For someone who has celebrated such a long musical career as Elton John, there are inevitably turning points that historians can point too when analyzing changes in his musical direction. Elton John’s first four albums Empty Sky, Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, and Madman Across the Water are all somehow connected musically in tone, writing and production. Each album showed immense musical growth. Each record defined the songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin discovering just how brilliant they were. Yes, each one of those albums is distinct, but they are all tied together in feel. We also can’t forget the live album 11-17-70 which showed how great a piano player Elton John truly was and still is. It’s probably the most underrated aspect of Elton John’s career. The trio of Elton John, Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray tore it up on that live recording.
Elton John’s first two albums had a more distinctive British feel then Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water. Paul Buckmaster’s strings on those first two records sprinkled European classicism throughout those albums. Tumbleweed Connection even in its name presented a certain Americana style throughout the music. The flirtation with America really shines on Madman Across the Water and songs like “Indian Sunset,” and “Levon,” including the mention of the New York Times. We can’t forget that Elton John and Bernie Taupin were young men at the time who had grown up in England and only knew of the history of the United States through the eyes of the British. It’s fascinating to hear Bernie Taupin’s lyrical visions throughout Madman Across the Water and how Elton John interpreted those lyrics musically. The connection between the wonder of Tumbleweed Connection and the pain of Madman Across the Water was a brilliant artistic statement.
While songs like “Levon, Tiny dancer,” “Your Song,” and “Border Song,” became standards in the Elton John repertoire, they still had that distinct early Elton John feel. We also can’t forget that those four albums Empty Sky, Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water all were released within a three year period between 1969 and 1971. It’s in 1972 when Elton John released the album Honky Château that we begin to see a change in musical direction. It was a change in direction that would lead Elton John to become one of the biggest musical acts of all time. A musical act so big, that in essence he becomes the replacement for The Beatles. When Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr all went their separate ways in 1970, there was an incredible void left to be filled. While many tried to replace The Beatles by sounding just like them, it was Elton John who steps into the picture with his original sound that really starts to take off on the Honky Château album.
Honky Château was an album that presented fans with a combination of both old and new musical styles from Elton John. Songs like “Amy,” or even “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters,” sounded like they could have been released on Madman Across the Water or Tumbleweed Connection and fit perfectly on those records. However, nothing that Elton John had done before had sounded like “Rocket Man.” Even songs like “Honky Cat,” “Hercules,” and “Mellow,” had a distinctive fresh sound to them.
Perhaps the most important element to the change in the Elton John sound was the addition of Davey Johnstone to the band as a permanent member. It’s also the first album in which Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray play on all the tracks. On the album Honky Châteauwe see the birth of the Elton John band. It was a birth that changes Elton John’s sound completely and evolves incredibly successfully over the next four albums.
The new Elton John sound formed by the Elton John Band was a change in musical direction towards a more pop geared sound that really begins to unfold on the Honky Châteaualbum. The sound arrives in full force on Elton John’s next record Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player. With an album that delivered such big hits as “Daniel, Crocodile Rock,” and deep tracks like as “Blues For Baby and Me, Elderberry Wine, Teacher I Need You, Midnight Creeper,” Elton John had transformed into a hit making machine with songs to die for. Just when one may have thought Elton John had reached his creative peak, the man released one of the most astonishing records of all time in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
After the release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Davey Johnstone, Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray and producer Gus Dudgeon continued to turn out the hits and produce incredible pop music on the album Caribou and some great non album singles like “Pinball Wizard, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Philadelphia Freedom.”
The formation and utilization of the Elton John band on Honky Chateau not only affected the musical instrumentation recorded on the album, but it gave birth to an incredible vocal sound that was driven in many ways by the harmonies created by Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone. Those harmonies would help catapult Elton and Bernie’s songs to an entire new level of commercial and artistic success. Every album from Honky Château to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy featured songs filled with a chorus orchestrated by incredible backing harmonies that would rival The Beach Boys. Listen to the the chorus on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” or the various vocal arrangements on “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and you will understand just how magical and potent that sound was. All of this started on the Honky Château album.
All artist have turning points in their career in which there sound is changed for various reasons. Some artists reinvent themselves on every album. Artists like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Bob Dylan would change their sound dramatically almost on every record. Elton John’s sound changed not so much dramatically on Honky Chateau but rather evolved artistically in a natural way. It was then shaped by a group of musicians who undoubtedly did not get the credit they deserved for what they did on those records. In the end, for fans, it all about the songs. The songs on Honky Chateau still sound as good today as they did when first recorded. There were and still are the songs that have shaped the soundtrack of our lives.