Perfect 10: Elton John

Never forget where he’s come here from.

Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on 25 March 1947 in suitably unglamorous Pinner, the man who would be Elton John is the ninth best-selling musical artist in the world… ever, and one of the most famous people on the planet.

Elton is more than just an uber-successful performer, pianist and prolific composer, though. It’s often overlooked how his ineffable gift of notes and melodies is what made him the most commercially successful solo artist of the 1970s. Yet on top of all of that, ole Regina happens to be one of the finer non-classical piano players of our times. 

Compared to the outlandish attention-seeking visuals and — these days at least — rather shouty overbearing vocals, his eminently accomplished piano playing is often so understated that many don’t recognise the skill and talent that emanate from his chubby little hands. And he does that while singing different notes to those he’s playing, often with different rhythms to boot, if you can even comprehend that. Kids, don’t try that at home. 

He is the platinum standard in musical skill, philanthropy and reaching disadvantaged sorts most in need.

It’s a matter of public record that the artistry took a nosedive in the eighties, and as those creative juices started drying up, the desire for an endless stream of ludicrous collaborations and cheesy team ups took hold, with everyone from George Michael and Lady Gaga to the once-hostile Pet Shop Boys and even the roller-skating closet Sir Clifford of Richard wanting in. Gasp.

The de trop duets concept has clearly worked in keeping Elt in the spotlight, but as time has wore on, the bewigged one has become increasingly reliant on having a “trending” popstar to elevate his ego, desperate to cling to the coat tails of younger, sexier performers… and Ed Sheeran. 

Still, without further ado, here’s a reminder of his former greatness: a Perfect 10 of fabulous 45s from Elton John‘s imperial period.

Or EJ10 to you, me and Nikita.

Your Song (1971)

Elton John and long-term lyricist Bernie Taupin collaborated to write a near-perfect love song on Your Song. The self-deprecating concept behind the song struck a chord with pop music fans from London to Los Angeles, and it became Elton John’s first Top 10 hit in both the US and the UK. 

In the first of many collaborations with Elton, Paul Buckmaster, who worked with David Bowie on Space Oddity, contributed the string arrangement, while Elton’s melancholic piano work was influenced by American singer-songwriter Leon Russell, who he would later record with on 2010’s joint album The Union. That same year, the ubiquitous Ellie Goulding climbed to No. 2 on the UK singles chart with her cover of Your Song.

Tiny Dancer (1972)

Tiny Dancer seemed a nearly forgotten part of the EJ repertoire until it was revived for use in the American movie Almost Famous in 2000. It’s a sweet love ballad, and in the movie, it refers to a groupie echoing the Carpenters’ classic Superstar. 

The track first appeared on Elton’s fourth studio album Madman Across The Water. The recording is built around his voice and piano, but Paul Buckmaster’s superlative string arrangement builds the song into something much more epic. Tiny Dancer was never a hit in Britain and only reached #41 on the Billboard chart, but over time it has become one of Reg’s best loved classics.

Rocket Man (1972)

Many eagle-eared observers see strong correlations between Elton’s Rocket Man and David Bowie’s Space Oddity from 1969, both of which were produced by Gus Dudgeon. However, lyricist Bernie Taupin was reportedly inspired by either seeing a shooting star or a distant airplane. Another possible inspiration is Ray Bradbury’s short story The Rocket Man. 

Whatever the inspiration, the song peaked at No. 6 in the States and went all the way to second place in Blighty. It is included on the album Honky Chateau and helped make that collection Elton’s first long-player to reach the top spot in America. Kate Bush covered Rocket Man in 1991 on a tribute album to Elton and Bernie and that December took it to No. 12 on the UK singles chart, the very same week a live duet version of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me by Elt and Yog sat at No. 1. 

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

This song features one of Elton John’s most brilliant vocal performances of all time. Lyrically, it is a bitter breakup song. However, it is easy to get lost in the gorgeous, soaring arrangement and sing along with the chorus that has more than a hint of country sway. Bernie Taupin says The Wizard Of Oz was the first movie he saw when growing up, and he uses the Judy Garland film’s concept of following the yellow brick road to build this song up to an epic crescendo.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road spent three weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard chart. It also reached the Top Ten in Britain, denied entry into the hallowed Top 3 by the two Davids: Bowie and Cassidy. Now that’s what I call Sorrow. Very topically, here’s a bonus live rendition from Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Peace.

