Hello, Baby, Hello: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at 50

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Hello, Baby, Hello: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at 50

“We were going toward the top, and this was the record that pushed us even further.”

In 1970, Elton John “arrived” in America and made quite an impression when he played a set at West Hollywood’s Troubadour. On that life-changing night at the piano he said, “The energy I put into my performance…caught everyone off guard. It was pure rock ’n’ roll serendipity.” Following his debut, the L.A. Times wrote, “Rejoice. Rock music…has a new star…Elton John was in almost every way, magnificent… He’s going to be one of Rock’s biggest and most important stars.” At this point in his career, Elton and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin had already given us beloved classics, including “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time),” “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song.” And yet the duo, at the height of their powers, presented 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a monumental double LP that continues to captivate listeners half a century later with music you’ll never grow tired of hearing. This is also the story of a man who was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight and got everyone’s attention when he became Elton John, using his platform (shoes) to express himself freely through song, concept imagery and attire at a time when not everyone could afford to come right “out” and say it.

For an album with plenty of bangers, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road opens with a delicate, handle-with-care emergence of life—as we enter the 11-minute medley “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” During the first act’s poignant ceremony for the dead, Elton envisions his own final resting place; naturally the composition borders on dark and dramatic. Eventually, the darkest clouds begin to clear, and our spirits are lifted. Whether we are celebrating the life of a loved one, or it is us being mourned, there is much being said in this instrumental tribute without a single word spoken. As the song segues into its second act, the unleashed fury of “Love Lies Bleeding” delivers another dose of despair—love as wilted as the roses in the window box—however, the melody is soaring upward, so we must be entering the final stage of grief; acceptance.

You’ll know you’re there when you hear what can only be described as a glimmer of hope being played on the piano (8:07). “The slow part is Elton on acoustic piano and me doing volume pedal slides that sound kind of like Indian flutes,” guitarist Davey Johnstone told Guitar Player. It is here that a vocal jubilee swoops in and every single musical notation strategically pushes us forward. From love and loss comes a new beginning. Though tender ballad “Candle in the Wind” is another solemn goodbye, Marilyn Monroe is a metaphor for fame as Taupin was actually “enamored with the idea of fame or youth; somebody being cut short in the prime of their life.” He was also inspired after hearing the phrase “candle in the wind” associated with Janis Joplin.

I especially like that the melancholy tale is told from the standpoint of someone who feels empathy towards the celebrity; a human being who Hollywood built up (into a superstar) and later knocked down (we now light a candle for). It pays a worthy tribute to those who made their mark in history and are cemented on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame where their star will forever shine. Decades later, the song was re-released with updated lyrics to say goodbye to “England’s Rose,” Princess Diana, following her tragic death in 1997.

As Taupin grew up a fan of American popular culture, additional fame-inspired songs follow. “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)” tells the fictional story of a gangster who lived in the “sad restless age” of The Great Depression—the same time period that John Dillinger (1903-1934), one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals reigned. And later on, there’s “Roy Rogers,” which shines a light on the popular western film star and singer.

Finally, some good news: “Bennie and the Jets” surprised everyone, including Elton, who “never in a million years” expected the glam rock song about a fictional band would become a hit. It would go onto become the #1 song in the Detroit market, thanks in part to Rosalie Trombley, a music director at AM radio’s CKLW, who had the song in rotation across Motor City and Ontario. As a result, the song’s popularity spread, and it would eventually hit #1 on the Hot 100 and peak at #15 on the Hot R&B chart. The latter led to a gig on “the hippest trip in America,” Soul Train. Producer Gus Dudgeon revealed that several sound effects were added to bring the song to life; some picked out from Elton’s previous concerts, including whistles, shouts and hand claps doing the wrong beat “because that’s what they (English audiences) do.” A load of flatback was added to make the track sound live, and even Jimi Hendrix makes a contribution, as applause from one of his shows in 1970 was infused into the mix.

