Once upon a time a man of no importance, as Oscar Wilde would have said, offered me the chance to join his inner sanctum. To see his wonderful delights he offered me the chance to be his Charlie to his Wonka. With visions of secret societies and rolled up trouser legs my visions of the type of funny handshakes he might have offered me changed very quickly. As quick as shaking out some Nescafe beans...anyway I decided not to take up his offer of entering some sort of Harry Potter theme park and made my escape before my pocket was emptied of all its Ducats.
Thanks to Stray Arc Records I've had this release for several month's but due to recent events I've not been able to do a full review of it. However I've now noticed that this release which went under the radar at the time has now surfaced in another form and is flying without fancy. The double disc set is mix of old and new. All old new tracks but some new to this ear and I suspect most other's too. I'm going to look at the one's that caught my interest on this wildly diverse collection covering nearly 40 years.
Disc One opens with some samples from the ''Dick James Demo's'' era. Most songs from this period aren't actually demo's but the finished tracks of an unreleased album. The tracks we do have range from the primitive to the corny. But there are some gems in the selections. We get the 'long' version of Scarecrow for instance which is historically important. A couple of others here have been lifted straight from scratchy acetates and are of poor quality, soundwise and I suspect in terms of content. Mostly full of Pepperish psychedelia that was already out of date by the time they were put down on tape. You see nearly every other artist from the summer of 1967 onwards were channeling their inner kaleidescope of sound in order to replicate The Beatles sound but when the Beatles themselves released the 'White Album' in late 1968 all their work was in vain. The ‘new’ sound and style was instantly so the scramble was on to find another new sound that was far away as possible from the effects laden efforts of the previous 18 months.
Hence The Bread And Beer was the answer to that new question. The tracks from those sessions were recorded in early 1969 just as hard/power rock was beginning to come into vogue. Clean lines that speak for themselves without having to be reversed to have a better meaning. The heavy backbeat from Roger Pope being ideally suited to this style. Breakdown Blues with Caleb Quaye on lead guitar being an ideal choice for this compilation. Around this time Elton was doing his bargain basket Top Of The Pops recordings. On this selection one of his best efforts, Bridge Over Troubled Water, is featured. Mimicking the original Larry Knechtel piano line impeccably, Elton puts aside his own style and takes someone else’s without any loss of quality. The way he adopts it so easily is another string on a very cluttered bow.
Jumping forward at this point to about 1979/80 is Bobby Goes Electric. Based on a semi true story (the Zimmerman being plugged part did happen in Newport) it has to be one of the greatest demo's from Elton of a song he never completed. But does it need to be? In a recent Tim Rice interview he explained how when he heard the demo of Circle Of Life it was complete in itself and would have been hit even in that form. Which is what we have here. A hit that was unfinished but is ultimately the finished article. Choppy. pounding rhythms that create enough of a backbeat on their own that drums and bass are not needed. Elton’s left hand giving more kick that right foot on a bass drum ever could. His vocal infections and phrasings are key here, his drawl on the 'Albert Hawl' a real standout of his vocal talents.
Jumping forward again to the Ice On Fire/Leather Jackets era we find Elton in an area that is often cited as his lowest point personally and musical. No personal discussions on Elton's life are to be found on this blog. What I can comment on is the music part. It's an era on that front that's never as bad as others would suggest (the '85-'86 tour being the first exhibit). Second exhibit would be the better songs of the earlier mentioned albums. Some real curios here though, the demo of Rollercoaster being a loose song that has an even looser guide vocal. Timothy an uptempo number backed by that 80's child, the drum machine. Dripping over into Disc 2 from this era is an early incarnation of Go It Alone. It's opening bassline like something off the hit a few years Black And Gold by Sam Sparro. Devoid of the production layers it's meanness is still accentuated as much as the final version, ligher guitar licks from Davey the very model of understatement compared to the equally good Leather Jackets cut.
