At his commercial peak, Elton John was responsible for 5% of all record sales worldwide. Why? Because his music is just that awesome.
Empty Sky (1969)
- Elton has described "Skyline Pigeon" as the first song he co-wrote with Bernie Taupin about which they were genuinely excited. Taupin's lyrics, in which the pigeon is a metaphor for someone who feels trapped in a collapsing marriage (hence the reference to a "metal ring") and wants to break free and take flight, are given a straightforward vocal delivery, with Elton playing the only backing instruments (harpsichord, piano, and organ). In 1972, Elton re-recorded the song with his usual collaborators - drummer Nigel Olsson, orchestrator Paul Buckmaster, bassist Dee Murray, and guitarist Davey Johnstonenote - as the B-side to "Daniel", giving the track new life in a first-class arrangement closer to his signature style.
Elton John (1970)
- "Your Song" marks the beginning of Elton's rise to superstardom, and it sticks in the listener's mind from the instantly familiar opening piano riff. Bernie Taupin's lyrics convey a palpable sense of hesitant hope that the song will be well-received by its intended object, and Elton's performance on vocals and piano are a perfect match for them, cementing them as one of popular music's great songwriting duos.And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple, but now that it's done
I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you're in the world
- Taupin's lyrics for "Border Song" were born from the alienation he was feeling in London and his desire to return home; Elton pairs them with a tune and vocal performance that pay homage to his keen interest in American soul music, complete with full choir belting out "Ho-ly Mo-ses!" at the end of the second and third verse which, coupled with the denser orchestration for these passages and the bridge, gives the song just the right amount of gravitas.
Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
- "Come Down in Time" uses a harp and guitar harmonics in place of piano to back Elton's sincere delivery of Taupin's lyrics about a man going to an agreed-upon meeting with his girlfriend, but finding himself wondering if she'll stand him up and leave him "counting the stars in the night". Paul Buckmaster's string score and Karl Jenkins on oboe further enhance the atmosphere of uncertainty, especially when the song appears to end halfway through a verse.
- Elton closes his album-long tribute to themes from country music with the all-stops-pulled-out, six-and-a-half-minute epic "Burn Down the Mission". Taupin's lyrics tell the story of a man in a poor community who decides to rise up against the rich people grinding them down... only to be captured and taken off to an uncertain fate. Elton himself is in absolutely top-notch form on both piano and vocals, while the melody passes through multiple keys and suddenly takes off in intensity in the instrumental bridge to make the listener feel the struggle the protagonist is going through.
Madman Across the Water (1971)
- Taupin was inspired to write "Tiny Dancer" after touring California with Elton and meeting women unlike any he knew back in England, most notably his future first wife, Maxine Feibelman. Elton sets the lyrics to a complex yet mesmerisingly beautiful musical arrangement, in which his voice and piano are accompanied by pedal steel guitar, strings, and choir. Though the length (over six minutes) and lack of catchy hooks meant the song was slow to catch on when it was initially released, it deservedly ranks as one of his most popular today.
- The enigmatic protagonist of "Levon" is one of Taupin's most fascinating creations, a balloon "magnate" who is proud of his war wound and named his son Jesus simply because he likes the name; Jesus, meanwhile, longs for a more exciting life than the one he has in his father's business. Elton's soulful rendition of the words really brings the character of Levon to life, and the tune is well-matched by a string score and the everpresent piano.
- "Madman Across the Water" matches lyrics about a ranting lunatic during visiting hours at an asylum (Taupin was amused by persistent rumours that he specifically had Richard Nixon in mind) with a string score by Paul Buckmaster, percussion by Ray Cooper (marking the beginning of a long working relationship with Elton), organ by a pre-Yes Rick Wakeman, electric guitar by Chris Spedding, and acoustic guitar by Davey Johnstone, all of them providing a suitably sharp and dramatic backing for the angsty vocals and piano of Elton himself.We'll come again next Thursday afternoon
The in-laws hope they'll see you very soon
But is it in your conscience that you're after
Another glimpse of the madman across the water?
