Sunday, November 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John

I wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to do this album: it does very little for me. I don't love it, I don't hate it: it's merely there, with all of its highs and lows intact. Additionally, it tends to receive middling critical reception, which contrasts with my “they either worship them or abhor them” theory of critical reception of double albums. More to the point, critics tend to say that it has some amazing high points but a lot of filler. Which is, you know, exactly the point.

Elton John is one of the more frustrating performers out there. His purple patch, the 1970s, is about the best example there is of the underlying “Better as a Single” principle: that moderation is a virtue; that sticking five substandard songs alongside five sparkling gems actually decreases the value of those gems. Elton John was, in the 1970s, way too prolific. He has a handful of truly great songs, but a lot of dated, cheesy pieces of embarrassment and seemingly thousands of anonymous album tracks of no real merit. In his particular case, the main issue is frequently Bernie Taupin. Elton John is a composer of music who refuses to be a lyricist as well; in the 1970s he formed a songwriting duo with the non-musical Bernie Taupin, a man capable of lyrics of great subtlety and beauty, or alternately toe-curlingly poorly written doggerel. Invariably, however, Elton John songs live and die by their lyrics.

The album title, of course, references “The Wizard of Oz”, appropriately enough for two of the album's three main topical themes: one, a certain love for the cinema, for its stars and for the moving qualities of a good story; and two, a wistful appreciation for the small-town American lifestyle evoked by Dorothy's life in Kansas. The third theme, which we'll call Bernie Taupin's hatred of women, seems to rather have less to do with the children's classic, unless Dorothy was a prostitute, a lesbian or a 'dirty little girl'. It is, however, something that really prevents me from liking this album.

Messy, overly 'diverse' and filled with genre experiments, sometimes brilliant, often not... this is a double album just crying out for a good pruning. I don't really love my single-disc effort, but it's certainly an improvement. In any case, here it is: pure Dorothy and Toto with those three hangers-on ditched.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Side one
  1. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (3:13)
  2. Candle in the Wind (3:49)
  3. Roy Rogers (4:08)
  4. The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934) (4:23)
  5. I've Seen that Movie Too (5:58)
Side two
  1. Bennie and the Jets (5:23)
  2. Grey Seal (4:00)
  3. Harmony (2:46)
  4. Social Disease (3:43)
  5. Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting (4:53)

Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding: lose

I don't get this one; this is afforded a level of respect that I just can't buy into. I mean, I'm not against eleven-minute epics on principle, but it has to be quite impressive to hold my interest (“Marquee Moon” does). This one? Well, I find the first half for the most part pompous and overblown: 'prog rock' sure, but more Yes than, say, Pink Floyd. Maybe it's just the cheesy synthesisers. “Love Lies Bleeding” is a bit better, but it's rare that I'll listen to it, as I can't be bothered to make it all the way through “Funeral for a Friend”. When people realise they've been blessed with 90 minutes, not 45, suddenly 11 minutes doesn't seem too much to devote to a single track. When they've only got 45 minutes? It's the first to go.

Candle in the Wind: keep (side one, track two)

Sigh. Where on earth do you start with this: a modest (surprisingly, non-single) tribute to Marilyn Monroe that had charmed its way through the years to be an Elton John standard before morphing in the 1990s into a tribute to Princess Diana that became the best selling single of all time and something so insanely huge that it threatens to quash all meaningful commentary. This song is almost too well-known to discuss. So I'll stick with mentioning that, here, Bernie Taupin speaks from a place of humility: a mere fan looking at the screen and saying goodbye to, ultimately, a complete stranger. The lyrics here are way better than the maudlin treacle of the Lady Di version. The lyrics stick in the head, but of course they'll only do that if driven by a memorable melody. “Candle in the Wind” isn't the best melody on the album, but it's no slacker either, and it certainly does the job.

Like on the original, I make this the second track, but since you're only waiting four minutes to hear it, it's a more prominent position. As the 'keynote' track of the album, pole position is the place to be.

Bennie and the Jets: keep (side two, track one)

This has got to be one of the most peculiar hit singles out there, with a clunking, thudding tempo that hobbles along like a man with a broken leg. I can't say I'm overly fond of this song, but at least as a sonic experiment, it's intriguing. I have no idea where it got the juice to hit number one as a single, though. Lyrically, it's actually another song-about-a-person, imaginary this time, but it's a fan letter again: this time to a made-up 'glam rock' band (a la Ziggy Stardust, I suppose). Fake crowd sounds – never my favourite overdub – plus an annoying fake-stutter “buh-buh-buh” as a vocal riff plus a kind of smarminess make this song competition with “It's Only Rock 'n' Roll” for 'worst take on glam by a non-glam artist'.

