Tuesday 20 December 2011

Elton JOHN: Greatest Hits

(#149: 23 November 1974, 11 weeks)

Track listing: Your Song/Daniel/Honky Cat/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting/Rocket Man/Candle In The Wind/Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me/Border Song/Crocodile Rock

(Author’s Note: the above track listing refers to the UK and Australian edition of the album; in the USA and Canada, the non-single “Candle In The Wind” was replaced by “Bennie And The Jets,” and on the 1992 CD edition which has now become standard, both tracks appear)

At some point on the day this album began its second week at number one, Nick Drake died.

He died of an overdose of prescription drugs, almost certainly accidentally, but this didn’t stop the cult of explicable depression rising in popularity in tandem with his posthumous reputation. His death was noted in the music press at the time but not many words were expended on it; in November 1974 hardly anyone had heard him, or even of him, and the NMEs and Street Lifes of the time had bigger ghosts to pursue, the living phantoms of Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson being just two of them. It maybe wasn’t until later in the seventies, or even with the ascent of a new generation in the mid-eighties, that Drake’s life, work and anti-work were pulled into a spotlight of belated golden, with the accompanying romanticisation of untimely death and thwarted beauties that has kept a thousand lesser poets in bread slicings since the days of Chatterton.

What this means is that it’s difficult to listen to Drake’s music without the curse of foreknowledge. The act of dragging oneself back into a period when all of this was new, sort of hip and smart in its internal chat is a difficult one, not helped by the greying elegy offered by Ian MacDonald in The People’s Music, and which I now see was really an extended attempt to excuse MacDonald for whatever awful decisions he might take; the rationalisation of depression, the convenient cloak of the Horrid Modern World (with all those computers; the irony being that, at the time of his death, Drake was looking into training as a computer programmer) – above all, the refusal to face both himself and the inconvenient truth that depression is a thing, a condition, that happens, no matter how firmly you shut yourself off from the world or how courageously you attempt to continue walking in the world with a world of people to support you.

What this is all leading to here is the possibility of the existence of a benign double, an odd doppelganger (emotionally if not physically) who, unlike the depressive, is able to face the world and take it on, a lot of the time against his tightest will. Or perhaps this is simply a disguised self-meditation on whether it’s better to cut yourself off from the world or fight your way back into it, a question you wouldn’t think would require any hesitation in answering, but that presupposes the absence of a darkness.

Back in 1970, when Drake was still in a condition to face the world – up to a point – Joe Boyd hired Elton John to record an album’s worth of songs by other contemporary British songwriters; John was then just beginning to make a name for himself, and Boyd thought that this friendlier approach would be a way of getting unsuspecting listeners into the world of sprites like John and Beverley Martyn, and Drake himself. Elton recorded four Drake songs and his readings take the songs’ furrowed brows and point them some way towards the sun (especially the fatalistic “Saturday Sun”). It didn’t really do Drake any good – largely because, scarred by a misguided season of playing Northern working men’s clubs, he then ran a mile from any live work – but the work indicated that here was someone a little braver than Drake, someone not without his own demons (as even a cursory listen to Empty Sky will confirm) but who was crucially able to laugh them off. There’s a famous Val Wilmer photo of Elton from ’68; it is winter, he is standing warily at the side of a dirt track backed by a few trees, but is wearing a fur coat and a large, fetching hat. You couldn’t imagine Drake making any effort beyond wriggling into his creased jacket. And at the time Elton was just another Denmark Street hustler; with Taupin, he was attempting to churn out off-the-peg bubblegum before being taken under the wing of the two Rogers – Cook and Greenaway – who encouraged the duo to find their own voices and develop them, rather than follow the charts (Cook himself appears as one of many backing vocalists, in addition to Paul Buckmaster’s choir, on “Border Song” along with the likes of Tony Burrows, Lesley Duncan and Madeline Bell - the session singing Premier League, in other words – and one can explain its inclusion on Greatest Hits as a nod to his mentor, as well as a reminder that as a session pianist he had recently appeared on the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” It is naïve but not unpleasantly so, and you can already tell that he wants to get someplace else; Aretha heard the song and subsequently took it over).

But there are strong reasons why “Your Song” has had a million plays on oldies radio and become a standard and “Northern Sky” has not; imagine, if you can, and I realise it may be almost impossible, that you have never heard this song, this record, before. It made the top ten in both the States and Britain in early 1971, and it’s fair to say that it was quite unlike anything else in those lists, even the seemingly compatible singer-songwriter musings of the likes of Cat Stevens. For one, it buckles at the thought of bedsit-compatible vulnerability; this is a song which knows exactly what it’s doing, which is deconstructing the notion of writing a song, wondering about the purpose and eventual vision of a song, how it can best touch another’s heart even if you can’t remember what colour her eyes are. The hesitation (“Anyway…the thing is…what I really mean…”) is theatrical (since it’s all done with perfect actorly timing) but what it’s trying to express is pretty well worth expressing, even if it is that all this writing and balled-up paper isn’t going to replicate the electricity, the ecstasy, of falling in love or expressing your love for another, it’s better than keeping it all hidden, cradled away from anyone’s vision. It is the overgrown student, still living in his virtual hall of residence, not quite sure of what he wants to do other than he wants to do something and that something is better than nothing, or nothing-ness (I don’t believe Drake ever gets near nothing-ness, not even with “Black-Eyed Dog,” but his music is something you view with a telescope, or listen to with the benefit of twenty years in Oxford behind you for context; come closer and he’ll scratch, just a little, but just enough). Even for a Nick Drake to carry on living, whatever it took, and have no reputation as such beyond his peers, to be another veteran of the circuit, just like Keith Christmas or Howard Werth or John Howard (the latter is the exact missing link between Elton and Drake; hear 1975’s Kid In A Big World for someone wrapped up in himself but inquisitive enough to pierce the parcel’s paper), or be like Bill Fay, shrug your shoulders when the first and second albums don’t sell and return to the day job, fitting in songwriting and music in your spare time.

