Since Elton John’s albums have been gracing the music scene since 1969, there is little wonder to the fact that a boxset consisting of five of his early albums (Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman across the Water, Honky Chateau, and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player) is being released. It may be argued that some of his best music came from these albums, and fans of Elton’s early work will be in high spirits at this release. I myself was excited by the prospect of listening to all of the tracks in the Classic Album Selection, and am now in the happy position of being able to relate my thoughts. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
The first of the five albums is Elton John, which opens with Elton’s first UK hit, and coincidentally one of my favourite songs of all time, Your Song. Covered recently by Ellie Goulding and also featuring in the film Moulin Rouge, the timeless popularity of this song is clear. A sweet, truly lovely melody with terrific lyrics, this makes the perfect opening to the boxset. It is followed by a song that I have to say completely surprised me due to being quite dissimilar to tracks often heard by Elton John. I Need You to Turn To added what I like to call the ‘Greensleeves Effect’: giving a touch of the medieval while still maintaining credibility and not becoming ridiculous. I have to say it was a welcome surprise, and I loved it. The B-side to the single Your Song comes next: Take Me to the Pilot. I got a very distinct feel of early Scissor Sisters from it once it got going, proving the influence that Elton John has over modern pop. It is an experimental track, but it works and is enjoyably upbeat.
Following the first three stand-out tracks, there are a few that seem to be in the shadows. While being great lyrically, I was not as drawn to them, and felt they faded into the background somewhat in comparison to some of the real gems on offer. Thrown amongst this mix is a track called Border Song that I feel brings the album back to life, injecting some of the brilliant piano melody that Elton is so famed for. While not incredibly energetic, it is a pick up from the preceding songs, and I very much liked it. A couple of tracks further on in the album and The Cage can be found. This song truly shines with effortless cool. It is lively and fast-paced, with a bizarre yet interesting interlude halfway through that makes a fun change. Definitely a highlight of the album, it’s a pity this is a relatively short song!
The next two songs are both interesting. They are not my favourites, but I took pleasure in hearing the different sounds that Elton John, along with co-writer Bernie Taupin, were able to create. The album ends on a high with a track called Rock n Roll Madonna: an infectiously catchy tune with an upbeat feel. After some of the slower tracks midway through Elton John, I felt that I needed to hear something like this to end the album, so I was definitely not disappointed!
Moving onto the second album in the line-up, Tumbleweed Connection, there is an opening song very much like what people may expect from Elton John. In Ballad of a Well Known Gun, the piano melody is fun and the pace steady, pleasantly easing us into the album. Skip ahead to Country Comfort, the third track, and there can be found another classic, expected melody; only this time with a country edge to the chorus that helps it to stand out that little bit more. Previously, I mentioned a song that demonstrated how Elton John influenced the Scissor Sisters. On this particular album, the song Son of Your Father gives me this feeling ever more strongly. This song is one of the best on the album – and, indeed, the boxset – for excitement because of its liveliness. It is one to note and certainly one to be enjoyed.
Similarly to Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection begins to feel in the middle that it is slowing down a little. When I got to this point as a listener, I needed a surprise. While Where to Now St. Peter and Love Song are both good tunes, they don’t quite have the sense of ‘oomph’ that I was listening out for. Amoreena, however, starts to pick it back up again with a refreshingly brighter beginning and a brilliant piano part. The next few tracks are lively enough but they are still unsurprising. While great to listen to on their own, listening as an album I got a little bogged down by the similarities in them. The last track, Madman across the Water (later to feature as a slightly different version in the album of the same name), left me unfortunately underwhelmed, because it was a very quiet end to what had started as a truly brilliant album. Tumbleweed Connection is much better when listened to a couple of tracks at a time.
Madman across the Water has another much loved song as its opening track – Tiny Dancer. One of Elton John’s classic tunes, this is a song that picks up the pace from the previous album, is highly entertaining, and incredibly memorable. It is great to hear this right at the start as it sets an optimistic and positive mood for songs to come. The next song, Levon, needs a minute or so to get going: give it a chance though because once it does, it really is fantastic once it gets ‘into it’. The slightly different version of Madman across the Water – the title track – that I mentioned earlier is not much more satisfying than the original version. It is quite catchy, but remains too slow and unchanging. In a way, it feels like there is something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I know that I want more from it!
The rest of this surprisingly short album is pleasing but only a couple of tracks stand out as highlights. Indian Sunset is very strange but its major strong point is its difference to what has already been heard. It is atmospheric, starting with an odd plain vocal and later becoming more rhythmic and catchy. Holiday Inn is by far my favourite song on the album as it really keeps a good pace and makes a bit of foot-tapping completely irresistible. The album is ended by a short, quite sweet track – Goodbye – that sounds sad yet hopeful, and does capture the sound of some of the quieter tracks on the album.
