Elton John’s ambitious Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was as over the top as its singer

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It’s an album that plays with all of the disjointed profundity of a greatest hits project, all of the kitchen-sink self-indulgence of your typical 1970s-era double album, and all of the outsized personality we’ve come to expect from the former Reginald Kenneth Dwight.

The truth is, for all of its many radio-ready splendors, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road could have benefitted from a single-disc edit. (“Jamaica Jerk-Off”? Really?) But Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin were in the midst of a platinum-selling, career-defining run and, in some ways, Goodbye — which somehow arrived just eight months after Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player on October 5, 1973 — represents a fizzy, all-over-the-map creative peak. They’d written it over a period of days at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica, with an initial plan to record there. Subsequent sessions at the Chateau d’Herouville in France would only last two weeks.

There follows, perhaps inevitably, a steam-of-consciousness to the album, as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road bounces from epic prog-influenced conceits (“Funeral for a Friend”) to lovestruck balladry (“Candle in the Wind”), from funky pop gems (“Bennie and the Jets”) to these moments of debauched grandeur (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), from slicked-back pub rock (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”) to one of Bernie Taupin’s most overtly literary constructions (“The Ballad of Danny Bailey”).

Sparked by an ensconced period with Taupin and his regular working band, as the Band had been before during its Basement Tapes period with Bob Dylan, Elton John didn’t emerge with anything that held together so well. Still, as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ballooned into a double-album set, a larger theme (similar, actually, to the Band’s, as well) of lament for the disappearing American culture, and for lost folkways, would emerge. John and Taupin made it their own by, at least in part, viewing this through the lens of Hollywood films.

Not that this was easy to divine, as the album ultimately became defined by its string of early-1970s hits. And yet, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is no worse for its failure to hold together as A Big Idea.

This album, far more than the more personal, more direct and admittedly more cohesive statements that came before, illustrates as well anything he ever did just why Elton John became Elton John — and how. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a project as over-the-top as its singer, is a magnum opus of ambition, of emotion and glitz, and of distilled popcraft.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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