Elton John: The Little Hooker That Could
There is something wondrous about Elton John, and something monstrous. The preeminent rock star of the '70s seems out of time, untouched by the decade's confusion. Unlike most of his compeers, he consumes music omnivorously--his tastes suggest fuel rather than food--and he pursues this 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 metaphore 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's records 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 our time--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 from nature--what they create is like a fly preserved in amber. What Elton John creates is more like a Coca-Cola sign.
Not counting a soundtrack and a live album and a greatest hits and a collection of early efforts as yet unreleased here, John's newest LP, Rock of the Westies--number one, of course, containing one number-one single so far--is the ninth album (including one double) the singer-songwriter has loosed upon the American public since the time of his debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in August, 1970. 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 is equally suspect. The songs begin with lyricist Bernie Taupin, whom Elton met in 1967 by answering a want ad; although the two once spent a lot of time scuffling and still tour together, they rarely see each other socially any more. Taupin will write the lyrics for an album over a two-week flurry, spending perhaps an hour on each one, and send them on to Elton, who works out chords and melody for each lyric unchanged, a process that usually takes less than an hour. Recording takes a few weeks at most. John has said he believes pop music should be disposable; the way he grinds it out, he 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 statistical likelihood that one of them hasn't stuck in your pleasure center. Or your craw. Or both.
For of course a good hook does not guarantee aesthetic merit--it is merely a means to aesthetic merit, and far from a foolproof one. The chorus of "Take Me to the Pilot" is as compelling a melody as John has ever concocted, but the lyric is gibberish, and every time the melody leads me to the gibberish I resent it more. Or again: John's affected pronunciation of discard ("disz-gard") is a kind of hook in itself, and also a turn-off in itself. In "Bennie and the Jets," on the other hand, the way some fairly standard notions about rock stardom are embodied in the music--the whole damn song is one enormous hook--makes them vivid and convincing.
Hooks are integral to hit singles; they are what makes disc jockeys and radio listeners remember a record. The heedless fecundity of John's recording habits tends to produce hit singles; one cut or another is bound to be right because it's all 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 so many any more, granted, but you can't just disregard (or diszard) those that do. His Greatest Hits is a hodgepodge. But there is a compensation--John processes so much music that it is possible to sort out the garbage on that jumble of long-playing discs by analyzing their hook content.
On his two worst albums, Madman Across the Water and Please Don't Shoot the Piano Player, hooks are both rare and dull; the same goes for at least half of the double-LP, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the second side of Caribou. On the two early song-poetry efforts, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection, the hooks are often there, but the way they drip with nasal sensitivity (wiped by Paul Buckmaster's orchestral embroidery) you wish they weren't. A similar sensibility reemerges in a less fulsome musical context on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the autobiographical bildungselpee of earlier this year, but the concept fails, and its failure as a whole diminishes its better parts.
That's already six and a half discs gone, but what's left is at least five years worth of good rock and roll. Honky Chateau, album number four, which announced John's and Taupin's escape from the excesses of their own romanticism, sounds even crisper today, when you can be sure it wasn't a fluke. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (number six) is uneven but goes places, including not only "Bennie and the Jets" and one of John's two hit Rolling Stone rip-offs, "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," but also the unheralded "Your Sister Can't Twist." This raver is one of John's masterpieces, overlaying surf-sound harmonies and midway organ on an intensified send-up of Danny & the Juniors' "At the Hop," itself the most intense Philadelphia pop-rock record ever made. The first, side of Caribou (number seven) leads off with an even nastier Rolling Stones rip-off, "The Bitch Is Back," and never lets up. My favorite cut is called "Solar Prestige a Gammon": "Solar prestige a gammon/Kool kar kyrie kay salmon/Hair ring molassis abounding/Common lap kitch sardin a poor floundin."
Which brings us to Rock of the Westies, which I didn't like when I first put it on and now think is Elton John's best album. This is nothing new. Despite his considerable commercial skill and fabulous commercial success, John does not suit my (rather permissive) notions about how an artist should behave, and although (or perhaps because) he is five years younger than me, he is not a child of the '60s the way I am. He threatens me, and like most people I know I tend to fear and distrust him, so I write him off all the time. On this record I took a blas? approach, comparing him to the Bic pen, a formerly dependable product which can no longer be counted on to write every time.
Then, in a bad mood one night, I lay down and read the lyrics along with the music. I grew angry. Not that the lyrics were bad in themselves; in fact, they were Taupin's best batch ever, maybe a real goodbye to the yellow brick road. Taupin had written about race and class before, but not with this sort of toughness and clarity and irony; there was even a contribution from a woman, backup singer Ann Orson, about the contradictions of working-class marriage, the first outside composition ever to appear on an Elton John album. But the music . . . arghh, the music. This Bic was not only writing, it was leaking on my shirt; between the band's machine-tooled hard rock and Elton's automatic good cheer, it was crossing the fucking words right out.
