The Decline and Fall of Elton John’s ‘Captain Fantastic’

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
Elton John

I always wanted to be famous — the old ego bit . . . I never wanted to be a movie star, because in 50 years’ time if you mention an old film stars’ name they’ll just say ‘Who?’ But they’ll still be playing Gershwin.
— Elton John, “Jackie” Magazine, 1969For we were spinning out our lines, /
Walking on the wire, /
Hand in hand went music and the rhyme, /
The Captain and the Kid, Stepping in the ring, /
From here on sonny, /
It’s a long and lonely climb.
— “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, released in 1975, was the culmination of six years’ feverish exertion. Beginning with the 1969 release of the unheralded Empty Sky, the team of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote and recorded a staggering nine albums, not including the live album 11/17/70, the soundtrack album Friends, and a handful of one-off singles. One of these albums, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, was even a double. Captain Fantastic was the first album to ever premiere at number one on the Billboard album charts, a feat thought impossible in those pre-Soundscan days. It was also, significantly, the last great album of John’s early career, and some would probably say his last great album, period.

It’s something of a minor tragedy that John’s recording career has come to be so thoroughly overshadowed by his very public antics and high-profile extra-curricular activities. As Paul Gambaccini notes in the liner notes to the re-released Captain Fantastic, “for every decade of his career Elton the serious album artist has had another image [with which to contend].” The flamboyant costumes, outrageous performances, the philanthropy, the gossip, the feuds, the shopping trips… they all worked to overshadow the image of John as he presented himself in his early career, as a conscientious songwriter and consummate artist.

Plus, it must be reckoned, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since his high-water mark in the mid-’70s. The stream of competent but unexceptional singles that he produced in the ’80s, which were in turn attached to a stream of mediocre-to-bad albums, served to dilute his overall reputation. It’s worth noting that similar contemporaneous bad patches from peers such as David Bowie, Neil Young and Bob Dylan did no such damage to their respective perceptions.

The late ’80s renaissance of Reg Strikes Back and especially Sleeping with the Past proved a mercurial phenomenon with the onset of the ’90s and the realization, brought with albums such as The One and Made in England, that he had reached a plateau of genial craftsmanship. The Disney movies and Broadway shows didn’t help, and neither did the mawkish rewrite of “Candle in the Wind”.

More than anything else, his enthusiasm for the realm of pop stardom, without any of the ironic detachment that has allowed peers such as Bowie to thrive in the public eye without losing a shred of their critical cache, has eroded his credibility as an artist of import almost beyond the vanishing point. For a younger critical establishment raised on the likes of Nirvana and Pavement, it would be almost impossible to reconcile the steely likes of Madman Across the Water with the image of Elton as the self-proclaimed “Queen Bitch” of pop, hobnobbing with the rich and richer, making no effort to hide his own beyond-ostentatious wealth.

But the riches of his early catalog are abundant for anyone who cares to look. His early ’70s run is almost unmatched in the history of pop music. In terms of quality and quantity, his only real peers are the likes of the Beatles, the Stones and Bowie. Even relatively modest achievements like Caribou (squeezed out between Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic) stand head-and-shoulders above almost anything John has done since. The duo of John and Taupin produced some of the greatest songs and most memorable albums of the rock era, and yet today their prolific career is routinely dismissed, if not forgotten.

As good as it is — and it is very good — there’s no getting past the fact that Captain Fantastic was the turning point in their career. After six years of nonstop exertion, the seams had begun to show. Rock of the Westies, released just half a year after Captain Fantastic, was nowhere near as good (even if it also premiere at the top of the charts). The streak was finally broken with Blue Moves, in 1976, a sober, and some would say maudlin exercise that failed to match its predecessors’ commercial success. Some believe Blue Moves to be underrated, but the fact remains that the next decade of John’s career was marked by rapidly diminishing returns.

Captain Fantastic is, in many ways, a highly symbolic note on which to end John and Taupin’s “classic” period. The album is the most disciplined and self-conscious effort of their careers. It’s less a concept album than a song cycle based on John and Taupin’s early partnership and career — essentially from the moment of their first meeting to the recording of Empty Sky, which served as a prologue to their meteoric rise.

