Saturday, March 2, 2013

That Cat Named Hercules, Part I

Being as Elton John is tied for #2 with The Who on my all-time favorite Rock group/artist list (2A and 2B behind Kiss, essentially), I’m surprised I’ve never done an official blog tribute to Captain Fantastic, as his music is as big a part of the soundtrack to my life as anyone’s.  I paid tribute to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the first time I ever saw Sir Elton in concert in previous posts, and now I feel compelled to do a more complete job after finishing a wonderful book by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal called His Song.  In her book, Rosenthal chronicles both Elton’s personal life and his music, with very comprehensive details about the inspiration for and recording of virtually each and every song from all of his albums through 2001 when the book was published.  Ms. Rosenthal also did a much better job of covering Elton’s personal life than any other biographies I’ve read on him, and I learned way more about that "Cat named Hercules" than ever before.

So, I decided to rank all of EJ’s albums from worst-to-first, similar to what I did with Kiss a couple years ago.  I cover all of his studio releases and official live albums, but omitted any greatest hits and compilation albums (Love Songs, for instance), as well as the 1994 Duets CD, which I didn’t really think was relevant (nor did I much care for it!) and the 1991 Two Rooms tribute CD, which Elton didn’t actually participate on.  I think I’m pretty kind to Elton too—only two of the 35 albums received less than a C-minus from me.  And I think you can pretty much already guess which album is #1, but my other rankings might surprise you a bit.

On with the countdown…

35) VICTIM OF LOVE (1979) F   One of the dangers of the type of superstardom Elton John achieved is he was able to indulge himself in anything he damn well pleased by the late ‘70s.   EJ was/is a fan of all different types of music, which is well-reflected in his overall musical catalog, everything from Country to Gospel to edgy Rock to R&B, and in 1979, he got the urge to do a Disco album—never mind that Disco was already passé and on its way to a very timely death by that time.   This is the only Elton John album on which he doesn’t play a note—he chose to merely sing on it and more or less just phoned that in.   The only halfway-inspired track was "Street Boogie", but like most Disco songs, it gets boring after the first three minutes.   And a Disco version of Chuck Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode"?   Sacrilege.   Even Sir Elton himself now freely admits Victim was a soulless turd, and he had reached the nadir of his career.   Happily, things improved steadily after that…

34) LEATHER JACKETS (1986) D+   EJ has similar feelings toward Leather Jackets, which he has deemed his least-favorite of everything he’s ever put out.  This one came out while Elton was in one of his creative "comfortable ruts" during which all the songs kinda sounded the same.   The only thing that saved Jackets from receiving an F from me was "Go It Alone", an underrated favorite of mine featuring a catchy riff and some edge from Davey Johnstone’s guitar.  The rest of it is pretty much half-hearted excrement, including the single "Heartache All Over The World".   It also didn’t help that Johnstone, lyricist Bernie Taupin and the rest of Elton’s band at the time are featured on the back cover posing in leather and/or seated on motorcycles looking like a bunch of third-rate Fonzies performing in Branson.  Just a very ill-starred effort from someone I’ve come to expect much better from.

I hesitated even including it on the list, since it’s not really a full-length album, and I may be a bit harsh giving this one a C-.   I truly enjoy some good Soul/R&B music now and then—when it’s done by black guys, that is.   When a white dude attempts it, the results are usually unsatisfying.   "Mama Can’t Buy Your Love" was a fair-sized hit for Elton, but I just never grooved to Thom Bell, and was getting frustrated with John’s inconsistency in the late ‘70s following his halcyon days.   I will say this, though—Thom Bell was way better than the Disco album Captain Mediocre put out next (see #35 above).

32) 21 At 33 (1980) C-   Elton was still making his way back out of the musical wilderness in 1980, following three years of unfocused mediocrity and substandard releases (two of which I just covered), and 21 At 33 reflects the baby steps he was taking after briefly reconnecting with Taupin following their unplanned sabbatical from collaborating with one another.  "Little Jeannie" yielded John’s first legitimate hit in quite a while, but it always came across to me as kinda wussy-sounding.   About the only other noteworthy tracks were "Chasing The Crown" and "White Lady, White Powder", the latter half of which Elton had been indulging too much in during that period.   Even the title confounded me for the longest time—it was supposed to signifying his 21st album at age 33, but every time I tried to tally up his album catalog, I kept coming up with 20, greatest hits packages and live albums included. I didn’t realize it referred to his British releases, which had more compilations and such than his US stuff did.   Overall, a rather forgettable album, but at least it was a step in the right direction, considering where Elton had been wallowing the past few years prior to it.

