Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Elton John

There is something wondrous about Elton John, and something monstrous. The preeminent popular musician of the Seventies seems out of time, untouched by the decade's confusion. Yet he is ravenously contemporary. Although he partakes of none of the defiant irony and isolation that sustains Dylan and Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, there is no nostalgia about the man either, no namby-pamby religionism or pastoralism, no nuke-fam posturing to comfort the young marrieds; he is not spacey like David Bowie or stuck in a mold like the Stones and the Who and Led Zep. He is just Elton John, moving with the world as only a cynosure can; the most eloquent thing to be said about him is that he is a Rock Star. He consumes music omnivorously--his tastes suggest fuel rather than food--and pursues fame with such single-minded compulsion that to accuse him of escapism sounds silly, like accusing a runaway freight train of antisocial tendencies.

Always the metaphors that arise are mechanical. As the great inheritor of Philadelphia pop-rock, in which rock and roll ceases to be an uncontrolled natural force and turns into a product understood and exploitable, John makes records that are artifacts rather than expressions of a palpably vital individual. Of course, they share this artifactual quality with some of the best popular music of the middle Seventies--the exquisitely crafted recordings of Randy Newman or Paul Simon or Steely Dan, or of the current kings of Philadelphia soul, Gamble and Huff. But with such artists the metaphors are drawn from nature; what they create is like a rare insect preserved in amber. What Elton John creates is more like a Coca-Cola sign.

The world-scale hegemony of Elton's brand of pop emanates from the United States, and like Coca-Cola, which was originally marketed as an elixir, he has become simultaneously more significant and less self-serious. John's glittery outrageousness and rock and roll overdrive have become so pervasive that we tend to forget the wimpiness of his original aspect. The new hopeful's propensity for jumping up and down in front of his piano was duly noted after his U.S. debut at Los Angeles's Troubador Club in 1970, but what stuck out was his eye-glasses--not the spectacles-of-themselves he favors now, but the owlish tortoiseshells that peer off the cover of his first American LP, Elton John.

In that year of Sweet Baby James, it was hard not to assume the worst of what was actually a pretty good record. Paul Buckmaster's pervasive strings, the too often inflated and occasionally meaningless banality of Bernie Taupin's lyrics, and the faked-up sensitivity of a voice that at its worst suggested an adenoid in search of a choirmaster all betokened yet another foolish, folkish singer/songwriter, albeit one with two heads. But in fact those arrangements, more astringent than the usual sweetening in any case, also proved dispensable; Taupin's lyrics maintained the kind of 50-50 ratio that can result in a lot of good songs if the music is strong and plentiful; and Elton possessed a pop-rock voice in the great tradition of Del Shannon and Bobby Vee, as well as the ambition to apotheosize that voice. In other words, that sensitive little LP contained the makings of a rock and roll assembly line.

However unlikely this might have seemed to American observers at the time, it was implicit in the English career of Reg Dwight, which was Elton's name before he decided to destine himself for bigger things. Born in 1947, Reg was a moderately prodigious child pianist who was introduced to rock and roll by his mother and learned less at the Royal Academy of Music than he did in a group called Bluesology. Beginning as a copy band in the London suburbs in 1964, Bluesology moved on to tour with American rock and rollers like Doris Troy and Billy Stewart and eventually came to back the semilegendary Long John Baldry in 1967. Yet Reg was always in pursuit of the eternal more. He tried to land a singer/songwriter gig, but instead landed a partner, fellow reject Bernie Taupin. The two worked solely by mail at first, finally meeting in the flesh at the studios of Dick James, Lennon-McCartney's original publisher, who eventually gave the singer/songwriter team the ten-pound-a-week contract that enabled Reg to quit Baldry and change his name.

