Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy
Island Records, 1975
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/06/2005
Over the course of my tenure here at the Vault, it has probably become apparent I am a huge Elton John fan. Up to this point, I've reviewed seven of Elton's works, but I have yet to offer up my take on what is not only his most underrated record but his best album, period.
Sure, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road may have better singles, and Rock Of The Westies may have a harder edge, but Elton John and Bernie Taupin have never been able to duplicate the cohesiveness and overall strength of Captain Fantastic. Most of this is due to the fact that the album is actually a concept album that describes the lives and careers of John and Taupin up to that point.
Captain Fantastic has a sound very similar to Band On The Run. This is definitely pop music; however, there is an underlying sophistication to each track. Elton and the band shift through various styles, hitting up everything from country (the title track), to funk ("Tell Me When The Whistle Blows").
The album starts off strong with the title track, one of Elton's best opening numbers to date. Beginning with a gentle country twang, Elton proceeds to inform us of his and Bernie Taupin's youth before kicking things up a notch during the refrain. I've always appreciated how fluidly and poetical Elton manages to make it through what many would consider cumbersome lyrics. "Tower Of Babel" finds Taupin decrying the music industry, spouting off images of the moral decay of Sodom and Gomorrah. John responds in kind with an equally acidic vocal.
There are numerous strong moments to be found on Captain Fantastic; however, the centerpiece of the album is the brilliant "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." Opening with a series of thunderous chords that refuse to leave your head, Elton goes onto to describe the failure and fear of his attempted marriage back in the '60s. The incident was so horrific to John that he attempted suicide (though even he admits it was a half-assed attempt). Here, the strain of five years of touring can be heard in Elton's vocals, but they are so perfect for this song. The utter hatred you can hear when John exclaims "Damn it" makes shivers run down one's spine. Then, to cap it all off, Elton delivers his best singing of his career, as he exclaims "someone saved my life tonight" in a falsetto, normal and baritone voice. This is the utter pinnacle of Elton and Bernie's partnership. It is, quite simply, musical bliss.
One would think the rest of Captain Fantastic would pale in comparison to that song, but it doesn't. In fact, the final two songs, "We All Fall In Love Sometimes," and "Curtains," recreate a good deal of the magic of "Someone..." "(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket" finds Elton in his rocker mode, and while not as frenetic as "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," it is great piano driven rock. The funky/R&B "Tell Me When The Whistle Blows" features a stunning orchestral arrangement, with Davey Johnstone delivering up some gritty guitar work.
Taken on its own merits, this is one of the great album of the '70s. However, luckily for us, Captain Fantastic has been released as a deluxe package in honor of the album's 30th anniversary. As one who is not prone to spend the extra cash for such things, let me tell you this is one of the better non-box set releases I have purchased. The true bonus of this release is the second disc; Captain Fantastic performed in its entirety at Wembley Stadium at 1975. The only time Elton has performed the album live; it featured the debut performance of Elton's expanded band. I would argue that some of the songs, such as "(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket," or "Tell Me When The Whistle Blows," improve on their studio counterparts. And to top it all off, we're even given performances of Elton's cover of "Pinball Wizard," and "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting."
I would have recommended this album to anyone without this particular reissue. Elton John was/is a master of pop/rock music, and this is his most shining achievement. All the extras are just icing on the cake. The music stands alone, and that is really all there is to say.