Fifty years on
Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection
This month, to be precise on 28 October 2020, my good friend Macman, known to his fans as Neil Mack will be doing the fifth in his series of “Fifty Years On” albums – albums that were released 50 years ago.
Some of us can recall these albums on coffee tables and Dansette record players. Some of us still own records that we bought in 1970. We are the lucky ones: we were around when all the good bands were playing. One of those good bands was the London band Bluesology that was formed as a four-piece in about 1962 and included two musicians from a band called The Corvettes. One of these two musicians was Reginald Dwight which is, as its owner says in his ghosted autobiography, is “not a pop star’s name”. In renaming himself and preparing himself for the stardom that was to follow, Reggie selected the first name Elton from the surname of a fellow band member, saxophonist Dean Elton (who later joined Softmachine), and the surname John from Long John Baldry. He also adopted the nickname Hercules and later legalised his name change. On 28 October 2020, Neil Mack will be featuring Elton John’s third studio album Tumbleweed Connection.
The story of Elton John has been well told in Me, the autobiography that was brilliantly ghostwritten by The Guardian’s Alex Petrides. Of course, autobiographies are often the story that the subject wants to have been true rather than a reflection of what actually happened, but Me does seem to be a reasonably frank and fearless telling. Alex Petrides is no mean journalist and I suspect that he would not be taking many prisoners. I reviewed the book (https://www.beagleweekly.com.au/post/me-a-review) in October 2019 when the world was a very different place. For those who were keen to know more, the 2019 movie Rocketman was a useful summary of Elton John’s career. That movie was probably eclipsed by the 2018 Bohemian Rhapsody biopic about Freddie Mercury but was nonetheless an enjoyable diversion.
Bluesology apparently named itself after the 1961 album Djangology by the legendary pair Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. In 1928 Reinhardt had damaged two fingers of his left hand in a fire in which he could only use to play chords and had to relearn the guitar. Stephane Grappelli was a brilliant violinist who, as my Father used to say, “would tear a melody apart and put it back together again”. Listen to them playing together in the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Brilliant. Of course, they may equally have got their name from the number Bluesology from the 1956 album Fontessa by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Listen to this track if you want to hear the xylophone played properly. It’s so good that you want to learn to play it yourself.
But I digress … Elton John, as Reg Dwight, stayed with Bluesology for five years and although they never made it in their own right, they made a couple of singles – Come Back Baby and Mr Frantic. In addition, they supported visiting American solo artists such as Doris Troy, Major Lance and Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles. On stage Dwight was confined to keyboards though he wrote both the singles which you can hear on Spotify (and doubtless other streaming services). Come Back Baby is lyrically weak, though perhaps no more so than many early 1960s songs, but it does feature a piano solo that was unusual for the time. It is not a strong song. Mr Frantic starts with Dean Elton’s sax and launches into a song with a stronger melody but no sense of direction. It is easy to criticise, but it is hardly surprising that these songs did not chart. The flipside of Mr Frantic is Ray Charles’ Everyday I Have the Blues which is a pretty good cover though not as good as B B King.
Long John Baldry, second from right, with the Cyril Davies All-Stars. Never heard of them but they dressed well.
Like many bands, Bluesology were better live than they were in the studio. They had a regular spot at a London club called the Cromwellian and it was there that they were spotted by the 6’ 7” tall Long John Baldry. He asked the band to become his backing group. In late 1967, Long John Baldry had a hit with a (I am sorry for this) dreadful song called Let The Heartaches Begin. It was at this time that Dwight realised that he needed to change his name. In the same year, 1967, a subsidiary of Liberty Records placed an advertisement for “new talent” in the New Musical Express. Elton failed the audition by performing five Jim Reeves numbers in a row, but he was offered a pile of lyrics and was invited to compose some music for them. The lyrics had been submitted by a would-be poet from Lincolnshire called Bernie Taupin. The two did not meet until six months later but Elton prepared 20 songs from the material handed to him. When Liberty showed no interest in the results, Elton and Bernie took their wares to Dick James. James’ company, Northern songs, had hit the big time in 1963 when the Beatles came its way, and he offered Elton and Bernie a three-year song writing contract at £10 a week. And the rest, as you might say, is history.
Elton and Bernie looking soulful in that way loved by 1970s photographers.
I had no idea that Elton John had played in Long John Baldry’s backing band. But my buddy had given me a cassette on which was recorded his first album Empty Sky (1969). I listened to this almost continuously, and I am sure the cassette wore out … or got tangled. It is lyrically strong and musically adventurous. I remain of the view that this is his finest album though I am prepared to consider Captain Fantastic. Whatever my opinion is or is not, Empty Sky was not a big hit, though how an album with a track like Skyline Pigeon failed to attract the record-buying public I cannot say. But James had faith in the pair, and he tossed in £6,000 for them to do a sect album. This was the eponymously titled Elton John and it repaid James’ faith in Elton and Bernie. Released in 1970 to critical acclaim, John Peel played it and the following year the album reached number 4 in the UK and number 5 in the US. It opens with the memorable and brilliant Your Song (which interestingly was issued as the B-side to Take Me To the Pilot). The mood on Elton John is serious and poetic with highly personal lyrics set to strong melodies. The American critic Robert Christgau once observed that Bernie’s lyrics, though catchy, often made little sense. But like Bob Dylan, of whom one could make the same observation, Elton’s talent lies in his ability to inject significance and emotion into the lyrics.