According to official legend, John and Taupin tried to grind out pap pop-rock until urged to follow their own noses by the likes of pop-rock kings Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook. What John and Taupin did with his advice, however, becomes understandable only when notions of a muse are put aside. The millions who take their Elton John records at face value still think of Bernie as a conscious artist, half a songpoet; his more reflective admirers like to point out his apparent preoccupation with American imagery and outsider-versus-society themes. Yet although this analysis is not inaccurate statistically, it's aesthetically irrelevant. Most likely, Bernie's writing does reflect genuine personal interests. But he rarely has anything new to say about those interests--or at least anything precise, anything consistent or paradoxical. This is just as well for Elton, who needs the sound of the words, not their sense; sense might stanch their flow. It may even be that Bernie's vagueness functions for him the way the dispassion of craft does for pop pros in the tradition of Greenaway and Cook, who must have realized, back at Dick James Music, that for young men like Elton and Bernie, "poetic" imagery and "meaningful" themes were at least a permissible gimmick, probably a personal asset, and possibly a commercial necessity.

Were they necessary? Impossible to tell, although how could Elton have been the complete rocker in this decade without them? In any case, there is no doubt that they were sufficient and then some. Not counting a soundtrack and a live album and a greatest hits and some uncollected singles and an early British LP released six years after the fact, John came up with nine albums (including one double) in the five years following his first visit to America. By the standards established for today's pop, such productivity is gross, proof in itself that Elton must be doing something wrong, and the alacrity with which he works (with a partner whom he rarely sees socially anymore) is equally suspect. The songs begin with Taupin, who will write the lyrics for an album in a two-week flurry, spending perhaps an hour on each one, and forward them to Elton, who works out chords and melody for each lyric unchanged, a process that usually takes less than an hour. Arrangements develop during recording, which takes a few weeks per album at most. John and Taupin both say pop music should be disposable; the way they grind it out, they might pass for a garbage processing plant.

Yet there are few people who like rock and roll or any pop music, who remain unreached by Elton John. It's not just that he's so pervasive, although that helps; quite simply, the man is a genius. No matter how you deplore his sloppiness, or his one-dimensionality, or his $40,000 worth of rose-colored glasses, you will find yourself humming "Take Me to the Pilot" or "Bennie and the Jets" or "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." Not all of them, perhaps; maybe not any of those three. But the man's gift for the hook--made up whole or assembled from outside sources--is so universal that there is small likelihood one of them hasn't stuck in your pleasure center. Or your craw. Or both.

For a good hook does not guarantee aesthetic merit--it is merely a means to aesthetic merit, and far from foolproof. The chorus of "Take Me to the Pilot" is as compelling a melody as John has ever recorded, but the lyric is gibberish which has drained energy from singers as honest as Ben E. King and Patti LaBelle, and every time the melody leads you to the gibberish there is reason to resent it more. Or again: John's affected pronunciation of the word "discard" ("diszgard") on "Don't Let the Sun" is a kind of hook in itself, and also a turn-off in itself, an aural itch you can't scratch. On the other hand, in "Bennie and the Jets," which is one big hook--as compelling and catchy a performance as John has ever concocted--the way some fairly standard images of pop stardom are given life by the music makes the lyrics completely convincing.

Hooks are integral to hit singles; they are what makes disc jockeys and radio listeners remember a record. The heedless productivity of John's recording habits tends to result in hit singles; one cut or another is bound to be right because the whole process is so hit-or-miss. So when John is praised critically, it is usually as a singles artist. Inevitably, though, some of John's monster singles present him at his most monstrous--not many, granted, but you can't just disregard (or diszgard) those that do. John at his worst is fulsome in both the archaic sense of "copious," "fat," "wanton" and in the modern sense: "offensive to moral or aesthetic sensibility," "offensive from insincerity or baseness of motive." His rank sentimentality is typified by the semimeaningful "Border Song" or the overripe "Don't Let the Sun"--both included on Elton's otherwise listenable (although stylistically ragged) Greatest Hits. But his general slovenliness has its compensations in a kind of postindustrial openness and fecundity, and it is possible to sort out the garbage on that jumble of albums just by analyzing their hook content.

On his two worst albums, Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973) and (especially) Madman Across the Water (1971), what few hooks push through are dull or annoying; the same goes for at least half of the double LP, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973). The first of the two early LPs is winsome enough, although marred by the aforementioned wimpiness; the other, Tumbleweed Connection (1970), continues to sound as flat as it did (to this listener) at the time of its release, although side two saves it from nadirdom. The hooks are much more numerous on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975), the autobiographical bildungselpee, but the failure of the concept as a whole--Taupin lacks both the honesty and the intellectual discipline to bring it off--diminishes its better parts.

