Monday, April 21, 2014

'Did He Know And Were They All Wrong?'

There's been quite a few programmes on both radio and television recently not to mention articles in the printed media about the 20th anniversary of Britpop. The young scribes of today have pinpointed the date of the beginning of that phenomena also known as 'Cool Britannia' as the release date of Blur's Parklife, 20 years ago this month. It was quite an extraordinary time. It was the return of the 'proper band' and also the last era of the 'proper band'. There hasn't been such a plethora of guitar based new bands break through in such a short space of time since then. None any good that is. There was incredible diversity in there sounds and all seemed bright on the horizon. The charts were still relevant, unlike today of course. Thursday night appearances on Top Of The Pops still had that wow factor in terms of capturing the moment forever. Live. How long it lasted is up to the same scribes that have pronounced when the starting pistol was fired. Personally, when some of the main protagonists walked up Downing Street to Number 10 in July 1997, is where it ended for me. The apparent anti establishment undertones were merely that. An apparition. Once the two coalesced at that point it was impossible to separate them ever again as a result of the optics of that sight.

But it was still good fun while it laste. The era of the rock star is no more though in 2014. How many chat show/entertainment shows do you see current acts of that vein on now. Yet TFI Friday on Channel 4 was able to have several each one show. It was the last time I took any interest in the 'current' music scene. Since then it's gone down the drain. The charts are totally and utterly irrelevant now. You only have to sell about half a dozen copies and you've a number one. The endless TV talent shows have totally sucked the life and soul out of the art and turned it completely into a product. They can keep it now.

So I suppose you're wondering how is all this relevant to Elton. Very much so I would suggest. We all know Elton is a lightning rod for what's going on around him. Some good, some bad. Around this time 20 years ago he was recording the album 'Believe'. Which became Made In England later on. As an album it's in my top 10. No doubt whatsoever. Davey said on his blog recently it was probably the last great pop/rock album he made. Hard not to argue with that. What Elton has done since has been a right curates egg. Whether it be Easter or not. Bernie's lyric are as per usual dynamically descriptive and personal on the album. Elton has great variation in his styles and pacing. Up-tempo was not a stranger in those days. It was produced by someone, Greg Penny, who knew his Elton onions. And the band lineup was one of the greatest ever. And if all that wasn't enough, they even found space to add Paul Buckmaster in. All in all it's for me the first return to the organic 'Elton' sound, long before Songs From The West Coast (another favourite of mine). I'm not going to delve into it anymore at this stage, I had it on the other day and it's still hitting the spot.

Britpop was essentially a return to guitar based bands with toppings of contemporary flavours. The viewpoint was incredibly retro, the late 60's and the early 70's being a reference point that was frequently quoted. And here we have Elton at that very moment, he like everyone else not quite aware of what was actually beginning, harping back in a similar vein. Was there something flowing through the water in London at the time...if there was they may have been drinking gallons of it. Because at the time, and probably even now, it wouldn't have been cool to bracket Elton into the same category as the current younger acts. He would still be seen with some of them at various awards ceremonies but to the current generation he was old hat. But the new hat Elton was wearing...metaphorically speaking...was an old hat. He ditched the awful Roland piano in concert in 1993 and returned to a proper grand piano. He had stripped the band back to make a more tighter, cohesive sound. And he had sat down to make an album in which he added time and energy. None of this doing it in five minutes lark that doesn't work now and hope to high heavens it works. He sat down at the piano and wrote the strongest melodies to the strongest set of Bernie lyrics for a long time. He and the band weren't afraid to work things out, if it didn't work once then they tried again. But it was the whole organic feel that makes MIE what it is. Plus in no small measure to Davey's guitars, electric and acoustic along with his roots instruments being very much to the forefront. This was no computerized effort, it was lively and it was real. And incredibly contemporary.

When I first heard Believe in 1995...possibly my favourite Elton song was on the radio. On medium wave in fact, the old Virgin Radio on 1215MW. As soon as I heard it I knew instantly it was a Buckmaster arrangement. The knack was still there. It was a tremendous moment. Younger readers are probably amazed today to hear a current Elton on the radio. As I am too. Because I've never heard many current songs from Elton the radio recently. I wonder why. Anyway, the point being it sat comfortably along the rest of the stations airplay of the day. The name may have been old, but the outlook was young. Not hip as in trying to outgun the young turks, but Elton doing his own thing which wasn't a million miles away from what the current crop were trying and succeeding in doing. Not that they would care to admit at the time. Subsequently though, they would tip their cap in Elton's direction.

