Visually, musically, and in every other way, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player is an engaging entertainment and a nice step forward in phase two of Elton John’s career, the phase that began with Honky Chateau. The essence of Elton’s personality, on record and in performance, has always been innocent exuberance, a quality intrinsic in most of the best rock ‘n’ roll of the Fifties and early Sixties. Elton’s only major problem after the success of his first album was finding the right direction for his talent, and until Honky the path chosen led up a blind alley. In Madman Across the Water, which closed phase one, Gus Dudgeon’s overly lavish production and Bernie Taupin’s often impenetrable lyrics ultimately created a barrier between Elton and his audience that severely endangered his star status. Honky Chateau was a sensational, unexpected comeback, as much a triumph of Dudgeon and Taupin’s versatile professionalism as of Elton’s musicality.
Happily, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player is as good, if not better than its predecessor. The heart of the album is a sequence of American movie fantasies whose chief aim is to delight. Though there is implicit social commentary in several songs, notably “Have Mercy on the Criminal” and “Texan Love Song,” it is set forth as stereotypical movie fare, meant only to vary the emotive tension between episodes. In general, the most effective songs are the simplest excursions in fantasy-nostalgia. Typical is the irresistibly catchy and corny hit, “Crocodile Rock.” More successfully than any recent single it recaptures the spirit of late-Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, parodying styles (“At The Hop” and “Runaway”) with such affectionate high spirits that the song emerges as a genuinely fresh artifact of the Seventies. Elton’s tune and Taupin’s lyric are ideally wedded. The song has a conventional verse-chorus structure and an overall diction that is casual and idiomatic without straining for precision: “I remember when rock was young/Me and Susie had so much fun/Holding hands and skimming stones/Had an old gold Chevy and a place of my own.” Teenage fantasy, more explicit and without hindsight, is also the theme of “Teacher I Need You” and “I’m Going to Be a Teenage Idol,” both of which have the same off-the-cuff buoyancy as “Crocodile Rock” and the same playful attitude toward a semi-mythic past. In “Have Mercy on the Criminal,” the inventive eclecticism of John-Taupin is especially striking with its interposition of guitar figuration from “Layla” and a typically spacious orchestral arrangement by Paul Buckmaster.
The album’s most moving cut, however, is the opener, “Daniel.” A gem of technical virtuosity, it has Elton doubling on electric piano and “flute” mellotron and Ken Scott on synthesizer, together making as deft use of the new electronic instrumentation as I’ve heard. Elton’s melody and vocal are unusually tender and expressive, and Taupin’s lyric, in which he recalls watching a plane carrying away his older brother, is exceptionally lovely:
Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes
… Oh Daniel my brother
You are older than me
Do you still feel the pain
Of the scars that won’t heal?
Your eyes have died, but you see more than I
Daniel you’re a star in the face of the sky.
If Honky Chateau established Elton John as a leading contender for the bantamweight championship of rock & roll, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player should hand him the title.