Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Elton John: Rock of the Westies (1975)

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Wikipedia claims that the title of this record is a play on the phrase "West of the Rockies." OK, whatever.

There are three Elton John songs that I hate (not including the never-ending stream of later stupid stuff). These three tunes are: Crocodile Rock, Don't Go Breaking My Heart, and Island Girl, the latter of which appears on this record. Island Girl just leaves me cold. Wikipedia claims that Elton preferred a different single - Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future) - as the first single. As much as I dislike Island Girl, his record company was right on this one.

On the other hand, there is the weirdly engaging Grow Some Funk Of Your Own, a song I never truly understood, but found to be particularly entertaining. There is also the truly odd I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford). That track has nothing to do with Rob Ford, Toronto's former -- and now deceased -- crack-mayor. It's hard to believe that only four months separated this release from Captain Fantastic, but Elton, back in the day, had no shortage of material.

The problem with this record, for me, is that the classic Elton John band had disbanded. Two members, Dee Murray and the late Nigel Olsson, left. Even with the inclusion of Island Girl,  this record is not bad, I think.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)

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I've always been amazed at how certain pieces of music or records can bring back vivid, sometimes even poignant, memories from the distant past. This record, especially, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, is one of records. (On some days, I might argue that Someone Saved My Life Tonight is Elton's finest composition, even though there are some other songs I like better). I feel nostalgia when I hear it. I feel a sense of lost time when I hear it. I feel a sadness that I can never experience those evenings where we were so wrapped up in music, we thought of little else. These were the days when we hung out in my friend's living room, while our parents smoked and/or drank, and played cards in the next room. We played record after record until my parents decided that it was time to go home or until I fell asleep on the couch or the floor.

A few years ago, a friend of mine asked me when was the last time I listened to an album. And, he meant active listening, like we used to do. Sure, we have busy lives now. We have kids that take up our time and we have Netflix. There is cooking and cleaning and all of the other obligations of parenthood and adulthood, but there is also a feeling that we are a step removed from the act of really listening to music.

So, he meant, why do we no longer listen to music? This means giving all of your attention to the  music and the record cover, to the images, the lyric sheet (if there was one). It meant absorbing the music. The record cover was a huge part of the experience and this record's jacket was one that I couldn't stop looking at. To me, listening to a cassette recording a friend's record was nowhere near the same experience and it was often disappointing. Something was missing. The music needed the record cover. CD cases and tiny booklets have never had the same impact. And now we have disembodied MP3 files, which are like orphans in a digital world.

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is not the best Elton John record, but the memories are so strong that I give it a special place. When I hear the opening piano riff from Someone Saved My Life Tonight, I feel almost like I am back in that dark living room, listening to Elton on terrible speakers in one of those stereo cabinets and hoping that the card game could keep going in the next room, so we could get to side two. Of course, I didn't really know what the song was about, but that didn't really matter.

Sadly, this may be the last really good Elton John record, though there are some highlights on later records.

"My friends out there rolling round the basement floor"

Friday, February 24, 2017

Elton John: Greatest Hits (1974)

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Elton John's Greatest Hits (later known colloquially as Greatest Hits Volume I) is the first Elton John record I ever owned, and one of the first dozen or so records in my collection. It collects some of his biggest hits to 1974, and leaves out, of course, the better tracks. Alas, that is generally the case with so-called greatest hits collections. What about Tiny Dancer, Madman Across the Water, and Levon, for starters?

The record contains:

Your Song
Daniel
Honky Cat
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting
Rocket Man
Candle in the Wind
Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me
Border Song
Crocodile Rock

I have a vivid memory of buying this record in a K-Mart or a Zellers or some equally dismal store. It was during an excursion to a larger urban centre with my mother. She liked to shop in these anaemic department stores, and I recall that we would often get lunch in the store cafe, which usually meant a hot beef sandwich or a hamburger with fries. I think I enjoyed the food, but it was probably not so good.

Despite missing some more interesting tracks, this LP provides a good overview of Elton to this point in time. I played this record a while back and there is not a single pop or click on it. Sadly, it has my name written on the jacket in pen. Thank you, Photoshop.

