Monday, October 21, 2013

'Induct Nigel, Dee & Davey Into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame'

My friend on Facebook, Denice Shuba, has come up with a great idea. One that should have been put in train a long time ago, but she's now taken up the baton so everyone should get behind her. This blog fully supports her cause and is throwing it's weight behind it. Anyone reading this, please spread the word around and get people talking about it. Talk may is cheap...but can also be effective. Join the Facebook group and hopefully it will happen!!

Put simply, the greatest combo in rock and roll history so should be admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame sidemen category. Even though that that is the official title of the category, they were more than that. Hopefully over the next few paragraphs those not overtly familiar with what they did and how they did it will have a window of wonder opened. I'm not going to go into any great detail as to their studio and live work. As to do so would mean I'd still be writing this piece on doomsday and I've a feeling that the Hall Of Fame wouldn't be doing any inducting that day.

''On guitars and vocals, Davey Johnstone. On bass guitar and vocals, Dee Murray. On drums and vocals, Nigel Olsson.'' Elton's introduction of them needs no introduction. For an artist of Elton's capability and temperament to trust these guys without question is testament to their abilities. For them to connect with each other, then support and combine with Elton on countless recordings is almost beyond comprehension. From 1969 to 2006, apart from the Victim Of Love escapade, there was not one studio album that didn't feature them. One, two or all three were present and very correct. And with each of their contributions they made each and every Elton album even more special. How and why did they do it? Let's find out...

''Apart from The Beatles, they were the best in-house band for vocal harmonies.'' You know, when George Martin says that you know we're onto to something special. Very special. To have that at your disposal must have been manna from heaven for Gus Dudgeon and later Chris Thomas. Because all they had to do was pinpoint where and when those harmonies were needed and off they went and out them down. Find the note and run with it. But they were a step beyond the usual ''ahh's'' and ''ooh's'' that most artists would be happy with it. The time, effort and dedication in getting all three parts in sync and blending seamlessly is amazing. Harmony, what an apt title when you think about it, for instance took a whole day to get all parts down, an eternity when you consider how long it took to record an Elton album. But the track need that part and benefited from the time and effort. That came from instinct and feel. What they put down from Honky Chateau to Captain Fantastic in that department is mind boggling. Every track they sang on always took their vocals like smooth butter on home made bread. One can only imagine Gus's frustration when that avenue of artistic endeavour was closed off when Rock Of The Westies came to be recorded. No surprise for Blue Moves he brought in Crosby and Nash, a Beach Boy and other 'name' vocalists to add harmonies. That was the calibre of talent required to replace the missing pieces. 

From the 70's to the 10's, all of them, or in other combinations, have been called upon to by a multitude of producers with varying approaches but still with enough foresight to use that sound which was, and of course still is, available to them to give that 'Elton sound'. Gus, Chris, Clive Franks, Pat Leonard and Matt Still all knew the importance of that interlocking sound and it's ability to rubber stamp itself on the music. Chris Thomas when it came to record Too Low For Zero had all the ducks lined up in a magnificent row. Bernie back full time and just as crucially the three amigos on board too. They re-positioned Elton in the 80's as a chart act to be reckoned with again after the holding pattern of the earlier releases. A coincidence...I think not. Chris valued that sound as much as Gus did, he wasn't slow in coming forward in bringing Nigel and Dee in from the cold to put the heat on Reg Strikes Back. Elton's biggest hit of the late 80's features guess what, yep those threesome harmonies again. It all mattered. The last time we heard the trinity as one..but the divinity will never die. As Meat Loaf may say...and Davey would know this better than most...two out of three ain't bad. Nigel and Davey in tandem with various collaborators a have strived to keep that sound alive on disc and onstage. Silence is not an option...Pat Leonard for the second batch of sessions for Songs From The West Coast brought those two in for the very reasons I've outlined. And will outline further on.

The harmonies...incredibly...were only the other string in their bows. The other strings, whether in be in a 4, 6, 8 or 12 setup with a good beat behind them was their meat and drink. Groundbreaking musicianship, in terms of style and technique. To even begin to detail what they did in the studio and how it was developed onstage would have me looking up doomsday in the calendar again. Rest assured though, even as we speak Davey I'm sure is still hard at work plotting the next move for the live arena. The trust they generated in all the producers they worked with was the crucial key. The producers had the wisdom to run with whatever they suggested which more often than not was the right choice. The producers knew what they wanted and where they wanted it. So when they passed it over to them, they were certain it would work. Ten's of millions of sales kind of backs that up.

