Classic Rock Review

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Elton John Honky Chateau (1972)


Yeah, to me this is the peak, although I always have a hard time choosing between this and Tumbleweed Connection. You take your Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic – I’ll stick to Honky Chateau, many thanks. GYBR can be quite a bit long, and Captain can be quite a bit preachy and somewhat too self-elevating. They’re good records, but they’re also all of that. Not so with this one, the most solid and irridescent collection of gems in Kenneth Dwight’s career. Somehow everything seems to have come up exactly right on this album – the songwriting, the playing, the singing, the lyrics, the atmosphere, well, everything. Maybe some of the songs do sound the same (isn’t ‘Amy’ just an electrified take on ‘Honky Cat’, for instance?), but this isn’t the Beatles we’re speaking of, right? That’s why I gave the man a rating of three, dammit!

Of course, everybody knows the two biggest hits from the record, and without a doubt both have been mightily overplayed on classic rock radio. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t great songs! First of all, what better opener can there be for a record like this than ‘Honky Cat’, with its cheerful tinkling piano, utterly hilarious brass section in the choruses and lyrics about ‘drinking whiskey from a bottle of wine’ as Elton narrates the psychological trauma of a tramp? None – and that’s it. My favourite Elton John song of all time, it’s probably the last (and best) example of his lightweight, stomp-that-boot-on-the-keyboard style that he would soon abandon in favour of preachiness and pretension.

And, of course, there’s ‘Rocket Man’, arguably Elton’s best known song of all times – except for ‘Candle In The Wind’, of course (blush). Bernie had provided the melody with a beautiful set of lyrics that completely debunk the astral mythology – yeah, I know David Bowie did it earlier with ‘Space Oddity’, but his was a playful, artificial tune (did Bowie really do anything sincere in his life?), while Elton really manages to sound convincing. The song is beautiful, with a fantastic guitar part and swooping harmonies in the choruses, while occasional ‘astral noises’ and some subdued synthesizer lines really give it an otherworldly feel. Romantic, touching and bitterly ironic at the same time, it is still the definite Elton classic and will always be.

But don’t you dare to think that this album’s greatness is limited to the two hits. No, splendid as they might be, they just don’t manage to overshadow the rest of the material. For the most part, Elton sticks to the same mid-tempo, slow shuffles that he’d used on Madman Across The Water a year ago, but they are neither overdone (the songs have mostly standard running times) nor hookless – almost every tune has something to offer.

Among the best I would first name two gorgeous ballads – ‘Mellow’ has a fantastic, sweeping chorus (the one where he goes ‘oooooh you make me mellow’), and ‘Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters’ are primarily interesting lyricswise – Taupin’s ode to New York and New Yorkers, though a little obscure, is still one of the most intriguing pieces of poetry devoted to the Big Apple. You can’t even really understand whether his assessments are positive or negative – it makes me wonder… The atmosphere of the song in general is very close to the one in ‘Candle In The Wind’, but where ‘Candle’ was a late and not very appropriate tribute to Marilyn Monroe, here Elton goes for something more actual and on-the-spot, if you know what I mean.

As for those who prefer to always regard Elton as a typical product of the mainstream – well, why don’t you go and listen to ‘I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself’, the grooviest and most sardonic little piece he’d ever played? ‘I’m gonna kill myself/Get a little headline news/I’d like to see what the papers say/On the state of teenage blues’. Pretty cool, eh? And the way the song sometimes flows from its cute little jazzy riff into something resembling a funeral march is almost shocking – not to mention the obscene reference to Brigitte Bardot. I wonder if there were actual plans to involve her in the saving of Elton’s life? Then again, she was probably much too old at the time, so the reference is kinda obsolete…

Otherwise, the record is full of tunes that could easily be qualified as ‘country’ – some of them are even banjo-based – if not for Elton’s piano and singing that still tend to drift towards soul. Out of these, the grand ‘Salvation’ is probably my least favourite song here, and the vamp-bashing ‘Amy’ really is too much of a clone of ‘Honky Cat’ for me; yet it is still saved – this time, by Jean-Luc Ponty’s virtuoso electric violin playing.

But ‘Slave’, a genuine country excourse (there’s even no piano work at all on that one) with Civil War-based lyrics that could have easily made it a Tumbleweed Connection outtake, is first-rate, again, mostly due to the strength and catchiness of the chorus, and ‘Susie (Dramas)’, well, that one is simply as raunchy and catchy as could ever be – playful and artistic. Finally, ‘Hercules’ that closes the album is one more country rocker about… a cat (the true legacy to Pink Floyd’s ‘Lucifer Sam’, eh?): not the best here, but not bad either.

I don’t really know why I prefer this album to the others. I’m not sure whether 1972 was really the peak of Elton’s creativity – this record’s attractiveness could just as well have been incidental. Then again, maybe he was really trying to pull out his best due to the moderate critical backlash in the end of 1971. Maybe not. But I do know one thing – this is the last Elton record where his lightheartedness and joyful enthusiasm isn’t yet overshadowed by pomposity and rigidness. Rather they combine in proper portions to make the perfect cocktail – some good clean fun and some blistering serious tunes.

Actually, the two hits do just that – they accent the two ends of the pole: ‘Honky Cat’ encapsulates all that’s funny and ‘Rocket Man’ encapsulates all that’s serious. And both rule.

May 18, 2013 Posted by | Elton John Honky Chateau | | Leave a comment