Classic Album Sundays' Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy has made a new documentary for Absolute Radio on Elton John’s 1973 breakthrough Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The programme, which features new interviews with Elton John and Bernie Taupin, will be broadcast this Sunday (23 March) between 8-9pm (GMT), followed by Elton John: Live from Hammersmith. Head of the show, Murphy has written us this column on John's album.
As the founder of worldwide classic album listening event and online hub Classic Album Sundays, I always get asked what my personal ‘first’ was (my first album obviously). I was lucky in that I sprouted from a big Irish-Catholic family and had several aunts and uncles in their teens turning me onto music before I hit double-digits. On my eighth birthday, my cool teenage aunt Theresa gave me a copy of Elton John’s Greatest Hits, my very first vinyl record. It did not leave the turntable, not only because I didn’t have anything else to replace it, but also due to the sheer number of truly amazing songs that emanated from its grooves.
Although Greatest Hits compilations are an eye and ear-opening way to be introduced to an artist, I find listening to an entire studio album that was carefully put together by the artist makes for more emotive listening and is a better window into the artist’s psyche. An album purposely assembled piece by piece into a greater whole is like a sonic diary in that it represents a particular place and moment in time for its creator.
Certain themes on Elton John’s seventh studio album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road illuminate where Elton was at that point in his career and in his life: the boy from Pinner, Middlesex who worshipped Hollywood legends from afar and through boundless talent and sheer hard work becomes the biggest rock star in the world, a legend in his own right, and then finds fame is not always what it is cracked up to be and longingly looks back to a less complicated time.
Elton’s songwriting partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin alludes to Hollywood throughout much of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, harkening back to an English childhood when America seemed like a faraway promised land (and to a time when Brits may have even liked Americans. I’m American. I get it.). Songs featuring cowboy stars like Roy Rogers and of course, THAT song, the song that has been successfully reinterpreted throughout the decades to eventually become the biggest-selling single in history, use movie stars and starlets to showcase a world of fantasy, even if the reality does not always live up to the dream.
Before we even drop the needle on the record, the album cover’s image of Elton in a pink satin tour jacket emblazoned with his name, donning sparkling ruby red platforms, stepping from a scene of urban decay into a bright sunshiny land invites the listener to escape the sometimes brutal and often mundane facets of our everyday reality. When Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released in 1973, England was somewhat of a dour place with IRA bombings, the coal-miners strike, the oil crisis and looming in the near future, the Three-Day Week. A method for escapism would have been welcomed and this may be one of the reason’s why “Goodbye” was and still is Elton John’s best-selling album (after all, has much changed?).
The other more tangible reason is the remarkable number of incredible songs that fill the double album (four sides of vinyl that clock in at 76 minutes). Once the needle hits the record the listener is hit by hit after hit glued together with songs that were not hits but should have been hits. It is Elton’s definitive pop album but do not be fooled into thinking that this was or is like much of the manufactured pop the ‘music consumer’ is consistently force fed. These are real songs with insightful narratives, memorable melodies and catchy hooks underscored by soulful and masterful piano playing. These songs stand the test of time.
For those that want more than a cursory slapdash tour of Elton’s hits and would like to dig a bit deeper into Elton’s awesome body of work, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the natural starting point. The album opens with a melancholic tolling of the bells followed by a prog-rockin’ ARP solo in Funeral For A Friend, a song title that immediately flags up what follows will not be an ordinary colour-by-numbers pop record. Then follow a slew of songs any music fan will recognise (and will happily discover they still know most of the words) such as Candle In The Wind, Bennie And The Jets, Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, and the album’s title track.
However, I would like to highlight some of the songs that are lesser known rather than less deserving of recognition, some of which with repeated listens have become personal favourites such as the driving “Grey Seal”, the Leon Russell-sounding “Social Disease” and the album’s closing song, the poignant Harmony. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is one of those need-to-know classic albums that every pop and rock fan should listen to at least once (but be warned as it will most likely not be your last). Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy @ClassicAlbumSun
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