This review is part of my unofficial “Honeymoon Series,” consisting of music I heard in clubs, cafés and other places while on my honeymoon, a combination of the unfamiliar and music I thought I’d never review in a billion years.
Of course I heard Elton John on my honeymoon. You can’t go anywhere in the world and not hear Elton John. If you look up the word “ubiquitous” in the dictionary, the primary definition is “Elton John.”
Okay, I made that up, but it sure feels that way.
While I usually tune out Sir Elton whenever he emerges from a Muzak track, I actually heard a couple of Elton songs I really like while we were tooling around Biarritz. When I got home I looked up the songs and found that both appear on Honky Château. “How convenient!” I thought as I removed him from my no-fly list. “And now I can solve the mystery!”
The mystery is this: I’d never figured out exactly why I haven’t embraced Elton John.
By all rights, I should love the guy because we have so much in common and share many interests. We’re both bisexual atheists who play the piano. We’re both liberals who give time, effort and money to human rights organizations (though I have a sneaking suspicion that Elton may outspend me). He speaks out on things that matter to me, as he did this morning in response to the increasingly hostile environment facing LGBTQ people in the United States. And on the musical side of the ledger, I think he’s a pretty nimble pianist with command of both the percussive and musical aspects of the instrument, a decent pop-rock composer and blessed with a distinctive voice that separates him from the pack. Given all that positive juju, you’d think I would have jumped at the chance to catch him in one of the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” concerts taking place in Paris this week.
Nope. Never crossed my mind.
I know there are some Elton John songs I can’t stomach. “Island Girl” is deeply offensive and I think “Crocodile Rock” is an abomination (it’s the reason my dad gave up on Elton in the early 70s). Then again, I think most of the tracks on Be Here Now are abominations but it didn’t stop me from reviewing every Oasis album. I think Taupin-John love songs are way too sappy, syrupy and sentimental—but you can say the same thing about Billy Joel’s love songs and yet I was able to move past them to write a very positive review of The Stranger. Having grown up next door to the Castro, seeing grown men in flamboyant costumes was a fairly common experience, so Elton’s gigantic sunglasses hardly provoked a ho-hum reaction on my part. For reasons unclear, the thought of doing an Elton John review has never stirred me to action. There’s just something that bugs me about Elton-John-ness that I haven’t been able to pinpoint.
I’m hoping to find the answers in Honky Château.
In reading about the album’s creation, two aspects of the recording process caught my eye. All of Elton John’s previous work had been recorded in Trident Studios in London. Likely desiring a change of venue to get the creative juices flowing, the decision was made to record at Château d’Hérouville, the “Château d’Isaster” of Jethro Tull lore. As a Tull aficionado, I wondered why on earth Elton John would want to record in such an awful place until I looked at the timeline and noticed that the recording of Honky Château predated Tull’s no-good-very-bad experience by several months. When I looked backward in time, I found this passage from Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life:
We [the Dead] went over there to do a big festival, a free festival they were gonna have, but the festival was rained out. It flooded. We stayed at this little chateau which is owned by a film score composer who has a 16-track recording studio built into the chateau, and this is a chateau that Chopin once lived in; really old, just delightful, out in the country near the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, which is where Vincent van Gogh is buried.
We were there with nothing to do: France, a 16-track recording studio upstairs, all our gear, ready to play, and nothing to do. So, we decided to play at the chateau itself, out in the back, in the grass, with a swimming pool, just play into the hills. We didn’t even play to hippies, we played to a handful of townspeople in Auvers. We played and the people came—the chief of police, the fire department, just everybody. It was an event and everybody just had a hell of a time—got drunk, fell in the pool. It was great.
Theory: The Dead did what they usually do, spreading good juju all around the place. Alas, as everyone knows, good juju has a one-year expiration date, so Elton John was fortunate to record Honky Château when good juju filled the air (affectionately nicknaming the place “Honky Château”) while Tull waited too long and got fucked.
The second and more important aspect of the recording was that the label finally allowed Elton to record with his road band. Previously, road band members were allowed to play their instruments on one track per album and maybe deliver backing vocals; most of the work was handed to studio musicians. While the studio guys were hardly a bunch of stiffs (Rick Wakeman, Terry Cox, etc.), it simply wasn’t possible to develop the camaraderie that comes from playing together night after night. The rhythm section of Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums had worked with Elton for years, while Davey Johnstone had earned himself a spot in the lineup with his multi-faceted string instrument abilities on Madman Across the Water. These guys had earned full studio access, and as a result, Honky Château has a much looser, more relaxed feel than its predecessor.
