After over forty years of astonishing, peerless success, it might seem odd to be discussing what Elton John has not accomplished, but as a passionate fan I feel compelled to devote this edition of the popular Stargayzing feature to fifteen songs that could have (and should have) found their place among Sir Elton’s 27 top-ten hits. Of course chart data is in many ways meaningless—just one frequently flawed or manipulated barometer to measure success—in the end, much less important than what stands the test of time.
But by any measure, Elton John’s contribution to pop music history places him in a truly elite group. For myself, most Stargayzing readers, and literally for millions of people around the world, Elton’s music has simply always been there like a treasured old friend, representing milestones in our lives and enriching our understanding of ourselves and the world we share. In short, I simply cannot imagine my life without Elton John’s music in it.
Here is my list of 15 Elton John songs that I think are exceedingly under-appreciated. I know you’re bound to find some songs you already know but haven’t heard in a while and, I hope, discover something new among the hundreds of Elton John jewels I’ve curated. With such a prolific and profound discography, there is certainly enough for several more volumes devoted exclusively to Elton. So you tell me, what songs did I leave out?
The unprecedented success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album in 1982 changed the paradigm for how record labels approached pop radio with potential hit singles. Prior to that watershed moment, even the most commercially successful LPs would spawn two or, very occasionally, three hit singles. Prior to the 1980s, albums were recorded more quickly and big artists were generally expected to release new work every year. Of course,there were exceptions like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours—another game changer—which spawned hit singles and presaged the changes which Thriller would make the industry norm a few years later.
As a result of the accelerated album cycles in the 1970s, there were many songs which were most assuredly “hits” but were denied the opportunity because it would have delayed the release of the first single from the next album. “Harmony” is a persuasive case in point: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was—and still remains—Elton John’s most commercially successful album, having sold over 31 million units worldwide since its release in 1973. The album spawned three hit singles: “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting”) (U.S. #12, U.K. #7); “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (U.S. #2, U.K. #6); and “Bennie and the Jets” (U.S. #1, U.K. ). Apparently “Harmony” was considered as a fourth single, but would have disrupted the release pattern of John’s forthcoming release, 1974’s Caribou (whose first single, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” peaked at #2 in May of 1974). I suppose this is what you might call a wonderful problem to have. I love “Harmony” more than ever, maybe because the very thing it celebrates—harmony—has essentially been eviscerated in popular music; pushed over a cliff to its death by “the beat.”
There is so much emotion and cinematic sweep in “Blues for Baby and Me” that I still feel overwhelmed when I hear it. In some ways it is a very prototypical Elton John mid-tempo ballad in terms of its feel and subject matter: the imagery, which evokes America in its sense of space and distance, is frequent Bernie Taupin thematic territory. A super catchy chorus and warm, folky arrangement greatly contribute to lyric’s ability to paint pictures for us.
Don’t Shoot Me… was released in January, 1973 and was Elton’s second number one album (after Honky Chateau). The first single was “Crocodile Rock” which went to number one in the U.S. and Canada, followed by “Daniel” which peaked at number two in the states. “Blues for Baby and Me” could certainly have been a single, but “Saturday Nights Alright (For Fighting)”, the first single from John’s next album was released in July, 1973 and essentially pre-empted it. Elton John was such a monumental pop star in the 1970s that every album of that period had potential hit singles that remained beloved album cuts.
3. “The Heart of Every Girl” (“Mona Lisa Smile” Soundtrack, 2004)
Every few years Elton mentions his love for pre-rock era pop in an interview and his intention to record either an album of standards or an album of original songs in that style. It’s a shame that he never has prioritized that because based on available evidence, John is one songwriter who would really add something to the canon of standards. In addition to his theater music and occasional ballads that recall older pop music styles, (such as “Blue Eyes” from Jump Up!, 1984), I’m referring specifically to the few standards he’s recorded, such as his medley of “Someone to Watch Over Me”/”Our Love is Here to Stay” for the Larry Adler tribute album The Glory of Gershwin, (1994), and his cover of “Twentieth-Century Blues” from the Red, Hot + Blue album Twentieth-Century Blues: The Songs of Noel Coward, (1998).
