Monday, November 25, 2013

'Time Stands Still Before Me'

I got this documentary about 13 years ago on an old VHS tape, but thanks to the 'Big Wonder Down Under; a far better quality version has now surfaced. It had been ages since I watched it, but since this new one was uploaded I've watched it countless times. It's fantastic, a real view de force...

Live In Australia was my first Elton album. Way back when. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me at the time was one of my favourite Elton songs, so the opportunity to have a live version with a full orchestral arrangement on it was too much to resist. The rest as they say is the continuing journey from the entry via that gateway drug...

The concept of Elton doing such a tour in the mid 80's was baffling in some ways, but a leap of faith (on both sides) that ultimately proved one of his groundbreaking moments. Trailblazing in fact. Nobody had done anything of that scale before. But since then most major acts have attempted something similar. But where Elton had the upper hand on them all, was that his welding of the two setups was not a compromise. The arrangements were part and parcel of the songs. No afterthought or attempt to jemmy them into fitting around the song. One and one certainly equalled the right answer.

On this post I'm going to even begin to attempt to go through the entire show. To do so would over load Google's memory banks and possibly create a Y2K type shutdown of it's servers. What I will do is give an overview as inspired by the documentary with some remarks about it. My suggestion after watching it would be to seek out the full show on YouTube. The full three hour show is available there. Unfortunately the entire show was never released officially. Either on disc or DVD. The Geffen effect again. He's not a favourite of this blog, his attempts to derail Elton's career in the mid 80's merely ended up with Geffen himself almost falling onto the rails. More is the pity he didn't he withheld all the songs performed on the night that recorded originally during his period in charge of Elton's studio output. A scandalous decision, one that didn't lessen the impact of the album but merely highlighted Geffen's own false sense of importance.

This documentary from ABC television in Australia offers a unique perspective. Having access to all the main players of the tour, from backstage to onstage, it gives a rare look at the embryosis of a tour to it's final climax. The creation of the 'spectacular soundwise event' was only something Elton could pull off. His own words in prophesying it in Los Angeles in October were correct. Australia over the years has seen some terrific Elton tours. Incredibly unique, a testament to Elton's faith in the country which was one of the first outside of the US to embrace him right from the start. So no surprise then he chose it to launch with force on of his greatest tours. But to do so he had to round up his trusty lieutenants, those that knew his music as well as he did, better than him in some ways. Not quite seven, but still magnifecent and just as critical and complimentary to each other.

James Newton Howard was the obvious choice as conductor. As he still is to this day, Elton's concert conductor of choice. His unique position, quite unique in the rock world in fact, of having played keyboards of every description in a couple of different lineups of Elton's band in the studio and on tour not to mention adding arrangements to several of Elton's songs was a tap of knowledge too good to ignore. So Elton let him flow. And what flowed was incredible. Not only did he treat Paul Buckmasters's arrangements with due care and diligence, but he added his own parts to them fill them out for the larger ensemble. As if they were always there. If Buckmatser joined the dots, James coloured them in. They worked on the tour with a grace and style that was everlasting. So everlasting in fact we still hear a great deal of them today in any live Elton show. Because for the tour after this one, Elton added an extra keyboard player just to recreate those scores. Guy Babylon took them to another level, made them part of the live Elton world. Kim Bullard has taken said atrrangements and continued the unbroken line. Over a quarter of a century later they still sound exciting and when they are removed a hollow gap is present. But not correct.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra took a serious step into the unknown on this one. Unknown in so far as to how the whole thing would work. From Elton's perspective, he and his people knew it would work. But from the MSO's stand point they had no idea of who, what or maybe even why was Elton. If the thought that maybe James Newton Howard was worse than Ozzy Osbourne, then Elton would have established new level of rock depravity as far they were concerned. But as you can see from the rehearsals, the perceived fences soon wilted and the road to the common goal was set out on. No quarter asked or given. The amplification of the orchestra seemed understandably a bone of contention with some members, but in the live arena with all the amps rocking out a flute solo or bassoon riff had to cut through the mix. Otherwise their hard work would not have been showcased. A compromise for the greater good, as the band themselves had to tone down just a tad. If the band has to up their game with the orchestra backing him, so did the MSO. It's one thing thing just reading the music, but sight reading came into play very quickly. James's ability to forsee Elton's tempo's change's or slight path deviations for example meant he could back off or draw in the orchestra as and when Elton decided to throw in one of his little shimmy's.

