It may seem strange now, but for those of us who grew up in the 80s Elton John was a joke, the furthest thing from a respectable musician. I guess one of the moments when you realised you had grown up was when you decided to forget your prejudices, listened to his records from the 70s and discovered that the guy had (a lot of) talent. If you forgot about the laughing glasses, the quirky models or that he once did Sacrifice or Nikita, you found yourself with a great pop-songwriter with a huge hook for melodies and explosive choruses. Here are ten perfect songs to get a taste of his period of splendour between 1970 and 1976.
10. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
A totally autobiographical song and album, Elton John is Captain Fantastic and his inseparable lyricist Bernie Taupin is the Brown Dirt Cowboy of the song. It was possibly John's last great album and is also his favourite of his entire career. It opened with this great song brightened by John's Fender Rhodes and coloured by one of his closest collaborators, his guitarist Davey Johnstone, who here does a bit of everything, plays acoustic, mandolin and also throws in his beloved Les Paul. It's only natural that when they celebrated the 30th anniversary of John's career, Johnstone decided to have one of his Les Pauls painted with the cover artwork for this album.
9. Honky Cat
Elton John's piano smokes on this song in which he looks directly to one of his greatest influences, the great New Orleans pianist Dr. John. The excellent horn arrangement helps to give it the Creole city flavour and Johnstone once again demonstrates his versatility by playing the banjo on this occasion.
8. The Bitch Is Back
Maxine Feibelman, Taupin's wife in the early 70s, used to tell her husband "the bitch is back" whenever the singer was in a bad mood or unhappy. The lyricist told this amusingly to his friend, who, instead of taking it badly, took it as a compliment, deciding that there was a song in it. He would later add, "it's kind of my theme song", something Dexter Fletcher, the director of Rocketman, the 'biopic' about John, which opened with this song, serving as an introduction to the main character, must have agreed with. It is one of the most rocking songs of his career, with a great opening riff by Johnstone.
7. Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)
His speciality may have been "piano ballads for dead blondes", in Keith Richards' words, but Elton John was also very capable of writing energetic rock numbers. Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting), the lead single from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, is the best example of this and features the faithful Johnstone on guitars, aiming for a sound close to that of the Who, another of John's favourite bands. It seems that they succeeded because Pete Townshend's band chose this song as a cover version for their participation on Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin, the tribute album to John that appeared in 1991.
6. Bennie And The Jets
This is undoubtedly one of the most out-of-the-ordinary songs in John's catalogue, a song that opens to the audience's applause and gives way to a strange tempo, punctuated by our protagonist's piano. The lyrics are a sort of less accomplished cover of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, but the music is wonderful, with John on top form vocally, those falsettos, plus a big piano that gives the song a theatrical feel. Although John didn't see it as single, it was released as the last claim of the famous Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - and climbed to the top of the Billboard charts.
5. Madman Across The Water (with Mick Ronson)
This song would end up as the title track for John's fourth studio album but the version I like best is the one he recorded a year earlier during the Tumbleweed Connection sessions. One of the records John had liked best was Michael Chapman's Fully Qualified Survivor, a record with string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster and the incredible sound of Mick Ronson's Les Paul, even before his union with David Bowie. Impressed by the guitarist John called him into the studio and together they recorded this wonderful song to which Ronno gave all the flavour of his guitar. Maybe even too much, as some people close to John told him that the guitarist's work overshadowed him, so, in the end, this version was not released and Elton John ended up re-recording it, with a string arrangement by Buckmaster, in 1971. I still think the superior version is Ronson's (which would finally see the light of day in 1992), but both are among the best John ever recorded.
4. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The title track of Elton John's most famous album contains one of his best choruses, as well as being one of the most brilliant of his career, but its lyrics are much closer to Taupin than to John. The lyricist was beginning to tire of the "sex, drugs and rock & roll" life and was considering taking a step back. Using the first film he could remember, The Wizard of Oz, he decided to use its theme as inspiration and leave the yellow brick road (life on the road) behind and return to the farm.
3. Tiny Dancer
The opening track of Madman Across the Water was never released as a single despite being one of the best songs of his career. However, since its iconic inclusion in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous its status has only grown, and for many fans it is the song that best defines John. The track opened with just his piano and voice, describing a girl who was none other than Maxine Feibelman, who was to become Taupin's wife. Gradually he is joined by instruments, first BJ Cole's pedal steel, then Roger Pope's drums and David Glover's bass, plus Johnstone's acoustic, a chorus of vocals and the wonderful string arrangement by the pivotal Buckmaster that gives it the final push.
2. Rocket Man
If Bennie And The Jets was John’s Ziggy Stardust then this song, the title track of his hit 'biopic', was his Space Oddity, the story of another astronaut like Major Tom that features what may be the most glorious chorus of his entire career. It was also the lead single from what is my favourite album of his whole career, Honky Château, released in 1972.
1. Your Song
The songwriting pairing of Elton John and Bernie Taupin is extremely curious, and not because it's unusual to have one guy writing the lyrics and another writing the music, but because the order is usually the reverse - that is, usually first the musician comes up with some chords and a melody and then the lyricist writes some words to go with them. In the case of John and Taupin this is not the case, it is the lyricist who writes the words and John who brings them to life with his music. There is no more perfect example of this than their first successful collaboration, the song that gave them a career. Read aloud Taupin's words in Your Song and they may sound utterly cheesy but when you couple them with John's melody and add the strength of his vocal performance they seem like the loveliest thing ever.