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Review: Elton John, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: 40th Anniversary Edition,” Part One

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Elton Goodbye Yellow Brick Road“When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land?”

It looked like Elton John would never come down. When Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John’s seventh album and first double-LP set, arrived in October 1973, it followed six straight Top 10 albums. The last two of those had gone all the way to No. 1. Five of John’s singles had also reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, including one chart-topper. The former Reg Dwight was at the top of the world. Where does one go from there? The answer, of course, was even higher.

Forty years and two dozen studio albums later, GYBR remains the quintessential Elton John album. And it’s just returned from UMe in a multitude of formats including single-CD remaster and double-CD remasters, a 2-LP vinyl reissue, a 4-CD/1-DVD Super Deluxe Edition, and a Blu-ray disc. But whether you’re playing it on a turntable, a CD player or the latest in BD technology, it remains the purest expression of Elton John’s artistry. Not that Captain Fantastic did it alone. GYBW is very much a band album, featuring Dee Murray on bass and two players that still share the stage with John today: Davey Johnstone on guitars and Nigel Olsson on drums. Del Newman’s lush orchestrations made sure that the album sonically reflected the grandiose cinematic quality so often referred to in the lyrics of The Brown Dirt Cowboy, Bernie Taupin. Producer Gus Dudgeon made the entire program of songs hold together cohesively.

GYBR isn’t a concept album, but is a showcase for the various strains of American music that Elton John made his own. Thematically, Hollywood and music itself recur as central lyrical inspirations, with John and Taupin’s stirring array of songs addressing loss – of innocence, of love, even of life. Even today, John opens his concerts with the eleven-minute “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” an epic, ominous, majestic Overture for what’s to come. The instrumental “Funeral,” with David Hentschel’s spooky ARP synthesizer, sets the grand tone for the sprawling album. It segues into “Love,” with some of the Rocket Man’s best rock piano yet accompanying a Taupin lyric about the collateral damage caused by life as a musician.

Naturally, GYBR’s four singles – “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” (No. 12 on the Hot 100), “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (No. 2), “Bennie and the Jets” (No. 1) and “Candle in the Wind” (No. 11 in the U.K.) – threaten to overshadow the other thirteen songs on GYBR. Both the title track and “Candle in the Wind” make use of the Hollywood imagery that plays such a prominent role on the entire LP. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is ostensibly a declaration of getting back to one’s roots, filtered through powerful, potent cinema imagery and uncommon sensitivity. The narrator is turning his back on fantasy in favor of hard reality (“You can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough”). If he’s bitter (“I’m not a present for your friends to open/This boy’s too young to be singing the blues” – and the melody soars in perfect tandem with the lyric), he’s also emboldened.  “Candle,” with its now-famous central metaphor, is less a eulogy for Marilyn Monroe than for youth and innocence itself. In the elegiac, empathetic song, Taupin and John observe the glamorization of death and the immortalization of a star gone too soon. It struck a chord in 1973, and is still sadly relevant today.

In “Bennie,” music itself is central. Taupin’s lyric is typically oblique as it describes this “weird and wonderful” band, but the song satirizes the music industry while noting the power of rock and roll to “fight our parents out in the streets/to find who’s right and who’s wrong…” Its singular glam-R&B fusion earned Elton his first appearance on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart. “Saturday Night” rocked even harder; if it’s not the artist’s flashiest, best balls-out rocker, I’d be hard-pressed to name what is.

Keep reading after the jump!

Elton GBYR 40 Super DeluxeThere’s more to the widescreen fantasia of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road than those four songs, however.   The recurring Hollywood thread is most evident in another trio of songs. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is melodically bluesy and lyrically cutting. “Roy Rogers” is more affectionate, celebrating (once again) a more innocent time – in this case, childhood: “And Roy Rogers is riding tonight/Returning to our silver screens/Comic book characters never grow old/Evergreen heroes whose stories were told…Roy Rogers is riding tonight” Of course, there’s steel guitar courtesy of Johnstone. “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)” is the album’s gangster movie homage, spinning a sad yet sympathetic tale of a “wild one – but aren’t most hungry kids?” Del Newman’s strings bring the requisite cinematic drama.

