Tuesday, September 23, 2014

'To Be A B-Side, Or Not To Be A B-Side'

It's some question, ain't it. Luckily over the years Elton, or sometimes the various record bosses, have treated us with the cuts that weren't considered good enough for the final album track listing. Though when you look down the list of b-sides you can't help but think that most would have sat very proudly and without any fear of inferiority on the album that they missed out on.

If you look at the 21 At 33  recording sessions, because of David Geffen's pie fingering we ended up with essentially a whole album of relegated songs. More up to date Peachtree Road left us with half an album of material that luckily saw the light of day and the sound of joy for us. There's been a great many more over the years, too many to go into great detail individually one by one here. But I'm going to look at one of my all time favourites. I focused already on two of my favourite b-sides from some of the other mansions of Elton's many recording houses. The Retreat and So Sad The Renegade being high up on my list.

One can only imagine the dregs of the gutter that Elton and Bernie would have encountered on the road in the early 70's. Every type of chancer and spiv with silvery trails more akin to a slug get together pitching up with one hand longer than the other. One to pick you, the other to land the blade in. If patience wasn't lost quickly, it would have been sorely tested. Bernie took all these usual suspects and packaged them up lyrically to let us float down into 'Sick City'. Wrapped around it though was one of the greatest counter melodies Elton has ever put down on disc to Bernie's life observations.  

If you look at the lyrics firstly, we're greeted firstly by the ultimate 70's temptation and cliche. The groupie, who by her given age (what she says and what's true may be one of the same thing...or may not) in some US states would be legal, in others would have you heading for the clink. As the Sick City in question is focused on New York reportedly, anyone thinking of crossing that line should have Attica State by John Lennon humming in their ears. But all that doesn't stop her spelling out in around about way (firstly) where she'd like to go. For her (second) point of arrival she comes straight out with her offer of a 'rubdown' conjuring up a various range of possibilities. No doubt to hear those British accents in a more intimate setting being part of the appeal. And the fact that they're rock stars equally appealing to the cheeky minx. The 'tricks' she had in mind wouldn't have been seen on a Paul Daniels show...not even with Debbie McGee...even after the watershed. The leeches and the 'here tonight, gone later tonight' type fan just looking for a 'handout' are next to appear around the back. We can only speculate on the myriad of tales of woe that were spun, some truthfully, others very dishonestly. All with the same aim, to relieve them 'loaded down dudes'. Or, as is suggested by the 'healing show' line, that Elton could sell them a couple of bottles of Doctor Good. I think they'd have to wait till Cher and her Papa were in town for that particular beverage. 

If in 1970 there was some degree of innocence lost and paradise gained, by early '74 it had been extinguished quicker than the stage lights. Though the 'monkeys' would always find some solace at the door, in spite of the various shades of darkness they brought with them.

A great set of lyrics requires what. Elton to do his party piece. Looking at the tone of them, it's a desperate tale of downbeats that ultimately make the main aim of the game, the music, a bit harder with so many hangers on. It's dark undertones, when scratched, or even tasted, leave you sick. Nothing pleasant so far. But what does Elton do? The complete opposite and use a clever musical tool.

Ironic comment. In this case, Elton, musically, puts on a mock musical hall style, nearly vaudeville in some ways (the mock style coming from the 'upright piano'  that evoke images of a theatre full of merry revellers ala 'The Good Old Days') just one key device employed. His vocal is tone neutral, if you listen to it he neither strays into comedy or deadly seriousness. A line between Ticking and Solar Prestige territory. But one he carries off with no sense of pathos either. It's a frank delivery. The melody itself is pure singalong, catchy and cheeky. It never undersells the lyrical message or denigrates it any way. So whilst we're rowing along in a cesspool with the lowest forms of life, we're doing it a merrily, merrily way.

The production here is incredible, as is always the case with Gus. Caribou early 1974 has the band in top notch recording form. Davey's bluesy guitar has found it's voice, it snarls in and out throughout with an equally almost offensive (in a good way!) solo. Dee's bassline is tensility embodied in four strings. Nigel's drum sound was reaching the peak of it's 70's incarnation. Listen to the way it's recorded, which by all accounts took ages to set up in the new studio, and it's a masterclass in playing. The ride cymbal sounds like it's right beside you. The tom's are tuned with a heavy tone that gives them great firmness. It's a massive sound. The Tower Of Power brass section has a stylish swagger that hums in the low key and speaks up with great purpose when called for. 

But where Gus really nails the hammer, is by keeping the trademark harmonies right till the end. The high altitude of Colorado making them even more nearer to heaven, both literally and musically. Rather than some outro that doesn't do much but just fade away, their late arrival makes staying to the end a required listen. A final burst of the chorus line with the entire company chipping in. Elton works the comedic piano sound well here, not quite silent film stuff but it would be no stranger to that genre either.

Ultimately this never ended up on Caribou...no, I can't believe it either. But any survey over the years I've seen has always puts this at the top or near the top least ways of the favourite b-sides list. Everything works here even when you think it shouldn't. A look at the underbelly of rock and roll touring with a jaunty almost knees up melody. And some people wonder why this pair are masters of their art...not anybody reading this blog I hope!

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