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Elton John's Greatest Non-Hits

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Elton John in Hollywood, 1975.
Elton John in Hollywood, 1975.
Maureen Donaldson/Getty

Click to listen to samples of Sheffield's picks

One of the amazing things about Elton — are there any non-amazing things about Elton? — is that his hits are only the beginning. He’s written more world-beating classics than you’ve had hot breakfasts, but he’s always scattered equally great songs on his albums, deep cuts that could have topped the charts except there were already too damn many Elton hits blocking the way. For every "Rocket Man" or "I’m Still Standing," there are countless other lost gems ripe for rediscovery, from stripped-down ballads to decadent glitter epics. It’s all part of the prolifically pervy legend of this one-of-a-kind genius. So here’s a brief guide to the buried treasures in his songbook — Elton John’s greatest non-hits.

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"Way to Blue" (Unreleased, 1968)
In the Sixties, when Elton was a struggling young apprentice looking for a break, he cut this straight voice-and-piano demo of Nick Drake’s "Way To Blue." Drake’s version later become a cult classic on his English psych-folk masterpiece Five Leaves Left. Elton’s demo version has never been officially released, but it’s a gorgeous glimpse of his underdocumented hippie-folkie side.

"Amoreena" (Tumbleweed Connection, 1971)
From the period when Elton was trying to be the Band — all rock stars had a phase like that back then — this is the undisputed highlight of his album Tumbleweed Connection. "Amoreena" is the song that plays over the radio in the opening scenes of the Al Pacino movie Dog Day Afternoon, completely summing up the wasted early-Seventies atmosphere.

"Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" (Honky Château, 1972)
A much better New York City serenade than "Empire State of Mind." It’s about a young stud taking a late-night walk on the wild side, roaming the Big Apple in search of love, chasing "this trash-can dream." Davey Johnstone’s mandolin may not sound very New York, but it nails the wistful mood of the song.

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"Mellow" (Honky Château, 1972)
It was a badass move to call this song "Mellow" in 1972, a year when rock mellowness was already at condition red, but Elton earned it. "Mellow" is Elton and lyrical wingman Bernie Taupin at their best — an easy-rolling piano rocker about two young lovers down home in the country, hiding out at the farmhouse, "wreckin’ the sheets real fine," crashing the stash to a dazed electric-violin from Jean-Luc Ponty. Elton was too restless to stay a hippie for very long, but when he was in the mood, he could do hippie like nobody else.

"Hercules" (Honky Château, 1972)
Elton has fun pretending to be a grits-kicking Southern boogie man, boasting "I like women and I like wine" over roadhouse piano, guitar twang, and a "doo-wop shoo-bop" chorus. It sounds like he’s tipping his hat to Lynyrd Skynyrd — except their debut album was still a year away.

"Sweet Painted Lady" (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Another song about groupies, this time about the kind who get paid to roll with sailors. This has one of Elton’s breeziest old-time melodies, with the tell-it-like-it-is chorus: "Getting paid for being laid / I guess that’s the name of the game."

"Dirty Little Girl" (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Nobody did glam rock on the excessive scale of Elton — his 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of its day. He snarls every word of this heavy guitar stomp, dragging it out to five hilariously over-the-top minutes, complaining about groupies who won’t stop knocking on his door ("Someone grab that beee-yotch by the ears!") because they just can’t get enough of his funky stuff. No doubt that was a big problem for Elton at the time.

"All The Girls Love Alice" (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
This sums up the cracked personality Elton brought to Seventies pop — he was routinely topping the charts with sensitive love ballads, yet his albums were full of demented fantasies like this one, a glammed-out ode to a sixteen-year-old goth lesbian femme fatale, complete with screaming guitars and horror-movie synths. Maybe, just maybe, drugs were involved.

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"Pinky" (Caribou, 1974)
A sincere and sentimental love ballad to a complicated girl who "rolls like the dice in a poor girl’s hands." It’s all cascading piano and bongos, as Elton serves the lucky lady breakfast in bed ("It’s ten below zero and we’re about to abandon our plans for the day"). There’s no reason this couldn’t have been a hit single, except Elton was currently ruling the radio with a very different kind of sentiment: "The Bitch Is Back."