If you watch the rehearsals, you can see Elton there for the duration. Not a case of turning up and just starting up as he'd done it all before. He really threw himself into it, not slow to take cues or direction. The greater good of the music was to the forefront, Ego's etc were parked. They were all in for better and not the worst. As were the band. And what a band. As far I'm concerned, Nigel and Dee are the ultimate rhythm section. That's not open for discussion, try another blog if you want to see an alternative viewpoint. Any other combo with Nigel is not open for discussion either. And neither is this one, Charlie Morgan and David Paton. Because they are damn near are as good as it gets. Tight, powerful, rhythmic and with the taste and delicacy that Elton's music craves. Because it deserves a lot of attention. And these guys gave it. They tapped into it straight away, why didn't we see more from this combo is a crying shame. It may have been short, but it was so sweet a chocolate factory would be envious of their output. This blog is great fans of them. Fred Mandel on keyboards was incredible. He put down the familiar lines but had a great hand for that was flashy when needed and filled out with a full but lean sound. His guitar playing was tough with a rough line thrown in for good measure. The solo on The Bitch Is Back his grandstand moment. Jody Linscott on percussion tucked in nicely, again never over egging the pudding. The other two, Ray and Davey, well you know the rest.

Gus Dudgeon and Clive Franks, the two masters in the studio and onstage for Elton respectively were both needed to handle this tidal wave of sound. Because that's how big it was. Two strong men and all that. But what they did do was wrestle an incredible sound mix, balanced impeccably with no compromise. Much like Elton himself. Because he didn't compromise on any aspect of his performance. The stool went flying. In both halves of the show. The costumes were as full on as any that went before. More so perhaps, the sheer size and statement of them was as loud as the sound. If Elton had lived in Mozart's era, nobody would have second glanced him. Though if Mozart had turned up in  Mohican, then I suspect he would have ended up as the 18th century equivalent of a busker. The costumes then were no surprise to any Elton fan, history has not dulled their impact. In fact, they time stamp the era. Just like the music...

Which is of course the most important part of the exercise. The music speaks for ebryone. To everyone. No borders to cross, both genres have a voice and they harmonise to together. When Davey cranks it up, the brass section can deliver a fanfare just as ear splitting. The robustness of the music shines through. Elton's voice as we all know wasn't A1 at this time. But I move pass that. Why? The fact is, at the time Elton had no idea of the ultimate outcome of the problem. The worse case scenario is too shocking to be relayed here. But everything did work out right in the end. But with that cloud hanging over his head, not to mention the fact he was undertaking a groundbreaking tour, he still was able to produce performances night after night of incredibly tenacity and style. Some in retrospect may not have been what we've come to expect, but the sheer determination of them carried the night. And ultimately delivered a hit single. They say the darkest hour is before the dawn and all that, but this is the opposite, Elton had his light before then the darkness of having his problem corrected. Which ultimately brought him back into the light. The set list in incredible, the entire back catalogue of albums is almost covered to that point. So it's a whirlwind through all points from the start to the present day. Ultimately the tour was a triumph. So much so Elton has never attempted anything like it since, except for the brief run of shows with the Royal Academy Of Music in 2004. The tour is frozen in a moment, frozen here in this documentary. A documentary that doesn't shirk from the more testy moments. But captures in all it's glory the verve, drama and ultimately the exceptional delivery by Elton. The Band. And the MSO.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Over the years Elton has reworked some of his songs. Over the next while on the blog, I'm going to look at some of them and see if the try again mantra was better than the first success. In this first look, a pair of Madmen are looking at us...

Mick Ronson is a guitar legend. Bowie's Spiders to Mott The Hoople has made him such. He appeared on countless other recording by a number of artists, a session guitarist that went beyond that title. Because it was merely just a session that his part for the first attempt of the song was laid down on. Gus Dudgeon suggested Mick on electric and Michael Chapman on acoustic guitar. Filling out the sound was Nigel and Dee on their parts. On this version Elton's piano displays all the depth of that famous riff. His vocal has all the early hallmarks off the 'attitude' he could mix with the soft and easy. Listen to when you hear his vocal chords snarl. The lyrics as everyone knows are manically mad. So his delivery is spot on. Ronson's guitar is full on rock, the solo's screech, his rhythm riffs though aren't as clear cut as the later version parts. Nigel's drums are terrific, colossal fills with broken rhythms spattered through. Dee's bass with extra heavy effects making more hardened impact. The solo after the first chorus is painted with those colours, but they softly calm down as the mania is holstered back in. Elton's piano and Chapman's guitar gently restore calm. Then Elton's vocal kicks back in with Ronson's guitar coming earlier than it did at the start of the song. The final solo has Ronson throw every shape in the book out, twists, turns and dead ahead power. Elton's piano has great flashes and flurries, Nigel's drumming in incredible. His stop start parts and use of the percussive fills in the spaces keep the song hanging. Cymbals splashing like manic puddles. The return to where we came in, the riff being strummed is gently waved home after the hysterics of what went before. 

