Honky Chateau

Elton John

Uni / MCA Records, 1972


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


It may be hard to believe, but by 1972, Elton John was facing a musical identity crisis.

He had been ambiguous about what style of music he was trying to be more faithful to in his previous albums, but with Honky Chateau, his first chart-topper in the States, this dilemma is painted even clearer. Whatever the struggles he was facing in the loyalties department, he and lyricist Bernie Taupin created some solid performances on this one.

Only two of the album's ten songs may be "common knowledge" to classic rock fans - "Honky Cat" and "Rocket Man." For now, we're going to put these aside - they weren't what drew me to dig this one out of the Pierce Memorial Archives (free sticky-bun with every order). It was courtesy of "CD 94.7", a radio station in Chicago, dusting off their copy of the same album and playing the track "Hercules" off of it. I almost crashed my car in shock - where the hell did this one come from? (This is a station that mirrors our philosophy - call to people's attention the great "forgotten" tracks - could be why I listen to it a lot now.) This was a track that captured the doo-wop spirit perfectly - and, for once, it had nothing to do with a Disney movie! (Editor's note: This station has since gone off the air - too bad they diverted from the all-inclusive style they started out with.)

In a sense, I believe that "Hercules" was John's cry out to the world that this was where his heart was - not with the light ballads that he became known for (and exclusively does now), not the mild rockers he would wing off. I really think he was interested in taking a fresh look at making doo-wop accessible for the '70s listener. Damn shame he didn't examine this further - one track in this vein leaves you wanting more.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

John also tries to explore a shuffle-style kind of rock on "Honky Cat," but I don't think he succeeds. The track just lacks substance and magic - I'm not sure how it's remained popular today. I can't make the same criticisms of "Rocket Man," which I would argue is the best song Elton John ever did. It has everything - a catchy rhythm, powerful lyrics, a touch of pathos thrown in. Best of all, it also shows off the power of his backing band - no slouches in the musical department themselves. This song recently had new life breathed into it courtesy of an AT&T commercial. I would defy anyone to prove to me why this isn't a good track - even the metalheads who may have stumbled upon this by accident while looking for our Megadeth interview. (Before you flame me, give it a spin and give it an honest, fair listen.)

For the remainder of Honky Chateau, John and crew tend to sink back into a collection of the ballads and light pop that he had become known for in such a short time. Many of the cuts, like "Mellow," "Amy" and "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters," are quite good, though nothing special. One cut, "I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself," disturbs me - simply because it seems to treat the subject of teen suicide like a joke. After a few listens, one can tell that John is overexaggerating, but I don't think many people - especially those who have loved ones or friends who have killed themselves - are laughing.

There's even a touch of gospel on this album - in the form of the track "Salvation." Whether this was John showing he could adapt to any musical form or another sign he was floundering in musical confusion, only he knows. But on many of the tracks, John allows his piano work to take a backseat to performers like Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone. In retrospect, this was a brilliant move - they added so much to the basic track.

Honky Chateau is a difficult listen. I tried listening to it about a month ago for inclusion here, but I just could not get into it, what with my 16-month-old destroying anything of value in the apartment or my mind wandering. So, like any lazy music reviewer, I put it aside and ignored it. But, now that I have cleared my mind of extra baggage (and I own nothing of value anymore), I was able to hear Honky Chateau for the album it is. (This album, along with most of John's early catalog, was remixed a year or two ago.) And, if you're able to keep an open mind about songs that haven't gotten oodles of airplay, it turns out to be a fairly decent album worth the 40 minutes it takes to plow through it.

Honky Chateau was the start of John's big success in the United States, and for good reason. Not being familiar with the bulk of John's catalog, I'll stop short of calling it his best - but it's a damn fine place to start.

Rating: B+

User Rating: B+


© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Uni / MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.