Elton John on ‘liberating’ recording of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’
Last fall marked the 40th anniversary of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John’s multiplatinum double album that propelled the singer to superstar status. Featuring some of his most enduring hits, including “Bennie and the Jets,” “Candle in the Wind” and the title track, the album is considered by many to be a cornerstone album of the 1970s.
The album was one of the most acclaimed of a particularly inventive period in pop music. Building on broad, conceptual ideas forged by the Beatles, Kinks and Beach Boys in crafting thematically linked songs to be experienced in single sittings on long playing albums, John and others delivered big narratives featuring multi-part suites, album-side compositions and recurring musical motifs.
In the same three-year period in which John dropped “Road,” albums including the Who’s “Quadrophenia,” Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” and “Tales From Topographic Oceans” by Yes all brought a range of furrow-browed concepts to the market.
John and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s creation was one of the biggest of the bunch, even if it presented work less ridiculously imagined than deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizards and artsy spacemen with shocking red mullets. The album’s front cover, created by British illustrator Ian Beck, opened into a glorious triple-gatefold sleeve dense with art and information, suggesting a children’s book.
The just-released deluxe anniversary reissue may be a little late (the original came out in October 1973), but what’s a few months in the life of an album that addresses the passage of time, nostalgia and loss?
Featuring a remastered version of the original album, the five-disc set also offers the requisite B-sides, a demo of “Grey Seal,” a series of covers by artists including Miguel and Ed Sheeran. Two additional discs present a 1973 concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, and a DVD contains the documentary “Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye to Norma Jean and Other Things.”
Such repackaging of nostalgia, which last occurred with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” on its 30th anniversary, is particularly notable given the album’s themes. Forty years on, John and his fans have endured more funerals for friends than necessary, and the album’s biggest hit, “Candle in the Wind,” became intertwined with the wake of Princess Diana after her death in 1997. Its fans have also had to wade through many deluxe and/or remastered versions.
In a recent phone conversation, John, who is playing the Colosseum at Caesars Palace throughout April, recalled memories of working on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
It’s a little odd to reminisce about a record itself so infused with a feeling of nostalgia.
Yes. I’m not a nostalgic artist by trait. I don’t listen to my old stuff at all. But this had been planned for such a long time I had to go back and listen to the record all over again, and figure out what I’m talking about. And it was wonderful to revisit an era that was so magical, so innocent, so exciting, and it brought back lots of really wonderful, positive memories.
Was your tour stop at the Hollywood Bowl in 1973 one of those great memories?
Yes, and that really launched us, and it led to me playing Dodger Stadium [in 1975]. We were big, and then we got really big. It led to “Captain Fantastic” coming in at No. 1, and launched us into the stratosphere. I had the privilege of having a wonderful band and lyric writer and a wonderful producer. I can’t say enough how it was a team effort. And I’m very proud of that, and very emotional about it. I still have two of the boys in the band with me, and it’s so great that they’re still with me.
You and the band were originally supposed to record it in Kingston, Jamaica, right?
We did go to Kingston. We went to Byron Lee’s studio. The Stones had just done “Goats Head Soup” and Cat Stevens had done “Foreigner.” We’d done two albums at the Chateau in France. “Let’s go somewhere else.” And it just didn’t work out. The studio was on strike so we had to drive through picket lines to get in — it was a record factory as well — and the equipment, if it broke down we couldn’t get it back for a couple of days. We always had budgets to work with, so we thought we had to regroup and go back to the Chateau. Lucky enough it was empty, because otherwise we’re going to spend our budget before we even start recording.
We decamped from Kingston, went straight to Paris and made up for lost time. And boy did we. We wrote and wrote and wrote. In the situation in which we were writing, we’d always stay in different bedrooms. I would get up in the morning, Bernie would be typing away at a typewriter. He would give me a lyric. I would have my breakfast. I’d go to the electric piano. I’d start writing the song. [Bassist] Dee [Murray], [drummer] Nigel [Olsson] and [guitarist] Davey [Johnstone] would come down for breakfast and join in. We’d learn the song after breakfast and go over and record it. It was really, really a wonderful way to write and record. We did four tracks a day, probably.
Four tracks a day?
Yeah. It was written and recorded in 17 days. We put pedal to the metal, but at that time we had so much momentum going for us as a band. We’d made two band albums — “Honky Chateau” and “Don’t Shoot Me …” — and I think we turned into a new direction when Davey joined us. We had pop hits with “Rocket Man,” “Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock,” and this album was a mixture of pop and what I loved to do — Southern music, Americana, drama. It was just a mixture of everything. Happenstance and momentum made us make this record. We were going toward the top, and this was the record that pushed us even further.
Recording with that kind of confidence has to be liberating.
It was so liberating. We didn’t have any doubts in our abilities. We were full of confidence, full of joy, full of positivity. It was pre-drugs and drink for me. We had two fifth members of the band. We had Bernie and we had Gus Dudgeon producing. We had a team that was so together. The boys knew what to sing on the backing tracks, and apart from “This Song Has No Title,” where I did everything — they would do the backing vocals — I would go to bed and I would get up the next morning and hear what they’d done. We all knew what to sing, what to play. I didn’t tell them what to play. I never did that with my band. They contributed equally musically. It was a genuine band.
Was it difficult at all to go back and critique your work from nearly 40 years ago?
It wasn’t difficult. It was very beautiful, actually. It made me realize how good my band was — how good we all were — and it brought tears to my eyes because the production from Gus and the sound of the record and just the musicianship made me realize that, yeah, we were doing something really great back then. I felt a lot of gratitude for my life, and the people in my life — my band, my producer, my lyric writer. It made me feel as if I’d accomplished something really good. And as you said, I don’t really listen to many old things, but I had to because I have to do interviews about it, so I better know what I’m talking about.
What were your thoughts after listening to it with fresh ears?
There are things that I’m so blown away by. Just drum sounds, and piano sounds, the little things. It’s over 40 years old and the sound of the record is phenomenal. That’s what I loved. The only thing that bothered me was my voice, because it sounds so high. And when people review [my] show they say, “Well, he doesn’t have his falsetto.” And I’ve said it time after time: I had an operation in the 1980s in Australia which lowered the timbre of my voice. And I so much prefer my voice now.
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