These boys — singer/piano player Elton John, librettist Bernie Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon sure do relish their fantasy. One evening last summer I found myself in a screening room in Los Angeles with all of the above, plus the guitarist, the bass player and the rest of the white-suited English retinue that follows Elton around. The occasion was a command performance of American Graffitt, George Lucas’ dream-sequence film of a night of teenage life in a California town in 1962. From the first scene on, watching the English musicians watch the film was almost as much fun as the film itself; their jaws collectively dropped in astonishment, as if they were invited guests to a surprise glimpse of their own mythology. The Americans were hushed and hissed down as they commented on the action. These boys didn’t want to miss a line. In a way it was touching.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a massive double-record exposition of unabashed fantasy, myth, wet dreams and cornball acts, an overproduced array of musical portraits and hard rock & roll that always threatens to founder, too fat to float, artistically doomed by pretension but redeemed commercially by the presence of a couple of brilliant tracks out of a possible 18.
Elton’s and Bernie’s fantasies are nothing new to the pop aficionado. The earliest records regaled us with successful British soft rock visions of the turbulent American Western myth — “Burn Down the Mission” and others. Elton was a superb pop singer, wrote engaging tunes to Taupin’s interesting lyrics, and had a drummer, Nigel Olsson, who could haul ass to work.
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This new record is a big fruity pie that simply doesn’t bake. But, oh lord, how it tries. Elton plays in front of a thoroughly professional and creative instrumental group. Guitarist Davey Johnstone was a rare find when he joined the band a while ago: The guitar lines of the omnipresent AM hit “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” ably testify to his power. Producer Dudgeon alternates tasteful and tricky ideas with lank orchestrations that owe more to Richard Perry and Mantovani than to music per se. By and large I can appreciate Bernie’s lyrics, though the hatred of women that pervades this cycle of songs is awesome in its rancor — check the words to “Dirty Little Girl,” that make the fabled Jagger-Richard demimonde sweethearts seem more like Karen Carpenter.
The format of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is straight ultramodern British music hall revue, numerous and largely unconnected musical tableaux accompanied by plenty of rock synthesized flash and the inspection of the inner feelings of several different versions of the Elton John persona.
So there’s an eight-minute instrumental prologue featuring grandiose and tasteless typhoon whooshings, booming ecclesiastic organ, some stinging guitar that would be monumental if properly backlit but seems out of context against a lot of bleating. That segues into “Love Lies Bleeding,” a rocker with a soaring, handsome chorus. “Candle in the Wind” is the first heavy lyrical fantasy, the tune is prettily solemn and unbelievably corny, a necrophiliac erection for Marilyn Monroe, despite the disclaimer: “Goodbye Norma Jean/From the young man in the 22nd row/Who sees you as something more than sexual/More than just our Marilyn Monroe.” Oh, bullshit.
I like the end of the side, “Bennie and the Jets,” a wimpy Sgt. Pepperish number (even to the point of dubbed audience noise) about a mythical rock & roll band. Elton’s vocal is properly dramatic and funny too. The title tune that starts side two is real wimpy too, dedicated to some poor showbiz shlubbo who the boys say they’re not going to have anything to do with in the future.
“This Song Has No Title”: and rightly so too; it stinks, from its lyrics that sound like Robert W. Service on Stelazine to the tune that comes over like one of Tom Paxton’s fainting spells. “Jamaica Jerk Off” is a dreadful sendup of ethnic reggae that does boast a good chorus. But get back, honky cat. You’re good, but on your best day you’d be blown off the stage by Bob Marley and the Wailers, without their amps. So, smile when you sing them songs.
“Grey Seal” is a fine fast number, episodic and brilliantly produced, one of the few large-production numbers here that succeeds all the way through. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is an excellent if terribly bitter tune. This and “Candle in the Wind” are the slow strengths of this set.
“Movie” is the first of five portraits of women that are almost misanthropic in their anger. “Sweet Painted Lady” is a sudsy music hall song dealing with that most hackneyed of images, the whore with the heart of gold, “getting paid for being laid.” Elton and Taupin have an enormous repository of nerve just to record this; amazingly they get away with it.
“All the Girls Love Alice”: The boys find themselves in Stones territory, writing about a rich 16-year-old Sapphic who dies young. It’s hard rock with a tender bridge, and stands with the stunning “Saturday Night” as the best things to be heard here. (I’ve been trying to figure if “Saturday Night” was written before or after the boys saw Graffiti.) The fourth side runs downhill: “Roy Rogers” deals with middle-class druggery — and isses its mark, the size of the-barn door, though Elton’s singing is great. “Social Disease” is just another song about being drunk. “Harmony” ends the album on an ambiguous note, nothing special.
What are we going to do with Elton John? He can sing, play, emote and lead a band, but he can’t get organized. This would have made a lovely, if slightly brittle, single P. But the best tunes are obscured by drivel and peculiarly bad feelings. Not all fantasies are so rosy. Ugly ones mar a nice guy’s record.