But the person who gave over the greatest amount of trust was Elton. Once his parts were down, he let them do their 'thing'. Not something that took years to build up, but straight from the off.  Davey's first session for instance on Madman Across The Water was playing Holiday Inn. It was his suggestion to Gus that Elton should come straight in with the vocal and he put mandolin over it. A start like that was bound to lead to good things. It was kismet. For Elton to trust these guys with his and Bernie's babies to nurture them shows to what degree he placed his faith on the. How many major artists...or any for that matter...would do that. Every single part you hear them play on the records was their work. Nobody told them what to do, they just took the song and put their polish on it. Each and every part they wrote from scratch. Sum of the parts and all that...and they were some parts.

When you look at Davey's musical background, it's a contrast to how he developed. His Scots/Irish traditional folk heritage in tandem with the '70's rocker dude with that Les Paul cranked and screaming' persona was an unlikely marriage but has stood the time test. Which ultimately cohabited with Elton. The sound has been unique, refreshing and envied all over. Elton's multicoloured styles demanded and required a myriad of accompaniment. Whatever was needed, Davey could play it. Mandolin, banjo, dobro and every type of electric and acoustic guitar were thrown in with taste and edge. A fine line that was and still is tread with a steady hand.

When Elton first went to the US in 1970, it was exclaimed Dee played chords. He had too in order to recreate that sound off the Elton John album. And more than capable he was too. Anchoring the greatest piano rock three piece there was is only the start point of his contribution. His wasn't just a case being the link between the drums and the lead, but actually inextricably linking himself to all those parts. He became embedded of both elements. He could weave in and out in a flash with deftness and toughness with equal skill. His lines were pure melodic, as interesting as the lead parts. All his successors in his position have cited him as a major influence. They have recreated his stunning lines with the respect they deserve. He was an industry leader in equipment choice, his use of the Steinberger in the 80's is legendary. The sounds he generated out of it on disc and onstage were breathtaking and dramatic. All essential moods for Elton's music.

Nigel is descriptive, to use his own words. Like the other two, he had a feel for the music. All of them being aware of Bernie's lyrics, an important part of the process, their parts in turn complimented both Elton's and Bernie's parts rather than crush them. Which for a drummer is like walking a tightrope. But Nigel high wires every line with balance and poise. His ability to roll back and let the music speak is his Nigel to a tee. Over playing was and still is not on his agenda. His attention to detail in terms of the sound he created is again standard setting. Compare any 1973 album and the drum sound on them with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and it's years ahead of it's time. His trademark slow drumming style on the ride cymbal has been copied countless times. But only he can pull it off with such sweet touches. Even in the 21st century it never lost it's impact on record. Or relevance.

If the studio was where gold was mined, the stage is were it was turned into the finest hand crafted creations. Because that was where Elton..and still is of his element. And they were too. They had already fine tuned the songs but when they were let loose on stage with them, they grew immeasurably. Elton, like all proper musicians, learnt his trade the hard way. Working through a diet of tough, hard nosed clubs. From which he gained the ability to read an audience and work them. The three lads had the same groundwork behind them in their various previous musical lives. Whether it be 500 or 500,000 the method is the same. The stage can be a lonely place, but they made it their kingdom. None of them had any problems in bringing their studio parts to the stage. They transferred with consummate ease. As tight a combo that can be imagined, but with the freedom to follow the lead. Watch Elton, see where he was going and follow. No explanation needed here to detail Elton's endless journeys he made over the years in stretching out the numbers. These guys always locked into a different groove that Elton threw in each night...and it was incredibly if it were planned. A technique which doesn't exist with Elton doing freestyle. Spontaneous in the extreme. They even found time to bring in one of their creations for a memorable live moment. The solo for Davey's Keep Right On from his 1973 album Smiling Face (on which they all played, including Elton) was used as the coda to herald the extended jam on Rocket Man in the 80's. Both slipped together like silk. Even the songs they didn't play on the studio, they expanded and gave new life too. Ticking on the 1982 tour a perfect example. Simple additions of backing vocals (of course), rhythm guitar and light percussion upped the songs game. Upmanship indeed.

Whether it be with the three piece, orchestra or playing with other musicians they always combined in any given situation. Elton over they years occasionally tried the new sound route, but these were short lived ventures. Bringing Nigel and Dee back in 1980 made sense all round. They helped to begin him getting a foothold back in the charts, his biggest hits in the early 80's, Little Jeanie and Blue Eyes, both featured Nigel and Dee on their own respectively. A statement that they could still be effective apart. As Davey has been on numerous occasions over the years when he's been left holding the reins.