Candle In the Wind (1974)

Whereas the fictional band depicted in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’s Bennie And The Jets seems almost certainly a homage to his rock rival David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Candle In The Wind, from the same album (and spin off as a 45 in 1974) is absolutely a tribute to fallen movie icon Marilyn Monroe. Poignant and prescient in equal measure, it remains one of the most sensitive and moving meditations on stardom recorded by a pop star.

It goes without saying that Candle In the Wind is now best remembered for its mawkish remembrance of another dead blonde — its inclusion in Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, where, despite its rewritten rush-job lyrics, the song quickly became the bestselling single of all time. Period. 

Philadelphia Freedom (1975)

Elton and Bernie wrote Philadelphia Freedom in honour of lesbian tennis icon Billie Jean King, who was a member of the tennis team the Philadelphia Freedoms. Being released just a year before America’s bicentennial celebrations, Yankee pop pickers adopted the song as a patriotic celebration and the track reached pole position on the Billboard chart. 

The recording is heavily influenced by Philly soul which Elton would revisit a few years later during sessions with legendary producer Thom Bell. Philadelphia Freedom was released specifically as a single the very same week as David Bowie’s similarly themed Young Americans, which at least was actually taped in Philly, unlike Reg’s release, which was laid down in Hollywood. It didn’t appear on an LP until Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II released in 1977.

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word (1976)

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word has a distinctively sad song sound compared with most EJ 45s. It was the lead single of the dark-toned album Blue Moves. The track reached sixth place on the Billboard Hot 100 but failed to make the Top 10 in the UK. The album itself was the first Elton John album to miss the top spot on the US album chart since Madman Across The Water five years earlier.

In 2002, Reg re-recorded the song with the spunky British boyband Blue, and gave him yet another chart-topper in his homeland.

Song For Guy (1978)

Unbeknownst at the time, a morbidly-not-yet-obese Elton wrote Song For Guy while imagining himself dying on the same day as his Rocket Records’ young courier Guy Burchett had died in a road accident: “As I was writing this song one Sunday, I imagined myself floating into space and looking down at my own body,” the singer said in the sleevenotes for the single and a Billboard magazine ad at the time. “The next day I was told that Guy, our 17-year-old messenger boy, had been tragically killed on his motorcycle the day before. Guy died on the day I wrote this song.”

Notably, Song For Guy was penned by Elton alone, his only hit written without a collaborator. That’s because it’s almost completely instrumental, excluding words except before the final repeated refrain of “Life… isn’t everything” near the end. Unusually, the lack of lyrics did nowt to hamper its chart success, reaching a creditable No. 4 on the UK chart in January 1979 as The Village People’s YMCA was camped out in pole position. 

Are You Ready For Love (1979)

In 1977, Elton recorded with legendary Philadelphia soul producer Thom Bell who was known for work with acts such as the Stylistics, the Spinners and the Delfonics. In a departure from his usual practice, Elt recorded songs written by others and appeared on the recordings without his band. 

Originally, a full album was planned, but the sessions didn’t go too well, and ultimately only six songs were recorded. Three of them, including Are You Ready For Love, were released as part of the 1979 EP The Thom Bell Sessions. The remaining trio of tracks were released a decade later, and in 2003 a remixed Are You Ready For Love was a chart success in its own right becoming Elton John’s first 45 to enter at No.1 in its first week

Blue Eyes (1982)

You know you have made it when you can put your grand piano right in the middle of a turret overlooking the Tasman Sea. Elton John has always had a strong affiliation with Australia and even married in Sydney in 1984 — to a woman (gasp) and without a shotgun to his head (double gasp). Two years earlier, the promotional video for Blue Eyes was filmed above Tamarama Beach, the midway point of Sydney’s beautiful Bondi to Bronte coastal path, and an iconic trail I’ve trekked many times myself. 

A stately ballad showing off the lower vocal register Elton would employ almost full-time from here on in, harmonically, Blue Eyes is deceptively complex, with the verses in the key of B flat and the chorus in the key of D minor. According to trusty wikipedia the song and video were in dedication to Hollywood glamour puss Elizabeth Taylor, even though her eyes were famously violet. 

Coincidentally, a year later EJ would film a video for the better known I’m Still Standing in the place I’m writing this — Nice (and a bit in Cannes too) on the Côte d’Azur in the South of France. On a clear day I can even see Elt’s hilltop mansion on the Mediterranean city’s leafy extremity, Mont Boron. Though I bet he can’t see me, even with all those glasses.

Steve Pafford, Promenade des Anglais, Nice (the coastal route snaking behind this pair then…)

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