Saturday, August 31, 2013

'I Should Watch...These To Hear'

It's no exaggeration to say that Indian Sunset is a monument to Elton and Bernie's abilities. All boxes ticked. The live version with Ray Cooper is one of those must see. must hear occasions. Never dull, never a chore and always a pleasure. It's separate movements when it switches from anger to melancholy to ultimately death is a triumph. Taupin is akin to Shakespeare in his creation of characters. Whether they be real, based on real or just plain unreal. But the common thread is they always sound believable. And the young warrior here is very genuine...

Around the time of the songs writing, 1970, the whole movement of civil rights in the US had been in full swing for a while. Minorities were speaking, as they had been for centuries, but were now being heard. The Native American was no exception, his and her's tale had been told by Hollywood since the first roll of film rolled. But it was not the true story, the voice we heard was not of an oppressed people, a people driven to almost extinction. And those who survived destined to lead of apartheid. But one of where they were portrayed as the bad guys time after time. But by the sixties the image was being to change. Cheyenne Autumn (1964), was one of the first to address the anomaly of the incorrect telling of their plight. It being one of the legendary Irish American director John Ford's final films. A man who had essentially made his name portraying the baddie as being men with no shirts and feathers on their heads. But in this film he set out to right some of the wrongs he (and his colleagues in the industry) had propagated for decades. By showing Indian tribes and the suffering, injustice and hardships they suffered. Too little too late maybe in some people's eyes, but nonetheless a statement. So it's even chance that Bernie with his love of western etc would have seen that film among others at the time and when he was finally on his way in the promised land in the Autumn of 1970 he quickly set about visiting the locations of these historical moments. Hence Indian Sunset was born, being debuted live in the US on the second visit in late 1970. It combined cinematic qualities of backdrop with proper character development to the forefront. All in the space of less than 7 minutes no less.

The eventual studio version ended up on Madman Across The Water. An album in my top 10. Gus Dudgeon produced a magnus opus for this one, it had to be. Paul Buckmaster waved his wand like the magician he is and built from Elton's piano outwards an arrangement worthy of an overture. The melody reflected the lyric and the shift in moods. Changing as and when. The opening hazy, swirling, dreamlike experience is like a fog clearing to reveal a cappella Elton. Menacing brass forbodes in the background, Elton's piano chimes in and the lyric 'sound of drums' indeeds heralds the thunderous thud of the toms as they flash around, Elton's voice becoming angrier just as the strings sweep in. Cutting to a quieter mood again, vocal and piano gently speak in unison. Discreet electric bass by that master of the instrument Herbie Flowers is then mirrored by acoustic bass higher up in the mix that impacts harder. The strings are reintroduced and as Elton's vocals die away slowly. The battle between piano and the orchestra intensifies, reflecting the character's outward and inner battles and turmoils. But solitude and calm returns, but only briefly. But not finally both in song and in life for the character. There is one fianl battle to be fought and won. The brass is the main background this time, though unlike the opening of the song it adds a serene feel. Which helps build up to the both life and song. The final play out of piano, orchestra and rhythm section all battle for supremacy. The sudden stop and silence means the end. Of life and song...a metaphor and device for the characters fate.

Elton only performed the orchestral version once at the disastrous 1972 show with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London. It was a shame he didn't do this version during the orchestra shows in 2004, it would have been some sound to be fed...

Friday, August 30, 2013

'Fortunately Contrasted'

1970...year 0, or year -43 as it is at the time of writing. As we contemplate the forthcoming release of the new album...a return to the rollicking days of that year so we are told, lets look at two contrasting performances from that year. Think of the contrast between the Elton John album cover and the stage persona. Both almost similar sets performed by Elton. But that's where the similarity stops. And familiarity begins, both in the studio and live recreations that the two examples are representing so finely of that year.

The first in the BBC TV broadcast, recorded in May 1970. At this point, three albums recorded and two out in the UK. None as yet in the US. Primarily a showcase for the Elton John album, with as ever a new song thrown in. A showcase that ultimately ended up in the folk category in the BBC archives, which may explain why it was never wiped if you anything about the BBC's 'wiping policy' at that time. The music and lyrics are to the forefront here, it's not about Elton the owner of the stage, but merely a stage to present his and Bernie's embryonic material. Featuring many of the musicians that played on the EJ album, Barry Morgan, Madeline Bell, Leslie Duncan, Skaila Kanga and in particular Paul Buckmaster. In fact, his hands are all over this one. Not only does he bring his arrangements with him and a small orchestra, but his solo cello playing is name checked by Elton and beautifully recreated. 60 Years On is bang on the studio version. Lamenting acoustic guitar over the strings and the whispy organ. Beautiful! No flubbed lines or under rehearsal on this one, it's knitting together of Elton's piano, voice and a superb backing.The strings are delightful with a tenacity in their delivery. Elton's voice is like plate glass, fragile but strong when upright. Attitude appears too, Take Me To The Pilot ensures we see the other side too. In the next show, it's abundant the whole way through. The ending has the 'new band', Nigel and Dee raw, yet tight as if they'd been doing it all their lives. Burn Down The Mission is truncated, but still the piano riffs are in full focus, heralding the excitement of the stage Elton. Which is where we go next...

