Flashback: Elton John—Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Part 1)

Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
MCA MCA2-10003 (double LP)
1973

March 1974 marked the beginning of my Elton John phase.

Though he was approaching the peak of his popularity by this time, I had been only vaguely aware of Elton John before 1973. The older sister of a friend of mine had brought back a copy of the “Crocodile Rock” single from Germany, and an edited version appeared on one of those early-1970s K-tel compilation LPs, Fantastic (“22 original hits—22 original stars”), which I probably got for The Sweet’s “Little Willy”.

In the autumn of 1973, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released, with the first two singles being “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. It was thanks to hearing these songs on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 that Elton John at last properly showed up on my musical radar. (As mentioned in a previous post, thanks to Casey Kasem, I thought that “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was Elton John’s farewell message, mistakenly believing that he’d had enough of the music industry and was going to go back home to the farm. But I digress…)

But it was the release of “Bennie and the Jets” as a single in early 1974 that really got me hooked. It didn’t really occur to me at the time that it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio; I just thought it was a really cool song. So, I bought a copy of the single (with “Harmony” on the b-side).

I didn’t get a copy of the album right away, because it was a double. My allowance at the time was five bucks a month, and at Marketime (later Fred Meyer), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road cost $9.48. So, I would have to wait. Unless…

Whether or not it was connected to my desire to own this two-disc opus, I somehow managed to persuade my parents to up my allowance to the unheard-of amount of $10 a month, starting in March—which also happened to be the month of my birth (and which undoubtedly made my request a bit more palatable to my folks).

So, one day in March 1974, armed with my ten-dollar bill, I picked out a copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and spent my month’s allowance in one shot. (Sales tax at the time was 5.4%, so I had just enough to cover the purchase.)

It’s almost hard to explain just how impressed I was with every aspect of this album—visually, musically, sonically—but I’ll try…

Visually, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a treat, practically luxurious. (Scans of the DJM edition can be found here.) Not just a simple gatefold, it actually folded out to three panels inside and out. The “outside” panel consisted of the front cover, back cover, and photos of Elton John and his band; the front cover illustration extended to the left so that the wall and sidewalk formed the backdrop for the back cover info and the inside panel you’d see upon opening the first fold. (Here again, as I looked at the front cover illustration of Elton John stepping out of the sidewalk and onto the yellow brick road that headed off into the sunset, I couldn’t help but recall Casey Kasem talking about Elton John’s desire to chuck it all and go home. I also coveted the platform shoes he was wearing.)

The inside panels, of course, contained the lyrics—and not just the lyrics, but more illustrations. Except, of course, for the instrumental “Funeral for a Friend” (and, depending upon how you look at it, “This song has no title”), each song got its own little picture. Moreover, the lyrics to each song were printed in a different color, and each song title got its own typographical treatment (whether separately or as part of the illustration).

What impressed me the most about the lyrics was that they were not like the simple love songs and novelty records that I had mostly been accustomed to. Their tone was often conversational, and they covered subjects (including ones that I wouldn’t understand for a few more years) that I would never have expected anyone to write songs about. No, these were a long ways away from the Partridge Family records that had been my last major musical obsession.

Anyway, for the 11-year-old me, this was a fascinating visual package, whether or not I was actually listening to the record at the same time. Whether it was trying to figure out why a certain color was used for a given song’s lyrics (“Love Lies Bleeding”, “Candle in the Wind”, and “All the Girls Love Alice” were obvious; the rest were not); marvelling at what would now be called “side boob” in the illustration accompanying the lyrics to “Dirty Little Girl”; looking at the musician credits and wondering what a “mellotron” was; looking at the band photos and trying to determine whether Nigel Olsson was a boy or a girl (and, if she was a girl, why she was called “Nigel”); or simply enjoying looking at all the different images; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was one of those albums that practically demanded you spend hours pouring over its jacket.

I found the label interesting as well. There was something very cool about the weird swath of rainbow on the MCA label, particularly set against the black background. It was more interesting than the orange-yellow of RCA Victor, or the monochromatic silver and black found on Bell. Even the quasi-futuristic MCA logo looked cool to me.

Musically, the album seemed to be in a class all its own. Some songs rocked; some were mellow. Some songs were piano-based; some were more guitar-driven. More importantly, there was just some sort of undefinable quality the music had that I had never heard in other records. Even when the music was fun, it wasn’t frivolous or—even worse—cheesy. This was music I could enjoy and feel good about listening to.

The album also sparked my interest in synthesizers. Yes, I’d already heard music that employed them, not quite like this. Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”, for example, basically used synthesizers to create a break consisting of sound effects within a guitar-based song. The songs on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, meanwhile, actually used synthesizers (I’m including the Mellotron in this category; the ARP synthesizer is really used in just two songs) in musical ways as well (even though “Funeral for a Friend” does start off by using a synthesizer to mimic the sounds of wind). So, when synthesizers came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was more than ready.

Sonically, the album had what seemed to me to be an incredibly full sound. Of course, much of this had to do with my radio-listening preferences, as I had yet to discover FM radio (which I still associated with classical music DJs talking quietly in deep, measured tones), and, most likely, my still-new(-ish) stereo. But there was still quite a difference between the sound of this album and, say, The Partridge Family’s Up to Date.

Having suffered no end of teasing from my elementary school classmates over my musical tastes over the years, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was one record I was happy to be able to bring with me to school when it was Record Day in music class. Naturally, I would soon be teased for listening to Elton John, but this time there would be at least a few other kids who liked him as well.

Over the next couple of years, I would accumulate all of Elton John’s available albums, getting the Uni versions whenever possible (the pre-Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player albums were gradually being reissued as MCA titles as the Uni stocks ran out), and even the DJM edition of Empty Sky (which MCA would not release in the US until 1975).

More to follow…

—April 28, 2012