I’m now up to that "Cat named Hercules", Sir Elton John, in my current alphabetical CD trek, and just finished listening to his masterpiece Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for like the eleventy-thousandth time in the last 33.5 years, and it remains my favorite album of all-time on earth in this hemisphere and has been virtually since the day it came out in October, 1973. It’s a little bit funny (pun intended) that Elton actually thought he had a piece of crap on his hands when he left the studio after recording it, but he needn’t have worried—GYBR is just an awesome record from start-to-finish that I will never get tired of hearing.
What makes it all the more impressive is that Yellow Brick Road was a double-album which maintained its high quality throughout. For you youngsters out there who’ve grown up on new albums that routinely feature over an hour’s worth of music, most records that came out during the ‘70s averaged 35-40 minutes of music, and it was rare for an artist to release a double-LP set unless it was a live album or a concept record like The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia or Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And when someone did put out a non-live, non-concept double-LP of all-new material, you often wound up with a lot of sub-par filler stuff and "throw-away" tracks, like on The Beatles’ White Album, Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Ladyland and the Stones' Exile On Main Street, as well as Elton’s own 1976 release, Blue Moves. If you took those same double-albums and gleaned the best songs off them, you'd have really solid single LPs instead of the patchy collections of songs that we’ve come to know. This wasn’t the case on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, however, where even the throw-aways (or "B-stuff") were top-notch!
What I really love about this album is that it has a little bit of everything that I like in music—some good headphone stuff ("Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding"), some edgy guitar-driven Rock ‘N’ Roll ("Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting", "All The Young Girls Love Alice"), a little drama ("The Ballad of Danny Bailey", "Candle In The Wind"), a little humor ("Dirty Little Girl", "Social Disease") and a little goofiness ("Your Sister Can’t Twist" (But She Can Rock ‘N’ Roll)"). Then you throw in Bernie Taupin’s outstanding lyrics, some first-class musicianship, a killer album jacket and cover, and you’ve got the greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll album ever made, in my opinion.
As for that first-class musicianship, I want to praise Elton’s longtime band, which I don’t think gets near enough credit for their body of work. Guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson played on Elton’s records from 1971 to 1975 (with the addition of multi-tasking percussionist Ray Cooper in 1974), and they were an excellent musical unit during that time. Johnstone in particular is vastly underrated, and is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. I’ve often wondered what the hell Elton was thinking when he broke this band up in 1975 after "Philadelphia Freedom" (which ironically was the one and only time they were credited on record as "The Elton John Band"), and only Johnstone and Cooper remained when EJ brought a phalanx of other musicians aboard for Rock Of The Westies and beyond. It’s no accident that Elton’s resurgence in popularity in early ‘80s coincided with Murray and Olsson’s return to the fold, not mention how one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen featured this classic lineup (minus Cooper) when Elton and the boys played Starlight Theater in K.C. on June 6, 1982. Both Davey and Nigel still record and tour with Elton today, but sadly, Dee Murray died of skin cancer in 1992. I would also be remiss in not mentioning the late Gus Dudgeon, the producer of Yellow Brick Road, as well as most of Elton’s ‘70s output—ain’t no doubt this man knew his way around the ol’ control board.
And now, my personal track-by-track review of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road:
1) "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding"—Excellent lead-off hitter for both an album and a concert, as the song starts off mournfully and builds to a crescendo. Davey Johnstone really shines on this 11-minute opus too.
2) "Candle In The Wind"—This, boys and girls, is THE definitive version of this song. I never much cared for the live ’87 hit single version when Elton’s voice was shot to hell prior to his throat surgery, and the re-worked version for Princess Di’s funeral speaks for itself, but this is the way the song should be played, with the beautiful melodic guitar signature and dramatic backing vocals. Classic line from B. Taupin here, too: "from the young man in the 22nd row who sees you as something more than sexual—more than just our Marilyn Monroe."
3) "Bennie And The Jets"—Greatest fictitious Rock band this side of Josie & The Pussycats! I was a real sucker when I was 9-10 years old, thinking this track was actually recorded live in concert. This is always a high point in Elton’s live act too. A classic it is, says Master Yoda…
4) "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"—I grew up on AM radio in the early/mid-‘70s, and this song was all over it in the fall of ’73, along with The Carpenters and Tony Orlando & Dawn (now Dusk?). I always wondered why Dorothy and Toto were never mentioned…
5) "This Song Has No Title"—This track would fall under the "throwaway" category, but it’s actually not a bad little tune at all. It wouldn’t surprise me if Elton digs this one out and plays it live in concert now and then, as he's been known to do with many of his "B-tunes", like "Ticking", "Teacher, I Need You" and "Where To Now, St. Peter?".