31) ICE ON FIRE (1985) C-   Elton’s momentum stalled on this album following his wonderful early ‘80s comeback, and it heralded yet another "comfortable rut" he found himself in where most of the songs sounded too similar.  True, Ice On Fire yielded two hits, "Nikita" and "Wrap Her Up", but this album as a whole lived up to the first half of its title with me—it sounded too cold and plastic most of the time.   Even the cover photo seemed cool and distant, which featured Elton looking like a snooty aristocrat (as he also did on A Single Man in '78).   The video for "Wrap Her Up" featured a mulleted Elton duetting with George Michael—two renowned gay men inanely singing the praises of famous women—meh.   Far and away this album’s saving grace is the forgotten gem "Act Of War", a comic duet with R&B siren Millie Jackson, and one of my all-time favorite "fuck you" songs.  Featuring a Davey Johnstone guitar riff that sounded dangerously close to Glenn Frey’s "The Heat Is On" (also on the charts long about the same time) this track wasn’t even available on vinyl copies of IOF (only as a bonus track on cassettes and these new things called compact discs, which had just hit the marketplace in ‘85), but it blew away everything else on the album (pun intended).   Elton originally had Tina Turner in mind for the song, but she politely passed, so Jackson joined the melee instead, and almost sounded (and in the video kinda looked like) RuPaul in places.   "We’re living on the front line, you and me/Fightin’ on this battleground of misery/Oh, go ahead/Bring the artillery, and we’ll make this an act of war!"

30) THE BIG PICTURE (1997) C-   Mr. Taupin cites this release his least favorite of all his collaborations with Sir Elton.   EJ had slipped back into another comfortable rut at that point, following his 1990s comeback that featured two of his strongest albums in many years back-to-back, 1992’s The One and 1995’s Made In England.   TBP isn’t all that bad an album really, but it features way more slow-tempo tracks than its immediate predecessors, and sadly, doesn’t really wake up from its slumber until the closing song, "Wicked Dreams".  Apart from the somewhat-predictable hit single "There’s Something About The Way You Look Tonight" and a personal lyrical favorite of mine, "Recover Your Soul", there isn’t anything terribly memorable about The Big Picture, which was also overshadowed by the world-record selling "Candle In The Wind ‘97" and the tragic event which triggered it. 

29) FRIENDS (Soundtrack) (1971)  C   Elton and Bernie’s songwriting partnership was still in the formative stages at this point, but this wasn’t a bad effort for relative newcomers to the music scene, and the album was actually better than the movie it came from.   I contemplated giving Friends an incomplete grade instead of C since it’s not all Elton and Bernie here, as parts of the record feature orchestral instrumentals by Paul Buckmaster, who worked on several E. John albums in the early ‘70s.   The title track, a minor hit, is a bit of a forgotten gem here, as was "Can I Put You On"?, an underrated Elton classic which merely served as incidental background music on a radio in the film, but was a real showstopper when he rocked the house with it during his live act at that time.

28) PEACHTREE ROAD (2004) C   Comfortable rut time again, but this one wasn’t quite so bad. This album had a Country tinge to it similar to 1971’s Tumbleweed Connection, and it had some decent tracks on it like the pseudo Elvis tribute "Porch Swing In Tupelo" and the somewhat-personal "Weight Of The World".

27) SONGS FROM THE WEST COAST (2001) C   Not sure what the significance of the album title is, but Peachtree’s comfortable rut actually originated on this album, where Elton became more piano-oriented again.  Nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always been more partial to Elton’s albums that have a mix of guitar and piano, so a little more 6-string magic here from Davey Johnstone would’ve enhanced things a skosh.   Nonetheless, the songs are a bit more memorable than Peachtree, especially "American Triangle", all about the hate-crime murder of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.   I liked "Look Ma, No Hands", "This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore", "Dark Diamond" and "Emperor’s New Clothes", as well. 

26) THE CAPTAIN & THE KID (2006) C   The comfortable rut continued with Elton and Bernie’s pseudo sequel to Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy 31 years hence.   Once again, very piano-oriented, the tune on the title track for this Captain sounds almost identical to the one from the original Captain, only it has different lyrics and comes at the end instead of being the leadoff hitter.   "The Bridge", "Postcards From Richard Nixon" were the other standout tracks, as was a nice EJ tribute to New York City, "Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way".   Still, there seemed to be that nagging sameness to the material here that bogs things down.   I realize Elton is older, wiser and drug-free now, but I’d still like to see him rock out a bit more than he has in recent years.