Honky Château (1972)
- Elton's love for the musical traditions of New Orleans comes to the fore in "Honky Cat", with jazzy piano punctuated by organ countermelodies (expanding to a brass section as the song develops) providing an energetic complement to Taupin's lyrics about a country boy who has gone to the bright lights of New Orleans in search of answers, in spite of his family telling him that such a journey will end badly and that he should stay on the farm.
- "Rocket Man (I Think It's Gonna Be a Long, Long Time)" takes a more bleak view of the life of an astronaut; yes, he may be soaring off into space, but he's lonely and longs for the life he left behind and the loved ones he won't see for months. Elton's rendition of Taupin's lyrics brings out the tragedy of the spacefarer's situation as he laments the "long, long time" during which he's "burning up his fuse out here alone".
- Taupin was inspired to write "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" when, on his first visit to New York City, he heard a gunshot outside his hotel window. Though this anecdote may suggest the song gives a kicking to The Big Rotten Apple, not least when its first verse breaks apart the lyric "There's a rose in Spanish Harlem" from Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector's "Spanish Harlem", it develops into a celebration of what makes New York and its people special in spite of the grime and crime plaguing the city. The instrumental score focuses almost entirely on Spanish guitar and Elton's piano, making for one of his most direct songs.
Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973)
- The album opens with the Ivor Novello award-winning "Daniel", a solemn track in which the singer expresses admiration for an older brother who has gone blind but is flying to Spain; Taupin was inspired by stories he had read of Vietnam veterans who were hailed as heroes by their hometowns and families but who just wanted to get away and return to their previous lives in spite of the changes they had undergone.note Elton gives a heartfelt performance on vocals, and the usual piano is replaced by an electric keyboard and Mellotron to create a more gentle atmosphere.
- "Crocodile Rock" is a musical love letter to the heady early days of rock and roll, its title paying tribute to Australian band Daddy Cool's "Eagle Rock" and the lyrics and melody referencing "Let's Dance" as performed by Chris Montez, "Rock Around the Clock" as performed by Bill Haley and His Comets, and "Speedy Gonzales" as performed by Pat Boone.note The vocals (particularly the "La-la-la-la-la" refrain) and piano/Farfisa organ accompaniment are so catchy that you might find your own feet "just can't keep still".
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
- The album widely regarded as Elton's greatest opens with the eleven-minute epic "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding". The instrumental "Funeral for a Friend" was Elton's answer to the self-posed question "What sort of music would I like to be played at my funeral?", and recording engineer David Hentschel's performance on ARP synthesiser - overdubbed in multiple layers - meshes with Elton's piano to create something truly otherworldly. After about five minutes, the synthesiser is replaced with electric guitar for "Love Lies Bleeding", the lyrics for which continue the death imagery of "Funeral for a Friend" as the singer tells his ex-girlfriend that it "kills me to think of you with another man" as "love lies bleeding in my hand".
- After hearing Janis Joplin described as "a candle in the wind", Bernie Taupin was inspired to write a song ostensibly inspired by Marilyn Monroe, but more generally about famous performers who were ruthlessly exploited until their premature deaths. The result was "Candle in the Wind", featuring a vocal performance in which the admiration and grief for the song's subject comes through in every note.
- Just one chord is all it takes for many listeners to recognise "Bennie and the Jets", a satire of the excesses of early 1970s rock and the press that covered it.note Taupin's lyrics paint a vivid picture of the girls in the band - Candy, Ronnie, and Bennie herself - and Elton's no-holds-barred performance on vocals and especially piano, particularly in the fadeout, elevates them to the next level, as overdubbed crowd noises create a sense that we are actually watching Bennie and the Jets live in concert for ourselves.Oh Candy and Ronnie, have you seen them yet
Oh, but they're so spaced out
B-B-B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets...