That's six discs gone, some of them pleasantly enough. But what remains is a career's worth of good rock and roll. Honky Chateau (1972), album number four, which announced John and Taupin's escape from the excesses of their own romanticism, sounds even crisper today, when we can be sure it wasn't a fluke. Yet although it stands as John's best LP, it remains atypical, the "folk rock" statement that culminates his sensitive phase. The clear break, both aesthetically and professionally, came with the single "Crocodile Rock," included on Dont Shoot Me, which unveiled Elton and Bernie's assembly line and put it into overdrive on a road to preeminence which if it wasn't paved with yellow brick was obviously pure gold.

This is why it makes sense to perceive the title track of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road as another self-serving enigma even while admitting that the album goes places, including not only "Bennie and the Jets" and John's original Rolling Stones rip-off, the Number One "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," but also the unheralded "You Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock 'n' Roll)." This raver is one of John's masterpieces, overlaying surf-sound harmonies and amusement-park organ on an intensified sendup of Danny and the Juniors' "At the Hop," itself the most intense Philadelphia pop-rock record ever made; it proves that rock and roll need not be human to move. The first side of Caribou (album seven, 1974) is also mint Elton, leading off with a nastier Rolling Stones rip-off, "The Bitch Is Back," and never letting go. Its moment of transcendence is entitled "Solar Prestige a Gammon": "Solar prestige a gammon/ Kool kar kyrie kay salmon/ Hair ring molasses abounding/ Common lap kitch sardin a poor floundin." And Rock of the Westies (1975) introduces a mostly new Elton John Band that kicks a little more ass than the original. Kenny Passarelli and Roger Pope are tougher and less static than Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson on bass and drums, Caleb Quaye augments Davey Johnstone keenly on guitar, and James Newton Howard adds keyboard touches absent from the boss's rather clunky vocabulary. The result is the best Rolling Stones album since Exile on Main St.

It is tempting to conclude that the simplest way to separate good Elton from bad Elton is to assume that good Elton rocks and bad Elton doesn't. But that leaves too many exceptions, not only ballads that work and a lot of in-betweens, but also pointless rockers, a category that includes songs as significant as the rather unfocused, nostalgia-mongering "Crocodile Rock." In fact the truth is that even though Elton seems as indifferent to their quality as Bernie himself does to their specific content, it is only the lyrics which elevate John's music beyond aural diversion. Of course, Elton and Bernie are rarely aware themselves when this happens, favoring ponderous banalities like "Candle in the Wind" ("Hollywood created a superstar/ And pain was the price you paid") or "Ticking" ("But blood stained a young hand that never held a gun/ And his parents never thought of him as their troubled son") to perfect throwaways like "Your Sister Can't Twist" or "The Bitch Is Back." For the paradox of these new pop pros is that they can create work of genuine aesthetic quality, but this quality is independent of vision and intent; they are such good partners because they share, over and above their commercial energy and a certain expedient sentimentality, a blankness of artistic personality.

Taupin is essential to John because his relative anonymity has saved his superstar mouthpiece from the onanistic knownothingism of superstar lyrics; he can walk the streets like a real person, so it's no strain for him to write songs that are actually about things. Recently the two have even begun to achieve what for them is a certain ironic density. Three songs from Rock of the Westies will do as examples: "Grow Some Funk of Your Own," which acknowledges the slumming impulse underlying all south-of-the-border songs in the marimba accent of the band's own funk and the Spanish accent Elton assumes when quoting the avenging boyfriend ("He was so macho," Elton whimpers); "Island Girl," in which the "inappropriate" cheerfulness of the music's ersatz Caribbean inflections, both oral and instrumental, imply a naive racism belied by the impassive but sage cruelty of the lyric's conclusion; and "Street Kids," in which the band's proletarian drive cuts right through Elton's arbitrary ebullience. But it must be reiterated that these effects are probably accidental. For all John and Taupin can be assumed to care, the social issues that arise in their music might as well be moon-June-spoon.