November 1970. In off the Streets Of San Francisco, Elton, Nigel and Dee are in the small yet cavernous sounding Fillmore West. This second US visit of the original, best, groundbreaking 3 piece in rock was wave crest riding on the biggest breakers they could muster, the earlier frenzy was still in full flow by this time. Word was out. The word was Elton and now the words of Bernie were becoming part of every day speak. This is Your Song indeed...the show starts with the gripping harmonies of the threesome on Honky Tonk Woman. Then thunderous drum intro from Nigel starts the song proper with Elton's piano honkying away. 60 Years On is the embodiment of the contrasts I referred to earlier, same song with altered DNA. Some altering it, the long piano intro with Dee's bass just hanging in the air, only dying off slowly. Niglel's drum work, damn could he pick the moments. Light work on the toms and cymbals to literally knocking them off their stands. Knocking the crowd over more like. Dee's bass being the perfect bassline and leader. Elton switching from the manic parts to the quieter parts is a sweet move. Can I Put You On, another new song as ever, belied the fact that Caleb Quaye's guitar is not missed. The hard rocking out has Elton is full keyboard standing pounding and punching. His vocals beyond high, beyond falsetto, beyond the stratosphere. The contrast fully accentuated. Burn Down The Mission was the punctuating moment, all points from soulful vocal in the verses to crazy twists and turns. The transition to My Baby Left Me, to do that from a song you've written yourself to someone else's is some doing. Dee's bass dances on the solo parts, it bump, bump bumps it way through the melody. Elton's vocal is plaintive on the vocal after the first solo, then the attitude kicks in again. All in the space of a few lines, but that was Elton in 1970. Contrasts. The outro showcases the stage persona. We can see it, we weren't there, but we can feel it. Elton asks us if we are, so we are feeling it. And we are there. If Elton tells us to come, we've come. Every piano style that Elton interprets in present and correct. With his own take. Nigel's high hat shuffles and sudden switch into manic backbeats. Broken rhythms in abundance, Dee's string bending standout solo truly a majestic moment. Alright Elton sings, more than alright if you ask me! A frenetic ending, frantic in extreme. But after the hostess has handed out the hot towels, an encore of Country Comfort contrasts with the preceding epic. The song contrasts the old with the new appearing, in 1970 the new appeared. And never stayed old...

Thursday, August 29, 2013

'Are The Kids Alright?'


The reviewer makes the breathtaking assumption that Gus Dudgeon would approve of the current producers methods. Typical of the teenage scribblers and telly dollies (both genders) that seem to be running HQ in the media world now...somebody I bet wouldn't have a scooby doo how he approached an Elton album in the early days. Which had its different phases, the Trident albums done in a different way to the Chateau and Caribou ranch albums. In turn showing how he could adapt to various style changes. Style changes that Elton conjured up at alarming regularity. Madman and Honky Chateau, while sharing similar DNA, are both different species. Even though they had less of a 6 month recording gap between them.
What this reviewer may not know, in fact I'd be surprised if he did, is that Gus would not have approved of this recording method. Shortly after SFTWC was released he was asked about the production style of the album. He said he would have recorded Elton's vocal in digital and put the overdubs on in analogue, to get the best possible sound quality and the benefits of analogue. So a mixture, but not fully buying into this whole rustic method. Tape hiss...who needs that!!

Now onto the new song, Mexican Vacation. Again it's another inoffensive presentation, mid tempo with a breezy solo in the middle. Great piano work that means the song will work great solo. But for goodness sakes, the production. Or lack of...what is this guy getting paid to do?! Elton, a basic rhythm section and the odd backing vocal contribution and some faint organ. It's so 'not there' you wonder why they bothered. They just don’t bring or add anything to the mix. Read one of my earlier items and you'll know what I mean. Either leave Elton on his own or put something on it that the song requires. Not leave it hanging, unfinished. Whether it was a brass part or some sort of electric guitar part. Because those elements put the layers on the song and make more of a communication to the listener if the melody isn’t punch resistant strong. Which I just don’t think either of the tracks are. They’re pretty enough, but very lightweight in terms of all the buildup we’ve been promised. Mexican Vacation has been mentioned as somewhere between I Never Knew Her Name and The Wasteland. Which are far better songs, developed to a much better degree. The Wasteland is edgy, mean and bad. So best not restart the old comparison test again or it’ll come unstuck. Leave it as it is and let the song have it's own life. It just sounds unfinished...listen to Madman (album) for reference and you'll hear too much space on this one. Space is vast, they say...

I’m still waiting for the ‘big one’ to appear, as bad as The Union turned put to be at least a month or so before it came out we got Gone To Shiloh live Ray Cooper. Now that was sit up and take notice track. An instant standard that worked excellently in the Ray Cooper mode and in the band mode. Nothing lightweight in it. Which brings me around to the live clip I posted above, Elton’s vocals for some reason are indistinct at times. I‘ll put it down to first performance nuances…or just plain poorly recorded. No wonder they dropped the price of the super de-luxe...

'Riding Off Into The Sunset'

What a moment. A from the gut, emotionally charged moment. Not for Elton (though I'm sure he slightly differing ones), but for me. This was broadcast on BBC1 on the Thursday night before CATK came out the next day. I had neither heard nor seen any songs from the album up to that point, thank god I hadn't been 'internetised' at the time. The first time you heard a new song was on the radio, or tv or at a show. Kids, ask your parents about this. It's kind of ruined for you now...But I knew it was going to be good. Why? It was Elton singing about himself and Bernie. And the band. And their experiences. And the characters they encountered. Ups, downs, ups and all the ways around. TheY only showed a selection of the songs from the album on the broadcast, but when they got to this one it was awe struckness from me for the next few minutes. This clip doesn't show unfortunately Elton explaining the riff at the start and how it can to be incorporated into being the base of the bookend. To put it simply, this is Elton doing his own 'This Is Your Life'. Singing about himself, how much more of a personal moment can you get. Recycling an old melody shouldn't work, but it does. Because Elton can make anything work. And hammers and nails it with a big sign proclaiming it. 

What have we got here, a jaunty mid tempo melodic journey, hypnotic with Guy's almost sleepy Mellotron hovering. Elton's vocal is precision engineering, his phrases are bang on. Bob is to the forefront too. He becomes part of that melody…listen to when Elton isn’t singing. He plays the line, but leaves still leaves enough space for it to linger and stay in our ears. With Davey's brilliant licks thrown in with perfect taste, the stinging interjections the perfect foil for the aforementioned melody. Slide guitar sweeps that are sweet as the harmonies. Proper harmonies in abundance, tied into the song without any effort. Nigel's tasteful drum line, rowed back in accordingly to allow the song to expand naturally. One listen and it was in my head. The bridge to the chorus is a stunning transition. The chorus, damn how good is that. I mean, the final chorus is as good as, nay as triumphant as the final play out of Curtains on this albums elder brother. Davey's line at the end is a statement. A play out of an era. Elton's mix of his unique style and a proper r'n'r ended here. Did we know it? No, but then again when the Curtains sometimes fall, we may not see the drapes in front of our eyes until reality kicks back in. When that broadcast was over, I instantly replayed it God knows how many times. I'm so glad I did, because recent history is the same as ancient history. The past is solidified, the lyrics of the song tell us that with great insightfullness. But the memory lingers...and that like history can't be changed either.

