Saturday, June 11, 2016

Elton and Superstardom - Honky Chateau and Don't Shoot Me

In 1972, Elton John scored his first number one album with Honky Chateau, recorded at the Chateau d'Hierouville. The album hit the top spot on the strength of its 2 hit singles, "Honky Cat" (with its instantly recognizable piano riff) and "Rocket Man," but the album goes far beyond to reveal the direction that Elton (and Bernie) would take. The lost innocence of the beautiful "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" is heartfelt; it's classic Taupin/John that found new life at The Concert For New York in October 2001. The rockers "Hercules" and "Amy" both pay tribute to the classic 50s rock Elton grew up on, while the steamy, slow and provocative "Slave" is Elton's emotionally-driven best. "Mellow" is another mid-tempo track, in Elton's trademark style, while "Suzie (Dramas)" is a cool, unnoticed gem. "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself," while a bit pedantic, is a look at Elton's dark side. The singer was undergoing pretty rocky times at the release of Honky Chateau and had struggled with depression throughout his early career, leading to experimentation with drugs, including Quaaludes and cocaine, which nearly killed him in 1990. The Gay Nineties styled music wonderfully offsets the depressive lyrics in the track. Bernie, as always, the unsung hero, capturing Reg at his most defenseless.

The LP is the first to feature Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone as full-time band members (the three had minor roles on Madman Across the Water). Honky Chateau's star tracks, "Rocket Man" and "Honky Cat" are out of the ordinary, good-time standards. The Mardi Gras atmosphere of "Honky Cat" superseded by the sci-fi prevalent in "Rocket Man," giving the track an unparalleled cool. The cold, pessimistic atmosphere of Honky Chateau retreats into a fa├žade of instrumentally intriguing and playful ditties cloaked in Taupin's biting wit. It severs as Elton John's most Underrated LP.

Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player was released in 1973, and became Elton's second number one album heralding superstardom. The quote and album title has its origin in a meeting between Elton John and Groucho Marx. Marx gave Elton a hard time about his name, stating that he was really John Elton, to which Elton ultimately threw up his hands and said, “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player.” Notice on the LP cover photo that a Marx Brothers movie poster appears in the theater marquee.

While most will obtain the album for "Daniel" and "Crocodile Rock," "Texan Love Song," "Teacher I Need You" and "Midnight Creeper" are better still, showcasing Taupin’s kaleidoscopic allusions. "Have Mercy on the Criminal" is stunning, with a cool guitar intro by Davey Johnstone, then the newest recruit in the Elton John band, and a grandiose string arrangement by Paul Buckmaster. "High Flying Bird" is one of Taupin’s most beautiful and poignant lyrics, a Beach Boys tribute with soaring harmonies and an eerie majesty. My personal favorite, though, is the equally thoughtful and romantic "Blues For Baby and Me," which is everything an Elton John ballad should be: beautiful, ethereal, and powerful. Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me are AM8s (Elton has more AM8s than any other artist).