elton john honky cat
“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time / Till touch down brings me round again to find / I’m not the man they think I am at home / Oh no, no, no, I’m a rocket man.” —“Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time),” from Elton John’s 1972 album, Honky Château
Elton John’s performance of the song begins like many of the soulful, singer-songwriter ballads on the three previous albums he’d released in the early 1970s, when most people still thought of him as a balladeer in the James Taylor/Cat Stevens mode.
But beginning with Honky Château, Elton John, along with his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, served notice that he had no intention of remaining tethered to his piano, singing sensitive love songs. He was on his way into the pop music stratosphere—at least one song in Billboard’s Top 40 every year between 1970 and 1990, including seven No. 1 hits. “I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…” he repeats over and over again on the refrain, the kind of self-creating mantra that helped the short and stout, already balding, reticent lad from Pinner, a leafy London suburb, morph into Captain Fantastic. Drawing equally on Liberace and Little Richard, the artist formerly known as Reg Dwight officially re-christened himself Elton Hercules John and, dressed in the rock ‘n’ roll version of ermine, set out to conquer the pop universe.
On Saturday, Elton John is bringing his global Honky Château tour, celebrating the 40th anniversary of its release, to Chattanooga. Coming with him will be drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, the two surviving members of his original band who played with him on the album that cemented his celebrity.
Elton’s first couple of albums had been collections of the kind of ballads so popular in the early ’70s. “Your Song,” originally released as the B side of his first single, “Take Me To The Pilot,” became his first hit in America when disc jockeys began playing it rather than the A side, which was the kind of gospel-inflected rocker that first marked him as more than just another bardic balladeer. John Lennon was listening and liked it. In 1975, he told Rolling Stone, “I remember hearing Elton John’s ‘Your Song,’ heard it in America—it was one of Elton’s first big hits—and remember thinking, ‘Great, that’s the first new thing that’s happened since we (The Beatles) happened.’ It was a step forward. There was something about his vocal that was an improvement on all of the English vocals until then. I was pleased with it.”
Interestingly, “Take Me to the Pilot” was embraced by a range of singers including Jose Feliciano, Odetta and Ben E. King, one of the American soul singers Elton John loved. It didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the time, but Bernie Taupin hated it. In their first long interview with Rolling Stone in 1973, Taupin called it a “confidence trick,” adding, “It’s great that so many people have covered that and sort of put their all into it, but that song means f***-all, it doesn’t mean anything.” John concurred, saying, “It’s probably the most unlikely song of all-time to be covered, because of the words.”
But despite Taupin’s contention that the song proved “what you can get away with,” it’s an example of the essential difference between a poem and a song. While the lyrics of “Your Song” stand alone, “Take Me To The Pilot” is a singer’s song. Anybody listening to Elton John sing that song knew what Lennon meant about John’s singing. Lennon may have heard it in the softer, more conventional love song, but for most people it was the Honky Château album that introduced a singer and songwriter unlike any before him.
Talking about the album in Rolling Stone in 1973, John compared the trajectory of his work with that of The Beatles. “It’s strange, you can compare against The Beatles. Revolver lifted them onto a higher plane, and I think Honky did that for us, and then Sgt. Pepper was their most popular and Don’t Shoot Me was ours, and then they had the White Album, and now we’ll have a double, too.” Hubris? Certainly. Warranted, well … no, not really, but the album did mark a turning point for the team of Taupin and John.
In that sense, it was their Revolver because that was the point when they decided to get serious about what they were doing. They’d had some success, but needed an album that would give the young singer a solid identity. He tried fitting in with his peers, but that wasn’t really him. He was, and still is, a rocker—and more importantly, a showman. Listening to the show John played in New York in 1970, broadcast by the radio station WABC and later released as 11-17-70, it’s apparent that unlike David Ackles (an early model for him as a singer and songwriter), he wasn’t going to be content to sit at the piano and sing his songs. His “short, stubby fingers,” as someone close to him described them, were hitting the keys like sledge hammers, particularly during the epic 18-minute-plus take on “Burn Down The Mission.” Channeling a combination of Leon Russell (a man he regarded as “some kind of a God”) and Little Richard, he tore into the song pounding the keys, pouring everything he’d learned from his years as a backing musician for American soul singers touring the U.K. in the ’60s into his performance.
Within a couple of years, he had perfected a hitherto unimagined combination of Little Richard’s passion, Wilson Pickett’s intensity and Liberace’s camp flamboyance. He told Paul Gambaccini, writing in Rolling Stone in the summer of 1973, “The act is going to become a little more Liberaceized, not in a clothes sense, or Busby Berkeleyized—I’d like to have nine pianos on stage, a cascade of pianos, and make my entrance like that. Just give the audience a really nice sort of show.”
He’s still doing it. John entertained the Queen as part of her Diamond Jubilee, then played a show for his fans in the U.K. last summer. A reviewer for The Guardian enthused that his “formidable skills as a showman explain why Reg Dwight has been rock royalty for five decades, a reign almost as long as the Queen’s. The 65-year-old makes songs he must have played thousands of times sound relatively fresh, and puts in the same effort whether entertaining royalty or riff-raff. “
It all began with Honky Château. Elton had created an image for himself as a performer and he and Taupin had begun writing the kind of songs that would support his flamboyant persona. Having gotten his preoccupation with the mythology of the American West out of his system on the widely derided Tumbleweed Connection, Taupin began writing simpler, if often still mythic lyrics, while John was crafting the kind of soaring singable melodies that make for earworms that just won’t quit.
Just hearing the title “Rocket Man” will have many people singing that falsetto chorus, fleshed out on the record by the voices of his working band—bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone—allowed into the studio with him for the first time. Prior to the Honky Château album, the first of several recorded in the Strawberry Studios in Château D’Hierouville, a palatial retreat some 40 miles outside Paris, “in the middle of nowhere,” according to John, he’d been working with a grab bag of session musicians on his records. He didn’t really enjoy the regimen, living and working in the same place, but at the same time the isolation allowed them to concentrate on the work.
And what a work it turned out to be. The reviews were uniformly enthusiastic. Reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, Jon Landau (soon to be Bruce Springsteen’s manager) wrote: “Elton John’s Honky Château is a rich, warm, satisfying album that stands head and shoulders above the morass of current releases. ... Château rivals Elton John as his best work to date and evidences growth at every possible level.”
Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” enthused that the singer had been “transmuted from dangerous poseur to likable pro. Paul Buckmaster and his sobbing strings are gone. Bernie Taupin has settled into some comprehensible (even sharp and surprising) lyrics, and John’s piano, tinged with the music hall, is a rocker’s delight.”
The album opens with the plinking, rinky-tink music hall piano of “Honky Cat,” combining a catchy, Neil Sedaka-ish Brill Building bounce with the rich gospel timbre of his pop-crooner’s airy falsetto. Meanwhile the lyric, suggesting Bourbon Street on a Saturday night, is pushed along with woozy-boozy horns and piano licks borrowed from Little Richard. A rousing, rollicking celebration of the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, it was released as the first single from the album. But it wasn’t a big hit. It was the second single, “Rocket Man,” that took off, taking Elton John and the album with it.
Mixing a classic Elton John ballad with the kind of airy falsetto-driven pop that first appeared on this album, “Rocket Man” is another example of John transcending Taupin’s nonsensical lyrics and creating the kind of soaring sing-along ballad beloved by arena audiences then and now.
Elton John and His Band • 8 p.m. • Saturday, March 23 • UTC McKenzie Arena • 720 E. 4th St. • (423) 266-6627 • utc.edu