Still it makes the cut though: the masses will have their way. I wasn't really sure where this song belonged, except for 'not near “Saturday Night”'. Thematically it belongs on side one to the extent that it's a character portrait (of sorts), but I've configured my side one to, in addition to being character portraits, to be a kind of mini concept suite about 'the movies'. My point is: stick it on the more grab-bag (and more uptempo) side two. And put it on as the first track of side two. To get it over with.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: keep (side one, track one)

I don't really know what this song is about, actually. It doesn't seem to have much to do with “The Wizard of Oz”, having more to do (I think) with Bernie Taupin's idealised small-town life: in this case, a person regretting giving up the small town for the big city. But it really doesn't matter; it's brought alive not only by Elton John's pretty melody but (more so) by his drop-dead gorgeous vocal performance. The falsetto is amazing and the English-putting-upon-American accent charming. The whole thing perfectly, in my opinion, evokes the kind of nostalgia the words are aiming for. An incredible performance and one of those moments that make all the banalities in Elton John's recorded career worthwhile.

Putting your album's title track on side two is daring. I guess I'm ultimately less daring. Yes, one of the main reasons I put this as the first track on the album is that it happens to share its name with the album. Additionally however it is about both wistfulness for small-town life and (in its Wizard of Oz reference) the movies. So it encompasses the album's themes. And it deserves such a prominent position, even though it's a bit of a samey one-two with “Candle in the Wind”.

This Song Has No Title: lose

A confused little filler that may have no name but is barely even a 'song', so much as a collection of barely-cohering parts. It's interesting, but it's nothing you'll find yourself whistling ever again.

Grey Seal: keep (side two, track two)

This song is apparently a rerecording of an early b-side from Elton John's pre-fame days. Rerecording your old b-sides is about as classic a 'padding' technique as I can think of; however, I do still enjoy this. Primarily it's the arrangement. The original is apparently rather generic, but this is a bizarre mix of styles that manages to be a genre of its own. It gets a bit noodly, but the wah-wah is rather exciting and it is, all in all, fun: something this album is way less frequently than Elton John probably imagined it was. Lyrically it seems to be more or less meaningless doggerel, but that's a nice change of pace too.

My single-disc take has, in addition to too many slow songs (mostly on side one) a handful of songs that seem like they might have been slow but somehow aren't. Here's another, actually representing a gearing up after “Bennie and the Jets” as track two on side two.

Jamaica Jerk-Off: lose

What, this album is devoid of filler? Utter garbage, this crass little pseudo-reggae is about as annoying as it gets. You could fill a whole CD with cheesy white-English-men-do-reggae songs of this vintage that are, in my opinion, about as wack as it gets (the CD would also include Eric Clapton's take on “I Shot the Sheriff” and 10cc's horrid “Dreadlock Holiday”). Horrid, horrid, horrid.

I've Seen That Movie Too: keep (side one, track five)

It's funny: I think even at this early stage in Elton John's career, he's chafing at the public's perception of him and eager to overcome the idea that he is a purveyor of widescreen, orchestrated ballads of an uncommon grace. This is why there are so many genre experiments on this album. And by largely abandoning the experiments in favour of the tried-and-true, I may appear to be giving a one-sided impression of Elton John. But the simple fact is the man is very good at what he does, and the reason why it's the piano ballads that become the evergreen chestnuts is the fact that they tend to be the best ones. This song works its plodding tempo for six minutes and could be a terrible bore, but it is nothing of the sort. The orchestration is amazing, the dynamics well-constructed... the lyrical conceit is lovely, and in keeping with the 'cinematic' overtones of the album. All told, this is very good work. This is what the album really should be filled to the brim with, even if it makes a more one-dimensional result.

This song is really too 'big' to be anything but a side closer. And as a summary of the 'cinema suite', it brings my side one to a close (as track five) artfully.

Sweet Painted Lady: lose

With this, we start the almost-entirely-useless third side of this album. Third sides are inevitably the weak point of double albums, but here it's even more so. Four songs and nothing overly enjoyable among them. In fact, with the exception of Danny Bailey, it's really an entire suite of misogyny. I have no idea whether or not Elton John was 'out' to his songwriting partner of the time, but if he wasn't, it must have been tough to stomach all of these macho expressions of gynophobia. “Sweet Painted Lady” is actually the most attractive of them, musically being a rather accomplished pastiche. But the lyrics, a crass reflection on prostitution, remove the song of any value it might otherwise have had.

The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934): keep (side one, track four)

Bernie Taupin writes about an imaginary gangster-type from prohibition era. Ho hum. Yes, cinematic. Yes, a character study: all things that 'hold' this album together, to the extent that this album holds together at all. But this song is about the music: Elton John's deft recollection of past eras in a song that otherwise seems entirely 1970s, and the amazing crescendo it builds to. Again, very cinematic. And the only worthwhile thing on side three of the original album.

