In January 1973, Elton John was already four years into his pop career but was ready to release his sixth studio album. That album, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, would become his most successful album up to that point and would make great strides in cementing his status as a pop legend.
Preceded by Honky Château in May 1972, Don’t Shoot… would be followed by Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in October 1973, creating a period of about sixteen months which is basically the period all casual fans of Elton John think of when they imagine him and his stardom. Don’t Shoot… would prove to be a bridge between his early work and his work as a superstar, as well as an essential album of his entire discography.
Recorded at France’s “Strawberry Studios” (or, more formally, Château d’Herouville), the album is one of just three Elton John albums to feature the core band of John on pianos and keys, Davey Johnstone on guitars, Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. A few tracks – “Elderberry Wine,” “Midnight Creeper,” and “Teenage Idol” – feature horn arrangements by Gus Dudgeon, and Paul Buckmaster added orchestrations for “Blues for My Baby and Me” and “Have Mercy on the Criminal.”
The album name – not remotely mentioned in one of the album’s songs – is supposedly taken from real life, as something John said in jest to Groucho Marx one evening. That may be why the cover image – a couple entering a cinema with a marquee sign that reads “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player’ Starring Elton John” – also features a poster on the cinema’s exterior of the Marx Brother’s film Go West. That is a convenient movie title to include in the cover, as one track “Blues for My Baby and Me” is about a couple travelling westward. The idea of the album as a film in this image is also a bit self-aware, as the title phrase – and John’s original playful plea – is a nod to the 1960 Francois Truffaut film Shoot the Piano Player.
Some critics at the time were eager to label John’s instrumentation and vocal performances on the album derivative of earlier works, but John freely acknowledged that that was the point. He was particularly trying to evoke pop singers of the 1950s that he grew up with, including Bobby Vee and Del Shannon. The album sleeve even features a photo of a very young then-named Reginald Dwight sitting happily at a piano, while the cover features a couple straight out of Grease. Besides evoking his musical past, he was also playing with homage to more contemporary artists. “High Flying Bird” was intended to sound a bit like a Van Morrison track, and “Midnight Creeper” was a nod to The Rolling Stones.
Elton John also claims that this was the first album in which he felt comfortable experimenting with his vocal performances and style. That’s very clear, especially when you compare the falsetto employed in “Crocodile Rock” to the torch-burning ballad voice he uses on “Blues for My Baby and Me.” It makes sense that John would feel this way, as the urge to look back at his musical influences and his youth necessarily primed the way for his movement into the future and his artistic evolution. What results is an album that then feels personal, but also freeing and fun, and not too self-serious – just a rocking great time.
The album opens with “Daniel,” a song with a slightly unusual sound, particularly compared to the rest of the album. It is the only track to use a banjo and maracas, and also uses a device called a “mellotron,” which is basically a polyphonic sampler. Elton John’s musical partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin, has claimed this song is “the most misinterpreted song” the two have ever created. He says it’s simply about a Vietnam veteran who wants to return home and go back to the simple life he led before, without the morbid attention he is receiving, and it was inspired by a news story Taupin read. Despite the simplicity of the subject matter, the surprising complexity of what we’re hearing has intrigued listeners for decades. “Daniel” was the album’s second single, and it reached the number two spot on the U.S. singles chart, while also being nominated for a 1974 Grammy Best Pop Vocal Performance-Male award.
“Teacher I Need You” and “Elderberry Wine” are both fairly silly, but aware of it. The former is about a schoolboy’s crush on his teacher, with the music meant to evoke 1950s rock – a clear reference to John and Taupin’s youth, when they would have been the age of the character singing. It’s upbeat and rollicking, which helps a lot to keep the spirit innocent despite the potentially gross lyrics (you can compare it to a later song tackling the same idea: “Hot for Teacher”). “Elderberry Wine” is from the perspective of a man whose wife has left him, and while he misses her and their time together it seems that what he misses most is the Elderberry Wine recipe that only she holds. It maintains the energy of the previous song, which helps again to keep the track’s tone from becoming ridiculous or unnecessarily overwrought.
After two energetic rock-leaning numbers, John inserts another ballad in “Blues for My Baby and Me.” In my own opinion it’s one of his most underrated ballads, and carries as much emotion as “Daniel” or “Rocket Man.” The lyrics are simple, about two lovers running away to “go west” from the problems keeping them apart or unhappy. The image and emotion conjured up is as if the ending of The Graduate was romantic, or if Elton John was somehow able to glimpse into the future and write a song about the moment in Almost Famous when they’re singing “Tiny Dancer.”
“Midnight Creeper” is a bit of an odd one, about just what the title claims (although it is one of the catchiest songs on the album – listen to it once, it’s in your head for hours), but it’s a necessary comedown from the earlier tracks and a good end to what was the end of Side A of the record. Side B opens with one of the more cinematic songs on the album, “Have Mercy on the Criminal.” The lyrics describe life as an escaped convict with sympathy. Elizabeth Rosenthal, the author of His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John, believes that this song was influenced by the imagery of stories and movies Taupin might have read and seen as a child. That could very well be true, as the orchestration and John’s vocal performance evoke the high drama of prison movies, particularly ones about prisoners trying to escape, like 1958’s The Defiant Ones.
Tracks 7 and 8 are two of the more forgettable songs on the album, but that still doesn’t mean they’re low quality. “I’m Gonna be a Teenage Idol” was inspired by John’s friend Marc Bolan of T-Rex, and while the song doesn’t sound similar to Bolan’s style, there are light falsetto backing vocals that carry a whisper of T-Rex. “Texan Love Song” harkens back a bit to John’s previous albums which were much more straightforward in style. Then, we get “Crocodile Rock,” the first single from the album and one that would be his first number one single in both the U.S. and Canada. It’s clear listening to it that the sound is meant to evoke past musical hits, as the song is about looking at the past. It’s not derivative, it’s devoted. There are a few songs in particular that, if put into a musical blender, would produce “Crocodile Rock”: The high-pitched cries of Del Shannon in nearly any of his songs, the “la las” from “Little’ Darlin” by the Diamonds and “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez. The lyrics plainly reference “Rock Around the Clock” and the chorus resembles Pat Boone’s novelty hit “Speedy Gonzales,” which actually prompted the composer of that song to file a lawsuit against John and Taupin. They reached a settlement and the case was dismissed, but it is impressive to compare these older hits to “Crocodile Rock” and immediately see and feel their influence. After that, the album ends with another come-down track, “High Flying Bird.”
Don’t Shoot… would go on to be certified platinum three times over – three times more than Honky Chateau – and would be John’s second straight number one album in the U.S. By the end of the year – and recall, this album was released in January – it was only at number eight on the U.S. Billboard pop albums chart, and still at number one on the U.K. Albums Chart.
The album as a whole is like its lead single, “Crocodile Rock.” That song is fun and raucous, and sweetly nostalgic without ever getting maudlin or self-pitying, as some nostalgic exercises tend to be. It’s a celebration of what came before, without any dread about what’s to come.