MGF Reviews Elton John – Rocket Man: Number Ones


Elton John – Rocket Man: Number Ones
Island Records (3/27/07)
Pop

Available at amazon.com

So Sir Reginald Dwight recently celebrated his 60th birthday and threw a party for a few thousand of his closest friends at his favorite venue, Madison Square Garden. For those of us closest friends who couldn’t be there, he decided to release a collection of his most famous works. Well, at least his most popular ones. Sort of.

Elton John is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He holds the record in the US for most consecutive years with at least one Top 40 hit, taking that record from Elvis. His worldwide record sales are in nine figures. There are villages in the middle of the Amazon who’ve had no contact with white men who know who Elton John is. Grammy winner, Emmy winner, Tony winner, Academy Award winner. Tireless activist for AIDS causes. Probably the world’s best known gay man, he got married to his longtime partner David Furnish on the first day allowed by British law. Universally beloved; even John Lydon doesn’t hate him (“I don’t mind Elton. He’s harmless. He’s like Koko the Clown,” was Lydon’s judgment in his book Rotten). His voice is universally known, usually singing lyrics written by his writing partner of nearly four decades, Bernie Taupin. Everyone knows everything about him. So therefore I wasted an entire paragraph writing that.

Rocket Man: Number Ones is the latest omnibus from Elton, released to celebrate his milestone birthday. This release has a great many questions attached to it, especially for someone like me, an Elton fan for thirty-five years. Yeah, I started young. I learned piano as a kid, and back in the early ’70s, there weren’t many piano-playing rock role models, so I glommed on to Elton the first time I heard a friend’s older brother’s copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I’ve been enjoying him since, through the good times and bad. But, as I said, there are questions. For instance, why? He has three greatest hits albums, a rather comprehensive box set, the 1995 collection Love Songs, a tribute album that had some of the biggest musical artists in the world perform on it, and, let’s face it, if you haven’t heard any of these songs on this release, you’ve lived a life that a medieval monk would consider severely sheltered.

Please note: there are different releases of this CD available. The US release has seventeen tracks, the non-US release eighteen; there’s also an import version with twenty tracks that includes live performances of “Bennie and the Jets” (which was already a live performance to begin with) and “Rocket Man”. There’s also a CD/DVD combo disk featuring some live video performances as well as the video for Elton’s new single “Tinderbox”. I’ll be discussing the US audio-only release. So, my apologies to our overseas readers who might end up being confused.

The concept here is a comprehensive collection of Elton’s Number One singles, like the Beatles’ 1. There’s one problem with this. Elton’s only had eight Number Ones in the US. That doesn’t make for a very big collection. And one of them isn’t included on this release, for very good reason. So, the section of twelve tracks listed as Number Ones is a manifest lie. Now, for some unknown reason, the neurological pack rat that is my memory has comprehensive knowledge of Elton’s Billboard chart history. I’m going off of memory here, so if I make a slight mistake on chart position (and it will be slight), I apologize. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Daniel” peaked at #2. The original of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” was also a #2 hit, but the version here is the duet with George Michael, which did go to #1. “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” peaked at #5. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” went to #4. “Sacrifice” missed the Top Ten in the US, but it has a very unusual distinction: it was Elton’s first #1 single in the UK. Seriously. Elton John did not have a #1 hit in his homeland until 1990. Roll that puppy around your head.

(Just to go off on a digression for a second, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is one of the six greatest #2 hits in history, a fact that I’m reminded of because our local oldies station here did an entire tribute weekend this past week called Close But No Cigar, devoted to singles that peaked at #2. The others are, in chronological order, “Louie Louie”, “Be My Baby”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Rosanna”, and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”. Yes, Wang Chung. It’s my list, so shut up.)