Oh, but they're weird and they're wonderful
Oh Bennie, she's really keen
She's got electric boots, a mohair suit
You know I read it in a magazi-ine, ohh...
B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets!
- "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" forms an interesting counterpoint to "Honky Cat" from the previous year, as Taupin's lyrics paint a picture of a country boy who has grown disillusioned with the city life he has led as the plaything of a rich socialite, and who has decided to go back to the simple life he led before. As in all of their greatest collaborations, Elton is on fine form on both vocals and piano to make us feel for the protagonist, who has finally realised just how misled and used he has been all these years, and how he should have listened to his "old man" when he tried to warn him against following the "yellow brick road".
- The hard-rocking "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" stands apart from Elton's usual output by putting electric guitars front and centre, and the man himself gives a positively adrenaline-charged rendition of Taupin's testosterone-poisoned lyrics paying tribute to youthful anger of the early years of rock and roll, the singer hell-bent on spending his Saturday "getting a little action in" by getting good and drunk and then getting in a fight.
- The album races out of the gate with the electric rocker "The Bitch is Back", its title coming from Taupin's wife Maxine's preferred quip whenever Elton was in a bad mood. Elton saw the funny side of the lyrics and effectively adopted the song as a personal theme tune, unafraid to hide his temperamental, confrontational side (even when sober).
- The plaintive "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" sees Taupin writing from the perspective of someone who has helped a friend, only to be repaid with rejection. Elton's vocals and piano go even further toward conveying the feelings of hurt and need, especially in the refrain:Don't let the sun go down on me
Although I search myself, it's always someone else I see
I'd just allow a fragment of your life to wander free
But losing everything is like the sun going down on me...
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
- "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is one of Elton's most intensely personal songs, a setting of lyrics in which Taupin describes an incident in 1968 when Long John Baldry - the "someone" in the title - found Elton, who felt trapped in his life and relationship, with his head in the gas oven (although with the window open) and talked him into turning his life around by ending his engagement and finding solace in his friends and musical career. The vocals make us feel every bit of Elton's journey from life-crushing despair to unending gratitude toward the person who pulled him back from the edge.
Rock of the Westies (1976)
- "Island Girl" is something of a forgotten commercial success for Elton, which is a shame, as Taupin's lyrics about a Jamaican prostitute in New York and the man who wants to take her away from the life into which she has fallen are superbly complemented by a sound that blends aspects of Caribbean and gospel music, with distorted slide guitar, marimba, and a synthesiser solo by a young James Newton Howard.
Blue Moves (1976)
- Though a growing sense of burnout and frustration for both Elton and Bernie is evident throughout Blue Moves, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" remains a classic, with lyrics lamenting the breakdown of a romantic relationship in which the participants seem unable to find the strength to apologise for their roles in the breakdown, dooming any attempt at reconciliation.note The solemn vocals and orchestration only add to the sense that this is truly "a sad, sad situation, and it's getting more and more absurd".
A Single Man (1978)
- The largely instrumental "Song for Guy" received its title when Elton learned that on the same day he finished composing the track, 17-year-old Rocket Records message boy Guy Burchett had been killed in a motorcycle accident. As Elton was already obsessing over his own death at the time, he decided to make the piece a tribute to the late Burchett, and the layered keyboards, drum machine, and bass guitar add up to a touching memorial, punctuated near the end by the only words: "Life isn't everything, isn't everything, isn't everything..."
21 at 33 (1980)
- "Little Jeannie" is one of Elton's most commercially successful tracks not to be co-written with Bernie Taupin; instead, Elton teamed up with Gary Osborne to write this upbeat love ballad. With its lively vocals, electric piano, and a brass score punctuated with a saxophone solo in the instrumental bridge, it's not hard to see why audiences have always liked it.
Jump Up! (1982)
- The slow ballad "Blue Eyes" marks another stellar collaboration between Elton and Gary Osborne, its lyrics paying tribute to the singer's lover's... well, the clue is in the title. Elton is in top form on vocals, and the mellow keyboard and string score provide the ideal instrumental backing to the tonally complex melody (with different keys for the verses, chorus, and instrumental bridge/coda).
