#TBT - Elton John’s Magnum Opus, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Released 44 Years Ago Today
One of the albums that I grew up listening to, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, is a master class on how to experiment with sound while still maintaining a specific sound. For a mainstream pop artist, this is almost paramount in order to maintain some interest from the music public. Besides many of the classic Elton songs that are found in this album, you are hard pressed to find any one-dimensional songs.Throughout the album Elton John brings his heavy piano background into a variety of different music genres, creating a truly unique record. The piano gives a good base for what Elton John is most comfortable with, soft rock and pop rock, but in songs like “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, “Grey Seal”, and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” Elton pushes his frontier to encapsulate heavier rock. Elton also tries his hand in Reggae with “Jamaican Jerk Off,” and Country/Folk with “Roy Rogers,” and “Social Diseases.” Through all of this rather interesting experimentation, Elton keeps the piano booming as almost as a watermark of his style. I think this was very important in keeping this album a little more experimental but accessible for returning fans.
The album starts out with the colossal “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” a daring feat to begin with. The 11-minute track features an instrumental of what Elton John envisioned being played at his funeral and then seamlessly segues into “Love Lies Bleeding” with booming piano chords and what seems to be castanets (the clicking things in salsa dancing). The instrumental itself is a landscape of synthesizers that really shows the range that Elton John grew into after his first few albums. The piano of “Love Lies Bleeding” gives way to a guitar riff. The song is musically a masterpiece and lyrically symbolizes a breakup with a vivid metaphor.
“Candle in the Wind” may be one of the most beautiful piano ballads of all time, but musically is not as ambitious as the first track. The piano is backed by a choir and low key band of drums, guitars and the like, but what truly makes this a timeless song is the lyrics. As America slowly grew into a celebrity-crazed nation, Marilyn Monroe became the epitome of this ideal and Elton John’s sincere ode to her showcases some of our most American sentiments. We feel super connected to celebrities that complete strangers and scrutinize their every move. Elton acknowledges this with a couple lines. With the opening line, “Goodbye Norma Jean/Though I never knew you at all,” Elton distances himself from her and is part of the paradigm of celebrity. Also with his very precise statement “It seems to me you lived your life/Like a candle in the wind,” Elton acknowledges that we don’t quite know our celebrities and gives the vibe of a glorified F. Scott Fitzgerald character. That lyric may have single-handedly spawned a myriad of artists to create “vivid metaphors” about being kindred spirits. (my favorite: “Do you ever feel, like a plastic bag… drifting through the wind…. wanting … to start again)
One of my most cherished tracks on this album is “Bennie and the Jets.” The sound of it is just so intimate and for some reason reminds me of my childhood a lot. The song tells the tale of a fictional band, a la Sgt. Pepper and the interesting instruments showcase even more of Elton John’s range (playing a Farfisa organ) and experimentation. Speaking of Sgt. Pepper, the song reminds me of the title track for the album as it is filled with colorful instrumentation and crowd interactions. The highlight of the song for me is when Elton goes up an octave or two while he is singing “BENNIE.” Gets me every time. Listening to this album as I age has made me appreciate the attention to lyrics as Elton seems to handcraft a story in a majority of these songs.
The title track, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, is another one of Elton’s iconic piano ensembles. The imagery of the Yellow Brick Road is taken from The Wizard of Oz and listening to it in that context reveals the metaphor that Elton John was trying to convey. In The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road and the emerald city represents all of Dorothy’s (or in this case the narrator's) fantasies. The lyrics suggest that the road to life’s fantasies and the answer is plagued with “the dogs of society” and it is much better to just live a simple life “beyond” it. For many Americans, this idea of city versus provincial lifestyle can be tied to this song. The American dream harkens us to live it up big with life’s fantasies but also raise a family and live simply etc. These two sects of thought are brought at odds in this song and the beauty of Elton’s vocals and lyrics is that we don’t notice a thing.
