We have made it to the half-way point, and you intrepid folks have stuck with me. I thank you! This third installment includes many of the big hits- including my mom’s (“Daniel”) and my dad’s (“Levon”) favorite Elton John songs.
50. “Live Like Horses” (The Big Picture): Some excellent lyrics about freedom and self-discovery, and a dramatic delivery that makes use of Elton John’s post-throat surgery lower voice register. Intended, and first recorded, as a duet with Pavaratti, the album version without him stands on its own, although Chris Thomas’s synthesizer-drenched production does it a grave injustice.
49. “The One” (The One): A fuller and more compelling song in the vein of “Sacrifice”, it completes Elton John’s transition into a credible adult-contemporary performer, with a more mature tone. Surprisingly few big Elton hits have a nice piano solo in the middle, especially from the 90s, but this one does.
48. “Candle in the Wind” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): “What hell, Alex Voltaire?” you are probably thinking. “Candle in the Wind” barely in the top 50? Alas, it is so. Here’s the problem– the entire song runs on a conceit- that nobody, not the movie executives, not the fans, knew Marilyn’s struggles except 22-year-old Englishman Bernie Taupin. Absurd. His vision of Marilyn Monroe is every bit as fetishized and sexualized as the heartless suits he derides in his song. Somehow, despite not being released as a single at first, it became a concert staple and a classic rock evergreen- and to be fair, it also has one of Taupin’s most memorable lines- “your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.” It is a significant song, but grievously overrated.
47. “Cage the Songbird” (Blue Moves): Now this is what a tribute to a deceased entertainer looks like. Written as a memorial for French songstress Edith Piaf, this track uses much more evocative imagery. Consider the discovery of a dead body…”cellophane still on the flowers, telegram still in her hand” sounds a lot better than “Marilyn was found in the nude”, right? “Cage the Songbird”‘s sorrowful lyrics are elevated to new heights by the use of my two favorite background vocalists, David Crosby and Graham Nash.
46. “Daniel” (Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player): A top 10 hit across the Anglophone world, “Daniel” has also generated more backchatter than almost any Elton song. While some insist it is a coded gay love story, Bernie maintains it is a song about a disillusioned Vietnam veteran finding peace in Iberia. Taupin’s lyrics outpace Elton’s somewhat pedestrian melody for this one, and the chance for a more thematic song is squandered…a bit of percussion is the only musical hint of the song’s wistful Spanish leitmotif.
45. “Michelle’s Song” (Friends soundtrack): A forgotten song from an obscure soundtrack album to a film nobody has seen in years, “Michelle’s Song” is emblematic of the treasures that await a casual Elton John exploring his songwriting outside of the big hits. A great early effort from 1970 that captures the boyish enthusiasm of the John/Taupin duo when they were just starting out.
44. “Grey Seal” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): If “Daniel” is ambiguous, “Grey Seal” is downright cryptic– a more successful version of what “This Song Has No Title” could have been– an uptempo song narrated by a naif trying to make sense of unfamiliar surroundings. The song wins plaudits on an element I don’t often praise in these reviews– the capacity of Elton’s band to work as an ensemble, with meaty guitar segments, and expressive drumming from Nigel Olson.
43. “Sixteenth Century Man” (Road to El Dorado soundtrack, lyrics by Tim Rice): Please remember, this track was released after a dreary collection of cookie-cutter love songs on The Big Picture, so the sound of hearing Elton John pounding on the piano and rocking out was a welcome one, a change of pace that anticipated his post-2000 return to artistic form. Intended to be sung from the perspective of two swashbuckling adventurers, the song uses Elton’s vocals double-tracked, but might have been better as an uptempo duet with another artist.
42. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (single, words and music by Lennon/McCartney): Call me a bad Beatles fan if you must, but I just don’t dig the original Sgt. Pepper version of “Lucy in the Sky”– Lennon is clearly stoned when singing it, fitting enough given its content, but he sounds like someone phasing out rather than someone compelled by the fascinating imagery he describes. With help from Gus Dudgeon’s production, this cover of “Lucy in the Sky” is a better soundscape, complete with a surprise reggae middle-eight with John Lennon on guitar. So, Elton beats the world’s best rock band at their own game, and partly with the help of its principal songwriter. Lennon, if you are going to write a song about sparkly diamonds and bright colours, you might as well have let a gay guy handle it in the first place.