6) "Grey Seal"—I don’t have a clue what the lyrics mean—it’s called "Grey Seal", yet it’s all about a bird—but it’s a great track anyway. This was actually the second time Elton recorded this song. A much more tepid 1970 version appears on Elton’s box set, but this one rocks out with the best of E.J.’s stuff. Nice to hear it getting regular airplay on Classic Rock stations today.
7) "Jamaica Jerk-Off"—No, it’s not about that! For Masturbation 101 tunes, I refer you guys to The Who's "Pictures Of Lily" and you girls to Divinyls' "I Touch Myself". Bernie Taupin initially wanted to call this "The Jamaica Jerk" or "The Jamaica Twist"—as in a new dance move—but settled on "Jerk-Off" for whatever reason. It's a goofy little song, as Elton takes a stab at being Bob Marley for a day. Probably the weakest song on the album, but far from being totally wretched.
8) "I’ve Seen That Movie Too"—This song didn’t do much for me early on, but it’s really grown on me over the years, especially now that I get the gist of the lyrics as an adult in terms of all the head games one must play in relationships and friendships and such. Great guitar solo from Johnstone here too, augmented by the excellent orchestral arrangement by Del Newman that was also a trademark of many of Elton’s early songs, like "Levon" and "Your Song", et al.
9) "Sweet Painted Ladies"—Greatest Rock song ever about prostitutes this side of Kiss’ "Black Diamond" and "Big City Girls" by April Wine. Gotta love the line, "Opportunity awaits me like a rat in a drain…"
10) "The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-34)"—When I was about ten or so, I actually tried to look up young Mr. Bailey in the encyclopedia, not realizing until years later that D.B. was a fictional character created by Mr. Taupin. Very dramatic song, great vocals from Elton, and once again the orchestral accompaniment really colors in the song. One of my favorite tracks off GYBR.
11) "Dirty Little Girl"—I believe the term we use today for girls like this is "White Trash ho", but in the post-Imus era, we have to re-think it, I suppose. "Someone grab that bitch by the ears!" didn't even cause a stir in 1973, but if it came out today, they’d probably have Elton and Bernie up before the committee for not being P.C. enough. Very funny song, though...
12) "All The Young Girls Love Alice"—Far and away the greatest song in Rock history with the word "dykes" in it. Also my first musical introduction to homosexuality, although I didn’t know it at the time, nor did I care—I just thought it was a cool fucking song. Great guitar riff from Davey, too.
13) "Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘N’ Roll)"—This used to be my favorite song on the album in my younger days, plus it had the word "shit" in the lyrics (which always scored points with me when I was a kid), but it hasn’t aged well over time with me, for some reason. I still like it a lot, though, especially Elton’s Farfisa organ solo.
14) "Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting"—Yes, it gets played to death on the radio now, but I’ll never tire of hearing it—one of my Top 10 songs of all-time. Don’t give me none of yer aggravation, either!
15) "Roy Rogers"—Yet another song reflecting Bernie Taupin’s fascination with the Old West. Not one of my big faves from the album, but not a bad song, either. Yippie-ki-yay!
16) "Social Disease"—Another tune that most likely wouldn’t have made the cut if this was a single LP, but it’s rather humorous, and it gave Johnstone a chance to do a little pickin’ on the banjo.
17) "Harmony"—If there’s one criticism I have of GYBR, it’s that it doesn’t have that definitive climactic closing track a la The Who’s "Won’t Get Fooled Again" or "Who Are You?". "Harmony" is a great song, but it seems out of place at the end of the album. "Saturday" or "Alice" or even "Danny Bailey" might have served as a better closer. Better to go out with a bang, not a whimper, I say. Come to think of it, on the 8-track version, "Saturday" was indeed the final track.
Predictably, Elton John has never even come close to topping Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. He’s put out some great stuff from time to time since then, but this was his Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road all rolled into one. If I was only allowed to keep one CD from my entire collection for eternity, the choice would be a no-brainer. Just an incredibly awesome record…