Countdown to “Rocketman,” Part I: 10 Essential Albums

 

The release of Paramount’s Elton John “musical fantasy” is just a little over a month away. As a huge Elton john fan, I’m trying to be realistic in my expectations for the film. On the one hand, there are promising signs. The producers have said the film will focus on the early years of Elton’s career. That’s good. Not because it is his best musical era. It is certainly the era with all the hits, but I would argue his string of albums from 2001-2016 is on par with the 70s era in terms of quality, if not style. The focus on one era is great because the film may avoid the mistake of trying to cover too much and feeling rushed. It’s a biopic trap that director Dexter Fletcher looks to be avoiding.

Numerous articles have also recently suggested the film will receive an R rating. That’s a good thing because, frankly, can you imagine a PG-13 movie about Elton John? His music isn’t R rated and neither are his concerts, usually, but anyone who has seen Tantrums & Tiaras can tell you that a realistic film about Elton john has to be R rated.

I like the idea that the film is being done as a musical where not just Elton sings and the performances aren’t only in recording studios or at concerts. It’s going to be more like a traditional musical, filled with Elton John hits. I think that’s a wise move considering the formulaic structure and style of another recent rock biopic. Hopefully Fletcher will bring something fresh to the rock history film genre this time.

There are discouraging signs too. Some details have been released regarding Elton’s Troubadour performance, and it really messes with the timeline of Elton and Bernie Taupin’s songwriting. I’ll have more to say on that once I actually see the film. In fact, the purpose of this post was not solely for me to lay out my hopes for Rocketman, but to encourage anyone interested in seeing it who is a newcomer to Elton john’s music or is only familiar with his greatest hits to do some fun prep. There’s only so much a two hour film can cover, and some great tunes will inevitably be left out.

10 ALBUMS YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO FROM START TO FINISH

Elton John 

Unknown.jpeg

Elton’s U.S. debut is best known for the hits “Your Song” and “Border Song.” It would be surprising if either of those are left out of Rocketman, but the album contains many more essential tracks. “Take Me to the Pilot,” for example, has remained a concert staple for nearly five decades. It is currently performed regularly on the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour.

Tumbleweed Connection 

Unknown-4.jpeg

This is a real treasure from the days when it was commonplace for musicians to release more than one album a year (and they were often both very good albums). Though singles from “Elton John” got the chart attention, it’s “Tumbleweed Connection” that really demonstrates the early lyrical and musical genius the songwriting team of Elton and Bernie were capable of. “Burn Down the Mission” is a classic and a concert staple, while “Amoreena” was later used for the opening of Dog Day Afternoon. My personal favorites are “Come Down in Time,” a rare track that doesn’t feature Elton playing the piano and “Talking Old Soldiers,” which is a conversation between two veterans.

11-17-70 or 17-11-70

Unknown-5.jpeg

The album name depends on where in the world you buy the it. The title refers to the date this live album was recorded. It is an intimate radio studio performance in front of a small audience, but the energy level unleashed by Elton, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray is stunning. John has stated the performance was never intended to be released as a live album, but recordings of the broadcast became popular with bootleggers and the studio decided to release select tracks as an album. The complete performance was released as a special Record Store Day album in 2017 titled “17-11-70+.”  Whichever version you find, I think you’ll be impressed.

Madman Across the Water

Unknown-2.jpeg

“Tiny Dancer,” which is probably more popular now than ever, was not a hit in the 1970s, but has been everywhere since it’s memorable appearance in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous (the soundtrack of which also included Elton’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”). My favorite track from the album is the epic and foreboding “Levon,” but the B-side of the album is full of lesser known gospel tinged gems like “Rotten Peaches.” This would be the last of Elton’s stripped-down singer-songwriter style albums for decades, as he assumed the rock n’ roll persona Rocketman will probably focus on with his next album, “Honky Chateau.”

Even though it features the hits “Honky Cat” and “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long, Long Time),” I’ve never been as impressed with “Honky Chateua” as a lot of fans are. It has it’s moments, and if you check out the 10 albums on this list, you might as well give one more a listen, but I’d still rank these 10 higher than it.

