In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ his double album which yielded a number of classics from raging rockers, gorgeously sad ballads and his funkiest moment ever. The album turns 40 this week.
To paraphrase the Ringo Starr classic, it don’t always come easy, and that was the case with Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Elton took his team — lyricist Bernie Taupin, guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson and producer Gus Dudgeon — to Jamaica to record the follow-up to two consecutive #1 albums: 1972’s Honky Chateau and 1973’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player. Why Jamaica? As Elton said in the liner notes of his 1990 career-spanning box set To Be Continued…, the Rolling Stones had just recorded Goat’s Head Soup there, so he decided to try out the Caribbean island as well.
“Most of the songs were written in two or three days in my hotel room on an electric piano,” he recalled.
So the writing went well. The recording, not so much. The group arrived in Jamaica right after a well-publicized boxing event, so the country was temporarily overcrowded. That, and Elton and co. weren’t really prepared for the intimidating vibe of downtown Kingston. As Taupin said in the To Be Continued… liner notes, “The studio was surrounded by barbed wire, and there were guys with machine guns.” Not exactly where you’d expect to find “Captain Fantastic” and the “Brown Dirt Cowboy” (as they would later refer to themselves as, on Elton’s 1975 album of the same name). But it surely inspired one of the album’s deeper cuts, “Jamaica Jerk-Off,” a politically incorrect song credited to “Reggae Dwight and Toots Taupin.”
To actually record the album, they returned to France’s Chateua d’Hierouville, where they’d recorded their last two records, and the double album was recorded in about two weeks. Much like the Beatles, who would combine bashing hard rockers and beautiful ballads on the same album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road saw Elton stretching out in every direction. Perhaps the most surprising one was towards arena rock.
These days, “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” are taken for granted as long-established Elton classics — songs he’s practically required to play in concert. In the early ’70s, Elton was making music that might be loosely categorized with singer/songwriters like James Taylor, Carole King and Paul Simon. In his early days, he was known for blowing the roof off of small clubs with songs like “Take Me To The Pilot” and “Bad Side Of The Moon” (if you haven’t heard his live album from that era, 11-17-70, get a copy now).
But by ’73, he was an arena rock artist looking for anthems akin to those of Led Zeppelin, the Who and Yes. “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” did the trick: a long, multi-movement piece with loud guitars and weird synthesizers (played by former Genesis producer David Hentschel) that worked nicely with a laser light show. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” was a bit more like the punk that was emerging at the time. For fans who were mostly aware of Elton via his prior hit singles — “Your Song,” “Border Song,” “Friends,” — this must have been a bit jarring.
Elton also brought the funk on the album. “Bennie And The Jets” got frequent airplay on a local R&B station in Detroit, and was soon released as a single, going on to top the U.S. singles charts. It also is one of the most easily identifiable pop songs: one note into the song, you know what it is. Are there any songs more identifiable by one single note (other than the Beatles’ mystery chord on “A Hard Day’s Night”)?
Of course, they didn’t turn their back on the ballads that made them stars. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is one of their unsung classics (and was quoted by Axl Rose in, of all places, Guns N Roses’ “You Could Be Mine”). The title track was Taupin’s lament for simpler times: “You can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough.” So, yes, there were ballads, including, arguably, the one that is most closely associated with the John/Taupin writing team.
Surprisingly, “Candle In The Wind” wasn’t even released as a single in the U.S. at the time, and was overshadowed by the Yellow Brick‘s singles. Generally regarded to be about Marilyn Monroe, but as Taupin said in To Be Continued…, “The ‘Candle In The Wind’ thing with Marilyn Monroe got blown out of proportion… it wasn’t necessarily an homage to her. I’ve said that that song could have been about James Dean.”
It was a 1987 live version from Live In Australia With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra that made the song a hit in the U.S., where it climbed to number 6 on the singles charts. A version with new lyrics, recorded a decade later following the death of Princess Diana, became not just Elton’s biggest hit, but the one of the best-selling singles of all time.
An expanded version of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came out in 2003 — adding two more rockers, “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again)” and “Screw You (Young Man Blues),” the country-tinged “Jack Rabbit” and an acoustic mix of “Candle In The Wind”. The mind marvels at the thought of unheard material from this incredible era of Elton’s career, waiting to be released on whatever deluxe version coming next. But no matter, it would be churlish to ask for anything more of this nearly perfect double album.