Elton John – “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition)” (Universal Music)
March 25, 2014 – First of all Happy Birthday Elton John! He’s 67 today!
As a kid Elton John introduced me to buying LP’s. His ‘Madman Across the Water’ was the very first album in my collection, my first foray into real music. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ was my second and like one of those great books that kicks you in the teeth and literally expands your mind ‘Goodbye’ was like a shot of sonic heroin. Everything I knew about music up to that point, which honestly wasn’t much, was blown away. Feeling totally hypnotized I even played hooky for three days just to swallow it up and rightly so – It changed my direction in music.
That was 40 years ago! Elton’s not the only one getting old. This special anniversary album comes in many different versions, all remastered, including just the CD, HD pure audio, Yellow-vinyl LP’s and the super deluxe version which we are reviewing.
Elton described ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ as his White Album, I get that and like the Beatles project it’s horseshit all over the road in different directions. Elton plays with Glam, Country, Blues, Jazz Rock and of course Pop, but in the end, it all still works via this sense of overwhelming nostalgia on so many of the tracks.
It was released on October 3rd 1973. Richard Nixon was still President but not for long, we were knee-deep in Watergate after all. The Exorcist and The Sting were about to be released and the #1 show on TV was Archie Bunker’s ‘All in the Family.’ Another big album that year was Elton’s own “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player” released in January so the iron was hot.
The plan was to record ‘Goodbye’ at Dynamic Studios in Jamaica where the Stones had done “Goats Head Soup” just a few months before, but when Elton and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin got there with band in-tow everything was a mess. The studio was on strike and surrounded by barbed wire and guards. Elton and the boys had to cross picket lines to get anything done. After recording an awful version of ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ everyone packed their pots-and-pans and moved back to where they’d recorded the last two Elton albums Le Chateau d’Hérouville in northern France.
‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ had a few working titles thanks to famous Elton’s late-great producer Gus Dudgeon. While recording it went by ‘Vodka & Tonics,’ a line from the title tune, ‘Silent Movies,’ and ‘Talking Pictures.’
There’s probably endless reasons why this became Elton’s biggest selling album outside of any greatest hits packages. Worldwide it sits at 30 million sold. Next in line is ‘Captain Fantastic,’ ‘Don’t Shoot Me,’ ‘Caribou,’ ‘Honky Chateau’ and ‘The One’ and ‘Rock of the Westies.’
This was his seventh studio album and it stayed at #1 for eight weeks. Serving up three huge hits, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,’ ‘Bennie and the Jets’ and the title tune – all three have stood the test of time but this project is as well remembered for it’s album tracks by more than just diehard Elton fans. Great double albums are a result of perfect storms of creativity. Taupin says this was a fearless period for everyone involved. Elton didn’t even know what a doobie was back then. The drugs would only appear with the next album ‘Caribou’ in 1974. So Elton and Bernie were still innocent to a degree, very prolific and running on adrenaline. So the quality of the songs dictated it’s fate as a double album.
Opening the project with ‘Funeral for a Friend’ and ‘Love Lies bleeding,’ two tunes not initially meant to be segued together, surely set an ominous yet kick-ass prog-rock mood. Elton John hadn’t done anything like that before and since. Engineer David Hentschel came up with that grand synthesized sound in the beginning and I remember as a teenager slapping headphones on anyone in my neighbourhood who would listen and almost everyone got it because they, in turn, would do the same thing and that’s why radio still plays it.
Marilyn Monroe died 11 years before this album even came out but her tragic tale served as a metaphor for Taupin on ‘Candle in the Wind.’ He’s always been clear that it was about any celebrity who simply died too soon or as he put it “a song about unfairness.’ The gentle pretty melody became a worldwide lament for Diana, Princess of Wales and renamed ‘Goodbye England’s Rose’ in 1997 becoming the biggest selling single of all time. Though the latter is not on this collection you still get the original as well as a guitar-based, live and Ed Sheeran version.
Nine acts were invited to give their own spin to ‘Goodbye’ tunes on special edition copies. Sheeran, who was intimidated due to his own dad being such a fan, completely rejigged ‘Candle’ to still sound smooth but more fitting for the time.
Unlike today where a song has seven writers and/or producers including the teen artist on the cover who may or may not have ever put two words or melody together in their lives, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ was done honestly. Credit was given where it was due. Drummer Nigel Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone and late-great bassist Dee Murray would come for breakfast to find Elton plugging away at a melody. Engineer Hentschel remembers Bernie giving Elton the lyrics to ‘Candle in the Wind’ the night before and waking up to Elton finishing the music in 20 minutes while the band watched and recorded it an hour later. Elton and Davey Johnstone also tipped their hats to Dudgeon who never thought twice to kick anyone to do it better.
Elton was 26 when he made this album and nothing proved his pedigree more than the haunting, gorgeous title song. It’s arguable his best singing performance of his career and most memorable hit. In fact he sings so high that producer Dudgeon was often asked if he played with Elton’s pitch – he did not. The song skirts with the divide between Taupin, the quiet country boy and Elton’s lure for the bright lights and fame. 22-year-old Hunter Hayes adds a warm glossy country finish to the tune on the covers disc.
Other notable covers include a banjo-hoedown finish to the power-pop tune ‘Grey Seal’ by the Band Perry and the Zac Brown Band with a stripped down take ‘Harmony’ which back in it’s heyday got loads of airplay but was never a hit. The covers serve as a cool novelty for this huge collection but no one does them like Elton.
The ‘Super-Deluxe’ package also feature a 100-page hardcover book and a DVD of a long out-of-print 1973 documentary by the British filmmaker Bryan Forbes. There’s a few demos and outtakes and a 1973 performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.
Elton John will still be talked about in a hundred years because of albums like this and it’s 70’s younger brothers like ‘Don’t Shoot Me.’ Honky Chateau, Madman Across the Water,’ ‘Tumbleweed Connection.’ He would go on to explore with ‘Caribou,’ ‘Captain Fantastic.’ ‘Rock of the Westies’ and ‘Blue Moves.’ The integral part of these gems would be huge hit singles but also the plethora of album tracks that sounded, sometimes as important and catchy as the hits.
The original ‘Goodbye’ album runs 76 minutes. It was done in over two weeks with no fat. Pay special attention to the magical vocals on ‘Harmony’ and twangy-tribute ‘Roy Rogers.’ Both truly underrated.
Released so late in 1973 ‘Goodbye’ would be the #1 album the following year, beating out John Denver’s ‘Greatest Hits Vol 1’ and Paul McCartney’s ‘Band on the Run.’ He would go on to have the #1 album of 1975 with his first ‘Greatest Hits.’
Both Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson still record and tour with Elton John. Dee Murray died, of a stroke, in 1992. Percussionist Ray Cooper played with Elton for the first time since 1995 just 2 years ago. Gus Gudgeon who produced this album most of Elton biggest 70’s hits died, with his wife, in a car accident in 2002. Engineer David Hentschel worked with Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Queen as well as producing five Genesis albums. – by John Beaudin