41. “Crocodile Rock” (Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player): Elton John’s biggest hit in the 1970s, though far from his absolute best work. As a self-aware nostalgia piece, the song works effectively. (And indeed, the 1970s were awash in 1950s nostalgia– why was this decade so bad that everyone living in it wished for the Eisenhower era?). With an infectious electric organ riff, a comic-tragic narrative that makes me laugh every time I hear it (“Susie went and left me for a foreign guy”), and a chorus shamelessly ripped off of Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales”, its components when mixed together make this perhaps the most fun Elton song to listen to.
40. “If the River Can Bend” (The Big Picture): Elton’s gospel outings work best when he remembers that the point of gospel music is to convey hope. “If the River Can Bend” does this with panache, with a little assist from a gospel choir.
39. “Blue Avenue” (Sleeping with the Past): Elton John made the unusual choice to close the Motown-inspired Sleeping with the Past
with the least Motown-y track on the record. Yet, the song somehow works, even though every tangible piece of evidence suggests it shouldn’t- from the synthesized trumpet parts, to lyrics that veer awkwardly between addiction (“I’ve got to quit this habit”) traffic congestion (“looks like we’ve got a wreck, babe, on Blue Avenue”), and religion (“you linger on my lips like confession”). The sincerity of Elton’s delivery and the stripped down production on a very production-heavy album ultimately work in the song’s favor, against all odds.
38. “Bitter Fingers” (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy): Ditto for this– another song that shouldn’t work, but does. Writing a song about one’s frustration with publishing companies doesn’t seem like the best way to pique your audience’s interest. But Sir Elton pulls a number of melodic tricks to get the point across– he inserts the song’s hook in a line about banal hooks (“I’m sick of tra-la-las and la-de-das”), and gives the verses a lively chord progression that wouldn’t be out of place for a pub pianist in London.
37. “Bennie and the Jets” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): Inspired by David Bowie’s androgynous stage act, this piece is a nonsensical romp about a fictional band and their fictional frontwoman. With canned applause, the track is filled with in-jokes; the audience clapping is deliberately off-beat, poking fun at the lack of rhythm his English audiences demonstrated. As delightful as the studio version was, this song has since become a highlight of nearly every Elton concert since, with long improvisations and feats of daring on the piano ruling the day.
36. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): Brilliant and cinematic (appropriate given its Oz allusions), it was rightfully the title track for Elton John’s best-remembered studio album. But Elton’s melody is so lilting and sweet, especially in its falsetto chorus, that it is easy to miss the pure venom Bernie Taupin injects in the lyrics- “It’d take you a couple of vodka and tonics to set you on your feet again,” “I’d bet that’d shoot down your plane”, “tit-bits like you”. This vitriol is easy to miss because the melody is so affecting. When its most memorable hooks are “ooh-oooh-ooh” and an “ahhh-ah-ah”, it is a useful reminder that there are two kinds of Elton songs– those whose melodies complement Bernie’s lyrics, and those whose melodies disguise or compensate for Bernie’s lyrics. This is one of the latter.
35. “I’m Still Standing” (Too Low for Zero): From about 1976 to the present day, most of Elton John’s bigger hits have been love songs and ballads. So, the leadoff track for 1983’s Too Low for Zero came as a refreshing change of pace as an uptempo single. In time, the song has taken on a symbol of Elton’s defiance and endurance against long odds– having survived countless brushes with death in his 40+ year career. It is also responsible for one of the campiest music videos of all time.
34. “Original Sin” (Songs from the West Coast): A rare ballad centered on an acoustic guitar part, it uses some neat religious imagery without going overboard– and I love playing it on piano, since its D-flat key means the black keys will get a good workout.