It's very hard to watch that clip now in 2013. Two of them have left us. Two people who put heart and soul into their calling. That clip shows and emphasises how lucky we were they got that call.They both may have stopped and gone on to better things, but as The Grateful Dead said once, the music never stopped...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

'Big Ben Never Lost His Voice'

An interesting, yet recurring topic appeared on The Elton Fans group on Facebook. The old chestnut of Elton's singing voice. Whether you are a 'higher, higher' person or a 'lower, lower' fan. From the outset, I have no problems with Elton's singing voice. From any stage of his career. No other artist in his bracket has had such a dramatic change over the years. Not a deterioration, but merely a change in direction. Firstly by choice, secondly by lifestyle. His pre '77 voice is serene, I'll not go down the cliche route of naming songs. You know them. But he could still invoke and emote attitude. The rockers prove that. So if the world stopped in the summer of 1977, that's all we would have known. The subsequent discussion would have never existed. Yet, a pivotal moment happened in Seattle that Autumn. It may not have been earth shattering at the time, but the after effects resonate to this day. When Thom Bell, when you think about it had some front in doing it, told Elton how to breath properly and look further down his range a game changer took place. Because at that moment Elton found a range in his voice, that he didn't have to invent or create, but just activate. Suddenly his voice could be as a variable a tool to work his trade as his piano was. His high register was there, the falsetto was there. And the low register to compliment those two elements. Which gave a whole new dynamic to Elton in the studio and onstage. 

I think it was one of the pivotal of Elton's career, one that is often overlooked. Older songs that needed that little low end drama and tension suddenly got it. His studio work diversified, the famous radio review of Blue Eyes fooling everyone. But as Elton marched through the 80's...and marched with even greater tempo through the sherbert dip and Jamaican Woodbines washed down with the Devil's brew, it was inevitable his body would react. The vocal nodules being testament to that, but with one swipe of the laser in light sabre fashion they were gone. Did they impact negatively on the tour leading up to it? I don't think so, Live In Australia was my first Elton album so I've moved past that a long time ago. The years since then has seen his voice age gracefully, if he sang now like he did 40 years ago it would sound and look like a sparrows squeak out of a swan. Functional, but not in a sit up and take notice fashion. His voice in recent years has had it's ups and down, too many shows in close proximity doesn't do it any favours. Listen to any shows that he does after a long gap or at least a decent break and they are fantastic. No hoarseness, no effort, no struggle. He can still hit reasonably high notes if he looks for them. People on Facebook I know who would be more au fait with the various vocal idents speak, C5's and A3's etc.(sounds like cars if you ask me!) can pinpoint with a very unnerving accuracy when and where Elton hits the high points. Or not as the case may be. 

At the end of the day, Elton's music is a broad church. His voice has had many temples to which to worship at, I can honestly say I appreciate them all. My favourite is post '77, simply because it's a better balance and mix than went before. Which is good for us as much as Elton. Any interview with Elton that you hear him discuss his voice, he is more satisfied with it now than ever. Because he can explore more areas with it than he thought unimaginable before, we as the listener and fan can get an even deeper and rewarding experience from the process. Not bad all round I would say...

Monday, August 26, 2013

'Well Look At Me'

Arguably one of the greatest versions of I'm Still Standing in the modern era. He sang the chorus before the solo like he normally sings the final chorus. At 2.37 he looks to Matt as if to say 'see what I can still do in 2013?' When he performed that show I was watching it live on the webcast, one of the top 10 Elton shows ever I think. That moment in I'm Still Standing is a encapsulation of what Elton does. He can take the expected, which is always good anyway, and put something unexpected into it. And 9 times out of 10 it's always the right thing to do. After 30 years of doing the song, to find another way is always Elton way.
The South American tour earlier this year was a triumph. A masterclass of urgency and energy. Elton has been in tip top form throughout. The new inspired phrasing of both voice and piano has had variations and familiarity in the places you'd expect and in those still being discovered. Elton's ability to turn on a sixpence is a given. The collective cohesion of the band and awareness of their art made those explorations as controlled as a school of dolphins following their leader every which way all over the ocean. Unison in musicon...the magical prescence of the artist and the audience brought a fusion of mutual appreciation. Elton never went through the motions, the emotions went through him...

Elton's voice has freed itself of any strain of a few years ago, the high notes are still there for the taking. And on the South America tour he took them with both lungs, I'm Still Standing being a prime example. His playing is as full as ever, even the spaces between notes have depth. The band is on tip form too, Nigel has a looseness especially on Tiny Dancer that mirrors the lyric. Matt Bissonette has introduced some great lines. He's certainly put his stamp down and no mistake. He's got melody in spades and has tapped into the groove between Nigel and Elton with some tasty little parts. Davey as per usual glides in and out of Elton like a breeze. Always there but with varying degrees of strength. When he drags that finger down the fretboard on Believe and Saturday Night it's like a thunder clap of lightening. Kim's Hammond organ sound on Skyline Pigeon whispered with an equally strong roar, the band version of that song one of the highlights of the tour. John fills every song with colour, musically and vocally. The girls have that touch of class combining strength of vocals (Sad Songs) and delicateness in delivery (Mona Lisa's) The 2Cellos haven't been missed much, if anything the band has returned to a clearer sound which allows everyone to live and breath to full capacity.

A word on the crowds. I know  alot of South American fans on Facebook, they are top class passionate fans. Elton didn't go down there much over the years, but the fact he did a large scale tour playing to packed houses is a clear indicator down there of his standing. Still...