And “Your Song” is a smart record, too; Barry Morgan’s drumming is a minor masterclass in stoical response to compressed emotional turmoil (his impatient tick-tocking before finally setting off in the second verse) and Buckmaster’s strings don’t overwhelm or drown the singer. Nowhere does he make any mention of being dead, even though (as it would transpire) he had already attempted suicide once. You come back from that, you stay away from it or end up playing hide and seek with it until it (like it did with MacDonald) corners you.

And there is so much trouble in the seemingly benign lanes of Elton’s Greatest Hits, a very cleverly sequenced set of songs (and punchier and crisper than their album equivalents, too; these were clearly taken from the 45 mixes and therefore sound like the intended souped-up pocket transistor), yet also so much good humour. The backbone of “Daniel” is solemn but Elton’s playful semi-yodelling “Spayayayayain” puts me in mind of Steve Bent’s “I’m Going To Spain” (“The factory floor/Presented me/With some tapes of Elton John”). But then there are two differing songs on the same subject; disillusion with the Big City (read: Modern World) and desire to return home, as impossible or impractical as that may now be. So “Goodbye” swoons with its echoed regret, but “Honky Cat” swaggers along in a self-defeating James Garner fashion (“I QUIT those days and my…REDneck ways!”). Actually John’s vocal on “Cat” might be my favourite of his; whooping (those high “New” and “fools”) and regretting nothing in a damn-you way. His piano is enjoyably bombastic, towards the end veering towards Taylor forearm-to-keyboard blocks and Tippett-like runs (never forget where he got the “Elton” from – stalwart Keith Tippett right-hand men Elton Dean and Marc Charig once played with the erstwhile Dwight in Bluesology).

It also characterises an utterly British approach to American music; the Beatles never really grew out of being fans, and neither did Elton, the ultrageek, collector of and keen listener to virtually every record released; and thus both were able to relate very naturally to American audiences. “Yellow Brick Road” for instance clearly takes its lead from The Band in its weary, knowing trudge but in ways which could only have come out of power-cut early seventies Britain. The omniscient approach was also Elton’s greatest weapon; listening to Greatest Hits is akin to having a jukebox in your home, almost machine-like in its affable and infallible versatility. You want supra-Stones rock? There’s the blitzing “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” (“It’s seven o’clock and I wanna ROCK!” Bryan Adams is 14). Sensitive memoria? The original “Candle In The Wind.” A plea for life and a future that Drake could never quite summon enough of himself up to express? “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” complete with Spectorian/Wilsonian tambourine (and, of course, actual Beach Boys in the middleground). There’s the affectionate slug to the shoulder of pop history that is “Crocodile Rock” (Prince is 12). There’s the detail (Nigel Olsson’s shivering triple snare drum flourish in response to John’s “switchblade and a motorbike” in “Saturday Night’s Alright”).

And there may also be the suspicion that this is as good as Elton might get. Add “Bennie” (with its processed audience effects, the bridge between Simone’s “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life” and “Purple Rain” – those PURPLE flashes of synth!) and you effectively have here the entire range of songs on which his reputation has been built. Worldwide it’s still his best-selling album, and while there will be more hits and sidetracks to come (many of which this tale will go on to address) there is in this Greatest Hits the air of a summing-up, the conclusion of a phase, a period. This turned out to be the case; Elton, having been written about four times in two years, now disappears from TPL for almost sixteen years, and, as a new year begins and the 150th entry looms, there begins a bend in the road and the start of a very different set of priorities in our number one albums. But for now, think of Drake dressing up as Marie Antoinette, wowing a Vietnam/Watergate/recession-depressed American public, making out like Jerry Lee Lewis were merely a tougher version of Liberace, and conclude that whatever life throws at you, sometimes, when it matters (and it almost always matters) a custard pie remains the best response. Look at the white stick sitting astride the piano, directly behind Elton on the Terry O’Neill cover; not a crutch, but a walking stick. A guide, rather than an end.

(and in case you're wondering, "Rocket Man" was a #2 single in the UK, and so is mostly for Lena to evaulate and write about, but all I'm going to say at this point is that I can't think of any harsher, more alienating portraits of a deadening "straight world" than this; "zero hour, 9 a.m." is sung as though heading for the gallows, there is the question of whether he really is a rocket man - "I'm not the man they think I am at all" - and the multiple subtexts of "in fact, it's cold as hell" and "I'll be as high as a kite by then," together with Davey Johnstone's guitar lines which swoop and climb like someone else we might know, may suggest what might have happened had Drake invested in a synthesiser and how hard his fall might otherwise might have been.)