While reading One Way Out a really strong, engaging oral history of The Allman Brothers Band, I began thinking about all the great music I grew up with, and how so much of it is now being relegated to fading memory. I believe it deserves more, so I am going to revisit these albums, and write my impressions, share the memories they conjure, and I hope they spark renewed interest in the music and stir up your memories of when and where you were when you heard this great art. Please feel free to share those memories and your impressions of the music here. Let’s keep our love for the work of these great artists.
Elton John just put out a completely remastered, super-deluxe boxed set version of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Is there another album that deserves such lush treatment as much as this one? I doubt it.
A double album so stocked with hits that more than a half dozen songs still have life on classic rock radio formats, including “Candle in The Wind” which has been a top hit on the charts in three successive decades, and arguably, it isn’t even the best song in this amazing collection.
Beyond the hits, I suspect there is a strong reason why this album continues to be such a masterpiece; it represents the 70’s so well as to, from the distance of 40 years now, stand as an accurate artifact representing the decade that birthed it. The population of Goodbye a Yellow a Brick Road is decadent, indulgent, self-centered, and, very often, dead. The body count of this album is pretty astounding for such a lush, happy-sounding disc. Glorious, exciting, inventive, adventurous, self-distructive, fatal, and full of love, that pretty much sums up the album … and the era.
The remaster offers the most fantastic versions I have ever heard of these songs. Incredible job, opening new depths and details, and pulling the listener in like the first time this album was put on turntables. Hard to do in the often cold sounding digital age.
Let’s start with “Funeral for A Friend” which, of course, opens the album with wind and eerie howls and ominous church bells, then organ. Where’s Vincent Price when you need him? Sumptuous and gothic, the opening suggests nothing about what is to come, but is a perfect opening any way, especially once the synthesizer-created horns blare. The piano actually ushers us in, accompanied by a moaning guitar, and we do seem to be walking down the aisle of a church to a funeral, complete with bluesy lead guitar lines. Who are we mourning? The 60’s? The 70’s? The characters in this album’s world? Ourselves? Is this whole collection a eulogy? Then the crackling main melody starts and we take off. The joy rises like the end of a New Orleans funeral (sans that region’s jazzy swing). Drama continues to build, it start sounding like a Hollywood soundtrack. And then…
We’re into “Love Lies Bleeding” and we begin the impossible uptempo singing and music under incredibly downbeat lyrics that defines this project. “Everything about this house was born to grow and die.” And throughout this opus, almost everything does. Simultaneously, love is everywhere on this album. “You’re a bluebird on a telegraph line, I hope you’re happy now. Well, if the wind of change comes down your way, you’ll make it back somehow.” An odd, downbeat hope, and well wishing to the listener while “love lies bleeding in my hand.” These two songs, instrumental and rocker, actually offer a pretty honest blueprint for what’s to come.
“Candle in the Wind” is so well known it is hard to say something new, so I won’t. But this remastering puts you right in the 22nd row alongside Bernie Taupin and Elton John himself, and from a perspective of four decades later, this ode to Marilyn and fame sounds more fatally beautiful than ever. The lush backing vocals really shine here, too. Regret and loss and love and immortality; we’ll see these themes throughout.
From one tragic woman to another, we join the applause for “Benny and the Jets”. The memorabilia-loaded hard bound book that comes in the boxed set includes an essay that identifies this eponymous band as being all-girl, which I never realized. We learn something new every day. This song brings me back to Tony’s candy store in the Bronx, and Creem, Rock Scene, Circus, Circus Raves, Hit Parade, and Rolling Stone magazines (yeah, I read a lot growing up), and the big playground during the summer, when this song eased out of Kevin Haran’s various portable cassette players, his homemade cassette versions of this album adorned with art and graffiti-style labeling.
His art lingers around for “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” as well. This song is so gloriously melancholy, I wonder how it didn’t wreck the feel of the album. But it doesn’t, I suspect, because there is a validation, a triumph in the singer’s declaration of freedom from his victimizer. I often thought of this song as the speaker breaking away from Hollywood, or fame, or riches, to a simpler freedom, in his case, a farm, a more down to earth reality. After Marilyn and Bennie, that’s a triumph.
“This Song Has No Title” harkins back to Elton john’s earlier albums, earlier song writing, but with a much more extravagant arrangement. Here again, death reigns, the artists die and the singer does “cry for the darkness to come down on me” but at the same time there is hope- “if we’re all going somewhere, let’s get there soon”. Does he mean a party, an artistic event, heaven? We never find out.
“Grey Seal” is another mix of the old and the new. I was surprised to learn this was a re-recording because it fits so well here. Another mix of loss and hope, of reality and fantasy, real life and screen life, interior declarations and appeals to the spiritual – “tell me Grey Seal how does it feel to be so wise?” The great instrumental coda may be the only answer we get to that question but it is a damn good one.