25) A SINGLE MAN (1978) C   The bottom had to fall out sometime—Elton had such an unprecedented rise to stardom in the ‘70s, but even he couldn’t keep it going.  A creative rest might’ve suited him better, but record companies being as they are, MCA demanded more product, and for the first time since his early days, EJ’s magic touch just wasn’t there.   Everything seemed different here, right down to Elton ditching his (in)famous trademark crazy eyewear in favor of contact lenses for the cover photo (as well as getting his right ear pierced), and ASM also marked Elton’s first recording without songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, and it showed.   Most of the album was co-written with Gary Osborne, and it’s not that the album totally sucked, but it wasn’t all that memorable, either, even with highlights like the pleasingly-apathetic "I Don’t Care", the mostly-instrumental "Song For Guy" and the single "Part-Time Love".   EJ’s trek through the musical wilderness had begun…

24) SLEEPING WITH THE PAST (1989) C   This was E. John’s final studio album recorded under the cloud of alcohol and drugs.   It’s surprising this one turned out as well as it did, considering that Elton’s personal life was a train wreck, he was overweight—"as big as Luther Vandross at his worst", he later admitted—and he had bleached white hair, which made him look 20 years older than he truly was.  Hell, he could've doubled for Truman Capote!  He went for a mostly R&B sound on SWTP, "Healing Hands" being the centerpiece, while "Club At The End Of The Street" was kinda funky, and "Sacrifice" wound up being a surprise hit, especially in England, where it became EJ’s first #1 in his homeland.  The real hidden gem is the beautiful closer, "Blue Avenue".  It’s not a bad album, I suppose, but just not a big EJ favorite of mine, for some reason.

23) THE UNION (w/Leon Russell) (2011) C   Brother Leon is one of Elton’s idols, but I can’t fathom a more unlikely duo, given their divergent musical and vocal styles, not to mention their looks.  Critics went ape-shit over this album, and it’s great for the type of music it is, I suppose, but for some reason it doesn’t blow me away like it did the critics.  Leon sounds way too much like Willie Nelson here and practically looked like an invalid in the making-of documentary, so it appears Elton did all the heavy lifting, although the closing track, "In The Arms Of The Angels" features only Russell singing very poignantly and moving Elton to tears in the studio as he recorded it.   "Monkey Suit" and the bluesy opening cut "If It Wasn’t For Bad You’d Be Good" are standouts, and at least it sounded like these two enjoyed working together. Coulda used a bit more guitar for my liking, though.  More cowbell, too…

22) LIVE IN AUSTRALIA (1987) C+   Touring with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra during a mightily successful trek through Oz in 1986 was a brilliant masterstroke, considering how many of Elton’s early recordings contained string arrangements and this double live album would’ve made a wonderful souvenir thereof—IF Elton’s voice hadn’t been torn to shreds by that time.  He would soon opt to have surgery to remove polyps from his vocal chords, but throughout most of this record, he sounded more like Redd Foxx than Captain Fantastic.  "Candle In The Wind" even resurfaced here as a hit single, but between Elton’s hoarseness and the dour instrumentation, it came off more like a dirge than a celebration of Marilyn Monroe—give me the Yellow Brick Road original any day.  Still, the rest of the album contained highlights like the underrated "Have Mercy On The Criminal" (from Don’t Shoot Me), "Take Me To The Pilot" and "Madman Across The Water".  My grade would be substantially higher if Elton’s voice had been in top form.

21) ONE NIGHT ONLY: THE GREATEST HITS (2000) C+   As great a performer as Elton John is, he has yet to put out a truly quintessential live concert album.  The expanded re-release of Here And There probably comes the closest (read on in Part II), and this one isn’t bad, but there just seems to be something missing here.  One Night is career-spanning, giving us the first "official" live versions of "Philadelphia Freedom" and the thumping "I’m Still Standing", as well as Elton’s more recent hits like "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" and "Sacrifice", and it was also wonderful to have longtime drummer Nigel Olsson back behind the skins once again.  Elton doesn’t even try to do the falsetto "La la la la la’s" on "Crocodile Rock" anymore, but it still rocks out, as does "Bennie & The Jets".  Still, apart from Kiki Dee in her rightful place duetting on "Don’t Go Breaking My Heart", I honestly could’ve done without the guest singers featured throughout the album, especially Mary J. Bilge-water ("Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me") and Anesthesia—er uh, Anastacia caterwauling on "Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting", which sounds totally silly with a woman singing it.  My other issue here is apart from introducing his guests, they omitted most of Elton’s between-song on-stage patter, which often can be as fun and entertaining as the songs themselves.  Overall, not a bad live release, but this could’ve been way better with a little tweaking…

