In honour of the release of Rocketman – as well as Pride Month- we take a look back at ten of the lesser known yet iconic tracks from the legendary Elton John.
Everyone has a memory of an Elton John song in their lives, whether it be dancing around to “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with their best Elton and Kiki Dee impersonations or singing along to “Crocodile Rock” on The Muppets- the catchy tunes of Britain’s treasure Reginald Dwight have blessed our hearts and souls for almost five decades. I can remember being 12 years old when my dad brought down a dusty old vinyl of Elton John’s double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: fold out scrapbook style innards, hand painted icons that accompanied the track lyrics, and not to mention the fabulous red glitter go-go boots that John wears on the cover. To this day I cradle that record close to my heart, literally and metaphorically, as a key foundation of who I am today.
Whilst we all know the radio-friendly and popularised hits that were formed upon the ivories, a list below showcases some of Elton’s finer works that may not have received all the sunlight and love they deserve.
1. Sweet Painted Lady, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
One of my favourite Elton John songs from my favourite album, “Sweet Painted Lady” paints the image of the treatment of prostitutes by sailors who pass through the towns. Taupin captures the essence of how these women are used and misused; having no voice and that their job is a job- they are “being laid” as opposed to “getting laid”. The track reveals the use of accordion and seaside sound effects (waves lapping, seagulls squawking, etc) to accentuate the naval motif. Some have even suggested that the song is actually about the restoration of historical houses in San Francisco, where they painted the inside bright colours and calling them “painted ladies”, around the time the song was written.
2. Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Honkey Château (1972)
This track would have to be on of John and Taupin’s deeper and more direct tracks with the most simple instrumentation of all their works, with the lyrics inspired by Taupin’s first experience in New York City. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” was released on the B-side of “Harmony”, and has had several film credits and covers. The reference to rose trees and Spanish Harlem was taken from Ben E. King’s song “Spanish Harlem” (quote: “there’s a rose in Spanish Harlem”, with Taupin forming “Now I know / Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say / I thought I knew / but now I know that rose trees never grow / in New York City.”
3. We All Fall In Love Sometimes, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
Definitely one of John and Taupin’s more melancholy ballads, about the hardships of love and heartbreak, yet we’ve all been there, and we DO fall in love sometimes. John revealed in an interview with Rolling Stone “I cry when I sing this song, because I was in love with Bernie, not in a sexual way, but because he was the person I was looking for my entire life, my little soul mate…That relationship is the most important relationship of my entire life.”
4. Goodbye, Madman Across The Water (1971)
The final track on John’s 1971 album Madman Across The Water, the song farewells and physically signifies the end of the album, but also seems to convey a deeper intention. The song is only 1 minute and 53 seconds long, and it’s almost open to more depth through more vagueness- look at John Denver’s “The Music Is You” at 1 minute 30 seconds long as another example. Take a look at the lyrics below, it could be dedicated the an ex lover, his audience, himself. What’s your interpretation?
And now that it’s all over
The birds can nest again
I’ll only snow when the sun comes out
I’ll shine only when it starts to rain
And if you want a drink
Just squeeze my hand
And wine will flow into the land
And feed my lambs
For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I’ll be your silver spoon
I’m sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme
Just turn back a page
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
5. Grey Seal, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Taking it back to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, side two introduces Grey Seal, which again is open for interpretation as Bernie Taupin stated “I haven’t a clue what I was writing about. It was just images.” Some critics (probably American) have taken it as a declaration of independence, with the ‘seal’ literally meaning the seal of the United States. Others have pinpointed John’s poor schooling and education as a child and have concluded that education and learning surpasses the physical schooling institution and system. A hand-painted phoenix accompanies these lyrics, which may support the latter argument- with John rising from the ashes of his troubled childhood. I just go with Taupin’s truth and consider it a bop, regardless of what the hell it means.
6. Funeral For A Friend / Love Lies Bleeding, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
First of all, hauntingly beautiful. Second of all, TOTALLY underrated. Sure it’s not one of John and Taupin’s ‘deep cuts’ per se, but definitely not as spotlighted as others. Being the first track on the album, a ‘double feature’ and near 10 ½ mins long, the album is set for a wild ride and certified hits from start to finish. The eery “Funeral For a Friend” section sounds fit for a graveyard scene, Thriller before Thriller even existed, if you will. Echoing church bells, spooky gushes of wind, and of course an organ, “Funeral For a Friend” continually builds for just over five minutes, until effortlessly transitioning to the upbeat “Love Lies Bleeding. Genius”.
7. Georgia, A Single Man (1978)
Obviously having a name like Georgia, I take a lot of pride and bias towards songs with that name in the title. From what sounds to be inspired by the gospel choir sound of the South, John and Taupin sing about the US state of Georgia, and/or life taking a person out to where they’re supposed to be. Or at least the choir singing with John on this track make me feel that way.
8. I Cry At Night, A Single Man (1978)
Another classic ballad, I take it as a ballad of a life that’s passed him by due to the famous life he leads, with ‘the house’ being a metaphor for himself: “He has a heart and a well worn soul / Ten years a slave to rock and roll / But he has to tremble”. John and Taupin successfully use a house metaphor as John or anyone within the industry, with the vacant rooms and unkept lawn signifying the loneliness and emptiness felt, “And the ivy that hung now sadly clings / To a dying season”. This track could easily be taken as a dedication to heartbreak also, with intentions possibly working both ways.
9. A Woman’s Needs ft. Tammy Wynette, Duets (1993)
John is accompanied by the “Stand By Your Man” singer in a classic 90s duet ballad, clad with overused synth and all! Of all the iconic collabs on this album, John’s duet with Wynette is one of the few that were written by John and Taupin. Although holding a facade of a ballad, the song takes a bit of a comedic turn at times, “There’s a shortage by half of marrying men”, and the almost comedic materialism, “I need a ring on my finger, champagne on ice”. Holistically, the track is a timeless duet that could be taken straight from a broadway musical.
10. Love Builds a Garden, Gnomeo and Juliet (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (2011)
Grab the tissues! Another honest tear-jerker from his repertoire,” Love Builds A Garden” may accompany a scene about a plastic flamingo losing his girlfriend in the 2011 film Gnomeo and Juliet, but this song really tugs on the heart strings. A piece with literal garden imagery for a literal garden feature thanks to Taupin, “Love Builds a Garden” tells of a troubled couple, loving a genuine at first then eventually “have a little rain…. Once it takes hold flowers die”
Yes, I really did cry when the flamingo’s girlfriend left. Yes, it was emotional. No, I don’t want to talk about it.