'And The Radio Is Playing'

My friend on Facebook, David Sigler, has his own radio show. But it's not like one you've heard before. It's all Elton!! With bits and pieces of Elton connected songs thrown in for good measure. I don't get to listen to it as much as I should, but it's a great listen and he plays the not obvious stuff, usually with a different theme each week. All the details of where and how to listen are on the shows FB page.

'Gnone, But Not Forgnotten'

As much as I love the 'solo' version, I still think they should have released this version as a single. A proper hard copy single, none of this download nonsense. I know a lot of people didn't like it when it came out, a bit too low carb for the more picky taste bud. But Elton could, and still can by this example, rattle these things off at a fair old rate. By tapping into her fan base it would have got some important attention for the film but even more important drawn some new people into the Elton world. You can't tell me this wouldn't have got any attention, if Gaga exhales out of rhythm then Twitter has a meltdown. It would have been a hit, no doubt. Her name on it would have made that a certainty. Another missed opportunity I'm afraid.

It's a classic Elton type single, a throwback to the Croc Rocks and DGBMH's of olden days. Great chorus that would sound great on the radio. Plus the band play on it with the added bonus of a James Newton Howard plenty of ticked boxes for me. For all the hype that surrounds Lady GawGaw...possibly a distant relative of Lord Haw Haw...she's not that great of a singer. Her voice is very nasally and harsh, doesn't seem to have any sweetness in it. But I don't think that's her selling point...

'To The Distant Sound Of Drums'

Whatever we may think of the drum machines in this day and age of organic (in some quarters) music, they were part and parcel of the 80's. And were seen as a must have addition to your repertoire. Elton being no exception, most of his albums from that period right through into the 90's featured the device. Both on album and for use with his songwriting. With varying results. The One (album) suffering from too much of it, whereas this song from a decade earlier being the perfect example of how it worked. The steady backdrop giving Elton's vocal and piano the platform to shine. Bernie's lyric is dire, not dire in quality, but dire in mood. He, or his character, is flat lining while still conscious. With a grandstand view of his own disintegration. As is typical with so many of Bernie's lyrics, Elton puts an uptempo almost swinging melody to it. Another of the many 'ironic comennts' they've done over the years. More about those later on.

This version is a moment. Captured during probably Elton's best tour, voice and piano both exuded class with a generous helping of attitude. Both elements here in abundance. The poignant sight of Nigel, Dee and Davey out front is heartbreaking in one sense yet a joyful showcase of the enthusiasm and delight they had for being part Elton's world and music. He wrote it, they played it. Harmonies that lift themselves high above the twin towers, higher than any trophy ever lifted at the stadium. Davey's guitar with it's washboard sound is the perfect counter balance to Elton's piano. The piano swings from funky to good old fashioned pounding, listen to Elton's left hand right at the end of the solo. That's a very heavy pound...Elton's vocal is passionate, a tremendous heartfelt delivery. When Dee's bass kicks in it on the outro it sounds menacing against the backdrop of the washboard and funk. That's some cocktail, which is eventually swept back down with the final 'oohs' from the band. If ever a song was designed for a drum machine, this was it. Or maybe the drum machine was designed to produce songs like these...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

'Well I Looked For Support From The Rest Of My Friends' Part 2

I got some positive...and not to my earlier post on this topic. As we speak the band are in LA rehearsing for the upcoming UK promo shows. The sight of the band all fit and healthy is a heart gladdener. And the fact that Elton is ready and raring to go is the icing on the cake.

Loyalty is always a two street in my opinion, I'm sure Elton and Bernie are not autocrats. Change for changes sake is always a bad idea when the ideas well has run dry. The simple fact is session musicians on their own without the support of any the regular band members will always fall short in giving Elton's music the final embellishment it needs and deserves. The most successful albums of his career bear that out. By removing the band members from the creative part of the album, you're disrupting the DNA of an Elton album. The results of which cannot be guranteed, as in any DNA reconstruction experiment. The argument that people use that the band will play on the live versions actually hammers home the case why they should be on the album. Because the live versions with the band put the studio versions in the ha'penny place. Which only further drives home the case for using the band. So with that being the case, why settle for an inferior sounding product when you can have the very best. Another canard that regularly gets trotted out about different musicians getting Elton to be creatively better I'm afriad now has a hole so big a coach and horses can be driven through it. Kim Bullard and Matt Bissonnete have never appeared on a full Elton album. So having them aboard giving new input is the same argument that those who want sessions musicians peddle out. Anyone who has heard Matt's bass playing will know full well the guy is top class, has a lovely melodic touch. Just like the previous incumbents in that position. 

Anyway, I'm very passionate about this topic...glad to see others are too. I have to say this, I'm very disappointed yet again to be on an Elton forum defending our own...OUR BAND. Always great to read non-Elton music forums and see the high regard they are held in. If you can't look after your own, the hand cart is definitley heading downwards...maybe if Elton knew how high in esteem we held ALL band members over the years, then maybe it would be a different story. But I don't blame Elton on this one, his head has been turned by the producer on this matter. A producer who I have neither respect, regard or recognition of...a man who ignores the most successful combo of the last 40 odd years. I wonder who we'll still remember in 40 years time...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

'Duets For Two'

Today we look back on some of the better quality collab's from the last few years...

Alone Again Naturally Pet Shop Boys & Elton

The original from the Waterford lad was knee deep in nostalgia and this version maintains that vibe. The resonating sound of the electric piano in the background and the smooth vocals just flow along. An understated production that allows the incredible lyrics to be digested.

Rock This House BB King & Elton

Probably my favourite collaboration from the last 10 years or so, it's pure r n' r without any pretentions. Piano and guitar up front with a clear sound. Elton's and BB's vocals are a joy to hear sparring off each other. The EJ band are as tight as usual with a production style that isn't cloudy or lifeless. If Elton makes one more album after the next one, then this is the sort of thing he should do...EJ/BT originals with the band tapping into this groove.