“The Heart of Every Girl” was written for the 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile, a vehicle for star Julia Roberts and is, perhaps, remembered today primarily for being one of her all-time biggest paydays—a cool 25 million dollars—at the time the highest amount ever paid to an actress. What I remember the film for primarily, is the jaunty up-tempo Elton John/Bernie Taupin which gave us a the chance to imagine more fully Elton John as the crooner he so clearly would long to be from time to time. “The Heart of Every Girl” allows us to convincingly hear what Elton John would have sounded like swinging with a band in early 1950s. It still amazes me that Elton didn’t at least receive an Oscar nomination for this first-rate original song.
Though it was a number one adult contemporary hit in the summer of 1989, “Healing Hands” missed the top-10 on the pop chart, peaking at number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Clearly inspired by Elton’s love for classic Four Top uptempo songs like “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)”, “Healing Hands” succeeds in evoking both the driving energy and joy of those records.
The production by Chris Thomas is simply phenomenal and I love the arrangement. For 25 years I never fail to feel an almost spiritual sense of uplift when I hear the key change from the verse into the chorus. “Healing Hands” should have been a number one pop song.
5. “Home Again” (The Diving Board), 2013
When David Furnish, Elton’s husband, said on his Facebook page earlier this year, that Elton’s next album The Diving Board was his strongest since Songs From the West Coast, I got excited. Though the album did not let me down, it is actually quite different than the earlier album, evoking the late-1960s stripped-down sound of pre-Elton John Band live performances. The great music critic and writer Robert Hilburn, who actually saw Elton’s American debut at LA’s Troubadour nightclub in 1970, said that if Elton had performed this collection of songs at that famous gig he still would have been “showered with applause and acclaim.” This is not faint praise.
Though the high quality of Elton’s music has held up through the years, the quality of American radio has slipped beyond repair. It is almost impossible to imagine a song as comparatively sophisticated as “Home Again” getting airplay today, which is a damn shame. Even by back-in-the-day pop standards, “Home Again” and the songs on “The Diving Board” are somewhat esoteric in their straightforward production and contemplative lyrics. I’m certain that The Diving Board will get the love from the Recording Academy that it hasn’t from Top 40 radio.
Sometimes you’ll see a brilliant film and later read that despite the shimmering result, the creative process was a nightmare. Certainly every great work of art is not born from a smooth or pleasant incubation period. I think Elton John’s Thom Bell collaboration, even in its unfinished state, is the musical equivalent of the fraught, tortured film production that amounts to something memorable almost in spite if itself.
Originally recorded in 1977, the legendary architect of Philadelphia Sou,l Thom Bell, allegedly started butting heads with Elton fairly quickly, to such an extent that the planned full-length album was truncated to a 20 minute EP. Finally released in the summer of 1979 in the midst of the disco tsunami, the troubled project still managed to yield a hit single in “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” which peaked at a very respectable #9 on the Billboard chart.
“Are You Ready for Love” was written by Thom Bell with LeRoy Bell and Casey James, the latter two were better known as Bell & James, who enjoyed their own big disco hit that year with “Livin’ it Up (Friday Night).” The 1989 expanded CD release, The Complete Thom Bell Sessions, featured a different mix of “Are You Ready for Love,” with Elton trading vocal lines with the Spinners’ vocalists Bobby Smith and Jonathan Edwards to rather stunning effect. The song got yet another mix in 2003 on the Remixed album and soared to number one in the UK (his 5th) after being featured in a TV commercial, proving again that a hit song is a hit song. I’ve included the 1989 mix with the Spinners’ vocals because I get excited by a pop music all-star cast: the Philly Soul equivalent of Oceans Eleven.
