When we think of Elton John the stardom often springs to mind before the music, his celebrity sometimes even eclipsing his talent. For the last couple of weeks I have been writing and producing a radio documentary chronicling the making of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and along with unearthing many intriguing stories about the creation of his best-selling album, I have also gathered some insight into his personality and have had the pleasure of re-experiencing his astounding body of work.
Despite the tantrums and tiaras, Elton seems to be very generous and faithful to his nearest and dearest having worked with nearly the same team for decades including his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, his producer the late Gus Dudgeon, his manager Tony King, and his band Davey Johnstone, Nigel Olsson and the late Dee Murray. In the spirit of fair-mindedness, Elton gave his band recording royalties on Goodbye as he felt the album was a collaborative effort.
In the process of producing the documentary, I revisited many of Elton John's early albums and this has been a truly joyous rediscovery. There are so many amazing tunes and the musicianship is astounding. After many years, I still remember the words and can sing along to his songs and there is a reason for that. It is because these are real songs with insightful narrative, indelible melodies and captivating hooks many of which have become classic standards.
See if you are able to hum along to my personal favourite "Eltons":
Bennie and the Jets - I'm a soul girl at heart and this song's slow burnin' funk made it a number one hit on American R&B radio stations and qualified Elton to be the first white performer on one of my favourite TV shows, 'Soul Train'. Big up Brother Elton!
Your Song - This was Elton's first song produced by Gus Dudgeon and you can hear how Dudgeon and string arranger Paul Buckmaster were able to enhance the emotional effect of the song, lifting it to another level. From the opening piano line, one can hear why this song has become a classic pop standard.
Rocket Man - Dudgeon also produced David Bowie's Space Oddity and there are some similar sound effects on this one. Bowie may have later revisited his Major Tom character, but I think this song is also a fitting sequel. But maybe the song is also about another kind of lift-off as the line "And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then" got past the censors. Regardless of what it is about, the sublime melody gets me every time. I challenge anyone to shut me up when this song comes on.
Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding - A song with the word 'Funeral' in the title that starts with wind sounds, a tolling bell, followed by a prog-tastic ARP solo may not be your usual opening to a hit pop record and this just goes to show that although Goodbye Yellow Brick Road remains Elton's biggest selling album, there is nothing colour-by-numbers about it. I love how the melancholic opening builds and builds until the full power is unleashed, a fine example of Elton's wonderful use of dynamic.
Levon - Elton and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin were inspired by The Band's Music from Big Pink and this song was written about The Band's Levon Helm and has a similar pastoral feel. This is a real builder and features some of Elton's most soulful piano playing which melds beautifully with the orchestration that typifies his album Madman Across the Water.
Amoreena - I love Elton's rootsy country album Tumbleweed Country but what do you expect - I'm an American! This highlights some of his finest jazzy and bluesy piano playing and in my mind's eye I envision Elton gigging up and down the country with his sixties band Bluesology. This guy has some serious chops.
Harmony - Why wasn't this song a single? It was probably due to the fact that Elton already had too many singles from Goodbye and that album was quickly following up with Caribou and its hit single Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me about six months later. Good grief - talk about prolific.
Are You Ready for Love? - Elton is a real soul boy. This song was released on an EP in 1979, but got its due recognition when my DarkStarr Discotech production partner Ashley Beedle remixed it in 2003. As a DJ, I have played this many times and it has brought many special dance floor moments, especially at our Lucky Cloud Loft parties on our world-class hi-fi sound system.
Daniel - Anyone who has ever had to say goodbye to a loved one or anybody who has fled to escape pain is able to understand this song. The song is an airy but bittersweet masterpiece with Elton's plaintive Fender Rhodes and Simon & Garfunkel-type harmonies. I still wonder what happened to Daniel.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - A true lighter-in-the-air moment. C'mon, sing it in your head with me: "Aaaaaaaaah aaaaaaaaah ah. Aaaaaaah aaaah aaaaah aaaah aaah. Aaaaaaaaah aaaaaaaaah aaaah. Aaaah..."
Colleen will host a 'Classic Album Sundays: The Making of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' radio documentary on Absolute Radio at 8 pm on both Sunday 23 March and Monday 24 March. Listen here and follow @ClassicAlbumSun and @absoluteradio on Twitter