How Could We Still Be Dancin' Brian Wilson & Elton 

Nobody else on Earth could have made this song...Brian Wilson's paw prints on this would not even be alien to an alien. It's sounds like 1966 in 21st Century form...Elton's piano solo bounces off the rhythm section. Uptempo with a jaunt. Elton's lines could be about him in a nutshell...

Where to Now St Peter? Ann Wilson & Elton

Without doubt Ann Wilson has one of the greatest voices in music. Coupled with one of EJ/BT's greatest songs then the result would never be in doubt. Her phrasing and feel of the song could only come from a fan, the introduction of a new melody line sounds like it was always there. The hard edge production harps back to the stunning 1982 Jump Up! tour live version, full of power and intensity whilst retaining the slickness of the mid tempo. Talk about about putting class into classic...

2 Man Show Timbaland ft Elton

Not a fan of hip hop and it's associated genre. If you have to talk a song, then it isn't worth singing. Except when it's Elton's piano that does the talking...The reason I singled this one out is it features incredible piano from Elton, a concerto that the plastic production can't ruin, hide or detract from. If there was ever a point on disc that Elton's piano actually spoke to us with attitude and nonchalance, then this track would be one such occasion

Friday, August 23, 2013

'Dark Diamonds'

We all know what Elton and Bernie created over the years was perfecto. But like diamonds that we see in the shops, not shops I go into you understand, they do require some polishing. All diamonds are unique so they vary in the amount of attention they need. The ten most important people to assist Elton and Bernie over the years in shining the precious rocks and make the whole thing an even better experience in no specific order are:

Davey Johnstone

On a day to day basis the relationship over the 40 odd years has been vital. Both in the studio and onstage. His connection with Elton and the music. He has a deep understanding of it and his technical ability is second to none.

Dee Murray

From the early 3 piece shows when essentially he was both the connection with the piano and the drums and also doubling as a lead part to his laying down of basslines that were trailblazing in their day he has been cited by those outside the Elton world as a true innovator. He had a tremendous feeling of melody and neither over played nor underdeveloped his lines. He could weave in and out like a lead guitarist such was the subtley in his fingers.

Nigel Olsson

Descriptive drumming...with a sweet voice. The blending of his voice with the two guys above is an aural gift. His signature sounds on the drums are legendary, a whole generation of stickmen have been inspired by his work on Elton's albums. His perfectly selected lines go hand in glove with the music. Especially when you compare it with some of the others to sit in his seat over the years.

Gus Dudgeon

To say he made the 'Elton' sound would be an understatement. His work in putting together the masterpieces from basic track upwards to the final collage is a collossal legacy. With a steely determination in his outlook, he didn't suffer poor quality lightly. Or kept quiet about it. His dedication to the technicla aspects of the recordings have made them timeless and fresh.

Chris Thomas

He constantly gets overlooked. His work in the 80's with Elton gave his music a contemporary sound while staying true to their roots. Elton's trust of him unwavering and he rewarded him with some classic albums. Compare some of Elton's contemporaries from the 70's and how they got on in the 80's gives you some idea of how good a job he did in giving Elton a second coming in that mixed up decade. Vastly underrated by many fans unfortunately.

Paul Buckmaster

A one off in his field and no mistake. The man who made an orchestra sound like a mellotron a reviewer once said. That's how far out his style was. Which became a tremendous counterpoint yet connected tightly with Elton's songs. His appearances over 30 years on albums shows how much the various producers acknowledged his need on an Elton album. Unique in the extreme.

Guy Babylon

His eye to detail both in recording, producing and engineering the music, not only the studio albums, but the demo's for the various Broadway and Disney productions is colossal. Tireless in his striving for perfection for the live performances, his bringing to 'life' of Funeral For A Friend to be played live rather than a backing tape is one of many lasting testaments to his talent. We still hear his sounds in concert and will do for as long there's such thing as an Elton tour. His arrangements and programming will live as long as the music is played and sung...

James Newton Howard

His synth work on the albums brought a new dimension ot the albums. Plus his electric piano work where he tied into any Elton groove seemlessly. He could jam onstage as good as Elton could. There duels wree stunning. As was his orchestral arranging in the studio later on. When it came to conducting orchestra's live in concert, he is the conductor of choice for Elton. Why? Because he had a unique position of knowing the music from the studio with the band, onstage with the band and putting arrangements to composed pieces. In other words he could see the music from all angles so his linking of the orchestra to Elton and the band was cohesive and locked in.

Caleb Quaye

From the early days of the DJM demo's he perfected the art of combining piano with guitar so that when the Trident abums came to be recorded it was a smooth process. And left an idelible sound stamp on those albums. Gifted technically, he was never afraid to experiment to get a suitable sound.

Ray Cooper

If anyone was asked to name another percussionist in rock apart from Ray, there would be a hesitation. A long one no doubt. The parts he added on record were vital to the mix, his live two man show with Elton was a mix of vitality. In conjunction with Elton, he created a new style of rockshow that has never been copied by any other artist. Nor could be. Like all the others mentioned here, he has a sixth sense understanding of the music. His taste for it was both subtle and dramatic. Always daring and never dull.

'Play That Piano, Reg'

I've never been a big fan of remixes, the Pnau thing was the ultimate nadir of the genre. However there's been some crackers over the years. I'm Still Standing with the longer intro, Who Wears These Shoes with the guitars and drums emphasised to even better effect. Heartache All Over The World isn't long enough and the Hard Kiss remix of Believe which is a spellbinding until the techno bit kicks in. More about those tracks over the next while. Today's example, which isn't on Youtube for those who use it as a resource (even Elton does!) is the Just Elton and His Piano remix. The song with just his vocals and the Roland piano (sounding better in the studio than onstage) doesn't suffer from the lack of backing. The live solo version around the turn of the century is the glowing embodiment of the songs strength. The killer kick is the middle eight, the backing vocals of Nigel, Dee and Davey sound crystal like, clear with strength. The workout by Elton at the end is terrific, his left hand is percussive power and precision. A great version that compliments the original (a classic, of course) perfectly. It's a pity Elton doesn't add it to the setlist again, the live versions on the 97/98 tour (with Charlie Morgan) were the ultimate performances. Though the One Night Only example nearly beats the lot of them, John Jorgenson throwing some neat little electric guitar licks in. God knows how that version would have evolved...out of this world I'd expect!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

