The album that defined the 1970s isn’t by the Beatles or the Stones

The album that defined the 1970s isn’t by the Beatles or the Stones
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Sat, Jun 14 2008. 01 08 AM IST

Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Updated: Sat, Jun 14 2008. 01 08 AM IST
What are the great albums of the early 1970s? Some of the answers are obvious enough. Abbey Road by The Beatles (though it was released at the end of 1969); Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones; Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan; Who’s Next by The Who; Runes (the one with no title) by Led Zeppelin; and (controversial choice) LA Woman by The Doors.
But there are two albums that never seem to make it on to any of the lists. The first is Band on the Run, a Paul McCartney solo album that I rate as being at par with the best Beatles stuff (yes, I know, nobody else agrees with me). And the second is Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which is not only the old dear’s best ever record, but is, I would argue, the epitome of all that was great and wonderful about 1970s’ pop.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
I’ll save Band on the Run for another Saturday, but if you do have a copy of Yellow Brick Road (assuming that you are the sort of person who still listens to CDs and hasn’t loaded every song you’ve ever liked to an iPod), then I suggest that you give it another listen.
There are two kinds of rock stars. There are people who do one thing and do it well (Dylan, the Stones, Zeppelin and, if you insist, Floyd). And there are those who can do many things. Keith Richard and Mick Jagger may have written Lady Jane and As Tears Go By along with Satisfaction and Brown Sugar, but it is hard to argue that they ever had the range of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Hell, they don’t even have the range of McCartney, a man who can churn out perfect love songs such as And I Love Her as well as rock ‘n’ rollers such as Back In The USSR or Lady Madonna and then collaborate brilliantly with Lennon on A Day in the Life.
Elton John belongs to the category of pop artists (I am shying away from the term rock) who can effortlessly switch genres and styles and still turn out catchy songs. Though he has a vast catalogue, Yellow Brick Road is his equivalent of the Beatles’ White Album.
You probably know the hit songs from the double album. The first Top 10 single was Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting, a major change of direction in that John went head to head with the Stones and didn’t do too badly. These days, he wrecks the song in concert, but the original recording is a near perfect rock track. Even when the Who covered it (on the Two Rooms tribute album), they could not better John’s version.
The second single was the title track with Bernie Taupin’s vaguely autobiographical lyric about a country boy leaving the big city to go home. I know it is sacrilege to say this but frankly, Bernie ain’t much of a lyricist. The Yellow Brick Road metaphor is misused (it doesn’t mean the red carpet, but perhaps Taupin had forgotten his Wizard of Oz) and some of the lines (“where the dogs of society howl” or “back to the horny black toad”) are just stupid. Still, it’s a nice enough tune (and maybe the Oz metaphors made John feel he was Judy Garland…).
The third was the song that has lasted longest. Despite Taupin’s usually chunky words (“from the young man in the 22nd row who saw you as something more than sexual”), the central image of Candle in the Wind (about Marilyn Monroe) is a strong one: “It seems to me you lived your life like a Candle in the Wind/ never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in”. The tune is great and fortunately most of us have now forgotten the embarrassing rewrite of the lyrics that Taupin did for Princess Diana’s funeral.
The oddest hit on the album — and the song that turned John into America’s biggest pop star of the 1970s — is Bennie and the Jets. Never intended as a single, it was released after DJs played it on the radio anyway and it quickly shot to No. 1. It’s an unusual song by Elton standards, the beat is uncharacteristic and the fatso sings falsetto.
Any album with four massive hits deserves to be remembered. But like the White Album where the commercial stuff (Obladi-Oblada) was soon forgotten, the real strength of the record lies in the lesser-known tracks. There is an overblown but impressive instrumental first track, Funeral for a Friend, with booming organs (this was the era of Keith Emerson, remember?) followed by a rocker called Love Lies Bleeding which, despite Taupin’s lyrics (“You are a bluebird on a telegraph line/I hope you’re happy now” etc.), gets the album off to a great start.
Then, there are the gems. Grey Seal is one of Elton John’s most underrated melodies. And Harmony must be one of the 10 best songs he ever wrote. If it had been released as a single, it would have gone straight to No. 1. But he doesn’t even bother to sing it in concert these days. The Ballad of Danny Bailey has that most unusual of all Taupin lyrics: An opening line that makes you want to know what happened next (“Some punk with a shotgun/Just killed young Danny Bailey/In cold blood, in the lobby of a downtown hotel…”) and the chorus is irresistible.
When the album was released, few people noticed the wit. Jamaica Jerk-off elicited sniggers for the title but was generally ignored. In fact, it was a send-up of the then current obsession with reggae. All the Girls Love Alice was one of the first mainstream pop songs to deal with lesbianism.
Though there’s a good TV documentary about the making of the album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has never got the attention it deserves. John does the four hits and opens some of his shows with Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. But he’s forgotten the rest of the songs while continuing to perform such utter rubbish as Take Me to the Pilot and Crocodile Rock (with the chorus that he stole from Speedy Gonzales).
Yellow Brick Road won’t even be remembered as a great lost album that slipped through the cracks. It sold millions of copies and was a huge commercial success. My fear is that its only claim to fame in the public imagination is as the album that established Elton John in America.
Which is a shame. Because 35 years later, it still sounds great to me.
Write to Vir at pursuits@livemint.com
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Sat, Jun 14 2008. 01 08 AM IST