“Is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latterday sins, is it better to burn out or fade away?”
Although the artist in question was Stevie Wonder, to my mind it applied just as much to Elton John.
Incidentally, this exchange takes place between Dick, Barry and Rob in High Fidelity’s Championship Vinyl – a breeding ground for deep observations such as Wonder’s “crimes in the 80’s and 90’s”.
While Elton John undeniably created some of the best pop music EVER in the early 70’s, he has grossly under-performed for stretches since – my observation for Dick and friends if given the chance.
Of course a fan could argue that drugs and drink got in the way and that he’s now back at the top of his game. Still, I’d have a hard time getting past the Disney catalog and the new hair. Sorry.
Not a fan of Elton John post-Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, nor musicals as films post-West Side Story for that matter, I was blown away by the recent biopic Rocketman.
Where Across the Universe used the Beatles’s music, but not their story, it’s another example of compelling storytelling through an artists’ work. Only this time the story is John’s tragic life pre-sobriety – heavy on the 70’s.
Although I’m a HUGE fan of the Beatles and I highly doubt anyone will touch their sixties output, Elton John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin gave them a run for their money from ’69 – ’74.
Although the lyrics came from Taupin, you’d be forgiven for thinking young Reg Dwight aka Elton John had written the songs himself – “I’m a juvenile product of the working class…whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass.” – “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” ’73
I REMEMBER WHEN ROCK WAS YOUNG…
I know there’s an argument to be made that Stevie Wonder’s early 70’s output is just as impressive. And, he wrote the music and the words.
However, I didn’t grow up with his music. In fact, my first memory of Wonder is of him accompanied by pre-Sir Paul McCartney on the number one hit, “Ebony and Ivory”. After Sunday church I could just catch the last ½ hour of Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40”. Sadly, the crimes weren’t far off.
One of the albums in my family’s collective record collection was Elton John’s Greatest Hits from 1974 – a collection of 10 songs from his first 5 albums.
That record collection included a box of my mom’s old 45’s. Yes, from a time back “when me and Suzy had so much fun”.
Like Wonder, John’s early – mid 70’s work is brilliant. I reckon he could have easily filled another 2 or 3 albums with great songs.
So brilliant in fact that it would overshadow anything that came afterwards.
Sadly, even if John, Wonder or even McCartney continue to crank out great music, there’s no overcoming the “nothing could possibly be better than this” curse.
One of my favorite points in Rocketman comes when John makes his American debut at the Troubador in West Hollywood circa 1970.
As a native of Los Angeles and a big fan of John’s early 70’s output, I’ve always loved this story – long before I saw the movie.
Beyond the film, this little club plays a huge part in the history of American pop-rock-folk music.
In fact, in the summer of 2009 I saw James Taylor and Carole King play the Hollywood Bowl on the “Troubador Reunion Tour” – both singer songwriters a part of its rich tapestry (sorry, Carol!).
Incidentally, Taylor and King played their first Troubador show together in November, 1970, three months after John’s big debut.
Before coming out West, Carol King had been an integral part of Manhattan’s Brill Building hit factory churning out songwriters from King to Neil Diamond in the 60’s.
Legend has it that Neil Diamond was in the audience at John’s American debut – among other future legends.
One of Taylor’s paramours and creative muse for a short time, Joni Mitchell was one of the talented females on the scene.
“Like Paris was to the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists, L.A. was the hotbed of all musical activity. The greatest musicians in the world either live here or pass through here regularly,” according to the “Lady of the Canyon”.
From The Mama’s and the Papa’s and Buffalo Springfield in the 60’s to Jackson Browne and the Eagles in the 70’s, it was an absolute “hotbed of musical activity”, the beginnings of which are brilliantly documented in Echo in the Canyon.
In addition to Mr. Diamond, legend has it that David Crosby and a few Beach Boys were at the Troubador that night.
Yeah, I know. Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes were all present when Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at JFK’s 45th birthday party.
I like to think that a young Glen Frey and Don Henley were there too. After all, Glen Frey and Jackson Browne shared an apartment in nearby Echo Park.
Although the Eagles came along a few years after the Canyon’s heyday, they, along with Browne, Taylor and Crosby, Stills and Nash carried the melodic pop and ethereal harmonies for a few more years.
ALL MY LOVIN’
It’s a funny thing – the “family record collection”. I suppose growing up in any house with siblings there’s bound to be a mix of your parents’ old records, a handful of pre-kids’ ones when they were still hip and then a random mix of novelty and other kid-friendly ones documenting the growing brood.
Right before Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters stood Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life. Right behind it, Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer. A mixed bag, indeed.
Bottom line – if they were once collectors, it all ended with the first child. Or at the latest, the second.
At the ripe age of eight, I recall my Top 5 records looking something like this:
I don’t know if Dick, Barry and Rob would approve of my eight-year old taste but I’m proud to say that my two favorite songs circa 1980 were prominently featured in Rocketman – “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Crocodile Rock”.
What did your Top 5 look like at eight years old?