My Record Collection 98

Elton – The Eighties

1983 saw the release of Elton’s 17th studio album, the quite excellent Too Low For Zero.   After a string of middling albums Elton and Bernie were fully re-united, and together with his original backing band worked hard on composing a new set of songs.  And the album is really good; not quite in the league of those Seventies classics but pretty good all the same.  A cracking hit single ‘I’m Still Standing’ which was almost a personal statement – and a great video too.  Other favourites ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’ and ‘Kiss The Bride’.  A welcome return to form, which continued with the follow-up Breaking Hearts (1984).    Well, almost – a handful of very good songs ‘Passengers’, ‘Burning Buildings’ and ‘Sad Songs Say So Much’; but an almost lacklustre feel to some of the other songs’ as if he was just going through the motions.  And maybe he was.  The band was breaking up again and the next run of albums were truly disappointing.  1985’s Ice on Fire; again his regular sidesmen quit and Elton resorted to session players, the album sounds weak and unexciting.  It is almost saved by the brilliant ‘Nikita’ but little else really hits the sweet spot.  Leather Jackets the following year is even worse.  This was at the height of Elton’s Coke habit and both he and producer Gus Dudgeon later declared it the worst of all his records.  No songs seem to redeem a real turkey.   ’87 saw a live album Live In Australia, which was a concert with a fill orchestra, which should have been quite something – and yet, Elton sounded a bit desperate; his voice too shouty and a bit rough.  I suppose I just preferred the studio versions.  Saying that, it was nice to hear some of the earlier songs again, especially ‘The Greatest Discovery’ and ‘Carla Etude’ and of course ‘Tiny Dancer’, which since then has become a staple of his live performances.  So, as so often re-listening again I realise that some of these albums which I thought I didn’t love are like old treasures, left in a loft, and uncovered again.  And looking on Wikipedia I discover that shortly after recording this concert Elton underwent throat surgery.  He didn’t then tour again for 18 months and his range changed too.  1988 and Elton released Reg Strikes Back (his real name being Reg Dwight – hardly a rock name).  This was supposed to be his big comeback album after a string of (relative) flops.  The cover featured many of his famous and outrageous stage costumes which he was putting up for auction – another sign of a new beginning.  So, the album.  Well, at the time I wasn’t so impressed really – I was buying his new albums out of a sense of hope rather than experience, but re-visiting it really is not so bad.    But then again it isn’t that good either.  Trying too hard, might be my final appraisal.   A few half-decent songs – ‘Japanese Hands’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Go on With You like That’ but the worst crime of all was to title a song ‘Mona Lisa’s and Mad hatter – part 2’.  What a travesty, and this rubbish has absolutely nothing to do with the classic song it is titled for.  So, what next?  Another re-appraisal of course, and this time it seems to have paid off.  Trying to write a cohesive album based on their mutual love of early 60’s Motown and Stax records Elton and Bernie wrote a classic album, Sleeping With The Past, deliberately basing lyrics and music on Soul classics.  The album went to number 1 in America and in the UK, the first for over a decade.  Number 1 single ‘Sacrifice’ was Elton’s first and well deserved.  But the whole album is warm and feels, at last, as though Elton is happy. Other great songs – well, really they all are, but if I must choose – ‘Club at the end of the street’, ‘Healing Hands’ and ‘Blue Avenue’ stand out, just, from a splendid crop of songs.  A real triumph, which makes it’s follow-up, while good on it’s own terms, seem a slight disappointment. The One (1990) is okay, but nowhere as good as its predecessor.  Of course, it must be incredibly hard to keep writing great songs, but Elton does seem to drift into excess and sublimity with almost every new album.   Best songs, the title and ‘Understanding Women’.  So, a strange decade – but then many great artists suffered in the Eighties – Dylan was a drift, McCartney patchy and Joni sliding into obscurity.  Maybe it was the changing production techniques, or the invasion of young pretenders.  Oh Well