I wonder if I could get away with dressing like Elton did on the jacket of this LP.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Elton John: Caribou (1974)

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Caribou opens with one of Elton John's best rockers, The Bitch is Back. I seem to recall that the word bitch caused issues with radio, and some cowardly stations did not play the song. The other big hit from this record was Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me. It took only nine days to record this record. That seems amazing to me.

I feel that this is somewhat of a lesser effort than some of his earlier and more artistic material. On the other hand, it's odd to consider that the record that was released after this (well, really two records after, since the first greatest hits package came next) was Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, one of my favourite Elton records, so who knows what was going on?

Still, I would count this as a good Elton John record. Somewhat curiously, Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me appears on Elton John's Greatest Hits (1974), while The Bitch is Back appears on Elton John's Greatest Hits Volume II (1975). I have no idea why that happened.

There are times when I wish I was famous, just so I could wear whatever the hell I wanted to.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

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Come on, Jamaica
In Jamaica all day
Dancing with your darling
Do Jamaica jerk-off that way

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was Elton's second release from 1973, and it's a double record! The man had a lot to say. I didn't own this record in 1973 (I didn't own any records in 1973). I got it much later as a gift. Sometimes, parents can be slow to catch up. By the time my dad gave me this for my birthday, I had moved on to other bands and singers. But, I will give him credit for choosing music. That is always appreciated.

I probably like the record more now than I did when it was given to me. It has some Elton John staples, like Bennie and the Jets, Candle in the Wind, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting, etc. If I were forced to choose my favourite Elton John song, it would either be Levon or the opening two pieces of this LP, which really should be treated as one track. Funeral For A Friend, which moves seamlessly into Love Lies Bleeding, is fabulous. As much as I like that song, there is something distressing about the crowd in the live clip below.

My dad found certain titles to be funny. He couldn't quite believe that there is really a song called Social Disease or Jamaica Jerk-Off or Dirty Little Girl. He must have wondered what the youth of the day were listening to. 

I don't think I would be wrong if I said that this LP is one oh his most popular. As music fans everywhere know, popular never equals best, though I think this ranks among his better records.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Elton John: Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player (1972)

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It seems that Elton was working at a frantic pace, sometimes releasing two records per year (in 1971, he released three, if you count the soundtrack). Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player contains more huge hits: Daniel and Crocodile Rock. I will say this now just to get it out of the way. I hate Crocodile Rock with all of my heart. In fact, I find it difficult to listen to that song.

And, now that I have written that down, the song has flooded into my brain and it will be a struggle to expunge it. Daniel is a fine song, which brings back tons of memories.

The album is not bad, though one gets the feeling that Elton is moving more firmly into commercial territory, something that is born out by record that follows.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Elton John: Honky Château (1972)

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Elton became a hit maker with this record, scoring big hits with Honky Cat and Rocket Man, both of which still have life today. For me, the best track is Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters. In fact, if I was forced to create a top ten list of best Elton songs, that track would easily make it. This might be mainstream pop, but it's not bad for what it is. I have a nearly mint Canadian Uni pressing, which is saying something, because that fold-over flap is generally damaged.

Perhaps one of the reasons I like this record is that it features Elton's great road band: Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray, and the new guy, Davey Johnstone.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Elton John: 11-17-70 (1971)

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From the liner notes:

"The performances on this album were recorded during a live radio concert, broadcast in New York by WABC-FM on November 17th, 1970. The broadcast originated at A&R Recording Studios, New York. The Tapes were mixed at Trident Studios, London."

This live record, 11-17-70, was released in March 1971. Finally, Allmusic gets one review perfect:

"The great thing about this early live record is its obscurity -- not just that this isn't one of his better-known records, but that the set list is a fanboy's dream, heavy on album tracks, covers, and the kinds of song that make Elton John's early work so individual. It's not just that there are no hits here, but it's that these [...] songs emphasize the spare, hard-rocking bluesy singer/songwriter that may not have written his own words, but always sang them with conviction and melodies that made them seem like his own. This may be a minor effort in his catalog, but that's part of its pleasure -- it's certainly a record from the time before Elton the superstar, as he tears through Tumbleweed Connection tracks prior to the record's release, does a phenomenal reworking of "Honky Tonk Women," hauls out B-sides like "Bad Side of the Moon," and gives a fierce, infectious performance. It's not essential for anyone but obsessives, but if you want any indication of what Elton sounded like prior to his big break, this is an excellent, even intoxicating, summary." [source]

I can't say it better than that. If you want to hear live Elton near his peak, this would be the record to get, and you should be able to find a vinyl copy for a few dollars.. Again, I have a Canadian pressing on the Uni label.