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Just the Piano Player

Unknown-6.jpeg

If “Honky Chateau” was an intro to Elton john as rock star, “Don’t Shoot Me” finds him really exploring the possibilities of rock before embarking on the follow up project that would make him a legend.  “Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock” were the big singles, but equally memorable are tracks like the poppy “Teacher I Need You,” the tender “Blues for Baby and Me” and epic ballad “High Flying Bird.” It’s an album that evokes tropes from classic cinema on each track. It’s not quite a concept album, but it fits together almost as well as a pop-culture tour as “Tumbleweed Connection” did as an exploration of Old American West mythology.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Unknown-1

Of course you’ve heard “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets” and the title track, but if you haven’t heard this album in it’s entirety, you’re missing out.

This double album was recorded in one weekend! It opens with the 11 minute mini rock opera “Funeral for A friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” Over the following 70 minutes, Bernie’s lyrics take the listener on a wild ride that features gangsters, prostitutes, glam rockers, addicts, cops, actresses and fighters. The seventeen-track collection is mostly epic, mostly high energy fun. One or two songs haven’t aged well and were probably cringe inducing decades ago (I’m talking about “Jamaica Jerk-Off”).  This is the album that made Elton John a rock legend. He has a few albums I like better, but this one is quite an experience and it’s hard to argue with it’s place in pop/rock lore.

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Unknown-3.jpeg

The lyrics are autobiographical and focus on how Elton and Bernie met and the early years touring small venues and pubs. This was the first album in history to debut at number one on the billboard charts. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was released as a single, but every song works better when heard as part of a chronological story. Recently, artists from Coldplay to American Idol’s Jeremiah Lloyd have covered “We All Fall in Love Sometimes.” I’ll always be partial to Elton’s version, but I’m glad that deeper cuts from this album are re-emerging in our pop culture consciousness. My favorite song on the album is “Tower of Babel,” a metaphorical journey through many of the pubs and parties Elton played in his youth.

Made in England

images-1

Easily the best non-soundtrack album Elton John released in the 1990s and also the most energetic, many of the tracks have a harder, electric guitar infused edge that many of his albums from the 90s and even later 80s are missing. Highlights include the single “Believe” and the title track. “Please” has more of a contemporary country tinge to its sound. Many of the tracks here seem to find Bernie reflecting on the virtues of love at a time when Elton was just beginning his relationship with David Furnish.

Songs From The West Coast

Unknown-7.jpeg

Upon release, this album was touted by critics as the return of 1970s Elton John. It’s not exactly that. There are flourishes of those early singer-songwriter albums throughout, but the themes are explored from a more mature, not quite so romanticized viewpoint. Bernie’s lyrics and Elton’s music are grounded in the realities of aging, of memories, of seeing decades of social progress made but knowing there’s a lot more to be done. The mythology of the early years is gone, replaced with experience and wisdom. It’s a bold step forward lyrically and a fresh new direction for Elton’s music. It may not be 1970s Elton John, exactly, but it is some of his best work.

The Captain and the Kid

images.jpeg

The lowest selling entry on this list, “The Captain and the Kid” is a concept album that works as a sequel to “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” The album opens with “Postcards from Richard Nixon,” which finds Elton and Bernie arriving in America. From there, tracks cover visiting New York City for the first time, suffering through burnout and exhaustion, addiction, losing friends such as John Lennon and Freddie Mercury, and Elton’s decision to get sober. If this seems like a dour proceeding, it’s anything but. Elton achieves the perfect balance in crafting music to retell this story, which isn’t just about him and Bernie but the lives of so many people their work has touched over the years. This is not a singles album, but it is quite rewarding for those who set aside about an hour take the journey. At the end, you’ll probably be left wanting “just one more tale, about the Captain and the Kid.”

I hope you enjoy your musical journey. I’ll have more Elton John related posts up soon, including a few that focus more on film and one that looks at some really great songs that aren’t on the albums listed above. And of course, look for our review of Rocketman late next month.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s