After the second album, Dick James was determined that the pair (and they worked and travelled as a pair even though Bernie had no stage role) should go to America. That was where the big bucks were. They were initially not keen but, and Elton says in Me, Bernie suggested that they treat the trip as a holiday and see all the places they had seen in films. They played several gigs at the Troubadour the first of which was 25 August 1970. According to the movie Rocketman they played Crocodile Rock to tumultuous applause. I suppose that made a good movie but although it’s possible that the song existed in 1970, it wasn’t recorded until 1972 and released as a pre-release single from his forthcoming 1973 album Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player. The first gig at the Troubadour opened with Your Song and included a cover of The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women.
But the American experience heavily influenced Bernie Taupin and the lyrics on Tumbleweed Connection reflect this. Indeed, Bernie becomes obsessed with Americana and the mythology of the Wild West and this obsession is reflected in the song Indian Summer on the 1971 album Madman Across the Water. I had never been a fan of Tumbleweed Connection because I felt that its country blues feeling and the gospel-tinged production was out of kilter with the first two Elton John albums. I expressed the view to Neil Mack that I did not think that this was his strongest work, though I appreciated that an artist of the stature of Elton John needed to be represented in a Fifty Years On roll call. He encouraged me to listen more carefully, and I am pleased he did. There are many albums whose first listening leaves you wondering what it was all about: Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky is one where subsequent listening has elevated anatomy Top Ten Albums (a list that contains more than ten albums).
Tumbleweed Connection is an album, produced by the inimitable Gus Dudgeon, that repays careful listening. It is a (sort of) country record and there is a gospel feel to it but there are some very strong songs on the album. A strong song does not necessarily make a good or memorable song and the album features backing vocals by Dusty Springfield, Madeline Bell and Leslie Duncan. A good album of American-influenced songs has to have a pedal steel guitar somewhere and Gordon Huntley, who is the UK’s finest pedal steel guitar, is pressed into service on the album. Herbie Flowers (from T Rex and Blue Mink) and Caleb Quaye (who has worked with Townshend, McCartney and Jagger) are also credited. The best-known song from the album is Country Comfort covered by Rod Stewart on 1970’s Gasoline Alley. Come Down In Time has been covered by Sting and Phil Collins covered Burn Down the Mission. Amoreena is a particularly strong song that was used in the opening credits of the 1975 movie Dog Day Afternoon.
The contemporary Rolling Stone review comments that violence is part of Bernie’s vision of America. In that, perhaps, little has changed in the last 50 years. The violent theme is in Ballad of a Well Known Gun and Son of Your Father and it recurs in My Father’s Gun. The Rolling Stone review is a telling document of its time: Elton John had not then broken into the American market and the review suggests that Bernie “is not a great lyricist, but he is certainly an interesting one”. Of Elton John, the review says that he “is a fine singer in the soul-folk vein”. The review is by one of rock’s best reviewers, Jon Landau. I wonder how his views changed. In their retrospective review, Sputnik Music says that Tumbleweed Connection “is one of Elton John's finest albums, even his very finest work. If nothing else, it is certainly his most consistent album, featuring a collection of songs that pay homage to the roots music Elton and Taupin enjoyed while remaining an engaging listen.” They attempt to temper this by suggesting that the album has no standout hits, as if this were a criticism, but they are clearly overlooking Country Comfort.
Elton's first UK number 1 came in 1976 with Don't Go Breaking My Heart, a duet with Kiki Dee.
Elton and Bernie made ten albums in the six years between 1969 and 1975, a prolific output by any standards. He was a spectacular - in all sense of the word - performer, spectacular to excess. And, as he admits in his autobiography, he lived his life to excess telling, for example, of buying a tram in Melbourne (that is, the tram was in Melbourne, he was under the influence in the UK) and then having to ship it back to the UK. I have an Old Grey Whistle Test clip of him performing Tiny Dancer that I go back to from time to time. As I said in the first paragraph, I was lucky to have been around when all the good bands were performing. But now Fifty Years On, that inspirational spark has diminished and many of the performers we loved are disappearing. Just this morning I read that Spencer Davis had died: he was part of the story about Traffic that Neil Mack played in July.
But Elton at least lives on. Perhaps forever, but probably not.
Post script: a good album should always have a good cover. In those years when I was a member of the record-buying public I would buy albums on the strength of their artwork. If the band was prepared to put effort into the artwork then they were probably going to put some effort into the music. I was rarely disappointed. The artwork for Tumbleweed Connection looks like it could be of some American scene. It isn’t. The cover photo was taken at Sheffield Park railway station in Sussex.