“Sad Songs (Say So Much)” was the big hit off this album (though I’m still trying to forget the Sasson tour sponsorship and Elton’s unfortunate, though undoubtedly lucrative, decision to change that song’s lyric to “Sasson says so much” in the commercial). Buried in the album was this lovely ballad which was released as the fifth and final single, but failed to chart.
One of the many things I love about “Breaking Hearts (Ain’t What it Used to Be)” is Bernie Taupin’s wonderful lyric, the story of someone who has tired of treating people like shit. As usual with their collaborations, it’s difficult to know from Elton’s performance whether he is actually revealing something about himself or giving voice to Taupin’s perception of Elton, or something else entirely. But “Breaking Hearts…” succeeds fully no matter who is really speaking. Perhaps the song foreshadows some of Elton’s later theatrical writing, as its beautiful melody and clear, touching narrative seems to spring from a story. In the end, whether it is the story of Elton John, Bernie Taupin, or a fictional someone, is less important than its essential accomplishment: a wonderful formality and singular musical elegance that I find completely affecting. It’s just a great song.
“We bet on our lives and we bet on the horses
In that upstairs apartment
On Orlando and 4th
And the rent was due and the rent man was knocking
Like a Chinese proverb
We were always searching”
From the opening keyboard flourish, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the opening track from Songs from the West Coast, announces itself as something familiar and exciting: the stunning, unexpected return of the regal sound of the 1970s Elton John Band. All of the elements are here: the analog warmth; the timeless arrangement (including a punchy horn chart); and most impressively, the swing and swagger of a first class John/Taupin mid-tempo song. There is something so joyful about Elton’s attack here; he knows this is some good shit and the spirit is infectious. For five glorious minutes, it’s enough to make you believe that all the problems in the world could be solved by the joyful spirit of Elton John and Bernie Taupin when they are creating pop music at this level.
Elton has always been among the most openminded recording artists. An inveterate chart follower and pop music fan, he has historically demonstrated a willingness to embrace new sounds and younger musicians work that is unusual. Ambitious and still hungy, Elton’s restless curiosity has frequently led to a wide range of studio and live collaborations that have often yielded great commercial rewards (the number one success of his duet of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with George Michael, for example).
No project suggested his willingness to reinvent and reexamine his own catalogue more creatively than the 2012’s Good Morning to the Night album by Pnau, an Australian dance music duo whose ingenious creation of new sonic collages using samples of classic Elton songs was nothing short of a revelation. The album went to number one in the U.K. but failed to make much of an impact stateside. The end result is both a fascinating, artistically satisfying new work as well as a powerful reminder of the superb quality of the original masters. In this regard Good Morning to the Night accomplishes something the usually lazy sampling in hip hop music aspires to but seldom achieves: thrilling inventiveness at once innovative and respectful to the original in spirit.
It is great parlor game for Elton fans to try to parse out the samples. Here is the title track, “Good Morning to the Night,” which makes a collage out of the following Elton John masters: “Philadelphia Freedom”; “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”; “Funeral for a Friend”/”Love Lies Bleeding”; “Tonight”; “Gulliver”/”It’s Hay Chewed”; “Sixty Years On”; “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”; and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
Although the collaboration of Elton and Bernie Taupin has produced one of the most enduring and outstanding catalogues in pop music history, I have often reflected on the fact that despite such prolific output, the person we truly have gotten to know since 1970 by dint of his lyrics, is Bernie Taupin. Though they have ostensibly created an identity that stands outside of either of them, isn’t it peculiar that for all of his cultural presence and success, we still don’t really know Elton John much better for having created so much music. Or do we?
From time to time, a John/Taupin collaboration seems to transcend the circumscribed boundaries of Taupin’s lyrics and seems to be channelling something of Elton’s soul, or at least my fantasy of who Elton John really is. Such a moment occurred in 1992 at the height of the AIDS crisis, when “The Last Song” was released. An elegy of such breathtaking intimacy and power, the fact that the song did not become a bigger hit in no way diminishes its ability to powerfully evoke the emotion of the plague years. A towering pop song.