As was the case with all of his albums from Elton John to Blue Moves, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics first, then handed them over to Elton to supply the music (later giving writing credit to band members who made musical contributions). That seems like a back-asswards process to me, but it apparently worked for them. What that odd process accomplishes is that it puts Elton John in the role of interpreter twice over—translating the lyrics into complementary music and the more typical role of vocal interpretation. That’s quite a load to carry, but working with the same lyricist for years certainly lightened that load.
What’s important to remember is that in the vast majority of songs in his catalog, Elton John, born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, is playing a role within a role. Naturally introverted, he explained in a Clash interview that his change of identity allowed him to manifest aspects of his personality buried deep inside: “Elton gave me the freedom to be the person that Reg was too afraid to be.” Practice makes perfect, and over the years Bernie Taupin wrote several roles for Elton to play, from cowboy to heterosexual lover to rocket man.
“Honky Cat” kicks things off with Elton displaying his stride piano chops on both a Fender Rhodes and an acoustic piano in this funky take on early New Orleans jazz. I have to give credit to producer Gus Dudgeon for building a horn quartet consisting of some of the best French jazzmen available, most notably trumpeter and bandleader Ivan Jullien and the frequently-honored saxophonist Jean-Louis Chautemps (though I wish Dudgeon had given Chautemps more space to display his legendary improvisation skills). Elton’s vocal is spot-on with excellent phrasing, genuine enthusiasm and excellent placement of vocalizations to fill the blanks in Taupin’s lyrics. He may not sound much like a redneck attempting to escape the country for the city, but he does capture the character’s push-pull emotions.
Taupin’s lyrics are autobiographical, as he grew up on an English farm—your classic hick from the sticks. It’s interesting that he moves the scene from the green and pleasant land to the Delta, which in part reflects his obsession with Americana demonstrated on Tumbleweed Connection as well as the simple truth that in this situation, an American character is more credible due to the insatiable urge to hit the road that is part of an American’s DNA:
They said, stay at home, boy, you gotta tend the farm
Living in the city, boy, is going to break your heart
But how can you stay when your heart says no?
How can you stop when your feet say go?
And since our redneck “read some books, and I read some magazines/About those high-class ladies down in New Orleans,” Elton simply had to provide music reflective of the Big Easy and he was relatively successful (though a bit more heat would have been nice).
While everything went right with “Honky Cat,” everything went wrong in “Mellow.” As soon as I heard the first two chords I successfully predicted the rest of the pattern then sat back to not enjoy a truly terrible set of lyrics. Elton tries to make the second line of the chorus sexy by making his voice gruff and singing to a major seventh chord but the obviousness of it all kills the mood in a nanosecond. One couplet is completely nonsensical and ungrammatical to boot (“With the curtains closed and the window froze/By the rhythm of the rain”) but the one that really gets my dander up is “Oh don’t forget the beer, oh my little dear/It helps to sow the mellow seed.” A beer might make that selfish asshole horny, but all the woman has to look forward to are stinky burps in her face. “Mellow” gets my vote for one of the worst love songs ever written.
The third track is highly problematic for anyone whose teenage years coincided with the 90s, as did mine. I’m shocked that some critics and biographers considered this song about a teen contemplating suicide “an amusing ditty” and “a cheerful little thing.” Elton claimed that the song is not to be taken too seriously (Songfacts), but in the 90s, teen suicide came close to a fad. I knew a kid who offed himself and I certainly didn’t find it amusing. Perhaps people back in the early 70s viewed a teenager threatening to commit suicide as crying wolf, but it’s impossible for me to get my head around that kind of thinking. For the first time in altrockchick history, I agree with Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who described “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” as “surprisingly cynical and nasty.” Legs Larry’s tap dance is completely wasted here.
“Susie (Dramas)” finds Taupin re-indulging in his Americana addiction, “borrowing” a line from the Guy Mitchell hit “Pretty Little Black-Eyed Suzie” and giving Susie more substance as heartthrob living with her beau and “her funky family/In a derelict old alley” down by the river. The beau (portrayed by Elton John) is “an old hayseed harp player” with a perpetual boner for the pretty little black-eyed wench. Putting aside Elton’s mangling of the lyrics in the early verses in what I suppose was a vain attempt at a Southern drawl, he plays the role with passionate intensity, loading his bluesy vocal with the necessary heat. Even better are the performances of the road band members, all of whom prove they’re more than a match for the studio with in-the-groove riffs in perfect sync with Elton’s offerings. I love it when Elton and Dee Murray join in unison to execute that distinctive upward riff in the chorus; I’m knocked out by how Nigel Olsson creates suspended time in his minimalist drum transitions; and I heartily approve of David Johnstone’s guitar solo and how the tone migrates from sax to twang.
