Elton John has a ton of hits, and he's made a very nice living out of playing them again and again to adoring throngs of fans all across the globe. The diehards, however, have heard "Crocodile Rock" and "Bennie and the Jets" quite enough. They know that John has an amazing back catalog of classic tunes that he's barely ever touched in concert. Albums like Tumbleweed Connection, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Songs From the West Coast are amazing from start to finish, even if they produced very few hits. We asked our readers to select their favorite Elton John deep cuts. Here are the results.
Bernie Taupin can recall the inspiration behind most of his lyrics, but "Take Me to the Pilot" has always been a bit of a mystery to him. "There's no thread of reality," he said in 1997. "The pilot can be anything, from something as insignificant as a pilot of a plane to Pontius Pilate. It's however deep the listener wants to go, but for me there wasn't a tremendous amount of depth. It was right off the top of the head."
The 1970 tune was the B-side to "Your Song" and featured another stunning Paul Buckmaster string arrangement. It was a live favorite for quite a while, but Elton hasn't touched it since the summer of 2013.
Bernie Taupin was so infatuated with girlfriend Maxine Feibelman in 1971 that he wrote "Tiny Dancer" about his love for her. But by 1976, their marriage was collapsing, and she inspired "I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford.)" Taking no small share of the blame for the situation, he compares himself to the fatal bullet fired into the back of outlaw Jesse James. "I'm low as a paid assassin is," he wrote. "You know I'm cold as a hired sword/I'm so ashamed/Can't we patch it up?"
One might quibble over this song's inclusion on a "deep cuts" list since it was released as a single and reached Number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, but when is the last time you heard it on the radio? Also, Elton hasn't played it in concert since 1979. It's one of those hits that somehow devolved into a deep cut.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is Elton and Bernie's Hollywood album. They reflect on Marilyn Monroe's tragic death, remember Roy Rogers and even take a trip down the Yellow Brick Road. Then there's "All the Girls Love Alice," which is basically a surreal art film in song about a 16-year-old heterosexual prostitute who sleeps with older women before she ultimately kills herself. It's wild subject matter for a pop song, and it's one of the best rockers on the album. In recent years, it's become one of the few non-hits that Elton regularly plays in concert.
This gorgeous ballad centers around a man trying to talk his nervous girlfriend into boarding a Greyhound bus so they can start a new life together out West. "Saw your hands trembling/Your eyes opened in surprise," Elton sings. "It's 90 in the shade, babe/And there ain't a cloud in the sky/I called you my child/Said, 'Honey, now this is our game.'" The Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player track wasn't a single and was completely overshadowed by "Daniel" and "Crocodile Rock," but it features a stellar string arrangement by Paul Buckmaster and deserves to be more well-known. There's no record of Elton playing it a single time in concert.
In some alternate universe, Elton John released "Harmony" as the fourth and final single from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and it became a beloved hit played over and over on classic-rock radio. Elton would play it during all his shows and the entire audience would sing along to every word. But in our universe, John was working at such a furious pace in the 1970s that he already had a new album in the can by the time that third Yellow Brick Road single "Bennie and the Jets" fell off the charts. And thus "Harmony," the euphoric final song from Yellow Brick Road, was destined to only be loved by the hardcores.
Elton John's third LP, 1970's Tumbleweed Connection, didn't land a single big hit on the charts and was seen by some as a disappointing follow-up to the Elton John album, but today many regard it as his single greatest achievement. It's a loose concept record about the Old West written by two people who had never even been to America. They had, however, listened to Music From Big Pink and seen their fair share of Westerns. "Amoreena" is about a cowboy or farmer of some sort desperately missing his girlfriend with the slightly odd name of Amoreena. Today, it is best known for appearing in the opening scene of Dog Day Afternoon. Elton hasn't played it since 1971.
Elton John originally recorded "Madman Across the Water" with David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson for Tumbleweed Connection, but it was ultimately set aside for nearly a year until it became the title track for the next LP. The six-minute song, featuring a jaw-dropping orchestral arrangement by Paul Buckmaster, is about a man locked up in a mental home yearning to connect with the outside world. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman plays the organ, and the track is one of the closest things to prog rock in the Elton John catalog. There's a great rendition on Elton John Live in Australia, and the song was played regularly between 2004 and 2012, but it hasn't popped up once in the past three years.
Elton John composed the haunting instrumental "Funeral for a Friend" when he tried to imagine the sort of music he'd like to hear at his own funeral. The piece flowed so well into another piece, "Love Lies Bleeding," that he simply folded the songs together and turned the composite work into the opening track of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The song has many fans in the hard-rock world, including the guys in Dream Theater and Guns N' Roses. (It's hard to imagine that Axl Rose would have ever written "November Rain" were it not for the influence of the song.) "Funeral" has served as the opening song for countless Elton John concerts, though this summer he swapped it out for "The Bitch Is Back."
Some might argue that this song is too famous to include on a list of deep cuts. It did get a lot of radio play back in the 1970s and Elton has played it live so many times that it's become one of his true standards. That said, it was never a single, and many casual fans probably don't know it exists. We were on the fence but ultimately felt it qualified as a very soft deep cut.
A mass shooting in a Queens bar that leaves 14 dead is hardly the natural subject for a pop song, but somehow Elton and Bernie managed to make "Ticking" work. The story unfolds very slowly: We learn about an "extremely quiet child" with high marks in school that snaps one day, shoots up a bar and gets gunned down by cops when he emerges. Stories like this weren't that common back in 1974, but sadly they're all too common these days.
By the time that Elton and Bernie got around to writing songs for 1972's Honky Château, they'd finally been to America, and their love of New York is infused into "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," even as the song points out the difficulties of life in the big city. "Until you've seen this trash can dream come true," Elton sings. "You stand at the edge while people run you through/And I thank the Lord there's people out there like you." It was never a single, but Elton has said many times that it's one of his favorite songs he's ever recorded. He even cut a sequel to it on 1988's Reg Strikes Back, but like many sequels, it was highly disappointing. Stick with the original.