By some fate quirk we're now in the mid 90's, Elton a more balanced creature now and the music more clearer. None moreso than on this song, 'Couldn't Have Loved You More'. Simply put, it's the best thing on this set. I would go so far to say it's the best unreleased fully finished EJ/BT track that was never officially put out. Light years ahead of anything on the last studio album wouldn't be light compliment either. Recorded for the Love Songs compilation and produced by Chris Thomas, its catchy and uptempo. Uncomplicated old time rock and roll with great accessibility. It's easy flowing, effortlessly played out and full of everything that we've come know off a classic Elton track. The piano is up front and clear ably kicked along with a simple yet hypnotic line by the rhythm section of Morgan and Birch that are fully in tune with each other. The guitars of both acoustic and electric variety are expertly placed by Davey and John that drench all the necessary parts but leave enough dry patches for Elton to keep a solid grip. Bernie's lyric is his typical 'hands up in the air' exasperated look at love. The piano solo at the and is about a minute and a half of pure pleasure. Incredible intricate changes occur throughout its duration, little bursts of slide guitar and beautifully played organ by Guy are the ideal colours for Elton to work out on the piano, keeping the original line but adding something new each time he comes around. The new album is supposed to be full of this type of thing, it's even half as good as this track then it'll be infinitely better than anything from recent years. You’ll not get Board with this one, whether you be ducking or Diving...
A couple of other tracks form The Big Picture era pop up. Past Imperfect, a mid tempo poppy type song that doesn’t fall into cliches. Back From Yesterday is in demo form but still has enough meat on its bones to be considered as good as finished. The Live Like Horses 'backing track' is incredible here. Only last week I mentioned how good this one is with vocals, but without them it has an eerie atmosphere. Missing voices and character doesn't make the song worse, just different. One thing is for certain, it shows how great all the musicians of the band were at the time that they could carry the song on their own. Long way From Happiness in the form it is on this disc is a fine example of a song before major surgery. The operation being slowing of heart pace and changed lyrics. This version has a totally different set of opening verses and the tempo is faster (not by much though) with the same overall arrangement. Were the changes cosmetic or a medical emergency? Postcards and answers to the usual address...
The last chunk of the set is chock full of late 90's, early 00's musicals material. As always and like a chefs hold all, this mixed bag has out takes from Aida, Billy Elliott and Lestat. The demos of Aida and Lestat are the best unreleased albums Elton has ever done. No doubts in my mind there, unlike Lestat. I never got into it, I thought it was so over the top it if it were any bigger it might have been called a circus. But that doesn’t mean it's not without its high points. From the briefest of musical existences we have the studio cut of Right Before My Eyes (only available before in live form) that has a slight brisker walk about it than the briefly performed version from 2006. Some faux accordion from Guy is neatly reflected by Davey's trademark mandolin style. Elton's vocals fall into that old 'Broadway' trap at times unfortunately. Grossly exaggerative, he doesn't need to bring that something into them that's not needed. Being himself is all it takes and it works.
If Aida and Lestat are for the fantasists, then Billy is for the realists. The ironic comment here of 'Solidarity' is a clever description of the social unease in the north of England in 1984/85. The verbal foul mouthed (in its full earth glory on disc!) jostling between striking workers from the locality and the police who in most cases were not gives an insight into the social and geographical divergences.
To close out the set I'm going to look at two final pieces. One is the piano demo for Basque which was a Grammy award winning track performed by James Galway. This time Elton's version has a wonderful counterbalanced feel, as if it were recorded in sub zero temperatures but generates enough heat to heat an Earth's core. Alternating ascending and descending chords on the main them give snapshots of Elton's pure composing and musicianship style. The demo of For Wanting You which was recorded by Marianne Faithful in 1998 is a classic EJ/BT that finds itself in a proper setting. Marianne was one of the great 60's vocalists in the class of Shaw, Springfield et all but time hasn't been kind to her vocal prowess. If I weren't kind I'd say her voice was fit for stunning and then a quick end. In complete contrast to some of the musical demo's, Elton’s vocal style is lean where it should be and fattens up without becoming obese at the equally appropriate places.
I've only touched a few highlights of this disc but as we're still waiting for the official releases then Stray Arc Records will continue its quest. So there'll be no need to enter strange sanctums with equally incredibly strange people just get a bite of something you know not what for crossing the oily palms of miserly Shylocks! The moral of tale being, be patient and wait for these good things. Don’t be a proper Charlie and avoid the Wonka’s of this world…