Here's an interesting piece of trivia from Wikipedia:

"According to longtime NYC radio personality Dave Herman (who can be heard at the beginning and end of the album), Elton John cut his hand at some point during the performance, and by the end of the show, the piano keys were covered with blood."

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Elton John: Madman Across the Water (1971)

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Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Turning back she just laughs
The boulevard is not that bad

In 1971, Elton released the Friends soundtrack, 17-11-70 (a live record), and Madman Across the Water. In the early 70s, it looked as if no one could stop the Elton/Bernie juggernaut.

I have to ask, who knows who the madman across the water was? Some speculate it was Richard Nixon. If the song were written in the early 2000s, I'd suggest that it was George Bush. If it were written today, it would have to be Donald Trump, the racist, sexist, conceited, idiotic, psychopathic loser. For us Canadians, Trump is the Madman South of the Border. How did we ever allow this moron to get his hands on the nuclear football?

Madman Across the Water is one of Elton's best records and it contains one of my favourite Elton John songs, Levon, though I admit that I have no idea what the song means. The record also contains the now-overplayed Tiny Dancer (thanks, Almost Famous) and the epic title track. Other people claim Razor Face to be the best track, but I cannot agree with that.

I am lucky enough to have the Uni pressing, which sounds amazing, despite a little too much surface noise from the previous owner who had no idea that one should clean records.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Elton John: Tumbleweed Connection (1970)

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I can't tell you how many people I have run into that think the title of this record is Tumbleweed Collection rather than Tumbleweed Connection.

The third Elton John record is a bluesy countryish affair that commences with the really great Ballad of a Well-Know Gun. Other great tracks are Country Comfort, Son of Your Father, and Where to Now St. Peter? For me, though, the triumph on this record is Burn Down the Mission, for which we have a good live version with Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson, who were part of the classic Elton John Band.

This was the second record Elton released in 1970. Elton was on a mission early on in his career.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Elton John: Elton John (1970)

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It's strange when an artist releases a self-titled record that is not a debut. This has happened many times, and in this case, I think it's why many people believe this to have been the first Elton John record. It's really his second, but it was released in North America five years before his debut, Empty Sky. On the other hand, Elton's real name is Reginald Kenneth Dwight, not Elton Hercules John, so maybe it's not a strange thing to do. Imagine adopting Hercules as a middle name? I might have to do that.

This record is far better than Empty Sky. It contains a few classic tunes that most people will recognize, most notably Your Song and Border Song. Other classic tracks are Take Me to the Pilot, Bad Side of the Moon, and Sixty Years On. The record has good arrangements -- including some orchestral arrangements -- and a good sound, especially if you have the Uni pressing, like I do. In general, this record is far better than his debut.

I suppose everyone already knows that Elton worked with Bernie Taupin, a poet who provided lyrics. This record remains as one of Elton's better records, in my humble opinion.

Here's a live clip of Border Song.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Elton John: Empty Sky (1969)

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Listening to certain records brings back vivid memories of being a kid, and this record is one that brings back tons of memories. Music was always a big part of my life, and I remember hanging out with friends and listening to record after record of whatever we could get our hands on. Sometimes, this meant questionable music drawn from our parents' collections (such as Barry Manilow, Jim Croce, The Carpenters, and John Denver - I know, I have offended some people here), or records from older brothers and sisters (like KISS, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper, among many others). At other times, it meant we shared from our own collections. I remember listening to lots of new music that way, from Graham Parker to Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello in later years. In high school and university, the musical choices were a bit more avante garde.

I will defend my appreciation of early Elton John by referencing (indirectly) my age and noting the nostalgia I have when hearing some of his earlier tunes today. His first five albums (plus a couple of others) are really fine, and I think that they have stood the test of time, for the most part. Later, he became almost a parody of himself, especially when he toured with Billy Joel. There is really nothing in the 80s from Elton that lived up to his early output. Oh, and I know that I have made fun of his music here before.