'Well I Looked For Support From The Rest Of My Friends'

I've just done the rounds on various forums to gauge what way the wind is blowing on the upcoming album. I'll judge it when it comes out, you can be sure of a full review here. However I'm boiling again like a kettle with no thermostat...the band bashers are out again. In force and spouting the usual ignorant views. It strikes me that some of these folks haven't got one iota what went into making Elton albums over the years. Some seem to be of the impression that Elton did absolutely everything on it...and even pressed the vinyl. He did nothing of the sort...he wrote the songs with Bernie (this is just for timeline purposes, not a lesson) and that was his part done. Between Gus or later on Chris and most importantly....the band put the finishing touches. The last part I'll leave hanging in the air for the minute. Minute over. Apart from him suggesting the odd bit here and there, it was primarily those people who put the finish on the albums. Those parts just didn't appear from under a bushel. The Trident albums where a collective endeavor, Gus and especially Paul Buckmaster shone on those ones. Hookfoot on Tumbleweed in particular. Madman was the first notice of Davey...Holiday Inn was the first thing he laid down. It was his idea of starting the song straight in and to use the mandolin. Where do you think the backing vocals on all the albums with Nigel, Dee and Davey came from? George Martin said they were closest thing he'd ever heard to the Beatles harmonies. But yet, the current producer...I'm loathe to say his name here...thinks he's above all that and can do without. I've said it before and I'll say it again, they guy is talking cobblers when he says he wants to make an old style Elton album. Because he hasn't a notion of what it entails. He quotes the Troubador Club and 17-11-70...hello, they were live shows. The complete and utter opposite type of performance of what Elton did in the studio. A moment that can be neither captured nor repeated. Imagine if McCartney decided his next album was going to be in the style of the rooftop performance on Saville Row. They'd still be laughing in the next life...the very fact that the band...our band in case you haven't rehearsing in LA the new songs speaks volumes. There will be no promo shows with this other rhythm section that I have neither the same feeling nor empathy with that I have for our band. Elton must have decided at the Capitol records playback that this setup would have a detrimental effect on the promo of the album. Too late now of course to return to the studio and record it again, unfortunately. Without a shadow of a doubt...and I say it here and I will be proved right...when the live versions of The Diving Board songs are heard compared to the album versions there will be only one winner.  The Union proved that beyond any shadow of a doubt. They'll add the touches that only they can do, the sixth sense that especially Davey and Nigel bring to the whole shebang. I get very annoyed, nay angry, when I see people on various message boards bash the band. Quite frankly, if you don't like them or don't think they're any good then don't go to the shows. I wouldn't if I felt that strongly. I do pity them in a way as they don't get the same feeling from the gut as I do about the whole experience. Even listening to the albums must be a very underwhelming experience for them at that rate. I can't be a clearer. 

This album will not be like Elton John (no Caleb Quaye or Buckmaster for instance), it won't be like Tumbleweed (no Hookfoot or Buckmaster for instance) and it won't be like Madman (no Buckmaster or Davey for instance). Or have any of the wonderful harmonies that were on all those and the subsequent albums. And it certainly won't be like 17-11-70 as the producer...who mustn't be that big of an Elton fan...and has neglected to use the same drummer on it. His name is Nigel Olsson, Mr. Producer. I know somebody will say, oh but there was no band on the Trident albums. That's because Elton had no band by the time the first two recorded and by the time of Madman he was pushing them to be used. But Davey as I said earlier put his stamp on that one. And got the gig for the next 40 odd years. Greg Penny was an Elton fan from an early age and he knew how to make an Elton album. Made In England, brilliant. Matt Still was the same and again knows his Elton onions. Peachtree Road and The Captain And The Kid. Both sensational. I have no problem with producers using their own people, as long as they are in conjunction with the band. The Road To El Dorado and more importantly Songs From The West Coast are shining examples of that modus operandi. Elton wants to make different albums now, fair enough. But stop all this talk of comparing them to the early albums. The media keeps repeating that mantra, not that they could probably name one Elton album if you pushed them. It doesn't do them any justice and won't do The Diving Board any favours either when it comes out...

'That's Why Buckmaster Was So Good'

In my top 10 Elton tracks of all time...the Buckmaster arrangement mirrors the rhythm track. And bang on the money it is too. Elton's vocals are timed spectacularly...listen to Nigel's footwork too. A real standout part, it's an intricate part of the backbeat as much as it contributes to the bassline. The guitar solo is stunning, possibly my favourite. The second part when the strings come are a clever ploy, it's the first part repeated but with the added layer it goes to another dimension. Every single live version of this has had a standout moment. 1980, this time with Tim Renwick and Richie Zito sharing the solo part...but dare I say it with Dee Murray's bassline on the (especially on the second part) solo as ear catching as the lead. Moreso I would say...he replicates the riff and creates an symphonic backdrop. The Tour De Force again is another of my favourites...the solo yet again showing why Davey is the best...slick, loud and sweet. The strings delicately reflecting his run...tremendous. James Newton Howard's adding of the timpani on the verses after the first chorus is a triumph. It gives it that cinematic feel, as does the brass refrain as Elton's vocal kicks back in after the solo. The 2002 edition which I was privileged to see was a statement by Elton. Segueing straight from American Triangle was a masterstroke. Surely a message was being conveyed to us. The deeper vocal made the lyric sound tenser, his clever use of gaps and his pausing in mid-line left the tension hanging.