The next day, you guessed it, I found myself singing not one but three or four of the tunes--the "Take Me to the Pilot" effect, in a way, although rather than leading me to gibberish the music was, in effect, the gibberish itself. I'll shake this off, I said to myself, but I could not resist playing the record again . . . and again. Both sides. Hooked again.
Only one of the nine songs on the album bothers me much any more, and even that one I'm not sure about. The title is "Billy Bones and the White Bird," with lyrics that more or less match, and the hook is the only one I noticed before reading the words--Elton chanting "check it out" over an echo-ish Bo Diddley shuffle, very contemporary-sounding, and therefore irrelevant to the old-salt spirit of the lyric as I understand it. With Taupin, that last is an essential proviso--half the time he does not bother to make himself understood, which given the middlebrow claptrap he is capable of when he does ("Hollywood made you a superstar/And pain was the price you paid") often seems a blessing--but what made this album different was that it applied in a new way. The difference was irony--the lyrics were clear to begin with, but shifted nuance over repeated listenings. And as I listened I found their toughness and clarity and irony enriched by the music and by John's abiding high spirits.
"Grow Some Funk of Your Own," is the greatest in a long line of south-of-the-border songs that began with the Robins' "Down in Mexico," because the nastiness of the slumming impulse underlying such tales is implicit in the marimba accent of the band's own funk and the Spanish accent John assumes when quoting the avenging boyfriend ("he was so macho," Elton whimpers). The faked-up Caribbean inflections, both oral and instrumental, of the hit single, "Island Girl," imply a naive racism belied by the impassive but sage cruelty of the lyric's conclusion--that is, the "inappropriateness" of the music ultimately elaborates the song's irony. In contrast the temper of both "Street Kids" and Ann Orson's "Hard Luck Story," fired by the band's drive, cuts through John's arbitrary ebullience, giving us a glimpse of its works that only does the songs credit. And on "I Feel a Like a Bullet" Taupin finally justifies his penchant for mixed metaphor by providing Elton with an alibi: "You know I can't think straight no more." Some variation on that line would have improved a lot of their songs.
None of this analysis is meant to imply vision or intent. John and Taupin are such good partners because they share, over and above their commercial energy and a certain generalized ripe sentimentality, a blankness of artistic personality. Although it is only Taupin's lyrics that can elevate John's music to anything more than the most trivial aural diversion, John seems as indifferent to their quality as Taupin himself does to what they contain.
Don't get me wrong--Taupin can be an excellent lyricist, and it's a very good thing that he writes for John. Captain Fantastic excepted (and even that had its share of moments), his relative anonymity has saved his superstar mouthpiece from the onanistic banality of superstar lyrics; because he can walk the streets like a real person, it's no strain for Taupin to write songs that are actually about things. But Taupin's wide-ranging historical and cultural subject matter, added to the old romantic staples, serves only to redefine the meaning of commercial songwriting in this time; he treats the various social issues with no discernible commitment or consistency. For all we can tell, they might as well be moon-June-spoon.
And this, how-you-say, impartiality is perfectly suited to John's singing, which is not interpretive in any ordinary sense of the term. The man has a ballad voice, which is adenoidal and sensitive-sounding, and a hard rock voice, which is adenoidal and insensitive-sounding, and he can simulate a few surface effects, like the accents which adorn this album. In its way, his style is quite distinctive--that is his vocal timbre is unmistakable--but it is indubitably mechanical. Its automatism is best demonstrated by that song I quoted from Caribou, "Solar Prestige a Gammon," which is written entirely in words that only sound like words or that 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, what it tells us is monstrous. Such arrogance. That mindless cipher makes untold millions a year; that pudgy robot is a hero and an object of fantasy sex. 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. The best way to explain him is to steal an idea from Greil Marcus: Elton is the superfan, the ultimate music consumer. This is literally true--his collection of popular records is almost certainly one of the largest in the world, and he seems to listen to all of them. Who knows how much of his listening he puts to use? The most remarkable proof is on this record, which involves his first major personnel switch since the departure of Paul Buckmaster: a half-new Elton John Band. There is a tendency to forget Elton's musicians; since he is a machine, it can't matter who backs him. But that was a good band, and it does make a difference, because these guys kick more ass than the old guys. An especially useful addition is a second keyboard man, James Newton Howard, whom Elton found on an all-instrumental solo LP released awhile back on Kama Sutra. I played that record when it came through and dismissed it, but Elton heard something there. That is the superfan's reward.
And finally, the superfan's reward is the fans' reward. Elton is our tabula rasa--the very sureness of his instinct for sales make him a kind of one-man Zeitgeist. If he can be maudlin or stupid or hedonistic or self-indulgent--the new album is very tight until the song endings, which tend to repeat the same riff ad tedium--so we 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 possible, well, perhaps there is more room for optimism there than in the strivings of a lonely artist. Maybe, in fact, Elton John isn't out of time at all. Maybe he is one small indication that some things about the times are already aright.
Village Voice, Nov. 24, 1975