Honky Chateau is a completely different kettle of fish from the records so far: it has been given some of the best critical acclaim of any of Elton John’s albums, and no wonder! It’s the big surprise I had been waiting for while listening to the boxset as a whole. I loved it, and was surprised by and interested in it in a way I had not been with the previous three albums. The opening song, Honky Cat, is a bluesy but up-tempo track that is a highly enjoyable listen and makes a wonderful change from some of the earlier songs that, while good, had started to become too similar. The ironically titled I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself is wonderfully lively and seems to convey a flippant opinion of circumstances. This is demonstrated in the bright, catchy melody and humour that are the essence of the song.
Susie (Dramas) is another upbeat melody, bringing back some of the really fun piano rocking that makes Elton John so great. This is followed by Rocket Man, a well-known song that has the foot-tapping quality similar to Holiday Inn from Madman across the Water; it has a real punch to it that I feel some of the slower songs lack. The melody and lyrics are memorable, and I think it being placed in the middle of the album is perfect, as it keeps the pace going well. Next up come two tracks that, while mellow and easy listening, still have the power to keep enthrallment. Salvation and Slave are both steady yet entertaining, and successfully manage to keep away from the phrase ‘album track’. Slave has an alternate version that is simply superb: a very fast-paced, energetic track with an incredibly fun and catchy piano part. This version can be found at the end of the album and is not one to be missed!
Before the album reaches its end with Slave (Alternate Version), however, there lie two tracks within that are sparkling gems in the Honky Chateau selection. Amy provides a brilliant rock ‘n’ roll sound that is so appealing and likeable that it is hard not to love it instantly. In fact, it takes the foot-tapping effect to a new level and just makes you want to dance (even without a few drinks in you first!). Hercules is the second of the late favourites, starting promisingly and moving into a country rock ‘n’ roll style that works perfectly. How wonderful that these two tracks, along with the alternate version of Slave are left until very late on in the album, so that energy levels remain high and the album ends by giving that hated-but-loved-at-the-same-time feeling of wanting more! This album is my favourite in the boxset, standing out from the crowd as one of Elton John’s finest creations.
Elton John takes the rock ‘n’ roll feel of Honky Chateau forward with Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, with the latter sounding a little less raw and a little more polished. Both qualities have their plus points, and Don’t Shoot Me I’m the Piano Player does come quite a close second to Honky Chateau in my opinion. The first song of the album, Daniel, is another of his very well-known, timeless classics. It starts the album off well, easing the listener in while being catchy, and effortlessly keeping interest. The next two tracks keep an upbeat and steady feel, with Teacher I Need You having the old fashioned but somehow ageless feel that Daniel has, and Elderberry Wine showing off a more rocky voice and one of the great piano parts that Elton is renowned for.
Move a little further ahead and there is a real treat in store with Midnight Creeper. One of my favourite songs in the boxset, this has such an infectious beat and had me clicking my fingers, bobbing my head and really wanting to dance. It is a refreshing change and seems to have lots of different genres seamlessly combined. I could hear glam rock thrown into a mix with blues and pop, and it works so incredibly well on this track that it stands out for all the right reasons. It is unfortunately followed up by a song that I could not quite get my head around. Have Mercy on the Criminals was altogether too weird and hard to follow: a slight blip that I am likely to skip past next time, on what is generally a great album.
The blip in Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player is, however, just that. A blip. For the rest of the album, every track has its standalone merits. Once again I encountered a slight feeling of needing something to pick me up towards the end, but I still enjoyed what I heard very much. Crocodile Rock is a very well-loved song of Elton John’s, featuring on multiple film and television soundtracks, and it isn’t hard to see why. It has a great rocky piano part and keeps spirits high, and I could listen to it over and over again. It is lively and full of punch, keeping this album from having too many slower, similar songs.
Screw You (Young Man’s Blues) and Jack Rabbit keep the album going and are the last tracks in the boxset to really stand out for me. They keep a positive feel going for just long enough that the calmer end to the album isn’t boring. They both have quite up-tempo melodies and have that good old foot-tapping effect that I love so much. They are songs to listen out for and are definitely worth taking the time to hear. The album ends with calmer, unsurprising songs, but this is not, in this case, unsatisfactory. Skyline Pigeon [Piano Version] has a finality to it that works brilliantly for the end of the album, and indeed the end of the boxset. It has an air of hope but is a definite ending, giving a feeling similar to that of the end of a happy film: I knew it was the end and I was satisfied by how it was done.
All in all, the Classic Album Selection (1970-1973) Boxset from Elton John is definitely worth a listen, particularly to those who don’t have a huge knowledge of his earlier music. While some tracks are too strange or do not seem to go far enough, most are entertaining and enjoyable, with some placing amongst my favourite songs of all time. Hits like Your Song, Tiny Dancer, Rocket Man and Daniel will always be cherished classics, and some songs that were new to me, like Amy, Midnight Creeper, The Cage and Son of Your Father should be. That is, of course, if they aren’t already.
Classic Album Selection (1970-1973) Boxset by Elton John is out on 16th July 2012 via Universal Music.