The first 45 RPM 7" singles I ever bought were by Elton John and some of my first LPs were Elton John records. I still remember buying some 45s at a strange shop on the main street of my hometown. In this store -- the name of which has long ago escaped me -- you could buy costume jewellery, paper products, snacks, toys, and near the checkout, there were 45 RPM records hanging on pegs on the wall. When I was very little, I remember seeing a copy of a Who record, and all I could think was that they had stolen part of their name from The Guess Who. I guess CanCon was in full force even back then.

Empty Sky, the first Elton John record, is uneven but I think we can see where he was going. Overall, I would say that the record is underrated, probably because there were no major hits. The album starts out strongly with Empty Sky, the title track. It's a good Elton rocker. Other strong tracks are Western Ford Gateway, Sails, and Skyline Pigeon, a live version of which can be heard on Here and There, the live album from 1976.

This record was released in 1969, but the North American release didn't happen until 1975, by which time, Elton was a star. Those pressings in Canada and the USA all included a different cover, for some bizarre reason. I have a US pressing from 1975.

I wouldn't put this in my top five favourite Elton records, but it has a certain je ne sais quoi, and it's good to throw it on the platter from time to time. I have no Elton John recordings on CD, suggesting that I really left him behind, but once I set up my turntable, his music is something that I wanted to listen to on vinyl.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Billy Joel: Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II (1985)

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Single LP versions also came out in '85 in some markets, but I gather that's it's difficult to find them. The first record covers the period between 1973 and 1980, while the second LP takes it up until 1985. There are several versions of this LP with various changes to the track listing. I have the Canadian pressing, which contains:

A1 Piano Man
A2 Say Goodbye To Hollywood
A3 New York State Of Mind
A4 The Stranger
A5 Just The Way You Are
B1 Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
B2 Only The Good Die Young
B3 She's Always A Woman
B4 My Life
B5 Big Shot
B6 Honesty
C1 You May Be Right
C2 It's Still Rock And Roll To Me
C3 Pressure
C4 Allentown
C5 Goodnight Saigon
D1 Tell Her About It
D2 Uptown Girl
D3 The Longest Time
D4 You're Only Human (Second Wind)
D5 The Night Is Still Young

This record was a gift. Honestly, I haven't listened to it in years and years and years, not since 1985, I'm guessing. According to Allmusic, refers to this record as "an innocent delight that unwittingly closes Joel's classic period." Well, so much for the classic period, I guess. The statement seems a bit harsh to me, but I guess it's true. After all, I do not think I have ever heard any later Joel songs. That may sound impossible to you, but I can't think of any that I know. Oh, wait, I guess there's We Didn't Start the Fire. But, that's probably it.

I recall that a guy who lived in my residence picked up a copy of this record. It seemed strange to me, because he had otherwise generally good taste in music. He would often turn up the stereo as he played this record with not a hint of irony anywhere.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Billy Joel: An Innocent Man (1983)

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I know a guy who has stated emphatically that his favourite album of all time is Billy Joel's An Innocent Man. I know it sounds wrong or like it's a joke, but the man is serious and very earnest. It's one of the most astonishing things I have ever heard. Bizarrely, he likes some music which I quite like. I've never been able to understand this, but I suspect he heard this record at a certain time and you just never know.

In any case, the good news is that the only song I detest (as opposed to dislike) is Uptown Girl. The remaining tracks I dislike, some more intensely than others. Maybe I just don't like doo-wop and Joel's take on soul music.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Billy Joel: The Nylon Curtain (1982)

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Let's get one thing out of the way immediately. The Nylon Curtain's jacket design is awful. I hate it. That's the best they could do? Maybe I am missing the point.

Allentown is a really good song that discusses a very real issue. I give that song a thumbs up. Laura sounds like Joel is channeling the Beatles, but with swearing. I'm not sure what's going on in Pressure. It seems to presage Van Halen's Jump, in the employment of primitive synthesizers. I don't think anyone could possibly have any issues with Goodnight Saigon. She's Right on Time is boring. A Room of Our Own is a tune that makes me think that Joel wished he was born 10 years earlier. Surprises holds no surprises. Scandinavian Skies is Beatles plus heroin. Where's the Orchestra?, again, is reminiscent of the Beatles.