John and Taupin were introduced in the summer of 1967, after they both replied to an ad in the British music magazine NME from Liberty Records. Liberty, a newly-independent subsidiary of EMI, was looking for new talent. Both John and Taupin failed their auditions but were steered in the direction of each other by Ray Williams and Dick James, the latter of whom had found considerable success as the Beatles’ first publisher. Working together for the next year they mostly floundered, their efforts focused in the psychedelic folk genre as well as a more stately pop mode (as Taupin once said: “We were writing Englebert Humperdink-style ballads, and we hated them”).

Finally, they hit paydirt with “Lady Samantha” and “Skyline Pidgeon”, both eventually included on Empty Sky. The two tracks may seem modest in retrospect but stood out as confirmation to John and Taupin, as well as those at the Dick James Studio, that the partnership would eventually surpass its inauspicious beginnings.

The duo’s creative marriage was defined by their marked dissimilarities. While both came from lower middle-class origins, John (born Reginald Dwight), was raised in urban London while Taupin hailed from the rural districts of Lincolnshire, in the far north of the country. Their musical interests were similarly contrasted: John had been raised on a catholic diet of mainstream pop and early rock ‘n’ roll, with a special affection for American soul music, while Taupin was a fan of American folk and country: Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

Between them, they pulled from every major songwriting school of the 20th century, with a special emphasis on the music of America, from Woodie Guthrie to Elvis Presley. Their early albums are often noted for their unique synthesis of American themes and styles, and the conflict between John’s fascination with R&B and funk and Taupin’s predilection for country and folk is one of the most influential synergies in the history of pop music.

Captain Fantastic begins softly, with the gentle plucking of a country-tinged acoustic guitar, and over the course of its running time it spans the gamut from tightly-wound funk in the Stax mold (“Tell Me When the Whistle Blows”) to sophisticated glam (“[Gotta Get a] Meal Ticket”). The highlight, however, remains the three ballads which anchor both sides of the album’s original LP format, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (which comes at the end of the album’s first half), and the diptych “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains” which brings the album to its towering emotional climax.

It’s slightly surprising that Captain Fantastic was such a success, considering the fact that it’s a highly personal, vaguely allegorical concept album filled with depressing, angry songs. In the liner notes, Gambaccini makes the comparison to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and while it initially seemed an incongruous match, it’s a fairly apt analogy. Both albums are highly personal, autobiographical statements from artists who had both taken great pains to hold their songwriting personas at arms’ length from their personal lives. Just as Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” is among the angriest songs the austere troubadour ever recorded, “Bitter Fingers” stood out as well against the backdrop of John’s genial reputation:

“It’s hard to write a song with bitter fingers, /
So much to prove so few to tell you why, /
Those old die-hards in Denmark Street start laughing, /
At the keyboard players’ hollow haunted eyes. /
It seems to me a change is really needed, /
I’m sick of tra la las and la de das, /
No more long days hocking hunks of garbage, /
Bitter fingers never swung on swinging stars.

In the late ’60s John had played keyboards in a group called Bluesology, backing singers such as Lee Dorsey, Patti LaBelle and Long John Baldry. Initially, John enjoyed the gig but quit during a stint with Baldry: he didn’t want to play cabarets, which — then and now — was considered something of a dead-end career move. Thankfully, by the time he quit Bluesology, he had already been working with Taupin for six months. (One example of John’s brief career with Bluesology, “Come Back Baby”, was included on the 1990 box set To Be Continued…. It exists for no other reason than to demonstrate that John would never have made it as a songwriter without Taupin.)

I’ve often wondered just what the common, crucial element has been in the artistic downfall of so many different artists. What’s the process by which otherwise talented musicians — Bowie, the Stones, U2, Stevie Wonder, and especially Elton John and Bernie Taupin — go from frightening acuity to rote professionalism? After considering the matter for some time the only answer that makes any sense is hunger. Everyone starts from the same point of hunger. Desire propels the artist through the stratosphere at frightening velocities, enabling them to accomplish Herculean feats of artistic mastery for as long as they remain in motion.

But success brings with it the sensation of satisfaction, and a sated rock ‘n’ roller just can’t compete. Even the language we use to describe this phenomenon is blatantly sexual: when an artist is on a hot streak, we’ll ask: “how long can they keep it up?” At some point the initial vigor fades. The skill remains, but the thrust goes flaccid. It’s the difference between Exile on Main Street and Tattoo You; “Heroes” and Tonight; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Leather Jackets.

Elton John, the globetrotting Captain Fantastic, and Bernie Taupin, the down-home countrified Brown-Dirt Cowboy rose out of absolute obscurity to become the most successful songwriting duo since Lennon and McCartney (if you young’uns don’t believe me, just take a gander at the historical record). The obstacles they encountered on the road to fame are recorded here: the frustration, the longing, the hope, the anger, the despair. Taken together these adventures attain the status of myth.

