Five albums from what might be Elton’s most richly rewarding period.
David Quantick 2012
When we think of Sir Elton John these days, we think of a man in a glittery suit and sunglasses, bellowing his way through some of the jauntiest and most insistent songs ever written (even his ballads are never low key). A national institution, possibly even a National Treasure, and a byword for wealth and fame, Sir Elton is a cross between Nelson’s Column and Hello! magazine.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Between his 1969 debut album Empty Sky and 1973’s entry into the stratosphere (the triumphant, excellent Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), Elton John’s career progression was most like that of his contemporary David Bowie.
Both began their journey to success in the late 60s. Both went from contemplative singer-songwriters to glam rockers to megastars. And both were initially seen, not as stadium-filling chart heroes, but as critical favourites, artists who won music paper polls rather than gold discs.
The differences, however, are significant. Elton John had more trouble establishing a persona, partly because he was gay at a time when being gay was either wrong or funny, and he didn’t write his own lyrics. The man who did write Elton’s lyrics, Bernie Taupin, could be sensitive (Your Song and Daniel are not just brilliant singles because of their melodies), thoughtful (mostly by setting his songs in a sort of Wild West frontier world), or a bit rocky (only a bit, though – Crocodile Rock is possibly the only song ever to eulogise Bill Haley).
This boxed set – which misses out the unrepresentative Empty Sky and stops before the giants of Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic – collects the albums from what, for many, are Elton John’s best years: his eponymous second LP (1970), Tumbleweed Connection (1970), Madman Across the Water (1971), Honky Château (1972) and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973).
They’re almost interchangeable, these early albums; but they’re consistent. They also contain some of Elton’s best songs – Levon, Tiny Dancer, Honky Cat – and they only slowly become more ‘pop’.
These records are a long way from I’m Still Standing and Nikita; but you can see how they made Elton a star with their combination of melodic excellence and powerful melancholy. He wasn’t to sound like this again until Songs From the West Coast in 2001.