Elton John's Magic Year

In 1973, Elton John and Bernie Taupin capped one of pop music's most epic periods of sustained creativity by writing, recording, and releasing the 10-track single disc Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player and the 17-track double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, both of which are now celebrating their 50th anniversary (footnote 1). As two of the strongest entries among the many classics that make 1972–73 the peak years for rock albums, both went #1 in the US and UK and arguably stand as the dual highpoints of John's recorded legacy.

At the center of both records is the unusual way Bernie Taupin and the former Reg Dwight created music. In a reversal of the usual music-first, lyrics-after method that most songwriters or songwriting teams worked, Bernie wrote the lyrics then Elton fit the music to them—often in brief, furious writing sessions. Don't Shoot Me was written and recorded in 14 days with four tracks captured on their first take. That breathless feat was surpassed when, other than "Grey Seal," which was written in 1970, Taupin wrote the lyrics to every song on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in two weeks before Elton wrote all the music, 22 tracks of which 17 became the album, in an astonishing three days.

In the 2014 article by Andy Greene in Rolling Stone, "Elton John and Bernie Taupin Look Back at Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," they each explain how they viewed "Bennie and the Jets," from GYBR, exposing clues as to how such classic pop music could emerge from such divergent viewpoints. "I saw Bennie and the Jets as a sort of proto–sci-fi punk band," Taupin said, "fronted by an androgynous woman who looks like something out of a Helmut Newton photograph." Elton added, "When I saw the lyrics for 'Bennie and the Jets,' I knew it had to be an off-the-wall–type song, an R&B-ish kind of sound or a funky sound. The audience sounds were taken from a show we did at the Royal Festival Hall years earlier. The whole thing is very weird."

Both albums find the pair and their collective imagination caught between the UK where they grew up and an America that obviously held mystery for them. The songwriting alights on topics from both worlds. While "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)," from GYBR, is an obvious nod to UK pub louts, DSM's first single, "Crocodile Rock," is a rollicking '50's-style rocker that harks back to both men's love of Elvis Presley. In the end, neither of these cultural travelogues indulges in many love songs, a refreshing change from most pop albums of the time.

Throughout both albums, the mix of Elton's irrepressible melodies and Taupin's sharp-eyed lyrics often approaches perfection. DSM's "Teacher I Need You," with a backward echo effect on the piano, is such a fevered paean to falling in lust with a schoolteacher that it must have come from personal experience. Brassy rocker "Elderberry Wine" from the same album contains one of Taupin's oddest lines: "You aimed to please me, cooked black-eyed peas-me." Despite being a song fragment that's repeated, the A.R.P. synth and Mellotron ballad "Daniel" was a hit single. Written with Elton's friend Marc Bolan (T. Rex) in mind, "I'm Going to Be a Teenage Idol" also nods toward the aura of celebrityhood that infuses both albums. Elton happened upon the title of DSM at a Hollywood party when his new friend, the inimitable Groucho Marx, made a pistol with his fingers and pointed it at Elton, who quickly replied, "Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano player."

On Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, packaged as a trifold with an iconic cover illustration by Ian Beck, the range of subjects and musical styles is nothing short of breathtaking. On Side Three, the most consistent album side of Elton's career, the lens swings from a wheezy sea shanty about working girls ("Sweet Painted Lady"), to the Prohibition-era gangster ode "The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)," and on through a hard-luck case, the raucous "Dirty Little Girl," on which Taupin opines, "you have to clean the oyster to find the pearl." The side ends with the A.R.P.-synth crackle of "All the Girls Love Alice." One of the most underrated tunes from either album, "Social Disease," from Yellow Brick Road, fades up with a banjo strum before becoming a joyous romp through alcoholism that peaks with a honking saxophone solo and verses that end with "And the ladies are all getting wrinkles/And they're falling apart at the seams/Well I just get high on tequila/And see visions of vineyards in my dreams."

Both albums are the sound of a band and their leader in a comfortable, productive groove. Despite the guest artists and larger bands he'd work with in the future, it was with guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson that Elton best realized his essence as a singer and songwriter. The unspoken symbiosis between producer Gus Dudgeon and the band had become machinelike: They came, they wrote, they recorded. The mixes were balanced and musical, and both albums are exquisite examples of recording and overdubbing on 2" tape. They were tracked in the familiar environs of the 16-track studio in Château d'Hérouville (aka Strawberry Studios) near Paris. Painted by Van Gogh and the one-time home of Frédéric Chopin, the estate saw Elton record three albums there beginning with 1972's Honky Château, whose title was the band's affectionate slang for the studio.

"It was a very exciting time in my life," Elton admitted in the 2014 Rolling Stone interview. "It was a time that we had no fear, nothing was beyond us. It's a wonderful thing the young have when they get on a roll. We were running on momentum and adrenaline. ... And this was our example of being at the height of our creative powers."

Footnote 1: UMG says it's too soon for them to release details about fresh reissues of either album. To date, DSM has been reissued 250 times and GYBR 405 times (including audiophile versions). A 2023 Record Store Day release of DSM featured a second disc of demos and marbled vinyl.

georgehifi's picture

Trouble is it got progressively squashed (compressed) as the years went on for car, earphone, Walkman, lift music etc etc anywhere's there's background noise. Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" syndrome.

Cheers George

remlab's picture

today (Along with an album skip from 50 years ago) and then I read this article. Weird how that happens sometimes. So random.