I was sitting in my dorm room a few days ago, about to hunker down and (gasp!) study. I whipped out my iPod and started browsing for an acceptable album. Along the way, I passed up great works like Are You Experienced, Born To Run, and Dark Side Of The Moon. [Editor's Note: Say what?!?] When I got down to the "E" section, I found Elton John, the debut album that broke Elton John to the world.
This is where it all started, folks. This where a pianist from Pinner made it as a rock star, and as a result attained fame and fortune beyond anything he could dream of. The funny thing is, it isn't close to being his best album. However, it was new and different, and that's what drew the people in.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were long past their prime. Piano-based rock was a thing of the past -- that is, until Elton John came along. His playing was fresh and innovative, incorporating various styles. His vocals were said to resemble Jagger, Leon Russell, James Taylor, even Jose Feliciano. John Lennon proclaimed "Your Song" to be the first "new thing" since the Beatles broke up. Lost in all the hype was the simple undeniable fact that Elton was really that good. However, that is not always evident on Elton John, and that holds the album back.
I'm not a big fan of Rolling Stone, so it pains me to agree with them on a key point regarding this album. On Elton John, just as on Madman Across The Water, and to a lesser extent Tumbleweed Connection, Elton's piano-playing is buried under various levels of orchestration. Elton can be a very compelling artist when he plays by himself; just listen to one of his solo shows to find that out. His music doesn't need all the extra bells and whistles that were given to it. While it gives the music a more "epic" feel, there are some tracks that are weakened by their presence.
"The Greatest Discovery," Bernie's Taupin tale of the birth of his brother, is brought to life and by Elton's gentle vocals, while the orchestration threatens to undermine the song. One of my favorite Elton songs, "Take Me To The Pilot," is a barnburner of a rock/R&B number that because of its brilliance manages to overcome the "strings" handicap. For a long time, I thought "Sixty Years On" actually benefited by Paul Buckmaster's production -- that is, until I heard the version of the song on Elton's live album 11-17-70. That version blows the studio take out of the water.
Don't let this all fool you though; there is some great music on this album. "Your Song" is one of the greatest love songs of all time, and is perfect lyrically, and in its performance. The orchestration for "The King Is Dead" is suitably grandiose, considering the larger-than-life nature of the lyrics, and Elton delivers them with a snarl that closes the deal. The pseudo-gospel "Border Song," the first single off the album, is a plea for of acceptance and understanding of sorts and when combined with the backing choir, makes for a powerful track.
It is easy to see why this album made Elton John popular. There is the basis for a great career evident. This first taste was more enough for people to crave more Elton John. They got that, as Elton would release two more studio albums, one live album and one movie soundtrack in the following two years. That saturation of the market would threaten his popularity, but not destroy it. However, that situation would not have occurred without Elton John.