Old/Newish Albums: Elton John’s “Honky Château”

honkychateauHonky Château marks the first album of Elton John to hit number one in the U.S. charts, marking the beginning of streak that would run for a consecutive seven albums. Elton ruled the ’70s, releasing a total of ten albums within a six year timeframe that were either smash hits at the time of release or have come to be regarded as some of the greatest albums of all time.

For my money, this is a good album. It’s not my favorite Elton record, but as far as the quality of the album goes, it’s a more succinct statement on fame and identity than he’d ever make again.

Elton’s known for some huge hits, and one of his biggest is on this record. But aside from the hits, Elton and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, wrote a lot of very poignant songs that were fantastic pop melodies. Some of these are on this album, but there are also some clunky tunes.

Musically, he’s got a few really awesome spots. Honky Château is really where Elton went from being a writer of quiet sensitive pop melodies to something quite a bit more bombastic. He’d had a few loud songs prior, but he kicks it into overdrive here, with awesome jangly hits like “Honky Cat” and “Hercules.” “Honky Cat” is an awesome song just for its sheer level of orchestration. There’s a lot going on in that chorus, and Elton writes a tune so catchy that everything just blends into a really great swirl of a tune.

This is an album where you can really hear the influence Elton would have on future players. Ben Folds is the prime example. “Honky Cat” has the irreverence in both the lyrics and music that Folds would become a master of in the late ’90s and especially in the early ’00s. I hear the influence most strongly on “Susie (Dramas).” Folds would later emulate Elton very openly with his song “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” (a direct riff on Elton’s “Bennie And The Jets” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) but “Susie (Dramas)” is a great example of how Elton’s musical influence really permeated into the young piano players starting to learn in the ’70s.

Yet the album isn’t without its missteps. “Mellow” starts off its opening chords sounding like a carbon copy of “Easy” by the Commodores, but quickly morphs into something more melodically interesting. And then there is this terrible electric violin solo right in the middle which just isn’t a pleasant sound.

In a different way, “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself” comes off as an overtly condescending look at teenagers and their overly dramatic ways to get attention. The character in the song decides to commit suicide to try and win more attention. Considering this was written by Taupin when he was 22, it sounds like a whiney young adult complaining about whiney, slightly younger adults.

On top of this, the music has a jangly New Orleans jazz feel to it, and there’s even a tap dance routine going on in the background later in the song. All of this leads to a down-the-nose view of teenage suicide, which is a serious and complex issue. Maybe this is the point Taupin and Elton were making and it just went over my head, but the song just feels crass.

But then you’ve got “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time),” which is an absolute classic. A lot of songs like this one are self-reflexively popular; they’re popular because they’re popular. That doesn’t make sense, but it’s the only explanation for some huge pop hits from the last 50 years of pop music being hits.

“Rocket Man,” however, differs because it is a really fantastic song. Taupin paints this gorgeous picture of an astronaut with no fanfare; this guy is getting ready for his day job just like anybody else, and he’s struggling with how his job is separating him from those things that he really loves in his life. I think it’s a metaphor for the life of fame which he and Elton were quickly finding themselves surrounded by.

And Elton has written an undeniably catchy, indelible melody. I love how he starts the first verse with a very jazzy two-chord refrain and then that major chord leads into the “…high as a kite…” progression. The background vocals in the chorus are also very atmospheric; they’ve so expertly created the feeling of coldness and outer space. There’s a real sense of longing and regret in this melody, a resignation to the choices this man has made and what he’s given up to achieve certain goals over others. It’s weird, but Elton has created a melody that sounds like a spaceship in orbit. Really cool.

This album isn’t without its faults, but sometimes having one powerhouse tune makes all the difference. In this case, “Rocket Man” helps salvage any bad spots on this album, and makes it an essential record to know in Elton’s collection, and definitely one of the more important albums of the ’70s.

Top 3 Tunes:
  1. Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)
  2. Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters
  3. Honky Cat

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