'Forward Moving Landcrab'

The new video for the song...the second one in a bit like the song. Unremarkable. It obviously reflects the theme of the song, the regression of the main character from middle age to childhood and the desire to return to home. The video looks as if a few quid was spent on it with the end bit, the highlight of it for me was the 1968 Wolesley 18/85. They could have it given it more screen time fact it could have been the main character of the clip. It's return to Longbridge may have been more poignant...that's the first time I've heard the song since the time of it's release. The album cut is better, though it sounds as if neutral is still engaged. And that the song is missing that little something...3 weeks tomorrow the album comes out here, on disc of course. It's a crying shame we don't get cd singles anymore, if you think about it the gap between the release of this video and the 'single' is just over 8 weeks. The singles and video departments must have had crossed wires that day. I don't know where the video will be shown either, collectors like myself would like to have it on a hard format. The enhanced cd single would have been the ideal place to store it, joined up thinking isn't being practised on this one. Again. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

'Came The Message From The Front'

David Geffen...the man who single handedly tried to destroy Elton's career in the US, unintentionally at first, intentionally at the end made the decision to leave this song off 21 At 33. It subsequently ending up s B-side. Nothing wrong with being as b-side, but this song deserved a better landmark. It's one of my all time favourites, James Newton Howards synth at the end is heavenly, it's cinematic with a widescreen sound. Elton's vocal is one of many unique one's he tried out in this period. Post Thom Bell he experimented more with it, he puts a slight American hint into it, essential when you consider the song is a typical Bernie US inspired lyric. Which brings me to the point of this entry, what exactly the song is about. Or where and when to be exact. The common school of thought is that the US Civil war is the focus and from reading the lyrics it's an obvious deduction. But here's my take on it. If anyone's familiar with the movie M*A*S*H (1970) then you'll know it was about the Korean war of 1950-53. Except it wasn't. 

Let me explain. At that time Vietnam was raging at full pelt. And at home it was felt just as much as it was in the heat of South East Asia. 1970 being the year of Kent Sate. Hollywood at this time was in turmoil over the conflict, studios were reluctant to make any sort of film that directly put them one side or the other in supporting or opposing the war. The lesson had been learned from The Green Berets (1968) produced and starring John Wayne which provoked worldwide protests when it was released. So on one hand you had the Duke throwing his weight behind the government policy of LBJ yet a couple of years later in 1971 we had Jane Fonda up on the tank on the other side. So it was a no go area, M*A*S*H used the Korean war as a metaphor for the horrors and madness of Vietnam. It wasn't really until 1978 with the release of Go Tell The Spartans, The Deerhunter and Coming Home that the conflict was dealt with by tinseltown in any depth. Go Tell The Spartans with Burt Lancaster probably the first major film to deal with the conflict on the ground since The Green Berets. But consider the timeline, the war officially ended in 1975 when the last evacuees left Hanoi when the North Vietnamese forces finally over run the city. The evacuation was called Operation Frequent Wind. And that's where it clicked for me that The Retreat may be metaphor for this evacuation. The lines...

'When the bugle blew at breakfast and they knew their ships were in

Signs of grand assurance were carried on the wind'

...could surely be describing the US aircraft carriers that were collecting the evacuees from the landing helicopters, the iconic sight of the Huey's being pushed off the flight decks into the sea is a strong one. An earlier line...

'It was silent on the coastline as the crazy angels danced'

...again could have Taupin comparing the helicopters to crazy angels as they hit the water and bounced, floated and then gradually sunk to the bottom. The references to the flies, a major source of discomfort in the conflict again makes me think of the connection.

'As their flags were torn at half mast in the ruins of the town'

The US embassy was the last stand for the evacuees, Saigon was in bits. The returning GI was a source of confusion for the public at the time. On one hand a nation that prided itself on it's military forces was now being confronted with the idea that they were baby killers and rapists. My Lai and the allegations about Tiger Force in later years had divided a nation. Those who came back were expected to resume from where they left off, ' back to their farms'. But the mental trauma never left them. That's why I feel Bernie was using the US civil war as a metaphor, not in a clear way mind, to say in 1979 when it was becoming more easier in a way to discuss and reflect on what had happened in those years from the mid 60's to the mid 70's. Because the returning GI didn't find the same country that he had left behind....but were expected to have 'just chalked it down in history'. Even though it was still very much the present for them.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'Always There In The Thick Of Things'

Unfortunately Chris Thomas doesn't get the credit in the Elton world that his peers get. Seven and a half studio and one soundtrack albums. Some of which are considered classics at this stage. The detractors will always mention The Big Picture as his being his Waterloo, but as Bernie suggested about the album polishing some things just doesn't work sometimes. Even Gus Dudgeon had that problem in the mid 80's...Chris Thomas had an ear. An ear that knew what made an Elton album and what didn't. Coinciding with the classic band lineup reuniting in 1982 he was able to record Too Low For Zero, the album which announced and solididfied Elton's second coming in one fell swoop. Elton recording in Montserrat in a 'Chateau' type environment wiht just the band paid dividends. He was able to maintain the classic Elton sound including the backing vocals sound for instance, whilst at the same time made the sound relevant for the era with a polish that wasn't overpowering. Otherwise Elton could have ended up sounding like Bowie did in the 80's. Persish the thought...the 80's was the synths it or loathe it. But he placed them as part of the sound, but not making it the sound. Working outwards from Elton's piano (or synth as he played too on Too Low and BH) and layering on the guiatrs, additional keyboards, percussion etc, he kept it relatively simple whilst ticking the familiar boxes. Elton's piano is there, not as prominent as earlier albums but that was Elton's way of going with the times. He embraced the new technology, he knew it's place and Chris was able to blend the old with the new. The subtle use of electronic percussion again gave Elton that contemporary feel. I don't think Too Low For Zero (title track) would have had the same vibe with real drums. His clever use Dee Murray's Steinberger bass in the mix filled a position that became an extension of the rhythm line. On Spiteful Child it's almost the dominant sound we hear, he knew witha melodic bassline like that it was crucial to push it up in the mix. 