The most underrated melody on the album might be the ironic (and ironically gorgeous) tribute to a “Sweet Painted Lady.” Del Newman added woozy brass and atmospheric accordion to Taupin’s song from the POV of a sailor on shore leave, reflecting on the lady of the night “getting paid for being laid”: “Many have used her and many still do/There’s a place in the world for a woman like you…” It’s oddly romantic – and utterly compelling. Taupin and John are less charitable with their portrayal of a “Dirty Little Girl,” and in fact, it’s one of Elton’s most mean-spirited tracks. The saga of the unfortunate ladies of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road reaches its apex with the aggressively-rocking “All the Young Girls Love Alice.” Kiki Dee adds background vocals to the sad story of Alice, who takes her turn servicing the local girls before meeting her untimely demise in the subway.

Danny Bailey and Alice are just two of the memorable characters who populate GYBR. Elton is cast as a real reprobate in “Social Disease,” which like the novelty-esque “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is in a jokey vein. But “Social Disease” shines thanks to its offbeat instrumentation like Johnstone’s banjo and Leroy Gomez’s saxophone. “Grey Seal,” a muscular overhaul of an earlier single, has perhaps Taupin’s most impressionistic lyrics on the LP – “just images,” he once confirmed. But John set it to an exciting, exuberant rock melody. Even more pulse-pounding is the frenetic “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll),” which is like “Crocodile Rock” on uppers! “This Song Has No Title” is a minor yet appealing reflection on art and the creative process; John plays all of the instruments on this track.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ends with a song as modest as “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” is magnificent. The lovely “Harmony” contrasts acerbic verses with soaring choruses. The brief, under three-minute song encapsulates the sophisticated musicianship, impeccable songcraft, and anything-goes sense of musical abandon that permeates the entire album. Its seventeen tracks nod at the past and nostalgia for it, but transform those tropes with cleverness, keen observation and good old rock-and-roll. GYBR spent ten weeks at No. 1 in the United States, and pundits might be forgiven for having figured there was nowhere to go but down for Elton John. In fact, his next three albums also made it to No. 1. Forty years later, 2013’s back-to-basics The Diving Board was a No. 4 entry on the Billboard 200 for Messrs. John and Taupin. Harmony and Elton John – they’re pretty good company, indeed.

Coming soon: Mike continues our celebration of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at 40 with a closer look at the newly-released reissues!

To order:

1CD 2014 remaster by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
1BD HD Pure Audio Blu-Ray: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
2LP 180-gram vinyl reissue – mastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley at The Mastering Lab, California: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
2CD 40th anniversary deluxe edition: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
4CD/1DVD Super Deluxe Box Set: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Written by Joe Marchese

March 25, 2014 at 10:19

Posted in Elton John, Reissues, Reviews

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6 Responses

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  1. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is Elton’s finest album and one of the greatest albums of all time. A true classic from first note to last.

    Ernie

    March 25, 2014 at 11:52

  2. Vinyl reissue was originally advertised as a yellow vinyl pressing , now suddenly doesn’t , and my preorder has turned up in plain black vinyl , great album , but not as advertised , as I now have two copies in plain old black vinyl , original issue and the new one , and the cd!

    Gavaxeman

    March 25, 2014 at 14:03

  3. Far too pricey for the 4-disc set, and I have absolutely zero interest in the cover versions from a bunch of bland, contemporary artists. I read Elton picked the artists himself, but someone needed to tell him that was a bad idea.

    A hip-hop “Bennie and the Jets”? No thanks. The covers are not a selling point. For me, at least, it’s a complete turn-off. Zac Brown doing “Harmony” *might* be interesting, but I still have no interest in buying it.

    So it is that to get the full Hammersmith concert one has to buy the expensive four-disc set. Maybe at some point the Hammersmith show will get released on its own? Doubtful, but I’ll hold out for that anyhow.

    Shaun

    March 30, 2014 at 10:38

    • Shaun, I’m with you all the way around. The lineup of the “tribute” disc sounds BORING and a slap in the face to this al-time rock classic. hey, Second Disc, let us know when the Hammersmith concert is available as a stand alone. Thanks.

      Sean Anglum

      April 3, 2014 at 12:01


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