Since 1969 they've played on about 90% of Elton's recordings. In pairs, on their own or most influentially, together. Some feat considering Elton has recorded in and around half a thousand songs. And performed over 3000 shows. An incredible fact that stems from the last stat is that when Elton played the Revolution Club on March 25th 1970 (two weeks to the day that The Beatles officially split incidentally) every single band show after that, including orchestra, Face To Face with Billy Joel, The Red Piano, either featured Davey or Nigel (or both of course) onstage with him. A run that ended, wait for this, on the 19th October 2010 at The Union promo show in New York. 40 and a half years. I bet that must be some world record and if it is won't be broken. When you consider Elton's longevity and penchant for changing band lineups that is some feat. It's been noted that other band members should be included. A point I am in agreement with. People like Ray Cooper, Roger Pope, James Newton Howard, Caleb Quaye, Richie Zito, Fred Mandel, David Paton, Charlie Morgan, Guy Babylon, Bob Birch, John Mahon, Kim Bullard and Matt Bissonnette have all made tremendous contributions. And deserve their moment. But not knowing too much about how these things work, I suppose the number of years and amount of albums etc. that have been made would surely create a cut off point. But I do agree that they should find themselves being acknowledged too. Maybe that will be the end result of all this. Fingers crossed.

I'm not into number crunching or rivet counting, but here are some remarkable figures. Just taking the US charts as a yardstick...all three lads have played on either together, in pairs or solo on the following chart successes over 4 decades. (All figures open to correction)

22 top 20 Albums of which:
11 are top 5 albums (7 of which went to number 1)
2 are top 10 albums
9 are top 20 albums

31 top 20 singles of which:
6 numbers 1's
9 top 5's
5 top 10's
11 top 20's

Even the sales figures alone would put most artists in the ha'penny place.

To sum up, I've tried to be brief but to compress what they've helped to contribute to Elton's work would be impossible on this post. But by scratching the surface, it gives an insight in to why they should be honoured in this way. For anyone not overly familiar with them, use this a bids eye view and swoop down alter like a High Flying Bird for a closer inspection. The cultural impact of Elton has been immense. Their contribution to it cannot be ignored or underestimated. To do so would be an oversight of epic proportions. So Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, it's over to you...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

'But They Can Rock 'n' Roll'

Contrary to popular belief lately, rock and roll ain't dead. The amps...especially the size 50 ones...are still plugged in. None more so everyone knows that this blog is a huge fan of Davey's and all he's done over the years. Now he's teamed up with his multi-talented kids and created a showcase for everything in his (and theirs) repertoire. On drums and lead vocal is Tam who I had the pleasure of meeting many years ago when he played here with John Jorgenson. Energetic in both departments for sure.

Magic Johnstone...short for magnificent I would suspect...made their debut at the recent Elton EXPO in Las Vegas. Public debut that is because you can be sure they've done this before. Thank god for garages...even those near a motorway. Anyway, the opening part is Sixty from the 2012 Pnau (remember them?!) remix thingy. Young Charlie recreates the haunting sound beautifully as the rhythm section kicks in closely followed by Davey to add that edge I'm always on about here on the blog. As they all gradually lock in together the sudden stop of Charlie on piano playing the intro to 60 Years On is devastatingly good. The cold harsh chords are piercing, the rest of the band kick back in, Tam with drum fills that Nigel in his 17-11-70 guise would have been proud of. A pounding drum fill that heralds another rarity. What a treat this is...

...because something that hasn't been heard live since the summer of 1976 lights up the room. Grow Some Funk Of Your Own, with one of the most recognisable riffs off any Elton album from any era, means it's business time. Rock and roll baby...this has attitude and multiple killer punches. Jesse's relentless bass line just booms, Tam's vocal leaves no stone upturned in punching out the attitude. Just like his playing on the drums, the groove nailed down solid. The jam on the outro when Charlie cuts in with a slick solo, brings the crowd to it's feet. The whole thing though is lead expertly by Davey...why wouldn't it be. He did have a hand in creating the song so he knows its strengths. So no surprise all the trademark licks were present and correct, the bluesy lead into the chorus, the grinding riff that follows it. Terrific!!

