I was thinking of doing an Elton John six-pack and started going through his earlier albums looking for good stuff. I got as far as Tumbleweed Connection and said, Oh I like that tune, and oh yeah, I forgot that one. Remembered all the words though so I happily sang in the car, doubtless to the delight of my fellow commuters. Most of them tailgate me so closely why I’m sure they could just sing along!
Before there was Elton John there was a bloke from London named Reginald Kenneth Dwight. LIke his countryman Pete Townshend, his parents were musical, his father having played trumpet in big bands. (Not sure what his mother’s musical background was.)
Reg started playing piano at the tender age of 3 and by the time Elvis Presley and Bill Haley came along, he was hooked on rock and roll. At the age of 11, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. At age 15 he became a piano man, playing standards in pubs.
In 1962 he formed a band called Bluesology and like every single living human being in London in 1962, played tunes by Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim. For a while, they also backed visiting American artists such as the Isley Brothers. They were asked to join singer John Baldry and did that until 1967 when Reg met songwriter Bernie Taupin. (Reg had by now changed his name to Elton John, Elton for bandmate Elton Dean*, John for John Baldry.)
Elton had answered an ad in New Musical Express looking for songwriters. The A&R manager handed Elton a packet of lyrics, asking if he could put music to them. He could and did and thus was the partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin born. (For the uninitiated, John writes zero lyrics. All the lyrics you hear him sing are Bernie’s – at least through the late Seventies – – and he never, or rarely, changes them.) They spent a couple of years as staff songwriters till deciding to write music they really card about
Elton released his first solo album Empty Sky in 1969 in the UK and it promptly sank like a stone. They survived that and in 1970, released Elton John which, with “Your Song,” put John/Taupin on the map and began a great run of albums. I listened to this album which I always dug but found it wildly overproduced and sometimes pretentious. Some of the numbers wouldn’t be out of place in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Oddly it was intended more like a bunch of demos for other artists to sing rather than as Elton’s big moment.
Tumbleweed Connection is quite a bit more of a rock album, more earthy and, I think, just plain better. AllMusic says, “Instead of repeating the formula that made Elton John a success, John and Bernie Taupin attempted their most ambitious record to date for the follow-up to their breakthrough.
A loose concept album about the American West, Tumbleweed Connection emphasized the pretensions that always lay beneath their songcraft. As should be expected for a concept album about the Wild West, the music draws from country and blues in equal measures.”
So let’s get to it, shall we? “Son of Your Father,” has a nice gospel-y feel. I haven’t heard this song in years and years and totally nailed the chorus. You should have heard me. I was great:
You’re the son of your father
Try a little bit harder
Do for me as he would do for you
With blood and water bricks and mortar
He built for you a home
You’re the son of your father
So treat me as your own
There is a Deluxe Edition of this album which seems to mostly consist of not only the original album but also earlier demos of the songs. The demos are remarkably polished and there is one that caught my ear, if you ;will. It’s the song “Come Down in Time,” and it’s just Elton with his piano. A beautiful song:
Come down in time I still hear her say
So clear in my ear like it was today
Come down in time was the message she gave
Come down in time and I’ll meet you half way
Going into that country theme – although this is hardly a country album – there is a nice tune called “Country Comfort.” Rod Stewart** released a version of this song (with slightly different lyrics) on his terrific Gasoline Alley album some four or five months prior to Elton’s album. This is a nice, lilting sing-along tune:
There’s a minor story around the song “Amoreena.” It’s a love song to a girl (are they lovers? friends?). Taupin suggested the unlikely name to their manager whose wife was pregnant. And yes, they did name her Amoreena but later the guys fell out with their manager and the girl never had a relationship with her godfather Reg:
For our last groovy tune, I submit the song “Burn Down the Mission,” which – near as I can tell – is the story of a failed revolutionary. Of this tune, Wikipedia says, “This is one of the most musically complicated works of John’s career. The key changes four times before returning to the original opening chord sequence at the half-way mark. John cited Laura Nyro as an influence on, among others, [the] unusual structure and rhythm changes of this song in particular.”
*Saxophonist Dean later joined prog-rock band Soft Machine.
**Prior to Elton joining up with Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart had been in a band with Baldry called Steampacket (along with Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger.) Rod (the mod) and Elton later became good (and sometimes bitchy) mates. Rod thinks that Elton’s “farewell tour” is nothing but a cash grab which I imagine occurred to him while kicking a soccer ball around one of his mansions.