For the version that did actually end being the chosen cut, Gus used the session musicians that were summoned for the recording on the rest of the album. One of whom was Davey Johnstone of course. The song opens with him playing the same riff on acoustic guitar, except this time it sounds more precise and clear. It's bright and stands out. Elton's vocal however has been toned a lot since the earlier version, it's softer on the verse's. Herbie Flowers bass at the start is a well known motif of Elton songs, the bass coming in on it's own with the piano before the drums kick in. Drums which are softer and more controlled than Nigel's this time, the lead is the main focus. Chris Spedding on electric guitar is again more restrained than Ronson, his parts are more shapely defined rather than the loose feel of earlier. Elton's vocal starts to regain that attitude I mentioned earlier as the chorus draws closer, and when it does what a payoff. Because both Paul Buckmaster and Ray Cooper are all over it like a rash. Buckmaster suggested to Gus that he could do something with the song, an unlikely candidate for an orchestral arrangement. But he could do it like no other. A reviewer of the album at the time said Buckmaster was the only arranger who could make an orchestra sound like a Mellotron. Which is probably a back handed comment, as we hear the 60's instrument of choice for the progressive rocker, the Mellotron, being replaced by its successor, the ARP synthesizer, coated on top by Diana Lewis. The weird menace of it with it's beating rhythm. But filling it out to emphasise the demented lyrics tenfold is Ray Cooper with god knows what. The strings rise up and Elton's vocal goes all schizoid and far out, man. The strings dance and jump with the electric guitar riff relentlessly repeating the same line over and over like some demented fool. A fool with a hard tongue. The solo draws to a close much like the original, the acoustic strumming eventually becoming the lone voice. It all kicks back in this time with Rick Wakeman organs line whispering at the back. The chorus is terrific, a multitude of diverse sounds from orchestra, synth, percussion all pounding away. The final fade out has a dreamy intro to it, phasing in full swing. Almost like slipping in and out of consciousness. But the strings are the upper from the downer. The bassoon lightly to one side has a a friendly feel. The song just fades out in a complete contrast to the first version. There is seemingly no end to the character of the song's torment... 

To sum, which is the better one. Answer is easy here, neither are. They are both tremendous. Because they are so different, they can not be compared. The first version is just pure rock, there's no messing around. It's in your face, the music part dominates all aspects. The full, tough sound is uncompromising. Version two however takes a more subtle approach. Even thought there's more people playing on it, there seems to be more space. The lyrics are terrifically enhanced by those parts. Elton's vocal hits the right tone at the right places. The final result is complex yet straightforward. Gus Dudgeon gets a great word here. His production of the two versions, whilst retaining certain vital elements, are as diverse as you get. But it's very hard to say which job he did better. Which makes me suspect the all acoustic version with just Chapman must be incredible too...

Monday, November 11, 2013

'Ghosts Float...Shoulder To Shoulder'

The Great War. If ever a phrase deserved the oxymoron tag, this one would be at the head of the queue. War is neither grand nor great. In the era that phrase was first coined, the war to end all wars was seen as just that. But in essence all it did was lay the foundations for the next excursion 20 years later into insanity. The alleged successful negations in the railway carriage to herald armistice ultimately proved futile. The workers revolution merely put in place the groundwork for what nearly became a war that was cold for a very long time that came close to boiling hot on more than one occasion. A war that if had taken place nobody would have known how it started. But would have lived for 10,000 years with the knowledge of how it ended. 