As you can see from the clip, they are real tight, energetic and electric. And have a real knowledge and feel for the music. And went down a storm. The word on the street is that this is not the last we're gonna here of this combo. Hopefully in years to come we'll look back on this in a small way as being a '1962' moment, the year of the crooner when rock was dying and Dick Rowe thought he was right. And what will follow being more of a '1963' vibe. Because contrary to what some may say, it ain't accurate to 'throw away them records 'cause the blues is dead' just yet...

Check out Davey's website (links on the right hand side of this page) for more info. Smiling Face is getting a re-release soon...another great Davey keep an eye on his website (updated by Tam) and his own blog for any updates on that. I've a feeling it's gonna be a busy 2014 for this clan...

Monday, October 14, 2013

'Two Became One'

Side one is as good as side two is as bad. The contrast couldn't be any more marked...the opening track as gritty an influx as you could want while the outro is as sappy you could not want. Two key men on this album, Steve Lukather who turned down the opportunity to join the EJ band during these sessions and James Newton Howard. Lukather's guitar work is funky with a nice fluidity. JNH's work on Sartorial Eloquence is stunning, the mix of the very deep parts and the high end is orchestral. Only an arranger of his touch and feel could do bring the best out of the synth's. Plus his use of electric pianos makes wonderful counterpoint to Elton, the next album having a track that showcases the possibilities of the instrumental album that they nearly created at this time. The rhythm section binds well together, Alvin Taylor's big sounding drums just come out of the speakers with a fatness that isn't overweight, overwrought or overstays. Then we get the contrast with Nigel on Little Jeannie, his delicate touch's and fills just what was needed on the track. Not surprising the original drum part was wiped. The distinctive brass arrangement is the hook on this one, the parts on the chorus demonstrate this fully. Bernie's lyrics on side one are very personal. Two Rooms being a musical explanation of what he and Elton are all about. The drum lines on this are incredible. The broken rhythms with the incredible brass arrangement behind it are powerful in tandem. White Lady, White Powder is again another insightful lyric, the fact may be inferred that Elton is singing in the third person but as well know it's autobiographical. Elton can never detach himself from any of Bernie's lyrics even when they have nothing to do with him, he always finds the method to make them seem as if they originated from him. But no need on this occasion. 

The 21 At 33 sessions recording wise are probably the most productive since GYBR...but no where near in quality terms. The double album scenario quickly vanished as more filler than a Polyfilla delivery began to emerge. But in saying that some of the best tracks were left off it... David Geffen...or the bearded 'bee' as he was called once...seems to have spent more time in court with his artists over the years than the recording studio. And when he was mulling over his roster, he had a peculiar way of doing it. The 21 At 33 album was to be released on MCA before Elton moved to Geffen. But for some odd reason it was Geffen who decided what MCA should or shouldn't have. So the disc was reduced in size, the leftover tracks appearing on The Fox, by which time MCA had bailed out early. And the rest turning up on various b-side combinations.

I wish we had the original running order for the double album version of 21 At 33. It would have been interesting to see would that era of Elton be seen in a different light than it is now had it been released in that format. Though a double album seemed pretty ambitious, maybe there would have been too much filler. As I suggested earlier, side 1 of 21 At 33 is as good as anything at anytime that Elton has done...I'd have put those tracks with these tracks that were recorded duing the same sessions and made one great single disc. The running order is open to discussion...

Side 1
Chasing The Crown 
Little Jeanie 
Sartorial Eloquence
Two Rooms At The End Of The World
White Lady, White Powder

Side 2
Heart In The Right Place
Elton's Song 
White Man Danger
The Retreat

'Bernie Bolted'

A Single Man. Never seems to be an album that appears in many people top 10's...though considering the competition it's not hard to see why. So putting aside the competitive aspect and looking at it as a standalone piece, then it certainly has its merits. Elton's 'new' voice, or in truth Elton just putting into practice what Thom Bell had shown him how do a few months earlier is the first marker that's put down. A new found depth that strikes a perfect balance with the light side. Elton's piano playing is also to the forefront here, right from the off in Shine On Through. The Thom Bell edition of the song on its own is fine...but when this version is presented to us we can see why Elton has the best brought out of him by the people around him. The Autumn 1977 version has a saccharine orchestral arrangement, as if a tonne of sugar was dumped in and candy floss came out on disc. Whereas when Paul Buckmaster gets a hold of it, the result is devastating. The devastation hits right home when the drums kick in and the oboe harmonizes Elton's vocal. All this after the strings with a harder edge than before begin the buildup. 