Too Low for Zero (1983)
- "I'm Still Standing" is an outstanding anthem of defiance, Taupin's lyrics asserting that everything the object of the song may have done to knock the singer down has done nothing to dent their self-respect, and Elton's electrifying vocal performance lets us know that despite everything that has befallen him over the years, he's "still standing better than [he] ever did."
- "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues"... what's that? Why do they call it the blues? The song doesn't really answer that question, but who cares? Elton gives a top drawer performance on vocals and piano as he sings Taupin's lyrics about a man who has to leave his girlfriend (in the video, because he's been called up for National Service) but who promises to return to her. Bonus points for a harmonica solo in the instrumental bridge by Stevie Wonder.note
Breaking Hearts (1984)
- "Sad Songs (Say So Much)"... and Elton should know, as he's written enough of them over the years. As Taupin's lyrics attest, sometimes, when we're feeling down, rather than forcing ourselves to feel happy by listening to upbeat music, we can find more solace in sad songs to which we can more closely relate. Elton's vocal performance makes it clear how much he believes that, far from dragging people further down, sad songs can have the power to heal a broken heart.
Ice on Fire (1985)
- Taupin's lyrics for the Cold War-set love story "Nikita" see the singer lamenting his hopeless crush on an East German border guard, with eyes described as "like ice on fire". The synthesiser solo in the instrumental bridge is one of Elton's finest of the 1980s, while George Michael and Nik Kershaw make guest appearances on backing vocals for added awesome.
Reg Strikes Back (1988)
- The anguished "doomed relationship" ballad "I Don't Wanna Go on with You Like That" was Elton's biggest American commercial success of the decade, boasting lyrics by Taupin about the singer feeling unimportant to his partner (who has developed a roving eye and heart), backing vocals by Elton's long-time touring bandmates Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray,note and Nigel Olsson, and a suitably tense performance on lead vocals and digital keyboard by the man himself.
Sleeping with the Past (1989)
- The high point of Elton's last album of the 1980s is the soulful "Sacrifice", which he and Taupin regarded as a "bookend" to "Your Song" from nearly two decades earlier. The lyrics see the singer feeling philosophical about the breakdown of a relationship that has run its course, thinking its ending is "no sacrifice at all", and facing the future with the belief that life can and will go on.
- John Lennon often described Elton's 1974 cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" as superior to The Beatles' original, and with an arrangement that makes the imagery described in the song feel even more bizarre and otherworldly, it's not hard to see why he was so fond of it.
- Of all the covers included in the soundtrack for the 1975 film version of The Who's Tommy, Elton's rendition of "Pinball Wizard" remains one of the most popular, as he makes the song his own by replacing the guitar riff from the original with a piano riff, and adds an instrumental version of "I Can't Explain" to the end of the song, all adding up to a first class tribute to Pete Townshend for encouraging him in the early years of his career. It remains the only cover of a song by the Who to reach the Top 10.note
- "Philadelphia Freedom" doubles as a tribute to the tennis team of the same name headed by Billie Jean King and a love letter to the Philadelphia music scene. To capture the latter, Elton forgoes his usual piano in favour of a string and horn arrangement similar to those made famous by such artists as Barry White (to the point of featuring an orchestration by White's usual arranger, Gene Page) and the MFSB session band (who liked the song so much they recorded a cover version).
- "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", the Ivor Novello award-winning duet Elton recorded with Kiki Dee in 1976, is a startling ray of sunlight amid the otherwise pessimistic songs Elton and Bernie were writing at the time. Throughout, the two singers affirm their devotion to each other and optimism for the future, with Kiki assuring Elton that she will not, indeed, go breaking his heart. Elton's piano and his usual session musicians, including Ray Cooper on percussion and Davey Johnstone on guitar, are in fine form throughout.