Bernie pulls no punches on these songs. The imagery is not pretty, the deleted line from 'All Quiet On The Western Front' with stinking tents and thin men dying in them is enough to bring you the very edge of  the madness of war. The imagery of 'Youth Asleep In The Foreign Soil' whilst 'Old Kin Kiss The Small White Cross' is the theme here and on Ocean's Away. Those fallen soldiers who were lucky to have a marked grave at least had some tangible symbol of remembrance. Those who were not so lucky...if being in the madhouse that was trench warfare was some perverse idea of a gallant end...merely became another one of the hundreds of thousands of unknown soldiers. For what? The starting pistol may have been fired in Sarajevo but what it was ultimately really all about was that the royal families of Europe couldn't agree with each other on how to divide up the map of Europe to each other's satisfaction. So, as Spike Milligan once remarked about his own calling up to active war service, a whole generation were 'invited' to enforce imperialist dogma. And by the end of it were lost. None ever came back. Those who died 'String The Harps To Victory's Voice'. Those who came back physically to 'the land fit for heroes' were mentally as much as the same as the 'Ghosts (that)Float In A Flooded Trench'. The trench being the home for of the duration of their campaign. A hole dug in the ground...which ultimately was the soldiers digging their own graves...from which they would 'go over the top' to meet their end. A gun pointed in two directions at them. The mindset being send enough towards the enemy machine guns and that eventually the enemy will run out of ammunition. Notwithstanding the fact the best of an entire generation had their 'Human Blood Pouring Forth' as the bodies piled up in no man's land. The other gun pointing at you was from the officer class. These were the days before PTSD, shell shock was the cover it all phrase of the time. If you weren't prepared to meet an inevitable death by the enemies hands, you're own would facilitate your passage to become one of the 'Male Angels'. The firing squad back home was another deterrent. The powers that be daren't take the risk of the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps suffering from nerves and bailing out. To give the pilots parachutes would not have been great for moral was the message to the front. 'Nobody cares' present and correct from all angles. So as 100 years has nearly passed since it's 'Gone All Quiet On The Western Front, remember those who died on the whims of others.

But those who did come back, in physical form, still have the memories. The 'Talking Old Soldiers' don't really talk about their experiences. But they never forget. 'I Hung Out With The Old Folks In The Hope That I'd Get Wise' is in a similar vein to 'Talking Old Soldiers', the younger listener 'Trying To Bridge The Gap Between The Great Divide'. Each year the numbers dwindle. But the memories remain. Ocean's Away is filled with imagery of graves much like the other two songs. Because for most that went there that was there final resting place. The 'Sleeping Bones' lie undisturbed, a monument to their sacrifice. The monuments back home are a recognition of their sacrifice. For the powers that be erect them, unfortunately the impact of the message is lost on them. 'The Few That Still Survive' are the ultimate monument. Because they are 'The Ones Who Hold Onto The Ones They Had To Leave Behind'. Not those at the top. But the men on the ground who now lie beneath it. If the chilling imagery of a cool wind blowing across the shadow of the graves is not a wake up call, then the barrage will never end...and another generation in the future will end up staging their own gathering...

A word on the songs and their musical delivery of some of Bernie's most powerful utterances. All Quiet with Jeff Porcaro's military like work on the snare are a critical touch. James Newton Howard's huge climatic snynth breaks ending with bombastic cathedral like statements. Richie Zito's guitar replies become more aggressive as the song closes. Elton's vocal is wistful, with no anger. The words have enough of that emotion to be carried on their own strengths. Ocean's Away is the perfect extension. Stripped of any of the previous song's elements, the vocal and piano leave the songs sentiment clear for all to hear. No need for me to explain it, listen to it and hear it. Honesty with a 'powerful design...'

Monday, November 4, 2013

'Elton & Band Live From Bud Walton Arena' - TDB Walmart Bonus DVD Review

Live At The Bud Walton Arena Fayetteville, 4th June 2013 

This blog, as I've stated before, is a great fan of John Jorgenson. The guy is a virtuoso and is just as at home in a band. His style is terrific, with great deftness on the acoustic instruments he plays. But for me the biggest attraction is the 'American steel' that's endemic in his electric style, which when it's intertwined with his rock influences, the result is overwhelming. All traits that are vital to Elton's music as so much of it over the years had that country vibe in the background. So no better man than John to bring it home, as they say over there.

When news reached me that the Walmart edition of The Diving Board featured a 90 minute DVD of a show that John played in June this year on I was more than excited. I want it now, I said!! Luckily for me at the time a fellow Eltonite was on his holliers over there and hey presto a copy of said DVD came to be in my hand. What a joy this one is. John was filling in for Davey around this time as guitar god was taking some time out, so his 'St. Peter' stepped in to patrol the pearly gates with Elton.

