SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – DJM Records/ Speakers Corner Records – vinyl (2 discs)

Re-mastered vinyl double album is a rock milestone.

Published on April 15, 2013

Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – DJM Records (1973) DJM DJLPD 1001/ Speakers Corner Records (2012) 180-gram audiophile stereo vinyl (2 LPs), 76:20 ****1/2:

(Elton John – piano, electric piano, organ, keyboards, vocals; Dee Murray – bass, vocals; Davey Johnstone – acoustic, electric guitars; slide guitar, banjo, vocals; Nigel Olsson, vocals; ray Cooper – percussion; David Hentschel – synthesizer; Leroy Gomez – saxophone; Kiki Dee – vocals; Del Newman – orchestral arrangement)

The career of Elton John is difficult to encapsulate. He has sold more than 250 million records, establishing an incomparable legacy. A musical prodigy, he started playing the piano at the age of three. Like so many British musicians, he was influenced by the American rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon. Elton became the pre-eminent English rock pianist, and produced a staggering catalogue with lyricist Bernie Taupin. The duo was renowned for their routine of working separately. The self-titled 1970 album featured unforgettable hits like “Your Song”, “Take Me To The Pilot” and “The Border Song”. The powerful gospel essence and rock prominence elevated the singer to instant fame. His live shows exhilarated the public with its incendiary piano licks and gritty vocals.

Subsequent releases, like Tumbleweed Connection (1970), Madman Across The Water (1971), and Honky Chateau (1972) sustained his relentless ascension. In concert and songwriting, Elton John continued to increase the scope and prolific output, pushing himself with reckless abandon. In 1973, against conventional industry wisdom, he released Goodbye Yellow Brick Road as a double album. Incredibly, his success and prominence reached a higher level.

Recorded in France (after a very brief attempt in Jamaica) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is an ambitious, uneven 17 tracks of rock pretense that was completed in just over two weeks. Reflecting the orchestral influx of synthesizers, the album opens with a two-song suite “Funeral For A Friend”/”Love Lies Bleeding”. The former is anchored by swirling instrumental fanfare (surprisingly, by David Hentschel, not Elton). Davey Johnstone’s searing guitar provides a steady counter to the grandiose themes. The second part resonates with muscular piano chords and wailing vocals as a tale of romantic woe unfolds. At eleven minutes, the suite got significant FM airplay, but was too long for single release. Immediate following is the John-Taupin ballad to Marilyn Monroe (“Candle In The Wind”), whose timeless, elegaic refrain (“… the candle burned out long before, the legend ever did”) was reprised in dedication to the late Princess Diane. Side One comes to a raucous close with the slick grooves, and falsetto-laden eloquence of “Bennie And The Jets”. Sir Elton achieved a rare feat, as the song reached No. 1 status on U.S. pop charts, and the coveted (for white British performers) No. 1 r & b slot. This provided a celebrated guest shot on Soul Train. To date, the album has sold more than 30 million copies.

The other sides do not pack the same punch. Side Two starts off with a melancholic ode to simple life (“…You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough”) on the title track. The contextual juxtaposition of stardom and a simpler life is fluent and very accessible. Another highlight is the tightly arranged rocker, “Grey Seal”. John’s howling vocals and ferocious piano chords energize this composition. While the overall quality of the arrangements is consistent, there is a gap between some of the material and the “hits”. Attempts at reggae (“Jamaica Jerk-Off”), high-intensity rock (“All The Girls Love Alice”, “You’re Sister Can’t Twist/But She Can Rock ‘N’ Roll”) and country (“Roy Rogers”) are not compelling. (Certainly they do not compare to songs on Tumbleweed Connection, like “Country Comfort”).

But when Elton John finds the right composition, he hits it out of the park. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” is an infectious celebration of street toughs. Johnstone’s jagged, electric guitar leads mesh with Elton’s growling vocals. Lyrics like “…It’s seven o’clock and I want to rock/ Wanna get a belly full of beer…” are still timeless. The final cut (“Harmony”) demonstrates the emotional and musical range of this rock legend. This song could have easily been the fourth hit single off this album. The idea was scrapped due to the chart longevity and the impending release of Caribou. Regardless, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road  is a generous helping of stellar piano and soulful vocals.

This audiophile vinyl emphasizes all of the facets that separate Elton John music from his peers. The layering of the vocal tracks (especially the high-register backup voices) is excellent. Elton’s vocal depth of emotion is captured in its purity. The clarity of the piano (whether it’s crashing chords or gentler notation) is top-notch. All of the string instruments (acoustic and electric guitar, banjo) are crisp and textured. While not a perfect album, the essence of a 70’s rock pioneer is captured with verve.

TrackList:

Side One: Funeral For A Friend; Love Lies Bleeding; Candle In The Wind; Bennie And The Jets
Side Two: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; This Song Has No Title; Grey Seal; Jamaica Jerk-Off
Side Three: Sweet Painted Lady; The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34); Dirty Little Girl; All The Girls Love Alice
Side Four: Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘N’ Roll); Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting; Social Disease; Harmony

—Robbie Gerson




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