So, therefore, the track selection is a bit of a gyp. Plus, as I said, these tracks are familiar to everyone. Therefore, a big sale point for this collection is the fact that they’ve remastered these classic tracks. Since I know every note of these songs, I think I can make a fair judgment on this, and I have to admit that they did a wonderful job in this regard. The late Nigel Olsson’s drums on “Philadelphia Freedom” have gained a startling new depth and have added real power to the song. Davey Johnson’s guitars on “Island Girl” have a vibrancy not found on the original, and they’re heavily emphasized on “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”. Elton’s and Kiki Dee’s vocals on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” seem to be more of an organic part of the song, and there’s an illusion there of the tempo being slightly increased. The background vocals on “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” have been pushed up slightly in the mix, which is a little disconcerting when you’ve heard the song the same way for thirty years, but it’s a very nice effect. Even “Sacrifice”, recorded in the digital age, benefits from the improved technology of the last eighteen years, with brighter percussion. So, they succeeded in this regard. But the question still remains of why this collection exists.

Another selling point, believe it or not, is the packaging. You can buy a version in a standard jewel case, or get the version that’s “eco-friendly”. So what does that mean? It means they don’t use any plastic in the package, for one thing. The CD holder is recycled foam. In my case, it got all over the surface of the CD and I had to use compressed air to get it off so the damn thing would play. It also means there’s only a minimal booklet, with more information available online. Look, record companies, the reason that people still buy CDs is for the booklet. Don’t skimp on that.

Is it comprehensive? Well, it’s not a box set, so it’s not supposed to be comprehensive. But it does hit most of Elton’s peak creative periods, and it does cover a twenty-four year period. One of the problems is that this period stops in 1994. So, there’s a dozen years of releases here not covered. Let’s go chronologically through each period of his career and see how they’re represented:

The Beginning: Elton’s first two American releases, Empty Sky and Elton John, gave him a firm grounding in the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement of the early 1970s. He fit in really well alongside James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Carole King. Critics, though, noticed that his piano playing was incredibly sophisticated and added a dimension that other performers didn’t have. Plus, he could rock out when the occasion demanded it. He proved this with an incendiary live album recorded in 1970, which has a “holy shit” version of “Burn Down The Mission” that has to be heard to be believed. Unfortunately, this period is only represented by one tune, “Your Song”. Well, let’s face it, an Elton collection without “Your Song” is unimaginable. I would have substituted “Burn Down The Mission”, but I tend to veer away from cliches.

The Can Do No Wrong Period: Between 1971 and 1973, Elton released a series of albums that were a revelation to audiences. He and Bernie hit an early peak in their songwriting, and the steady hand of producer Gus Dudgeon did wonders (and let us not ignore the phenomenal string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster). He definitely could feel something spurring him on. The competition wasn’t coming from America at this point, though. It was coming from his homeland. Marc Bolan was showing people a new way to rock out. Gilbert O’Sullivan was proving to be Elton’s equal on piano. And then there was Bowie, who fused rock, folk, and good old-fashioned music hall and gave it a new sense of theatricality fused with the bizarre imagery of androgyny. Elton would take bits and pieces from each of them to inform his own music. Tumbleweed Connection showed that Elton had learned something about America from all those tours of Southern California he did. Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player…there’s not a weak track on any of those. This period is reasonably well-represented on Rocket Man. After all, the title track is from this period (namely from Honky Chateau). “Tiny Dancer” represents Madman in style (although I would have chosen “Levon”). “Daniel” and Elton’s first US Number One “Crocodile Rock” demonstrate that he was on to something big on Don’t Shoot Me…, something that would come to fruition on his next album…

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: It gets its own category because a quarter of this CD is from it. Four songs from this expansive, phenomenal double album make the cut here: the title track, “Bennie and the Jets”, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, and, a surprise, the original version of “Candle in the Wind”. Personally, I thought they’d use the more-often-heard-today version from Live In Australia (which was a Top 5 hit). I prefer the original, so I’m pleased about this. However, it doesn’t really need to be here, mostly because it’s been overplayed in all its versions. If a fourth track from the album was necessary, how about the song that closed the album, “Harmony”? It’s a transcendent song that sums up everything about Elton in under three minutes, and that final three-part vocal note was the perfect close for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a magnificent counterpoint to the opening keyboard dirge of “Funeral for a Friend”. Only the Beatles on Sergeant Pepper and Bowie on Ziggy Stardust did it better.