It Ain't Gonna Be Easy has the main protagonists on the album showcasing their talents...Ray Cooper's vibes like audio bubbles in the background playing off Buckminster’s arrangement that has attitude and changes that switch from dark to light in a turn of his baton. Tim Renwick's bluesy guitar breaks are Pink Floydish...a gig he done later of course. Steve Holly's drums are never messy on this one, just a full backbeat with fills as and when necessary. Part Time Love is the single material that Elton could write all day...but where would be the challenge in that. Gary Osborne wrote this one with more than a hint it was from experience. The hook of this track is undoubtedly Davey Johnstone weaving in and out as only he can. Georgia possibly sounds like it could have been on Tumbleweed Connection in another life. Elton's vocal goes slightly into 'down south' territory here, which can be forgiven as the subject matter requires it. The beautiful mix of pedal steel and Leslie guitar just takes you to the heartland of the song...which in turn takes us the south lands. Return To Paradise has Elton's vocal with a soft focus...the Fender Rhodes plays along with equal softness. 

Madness then counterpoints what has gone before with Elton singing about a thorny subject. The thunderous fills from Ray Cooper on the timpani are magnificent; they don't build into a crescendo because they already started that way. The sudden change in pace is again thrust upon us as Reverie gives us time to contemplate the tremendous climax to the album that is on the horizon. When Elton sits down at the piano to compose an instrumental, the journey he takes only he knows the route. No road map of a lyric, just his thought processes on their own. The destination then becomes all apparent when the deed is done. However when he wrote Song For Guy he couldn't have imagined that the original image in his head had become prophetic. Almost immediately. Elton fills on the various synths creates a soundscape. The solid walls of sound had given way to swirling waves of sound washing over us. Sometimes to enjoy the highs we have to endure the lows. In a strange twist of that concept we can the experience the high of Elton's completed piece from the low of the songs premise. And people wonder why Elton is so with the case with a lot of Elton albums the best tracks sometimes end up as b-sides while their lesser brothers and sisters end up as the chosen few. 

Tinderbox in 2006 is Bernie's take on the 1977/78 situation. I Cry At Night is his take on the same situation from a contemporary point of view. The narrative is the same in both...we conquered the world and now we don't want it. The tank is dry and the fumes are used up. The sudden stop may not have physically hit a brick wall, but the emotional impact is the same. Time to retreat and regroup. Elton's vocal switches from the new deeper side to the original incarnation to reflect the lyrics with the emotion he was only too well aware of. His piano when it's on its own and playing a melody like this is a joy. If anyone was in any doubt at this stage to Bernie's well structured thoughts on the industry that had made him he had helped make even better then Ego gives it to us in spades. Spades from a dump truck, not hand held ones either. Bernie had seen them, been with them without possibly ever wanting to be them. But the environment around him had turned him that way. If they were arm lengths before, they were now the distance across the border from Mexico to the orange case. When Elton sings about himself and his colleagues in the business there could have been a danger to fall into parody. Self or otherwise. But the right balance is struck; the self knowing of Elton is evened out with the caustic lyric. 

Lovesick certainly deserved the other flipside billing than the one it got. Again Buckmaster's hands are all over this one. The heavy bass sound of the strings are bang on the beat. The delicate use of the woodwinds in tandem with Tim's raunchy guitar on the outro flicker around each other. Overall the album may not reach the dizzy heights of what went before or was to come. Merely it was a repositioning for Elton to restart his recording career with had come out of hiatus as quick as it went into it. The production is clean and bright, his voice and piano are the starting points and everything else is built around it. The songwriting mightn't pull up too many trees in the general scheme of things, but taken in context then it has its place. Quite where Big Dipper or Flintstone Boy fit into all this, that's anybody’s guess

Friday, October 4, 2013

'All Mixed Up And Mad As Hell'

The great thing about this blog is that's it's proactive and reactive. If something brews up, I'll be here when it boils. As is the case with this update. I've already focused on Home Again, in it's live form, on an earlier post some weeks past. But like most things in the Elton world events can sometimes overtake us. So at the moment I'm on the hard shoulder coming up on the inside. This latest video clip has only just surfaced and is a treat. But it's also generated a lot of discussion elsewhere, the pro's and con's of recent performances being put sharply into context. Let's dive in (pun intended) and see what's happening.