33. “Skyline Pigeon” (b-side): Recorded first for Empty Sky, Elton’s mostly-forgotten 1969 debut album, the song’s harpsichord accompaniment weighted down what was supposed to be a song of flight, escape, and freedom. It was wisely re-recorded as the flip side to “Daniel” with a piano and oboe arrangement that gave some flesh to these themes. (And I will stand by my belief that no music is as expressive as oboe arrangements in 1970s ballads). It also, as per “Cage the Songbird”, serves as an effective eulogy or send-off (“fly away…towards the dreams you left so very far behind”), as Elton proved by playing this song at the funeral of Ryan White, the young AIDS victim.
32. “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” (Blue Moves): A simple lachrymose ballad of regret, this top 10 hit from 1976 has little more than a piano, accordion, and tubular bells as accompaniment. The spartan arrangement works, especially with some of Elton John’s most expressive singing and most effective use of his falsetto voice.
31. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy): Strangely, this song has followed me my entire life– I once went on a cruise on the S.S. Norway, where this song was composed on board ship (although it was the S.S. France back then), and stayed in London in Highbury very near where the events in the lyrics took place. On further reflection, the rolling progression of the lower piano part echoes the rolling of the ocean- maybe that influenced how the song took shape. But at any rate, this song is a masterpiece of lyric and a masterpiece of melody, capturing the drama of one of the darkest hours of Elton John’s life, when he feared the prospect of leaving music to enter a loveless marraige.
30. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): Rock and roll is not Elton John’s best medium. He can play boogie-woogie piano with the best at them, but if I were to ever create a Bottom 100 Elton John songs, it would be full of failed attempts to write a rock and roll standard. (For examples, go listen to “Lil’ Frigerator” and “Slow Down Georgie” from the Breaking Hearts album, or for that matter, the second side of Rock of the Westies.) This song works– and part of the answer why is that it embraces its Englishness, and doesn’t try to emulate American rock and roll without irony or without being self-aware. The Anglicisms- “my mates” instead of “my friends”, references to the working class– show the song has no pretensions– and that is the essence of successful rock and roll.
29. “Chameleon” (Blue Moves): Written for the Beach Boys, “Chameleon” was a well-crafted song with a ponderous introduction, great build-up along the verses, and exquisite vocal harmonies throughout. Inexplicably, the Beach Boys passed on this song (and to put this in perspective, remember that this was the time when they were recording Mike Love’s pieces about transcendental meditation and songs Brian Wilson had written while playing in a sandbox.) The Beach Boys’ loss was Elton John’s gain, and the result was perhaps the saddest and sweetest song on Elton John’s saddest and sweetest album.
28. “Honky Cat” (Honky Chateau): When my mum got Elton John’s first greatest hits album on cassette tape (oh, how I miss the early 90s), this was, to me, the least interesting track on the album– too repetitive, too invasive a horn section, not as melodic or timeless as the other tracks. It wasn’t until I heard this song coming out of a smoky dive bar many years later that I finally “got” it. With its honky-tonk piano part, the song is wisely ambiguous as to whether the country boy who sings this song is going to “get back” to his rustic roots or strike it out in New Orleans. And as a piano player, I learned that this is one of the most fun Elton John songs to play, with plenty of room for improvisation during its drawn-out coda.
27. “Circle of Life” (Lion King soundtrack, lyrics by Tim Rice): Hardcore Elton fans are a bit bearish about the Lion King material. My reply is that this track is just as strong, if not stronger, than the other material from this time period– remember, Elton’s last album before working on the film was an absolutely abominable duets album (you know, the one where he and RuPaul redid “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”.) Nope- this is better by far. Elton’s smartest move in this regard was to make his own version substantively different than the track heard in the film, to the point of having Tim Rice write very nearly a different set of lyrics. The cinematic but saccharine lyrics and delivery that work well in the film aren’t suited to commercial radio, and subsequently Elton’s retooling became a hit, a well-earned reward for his work with Disney.
26. “Levon” (Madman Across the Water): This is one of Bernie Taupin’s better lyrics, and perhaps his finest character sketch to date, portraying a quasi-dysfunctional family of Albert, Levon, and Jesus Tostig. It has each of the hallmarks of a great early Elton John song between the character sketch, Elton’s soaring chorus, and Paul Buckmaster’s swooping orchestration.