20) BLUE MOVES (1976) C+   Critically-acclaimed for the most part, this one just always left me a bit flat, but you can attribute that to my own overly-high expectations for Blue Moves. When I heard Elton John was making another double-album in ‘76, visions of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road II danced in my 12-year-old head, but such was not to be.  As with most double-albums from the ‘60s and ‘70s that weren’t concept records like Tommy, Quadrophenia, The Wall, et al, you could lop off the filler tracks and create a pretty decent single-album with Blue Moves.  Just as the case was with the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, The Beatles’ White Album and Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Ladyland, I thought BM had too many throwaway songs that would normally not have made the cut on an Elton John record, to wit:  Bigger ain’t necessarily better!  Which is not to say there isn’t some good stuff here—"One Horse Town" and "Crazy Water" are two VERY underrated EJ cuts, "Shoulder Holster" has really grown on me over the years, especially Elton’s vocal on it, and even the Disco romp "Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!)" is fairly tolerable.  We even get three rare instrumentals from Elton here:  "Your Starter For…", which segues into the 8:00-long "Tonight", "Out Of The Blue", which meanders around for over six funky minutes, and "Theme From A Non-Existent TV Series", which doesn’t even last a minute-and-a-half, but still gets its point across.  "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" was the big hit from Moves, but I’ve always found it as depressing as Mr. John’s receding hairline was in the video for it at the time.  Elton has often cited Blue Moves as one of his personal favorites.  Sorry I can’t say the same, although it did have its moments.

19) THE FOX (1981) C+   The baby steps of Elton’s early-‘80s return-to-form got a little bigger on The Fox, his first release on the Geffen label after leaving MCA Records in 1980.  Working more and more with Bernie Taupin again following their unintentional (but probably necessary) hiatus, Elton was beginning to sound like Elton again, on songs like "Heels Of The Wind" and the title track, which closes the album.  The tracks he collaborated on with other songwriters were also quite good, particularly "Chloe", composed by Gary Osborne, whom he’d worked with off-and-on since A Single Man.  That song sounded especially good when Sir Elton played it live on tour in 1982.  The lead-off track, "Breaking Down Barriers", also co-written with Osborne, sounded much more confident and assertive than the wimpy "Little Jeannie" from the year before, and EJ gives his falsetto its best workout since 1975’s "I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)".  The most controversial track, "Elton’s Song", was co-written with openly-gay singer-songwriter Tom Robinson, all about a schoolboy crush on another schoolboy, and it took a fair amount of balls on Elton’s part to put it on his record.  For the record, I’ve never had a problem with Elton’s homosexuality and I’ve always admired his honesty and forthrightness about it.  As for the album, Elton was definitely back on the right track at this point…

18) EMPTY SKY (1969) C+   Many folks think 1970’s Elton John is his debut album.  Guess again.  After numerous failed singles circa. 1968-69, Empty Sky was the first official album from Reginald Kenneth Dwight of Pinner, Middlesex, England.  It was only available in Europe until re-issued by MCA in the summer of 1975 (with a different cover) during the height of Elton’s chart dominance.  Although he sounded like the rookie he was in places, Sky is still very listenable and not a bad effort for the first go-‘round.  The lead-off title track clocks in at 8.5 minutes, but holds one’s interest throughout, and Elton almost (intentionally) sounds like Mick Jagger at times.  "Skyline Pigeon" could’ve been a big hit with a bit more backing from the record company, and is one of the first truly memorable John-Taupin compositions.  "Western Ford Gateway" explores the life of vagrants and "Lady What’s Tomorrow" concerns itself with the environment without getting preachy.  "Gulliver" is the sad tale of a dying dog, and it segues into the smart-assedly titled "Hay Chewed", which actually re-caps the entire album with snippets from every song and some trippy late ‘60s feedback to boot.  ES only sold modestly, but Elton at least got to experience what making an album was like and still put out something he could be proud of. 

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