Look, I could write a doctoral thesis on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and, as I said above, it was the album that turned me on to Elton in the first place, so it has a very special place in my heart. If I don’t stop here, I’ll get hung up on it and I’ll never continue. So let’s move on.

The Biggest Artist In The World Period: The moment “Bennie and the Jets” became Elton’s second Number One early in 1974, he exploded. The tour that accompanied the album introduced the world to the Elton of legend, he of the flamboyant costumes and wacky eyewear. He was a long way from those early shows at the Troubadour in LA. And each new album during this period was awaited with baited breath. 1974 was in particular a busy year for him on the charts. His first greatest hits album was released (only the Eagles have sold more copies of a greatest hits album than Elton did with this one, and that’s only the biggest-selling album of all time). He knocked out two quick ones that I’m not a very big fan of, Caribou and Rock of the Westies (although they each contain their share of great tracks). They sold very well, but represented a bit of a comedown artistically from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Caribou is technically unrepresented, although it’s the home of the original of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. Excuse me, there’s a little song on there called “The Bitch Is Back” that could have found room here; it’s almost the ur-opening song. Rock of the Westies provides “Island Girl” to this release. Since it’s probably my least favorite big hit from Elton, I’ll skip it.

Elton also made a few new friends in 1974. That was the year that Ken Russell cast him in his bizarre film version of the Who’s Tommy. In the process, he met Pete Townshend, and together, they would rearrange one of Townshend’s Tommy numbers to fit the character Elton would play in the movie. “Pinball Wizard” is, without a doubt, the greatest Who cover ever recorded. It wouldn’t receive an album release until 1977’s Greatest Hits Volume 2, though. Shame it’s not on here. Given the level of remaster work done on the rest of the recordings, it could have reached even greater heights of transcendence. In an incredible irony, Tina Turner was also cast by Russell in the film. She’d end up doing the greatest Elton John cover of all time. If you’ve ever heard her version of “The Bitch Is Back”… well, Elton got a big hit out of it, but if he gave it to Tina at that time… ah, but we all regret sins of omission.

Elton also hooked up with John Lennon, who was recording Walls and Bridges at the time. Elton helped him out with a track, and made him an unusual bet: if the song they did together was released as a single and went to Number One, John would appear with Elton on stage at Madison Square Garden. “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” went to Number One, and Lennon appeared with Elton at the Garden on November 28th of that year (my tenth birthday, which is why I remember the date); this would be the last time John Lennon would ever appear on stage, but nobody knew that at the time. As recompense, John wanted to work on a song with Elton. Elton said, “Why don’t we do one of yours?”, and John said yes, but wanted to disguise his contribution under his alias of the period, Winston O’Boogie (Winston was John’s original middle name until he changed it to Ono). They chose “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, completely reinventing it from the bottom up. Released as a non-album single, it also went to the top of the charts. Not only does Elton possess the greatest Who cover of all time, he also owns the greatest Beatles cover ever. Naturally, “Lucy” is on this collection.

Elton was also making a bit of noise as a celebrity sports fan. He purchased a soccer team in Britain at this time, and started appearing at major tennis tournaments. He became friends with Billie Jean King, who was attempting to get a pro tennis league off the ground. Her team was called the Philadelphia Freedoms. I think you can figure out where this one is going. Yes, he did a song in tribute to Billie Jean’s team, a song which also caught the zeitgeist of America in early 1975, where anticipation for the upcoming Bicentennial was starting to ramp up. Also, in the wake of Watergate, there were many Americans who needed a little reassurance that being an American was something to be proud of. Bernie Taupin was living in America full-time by this point, and captured what was great about his adopted country after Elton gave him the prompting. No one found it strange that it would be two Englishmen who would give America a boost in its self-confidence. But enough Americans loved it enough to send it to Number One as a non-album single. Of course, it’s on here.

At this time, Elton also opened his own vanity record company, Rocket Records. He’d noticed that one of his idols, Neil Sedaka, didn’t have a record contract. So Elton signed him to Rocket. Sedaka’s career was almost immediately revived, with one of his new big hits being a duet with Elton, “Bad Blood”.