The album’s only hit single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, is literally about a botched suicide attempt on the part of John — nothing more lethal than sticking his head into an oven with the apartment windows wide open, but still a genuine low point in a life filled with peaks and valleys. It’s an example of the duo’s powers at their very peak, welding gospel textures to the kind of pop template that would have been familiar to Frank Sinatra, all the while utilizing a candid autobiographical format that was, circa 1975, still somewhat radical.

To finish the album, the deceptively light-hearted “Writing” segues into the achingly dispirited “We All Fall in Love Sometimes”. Rarely has such an affirmative sentiment been applied to such a sad song. The opening verse provides as affecting a snapshot of the spiritual torpor that accompanies unrequited longing as has been written in pop music:

“Wise men say, /
It looks like rain today, /
It crackled on the speakers, /
And trickled down the sleepy subway trains, /
For heavy eyes could hardly hold us, /
Aching legs that often told us, /
It’s all worth it, /
We all fall in love sometimes.”

There’s an almost eschatological feel to these verses, a sense of foreboding that carries with it the ominous hint of change. But the quiet track begins to evolve into something more majestic about halfway through, as the object of love comes into focus. What is the love? Is it a metaphor for the transformation of an obscure songwriter into a full-fledged pop star — the consummation of an unorthodox lust for fame? Is it something more subtle, perhaps, an affirmation of the almost intuitive but assuredly platonic bond that holds John and Taupin even after all these years?

The album ends with “Curtains”, which brings the story full-circle — the sense of destiny and momentum conferred by the title track returns with a hint of melancholy as the pair say goodbye forever to the lives they have known.

“I held a dandelion, /
That said the time had come, /
To leave upon the wind, /
Not to return, /
When summer burned the earth again.”

Structurally, the lyric is one of Taupin’s more ingenious inventions, a four-stanza free verse poem without chorus. The music begins at the exact point where “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” fades into something more expectant, rising and rising into an inexpressible crescendo. Like “God Only Knows”, the song instills an almost numinous sense of awe in the presence of what could only be described as divine harmony.

The Deluxe Edition packaging presents the album to striking advantage. The first disc contains the album in entirety as well as “Philadelphia Freedom” and John’s cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Despite their persistent popularity as oldies staples, neither track presents Elton at his best, foreshadowing instead the insubstantial pop confections which loomed on his horizon. The b-sides for both singles are included, including a cover of John Lennon’s “One Day at a Time” — hardly a revelation, and hardly a rarity either, considering the track’s inclusion on the To Be Continued… box.

It’s the second disc that will stand out for collectors and aficionados — a complete unreleased performance of the Captain Fantastic album, recorded live at Wembley Stadium on the evening of 21 June 1975. John’s band is in fine form despite personnel changes — of the classic Elton John quintet, only Davey Johnstone on guitar and percussionist Ray Cooper, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray having parted ways after the recording of Captain Fantastic. But the impersonality of big-band rock ‘n’ roll is already present, creeping across the edge of the arrangements, present in the background singers who conveniently cover for John’s inability to hit the studio album’s high notes.

The most obvious symbol of John’s declining powers is his voice — strong and confident still, but seemingly tired. As I mentioned, he just can’t hit the high notes on tracks like “Tower of Babylon” — and those of us who hold the original recordings dearly cannot help but wince at his plainly diminished capacity. The show sounds like a steam train coming to a slow halt — the inevitable result of a relentless and implacable momentum brought to a slow halt by harsh, metallic entropy.

Captain Fantastic is an incredible achievement, one final burst of potency before the decline that followed. Given the popularity of pop-influenced singer-songwriters on the modern indie rock scene (such as it is), the time is ripe for a rediscovery and reappraisal of Elton’s early catalog. There are any number of modern hipster songwriters who would be amazed by the sheer ingenuity and consistency of his early ’70s catalog.

Captain Fantastic would be a good place for anyone unfamiliar with this indispensable body of work to begin their explorations. In addition to its status as a jewel in John’s crown, the album retains a special poignancy on account of the lyrical force and musical facility. It’s an album that gets under your skin almost subliminally, less a collection of songs than an album of memories propelled by honest, ingratiating emotion to magnificent heights. If it isn’t Elton’s best album, it’s surely his most significant sustained achievement.