This is the single 'yes' vote I'm least enthusiastic about (save “Bennie and the Jets”), but it does at least put a bit of a pulse onto my otherwise sleepy side one (where it's track four). The extent to which side two has a quicker average BPM than side one bothers me a little, but I can't really see any way around that.

Dirty Little Girl: lose

Sonically this might be vaguely interesting pulsating piano, organ and fuzztone 'hard rock' (more than a little derivative of “Bennie and the Jets”). Hell, it could be the most amazing melody and arrangement in the history of music and it would still do nothing to redeem the lyrics. More hatred-of-women with absolutely nothing in the way of humour or even hurt to justify it. Just pure sour lyrical garbage. A song that is very difficult to listen to from start to finish. Why did Bernie Taupin hate women so much, and why was Elton John so willing to give these diatribes credence by putting them to music?

All the Girls Love Alice: lose

Okay, let's take a minute to figure this out: here is a gay man singing words written by a straight man that are condescending towards gay women. Did we get that? Er... well, I don't really care either way. This doesn't really have musical merit to overcome the ugly lyrics, which appear to posit lesbianism as a kind of upper-class pursuit for bored housewives (Alice herself is a teenager but her conquests are married women). There is not only sexism but also homophobia going on here, and by this point in side three, it's really more than anyone can stand.

Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rick 'n Roll): lose

A 'tribute' to 1950s rock and roll so bland and insincere that it gets boring before even a minute has finished. No better than Sha Na Na or the “Happy Days” theme song. A good deal worse than the Stray Cats. Worse, also, than “Crocodile Rock”, which I also don't care for.

Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting: keep (side two, track five)

I sometimes wonder if Elton John was ashamed of who he was or just unaware of his strengths. From an admittedly eclectic album whose best performances are inevitably the softer singer-songwriter stuff for which he remains best known, he released as singles the rockish “Bennie and the Jets” and the outright-rock “Saturday Night”. He didn't release “Candle in the Wind.” Why? A good many commentators admire the hard rock sound of this track. I can appreciate it, but I'm not all that taken by it. The guitar plays a cute little riff but sounds tinny, the lyrics are belligerent 'tough boy' bollocks that sound ridiculous coming out of Elton John's mouth, the whole thing goes on a bit too long. Oh, and it reminds me of Paul Shaffer from David Letterman's band. Shudder. Anyway, I guess it's not quite abhorrent and, importantly, it does a bit to break up the admittedly monochromatic tone of my single-disc GYBR.

I like the idea of using this song to conclude the whole album. It's rather harder than anything else, but that just leaves the album on, pulse-wise, a high note. Additionally, as a song for a Saturday afternoon (he's not drunk and fighting yet, but talking about it, so he's preparing to go out), it concludes the album with an implied continuation (going out on the town). I like that. Plus it's too jarring to put between tracks.

Roy Rogers: keep (side one, track three)

This might well have been the very song Elton John submitted to Disney to show he had the chops for soundtracking... it is truly 'cinematic' not only in lyrical thrust but also (and more importantly) in melodic feel. This is, musically, a very pretty song. It's got country overtones (obviously) but it's not a country song. It might be a bit hokey in its 'cowboy' feel and glassy-eyed admiration for Roy Rogers, but it does the job.

I've put this as side one, track three, which I admit undermines it a little, coming after two slowies. Its different instrumentation makes it stand out, but it doesn't quite achieve the widescreen vista that it might in another track position. Oh well. What's done is done.

Social Disease: keep (side two, track four)

While this song is an entirely hokey take on the smalltown American redneck archetype that seems to intrigue Bernie Taupin so much, I have to admit that, while only half-listening, I found myself taken by the synthetic banjo groove it creates. The song starts out unassuming (actually, it starts out an eye-rolling stereotype complete with animal sounds) and slowly builds until suddenly it's got a decent groove and you never saw it coming. Clever. Yet another 'experiment', but one that manages to bring a smile instead of a scowl to the lips. Silly, sure, but silly can be worthwhile. Sometimes. Even the quasi-yodel on the title.

I include this song, but damned if you can find a good place for it. I think using it as a bridge between the rest of the album and “Saturday Night” as side two, track four makes sense though: building the tempo in steps and moving into the 'experimental coda' section of the album.

Harmony: keep (side two, track three)

Surprisingly brief on an album filled with tunes that outlast their welcome, this is a pretty melody with gorgeous harmonies (ha!) wrapped around nautical lyrics that make no sense to me. It's kind of a more-of-the-same track that, on the double, still manages to stand out, since it comes after a few not-more-of-the-same tracks. But it's a bizarre album closer, being in no way a 'statement' or anything that in any way sums up or completes the album. Apparently it got airplay at the time. I guess I can see why, though to my ears it's more 'good album track' than 'potential single' material. But the singles from this album were weird choices, to say the least.

I think this fits way better mid-stream than as a terminus. Side two, track three is normally the most severe of the doldrums, so I think its harmonies work well here to keep attention going.


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