We’ve been down this road before of critiquing double albums which would have worked better as a single album. See our recent review of Exile On Main Street by The Rolling Stones or stayed tuned for our look at The Beatles’ White Album later this year. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the 1973 double-length album by Elton John may also fit this mold. The album starts extremely strong, with deeply produced and thoughtful compositions through the first side and a half, but then the bottom falls out with a barrage of trite filler before a slight recovery towards the end of side four. The album comes at the end of an incredibly prolific, four and a half year span for John and lyricist Bernie Taupin. In that span which began in mid-1969, the pair had composed and recorded a live album, a film soundtrack, and six studio albums before this double seventh album.
After a failed attempt to record in Jamaica, the album was recorded in a 18th century castle outside Paris, France called the Château d’Hérouville, where Elton John had recorded his previous two albums, Honky Château in 1972 and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player earlier in 1973. Taupin reportedly wrote all the lyrics to the album’s 17 songs in two and a half weeks while John composed most of the music in three days while in Jamaica.
The album was produced by Gus Dudgeon, who was not initially expecting to produce a two-record collection. However, John and Taupin had composed 22 tracks for the album and ended up recording 18 of these (two of which were fused together for the opening medley). This diverse double album recapped many of the styles (for good and bad) which John explored through his first four years in the spotlight and even added a bit of prog rock with the epic opener “Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)”. This eleven minute epic starts with a long, multi-part instrumental with doomy organs accented by synths performed by engineer David Hentschel, and of course plenty of piano, all meant to replicate the type of music John envisioned played at his own funeral. When the song proper finally kicks in, it is riff-driven and melodic with a backing vocal chorus and a very active guitar by Davey Johnstone.
The ballad “Candle In the Wind” was a recurring theme throughout Elton John’s career, with three separate versions released as singles and reaching the pop charts in 1974, 1988, and 1997. This original version has the most rock “decor” with a strongly distorted guitar above the piano melody and more great harmonies, fitting the epic theme of this album. It’s lyrics pay homage to Marilyn Monroe, with the actual phrase “candle in the wind” first used in tribute to Janis Joplin.
“Bennie and the Jets” is a choppy piano song with glam overtones about a fictional band (much like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust). It would go on to become one of John’s most popular songs, but the artist was against releasing it as a single in the first place because original version in its first carnation was too “dry”. Some live effects were added by Dudgeon to give the song some atmosphere, which livened it up enough for John to capitulate.
The title song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is the finest composition on the album. It was written by Taupin, playing homage to the first movie he even saw as a child, The Wizard of Oz, and facing the realities of life as he had now grown up. John performs a signature vocal part in an extraordinarily high register, which Dudgeon claims is totally natural and completely improvised by John in the studio. The slowly-building arrangement reaches a full orchestral climax that leaves the listener wanting for more.
Side two has a couple of more fine tunes, the piano folk “This Song Has No Title” with light flute and soaring vocal melodies, and the upbeat “Grey Seal”, with a driving bass by Dee Murray to complement John’s boogie piano, with a definite 70s pre-disco sound. Then the album reaches its first song to not feel cohesive nor epic, like a bad joke in a serious drama, called “Jamaica Jerk Off”, a dreadful mock-reggae. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” finishes the side in an attempt at another mellow classic that doesn’t quite measure up to the brilliance of “Rocket Man” or “Tiny Dancer”.
The album’s third side is, by far, the most forgettable, “Sweet Painted Lady” is a “shock” song about a prostitute where Taupin uses explicit and cheap lyrics (“getting paid for being laid, I guess that’s the name of the game”) in a lame attempt to add some sleaze to the act. “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909–34)” has a slight “The Night Chicago Died” or “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” quality, but is otherwise very forgettable. “Dirty Little Girl” is essentially “Bennie and the Jets” reformed in both music and melody to present a screed against a promiscuous woman. The only somewhat interesting song on the side is “All the Girls Love Alice”, about a young groupie with lesbian appeal, that musically returns to the higher quality.
The final side starts with “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll)”, a totally retro tune right down to the bad Sha-Na-Na-style harmonies, with the only really interesting element being John’s Farfisa organ lead during the bridge. A much more convincing rocker is “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, a straight-up hard rock song with drummer Nigel Olsson shining brightest along with the driving, riff-driven electric guitar of Johnstone. The song was a surprise hit single, reaching the top 10 in the UK and the top 20 in the US, despite being banned on many radio stations fearing that the title would incite violence.