This is the 'definitive' live visual version to date...for a number of reasons. The primary one being that it's properly mixed and recorded. Probably due to the fact they almost certainly took the sound from Elton's 'people'. There's currently a lot of debate on various Elton forums as the quality of recent performances of the song. One point that has eluded a lot of those observers is that most TV broadcasts feature sound mixes that can only be described as being as stodgy as last weeks porridge left to deteriorate. The Emmy's version had the low end of the choir up too high and made the male voices sound like monsters on occasions whilst the Ellen show versions spectrum was so narrow that I think it may even be in mono. Both clips, whilst visually a great record, are poor in sound terms. Not to be taken as definitive. Same goes for the BRITS Icons awards example, amateurish sound mix for the most professional of artists. Not fit for purpose...

...whereas the one above ticks all boxes. The thing is, probably with the exception of the BRITS Icon version which had to be done twice to Elton's satisfaction, the ones I mentioned are all fantastic versions but are let down by inadequate broadcasting. But the USC version should be held up as a shining light of what can and should be done. But what is truly remarkable that even on an official release things can go arfways. The version from the Capitol Records playback is indeed poor, as has been noted elsewhere. Mexican Vacation from that showcase...if it can be called that...didn't do any justice to Elton's vocals. Home Again from said showcase again isn't up to par...because it was the first time they did it with that combo (live) I'm sure they'll use that as an excuse. But as I keep mentioning here, perspective is key. What seemed good then is now consigned to the also ran category. The recording is tinny, the piano sounds nothing like it does in real life. The bass button is definitely turned down to 0...

...whereas the one above is a definitely an 11 on all counts. The piano is warm and great depth is reached. The band flesh it out, not flabbily but with tight lean muscle. The highlight moment of the song, the solo and it's buildup, maintains the piano upfront ethos whilst still allowing the choir to sound strong without overpowering. Adam Chester's hard work on the arrangement is clear for all to hear. Even the 2Cello's on the second part of the solo can be clearly heard as they gradually creep in and increase tempo. The brass still has that hanging feel, it drifts in and out to good effect. The harmonies of the girls in the band can also be detected over Elton's vocal which is strong as per usual, no hint of these colds and flu's that some contributors always seems to notice when he's on the telly. TV puts pounds on you, not infections. It's very annoying when people take some of these crappy broadcasts and use them to dissect over Elton's, the band's and the general setup of things to use as a template as to what's going on. Every conceivable theory from Elton having nothing short of whooping cough to the band being given something to do to pass the time are typical of the insights explored. My advice...only advice not an edict...disregard those sub par examples and take the USC one as a how to do. The others are a will not do...

Hopefully this USC show will be broadcast in some near future like right now. The multi camera angles make me suspect it will, the mix of band, orchestra and new songs all done on the same bill sounds like too much of a good one to keep under wraps. Doesn't it?! Knowing our luck it probably does...a word or several on the performance. The song is probably the most accessible from the album, therefore it translates well live. And of course, goes without saying on this blog, gazumps the studio version and puts a tin hat on it. It's a real full on moment when Elton does the final chorus, his lifting it up of a tad hits Home, as they say. Again...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

'Fucking Brilliant'

Without beating about the it were...John Jorgenson's guitar work is fucking brilliant. And of course I agree with Elton on that. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting John twice and seeing him play live on his own and he's something else. Luckily I also got to see him play live with Elton, a treat a very few lucky punters got earlier this year when he filled in for Davey. The guy is class and quality, he's a firm favourite of this blog.

I want to highlight one of his best contributions on the Peachtree Road sessions, the b-side So Sad The Renegade. Peachtree is one of my all time favourite Elton albums, if you want to hear American music in all it's rawest forms on disc as interpreted by Elton and the band, then this a must have. And when I say get it, I mean get all the tracks. Out takes and everything. Because the entire 80 minutes it takes to play the entire batch of songs is a rich collection of rusticness and edginess mixed with some smooth cuts. Elton's vocals on the album is sometimes critiqued over the years, but it's my view that in fact the rusticness I just mentioned earlier is enhanced by his voice having that bit of wear and tear. Much like the landscape the lyrics on the songs portray. On this cut, it's pure rawness. One of the most stripped down songs that doesn't lose any effect or appeal by adding tasteful layers. The most important being JJ on pedal steel. The line he puts down isn't a cliched one, he strikes the perfect feel and tone. Right from the intro, it's interplay with Davey's acoustic guitars is stylish and classy. In some way's it's hard to describe, it's unqiue on an Elton album for sure. The big drums are panoramic and loud. Mirroring the American dream.  The undercurrent of electric and acoustic guitar again hammers that sentiment home. Guy Babylon's strings are equally unobtrusive, they hang in the background enhancing the chorus sublimely. Elton's harmony vocals are a great ploy, not quite gruff but that rustic vibe comes through. 