I never understood what “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is doing on this album. It fits, but barely, ages more poorly than all the other songs, and is strewn with racial stereotyping. That beat kills, though. Doesn’t forgive the goofy-ass background mugging. And yes, it can be argued to be a love song to Jamaica, but, the island Amos and Andy voices are embarrassing.
Next we hit a streak of hidden treasures, songs that should have been huge hits in addition to all the others off this classic. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is lush, bluesy, devastating, cinematic and intimate, a truly great break-up song. My little twelve-year-old ass used to sing my heart out to this one in complete ignorance of what was really being said, the emotions here are that strong. The remastering only brings out the bitter triumph of this kiss off more gorgeously, right down to the heart-rending backwards guitar solo.
“Sweet Painted Lady” is a sailor’s ode to a hooker, a broken, debauched love song from the heart to one who doesn’t love. What a wonderful, singable sexist anthem, which continues that theme of joyous negativity that seems so Seventies. “Getting paid for being laid, I guess that’s the name of the game.” “Love’s just a job and nothing is said.” It sounds so cold but is sung so warmly. I have read about how cold and self-centered this decade was, but I didn’t experience it that way. I was a kid just discovering everything, and it was amazing, especially the avalanche of music is dived under. To me this was a love song (it was awhile before the whole hooker angle really sunk in, ahhhh, youth).
Back to the movies for another great song. “The Ballad of Danny Bailey” is pure narrative, melodious noir, bouncy obit. Lush backing vocals supporting a gangster shoot out. A prohibition tale told like an old Cagney movie. Glorious chorus as the body count rises once more.
Sexism raises its problematic head again for “Dirty Little Girl” but then again, this is a 70’s album. The problem here is that the hook and the energy of the performance make this song so much fun. The lyrics won’t fly these days, but roll up the car windows and sing at the top of your lungs, you know you want to. Just tell yourself this is about one person, not a gender. “Here’s my belief about all the dirty girls…” Damn. …. The song stands up as another hidden gem despite the sexism. And I do still find myself singing along with enthusiasm. Mea culpa, mea culpa.
Perhaps the most glorious of this string of hidden gems is “All The Girls Love Alice”, the devastating tale of the doomed little lost lesbian sex toy for suburban housewives. Yeah, that was a lot for a young kid to digest. “Poor little darling with a chip out of her heart, It’s like acting in a movie when you got the wrong part. Getting your kicks in another girl’s bed, and it was only last Tuesday when they found you in the subway dead…” Alice’s tale of being used to ease boredom is told to a driving, tense, dramatic beat, an urban thriller soundtrack. Another celluloid tragedy on an album full of them. The car crash ending just underscores the devastation here.
And we’re still not done!
We do get a break, though. A bit of Shakespearean comic relief. “Your Sister Can’t Dance (But She Can Rock’N’Roll)” is an Elvis movie, if the King was playing a pedophile. There is no mistaking the lighthearted lust for the sixteen year old that the singer is experiencing. There is no menace, but plenty of desire which may suggest why the next song follows right on its heels.
“Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” sounds like it is sung from the perspective of the previous song’s friend. This one talks about his own sister “looking good in her braces and boots, a handful of grease in her hair”. All this guy wants is another drink “I’m a juvenile product of the working class whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass” and maybe a fight. Rocking, hard edged, this remains an anthem of stupidity from the same mentality that narrated “My Generation” and may be a flashback from the narrator of the next song.
“Roy Rogers” slows us down, ages us, and we meet an older guy, living in suburbia, and just wanting to watch an old cowboy flick on TV while the wife and kids sleep. Is this what awaits the tough guy if he survives all his Saturday night fighting? Or is it us? Forty years on, many of us are sitting in our comfy chairs and Elton is our evergreen hero on this LP. Oddly sweet, this song means more to me now than it did then, and has become another jewel. Love the hoof beats and cows at the end, too.
“Social Disease” with its country sound and out of kilter narrator has always been problematic for me, but I have a take on it now. This guy represents the others, the ones who didn’t wind up watching comfort television like Roy Rogers, and didn’t find themselves among the body count. This guy is one of those who bought into the debauchery (listen to that sax sounding like the first season or so of Saturday Night Live) and got stuck there. He’s a casualty of the Seventies, still living there, still rocking. Still lost.
And, improbably, it all ends on a love song. But “Harmony” is not a happy ending. This song, too, is bitter, or bittersweet- “Hello, I said hello, Is this the only place you thought to go, Am I the only man you ever had, Or am I just the last surviving friend you know?” And it sounds more and more like Elton’s love-lost ode to the era that saw him at his best. “Harmony and me were pretty good company, looking for an island upon the sea, Harmony, gee, I really love you, and want to love you for ever. I dream of never, never, never leaving Harmony.” With this remaster, it sounds like he never did.
For all it’s contradictions, or because of them, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road continues to be among the very best of the incredibly rich era of classic albums. This fortieth anniversary remaster honors it well.