Despite all these distractions, Elton didn’t ignore his own career. Bernie had a few new songs in his pocket, songs with a distinctly autobiographical feel to them, and Elton went to work at writing the music. One of the songs summarized an incident that Elton was a little embarrassed about. It was at this point in time that a woman was pressuring Elton to marry her, and he’d almost given in. Yes, I know it seems strange today that Elton John would marry a woman, but he actually was married to a woman for four years (that would be later on, though). Elton was confused until a friend of theirs, whom Bernie nicknamed “Sugar Bear”, talked him out of it. As usual, Elton turned trouble into gold. The autobiographical album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, became the first album to ever debut at Number One on the Billboard Album Charts (a much, much rarer event in the era before SoundScan and other advanced tracking methods). The song about his near-marriage was the centerpiece of that album, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”. It isn’t on here. It should be. Captain Fantastic is possibly my favorite Elton album, more concise and emotionally devastating than Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. For it to be unrepresented on this collection is a shame.

After Captain Fantastic, he slowed down a little in 1976, exhausted from the constant touring and in the start of his drug phase. He did record another non-album single, since demand for Elton product was insatiable. It was a duet with a young English singer named Kiki Dee, and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, like his previous two non-album singles, went to Number One. Of course, it’s on here. He was building his strength up for another double album to be completed in 1977, but there were distractions with his publisher, Dick James (who got rich by betting on a couple of unknown songwriters named John Lennon and Paul McCartney), which would be settled with the early 1977 release of his second greatest hits collection. The distractions and the drugs caused him to make a rare tactical error. He admitted in an interview that he was bisexual. It was one thing for a relatively-unknown David Bowie to admit that a few years earlier, when androgyny was in fashion, but Elton was the biggest musical star in the world. It made unwanted headlines everywhere. The revelation also obscured the release of Blue Moves, a double album loaded with mournful songs of lost love and lost lives, incongruously closed by an all-out dance track, “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)”, which fit into a world that had fallen in love with disco. Blue Moves is represented on this collection by its centerpiece song, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”.

Elton had already made an announcement in regard to Blue Moves: he was going to retire for a while. The bad publicity from the interview and the hidden drug habit were getting to him. It stopped his momentum dead. The Bee Gees took his throne as the biggest artist in the world, and Elton went into seclusion.

The Lost Years and The Revival: Elton’s retirement lasted for eighteen months. But his momentum was completely lost. A series of desultory albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s led to his departure from MCA to the new label set up by David Geffen. He’d stopped writing with Bernie Taupin for a while (neither party made out well; it was during this time that Bernie wrote “We Built This City”). He’d broken away from Gus Dudgeon and was being produced by Chris Thomas. He was trying hard to regain some momentum. Fortunately, his senses hadn’t been dulled. The murder of his friend John Lennon prompted him to record a beautiful tribute, “Empty Garden” (a song that he only performs live at Madison Square Garden in memory of that concert they did together). He was building up steam again thanks to that song and a few other minor hits. 1983 was turning out to be the greatest year ever in pop music, and it was the right time for him to kick himself into full gear and do an all-out comeback. He pulled it off with Too Low for Zero, his best album since Captain Fantastic. The first single was a statement of defiance to a music industry that had written him off as a dinosaur in the wake of punk and New Wave, “I’m Still Standing”. And he brought his sense of theatricality to the video for the song, which entered heavy rotation on MTV and single-handedly turned him into an artist for the Video Age. On the European version of this disc, Too Low for Zero is represented by that song and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”, a return to the Top 5 after a long absence.

A string of great albums followed in the Eighties. Ice on Fire produced one of his most popular ballads, “Nikita”, and an incendiary duet with soul blaster Millie Jackson, “Act of War” (a track that I wish would get a lot more exposure than it has). Reg Strikes Back was a strong personal statement that he was going to take back the life that he’d lost to his drug use and his miscalculated marriage to Renate Blauel; it looked back while looking forward, and gave him a huge hit with “I Don’t Wanna Go on with You Like That”, along with some of his best reviews ever. Sleeping with the Past closed out the Eighties in style as he dipped into gospel with “Healing Hands”, and finally got his first Number One in his homeland with the track that represents that album here, “Sacrifice”. By this time, he was back in the MCA family. None of his Geffen tracks are on this collection, which is a shame.