But the key is JJ's pedal steel. Throughout the song it's the focal point. You take that away and you lose the hook, the key into the song. By introducing it straight from the off, the song is hinged on it. It's exceptional playing, melancholic and uplifting almost simultaneously. Fucking great indeed...

Unfortunately the great mandarins on Youtube have failed to upload a clip if this song. I'm sure you all have it though...

'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight'

On this blog I like to look at some rare live versions of songs, one-off hybrids if you wish. For this particular one I started with the first one I chose, but when I got thinking about it and started mapping out my thoughts I began to get visions in my mind of a couple of other favourite versions of mine of this song. So I stretched this post out to include another two...there are more of course...but I just wanted to try and link the three together.

James Newton Howard is a genius +1. To this day...and I mean only a couple of weeks ago...when he conducted a string section of student at the USC in Los Angeles backing Elton and the band, he is still the concert conductor of choice for Elton. His appearance at the Yamaha 125th show in January as described earlier on this blog is another testament to his abilities. The questions is, why is he the most suitable baton waver for Elton's music? The answer is simple. He learned his trade on the field so to speak...playing in the studio with Elton and of course touring with his band. By doing so he came in contact with a lot of Elton catalogue from the golden years, he 'got' the Buckmaster arrangements, Live In Australia documents that no end. So having that feel for the music from the band perspective he was in the unique and therefore ideal position to bring to life onstage those arrangements as orchestra conductor. Both Buckmaster's and his own. Tonight being one of his greatest.

The first example is from the retirement concert, Empire Pool November 1977. Wherever Elton's mind was at the time...most likely flitting in and out off the stage...he still delivered a strong performance. None more so here. His measured playing balanced without excessive urgency. His voice, high parts still intact and attained had now got the subtle hints, though not as strong as any of the few 1978 performances and certainly not near the 1979 edition of it, of his recent Seattle trip. Elton was changing. In appearance and sound. The Steinway sounding every much the concert grand...but in the background James appears on electric piano. Because the sound quality is so poor from the audio, it's impossible almost to recognise what type. I suspect it's a Fender Rhodes, the watery, fluid sound of it flowing over Elton's big sound seems right. The two of them over a year earlier in combination with the LSO had put to disc one of the landmark musical statements by both parties. Along with Bernie's plea. But now here are four hands, dishing out the sound of a hundred or so players. The strength of the song not lost in any transcription. The long drawn out outro with every emotion wrung from the moment. Some emotion onstage indeed.

Skip forward a decade or so to same place, different name. Wembley Arena 14th December 1985. This time we hear an energetic Elton. A new band on of the greatest EJ bands of all time I would say...some of whom giving a new twist to the song. His vibrant playing right from the off, determined and urgent. The MIDI hookup adding some versatile colour, Fred Mandel's synth whilst not recreating every element of the orchestral arrangement still reaches for the vital parts. When Ray Cooper chimes in...quite literally...the razor sharp chills of each strikes he makes fills the space left by Elton's sudden piano stop. Elton's vocal at this stage not showing (much) effects of troubles to come again emotes passion in abundance. But the key moment for me on this version of the of the great inventive parts onstage parts ever dreamed when Davey majestically appears. The fluid guitar line, it's weeping melody carefully and delicately tracking Elton is incredible. Both in terms of concept and delivery. How do we replicate the LSO onstage? Get Davey to put a line down and hey presto we've invented a whole new avenue of pleasure to travel down. FANTASTIC!! Elton's departure is just as fierce as his arrival, his chunky chords and Davey's shimmering fade out on the guitar segueing into a another mood shift. But there we leave this venue and skip forward 12,000 miles and exactly one year.

Sydney Entertainment Centre, 14th December 1986. One of the, if not THE tours with the most force. Of mind, body and soul. Anyone familiar with this tour...and I know plenty who are like me and they know who they are think this tour the is the bizz...will know what's it about. If you don't, check out the first Elton album I ever bought, Live In Australia. Plenty on that to keep you entertained. 