When he wasn't available to produce what ended up being Ice On Fire because of commitments to INXS, he turned to Gus Unfortunately the material at the time meant the best was never going to eminate from the renewed collaboration. So when he was available again, Reg Strikes Back was the result. Even though Nigel and Dee were no longer part of the band, he still knew they were essential elements, so much so that he had the freedom to be able to bring them in to put down vocal parts. He had trust in the guys in the band, he knew that they had the nouse to put the right thing down on a track. Sleeping With The Past is one of my favourite Elton at such a low ebb came up with it is another matter. But it's not without it's retrospsective attempting to recreate the classic soul and motor city sound, it was synth heavy. But not considered a faux pas at the time, because that was the thing then. The idea of using real strings and brass just never entered the thought processes, in hindsight it seems bizzare...but that the 80's folks! But the songs still have clearness and edginess, essential traits on an Elton album.  The One again sounds dated, certainly within a couple of years of release it had become so because the back to basics a la Made In England had been decided upon. But there's still layers to the sound that make the album unique...we won't be hearing anymore like that for sure. Which means it still has it's place, it distinctive soundwise and is another branch of the Elton tree. Of which there are many...The Big Picture was discussed here recently so I'll not go there again. Overall, Elton may not have been in a writing purple patch as he was the previous decade, but he still produced enough killer tracks and was consistent in the charts. 

'And I Am Home Again'

The video for the new 'single' Home Again is out this week. Unfortunately...or fortunately when it got it's first play Monday 24th June, I was still in the after glow of the previous night's rock out. Since then I've listened to it a few times...both the the extended album cut and single version. What I think of it is based on the album version...Elton's vocal and piano are excellent. As per usual. Considering the producer that's involved I'm surprised he didn't mess that part up. However the brass is sort of hanging in and out, swirling to and fro like the waves on the outro is probably a deliberate ploy on the producers part. Though doesn't really add anything. The song sounds better when it's just Elton and voice...the lyric by Bernie is another of his everyman tales. Everyone can identify with it. The strongest part of the melody is the chorus, first listen I was in. The bridge is stunning, it has great potential for development in the live setting. When the band get their hands on this one, then we'll see work realised, rather than work in progress as the whole album may turn out to be. The song sounds as if it'll fit better into the context of the running order of the album, picking it out and snipping bits out of it doesn't do it justice. The album cut is THE cut. 

The album we were promised was supposed to be a throwback to the early raw days of the 3 piece. So as a promo single, they went for the complete opposite. Joe Public may get a little confused with that wrong turn. Assuming we of course know regards it being the best pre release single of recent times, that ropey old test of comparing songs wouldn't be fair on Home Again. Better than I Want Love. Answer In The Sky. The Bridge. Don't think's inoffensive, hardly the worst thing ever. But not in the same league as those mentioned previously. Not yet anyway. It's way better though than some of the stuff on The Union, which wouldn't be too difficult. I still have a problem with the production though. It's too soft, too neutral, too understated to have any impact. The brave step would have been to just have Elton's voice and piano. That would have been progress...and would have paid off in the long run. The buzz alone about that concept would have been a self full filling publicity. The comparison between Elton in the live setting with his edginess, toughness and general excitement is in complete contrast with the recording world that he now occupies. I haven't heard the album...maybe those here who had that luxury can enlighten me...where are the uptempo rockers gone from Elton's armoury?! I know the producers dabs are all over this one, he's got Elton's ear that's for sure. This song is fine it's own right, but another half dozen or so in a similar vein on the album and the stretch may break. If it's not already bending. Overall the song is decent enough, it won't pull up any trees in the general scheme of things, I'm waiting to hear the album to find those elements. I still think Elton has a rollicking album in him...with plenty of rolls from Nigel and licks from Davey. See what I did there?! But we'll take this one as it's next in line...the next time I'll comment on this track or the album is when I have it my hands!!

'Beyond The Yellow Brick Road'

Lots of peoples goats have been got on over the delayed announcement of the GYBR 40th anniversary reissue. Not sure how much remastering it can take, any more touching up of the tapes and they might be wiped clean. This is my idea of what it should can't be beyond the wit of man...or woman to put something like this together. This would be the full package, numbered in a limited edition sequence. Far better than a selection of covers by inadequate artists. And not even the full album at that rate either...very unfortunate that it clashes with the Diving Board release, this anniversary is set in stone. The Diving Board release date had so many sisterlike twists and turns that it appears it was set in jelly...

Full album on CD 1

All demo's, alternate versions and out takes on CD 2 + CD 3
Best of the best live tracks from over the years on CD 4
EJ & BT Say Goodbye Norma Jean and Other Things remastered on DVD with bonus material of tv appearances, interviews (radio/tv) from 1973.
Copies of the recording sheets that were on the EJ FB page recently
Unseen photos of the recording sessions
Reproductions of press/music magazines reviews of the album
Details of the development of the artwork with contributions from David Larkham, Michael Ross, Ian Beck
New liner notes and/or interview cd/dvd from Elton, Bernie, Davey, Nigel, Ray, Kiki, David Hentschel, Del Newman
Reproduced memorabilia (tickets, backstage passes, press promo material etc.)
Limited edition book for the upper end of the market containing all of the above printed matter and unthought of information


Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding - 1980
Candle in the Wind - 1984
Bennie and the Jets - 1986
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - 1984
This Song Has No Title - 1973
Grey Seal - 2012
I've Seen That Movie Too - 1973
Sweet Painted Lady - 1999
The Ballad of Danny Bailey - 1973
All the Girls Love Alice - 1980
Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting - 1980
Roy Rogers - 2001
Harmony - 2003

'We're Finally On Our Way'

This is the first in what should be...hopefully...a regular expression about Elton and his music on this page. Nearly half a century of writing with Bernie and other wordsmiths, roughly half a thousand songs and over 3000 live shows are plenty to keep you occupied. He's been occupying my life for quarter of a century...he won't be any invading force that will be repelled any time soon. Without going into a 'This Is Your Life' style explanation of who I am, hopefully you'll garner that impression over the next while. Look on it as big red book in progress, or travelling on a big red bus as somebody once wrote. The first few updates will be things I wrote on Facebook over the last while that got swallowed up in the sink hole of information that it has become.