There are many aspects of the 70s mindset I have a hard time understanding, such as the embrace of disco and Charles Bronson, but the accusation that Bernie Taupin and Elton John ripped off David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to create “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” is a real doozy. Did those people believe that the human race was only entitled to one song centered around space travel? By the same logic, Star Wars should have never come into being because they already had 2001: A Space Odyssey. And why didn’t those idiots lodge a complaint against Ian Anderson’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me?” Some tried to turn the incident into a conspiracy theory by pointing out that Bowie’s effort was produced by Gus Dudgeon (who also produced Honky Château) and recorded in the same studio (Trident) where Elton John had recorded all his albums to date. “What more proof do you need?” cried the morons.
Evidence of human de-evolution aside, Bernie Taupin did engage in some borrowing when coming up with the lyrics but his sources did not include David Bowie. The primary source is a song also called “Rocket Man” written by Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine, which itself is based on the Ray Bradbury short story “The Rocket Man.” The lyrical differences between the two songs are more than enough to defend a copyright infringement lawsuit. In the Rapp retelling, the rocket man barely gives his wife and kid a second thought as he immerses himself in the thrill of space travel, but karma intervenes and the guy winds up fried to a crisp: “One day they told us the sun had flared and taken him inside.” Bernie Taupin’s rocket man misses his wife and views his space experience as a typically dreary day job that interferes with his desire to build a family. You could subtitle the song as “Average Joe in Space,” and I think that perspective is what makes the lyrics to our “Rocket Man” so poignant and accessible (and no, I don’t buy the “life of a rockstar” analogy, no matter what anyone says).
In coming up with the chords and melody, Elton kept things fairly simple and direct. Guitarists will be relieved to know that there are no complex “piano chords” (augmented or diminished), but a fairly easy progression in Bb with complementary minor and minor seventh chords (you can simplify it even more slipping a capo on the third fret and using the G chord position). The song opens with a Gmin7-C9 diversion that easily resolves to the Bb root chord. The melody is quite lovely and exceedingly catchy, strengthened by Elton’s octave leaps into falsetto mode—the line “And I’m going to be high-igh-igh as a kite by then” is a perfect marriage of lyric and melody. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say “Rocket Man” has one of the loveliest melodies in pop history.
The arrangement is equally impressive, an organic build from the base chord pattern and melody that creates a sonic reflection of the rocket man’s experience. The sheer loneliness of one-man space travel is emphasized in the opening verse, where Elton is alone with his piano. Dee Murray enters with his bass in the second verse, playing single notes for the most part, intensifying the sense of isolation before he presents a modest bass run that paves the way for chorus. The song’s centerpiece opens with a nice bit of foreshadowing via an upward swoop on slide guitar from Davey Johnstone; the background music is lovely and unobtrusive, a sweet mix of acoustic guitar, piano, light drums and initially faint three-part harmonies from the road crew that expand to cover the spectrum right before we hear a more powerful upward swoop after Elton sings “I’m a rocket man.” In an unusual move, the band immediately repeats the chorus, but while there are many songs out there suffering from over-repetition of the chorus, “Rocket Man” is not one of them. The passage is so well-crafted, so powerful and so beautiful that it bears repeating—and I look forward to hearing its double repetition in the second half of the song.
Taupin’s lyrics in that chorus are worth noting for the psychological reality that lies beneath the heroism attached to space travel. As described in an NIH study titled “The Burden of Space Exploration on the Mental Health of Astronauts: A Narrative Review,” our rocket man had every reason to admit “I’m not the man they think I am at home” and his feeling of “burning out his fuse up here alone” is completely valid.
The dangers that astronauts may face are not minimal, and the impacts on physical and mental health may be significant. Specifically, symptoms of emotional dysregulation, cognitive dysfunction, disruption of sleep-wake rhythms, visual phenomena and significant changes in body weight, along with morphological brain changes, are some of the most frequently reported occurrences during space missions.
The third verse returns us to the isolation chamber of the second verse, where the rocket man bemoans the job-related limitations that bar him from starting a family. In verse four, a synthesizer enters the picture, a bit of techno-wizardry that syncs perfectly with rocket man’s expression of job related angst, one that many inhabitants of our Digital Age will recognize in a heartbeat: few of us really understand how our vaunted technology actually works:
And all this science I don’t understand
It’s just my job five days a week
A rocket man, a rocket man
After two more glorious renditions of the chorus, Elton repeats the line “I think it’s going to be a long, long time” over and over, his voice moving further away with the assistance of echo and reverb, the rocket man moving further and further away from home.
If the Grammies had a category for “Best Acting Performance in a Song,” I doubt that Elton John would have even been nominated for his performance on “Salvation.” Though the version of Christian salvation presented in the song is the nice version where people resolve to help their fellow humans and refuse to let kids go hungry and not the mean version that wants to kill all the queers, trans people, liberals and anyone associated with abortions, his performance isn’t particularly convincing (and the song ain’t much of a song).
