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100 Albums: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Elton John
Title: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Released: 1973
Genre: classic piano-pop rock


Released at the height of his stardom in 1973, recorded on a farm in France, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a monster record. Though the CD manages to fit the entire album on a single disc, it was originally released as a double-LP. Bennie And The Jets, Candle In The Wind, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting are to this day staples of classic rock radio.

For me, this was a car album. I grew up in Houston, but my extended family lived in St. Louis, so every summer we would pile into the van and make the seventeen-hour drive between the two cities (it's shorter now that they've raised the speed limits to 70 on the highways) with a box of tapes that my dad had made of his records--all of them immaculately lettered in calligraphy because that's how Dad writes. He doesn't print. He calligraphs. I'm so used to that version of the album that I instinctively anticipate the moment where the record skips at the start of the second chorus of the title track. I would run out of steam somewhere after Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting, which the album kind of does as well. But still, this was not just a record that I listened to a lot, it was formative for me. After growing up on fare like this, a lot of "normal" rock records start to feel pretty pedestrian.

Because like much of John's oeuvre, it's an odd duck of a record. The recording process was basically thus: Bernie Taupin would write poetry and then give it to John over breakfast. John would spend the morning turning poetry into a song on the piano and then in the afternoon the rest of the band would sort out the arrangements and lay it all down on tape. But Taupin doesn't write straight-forward love songs. He tells stories. So you have an ode to Marylyn Monroe (Candle In The Wind), a song about finding fame after growing up on a farm (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road--and it's worth pointing out that this is pure Taupin; Elton John was a city boy), abstract nonsense (This Song's Got No Title), an obituary for a fictional Prohibition-era gangster (The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34)), a song about lesbians in Catholic school (All The Girls Love Alice), an ode to silver-screen cowboys (Roy Rogers), a faux-live performance of a song about a rock band that doesn't actually exist (Bennie And The Jets), a pulpy noir dirge (I've Seen That Movie Too), and so forth. And all of this is set to John's bouncy, poppy melodies. It takes a certain type of character to sing a two-tone-flavored song called Jamaica Jerk-Off with earnestness, and that character is Sir Elton Hercules John.

Further Listening: John's catalog is substantial, so it may be easier to start with one of the several greatest hits collections he's put out. But if you want another album, Madman Across The Water is worth a listen. It drags a bit on the second half, but it's the album that gave us Tiny Dancer, John's most popular song, and also the only song that is over six minutes long and also acceptable to perform at karaoke. That album also has Levon and Goodbye, which are excellent songs. It kicked off a string of records that would produce John's most memorable hits: Honky Cat and Rocket Man from the follow-up Honky Château and Crocodile Rock and Daniel from Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player.

Also, the BBC Documentary series Classic Albums did an episode on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which is worth watching, if notably shorter than the record it details.

Comments

Kathy Schrenk said…
"the only song that is over six minutes long and also acceptable to perform at karaoke."
Lolz
Kathy Schrenk said…
Also: tapes! Now I'm wondering what my dad would have chosen to listen to on road trips if there had been a tape player in the station wagon. Instead he listened to his usual easy-listening station until we got too far away from Chicago for it to come in. Then he would scan through the stations and once in a while stop on a power ballad and I would get to think, "oh thank god, one decent song." Which is why I still sigh ecstatically when I hear "The Flame" by Cheap Trick. The summer road trip in '88 was an extra long one.

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