I have been doing this blog for almost a month now, and still haven’t weighed in on one of my favorite artists, Elton John. I think there’s a great deal of merit to Elton’s catalog– both the well-loved hits, and a number of obscure gems in his catalog just waiting to be discovered by the new listener. And in time, I will comment on these. However, there are a number of inexplicable lapses in good judgment in Elton John’s catalog– indeed, these are the kinds of lapses in judgment I have come to expect only from 1970s pop stars who were assured of selling millions of records irrespective of the content of their albums. (See my recent post on 10 jaw-droppingly bad Chicago songs.) Much of the blame here falls to Elton’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin. While capable of the occasional act of genius, Bernie’s lyrics are often too clever by half, and many an ambitious concept collapses of its own weight. But Elton, too, bears some culpability: as the artist the buck stops with him, and nobody forced him to write music to Bernie’s worst lyrics. What results, if you’ll pardon a poor choice of words, is a veritable fruit salad of misogynistic lyrics, nonsense-songs, and absurd characterizations. These aren’t necessarily the worst songs of Elton’s career (although many are in the running), so much as they are puzzling or in shockingly bad taste. So, put on your electric boots and mohair suit, and let’s delve into the 10 most wtf moments in Elton John’s 40+ year music career.
10. “Victim of Love” (from Victim of Love): Like my other favorite 70s artist, Chicago, Elton John decided to record a disco album at the most inopportune moment of all: 1979. By this point in history, disco was clearly going out of style, and all the cool kids were listening to Michael Jackson, funk, punk, Hall & Oates, and a multitude of other acts and genres. In fact, “Disco Sucks” riots had broken out in five different cities, and may have been responsible for the Democrats losing the White House in 1980. So, when Elton John decided to do a disco album in 1979 where he 1) wrote none of the songs, and 2) did not play a single note of piano or synthesizer, you understand just how bad an artistic move this was, as this title track demonstrates.
9. “All the Young Girls Love Alice” (from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): It took chutzpah to do a song about lesbians in 1973. I’ll give Elton that. But this song is more about then-22-year-old Bernie Taupin’s schoolboyish fantasies of how lesbians behaved. The story traces the titular Alice, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who is neglected by her mother, and turns into a lesbian. Chronicling her attempt to get with “middle-aged dykes” whose husbands are out of town, our heroine ends up “found in a subway dead.” Here, we are moving into Jose Eszterhas territory. The only way this song could have been more stereotypical would be if an icepick was the instrument of Alice’s demise. Elton will still occasionally perform this one in concert.
8. “Indian Sunset” (from Madman Across the Water): This song is an essay on why some kid from the North of England shouldn’t be allowed to write songs about Native Americans. Bernie got on the “Indian bandwagon” late, well after Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation” and the Guess Who’s “Share the Land.” His attempt to catalog a lone Indian warrior fighting a hopeless guerrilla battle against the white man is sullied by Bernie’s almost total lack of knowledge on the subject. He treats Indians as one massive conglomerate without regional or tribal differences: “tomahawk”, “Father of the Iroquois”, “painted pony”, “teepee”, “war lance”, “Geronimo”, “the gauntlet of the Sioux” all show up in the lyrics, although no group of American Indians came even close to being familiar with all these terms. Elton’s arrangement, which is bombastic and heavily orchestrated, only accents the song’s absurdity.
7. “Make Me As You Are” (from Lestat): After writing a series of successful musicals with Tim Rice– The Lion King and Aida, Elton decided to try to write a musical with his customary songwriting partner, Taupin. This was to be based on Anne Rice’s famous The Vampire Lestat series of books. The musical was an almost instantaneous failure, with unnecessary and pretentious special effects, and folded within four months. But before all of this went down, Elton John posted his own demo of one of the songs from the musical, and made it available to anyone who donated to the Red Cross, post-Katrina, from amazon.com. To make the track sound more like the musical, Elton sings it in an incredibly bad eastern-European vampire voice, reminiscent of Boris Karloff. To make a song such as this a reward for philanthropy and charity explains why donations for Katrina victims tapered off soon after. This has to be heard to be believed- and you can listen to it here.