Elton makes another game attempt at reproducing a Southern accent in “Slave,” and while he’s a bit closer to success, I don’t think he’d fool anyone below the Mason-Dixon Line. The music isn’t particularly interesting, but the lyrics are interesting in the worst possible way. While there may have been some nice sentiments behind the lyrical composition, a glaring contradiction arises between the second verse and the chorus that pretty much destroys any point Bernie Taupin was attempting to make:
Most nights I have to watch my woman cry, oh she cries
Every day I watch the colonel smile, oh he smiles
His painted ladies riding in from town, in from town
Oh I swear one day I’m gonna burn the whorehouse to the ground, to the ground
To fight the violence we must be brave,
Hold on strong
To the love God gave, slave
So the narrator is going to burn down a pseudo-whorehouse to fight the violence? With the whores inside? Hey, a girl’s gotta make a living and by the way, I’m 100% certain that Dr. King would not approve. Ever hear the phrase “Violence begets violence?” Did anyone ever edit Bernie Taupin’s lyrics? Strike two on side two.
Elton manages to extend his at bat with a boffo performance as a horny little masochistic teenage creep and a huge assist from Jean Luc-Ponty’s electric violin on “Amy.” The song is allegedly based on a “relationship” Bernie Taupin had with an older woman, but as the little shit confesses “I am young and I ain’t never been kissed/Never been kissed by a lady called Amy,” we can conclude that the “relationship” was more fantasy than reality. That conclusion gains additional support when we learn how Amy feels about this loser:
Amy I know you don’t have to show your affection
‘Cause the big boys like you and to you I’m an infection
So if you don’t want me around
I think I’ll run along and drown
You can’t want this bum in town, Amy
The laughably tragic tale unfolds over an arrangement of super-charged funk, with all the instrumentalists locked into jittery arpeggios. Ninety-nine percent of the chords are either major sevenths or minor chords with a chord progression that hides its minor blues skeleton with an array of off-the-beaten-path chord changes. Ponty’s extended solo features the “bends” usually associated with blues lead guitar but his flurries color the solo with progressive overtones. My research revealed that “Amy” is one of the least-talked-about songs in his catalog, but I find myself wishing that Elton had written more boundary-stretching songs like this one.
I think ASCAP should have given Bernie Taupin the Golden Library Card, awarded to songwriters who engage in marathon borrowing. Here he filches a few ideas from Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector’s “Spanish Harlem,” one of several great signature songs from Ben E. King. Songfacts explains the 1972 incident that “triggered” Taupin’s latest trip to the classic song vault: “The lyrics conveyed Taupin’s take on New York City after hearing a gun go off near his hotel window during his first visit to the city.”
You’re lucky it wasn’t 2022, Bernie, because the perp might have been firing an AR-15, Gotham’s strict gun laws notwithstanding.
These two threads combined to deliver the lyrics for “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters,” one of Elton’s “all-time favourites.” He must be referring to the music, for the lyrics are something of a disappointment, a mix of garden-variety New York City imagery (trash cans, subways) and disconnected proclamations that fail to deliver a meaningful blow. While Taupin failed to convey meaning, Elton’s composition successfully captures the mood of lonely melancholy one sometimes feel in a big city surrounded by streams of strangers. His slightly tempered vocal is exquisite, suffused with a combination of feeling and detachment. When I heard the song in our wanderings through Biarritz, I found myself frozen in place by the engaging melody floating over Davey Johnstone’s mandolin and when the song was finished, I said to Alicia, “That is one damned beautiful piece of work.”
p.s. As for the line “But now I know that rose trees never grow/In New York City,” Bernie really should have done his research, as the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden was designed in 1916 and continues to thrive today within the bounds of the New York Botanical Garden.
Honky Cháteau ends on a light note with “Hercules,” a song about a wimp in love with a modern huntress who prefers the more muscular type.
That’s it. That’s the whole story. Elton should have wrapped things up with “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” and skipped this bit of album filler. The only not-particularly-interesting-but-in-fact-rather-frightening aspect of the song involves the “Doo wop shoo wop” response vocals, warning music lovers everywhere that “Crocodile Rock” lurks right around the corner.
On balance, Honky Château contains more winners than turkeys and features two of the most beautiful songs in Elton John’s catalog. Better still, listening to Honky Château turned out to be a valuable experience for me because I finally figured out what bugs me about Elton John. I can sum it all up in a simple equation.
Elton John = Post-Beatles McCartney
I think both artists were capable of much more, but instead chose to play to the crowd, literally and figuratively. Their melodic talent was generally wasted on songs that filled the pop charts but never stilled the hunger. I rarely feel challenged or surprised by their music; it’s simply pleasant, covering the limited gamut between happy and sad but not much more.
On the flip side, both men made a whole lot of people happy with their music and their performances, and in a world filled with everlasting tension, hatred and downright meanness, that is no small achievement.