Rock and Roll Legend: The Nineties cemented Elton’s status as a performer for the ages. It was in 1992 that he broke Elvis’ consecutive years with a hit single streak. His work with Bernie Taupin would be honored by some of the biggest performers in music with a tribute album, Two Rooms (a must-get for any Elton fan; it’s the home of the aforementioned cover of “The Bitch Is Back” by Tina Turner as well as an ethereal, haunting version of “Sacrifice” by Sinead O’Connor and a version of “Daniel” that might change your mind about Wilson Phillips). And Elton himself would remain vital. Gus Dudgeon was back on board in 1992 when Elton did an album of duets. The key track would be a live performance of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” with Elton acolyte George Michael handling the lead. Michael was a perfect choice for the song, and listeners agreed. It took that final step that the original didn’t, and is thus honored for topping the charts on this release.

He started to expand his musical horizons outward as well. For a man who famously wore a Donald Duck outfit on stage, writing the music for a Disney movie seemed a natural, even though the circumstances weren’t. The job for The Lion King was open because Howard Ashman had died of AIDS, which both repulsed and attracted Elton to the project due to his highly-visible AIDS activism. He accepted with a bit of alacrity. His lyrical partner in this instance would be Tim Rice, who already had experience working as a librettist for rock musicians (specifically on Chess with the male half of ABBA). Elton had experiences in his earlier days in scoring a movie, so he wasn’t in virgin territory. But this was a Disney musical. The pressure was on them to create something that would top Ashman and Alan Menken’s work. Elton and Rice clicked and created a soundtrack that many people, not only Disney fans, consider the best movie musical soundtrack of the Nineties. The Lion King‘s representative number on this collection, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, won Elton an Academy Award.

1994 is where this collection ends, but not the story. Elton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 in his first year of eligibility. He and Rice enjoyed their collaboration on The Lion King so much that they adapted it to the stage and won Tony Awards for the production. They decided to collaborate on an adaptation of Aida for the stage and ended up sweeping the 2000 Tonys. By that time, both of them had received knighthoods. Of course, Elton still wrote with Bernie Taupin. Elton’s mid-Nineties albums, The One and Made In England, received massive critical acclaim for songs like “The Last Song” and the title track from the latter album, both of which confronted the stigma of being gay (and in the case of “The Last Song”, dying of AIDS).

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention 1997. It was a year that he lost two close friends to violent death, Gianni Versace and Princess Diana. He was asked to sing at the latter’s funeral, engendering a bit of criticism in the process in regard to a pop singer performing a number at a state funeral. But everyone knew what a close friend of Diana Elton was, so the criticism was muted quickly. Bernie Taupin rewrote the lyrics of “Candle in the Wind” to personalize it for Diana, and Elton performed the revised version live on worldwide television. The performed version was quickly remixed by the legendary Sir George Martin, the man who produced the Beatles, and released as a single. It became the largest-selling single in history and debuted at Number One on singles charts all over the world, including the US. Since all proceeds from this version are donated to the Diana, Princess of Wales Foundation, its inclusion here was precluded. If that’s the case, though, why not include its B side, “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” (the CD single was technically a double A side)? More questions, no answers.

Elton’s continued strong through this decade. His 2004 album Peachtree Road was critically acclaimed, and he and Taupin created another masterpiece in last year’s The Captain and the Kid, a pseudo-sequel to Captain Fantastic Later tracks are included in the European release, but not in the US release.

So, an answer has to be determined: is this worth it? If you’re an Elton fan, you’ll enjoy the remastering. The tracks here have never sounded better. But you’ll be disappointed at the blah song selection. However, if you’ve got an eight-year-old hanging around the house, a kid who may have never heard Elton except on The Lion King, pick this up for him or her and let them listen. Odds are pretty good that the same thing will happen to them that happened to me when I was eight and heard Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for the first time. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

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