I don’t like to say bad things about Elton John. How can someone who gave us classic songs like “Daniel”, “Your Song”, and “Rocket Man” be disparaged? Of course, this is the same singer/songwriter that gave us the inescapable “Candle in the Wind ‘97” and the stinker of a musical Aida. Can I forgive these more recent sins in light of all the good things he did early in his career? Why not?—I’ve already done it with that genius-cum-has-been David Bowie.
And speaking of Bowie, doesn’t his reissue deal with Virgin Records seem a lot like the one E.J. must have with Universal? Both labels are remastering and rereleasing the complete catalogs of their artists, regardless of consumer demand. Sure, it makes good sense to repackage classic albums like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Heroes, but does anyone really want an expanded version of Tonight or Never Let Me Down? By the same token, you may be interested in a reissue of Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Captain Fantastic, while not even recognizing titles like Sleeping with the Past and Ice on Fire. There’s a good reason for that: those latter titles stink. No amount of pretty packaging can hide that. It makes sense, though, that the labels reissue these clunkers all the same. If you want the good albums, you have to take the bad ones, too. Honestly, can you imagine some suit trying to tell David Bowie or Sir Elton John that many of their albums simply aren’t very good? Do that, and you might well jeopardize the entire project.
That’s likely why we have a new version of Reg Strikes Back, remastered and featuring four bonus tracks. A lot was riding on the album’s original MCA release in 1988. It was John’s first album after leaving Geffen Records, and he needed to prove that he was still a commercially viable artist. While John’s winning streak of the early to mid-‘70s was well over, he’d experienced a small triumph with 1983’s Too Low for Zero, which featured the hits “I Guess That’s Why That Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing”. Significantly, that album reunited John with his old road band and lyricist Bernie Taupin, whose relationship with the singer had effectively ended with 1976’s Blue Moves. It is little surprise, then, that for his MCA comeback, John wrote exclusively with Taupin. Even the album’s title shows that the former Reginald Dwight was fairly begging for a commercial success. The Sgt. Pepper-esque cover art also tries to cash in on Elton’s past successes by featuring a collage of his old stage costumes, which bring to mind all his past songs and personas. Interestingly enough, John would auction off these items through Sotheby’s that same year.
For all its surface attempts to recapture the Elton of old, however, Reg just doesn’t make the cut musically. The remake of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (originally featured on John’s 1972 breakthrough album, the chart-topping Honky Chateau) is plagued by its overproduction, a problem that weighs down most of the album. One major exception is the hit single “I Don’t Wanna Go on with You Like That”. Prominently featuring John’s electric piano, the song is both hook-filled and danceable. Two alternate mixes of the track are included, and both are good, if not indispensable.
The remainder of the album, however, consists of filler. Chirpy, uptempo numbers like “Town of Plenty” and “Heavy Traffic” are balanced out by big ballads like “A Word in Spanish” and “Japanese Hands”. The concern with locale as demonstrated by the latter two titles contributes to the unwelcoming nature of the album. On their older material, John and Taupin didn’t need to invoke exotic imagery to strike an emotional chord. Ballads like “Daniel” and “Your Song” got their power from being intimate and personal. Word has it that John’s latest release, Songs from the West Coast is a return to a more personal singer/songwriter style. If so, it’s probably a much better way to spend your money that the reissued Reg Strikes Back.