6. “Poor Cow” (from Reg Strikes Back): In an almost breathtaking example of cluelessness, Bernie Taupin writes a song called “Poor Cow”, and makes it’s storyline revolve around an unwed pregnant girl in an abusive relationship in the north of England! The song actually isn’t sympathetic at all to the plight of the apparently bovine protagonist of this song. “you’ll walk down the aisle in a hand-me-down gown of some poor cow” Taupin observes at the end of the song’s chorus. The result is an uncomfortably snide song, not unlike when an aristocrat might make fun of a poor dirt farmer with 13 kids to feed. There’s just too much schadenfreude contained in 4 minutes.
5. “Big Dipper” (from A Single Man): This song is something of a triple-entendre. The Big Dipper is a constellation, of course, but in the U.K., it is also a nickname for a roller coaster. Here, it is also used as a phallic euphemism and is performed in the style of a Dixieland jazz band. Intended to be a subtle and campy wink to his audience, the track is instead the only celebratory gay song in Elton’s career– and this song was released the year before he first acknowledged to the press that he was attracted to men. This wouldn’t make it a bad song per se, but when the lyrics rhyme “go to the fairgrounds looking for action” with “fill him up with all kinds of stuff to relax him”, we are entering problematic territory here. And just to make the song a little bit odder, the entire Watford football club sings background vocals, since Elton owned a majority share of team at the time. (For the sake of not bashing Bernie Taupin too much here, the lyrics for this track were written by Gary Osbourne, Elton John’s late-1970s and early-1980s collaborator, who also penned the much-better “Little Jeannie.”)
4. “Solar Prestige a Gammon” (from Caribou): This song consists of Elton singing made-up words in an Italian operatic voice. Throughout his career, Mr. John has justified this decision on the grounds that John Lennon did the same thing in “Sun King.” Sorry, Elton– you can’t blame this one on Lennon so easily. “Sun King” restricted the made-up words to a fanfare in the song’s bridge and used some innovative finger-picking guitar stylings that The Beatles hadn’t done before. And even then, “Sun King” was still the worst song on Abbey Road. “Solar Prestige” is from the Caribou album, widely regarded as the beginning of Elton John’s long artistic decline throughout the mid-to-late 1970s. I’m pretty sure you can see the coke on his nose on the album cover, but they might have airbrushed it out for the c.d. remasters.
3. “I Am Your Robot” (from Jump Up!): I’m just going to post the lyrics on this one.
I am your robot, I am your robot, I am your robot man
I am your robot, I am your robot, I am your robot man
I am your robot, I am programmed to love you, my serial number is 44357
2. “Wrap Her Up” (from Ice on Fire): What could possibly be more awkward than a song where Elton John extols the sex appeal of various famous women of the past 30 years? If you guessed “extolling the sexiness of various famous women of the past 30 years in a duet with George Michael”, congratulations, you are the winner. Yes, the two most flamboyantly gay pop stars since Liberace managed to do a lustful, heterosexual duet for Elton’s 1985 album Ice on Fire— although Elton was only publicly bisexual then, and George Michael was still deeply in the closet. It has the most damndest coda in Elton’s catalog, where Elton and George free-associate women’s names– ranging from Nancy Reagan to Marily Monroe to Kiki Dee to Billy Jean King. If irony were air pressure, your eardrums would have exploded within the first 20 seconds of the song.
1. “Dirty Little Girl” (from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): Bernie Taupin’s lyrics often reveal a very deep-seated struggle against misogyny. This seems to have hit a fever pitch by 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album which included “All the Young Girls Love Alice”, a prostitute song named “Sweet Painted Lady”, anti-socialite “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and this deplorable track. A couple lines will do my explaining for me: “Someone grab that bitch by the ears/Rub her down scrub her back/And turn her inside out/’Cause I bet she hasn’t had a bath in years”. Yikes. Even if Taupin is being tongue-in-cheek here, it is astonishing that a track like this would show up on an album where the artist wasn’t trying to be intentionally offensive. What is puzzling here isn’t so much that this attitude is being expressed– misogyny is rife in 1970s popular music. Rather, it’s that these sentiments are brought out in song with Bernie thinking there was nothing at all wrong with them. And, in a manner of speaking, Bernie correctly underestimated the record-buying public– very few noticed this track when it came out.