This impartiality carries over into John's singing, which is not interpretive in any ordinary sense of the term. The man has a ballad voice, which is adenoidal and insensitive sounding, and he can simulate a few surface effects. In its way, his style is quite distinctive--that is, his vocal timbre is unmistakable--but it is indubitably mechanical. Its automatism is acknowledged in that song from Caribou, "Solar Prestige a Gammon," which is written entirely in words that only sound like words or can't possibly mean what they seem to mean. Needless to say, John sings it with all his usual cheery conviction, which I assume is his way of telling us something.

If you like, the arrogance of what it tells us is monstrous. That mindless cipher makes untold millions a year; that balding, pudgy robot is an object of pubescent sexual fantasy. But to say that Elton John lacks the lineaments of a conventional artist is not to say he is a cipher; to say that his singing is mechanical is not to declare him a robot. He is a star because people love his music and are immensely attracted to his immense vivacity--both in the media theater of mags and tube and in all the garish fulsomeness of his live shows. He is the true spirit of rock and roll, devoid of all but the most innocent pretensions, as sure a touchstone in this decade as the Beach Boys were in the last. Since his collection of popular records is one of the largest in the world, and he seems to listen to all of them, perhaps it is most apt to steal an image from Greil Marcus and call him Elton John Superfan.

Elton is our tabula rasa--the very sureness of his instinct for sales makes him a kind of one-man zeitgeist. If he can be maudlin or stupid or pleasure-seeking or head-in-the-sand, so can we, and those of us who reject those flaws in ourselves will reject them in him as well. But if he can produce incisive music without even willing it, as seems likely, well, perhaps there is more room for optimism there than there would be in the strivings of a lonely artist. In fact, maybe Elton John isn't out of time at all. Maybe he is one small indication that some things about the times are already all right.

Discography

Singles

  • "Border Song" (Uni 55246; * 92, 1970).
  • "Your Song" (Uni 55265; * 8, 1970).
  • "Friends" (Uni 55277; * 34, 1971).
  • "Levon" (Uni 55314; * 24, 1971).
  • "Tiny Dancer" (Uni 55318; * 41, 1972).
  • "Rocket Man" (Uni 55328; * 6, 1972).
  • "Honky Cat" (Uni 55343; * 8, 1972).
  • "Crocodile Rock" (MCA 4000; * 1, 1972).
  • "Daniel" (MCA 40046; * 2, 1973).
  • "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting" (MCA 40105; * 12, 1973).
  • "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (MCA 40148; * 2, 1973).
  • "Bennie and the Jets" (MCA 40198; r* 15, * 1, 1974).
  • "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (MCA 40259; * 2, 1974).
  • "The Bitch Is Back" (MCA 40297; * 4, 1975).
  • "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (MCA 40344; * 1, 1974).
  • "Philadelphia Freedom" (MCA 40364; r* 32, * 1, 1975).
  • "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" (MCA 40421; * 4, 1975).
  • "Island Girl" (MCA 40461; * 1, 1975).
Albums

  • Elton John (Uni 73090; * 4, 1971).
  • Tumbleweed Junction (Uni 73096; * 5, 1971).
  • Friends (Soundtrack) (Paramount 6004; * 36, 1971).
  • 11-17-70 (Uni 93105; * 11, 1971).
  • Madman Across the Water (Uni 93120; * 8, 1971).
  • Honky Chateau (Uni 93135; * 1, 1972).
  • Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (MCA 2100; * 1, 1973).
  • Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (MCA 10003; * 1, 1973).
  • Caribou (MCA 2116; * 1, 1974).
  • Elton John--Greatest Hits (MCA 2128; * 1, 1974).
  • Empty Sky (MCA 2130; * 6, 1975).
  • Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (MCA 2142; * 1, 1975).
  • Rock of the Westies (MCA 2163; * 1, 1975).
(Chart positions compiled from Joel Whitburn's Record Research, based on Billboard Pop chart, unless otherwise indicated; r* = position on Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart.)

The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976