But the even more amazing thing is when you look at the timeline. Elton was recording the album just as this explosion was detonated. But nobody heard the actual moment of detonation. It was one of those one thing led to another type reactions. But was part of that chain. The early 90's pop had become full of synthesized rubbish, rave music it seems was about to swamp everything. Nothing seemed to be holding it at bay. But there was a yearning around that time for a more simpler and back to basics type of music. Elton had bought into the over processed sound on The One. I love The One, it's very much of its time but has dated very quickly. So MIE was required. And fulfilled its remit. The backdrop of newer acts also reclaiming the retro sound and giving it new life gave Elton a renewed position in contemporary circles. He may have got the lifetime achievement award at the BRITS in 1995 but he could still do a current song. A chart hit if you please.

Elton captured the moment, probably more by coincidence than by design, that in hindsight as we're looking back on that period now seems a more key moment than first realised. If he had recorded the album in say 1995 or 1996 he may have been accused of crashing in, not to mention cashing in, on the current vibe. But he was ahead of the posy. The album is still a powerful statement by all involved. But I think its position in regards to when it was released and moreso it's timing is incredible. Along the lines of The Beatles Anthology in late 1995. Suddenly a band that always had relevance was now defining a generation again. A project that had been in the works for years had spectacularly coincided with a renaissance in the very sound they created. The masters of old had influenced the new and at the same time created something new with an old twist. Kinda confusing on paper maybe, but in practice worked perfectly.

Britpop had seized power and was not for turning, in its own mind at least. So what did Elton do next? He released The Big Picture in September 1997. Weeks after the Number 10 soiree. See where this is going?. But it wasn't the only thing that happened that month that was to prove critical in Elton's career. No need for me to say anymore on that matter. Irrespective of the fact that NME expressed complete derision for CITW '97 as it kept The Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work' off the number 1 slot, Britpop had reached it's peak and the view was downward at that stage. But as I keep saying here, perspective is always crucial in these matters. I'm not suggesting for one minute that Elton either created, nor rode on the coat tails or joined as a last minute straggler to the cultural phenomena. But he was there. And active. Look at the video for the title track and if that's not 'Cool Britannia' encapsulated visually then I don't know what is. Elton's return to a proper sound (ditching the Roland, backing singers from the previous tours), assembling a terrific band that included Davey returning to his roots instruments which in turn led him to being able to express himself more on disc than he had for a long while. Plus adding loads of electric guitars. The final part of the jigsaw being the addition of John Jorgenson the band in 1995 for the MIE tour which was a further ramping up of the hard edge that was missing for so long up that point.

All these things sit comfortably with the Britpop ethos. The critics may not like to admit it, but Elton was a participant. Britpop may have been a fad in some people eyes, but who can argue with how Elton dealt with it. And all the better he was for it too.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition) - Review'

First off, sorry for the delay in this latest post. I had some horrendous internet connection issues over the last while that I ran out of men with spanners to send in to fix it. Thankfully though, one of them must have got to the root of the problem and twiddled the right nut so all is now well.

Not only was this update delayed, but so was the release of this 40th anniversary release. So I'm in good company! Pushed back no doubt to due to The Diving Board having it's own delays. Was it worth it...I'll leave that for you to decide. One of my first posts here detailed a wish list for what should have been on this one off version. If you read what I wrote back then and in tandem with what was done on in terms of interviews, etc then I wasn't far off the mark. Or the powers that be weren't either. I'm going to review the super de-luxe edition, I don't collect vinyl due to cost and space issues. The Palace is heaving enough as it is...

The discs come in those digipak style cardboard sleeves. They are as near to possible in this digital age to a vinyl type cover but due to their small size they can be a bit fragile. The covers are bold in colour with strong vivid imagery of Elton from that period. The outer box is what you'd expect, the album cover in it's full glory. 

No need for me to review's been done to death. With the same conclusion. Apart from the fact it's obviously one of Elton's finest works, it's one of rock's finest moments too. So much written at the time, since then and recently about it. When you consider the turn around in time in terms of writing it and then putting it onto tape it's mind boggling. With no discernible deviation in quality on both counts. Elton and Bernie were sucking diesel as they say, the corridor between the two rooms must have been like a strip under a drag race. Smokin'! 