"I Feel Like a Bullet (In The Gun of Robert Ford)" (Rock of the Westies, 1975)
Pure self-loathing and paranoia, with a clever shout-out to the assassin who shot down Jesse James. Elton sings about feeling hated everywhere he goes — but he still sings the majestic melody with all his brilliantly bitchy wit, right down to the perfect chorus line, "You know I can’t think straight no more." This got stuck on the flip side of one of his lamest Seventies hits, "Grow Some Funk of Your Own," but it deserved to be a hit on its own terms.

"Curtains" (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, 1975)
Elton scored a massive hit with his most out-there concept album, the autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy — it was the first album ever to debut at Number One on the Billboard charts. (Elton duplicated the feat the same year with Rock of the Westies; Stevie Wonder did it the next year with Songs in the Key of Life.) On a whole album of overheated melodrama, this morbid six-minute finale took the cake. Even when Jeff Buckley covered the song, he couldn’t make it sound half as scary as the original. But ultimately, that’s the greatness of "Curtains" — like everything else he’s ever done, it sounds exactly like Elton John.

"Elton’s Song" (The Fox, 1981)
An overlooked one-off from 1981’s The Fox, when Elton was still fumbling through the darkest, most confused period of his career. It’s a quiet piano ballad about growing up gay. The lyrics come from the out-and-proud British punk rocker Tom Robinson, who had a hit of his own with "Glad to be Gay." The payoff is the tender moment at the end when Elton sings, "I would give my life / For a single night beside you." Maybe he scared himself at how emotional he could be — it was years before he tried anything this revealing again.

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"I Am Your Robot" (Jump Up!, 1982)
Did Elton have a dodgy new wave synth-pop phase? Of course he did! Combining shameless opportunism with brilliance as only he can, this could pass for A Flock of Seagulls or the Human League, with computer bleeps and lyrics like "I’ve been beaming aboard her for a light year / From a strange craft." Ten years after "Rocket Man," Elton proved that nobody else could rip off Bowie with this much style.

"Kiss The Bride" (Too Low for Zero, 1983)
Elton’s most metal moment, with ham-fisted power chords and a strange video where he presided over a late-night leather-biker pagan wedding orgy in a junkyard. More drugs, sir?

"Wrap Her Up" (featuring George Michael, Ice on Fire, 1985)
Ladies of the world, watch out! Elton John and George Michael are on the prowl for woman-flesh, and they are DTF! Uh, what the hell was going on here? Elton was technically married to a woman at this point, and George was in the closet, but even at the time this sounded like one bizarro duet. MTV played it around the clock, for some reason. It’s always funny to hear Elton and George drool over Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Joan Collins and Kiki Dee — but Elton’s mullet in the video? Even funnier!

"Born To Lose" (featuring Leonard Cohen, Duets, 1993)
The weirdest moment from his 1993 Duets album, and that’s saying something, considering that the guest stars range from Tammy Wynette to RuPaul. The Canadian Jewish poet and the English pop diva croon the country standard made famous by Ray Charles, going for deadpan camp — especially at the end, when Cohen croaks, "Born to lose, and now Elton, I’m losin’ you." Needless to say, in real life, they were just friends.

"The Emperor’s New Clothes" (Songs from the West Coast, 2001)
Elton came back as a songwriter in the 2000s, dialing down the pop glitz for his loosest, hungriest, strongest tunes in decades. Here his voice is low and growly, reaching for an adopted Georgia accent, as he spins a yarn about a young couple hustling their way into show biz and laughing off the tough times together.

"They Call Her the Cat" (Peachtree Road, 2004)
From Elton’s most Southern album, the all-the-way-Atlanta country hoedown Peachtree Road. Elton struts his stuff for an ode to a transsexual Delta queen. Best line: "She got hips like Mick, she’s a Rolling Stone / Never seen a woman shake like that."

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Rob Sheffield

Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where he writes about music, TV and pop culture. He is the author of two books, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran and Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.

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