A Walk By The Sea

What was it we said – when we walked, as so often then – one foot flat on the sand, the other skimming the surf?   Were we not tempting fate, wishing almost to be overwhelmed by doubt and dragged under as the waves crash and hurl us about?  The calm of that day was a moment away from the storm that flared in your soul. The sea.  Ah, the sea.  We were mystically linked and forever entranced by those ever-shifting waves.  We yearned for connection – maybe a folk memory drew us back, to a time long before we were people.  There was something about the solitude, the disconnect with our normal lives of rush and bustle.  Something peaceful and pure, the power of each wave and the suction of the sand as the waves receded, dragging us ever deeper into the sea

And so, when walking there, words came; from some deep part of our sub-conscious.  I wondered about the nature of Men and Women and how they see the World in different colours.  And You?      I was never sure of your thoughts at all; I had to invent them for silent you were, as silent as the sand beneath our feet.   I was the seeker, the searcher for answers to the Universe, where for you the Universe was right there in the palm of your hand.  I was concerned by what the sea meant to each of us – and mostly the essence of our being there at all; you just watched the waves.  I was thinking how fragile we were, the entire human race.  How we think we have power and permanence, and the illusion of that very permanence.  In fact, the illusion of permanence is the only permanent thing in this ever-shifting illusory world.

And so, as I walk, alone now, but thinking of you, my mind unwinds and I begin to write…..A story.  A poem.  A memory I might once have recalled.  A conversation we never really had but maybe should have, begins to unfold…. 


He ;   Did I ever tell you, we are an island race

            Swept by currents chill

            And cliffs that crumble, like the lines in your                     face

          Waves that deposit and build


          Standing on these Headland Heights

          Cutting knife the wind

          Voices carry – drifting in – and stark, they slip                    away


She ;   Standing on those Headland Heights

             Blown apart by it all

             Voices carried – drifting in – like siren gulls they               called


            I can’t help but wonder what

            And for who they dare to speak

            For the strong who bruise me with their words

            Or – those of us so meek 


            And down by the sea where the shingle talks

            You get close to the heart of it all


He ;     The heart of it all, she says

              As if emotions matter at all

              But hold me close, the wind gathers strength

              I will catch if you should fall     


             You think these cliffs have always been here

            They were formed an eye-blink away

            But they’ll disappear just like us I fear

             In a month, a year or a day     


            In our restless quest we change every day

           Seeking perfection and truth

           A chain we are breaking as each link slips away

           We’re never the same as our youth


She ;  Our youth? That seems a long time ago

            Many seasons have passed since that time

           Blazing sun, wind, rain and then snow

          Will I ever regain those lost seasons of mine


          Back then I thought you were strong,

        Gentle, kind and mild

        But all that I own is this heart-shaped stone

       You gave when I carried your child


         This strand of man that clings to my hand

          A ribbon that winds as it binds

          Is a filament waving – a fine golden thread

          For a pendant, of flame-flashing fire

          And I sometimes feel so guilty

          I know I should atone

          For crimes that must, surely, be mine

          For loving that heart made of stone


He ;    Is this the stone that our daughter wears

            Semi-precious – as you are yet


She :   Yes – give it back – please let me hold

             Unfold its innermost net


           I thought I knew all about you

           Could read you like a book

           But turning around, for a second, I found

           You’d changed in the time it took


He :   Ah, the time it took, for what is time

           But another illusion of ours

          We think we know all about time

         The minutes, days and the hours

         But all permanence is illusion

        Stones will slowly dissolve

         Cliffs do crumble in the pouring rain

         The shore is a wavering line


She ;  You talk about the shore itself

            But you never swim in the water

            You stand on the sand

            And command with your hand

            As you left us, me and your daughter


           Yet the sharpest stone in your armoury store

           The one that cut me to the core

           Was soft at the edges, rounded and smooth

           A net to hold and bathe my wounds


He ;    Is this the stone that you found on the beach

          That day you went out on your own

          When the gulls flew low and the boats were

          Tethered, grazing the close-cropped sea


She ;   Yes – I do believe it is – I keep it here on the                       shelf      

            A reminder of days when I knew my own name

            When maybe I even trusted myself

            When I thought I knew the person to blame


            And I know you are clever – that I should agree

            About the constant nature of change

           Of illusion – erosion – evolution –     

           You see

           But to me the stone looks the same   

Shoreline landscape view in Upper Peninsula, Michigan ...