And here we are full circle, the arranger and conductor of the original score is now back in the fold. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra primed and ready to be waved into battle with Elton. And what a battle it is for Elton...but he perseveres. His vocal, much maligned in some quarters on this tour, not here on this blog though, is a tour de force of passion and honesty which can't be faulted. His playing is back to a more balanced approach, less frenetic than a year earlier. The orchestra in support dictates his training is brought into play. James's original score now fleshed out with timpani, giving those dramatic swirls and crescendos. The romantic feel of his arrangement in tandem with the doomy gloomy lyrics are another of the classic EJ/BT ironic comments. The section after Ray chimes in again has the steady buildup of woodwinds, the strings with the low bass notes gradually build up and a wave of sound heralds Elton's vocal in. 
Out of adversity, triumph. Elton's full expressive playing, the glorious metallic sound of the Steinway vibrating through every ear until the orchestra whisperingly sweeps back in, each instrument wonderfully arranged to make full use if it's abilities and brilliantly recorded by Gus Dudgeon. Ray's cymbals begin the buildup to the huge ending, which is neither overblown nor overdue. The French horn's announcing Elton's final plea of Bernie's plight. The outro is calm restored, the strings and piano fading out as one...decaying naturally. Like the ending love story in the lyric...

'For The World To See'

How many people here reading this have seen Friends? If you have, then you'll know it's a load of cobblers. If not, well, you know now that it is. The things is, do you need to see the film for the soundtrack album to work. Eh, no. In fact not seeing it makes it work even better. I've only seen the film once, a few years ago thank God. I shan't be watching again. However the soundtrack album in one that I regular spin as it's one of the greatest undervalued Elton albums in the catalogue.

Simply put, I love this album. The mix of innocence, both in lyrics and melodies is offset by the edginess of the production by Gus and those who play on it. Neither is dominant nor tries to outshine the other. Much credit has to be given to Paul Buckmaster for his work. The guy is a genius, a favourite of this blog. I don't think, nay I'm certain, he hasn't done one wrong move in his work with Elton. Everything he touched was magic. And his magic is all over this one. The title song is one of the greatest EJ/BT songs ever. Pure simplicity, songwriting at it's finest. You can be damn sure this one was of no effort to write. The opening chords progress naturally and effortlessly. The wonderful arrangement is like the wide open fields we often see in the film. Lush and full. The bass played by Alan Weighill with the plectrum gives that slight edge to scare away any sappiness. Michelle's Song's is hypnotic in it's feel, just like looking at water with the ripples spreading out from the cast pebble. Lyric, melody...all as one. One of Buckmaster's devices, the harp and acoustic guitar in tandem are in evidence here. The perfect lilt to strum along. 

Like I said earlier, it's the mixing up of mood that's key to the albums appeal. The transitions are superb. The wonderful variations Buckmaster does, the reworking of Elton's main themes to flesh out the soundtrack are stunning. If anyone...those who like walls with the padded feel...was in doubt to Elton's mastery of composing just listen to what they sound like played by an orchestra. Any gaps would be exposed in an instant in this medium. Buckmaster's use of the woodwinds, an often overlooked part of his repertoire, on the variations and reprise's are pure gold. Mixed with his overall arrangements, they are neither flashy or gung-ho. One of the most dramatic transitions on any Elton must be when we are almost lullabyed to a dream with the Variation On Michelle's Song to be suddenly snapped out of it with Caleb Quaye's effects laden Fender. It moves across the spectrum, with the many overdubs with unique accents. The lead line has a distinctive twang, the perfect break in the run of orchestral overtures. Nigel and Dee are simply superb on me a moment where they weren't...probably the nearest we've ever had to their live 70-71 3-piece excitement with Elton cut in the studio. Raw, uncompromising and in your face. With Caleb's guitar wrapped around Elton piano so expertly, the result is fireworks with a box of matches let off under it. Not that anyone knew it then, but we even hear the rhythm riff off Bite Your Lip as it frequently appears during the outro. Wasn't that clever! Nigel's drumming is the perfect counterpoint to Barry Morgan's on the other two songs to require such a instrument. Morgan's playing is measured, precise and full. As the music requires it to be. Honey Roll may come across as a song written to order...which essentially it was...but there's no run of the mill stuff here. A funky piano line from Elton with funky vocals from those effervescent trio of Bell, Duncan and Strike. 

Buckmasters major piece, the 4 Moods sees him at varying stages being moody in his approach. The baroque influence, the harpsichord with it's regal overtones, all make major statements. The waves of the strings, soft one minute then aggressive the next with intermediate moments of sedateness. These quieter moments again incorporate cameo appearances from Elton's main melodies, Buckmaster's clever use of intertwining them with his own compositions shows that both Royal Academy men had been instilled with a common DNA. A triumph for all concerned.The spoken word segment...when it appears...sounds like another radio station has cut in. Obviously taken from the film, it was only when I saw it I got the context of it. So maybe you need to see the film after all!!