March 21, 2013

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 “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.


March 21, 2013


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