Why Elton John’s Captain Fantastic Album Was So Great

Captain Fantastic

Photo:By http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryanjunell/ (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryanjunell/281439368/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Elton John Captain Fantastic Album Review

Captain Fantastic Review

Amazon Album Link

Released in 1975, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic was in essence, Elton John’s greatest musical achievement. Throughout the early 1970s, Elton John had released a string of albums each containing multiple top ten singles. In today’s world it seems unimaginable that an artist would release an album every six months filled with hit singles and commercial success. However, regardless of their commercial success, Elton John, Bernie Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon collaborated on an album of brilliant songwriting and production that stands in this writer’s view as Elton John’s crowning moment. Captain Fantastic was not an album filled with multiple hit singles, but rather a record filled with personal poetic lyricism, ingenious melodies and production that defined the work of a master artistic team comprising of Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Gus Dudgeon, Davey Johnston, Nigel Olsen and the late Dee Murray.

Captain Fantastic

Photo: By Ernst Vikne [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The title track, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy opens the album with a country themed guitar lick that develops into a beautiful country/pop hybrid that stands as one of the earliest experiments in the blending of county, rock and pop music. Gus Dudgeon’s production of the track delivered such an outstanding guitar sound that it seemingly brought Davey Johnston into the listeners virtual environment. However, beyond the production is an original melody and brilliant lyric that defines the personal and artistic history of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s musical journey to that point in time.

The title track segues into Elton John’s mesmerizing “Tower of Babel.”  As the song unfolds, it becomes very apparent that the listener is hearing a melody and song structure so original that the melody is quickly forgotten after the first listen. It could be argued that great songwriting delivers a melody that is easily remembered, and that may be true. However, songwriters that compose melodies of substance and originality are a rare breed, and because listeners are so used to hearing rehashed songs, it becomes difficult for a listener to remember something they had never heard before. Furthermore, the delivery of originality in music offers the listener the opportunity to experience the music as new in repeated listening’s.  Elton John and Bernie Taupin defined the concept of originality in popular music in the 1970s.

Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight would become the album’s only top 10 single. No one was more surprised than Elton John himself that a six minute song would become so successful on 1970s hit oriented radio in which the three minute pop song reigned supreme.[1] Nonetheless, the song would become one of Elton’s favorite songs and stands as a work of art in popular music history. Songs like Writing, Better off Dead, and Bitter Fingers were all examples of dazzling original songwriting that elevated Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s status as one of the greatest songwriting teams of the twentieth century.

The importance of Elton John’s band was clearly understood by the talented producer Gus Dudgeon. Great production always starts with a great drum sound, and of course a great drummer. Nigel Olson’s snare drum would cut through the limited frequencies of a cheap 1970s am transistor radio like a sonic boom on a quiet summer day.  The backing vocals of Davey Johnston, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsen also became a hallmark of the Elton John sound.

In a 2006 interview with famed director Cameron Crowe, Elton is quoted as saying that he believed Captain Fantastic was his finest work.[2] Elton John’s longtime producer Gus Dudgeon has also gone on record declaring that he believed Captain Fantastic was Elton John’s greatest record.[3] Sadly, Captain Fantastic would be the last album in which the core Elton John Band would perform on as Elton changed band members after the release of Captain Fantastic. Elton’s sound changed dramatically on his next album Rock of the Westies which began the end of the Golden Era of Elton John music. However Elton John would continue to release music over the course of the next thirty nine years leaving his fans with an incredible body of work, and cementing his status as one of the greatest popular music artists of all time.

Brian Kachejian

[1] http://www.eltonjohnitaly.com/crowe-interview2006.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rosenthal, Elizabeth J. His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John. New York: Billboard Books, 2001. 431.

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