Between the release of his 1970 debut and 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Elton John basically owned the pop charts. Fans who dug deeper into his albums discovered that, if anything, the non-singles were even better than the hits. For every “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon,” there was a “Madman Across the Water” and a “Rotten Peaches” to discover. Last week, we asked our readers to vote for their favorite Elton John songs of all time. More than 100 songs got at least one vote – kudos to the one guy who voted for “My Father’s Gun” – but the top 10 songs all come from the golden period of 1970 to 1975. Click through to see the results, and listen to a playlist of your picks below.
Elton John originally recorded the title track to Madman Across the Water as part of the Tumbleweed Connection sessions with future David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson in 1970. They couldn't find a place for it on the album, and it didn't quite fit with the American West vibe of the album. Roughly a year later, John re-cut the song with guitarist Chris Spedding taking the place of Ronson and Rick Wakeman on organ. The result is something that approaches prog rock. It's one of the most ambitious pieces in John's vast catalog, and it features some of Bernie Taupin's most bizarre lyrics. It has a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest vibe of someone writing in an insane asylum. Fans were delighted a few years ago when he brought it back into his set list.
Elton John's 1975 LP Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is a concept album about Elton and Bernie's early days as an aspiring songwriting duo in London. At the time, John was struggling to come to terms with his sexuality – he was actually engaged to a woman in 1969. The stress of the whole situation caused John to contemplate suicide. His friends talked him out of it, and provided the inspiration behind "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." "When I hear that song it really makes me think of gray skies, wet streets and smoky pubs," Taupin said. "That fragile feeling you get inside when you're unsure of the future."
“Bennie and the Jets” began with Bernie Taupin’s vision of a futuristic, glitter-rock group. “I always had this wacky science fiction idea about this futuristic rock & roll band of androids fronted by some androgynous, Helmut Lang-style beauty,” he said. “I’m not sure if it came to me in a dream or was in some way a subconscious effect of watching Kubrick on drugs.” Producer Gus Dudgeon wanted a live feel for the song, so he mixed in applause from Jimi Hendrix’s Isle of Wight. Despite being five and a half minutes long, the song hit Number One in 1974. Elton plays it at most of his concerts, often stretching it out to 10 minutes or more.
After the highly ambitious Madman Across the Water in 1971, Elton decided to strip things back for the foll0w-up, Honky Chateau. The strings are mostly gone in favor of his core touring band. "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" wasn't a single, but over the years it's become one of his most beloved songs. Elton has frequently cited it as one of his own favorites. Bernie wrote the song as a loving tribute to New York City, and Elton performed a beautiful rendition of it at the Concert for New York a few weeks after 9/11. In 1988 Elton released a sequel entitled "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (Part Two.)" To put it mildly, it doesn't match up to the original.
Bernie Taupin was driving to his parents' house in England when the first verse of "Rocket Man" appeared in his head, fully formed. Unfortunately, he had no tape machine at the time, and he was barreling down the freeway. Convinced he had the start of something good, he spent two solid hours repeating it to himself over and over again, until he arrived and could finally write it down. Many saw the song as a rip-off of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," though Taupin says he actually took inspiration from Ray Bradbury's 1951 short story The Rocket Man. Like the song, it tells the story of a lonely astronaut desperately missing his family while away on a long mission.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin fell in love with the Band the first time they heard Music From Big Pink in 1968. They had never been to America at the time, but the album (along with the westerns they grew up watching) painted this mythical vision of the country in their heads. Taupin drew from this when he wrote the lyrics to Tumbleweed Connection. The following year he wrote "Levon" to honor Band drummer Levon Helm, the only member of the Band who was actually from America. The lyrics have caused fans to scratch their heads for decades. He sells cartoon balloons in town? Who is this Alvin Tostig character? The whole thing is a head-scratcher, but it's an absolutely amazing song. Like Levon, Elton's son was born on Christmas day, so he named him Zachary Levon Furnish-John.
Bernie Taupin says he has virtually no memory of writing the title track to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but he does recall feeling he wanted to live a more tranquil existence after experiencing unimaginable success during the previous couple of years. The song takes the iconic imagery of the Yellow Brick Road from The Wizard of Oz and expresses a man's desire to go "back to the plough" after being planted "in your penthouse." What really sold the song was the stirring orchestral arrangement and Elton's soaring vocals. It's a high point on one of Elton's best albums.
There aren't a lot of Elton John songs that seamlessly fit into Dream Theater's set list, but "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" is one. The song (or rather the pair of songs) run for over 11 minutes as the kick-off to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. "Funeral for a Friend" is an instrumental Elton wrote when he tried to imagine what he'd like to hear at his funeral. It fit nicely into "Love Lies Bleeding," so the two songs were combined into one grand suite. It's one of his best live songs, and it's been played at countless concerts even though it was never a single. Axl Rose is also a huge fan, and its influence on Use Your Illusion songs like "November Rain" is crystal clear.
"Your Song" is the single most important song in Elton John's career. Before the single hit the airwaves in 1970 he was a struggling British songwriter with little to show for his years of hard work. After "Your Song" he was one of the biggest names in rock & roll. The song shot up the charts all over the world in late 1970, kicking off an incredible string of hits that lasted all through the decade and beyond.
The lyrics date back to 1969. "I wrote this when I was about 17," said Taupin. "Hence the extraordinary virginal sentiments. Not wishing to butt heads with my partner – who swears that it was – it wasn't written for anyone in particular. The original lyric was written very rapidly at the kitchen table at Elton's mother's apartment in the suburbs of London on a particularly grubby piece of paper." Elton has had many, many hits since "Your Song," but when he starts singing "It's a little bit funny . . ." at his concerts, the crowds tend to cheer louder than any other moment of the night.
This wasn't even a close contest. "Tiny Dancer" got nearly twice as many votes as the next most popular song. The song has always been a fan favorite, but after it was so memorably used in Cameron Crowe's 2000 film Almost Famous it got a huge second life. The song, which dates back to Madman Across the Water, didn't even crack the Top 40 in America. The fact that it's over six minutes long didn't help it get a lot of airplay at the time, but time has been very kind to it.
"It's had a nice shelf life," says Taupin. "As regards the true meaning, that's almost always been misread. The biggest misconception about the song is that it was written about my first wife." The song was originally dedicated to her, but Taupin swears he didn't write it about her. He says he wanted to capture the free spirits of the women he met in California on his first visit to America in 1970. "They were so different from the women I knew in England," he said. "They'd mother you and sleep with you. It was the perfect Oedipal experience."