The jacket on my copy has been damaged by water. It's sort of appropriate: I think the previous owner wept rivers of disappointment while listening to this record for the first time.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Billy Joel: Songs in the Attic (1981)

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Despite being released after Glass Houses, which was Joel's seventh record, this live LP includes only tunes from his first four records (Cold Spring Harbor, Piano Man, Streetlife Serenade, and Turnstiles). The only tune anyone probably knows from his first four albums is Piano Man, and that song does not appear on this record. I guess he was trying to fluff his early catalogue.

I flinch every time I hear him sing "I seen the lights go out on Broadway." That is a grammatical construction common in my home town and region, and, to my ears, it grates like fingernails on a blackboard. I just cannot stand it. My sister, for one, always says "I seen..." My dad always said things like "I done steaks on the BBQ last night." Oh, man. The weirdest thing is that I am certain most people know that it is incorrect, but they do it anyway, much like those who drop the 'g' in walkin', talkin', eatin'. That also makes me cringe, as does the use of anyways, rather than anyway.

Having said that, the first tune, Miami 2017 (hey, we are in 2017 right now), is not a bad song. New York has not been destroyed, but you never know what might happen under a Trump administration. I feel that this record is probably a great one for those who were serious fans of the first four records. Others might not enjoy it so much. I find it to be a bit weak and too much of the same, but I am not really a Joel fan.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Billy Joel: Glass Houses (1980)

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In 1980, I had a friend with somewhat dubious taste in music. Apart from the Grease soundtrack, Glass Houses was a seminal record for him. My sister even bought a copy of this record. I was momentarily pleased with It's Still Rock an Roll to Me and You May be Right. They seemed like genuine pop efforts, but tracks like Don't Ask Me Why (and some others) argued against that conclusion. This album is still pop to me.

I sometimes think of Billy Joel as being as similarly un-hip as Phil Collins, and yet they somehow managed to have successful careers, with the former even marrying a supermodel. It's amazing what fame can do.

I can't recall how this item ended up in my collection but I am sure that it, and all other Joel recordings, were lawn sale pickups or given to me free.


Thursday, February 02, 2017

Billy Joel: 52nd Street (1978)

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The cover image on 52nd Street sends mixed messages. I think the first time I saw it, I thought, this can't be a rock record. What kind of rock star plays a trumpet? I say this as someone who made a fairly serious mistake in my youth: I chose the trombone in music class, and later dearly wished that I had chosen the more compact trumpet, or perhaps the clarinet. Try taking the trombone home on the school bus and you will see what I mean.

And then, there's the denim with suit jacket combination that is undermined by the inclusion of a tie. But there are white sneakers, which I admit were cool in 1978. He's also holding his horn on the back cover and the inner sleeve. Maybe this horny posturing was and attempt to distance himself from the Piano Man?

I don't really mind My Life and Big Shot. I dislike Honesty. IMHO, the songs are strong pop tunes with a flash of jazz. It's not essential listening by any means.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Billy Joel: The Stranger (1977)

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B-1 is for the good girls
It's Only the Good Die Young

- Certain Songs, The Hold Steady

Let's clutch and kiss and sing and shake tonight let's try to levitate
You Catholic girls start much too late

- Both Crosses, The Hold Steady

If you had to evacuate the planet and there was only room to take one Billy Joel record on your trip to Alpha Centauri, The Stranger is the one to take along on the journey. Wikipedia tells me that Rolling Stone ranked this record at number 70 in its list of top 500 albums of all time. I could easily name 200 or 300 hundred better records, but I think the ranking speaks to my argument that this is indeed his best record.

This album reminds me of my sister. I remember sitting in her room in her bean bag chair, listening to her records. Sometime she was there; sometimes, she was out on-the-town. She is four years older, so her musical choices weren't always mine. I never liked her Cleo Lane records but I loved Some Girls from the Rolling Stones, and her Led  Zeppelin records. I was nonplussed by Jean Luc Ponty, couldn't care less about ABBA, but this record found a partially sympathetic ear. It's another record that is mostly about nostalgia.

This record was produced by Phil Ramone (no, he wasn't the eighth Ramone).

I quite enjoy a few tracks on this LP, like Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), The Stranger, Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, and Only the Good Die Young, for example. I would pick the title track as the best song on the LP and I would also nominate Just The Way You Are as the worst. I'm also not a fan of She's Always a Woman.