A selection of Elton John songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists.
Border Song Released in 1970, this was Elton’s first U.S. single and it charted mildly. Two years later Aretha Franklin covered the song on her classic album Young, Gifted, and Black, with her version becoming more well known and turning additional attention on John. The collaboration between Elton John and Bernie Taupin is generally portrayed as a complete division of music (John) and lyrics (Taupin) but collaboration isn’t always so clear-cut. On this song, Elton crossed off Bernie’s last verse, which makes the overall tone of the song darker, and pens a completely new verse that concludes ‘let us find a way/to make our hatred cease.’ Elton’s piano has gospel touches but what puts it over are the backing vocals and Paul Buckmaster’s signature string arrangements.
Country Comfort Tumbleweed Connection, Elton John’s third studio album, is a collection of songs themed around the American West. Not really in the wheelhouse of two young, British songwriters. Of course, the American West is largely the stuff of myth and fantasy. John and Taupin were influenced heavily by The Band’s second album and classic Western films. “Country Comfort” is a series of vignettes from rural life that compares favorably with Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight.” Part of the song’s authenticity lies in its layering of instrumental touches including Caleb Quaye’s acoustic guitar and Gordon Huntley’s steel guitar. Rod Stewart recorded the song first for his Gasoline Alley album, but his version is a bit stilted, sounding more like a rock cover of a country song.
Where To Now, St. Peter One of Taupin’s best lyrics, enigmatic in the right spots but leaving a clear picture of what’s going on. Taupin wrote from the perspective of a soldier killed on the battlefield, either in the U.S. Civil War or World War I. The ‘blue canoe’ represents his journey away from the life he has known toward the road where ‘all that was is gone.’ His simple request in the afterlife is for it to be revealed what will happen next. Caleb Quaye’s lead guitar lines are heavily distorted with effects and Elton’s vocals are given a swirly echo that emphasizes the song’s spiritual theme. While the song fits the album’s overall Americana theme, it’s a true original, not at all stereotypical and it demonstrates how in sync Elton and Bernie were at this point in their career together.
Susie (Dramas) Yeah, I know this is an unassuming little song, but that’s part of what makes it work. Taupin is like a detail machine on these lyrics which cast Elton as a carnival musician with his ‘little black-eyed Susie’, a dancer. But it’s the drive that Elton and his touring band, heard on record for the first time on the Honky Chateau album, put into it that makes the song a keeper. The group had played on single tracks on Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water, but most of the tracks were recorded with session musicians. On record, Elton John had come across, so far, as a singer/songwriter pianist with dramatic widescreen string arrangements, but in live shows, audiences were treated to a rocking, pile-driving four-piece ban that kicked extra life into many songs that weren’t apparent on the studio versions.
Honky Cat So, it’s been known for a long time that Elton John is an excellent pianist and that he was inspired not only by the boogie-woogie and blues stylings of Long John Baldry, but also by the artistry of American pianists like Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and Leon Russell. “Honky Cat” references that legacy directly with its ‘country boy in the city’ trope (Elton and Bernie would tackle that topic again on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”) and a crisp horn arrangement that pays further tribute to Toussaint.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road “Honky Cat” celebrated the move from country rube to city boy (“the change is gonna do me good”). The singer is joyous and cocky, buoyed by Elton’s Professor Longhair-by-way-of-Leon Russell-inspired New Orleans piano filigree. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is darker, more cynical, and the music is more stately and subdued. The narrator is leaving the city and going back to his roots. There is defeat there, a sense of tearing down and rebuilding, but there is also a declaration of independence: “I’ve finally decided my future lies/beyond the yellow brick road.” For my money, this is one of the best combinations of Taupin’s lyrics together with Elton’s music and his performance of the song.
Grey Seal This is one of those songs where no one, including the writer, knows quite what it means, but it presents some vivid images or it touches us in the right way to have resonance. For me, it’s a song that stuck with me by an artist that I didn’t listen to that closely at the time it was released (the other around this time was Jethro Tull’s “Teacher”). I also love the physical presence of Elton’s piano on this, especially in the churning ending, and the band, now consolidated and heavily contributing to Elton’s overall sound, is magnificent. The Grey Seal joins a variety of slightly psychedelic characters (the White Rabbit, the Nowhere Man) who impart some wisdom to us via a vib-ish song. Originally released as the B side to “Rock and Roll Madonna,” a 1970 single that failed to chart at all, the song was similar, but with a more stately feel and one of those widescreen Paul Buckmaster string arrangements. It’s mellower, and somehow jazzier, probably due to the prominent vibraphone at the end. There’s also a piano demo version of Elton singing the song that shows the song’s strength.
Someone Saved My Life Tonight Elton thinks that this is the best song that he and Bernie Taupin ever wrote, and it’s hard to argue with that, regardless of what your favorites may be. It’s a true set-piece, located at the end of Side One of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, a musical version of Elton and Bernie’s salad days in the music biz, better and more honestly told than Elton’s infomercial biopic Rocketman. This song addresses Elton’s engagement (to a woman) and related suicide attempt in 1968, having been advised by Long John Baldry to break off the engagement rather than destroy his career. And so we have this dramatic end to Act 1 of the story, a real showstopper with prominent piano front and center, the Elton John Band playing and singing perhaps the best they ever had on record. Bernie’s lyrics are incisive and perfect–indeed, this is the lyric that he seems born to have written.
Are You Ready For Love? Between Blue Moves and A Single Man, Elton recorded some sessions with legendary Philadelphia soul producer Thom Bell. The two had conflicts working together and the result was that an album was never completed. In 1979 a 12-inch EP was released that featured only three songs, including a lengthy mix of “Are You Ready For Love?” These tracks were mixed by Elton and Clive Frank, but the version heard here is from the restored album The Complete Thom Bell Sessions, which includes all the material recorded by John and Bell in its original format. That includes vocals from Spinners Bobby Smith and John Edwards, making this one of Elton’s most collaborative efforts, but it was doomed from Elton’s perspective because it wasn’t his material or his group of musicians, and he became part of someone else’s established sound.
Empty Garden Through the years Bernie Taupin has been remarkably frank about which Elton albums turned out worst. 1982’s Jump Up! is one of those near the bottom of the pile according to him: “It’s a terrible, awful, disposable album, but it had ‘Empty Garden’ on it, so it’s worth it for that one song,” he said in a Sirius Radio interview. Elton apparently agreed because he was reportedly reluctant to do a tribute song to his friend John Lennon fearing it would come across as awkward, but when he read Bernie’s lyrics he became enthused about recording the track. It benefits from a straightforward performance by a small band that includes Jeff Porcaro, Richie Zito, Dee Murray, and synthesizer shadings from James Newton Howard. The song has the strength and appeal of early Elton/Bernie songs as well as touches of Phil Spector and what sure seem like a couple of sonic references to “Spanish Harlem.” It’s a fitting tribute to Lennon, whose last live performance was with Elton at Madison Square Garden in 1974.