Little known today, “The Rumour” was written specifically for Olivia Newton-John by her friends Elton and Bernie and released very near to the time Elton formally—finally—came out of the closet, the topicality apparently didn’t provide any incentive for radio programmers to add the song. As rumors (or “rumours” if you’re British) had also swirled around Livvy’s sexuality, the song was playful in multiple directions and with Elton playing piano and singing the chorus with Miss John, “The Rumour” is essentially a duet—and first-rate one at that. Despite the quality of the song and combined star power of John and John, “The Rumour” was an undeniable flop—even in Australia—but deserves to be remembered today for four minutes of pure pop pleasure it always was; there ain’t never no harm in that.
“Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)” was the second single from Blue Moves. Released in January, 1977, the single peaked at disappointing number 28 in both the U.K.and U.S. and marked the beginning of a temporary dip in John’s chart fortunes. In retrospect, this is surprising considering “Bite Your Lip” came on the heels of the top-ten success of the previous single “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and was similar in tone to previous uptempo Elton John hits.
I am particularly fond of the record’s amazing Gene Page string arrangement and the contribution of the gospel choir. One can only assume that Top-40 radio was zigging while Elton zagged in January, 1977. I have fond memories of Elton performing this song dressed as Donald Duck at the Central Park concert in 1980, which was only the second concert I ever saw (well, third, if you count the Robert Goulet concert in the round concert that I was taken to against my will in the summer of 1975).
13. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (Oleta Adams, Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin, 1991)
“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” is certainly one of the most important copyrights in Elton’s catalogue. Of course it became an instant standard upon its initial release on 1974’s Caribou, a designation further burnished by the even more successful live version by Elton and George Michael that went to #1 on both sides of the Atlantic in late-1991. What was clearly obfuscated in the superstar flash of the duet version was a truly stunning version contributed by the great Oleta Adams to the Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album Two Rooms, which was released almost simultaneously with the the Elton/George version. Even with the competition, Oleta’s proud cover still managed to make it to #33 in the UK.
Oleta’s interpretation of the song is both inspired and inspiring, mining the song’s gospel soul for all of its worth. Oleta’s vocal here is up there with her all-time finest; she sings the song like her life depends on it and our lives are all the better for it. In a perfect world, Oleta Adams would have had a number one hit with her version. The best I can do now is share it with you. Can I hear an “amen?” Okay, that was a bit weird, but check this out:
Tumbleweed Connection, his third studio album, still holds up as one of Elton John’s finest achievements: song for song it is probably as strong as any of his albums. Though “Country Comfort” was the single, my favorite song is “Burn Down the Mission,” a rollicking six minutes of pure pop/rock/gospel/theatrical joy. Elton was apparently influenced by the great singer/songwriter Laura Nyro in terms of “Burn Down the Mission’s” mash-up of musical styles and changing time signatures and it’s easy to hear. There is so much music in this song that it really has more in common with musical theater than what is passed off as rock music today.
If you know “Burn Down the Mission” but haven’t heard it in a long time, listen with new ears. It’s phenomenal. If you have never heard it, be prepared to fall in love.
As fine a love letter to a lady of night as has ever been written, I decided to close with the swaggering “Sweet Painted Lady,” yet another example of near pop perfection from Elton John, Bernie Taupin and, in this case, producer Gus Dudgeon. One of the measures of a great pop song is the ability for the music and lyrics to achieve such an organic seamlessness that it becomes hard to imagine the elements ever having existed as separately. The technical word for this in linguistics is “prosody,” and it is something Elton John and Bernie Taupin have been doing at the highest level since the late-1960s; and each of our lives has been enriched immeasurably for their efforts.
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Painting of Elton John by Igor Potash