But not only that, the band and of course Gus gave the music the full range of their talents. I've said this elsewhere, sonically GYBR is unlike any other album of 1973. Pick any of the top sellers of that era and compare the 'sound' of them and there's no comparison. Nigel's drums have an incredible huge sound that retains tightness and precision. Dee's bass is mixed so tactifully all of it's amazing melodic elements are to the fore. Davey, well what can we say, the master of layers. His harmonizing of instruments have a wonderful opposing effect when you listen to the way they play off the various accents he adds. As per usual he balances the acoustic and electric elements like the scales of justice. Del Newman's arrangements have a terrifically widescreen delivery. David Hentschel on the ARP synth gives in that contemporary sound that stands the test. The way Gus recorded the entire effort is again way ahead of the competition. It was trendsetting and ground breaking. Again contrary to recent belief, the piano is clear and audible. And up front. He spared nothing in terms of adding something to the album if it needed it. No shackles of restraint for creativity.

As regards the latest remastering, I can't detect any change from the original from normal listening. I've played both it and the Gus remaster several times and they both sound great. I'm sure the tech people will have some more info on that, but that's a bit out of my area of expertise. If anyone has more details on the remastering, please add it to the comments section under this post.

So much more to say about this album but time is precious so I gotta move on to the rest of the package. One final thing I will say, the impact of this album in 2014 can't be underestimated. If you want a barometer for that fact, look at the setlists for the recent tour. That says it all.

The original film by Bryan Forbes was one of the most traded DVD's in the unofficial market over the last 15 years or so. It's been on YouTube for a while too so it's doubtful if nobody has seen all of it or at least some clips from it. The Classic Albums episode of GYBR from 2001 used extensive footage from it. It mixed Elton from the era in all the arena's that showcase his talents. At the piano composing, in the studio recording and on stage performing. Interwoven with interviews from himself and those around him who helped keep the juggernaut rolling. However, all is not well with this DVD.

The picture hasn't been cleaned up, it still has the dirt marks of the broadcast version. But more alarming is the removal of interview segments with certain individuals, the disappearance of footage where another person is featured prominently has also been deleted. We can speculate as to why the John Reid, Maxine Taupin, Elton's mum and the Dick James' parts have been removed. I'm sure those reading this can draw their own conclusions. But I will say this, The Beatles Anthology featured references to Allan Klein. The Eagles History documentary recently featured Don Felder. So to omit these parts from the DVD release doesn't do the documentary any service. It's an amazing insight of Elton at the time, it's not about what has since transpired. It's still great to have it 'officially', but we need all of it.

Anyone reading this may remember the 35th anniversary tribute show Broadway did for the album in 2008. Not to dwell too much on it, it is the worst tribute by any group of alleged artists ever to try an Elton creation. It was lazy, amateurish, embarrassing and ultimately downright offensive. How on earth such a concept ever left the depths of someones awful imagination is beyond comprehension. Nothing that has gone before or since can match it for crimes against Elton's music. If there was a courtroom in The Hague for such matters, all they would be doing is deciding the length of sentence.

The initial idea of the covers disc gave me flashbacks of hearing a similar massacre unfold. But I had to step back and see what transpired from spinning the disc. Some surprised...some didn't. I'm not familiar with the vast majority of the artists featured. Most are today's hip young things, I'm afraid this blog isn't the place to keep up with such happenings. Might be a good thing, might not be. They avoided established acts in order for Elton to indulge in his passion from promoting new talent. So with that guilt trip hanging over us, how could we disagree. But disagree I do. 

Candle In The Wind/Ed Sheeran - An inoffensive sort of effort, the faux country style doesn't really add anything, nor does the tempo increase. Bland in the extreme.

Bennie And The Jets/Miguel - This is as bad as the aforementioned 2008 tribute. I'm not into rap or any style of music like that, the song is totally and utterly destroyed. If they tried to make it any more of a disaster that it is, then dousing it in petrol might have helped. the plague.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Hunter Hayes - Again, an unremarkable effort. Don't know what else to say.

Grey Seal/The Band Perry - Finally, something on this disc that deserves some attention. None of this overproduced, trying to be clever type of reworking. It's a terrific blend of country and rock I believe it used to be called...mixed with Americana to give an edge that Americana always lacks. Banjo's, Dobro's and electric guitars in abundance. They even do a nice nod to Nigel on the drum fills at the end of the final chorus. The lead singer, Kimberly Perry, has a terrific gutsy voice. All round, it's great treatment of the song. Full of lively energy.
Sweet Painted Lady/John Grant - I'm really struggling with some of these songs, this is another dull reworking. Nothing more to say. 

