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.