Counterbalance No. 132: Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’

Elton John
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Klinger: In the past, we’ve spent a good amount of time talking about the double album, and we’ve broken them down into two basic categories: the Grand Artistic Statement and the Pile. Your Grand Artistic Statements showcase an artist who is trying to create a larger narrative (Tommy) or immerse the listener in an overall mood (Exile on Main St.). The Pile records are the work of artists who just have songs coming out of their ears and cannot possibly edit them down to one cohesive statement, so they unload them all at once and leave us to sort it out. Maybe we should have come up with a less dismissive-sounding name for them, because they include such masterworks as Sign o’ the Times and the “White Album”.

Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a good example of a Grand Artistic Statement, in the sense that it is a two-record meditation on the nature of rock stardom. All throughout the album, we hear Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin both revel in and recoil from all that stardom has had to offer them thus far. It’s interesting to note, though, that this album was recorded in the most Pile-like conditions imaginable. According to the involved parties, the musicians were gathered in their mansion/studio and lyrics would get penned in the morning, a tune would be added in the afternoon and the track would be laid down in short order. It was an assembly line that led to one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1970s, and it marks the point where Elton John, the rootsy, slightly nebbishy balladeer, became ELTON JOHN, flamboyant, glammish, still slightly nebbishy rock star.

Mendelsohn: Sounds like a Pile to me, Klinger. By the time you hit “Jamaica Jerk-Off”, you are waist deep—and there is still another record in that gatefold.

I get the meditation on stardom. By the time Elton got around to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, he had had enough success to give him an understanding on the inner workings of the beast. And while he may have been famous enough I don’t quite get the feeling that he and Taupin sat down and said to one another, “This next album has to have a message—it has to mean something.” But that’s just me. I never got Elton John. Anyway, every time I hear “Bennie and the Jets”, I hear it in Biz Markie’s warbly singing voice. I’ve never heard anyone mangle a song so good. After that, I kind of drift off, and find myself wondering what Biz is doing right now. Baking cupcakes? Falling asleep in the yard after some light gardening? Hanging out in the park, dressed in a bear suit spitting verses at unsuspecting passers-by? If you were Biz Markie, what would you be doing?

Klinger: I would be strenuously disagreeing with you about the songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Say what you will about their output, they were aware of the overall themes they were creating, both before Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (as in the case of Tumbleweed Connection) and after (with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy). I’m not saying they had an executive board meeting prior to writing their albums, but it’s pretty clear to me that they were generally thinking things through.

There is a lot to plow through on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (yes, probably too much), but when an album kicks off with something as ponderous as “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, it’s pretty easy to get the impression that they’re Saying Something. (It’s clear they were trying for a semi-classical feel, but I’ll be darned if that “Funeral for a Friend” bit doesn’t sound like the soundtrack to a particularly emotional ice dancing routine.) And while it’s a lot to take in at once, it still sounds like a state-of-the-art pop album circa 1973.

Mendelsohn: All right, we just might not be on the same page. You say Grand Artistic Statement with larger narrative and I think Pink Floyd’s The Wall, not Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that this record in more concept album (I’m using that term very loosely) than a record written about some loose concepts. Although, I have to tell you, I’m enjoying listening to you passionately defend Elton John’s music against my cockamamie ramblings.

The thing killing my ability to really get into this record has always been that sort of Ice Capade feel that pops up from time to time—mostly in the ballads. But on the flip side, there is also a show-tune quality to a lot of this record, that despite my better judgement, I end up loving—because I love show tunes (seriously, when do we get to talk about Cats?).

You are right about the state-of-the-art pop on this record. For the early 1970s, this record must have been a mindblower of sorts. There is a reason this record has sold over 30 million copies. You can hear it in the title track, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, “Social Disease”, and “Grey Seal”. In listening to this record, I am really surprised about the breadth of musical styles that John and Co. employ and just how easy they bring it altogether. This album is at times rootsy and rock-a-billy, makes nods to reggae and R&B, and rocks out glam-style with the best. Throw in a handful of well-written ballads—that I can’t stand—and the variety offered up on these two slabs of wax is truly astounding.

Klinger: Yeah, there’s a lot going on here, and while I guess I understand why we need to talk about Elton John within the Great List, I still struggle with the idea that this is an important record. Maybe that’s because I’ve been hearing a lot of these songs since I was five years old. Back then I didn’t know what a penthouse was, so I thought he was singing “Can’t stop being my pen pal”. (Turns out the silly line about the horny back toad was, in fact, what he was really singing. Taupin…)

In some ways, I’m always a little surprised when an album that was a monster hit when I was a kid ends up getting revered. That might be because once the 1970s were over, I was pretty sure that everything the mainstream handed us during that decade was basically crap (exceptions being Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and maybe Fat Albert). It’s always amusing to me when some young whippersnapper gets all misty eyed about some bit of pop-culture ubiquity. I can’t escape the feeling that this was just another album of its time, the sort that one finds amid the broken Lite Brites and stained bibs of your average yard sale. But what do I know? I’m more of a Honky Chateau man myself.

Mendelsohn: I think, in some ways, every album on the Great List could be described as pop culture detritus—this album included. Sure, it is certainly very evocative of its time but now it’s my turn to strenuously disagree with your notion that this album isn’t important. As you have noted before, the Great List is a snapshot, a great, intertwined mess of influences and acknowledgements that have combined to create (for better or worse) what we all know as popular music. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is as Seventies as shag carpet and wood paneling, but it acted as another weigh station on pop music’s journey, bridging the gap between glam rock and piano ballads and allowing pop music to grow in even further disparate directions.

I would agree that this album is probably not as revered as some we have talked about in the past and not likely to hold a cherished place in all record collection, but to dismiss it as unimportant is a doing a disservice to a very talented duo—one that just refuses to stop recording sappy ballads.

Oh, if only they had recorded more “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and less “Candle In the Wind”.

Klinger: Or if they were hell-bent on showcasing their softer side, I would have recommended that they steer more toward tunes like “This Song Has No Title”, which somehow manages to be a good bit punchier. (Although it is fascinating that John could repurpose “Candle in the Wind” 25 years later to commemorate Princess Diana. So many people lived their lives like candles in the wind!)

But ultimately, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road set the template for the countless Elton John albums that were to come, and as he became more and more famous and more and more swallowed up in that fame, there came to be a fairly significant diminishment of returns with his albums. It became increasingly obvious that he was flailing—the Donald Duck suit performance of 1980 became emblematic, and I’m not sure he’s ever fully recovered. But regardless, it’s pretty clear that you can’t talk about the ’70s without talking about Elton John, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is Elton in quintessence.