Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Elton John

Island Records, 1973

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck


Back when I was a wee lad, my only exposure to Elton John was "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" Naturally, being eight, I was more concerned with cooties than an aging piano player. My mistake.

Plant, Jagger, Scott, Townshend, they had it lucky. It's easy to become a rock personality when you're out strutting around the stage with complete freedom. So how did Elton John, a piano player who by no means had a magnetic personality, become one of the most revered musicians in rock? Hard work, a penchant for the flamboyant, and oh yes, he could flat-out play.

By the time 1973 rolled along, Elton was on the verge of his great success. His previous two albums, Honky Chateau and Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player, both reached number one in America. In fact, Elton would go onto set the record for most consecutive releases that reached number one, with seven. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the third in that set of seven, would cement Elton's place among rock's elite.

I can sum up the 70's in one word: excess. The decade was full of it. It is what allowed for GYBR to become the classic it is now known as. Showmanship fueled the album, drove it. The musical landscapes were sweeping and vast, yet somehow Elton was able to rein things in, and not let the album run away with itself. Bernie Taupin wrote lyrics that were personal, at times in direct contrast with the music. Yet somehow, all these elements came together, and they worked.

Given that Elton's voice has changed so much over the years, some might forget what a great vocalist he once was. Back in the 70's, Elton had much greater range than he does now. He could take on all sorts of vocal impersonations. You could hear Elton go from dizzying heights to tremendous lows. You could feel the anguish in ballads like "Candle in the Wind," or the intensity of the rave rocker "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." His voice was second to none; there were no "Elton impersonators." When an EJ song came on, you knew it was him.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Stylistically, this album is all over the map. From straight-out rock to jazzy little numbers, to honky tonk pieces, soft ballads, and even reggae, GYBR has it all. Many critics have criticized the album for this wide variety of styles. That always puzzled me, as I thought it would be impressive for a rock stars to show all the influences that got them where they was. Generally speaking, Elton does better on the straightforward numbers, but there are some real gems hidden amongst the rest. "Roy Roger" has a wonderful country-style tinge to it, and the harmonies Elton sings with himself are quite possibly the best on the album. "The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)," the aforementioned honky-tonk number, is Bernie Taupin's tribute to the old cop thrillers he would watch. Elton matches the tone perfectly, going so far to as to use his piano to imitate the firing of bullets.

The hits songs off GYBR, like "Candle in the Wind," or "Bennie and the Jets" I can't add anything to, as they have been played and analyzed ad nauseum over the years. However, there are two numbers which I can't help but comment on, "Funeral for a Friend" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." These are the two best songs on the album.

"Funeral For A Friend" (FFAF) is the opener to the album, and begins in Wagnerian majesty. Synthesizers dominate here, creating a dark mood. From this point on, the song only gets better and better. You think you're at the high point, only to find another one. Eventually the "window dressings" of the synths are phased out, and we are just left with Elton and the band. Rarely does Elton match his live playing with a studio recording, but in the case of FFAF he equals his live performances. Elton attacks the keys with a ferociousness never heard from a rock pianist before. Bernie Taupin has always been at his best with simpler lyrics, and FFAF works lyrically because Taupin doesn't try anything fancy. A broken heart is the setting for the song, no more. It is Elton who turns this into not only the best opening number a rock star could ever ask for, but the best rock number of his career.

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is an entirely different matter than FFAF. It is one of the most aching ballads Elton has ever sung, and simultaneously one of his best vocal performances. Taupin's lyrics are about the disillusionment of fame, and the desire to return home to "my plough." Again, Elton weds the lyric and the performance perfectly. There's a sense of whimsy to the opening verses, almost as if his desire was a slight wish. But when the chorus hits, there is no doubt in the listener's mind what the speakers' true desire is.

What more can I say? Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is one of my favorite albums from one of my favorite artists. It is what defined Elton John in the 70's. The album had four top ten singles, and many speculated it could have had more. It was glitzy, it was glamorous, it was Elton.

Rating: A

User Rating: A-



© 2004 Jeff Clutterbuck 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 Island Records, and is used for informational purposes only.