The premise of this show is all the Walmart employees from all over the world get the chance to go on one big jolly for the weekend at the companies HQ. I think it's supposed to be some sort of cooperate get together, but they're not going to release any DVDs of that, now are they?! So we get this instead. As part of the weekends entertainment, they lay on a big act to amuse the store workers of the world. This year they got Elton. As you do. A draw for tickets was the only means to get in. Would Elton be able to 'wow' a crowd a day trippers into believers?! With a 'steely' determination, he was gonna give it his best shot...

The in house camera's capture this show perfectly, when Elton soloed you weren't looking at someone gawking at their partners phone at the amazing snap they just took. Timing is everything...and John has it to burn. And burn it up on The Bitch Is Back for the first song, playing Davey's Explorer with the same venom he does. John used Davey's guitars with Rick Salazar's messin' about, he can pick up another artists tools of choice and make it his own. Bennie pounded away, Elton working up the crowd of mostly Elton show newbies. Give them what they want and hit it with them hard. So that they don't get up. And Elton was walloping them  with all the tricks, getting the crowd responding to his 'Bennie' call. Levon had some sweet rhythm lines from John, sweetness that bittered up on the jam when he matched each Elton chop pound for pound. John was in the groove alright. And lovin' it! 

Tiny Dancer was incredible. This is a must see and must hear. The stuff John did on the Fender was like a text book guitar manual in sign language. First and foremost he put the 'steel' stamp all over it. But it's the way he did it that was stunning. Minute tone changes, from line to line, coupled with tweeks here and there on the whammy bar gave the song a sound scape of 'Americana' with countless layers. The virtuoso banded it all together with an edgy chime. His fingers with the knowledge of Elton's music. If that wasn't enough to make your hairs stand up, they were still standing by the end of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Because if nothing had been played, the effect would have been the same. John playing Davey's Captain Fantastic Les Paul. Holy moly...and he still found time to make sure all the Lesley effects were all ship shape and on parade. Beautiful!! 

Rocket Man with it's lung bursting intro that Elton does now had the audience applauding...literally seconds into it. Getting a wave off some of the casual fans at the end of a song can be tough going, so I guess Elton was doing something right at this stage. John with big acoustic chords, like huge brush strokes. Sweeping over the venue in a similar way to Kim's trippin' out synth lines. The crowd were high as a kite...Crocodile Rock opened with some sneaky chords of Mexican Vacation trying to get in on the act. Elton teasing the crowd...but nobody knew of course. Saturday Night was it's usual in yer face delivery, but Elton knew this was a special show...for the audience and for the trusty stand in. Elton's rollicking solo on the outro with John putting down a grinding back beat of the familiar riff in turn led Elton to lay down a challenge of 'Go John'. This was John's rock out moment. They locked eyes as John did a rasping solo that was full of flashy, string bending licks. Elton's key's being challenged by John's strings for supremacy. When you hear it you make up your own mind who won...I wouldn't like to have a casting vote on that one!!

Circle Of Life solo is always a spellbinding moment. Elton had the crowd in his pocket by now, so when they thought they'd seen all his glory he showed why he's the number one live performer. Voice, piano and quality songwriting. Their shopping list had been ticked off. But one final item was needed, the one that you don't have to put on your list. Because it comes instinctively. Your Song was the standard we've come to expect recently...excellent...but the little treat on it, like the one at the checkouts in the old days, was John playing electric guitar on it. Every emotion seemed to be evoked from his playing on it, the weeping of it was yearning. It could have strayed over to melancholy but right the end on the final chorus it exuded a release of joy. A release of joy that Elton displayed when he gave John a special hug at the end. A special show with a special guest.

This a terrific bonus that Walmart put out for The Diving Board. It may seem on paper another greatest hits show. Which it is. But like all shows from the last few years it's a scorcher. But the real sun the one on a Les Paul from John. The variations he brings in and overall sound he has is tremendous. Elton enjoyed having him there, John enjoyed being there and I enjoyed seeing them all together. This is a must have show.

The Bitch Is Back 
Bennie and the Jets 
Tiny Dancer 
Philadelphia Freedom 
Candle in the Wind 
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 
Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time) 
I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues 
Sad Songs (Say So Much) 
Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me 
I'm Still Standing 
Crocodile Rock 
Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting 
Circle of Life 
Your Song