All The Girls Love Alice/Emeli Sande - A few years ago I was stuck on hold to a call centre for a while...quite a while...and this girl sang the same song over and over. You know the one I'm talking about. A big hit I believe. So I kind of got my life's dose of her by to me, I thought she'd become a part of me. So starting from rock bottom, this could only go one way. Or could it? No it couldn't...Ellie Goulding a few years ago thought it was alright to re-arrange the verses on Your Song. That method is again deployed here. So the 'run' of the song has been disrupted. In other words, my ears were sent in the wrong direction. A confusing feeling that was uncalled for. The song takes a more sinister tone too. The arrangement is darkly and foreboding. Which in turn removes the glorious contrast between the verses and the chorus. Uptempo and then the sudden slow down to more contemplative moments. One of the key (among many) elements of the original. This a total failure. In trying to be clever...too clever..they've fallen over themselves in trying establish moods and feelings that have nothing to do with this song (or some of the others).

Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock And Roll)/Imelda May - The best song on the covers disc. End of. Anyone not familiar with Imelda's style, think Brian Setzer in a tight dress with a quiff. Notwithstanding the fact that she's from inside the Pale of Dublin like myself, her style is tailor made for the song. She gauges it perfectly. The 50's vibe is well and truly realised, her vocal has plenty of attitude and the band rock out with equal tenacity. They didn't release a single from this collection, but if they did this surely would have been a great contender. Terrific stuff. If she does live it would bring the house down.

Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting/Fall Out Boy - As great as the previous song is, this is as dumb as you can get. And I mean dumb. It's juvenile delinquency on disc. Unbelievable. It's like a load of kids (no offense kids, in your garage playing) got together and decided to give it a lash. Whatever talent they lack is highlighted in spades here, the number of changes Davey did on the original has caught out many masters in the past, but these guys are well and truly caught in the headlights. Like Jack Rabbit and his's moronic. 

Harmony/Zac Brown Band - Nothing much to hear here...

To sum up, the covers disc only has two songs on it worth bothering about. The rest are either so unremarkable you'd forget I have...or so bad they stick in your mind and you can't forget them. Which some have done, unfortunately. If they had released this album as a standalone piece, it would have been lost forever. Apart from the 2 songs on it I like, that might not have been a bad thing. If some of these versions are meant to be a gateway to Elton's music, then the gate might be swinging back the other way as they retreat with haste.

The was some debate beforehand about whether this show or the Hollywood Bowl show should have been included. But his has more GYBR than the other one, so they added this in by default you could say. The bootleg of it has been around for years, the original BBC Radio broadcast has been rebroadcast in recent years in the US so a very good version already existed. The remastered version from last year is excellent. Is this an improvement? Clear away the smoke and we'll see...
First off, the stereo spectrum is now the right way around.The remaining tape hiss has been cleared away so Elton's minor vocal parts are now more audible. Apart from that, not much else done to it. The sound is brighter and vibrant in fairness. The recent remastered bootleg is very close to this version. This is isn't a Wembley '75 style upgrade, from ark to space shuttle in comparative terms. Royal Festival Hall '72 and Wembley '75 are far better recordings. Not to mention Here And There. The piano is too low key here. Because the concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 1, I suspect they recorded it and that's why it's not as good as the recordings that Elton's people made on those other ones I mentioned.
In saying all that, it's still a terrific show. Elton may have a cold, but his voice still shines through. The airiness of that era's vocal style just a bit more cloudy than usual. The band are on fire, they were really getting into the groove by this stage. As a precursor to the 1974 shows, which had them at the height of Elton's band shows during the 70's, it is another on their long journey together. The raw nakedness of the tracks stripped of the orchestral, synth and other embellishments on disc is a terrific contrast to the recorded piece. But still doesn't leave any holes or spaces. They are expertly filled by everyone stage to give an overflowing performance. If only they had camera's tucked away in the corner..

One complaint about the book. It's too small!! In saying that, due to size constraints it was never going to be any bigger. Good things come in small packages it's been said sometimes. And this is good. There are some great cut away pictures of the costumes of the era with a corresponding picture of Elton wearing said costume onstage. More of this stuff please. Elton's costumes in the 70's and 80's were an essential part of his stage persona. It would be great to have a greater visual document of them all. His glasses are also detailed, various vinyl covers from international markets are highlighted along with other memorabilia. It's a nice little package with everything nicely presented.

Overall, the super de-luxe package is value for money. The covers disc though is really a passenger. The supplementing of that disc with some odd choices (Philadelphia Freedom) does feel like filler. The DVD for those new to it will be a treat, pity it's not all there. The live show for those who aren't into bootlegs will be a welcome addition. Folks like me who had all those elements before, irrespective of quality, will have had no surprises. Oh well, I suppose I'll have to wait to Step Into Christmas for that experience...