When you hear Elton John's name, what do you think of? Perhaps glitzy showmanship, down-home rakishness, a very '70s opulence. (Oh, and about a dozen song songs implanted in our brains from birth.) For the five-time GRAMMY winner, only sweeping will do.
But that's not a studio-conjured mirage, a mere feat of technology. Because if you listen to John sing "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" alone with a piano — as you can on 2019's quietly issued Live from Moscow 1979 — John's signature hit still buries you like a ton of bricks.
On this astonishing version, John doesn't sound like a rock god; he sounds more mortal than ever, beseeching the heavens from below.
"When are you going to come down/ When are you going to land?" goes his signature intro; in this naked setting, hearing the words reverberate and fall over the audience is enrapturing.
And in the chorus, when he leans into the word blues in "singing the blues," the hair on the back of your neck might stand up. What follows is that cascading, wordless tag, a whirlpool of pure feeling. All the cultural trappings of John evaporate; you can only behold that sound.
John recently concluded his final tour, and it was named after "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" — "goodbye" switched for "farewell." In its wake, John's career — forged in tandem with his legendary lyricist, Bernie Taupin — increasingly looks like an enterprise to look back on.
And your communion could start with that piano, that voice, that song — and the classic 1973 album it named, which turns 50 on Oct. 5.
Featuring all-time knockouts from said title track to "Candle in the Wind" to "Bennie and the Jets" — as well as inspired deeper cuts ("Grey Seal") and a double album's requisite oddities ("Jamaica Jerk-Off"), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is an all-timer of AOR and arguably John's most sprawling, eclectic, memorable album.
In 2003, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame; three years prior to that, John had been named MusiCares' Person Of The Year. On top of his five GRAMMY wins, John's been nominated for a whopping 35 golden gramophones.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, here's a breakdown of all 17 tracks.
"Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding"
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road's opening track begins with wind sounds and eerie trills; it then efflorescences into Robert Wyatt or Tangerine Dream-style synths — the kind of music John wanted to hear at his own funeral.
Then, as the "Funeral for a Friend" section gives way to "Love Lies Bleeding," the track reveals itself to be a moody, theatrical statement of intent. "The roses in the window have tilted to one side," John yowls; "Everything about this house was born to grow and die."
"Candle in the Wind"
Everyone knows John and Taupin wrote "Candle in the Wind" as an ode to Marilyn Monroe; many remember its 1997 retrofitting as a tribute to Princess Diana.
But despite being half a century old, and its association with two glamour icons of yore, "Candle in the Wind" could have been written this morning. Which is due to both its celebrity-age applicability and luminous, searching melody.
"Bennie and the Jets"
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is decidedly front-loaded; after one world-tilting banger, John casually drops another.
Time and ubiquity have not dampened the ebullience of "Bennie and the Jets": whichever PA you hear it piped from, it's practically illegal to not answer his "Benny!" with your own.
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
This article may have led with love for the solo "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," but that's not to brush off the studio version.
On the album cut, John is backed by his subtle, coaxing, perennially underrated rhythm section of bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson — plus Leslie-ed out electric guitar from Davey Johnstone and an Abbey Road-like orchestral arrangement from Del Newman.
Part of Taupin's appeal as a lyricist is how he could transmute goofiness into splendor — and who else but Elton could beseech you to get back to the farm, "hunting the horny back toad," with such gravitas?
"This Song Has No Title"
As if he didn't just drop "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" on you, the album continues unblinking with this gorgeously rolling, mellotron-laced deep cut. "Let me drink deeply from the water and the wine," John sings. "Light colored candles in dark dreary mines."
In a catalog filled with head-scratching lyrics, "Grey Seal" is especially inscrutable; reportedly, Taupin barely understood its meaning, but simply adored how the words linked to the music.
Indeed, "Grey Seal" is a multifarious marvel of a four-minute rock song, as John throws out iridescent images with abandon — such as "I never learned why meteors were formed/ I only farmed in schools."
The Beatles' The White Album forever laid the groundwork for sprawling, messy double albums, so Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is entitled to its own "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." (Especially since he initially started recording the album in Jamaica.)
"I've Seen That Movie Too"
After the tropical anxiety attack of "Jamaica Jerk-Off," Goodbye Yellow Brick Road pivots to downcast and philosophical with "I've Seen That Movie Too."
Therein, John considers the cyclical nature of everything, through the lens of actors on a soundstage — which, if we were to further the White Album metaphor, would make this his "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
"Sweet Painted Lady"
John hasn't performed this ode to a harbor prostitute many times; in fact, he hasn't performed it in 23 years. But as an interstitial piece, it works in a pinch; sound effects of waves and gulls drive home the atmosphere.
"The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)"
John and Taupin sure loved their old-timey narratives, and "The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)" is no exception; it traces the life and death of a two-bit gangster.
"Some punk with a shotgun killed young Danny Bailey in cold blood in the lobby of a downtown motel," reports Elton at the jump — and what unspools is poetic, cinematic glory.
"Dirty Little Girl"
If glammy misogyny isn't your jam, you may want to swerve around "Dirty Little Girl" — in John's heyday, everyone from the Rolling Stones ("Stupid Girl") to Neil Young (also "Stupid Girl") got one of these songs.
But if you come in well-advised, it might be fun to roll around in its Neanderthal energy; with lyrics like "I'm gonna get buckshot in your pants if you step into my yard," John essentially hands you the controller to Grand Theft Auto V.
"All the Girls Love Alice"
After "Dirty Little Girl," John shakes off the muck for the swinging, swaggering "All the Girls Love Alice." While it's about "a young girl who gets seduced by the naughty ladies," the tune feels less mean than dryly tragic.
"Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock 'n' Roll)"
As Goodbye Yellow Brick Road races to the finish line, it picks up retro headwinds: here, Elton John nailed his attempt at "a cross between surfing music and Freddie Cannon records."
"Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)"
In that regard, "Your Sister Can't Twist" is only a ramp-up: if "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" doesn't get you shaking hips at your desk, we can't help you.=
Every TV-bound kid of John's generation remembers the King of the Cowboys. Although Roy Rogers was very much alive, John gorgeously eulogizes his run in film and TV, and weaves an Old West fantasia for the ages.
"My bulldog is barking in the backyard/ Enough to raise a dead man from his grave." So begins a self-effacing character study worthy of Randy Newman and John Prine, with a dash of hallucinogenic strangeness.
If you "dress in rags, smell a lot and have a real good time," you've found your personal anthem — complete with deliciously greasy sax and honky-tonk piano.
John concludes his wild, messy opus by raising a ragged flag, as the string section lifts the proceedings as if on balloons.
"I want to love you forever/ And dream of the never, never, never-leaving harmony," Elton sings at song's end, repeating the title until the song — and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road itself — evaporate in midair.
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