The final three songs on the album gains back some of the credibility built up earlier. “Roy Rogers” is a lazy country waltz with guitar pedal effects meant to replicate a steel guitar. “Social Disease” is also country-tinged with barking dogs and inclusion of banjo and twangy guitars by Johnstone above the choppy piano of John. “Harmony” closes the record finely with acoustic guitar, thoughtful, melodic progressions, and (of course) fine vocal harmonies. The song was considered as a fourth single, but by then it was too close to Elton John’s eighth album, 1974′s Caribou.
In all, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a very good album (filler and all) and was the climax of Elton John’s early, artistically lucrative, peak years. His output is terms of quality and quantity began to thin out through the late 1970s, but he would come back strong in the 1980s with another successful phase in his career.
This album saw Elton and his crack band at the peak of their popularity, and often at the peak of their collective powers.
By now entrenched as one of the 70’s dominant performers, at this point a supremely confident Elton was willing to try nearly anything, which was both a blessing and a curse. The album is his best known due to its classic hit singles, including four A+ efforts in a row to start the album, but it also includes a fair amount of filler and is one of those “good double albums that could’ve been a great single album.”
Indeed, had Elton taken the best 9 or 10 songs here this would’ve easily been his best album, but his judgement here isn’t always to be trusted, as witnessed by the inclusion of misogynist, mean-spirited rockers such as “Dirty Little Girl” and “All The Girls Love Alice.” Other songs revisit previous styles a tad too closely and not as well (“The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)” and “Roy Rogers” veer unimpressively into Tumbleweed Connection territory, while “Your Sister Can’t Twist” is a fast-paced rock ‘n’ roller a la “Crocodile Rock” only not nearly as good), or are too short (“This Song Has No Title”) or too long (“I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” which is also quite reminiscent of “Have Mercy On The Criminal” come to think of it).
Fortunately, much of the rest of the album is outstanding, and yes I’m including songs that I know I’m not supposed to like such as “Jamaica Jerkoff,” a silly but fun reggae throwaway, and “Social Disease,” which oddly enough combines bluesgrass with Dixieland jazz, but again in a fun way. Still, these are undoubtedly minor efforts on an album that is most definitely about its major efforts. Of those, the mournful 11-minute (!) epic (“Funeral For A Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)”) that begins the proceedings is arguably the best thing Elton ever did.
The first 6-minutes or so, the all-instrumental “Funeral For A Friend” part, is moody and funereal; it’s also almost prog-like in its multi-sectioned ambition, and it’s spectacularly successful in every way. Then the vocals kick in on the “Love Lies Bleeding” part, which is simply one of Elton’s very best rockers, with vocal hooks galore and his band in peak form, especially Johnstone. Though not a hit per se, this is a well-worn album track that subsequently became a radio favourite. The second song, “Candle In The Wind,” a lovingly rendered tribute to Marilyn Monroe, was a U.K. hit in 1974, a top 10 hit when released from a 1987 live album, and of course was revised and sung at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997; the single released of that version became a worldwide #1 hit.
Now that’s an enduring ballad, and in addition to its excellent melody and moving lyrics I really like Olsson’s drum performance on this original version, as well as the airy backing vocals and Johnstone’s riffs. Next up is another classic single in the campy #1 hit, “Bennie and the Jets,” which is mostly notable for its canned applause, piano hooks, and of course Elton’s fabulous falsetto vocals, which also grace the musically lush, deeply affecting title track, one of Elton’s best ballads and another major hit single. Other impressive album cuts are the previously mentioned (in my Elton John review) “Grey Seal,” and “Sweet Painted Lady,” which overcomes more misogynist lyrics by virtue of Elton’s tender delivery of them plus another pretty melody.
Still, only two of the albums truly classic tracks come on what used to be sides three and four (the album is now a single cd), thereby strengthening the “this should’ve been a single album” argument, but “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” is a terrific, hard charging, rabble rousing party tune that’s simply Elton’s most convincing guitar driven rocker, period. Last but certainly not least is the short but sweet album closer “Harmony,” which is basically the antithesis of the opening track but which is also impressive enough that it became a popular radio track without being released as a single. I’m not surprised how that happened, as the song’s airy harmonized choruses, in direct contract to its sombre deep voiced verses, are almost impossible not to sing along to.
So, long story short (though it’s probably too late for that!), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, on which Del Newman, not Buckmaster, added orchestrations to several songs, could’ve been a masterpiece had it been edited down, but its many high points capture the multi-faceted talents of one of the brightest pop stars of the ‘70s. For all its over ambitious faults, none of his other albums range quite so far or show off so many different styles, and as a result for better and sometimes worse Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the quintessential Elton John album.