Flashback: Elton John Custom Mix

A while back—I’m not exactly sure when—I assembled a playlist of Elton John songs in iTunes. I narrowed down the playlist to CD length so I could listen to it in the car.

Recently, while moving for the second time in less than six months, I gave it a spin. Subsequently, it provided the soundtrack for much of the week I spent taking boxes from old place to new place.

“Rock and Roll Madonna”
I first heard this song on the Lady Samantha compilation released on cassette only by DJM in 1974. I found it in the record department of Sears & Roebuck, of all places—not where you’d typically expect to find an import, regardless of format; I got my mom to buy it for me, even though it probably cost a couple bucks more than a “regular” cassette at that time. Since I was listening on a very basic cassette recorder, one meant primarily for dictation, I was actually hearing only one side of the stereo mix. Then again, I was listening through a single earphone, so it didn’t really matter all that much. I was just stoked that I was getting to listen to songs that I didn’t know existed anywhere else.

This song is one of the highlights of the Tumbleweed Connection album, probably the best of Elton John’s early albums. I never knew what “eiderdown” meant (still don’t, to be honest), but I always liked the song. It was subsequently used in the opening sequence of Dog Day Afternoon, where it both evokes the hot summer day alluded to in the film’s title, and helps to establish the setting (i.e., a time and place where the song could reasonably expect to be played on the radio).

“Can I Put You On”
The 11–17–70 album (or 17-11-70, as it was called in the UK) was one of those albums released to cash in on the popularity of bootleg albums of the radio broadcast that was the source of the recordings. The trio of Elton John, Dee Murray (on bass), and Nigel Olsson (on drums) perform with tremendous energy, creating a sound so full and dynamic that it’s easy to forget that you’re not listening to a “full” band. Though the original LP had only six songs (the 1995/96 reissues added “Amoreena”), the performances easily bettered the original studio recordings. “Can I Put You On” is no exception; though I subsequently bought a copy of the Friends soundtrack, on which the original studio version appears, I’ve always preferred this live version.

One of the things that made Elton John such a unique talent early on is that he seemed to be a musical chameleon, not limiting himself to any particular style. Befitting its title and lyrical content, this song from 1972’s Honky Château album has a particularly strong gospel feel.

“Teacher I Need You”
When I first heard this song, I would have been 11 or 12—nearly perfect timing, since it wasn’t long after that that I started junior high school. This song always makes me think of my 7th grade Spanish teacher. She was probably in her late 20s or early 30s, with prematurely grey hair that was always tied back. David Brenner once said (in one of his standup routines) that “you can learn from someone you can look at”—but I found that my infatuation with this woman made it more difficult. I remember one day when we were supposed to be repeating phrases after her, but I’d got so caught up in looking at her that I forgot—until she called me on it, of course, which snapped me out of my reverie and back into the day’s lesson.

“Midnight Creeper”
One of the more fun songs from the Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player album. Kind of funky, kind of silly, with some tasty brass arrangements. Plus it name checks Tina Turner—and I’d been a huge fan of the Ike & Tina song “Nutbush City Limits”.

“Bennie and the Jets”
This was the song that, in early 1974, made me an Elton John fan. I’d liked “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, but “Bennie and the Jets” was different. Maybe it was the fake live recording, or that it just didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the time, but I knew I was going to have to get the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album—which I spent my entire month’s allowance on that March.

“Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again)”
This song immediately followed “Rock and Roll Madonna” on the Lady Samantha cassette; in fact, though I put the songs on this disc in chronological order, it still feels strange not to have the recorded applause from “Rock and Roll Madonna” as this song starts.

“Sick City”
This was the b-side of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, which was the first new Elton John record to come out since I’d started paying attention. While “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” was a ballad, “Sick City” was a sassy rocker about life on tour. It was better than just about everything on Caribou; it was also my first experience with the non-album B-side. And it’s an indelible reminder of the summer of 1974.

“Cold Highway”
The follow-up single to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” was “The Bitch is Back”. That was a controversial choice for a single in 1974; while local AM station KJR would play the song, its DJs were not allowed to actually mention the name of the song on the air—since it contained the word “bitch”. Either way, the new single had yet another non-album song on the b-side; this one was apparently about some dangerous stretch of road that had a reputation for nasty accidents.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
This audacious cover was everything the Beatles’ original wasn’t: it was lush, expansive, and polished. And it worked. Released in time for the 1974 Xmas season, this nearly 6-minute single spent the first three weeks of 1975 at #1. Topping it all off was Elton John’s performance of the song on The Cher Show—not a typical venue for a rock musician in those days, but he managed to pull it off, singing live to the backing track. I remember watching the show in the living room with my parents, but going upstairs to watch when Elton John came on. It doesn’t look like much now, but at the time it felt like something very special.

