Turntable Thursday: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

This week on Turntable Thursday, I’ve decided to revisit Elton John’s classic 1973 double-LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This record is an absolute monster. The 76 minute opus features some of Sir Elton’s most popular songs including “Bennie and the Jets”, “Candle in the Wind”, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and the eponymous “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. The album has sold over 30 million copies since its release over 40 years ago and it remains one of rock & roll’s canonical records and the cornerstone of one of planet Earth’s most beloved artists. Like any classic album, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is filled with secrets, stories and songs worth hearing again.

Eclectic doesn’t even begin to cover the range of styles heard on the album. The 11 minute progressive rock 1-2 punch of “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” is a multi-part epic that starts with synthesizer fueled instrumentals that builds and eventually explode into a piano rock powerhouse of a song. The tone softens sharply as the opening notes of “Candle in the Wind” begin immediately after. The Marilyn Monroe inspired ballad is one of the most memorable songs Elton John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin have ever recorded and the raw emotional and melodic power of the duo is palpable decades later. Record 1, Side 1 ends with the iconic “Bennie and the Jets”. Envisioned as a “proto-sci-fi punk band, fronted by an androgynous woman”, the song was never intended to be a single but after a strong push from label executives John and Taupin caved and the record was a hit. It’s easy to argue that Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has one of the best Side 1s of any record in rock history.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is literally all over the map. After The Rolling Stones recorded their 1973 album Goat Head Soup in Kingston, Jamaica, Elton John was inspired to do the same. However, technical and environmental problems plagued the recording session in Jamaica and the band packed up and traveled to France to record the rest of the album at the more familiar Château d’Hérouville. The 18th century manor/recording studio was the birthplace of several classic records by David Bowie, Bad Company, Fleetwood Mac as well as Elton John’s previous two records Honkey Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player. I can only speculate but it would seem like the dichotomy of the records two locales are at least partially responsible for the diversity of the its sound.

While his sound would eventually become the gold standard of mainstream piano driven pop and rock music, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road strikes me as an impressively experimental record for it’s era. The synthesizer textures and progressive arrangements on “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” still seem bold and innovative over four decades later. The guitar effects and raw noises that pepper the end of “All The Young Girls Love Alice” sound unabashedly forward thinking. Maybe I’m romanticizing in excess but I think it’s compelling if not a bit magical to hear such a legendary artist flex untested muscles and try some sonic science experiments.

Record 2, Side 2 shows an entirely different side of Elton’s artistry. Beginning with the frenetic retro rock & roll of “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘N’ Roll)”, John seems intent on conquering every corner of the genre and follows up with “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. The iconic song serves as a model for all 70s FM glam rock to come with it’s bright but muscular guitar riffs and an unbridled surge of energy. Queen would go on to routinely cover the song during concerts and it remains one of Elton John’s most recognizable and successful songs despite never even breaking into the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road concludes with a trifecta of country influenced ballads including fan favorites “Roy Rogers” and “Harmony”. The former is reminiscent of the country tinged rock on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and the latter was originally slotted to become the 4th single from the album but by that time John had nearly completed his follow up album Caribou. Despite never being a single, “Harmony” went on to become popular among fans thanks to significant radio play. The dazzling lyricism of Bernie Taupin and soaring vocal harmonies provide a fitting end to the absolutely magnificent Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

There is palpable sense of artistry throughout Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It is the sound of a genre defining artist finding his voice. The artistic partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin is legendary and their work together was at its absolute apex on this record. It was never meant to be a dounle-LP but the creators felt there was so much high quality material recorded that the album deserved a second LP. It’s a complexly diverse and unconditionally majestic piece of rock & roll history that stands tall in 2015. Goodbye Yellow Brick is a masterpiece.

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