As he reached his seventh studio album – and second of 1973 alone – Elton John’s phenomenal creativity was ready to move up another gear. On October 5, just nine months after the chart-topping achievements of Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, he unveiled his first double album, and another career high, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
The album was made, like Don’t Shoot Me… and its predecessor, Honky Château, in the now familiar surroundings of Château d’Hérouville, with its studio set in an 18th-century French country house. Here, Team Elton, featuring the well-established Johnstone/Murray/Olsson line-up under the guidance of producer Gus Dudgeon and the lyrical inspiration of Bernie Taupin, could create in comfort. No fewer than 21 songs were recorded in just a dozen days, 17 of which formed the new, four-sided epic.
Writing and recording sessions: ‘There were guys with machine guns’
But Goodbye Yellow Brick Road almost had another sound altogether. As Elton later remembered, he had entertained the idea of a wildly different working environment. “I said, ‘The Rolling Stones have just done Goats Head Soup in Jamaica, let’s go there,’” he noted. And they did, starting production on the new project in Kingston, where they arrived in January 1973, the day after the so-called Sunshine Showdown boxing face-off between George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
The Jamaican capital may have worked for the Stones, but it didn’t for Elton and co. They found the atmosphere hostile and the recording equipment substandard. “If I remember rightly,” said Taupin, “the studio was surrounded by barbed wire and there were guys with machine guns.” A solitary effort was committed to tape in the form of an early version of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” but it was quickly shelved and Elton and Bernie beat a hasty retreat to New York.
Good news awaited them. Before the Kingston experience, serious consideration had already been given to a return to the château, but a legal dispute about its ownership had closed its doors. Thankfully, the contretemps proved temporary, and with an ambitious and wide-ranging collection of new songs already written in Jamaica, Elton and his allies breezed through their recording.
‘It never ceases to amaze me how quickly I can write’
“Lyrics are always first,” Elton told Circus magazine just after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’s release. “If I don’t have the lyrics I don’t write any songs. If Taupin is barren, that’s that. We haven’t written anything now, like for eight or nine months. We only write when it’s time to do an album. I don’t write on the road.
“But it never ceases to amaze me how quickly I can write. See, I go in spurts, songs are all done on the spur of the moment. If I were a guitarist, it would be different, but I can’t carry a piano around with me. Actually, I tried it once, and it got stolen.
“I don’t write at home anymore either, I write in the studio,” he continued. “They’ll be bringing the lyrics down from upstairs and typing them up, and the band will sit around and pick it up as I’m composing, and it happens like that. It’s getting silly, because in Jamaica I wrote about 25 songs in three days.”
Singles: ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’
The perfected “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” preceded the album as a summer 1973 single. Its pugnacious, high-testosterone feel matched a lyric based on Taupin’s true experiences, from his days of under-age drinking at the Aston Arms, in the Lincolnshire town where his secondary school was situated, Market Rasen.
Davey Johnstone’s authoritative lead guitar was the perfect foil for Elton’s frenetic piano, and the song rose to No.7 in the UK, backed by two songs from the Don’t Shoot Me… sessions, “Jack Rabbit” and “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again),” both of which were included on subsequent reissues of that album.
‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’
Just after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was unleashed, the title track became its second single, with Taupin calling on different aspects of his childhood in the country, wrapped in Wizard Of Oz imagery. This classic Elton ballad became, and remains, another of his countless standards, topping the chart in Canada and on America’s Cashbox countdown; on the rival Billboard chart, it came to rest at No.2 behind the Carpenters’ ‘Top Of The World’ and then Charlie Rich’s ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’.
‘Candle In The Wind’
When it was time for a third single from the set, DJM in the UK opted for the John-Taupin composition that mourned Marilyn Monroe. With considerable prescience, the song observed the starmaking machine that exploited her and would later almost consume Elton himself. “Candle In The Wind” surprisingly stalled at No.11, but has been recurrent ever since, as a No.5 hit from 1987’s Live In Australia album and then as nothing less than the bestselling single of all time, reconfigured to mark the death of the Princess Of Wales in 1997.
‘Bennie And The Jets’
In America, however, MCA opted for “Bennie And The Jets,” despite Elton’s vehement objections. “It’s the strangest track on the whole album,” he told Circus. “It’s a send-up of the glitter rock thing, and I sound like Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons.” But after early AM radio support from CKLW in Windsor, Ontario, the track spread across North America, topping the Hot 100 in April 1974 and even becoming his first hit on the R&B chart, where, to the star’s great satisfaction, it reached No.15.
Later that year, John indulged his love of radio by sitting in for an afternoon on CKLW, billed (as on future occasions, including on BBC radio) as “EJ The DJ.” He played songs by the likes of Cher and Rufus before introducing “Bennie And The Jets” with the words, “This record is a Deee-troit record. You made it! Thank you!”
Album release and reception: ‘a musical in its own right’
As an album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a trove of varied delights, also including the majestic, slow-building opener “Funeral For A Friend”/“Love Lies Bleeding,” the gentle balladeering of “Sweet Painted Lady” and “Harmony,” the reggaefied “Jamaica Jerk-Off” and spirited upbeat pieces like “Grey Seal” and “All The Girls Love Alice.” Taupin’s Americana inspirations were often on display, as on the story of an ill-fated Kentucky bootlegger of the 30s, “The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-1934).”
The album was rapturously received. Chris Welch in Melody Maker called it a “superb new collection of songs,” noting that John and Taupin had “surpassed themselves with a double-album that is bold, adventurous and vastly entertaining”. He went on to describe it as “a musical in its own right, ranging over a whole gamut of ideas and concepts.
“Beautifully produced by Gus Dudgeon,” Welch went on, “the sound of the Elton John band is occasionally blended with an orchestra, for special effects. But overall it is Elton’s intense, frequently moving vocals, Davey Johnstone’s guitar, Nigel Olsson’s virulent drums, and above all the lyrics that create the greatest impression.”
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road spent Christmas 1973 at No.1 in the UK, in a two-week stay, and surpassed itself with an eight-week reign in the US, from November into the new year. Certified gold there upon release, it had soared to eight-times platinum by 2014, and now resides in the Grammy Hall Of Fame. The album also ranked inside the Top 100 of Rolling Stone’s all-time Top 500 listing of 2003.
‘At the moment I’m having a really good time’
For its 40th anniversary, in 2014, the deluxe Goodbye Yellow Brick Road reissue included nine covers of songs from the album, newly recorded by modern-day stars. Among them were Ed Sheeran’s reading of “Candle In The Wind,” Zac Brown Band’s “Harmony,” Emeli Sandé’s “All The Girls Love Alice” and a version of “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock’n’Roll)” by Imelda May.
In another interview at the time of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’s release, Elton made some fascinating and amusing comments about his future plans. “I’d really like to write lyrics,” he told Phonograph Record. “I really would like to do a solo album – I know that sounds funny, a solo album – and one day I’m going to do it, and it’ll be so f__king doomy and miserable it’ll make Leonard Cohen sound like a jig.
“I’d like to do a film. I’d like to do a comedy,” he continued. “But at the moment there’s so much to do as far as recording and things go, and I’m really getting involved in the record company [Rocket Records, launched by Elton earlier in the year]. I just don’t think that I have any time. All my time is taken up with touring. As soon as I get fed up with touring I’ll stop, but at the moment I’m really having a good time.”