The title track on the album is one of those songs that’s so familiar that you can’t actually revisit it, because it’s never been forgotten. Elton John and Taupin bring to life a classic tale of achieving success (“living the dream”) but, at the same time, wanting to escape it all—as Elton decides his future lies “beyond the yellow brick road.” In Taupin’s case, leaving “Emerald City” to get back to his roots would be the farm he grew up on in Lincolnshire, England. And since we’re on this path, it’s the perfect time to reference the album’s innovative cover art—with Elton, as his fabulous self, stepping into a poster and onto Oz’s yellow brick road in proper attire.

Be careful not to blink or you’ll miss the charming little ditty that’s up next. “This song has no title, just words and a tune,” and Elton taking a hand at doing everything, everywhere, playing all instruments at once. Then there’s Broadway-bound “Grey Seal,” a song that begs to be performed in front of a live studio audience. The lead actor in this foreseen musical is a shoo-in for a Tony if he nails his pivotal moment in the spotlight. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to be backed by full ensemble (choir and psychedelic dancers) as the mystical song fades out. (Side note: Elton has a Tony Award and only needs an Emmy to achieve EGOT status.)

The heartfelt “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is an empowering ballad about learning from past relationships. This time around, the power is handed back to the previously heartbroken who can now say with confidence, I know what you’re trying to do, and this time it isn’t going to work. You can still love with your whole heart while remaining vigilant. There’s something about the delicate piano paired with a spirited string section that’s incredibly moving. What was once love, lies, and bleeding, has healed. And once you’re beyond the healing phase, you grow stronger. “Baby, you’re crazy if you think that you can fool me.” In the not-so-distant future, this song would inspire the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, after its creator came across an illustration in the liner notes, which shows a couple watching a film in silhouette.

“All the Girls Love Alice” opens with “that really cool guitar volume swell,” in which Johnstone used a Uni-Vibe to achieve the sound. But the poor dear, all the young girls adore her, but who is the title character of this song? Alice is a fictional 16-year-old “raised to be a lady by the golden rule” (do unto others…) who meets a terrible fate. Sure, she’s got plenty of admirers—some closeted lesbians, who say things like, “If I give you my number, will you promise to call me? Wait ‘til my husband’s away.” These women continuously love-bomb Alice to get her into bed. This is classic gaslighting, as they selfishly make her feel desired for their own benefit. “Come over and see me. Come over and please me.” Eventually this poor unfortunate soul is found dead in the subway. We may never know what exactly happened to Alice, but we do know her life was like “acting in a movie, when you got the wrong part.”

On Side 4 of the double-LP Elton does a “Surfin’ U.S.A.” impression with “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n Roll),” a song that pays homage to ‘50s and ‘60s sock hop jams like “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors. There’s also a nod to The Beach Boys with the lyric, “Your sister can’t surf but she can rock and roll,” and we briefly run away to join to the circus through just the right snippet of “Entry of the Gladiators.”

Though it’s been reported many times, Taupin isn’t entirely sure whether or not the inspiration behind the supercharged “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” was his teen years frequenting dance halls, pubs and the Gliderdrome. What we do know is that the setting here is a joint packed with rebellious youth having a good time and getting liquored up (“about as oiled as a diesel train”) before they “get a little action in.” And while some patrons get into altercations, others use their liquid courage to talk to women. This tune not only hypes up its listeners, Elton recorded the track “standing up, singing and leaping around the studio, going crazy.” The piano is manic, so it’s Elton at his dirty, rollicking best. In a perfect world, today’s youth wouldn’t be exposed to it as the theme for Saturday night’s All Elite Wrestling, but at least they’re hearing it. It’s easy to overindulge in this fantasy, but all good things come to an end. Some closure here is Elton John saying “hello” one last time as we all say goodbye… yellow brick road. Luckily, we can always return to Oz, where we can listen to this pleasing arrangement (aka “Harmony”) as a metaphor for a lover or music itself. One thing’s for certain; I want to love you forever.

Revisit our recent ranking of Elton John’s greatest songs here.

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