My Record Collection 97

Elton – The circumstance

So, Elton was on top of the World – and yet, he had stumbled with Rock of The Westies, he had dismissed two of his faithful sidesmen, and he was consuming industrial quantities of Cocaine.  Bernie and he were still writing however and Elton was planning a new double album.  Trouble was, there was no-one telling him to slow down.  Blue Moves came out in 1977, the first album on Elton’s own record label Rocket records.  A strange title and a strange cover, which should have been a warning.  It is a very downbeat and sad old record.  One or two good songs ‘Tonight’ and ‘Sorry seems To Be The Hardest Word’ but many of the songs seem scrappy and frankly boring.  A few are credited to Elton and other members of the band, so were almost certainly worked up in the studio.  Lyrically not exciting either.  Maybe it would have been possible to have recued a half-decent single album out of it.  So, now we had 2 duds in a row. Not that it seemed to have affected sales or Eltonmania.

Then for almost 2 years we had nothing,   Then a new record emerged late in 1978 A Single Man.  The title said it all; this was the first album not to include any lyrics by Bernie Taupin; words were supplied by Gary Osborne instead.   Whether this was Elton saying he could make it without Bernie or a serious split we don’t know; I suspect it was about (as usual) musical differences.  But surprisingly it is really a good album.  Not among his very best but certainly a return to some sort of form.   My favourites are; Georgia’, ‘Part-Time Love’ and ‘Big Dipper’ where he seemed to move into new musical territory – and of course the wonderful final instrumental ‘Song For Guy’.  Maybe the break from Bernie had given him more room to experiment.  Quite soon he would hook up again with Taupin but for a few years he tried out other lyricists.  For a while I had hoped that he had got the whole Philly Souls stuff out of his system, but I was wrong.  He still saw himself as a soul-singer and in 1979 he released an EP of songs with Thom Bell, a hip American producer, called The Thom Bell Sessions.  These songs were recorded in 1977 without his regular band or producer, rather, Elton used a successful Philly producer who wrote the songs too.  There were originally 3 tracks released in ’79 and a decade later the whole 6 from the sessions.  They are okay but I don’t really consider them as part of the Elton collection.  Elton’s singing seems a bit flat and the songs aren’t great either.  Well, an even stranger album arrived in 1979 – Victim of Love.  This is a very short (36 minutes) disco album of songs mostly written by producer Pete Belotte.  Elton doesn’t even play piano and used all session players.  I feel that this was another experiment, trying to find a new identity perhaps.  Saying that I really quite like the album – it rolls along almost as one long track.  It was almost his poorest seller too, and he has never played any of the songs live.  Best track is the Chuck Berry opener ‘Johnny B. Goode.’

So after a string of less successful albums where did this leave Elton?  It was the beginning of the Eighties and he still had a huge fan base just dying for him to release something like his old records again.   His next record was 21 at 33 (technically if you include compilations and doubles and live albums his 21st release at age 33).  He seemed to have a scattergun approach, different lyricists, different styles, new producers – there is no cohesion to the album.  Saying that there are quite a few half-decent songs on it; the single ‘Little Jeannie’ and ‘Never Going To Fall In Love Again’ (words by Tom Robinson) and ‘Two Rooms’.  But this was Elton John, and we wanted more than a few half-decent songs, we wanted to be blown away like we were in the Seventies.  But this was the Eighties and we were just going to have to get used to it.  Next up was The Fox (1981) which I actually loved.  It seemed, and still does, different.  It had a warmer more coherent feel to it.  It had a handful of classical instrumentals too; ‘Carla Etude/Fanfare’ and the lovely ballad ‘Chloe’.  Some of the songs are a bit weak but overall it seems a better album.  It is really saved from obscurity by the final and title track – ‘The Fox’, which is one of my very favourite Elton compositions.  Jump Up (1982) was another strange one.  Elton in a very sharp suit looked as if he was desperately trying to catch up.  Not such a bad record however – some good songs – ‘Empty Garden’ (about John Lennon), and ‘Blue Eyes’ but again it seems to lack any real conviction.   Elton seemed a bit adrift, directionless, out of touch and although no-one doubted his ability he was having difficulty reclaiming the relevance he once had.  Maybe all that touring and all those drugs were taking their toll.