Monday, April 21, 2014

'Did He Know And Were They All Wrong?'

There's been quite a few programmes on both radio and television recently not to mention articles in the printed media about the 20th anniversary of Britpop. The young scribes of today have pinpointed the date of the beginning of that phenomena also known as 'Cool Britannia' as the release date of Blur's Parklife, 20 years ago this month. It was quite an extraordinary time. It was the return of the 'proper band' and also the last era of the 'proper band'. There hasn't been such a plethora of guitar based new bands break through in such a short space of time since then. None any good that is. There was incredible diversity in there sounds and all seemed bright on the horizon. The charts were still relevant, unlike today of course. Thursday night appearances on Top Of The Pops still had that wow factor in terms of capturing the moment forever. Live. How long it lasted is up to the same scribes that have pronounced when the starting pistol was fired. Personally, when some of the main protagonists walked up Downing Street to Number 10 in July 1997, is where it ended for me. The apparent anti establishment undertones were merely that. An apparition. Once the two coalesced at that point it was impossible to separate them ever again as a result of the optics of that sight.

But it was still good fun while it laste. The era of the rock star is no more though in 2014. How many chat show/entertainment shows do you see current acts of that vein on now. Yet TFI Friday on Channel 4 was able to have several each one show. It was the last time I took any interest in the 'current' music scene. Since then it's gone down the drain. The charts are totally and utterly irrelevant now. You only have to sell about half a dozen copies and you've a number one. The endless TV talent shows have totally sucked the life and soul out of the art and turned it completely into a product. They can keep it now.

So I suppose you're wondering how is all this relevant to Elton. Very much so I would suggest. We all know Elton is a lightning rod for what's going on around him. Some good, some bad. Around this time 20 years ago he was recording the album 'Believe'. Which became Made In England later on. As an album it's in my top 10. No doubt whatsoever. Davey said on his blog recently it was probably the last great pop/rock album he made. Hard not to argue with that. What Elton has done since has been a right curates egg. Whether it be Easter or not. Bernie's lyric are as per usual dynamically descriptive and personal on the album. Elton has great variation in his styles and pacing. Up-tempo was not a stranger in those days. It was produced by someone, Greg Penny, who knew his Elton onions. And the band lineup was one of the greatest ever. And if all that wasn't enough, they even found space to add Paul Buckmaster in. All in all it's for me the first return to the organic 'Elton' sound, long before Songs From The West Coast (another favourite of mine). I'm not going to delve into it anymore at this stage, I had it on the other day and it's still hitting the spot.

Britpop was essentially a return to guitar based bands with toppings of contemporary flavours. The viewpoint was incredibly retro, the late 60's and the early 70's being a reference point that was frequently quoted. And here we have Elton at that very moment, he like everyone else not quite aware of what was actually beginning, harping back in a similar vein. Was there something flowing through the water in London at the time...if there was they may have been drinking gallons of it. Because at the time, and probably even now, it wouldn't have been cool to bracket Elton into the same category as the current younger acts. He would still be seen with some of them at various awards ceremonies but to the current generation he was old hat. But the new hat Elton was wearing...metaphorically speaking...was an old hat. He ditched the awful Roland piano in concert in 1993 and returned to a proper grand piano. He had stripped the band back to make a more tighter, cohesive sound. And he had sat down to make an album in which he added time and energy. None of this doing it in five minutes lark that doesn't work now and hope to high heavens it works. He sat down at the piano and wrote the strongest melodies to the strongest set of Bernie lyrics for a long time. He and the band weren't afraid to work things out, if it didn't work once then they tried again. But it was the whole organic feel that makes MIE what it is. Plus in no small measure to Davey's guitars, electric and acoustic along with his roots instruments being very much to the forefront. This was no computerized effort, it was lively and it was real. And incredibly contemporary.

When I first heard Believe in 1995...possibly my favourite Elton song was on the radio. On medium wave in fact, the old Virgin Radio on 1215MW. As soon as I heard it I knew instantly it was a Buckmaster arrangement. The knack was still there. It was a tremendous moment. Younger readers are probably amazed today to hear a current Elton on the radio. As I am too. Because I've never heard many current songs from Elton the radio recently. I wonder why. Anyway, the point being it sat comfortably along the rest of the stations airplay of the day. The name may have been old, but the outlook was young. Not hip as in trying to outgun the young turks, but Elton doing his own thing which wasn't a million miles away from what the current crop were trying and succeeding in doing. Not that they would care to admit at the time. Subsequently though, they would tip their cap in Elton's direction.

But the even more amazing thing is when you look at the timeline. Elton was recording the album just as this explosion was detonated. But nobody heard the actual moment of detonation. It was one of those one thing led to another type reactions. But was part of that chain. The early 90's pop had become full of synthesized rubbish, rave music it seems was about to swamp everything. Nothing seemed to be holding it at bay. But there was a yearning around that time for a more simpler and back to basics type of music. Elton had bought into the over processed sound on The One. I love The One, it's very much of its time but has dated very quickly. So MIE was required. And fulfilled its remit. The backdrop of newer acts also reclaiming the retro sound and giving it new life gave Elton a renewed position in contemporary circles. He may have got the lifetime achievement award at the BRITS in 1995 but he could still do a current song. A chart hit if you please.

Elton captured the moment, probably more by coincidence than by design, that in hindsight as we're looking back on that period now seems a more key moment than first realised. If he had recorded the album in say 1995 or 1996 he may have been accused of crashing in, not to mention cashing in, on the current vibe. But he was ahead of the posy. The album is still a powerful statement by all involved. But I think its position in regards to when it was released and moreso it's timing is incredible. Along the lines of The Beatles Anthology in late 1995. Suddenly a band that always had relevance was now defining a generation again. A project that had been in the works for years had spectacularly coincided with a renaissance in the very sound they created. The masters of old had influenced the new and at the same time created something new with an old twist. Kinda confusing on paper maybe, but in practice worked perfectly.

Britpop had seized power and was not for turning, in its own mind at least. So what did Elton do next? He released The Big Picture in September 1997. Weeks after the Number 10 soiree. See where this is going?. But it wasn't the only thing that happened that month that was to prove critical in Elton's career. No need for me to say anymore on that matter. Irrespective of the fact that NME expressed complete derision for CITW '97 as it kept The Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work' off the number 1 slot, Britpop had reached it's peak and the view was downward at that stage. But as I keep saying here, perspective is always crucial in these matters. I'm not suggesting for one minute that Elton either created, nor rode on the coat tails or joined as a last minute straggler to the cultural phenomena. But he was there. And active. Look at the video for the title track and if that's not 'Cool Britannia' encapsulated visually then I don't know what is. Elton's return to a proper sound (ditching the Roland, backing singers from the previous tours), assembling a terrific band that included Davey returning to his roots instruments which in turn led him to being able to express himself more on disc than he had for a long while. Plus adding loads of electric guitars. The final part of the jigsaw being the addition of John Jorgenson the band in 1995 for the MIE tour which was a further ramping up of the hard edge that was missing for so long up that point.

All these things sit comfortably with the Britpop ethos. The critics may not like to admit it, but Elton was a participant. Britpop may have been a fad in some people eyes, but who can argue with how Elton dealt with it. And all the better he was for it too.

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