the Kid that with its subject matter and video wants you to think it’s a return to 1975 glories. It’s just a little too disorganized as a production and as a song to qualify though. The pieces are there, but they’re not assembled quite right.
“Whitewash County” – SYNTHESIZED FIDDLES. ‘Nuff said.
“The One,” “Blue Eyes,” “Nikita,” “Sacrifice,” “The Last Song,” “A Word In Spanish”, “Blessed” – These are well-known Elton hit ballads, and all are fine examples of same, “The One” probably being the best of the lot.
The difficulty is that once Elton’s voice drops and he relies more and more on synthesized arrangements (even when he uses a real band), they tend to have a midrangey, samey quality to them. “Blue Eyes” deserves a separate shout out for being a good Sinatra pastiche, and “The Last Song” for its tastefully moving portrayal of a dying AIDS patient, but the fact is, everyone knows these songs and already has a formed opinion about them. They are all similar enough in execution that even though one or two might be more pleasing to my ear or to yours, if you put one in you kind of have to put them all in, and that’s waaaay too much.
There are plenty of people whose negative opinion of Elton’s later work rests largely on their overexposure to ballads like these (and other less savory ones like “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”) and whose eyes will glaze over the moment they are brought up, and stop reading. I might even include myself in that number – “Sacrifice” is a lovely tune, but I’m waaay over it. This type of song, and production, tends to not wear well over time, and I have nothing really that interesting to say except that it’s nice for a few listens. The ballads that I think that are really good, and break this mold, are the ones that made my list. The bottom line is even if a song is good it’s really hard to write something that great about it if you’re not feeling it anymore.
Anything from The Union album – I could make the Thom Bell argument above, but really, the whole thing is too dirgelike and funereal to my ears. It’s an album I respect, but don’t really like. At least it’s better than the Yes album Union.
Anything from The Diving Bell album – Omit Leon Russell and Yes above, replace “dirgelike and funereal” with “underdeveloped and monotonous.” It’s not bad, it’s just not very interesting.
“Hello Hello” – How I wish the fine chorus of this Gnomeo and Juliet track with Lady Gaga could be grafted to a different verse and for that matter, different singers.
And 10 Songs You Should Never Listen To Under Any Circumstances, Seriously:
Sometimes, no matter how much context or hindsight you want to apply, bad is bad.
“Tell Me What The Papers Say” (Ice on Fire) – Casios and cocaine do not mix.
“I Am Your Robot” (Jump Up!) – My serial number is TURN IT OFF NOW.
“Japanese Hands” (Reg Strikes Back) – I like Asian women as much as the next guy (obviously), probably a lot more if the next guy is Elton John, but this is a formless mess, and Taupin’s lyrics are as culturally aware as Trump at a Taco Bell.
“Angeline” (Leather Jackets) – Ridiculous wanna-be retro fetish track in inappropriate ’80s synth garb featuring Queen’s rhythm section stubbornly failing to groove.
“Too Young” (Ice On Fire) – I do NOT want to hear Elton singing about this, and if I did, I would not want to hear him singing about it THIS way. Queen’s rhythm section back again, and they suck again.
“Written In The Stars” (Aida) – Elton’s final top 40 hit is this blowsy duet with Leann Rimes. Starts out nicely enough but loses all sense of restraint or dignity by the end.
“Act Of War” (Ice On Fire) – Failed 1985 single with Millie Jackson is probably Elton’s fastest and hardest track of the ’80s. This by no means makes it good, or even remotely listenable. A track full of scattershot and cluttered effects behind two singers aggressively and unpleasantly singing off a lyric sheet with no sense of where the words are supposed to go.
“They Call Her The Cat” (Peachtree Road) – No they don’t. Stop that.
“In Neon” (Breaking Hearts) – Dull, pointless and endless rewrite of “Roy Rogers,” with a chorus that never pays off.
Honorable mention: “Passengers” (Breaking Hearts) – Huge hit in England, but God this slice of Africana is annoying. Elton trying to go world music doesn’t have to be bad (Sleeping With The Past’s attempt at heavy dub, “Durban Deep,” is an interesting curio, not quite mixed well enough to make this list) – but here engaging verses clash with irritating choruses that probably sounded great on the original record this was based on, but wear on one’s nerves once a few layers of spontanaeity are removed. Didn’t hate it as much as I did in 1984, but it’s still a tiresome track.
And that’s it. Did I miss something? Sure I did. Well, there’s the comments section right there. Have at it.