“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was Elton John’s first new album since signing a new $8 million contract with MCA; it became the first album to debut at #1 on the Billboard album chart. A couple of things stand out for me. First, the quality of MCA’s pressings was horrible: the first couple of copies I got were pockmarked in places, resulting in skipping; after the third copy I had to exchange, my father started opening up copies in the store. It seemed that many copies had sort of splotches where the grooves had not actually formed, so there’d be these small islands (usually towards the end of the side) where the grooves would be interrupted by unformed, slightly textured vinyl. It was probably the ninth or tenth copy we opened that wasn’t flawed in some way. The other was that I spent a lot of time listening to Captain Fantastic during the three days I spent home from school after having my braces put on; the original plan had been to do the lower teeth first, then the upper teeth—but they ended up doing the whole lot at once, so my mouth was incredibly sore, to the point where just my teeth accidentally touching was very painful. So, I spent those three days listening to Captain Fantastic and watching reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club. Oddly enough, I also quite strongly remember hearing the album’s only single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, playing over the PA one rainy day while I was playing miniature golf.

“House of Cards”
This was the B-side of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”—and the last of the run of Elton John’s classic non-album B-sides. It wasn’t clear whether or not this song followed the autobiographical approach of the album; I’ve always assumed it didn’t, despite the custom  “Captain Fantastic” label, because it had a different feel from the LP. It was less of an Important Statement, with lots of wordplay in the lyrics, and an occasionally exaggerated accent in the vocals.

“Hard Luck Story”
Unthinkable as it would be today, the next Elton John album, Rock of the Westies came out just a few months after Captain Fantastic—and also debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart. This coincided with the start of 7th grade for me, which, thanks to earlier school hours, also coincided with regular after-school Monopoly® games at my house. Not coincidentally, my friends started to get really tired of hearing Rock of the Westies (if not Elton John in general), because it was usually the album I’d put on the record player (I’d yet to graduate to a “turntable”) at the start of the game. “Hard Luck Story” was never a single—the album was preceded by “Island Girl”, which was followed by the unlikely double-A-side choice of “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”/”I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford)”—but it’s always been one of my favorite songs from the album.

“Are You Ready for Love”
In 1977, Seattle was all abuzz with the news that Elton John was recording with noted Philadelphia producer Thom Bell at Kaye-Smith Studios (which Heart later bought and renamed Bad Animals). Unfortunately, it seemed that nothing came of those sessions; that year’s Elton John single was the self-produced “Ego”, a minor hit at best. It wouldn’t be until 1979 that the 3-song 12″ EP The Thom Bell Sessions would be released, by which time disco was at its peak. “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” was a minor hit; the consensus was that it would have been more successful had it been released two years earlier. “Are You Ready for Love”, with the Spinners on background vocals, was the highlight of the EP, and the best chance for Elton John to compete with the disco juggernaut. (Unfortunately, his real attempt to do that was the ill-conceived, and poorly received, disco album Victim of Love.) The Thom Bell Sessions eventually received a release on CD, but with a slightly different version of this song than on the original vinyl EP.

“Philadelphia Freedom” (remix)
In 1983, DJM released The Superior Sound of Elton John (1970–1975), a collection of nine Elton John songs remixed by producer Gus Dudgeon specifically for the then-new Compact Disc format. Tampering with extremely well-known recordings in this way was kind of a curious move to make, but none of Elton John’s catalog had been reissued on CD yet, and the format had been touted for its much-greater dynamic range compared to vinyl, so DJM must have figured they couldn’t miss—Elton John fans would finally have some of his music on CD, with extra dynamic range for the audiophiles. Though the CD was available in the US as an import, it was never released here. For the most part, the remixes aren’t bad, but there’s a sense of something missing, since the original versions are so familiar. The exception is “Philadelphia Freedom”. I’ve always preferred this remixed version to the original; it feels more open and organic somehow. This was the version I included on one of my favorite ’80s mixtapes—which was a key part of the soundtrack to my 1985 summer vacation in Japan.

(11 June 2013)