You often hear songwriters say that once their work is made available for public consumption, it’s theirs no longer. This isn’t a matter of rights ownership, but rather one of subjective significance as the writer’s personal intentions are trumped by the multiplicity of listener interpretations.
The hit-heavy catalogue of Elton John epitomises this phenomenon. Rarely do Sir Elton’s songs feel solipsistic or inward looking; conversely, they’re designed to engage the public imagination.
John is a songwriter’s songwriter – he trained at the Royal Academy of Music and his early admirers included Bob Dylan and John Lennon – but he also writes pop music in the truest sense, combining captivating narratives with belting sing-alongs that appeal to both young and old, aesthetes and laypeople.
John emerged at the tail end of the 1960s in the dying light of Beatlemania and on the cusp of glam and prog rock. His songwriting over the ensuing decade bore shades of these sounds while also encompassing orchestral soft rock, singer-songwriter balladry and yacht rock.
Working hand-in-hand with lyricist Bernie Taupin, John worked at a maniacal pace through the 1970s and ‘80s. His debut album Empty Sky arrived in 1969 while his fifth LP – and first of seven consecutive US number ones – Honky Château came fewer than three years later. By 1989 he’d made 22 studio albums and he reached 30 with his latest, 2016’s Wonderful Crazy Night.
Not all of these LPs are enduring classics, but every John and Taupin collaboration between 1970 and 1983 yielded at least a couple of monster singles, scores of which continue to occupy prime real estate in the collective consciousness.
John is currently midway through his ‘Farewell Yellow Brick Road World Tour’, which takes residence in Australia between November 2019 and March 2020. Ahead of the visit, we’ve rounded up 10 essential Elton John originals. (NB, this list could be quadrupled in number and we still wouldn’t have run out of quality material.)
I’m Still Standing, Too Low For Zero (1983)
It’s difficult to separate one’s perception of this song from its beachside music video shot on the French Riviera. Elton John was a flamboyant megastar – as big and bold as the world has ever seen – but he was still a nerdy West Londoner at heart.
The video is endearing for just how much of dag John shows himself to be, but the song’s driving groove and defiant lyrics can’t be faulted. Melodies burst through the seams of ‘I’m Still Standing’ as John kicks back against music industry sycophants and the perils of alcohol and drug abuse.
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me, Caribou (1974)
John’s long time producer Gus Dudgeon – who oversaw the ecstatic ten album run that lasted from 1970’s Elton John to Blue Moves in 1976 – described the Caribou LP as “a piece of crap,” with lousy production and songs that are “nowhere.”
Dudgeon must’ve had an axe to grind for other reasons, because the mere presence of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’ warrants the album praise.
The song, a cresting power ballad that exposes stark insecurities and a hopeless need to be loved, had three lives. First as a top ten single in 1974, then as duet performed by John and George Michael at Live Aid 1985. But it’s greatest success came when a recording of the pair’s performance from Wembley Arena in 1991 dominated the US, UK and ARIA charts in ’91-‘92.
Tiny Dancer, Madman Across the Water (1971)
In John’s own words, ‘Tiny Dancer’ has a “very cinematic, California in the early-‘70s lyric.” It’s home to one of the great anthemic choruses in the rock and pop canon, but listeners are made to wait for its arrival. Two verses and a bridge precede the first chorus, which could explain why ‘Tiny Dancer’ made only a moderation impression on the charts.
“Writing a song like that is a bit like having a wank,” John recently told The Guardian. “You want the climax to be good, but you don’t want it to be over too quickly.”
Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
This 11-minute mini opera opens Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which is comfortably John’s album-length opus. It’s two separate pieces, essentially, stapled together because… well it was the ‘70s.
‘Funeral For a Friend’ is an instrumental piece inspired by John’s musings on the music he’d like played at his funeral. ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ is the real gem, though, a glam rock stomper that’d confidently give the Spiders From Mars a run for their money.
Davey Johnstone’s sizzling lead guitar riff channels the best of Mick Ronson while John sings with a sort of cavalier abandon about a ruined relationship.
Bennie and the Jets, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
A surreal feeling runs through ‘Bennie and the Jets’ due to the addition of applause and other audience sounds to its studio recording. Canned laughter might long have been a feature of comedy TV shows, but it was an oddity on serious-minded albums.
Something else that distinguishes ‘Bennie’ (which is sometimes written as ‘Benny & the Jets’) is the closely cropped band arrangement. John was always a heterogeneous songwriter, but ‘Bennie’ is a novelty for placing emphasis on precision and dynamic subtlety.
This unique characteristic encouraged A Tribe Called Quest to sample ‘Bennie’ on 2016’s ‘Solid Wall of Sound’, for which John added extra piano and backing vocals.
I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, Too Low For Zero (1983)
1983’s Too Low For Zero was a return to form for John after a quintet of lacklustre albums that delivered not a hit between them – the 1979 disco misfire, Victim of Love, being the biggest clanger of the lot.
Not only was Too Low John and Taupin’s first full-length collaboration since Blue Moves, but it also saw the return of John’s early-70s backing band, including guitarist Johnstone who co-wrote ‘Blues’.
With Pretenders and Roxy Music-producer Chris Thomas behind the boards, ‘Blues’ is an elegant ballad that’s become a singer-songwriter standard. In John’s own reckoning, “it’s timeless.”
Crocodile Rock, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
For school children around the world, ‘Crocodile Rock’ is their introduction to Elton John. Though, the singer’s name is largely irrelevant – it’s the hysterical lead vocal melody and ‘50s rock’n’roll spirit that draws them in, giving the song a cartoon-like quality.
But despite its adoption by the under-10s audience, ‘Crocodile Rock’ stands up as quality pop song. And while it doesn’t acutely represent John’s oeuvre, it exemplifies the chameleonic adaptability of his early-‘70s period.
Border Song, Elton John (1970)
Aretha Franklin selected ‘Border Song’ to close her 1972 LP, Young, Gifted and Black, which is one of the finest entries in the Queen of Soul’s back catalogue. You can see why – John’s original is an overt attempt at a soul spiritual.
A chorus of voices fortifies the song’s two main lyrical hooks: “Holy Moses, I have been deceived,” and “He’s my brother, let us live in peace.” The latter line caps off a verse-long plea for racial harmony, which could’ve factored into Franklin’s adoption of the song.
‘Border Song’ was the first single from John’s second album and the first to land on a chart anywhere in the world. Its commercial fortunes were surpassed by the album’s next single, ‘Your Song’, but ‘Border Song’ illustrates the scope of John’s creative appetite before the onset of pop stardom.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart feat. Kiki Dee, Single (1976)
‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ is a slick soft rock duet that drips with melody. Although not widely recognised outside of her work with Sir Elton, Kiki Dee proves a fantastic offsider, giving the song a family friendly playfulness.
‘Don’t Go…’ is reputed to be an homage to the classic Motown duets, but it bears as much semblance to contemporaneous acts like Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. It’s devoid of irony, however, and eschews any unnecessary musical extravagance to keep attention fixed squarely on the duetting vocalists.
Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), Honky Château (1972)
Thrumming acoustic guitars and a lyric about feeling lonely up in space? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But irrespective of the ‘Space Oddity’ parallels, the gambit worked and ‘Rocket Man’ became John’s first veritable global hit.
To add another layer of similitude, John’s producer Gus Dudgeon also handled Bowie’s 1969 breakthrough single. ‘Rocket Man’ is not much interested in musical quirk, however, and the easy-going melodiousness makes for a hopelessly infectious concert sing-along.
Elton John kicks off his absolutely massive ‘Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour’ tomorrow night in Perth.