Out of all the super cool pianoey things in Elton John’s back catalog, the intro to “This Song Has No Title,” is one of my favorites. The pace and clarity remind me of something like “Vienna” by Billy Joel. Midway through the song the crisp piano transitions into horns and a bass line that is yet another example of the Elton’s more experimental side. The lyrics are just beautiful and descriptive. “Take me down alleys where the murders are done/In the vast high powered rocket to the core of the sun”. Despite all of this quest for knowledge and culture the artist of this song can’t seem to find a good title for it. “Grey Seal” is the little brother to “This Song Has No Title” for me as it carries a similar pace, but unlike the latter, explodes with different pace not with different instrumentation. Lyrically this song is the evil brother of “This Song Has No Title” as it follows a man who is almost jealous of a wise “Grey Seal.” The narrator states “I never learned why meteors formed/I only farmed in schools that were so warn and torn...All my life is drawings from the eye.” This showcases some of the provincial nature that “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is talking about. Instead of being a well-read, educated “artist”, the narrator in “Grey Seal” takes life as he experiences it. The instrumental towards the end makes this another fantastic glam rock/pop rock song.
One of the sweetest, most calming songs I have ever heard is “Sweet Painted Lady.” The instrumentals create such a vivid, relaxing atmosphere. It is kind of an upgraded version of the effect used in “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’ by Otis Redding. The horns and a triangle (maybe?) give the faintest sound that just allows you to focus on the beautiful vocals and piano. There is a lot of double entendres here as the painted lady could literally be an ode to Mona Lisa type figures and “getting laid” can mean being put on display. But this can also extend to actual ladies as they can be “sweetly painted” with makeup and be put on metaphorical display. Elton’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” comes in the form of “The Ballad of Danny Bailey.” With similar themes of police incompetence, this chronicles the death of fictional Robin Hood character, Danny Bailey. Although instrumentally this is similar to a lot of the pop-rock in the rest of the album, the themes signal an influence from American folk music.
One of my favorite instrumentals on the album (maybe because there is a little break from the intense piano?) is “All The Girls Love Alice.” The synthesizer melody and rough guitar riffs give a real groove that is repeated on a couple of the following tracks. The abrupt stops into little instrumentation are done masterfully and allow the song to almost follow an EKG pattern. Again Elton flexes his musical muscles towards the end of this song with an almost Bowie-esque outro. Another groovy track is the famous “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” which may be the quintessential dad rock track. It is a song that when you listen to can be described as hard rock but we all know it is pretty light. Lyrics about a “belly full of beer” and the like also contribute to the dad rockness of this track. Dad rock is pretty good I guess.
The closest that Elton John comes to folk/country without spontaneously combusting is the next two track “Roy Rodgers” and “Social Disease.” The former song starts out like a normal piano ballad but suddenly Elton John effects this accent that is kind of disconcerting at first. Once he comes into his own the song becomes a cute story of a Paul Revere type figure that reminds me of a softer version of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by the Beatles. The almost unapologetic banjo in “Social Disease” continue this folk influence. I love this experimentation in different sound while keeping to his strength of playing the piano like no other. These folk type songs can also be seen as a response to the yellow brick road ideal that is woven throughout the album. As “Love Lies Bleeding” opens with distraught with a break up “Harmony” closes with Elton being distraught over a lover returning to him. With dense lyrics like “Am I the only man you ever had/Or am I just the last surviving friend that you know” you can see that Elton is questioning intensely this former lover.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a quintessential concept album. Elton plays with the themes posed in the title track by showcasing his ever-expanding musical repertoire with songs filled with vivid groundbreaking sounds. Much like the emerald city, he is indulging our fantasies with the lavish nature. This is why I think he turns to folk music in some sense. He is trying to show us the other side of all the glitz and glam of rock, to themes that are more traditional and focused. Although the album is rather long (76 minutes) it certainly doesn’t feel like it . Almost every song is crafted both lyrically and instrumentally to create a true work of art.
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