Friday, August 13, 2021

Elton John/Bernie Taupin - The Early Years

Although the pudgy kid known as Reg Dwight had always considered a music career, he'd spent the 60s as an un-credited studio musician for artists like The Hollies, until, in 1966, he answered an ad from Liberty Records and was given lyrics by a 17-year-old Bernie Taupin. Reg was so taken by Bernie's words that he wrote songs for each, though he wouldn't meet Taupin for six months. Before long, they found their songs covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Three Dog Night. And although that success got the newly-named Elton John a record deal, it didn't produce immediate results: it was two years before he scored his own hit with 1970's "Your Song." A tremendously influential series of live performances at L.A.'s Troubadour proved that John - who'd been a huge Jerry Lee Lewis fan - could rock as hard as anyone, and before long his solo career was taking off both on stage and in the studio.

Bernie Taupin  was born in 1950 at Flatters Farmhouse in the southern part of Lincolnshire England. He was not a diligent student but showed an early flair for writing. His maternal grandfather was a classics teacher and graduate of the University of Cambridge, his mother studied French Literature, and his father was a farmer.  They taught him an appreciation for nature and for literature and narrative poetry, all of which influenced his lyrics.  At age 15, he left school and started work as a trainee in the print room of the local newspaper, The Lincolnshire Standard with aspirations to be a journalist. He soon left and spent the rest of his teenage years hanging out with friends, hitchhiking the country roads to attend youth club dances in the surrounding villages, playing snooker in the Aston Arms Pub in Market Rasen, and drinking. He'd worked at several part-time jobs when, at age 16, he answered the advertisement that eventually led to his collaboration with Elton John.

Bernie’s unique blend of influences gave his early lyrics  a nostalgic romanticism that fit perfectly with the hippie sensibilities of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He sometimes wrote about specific places in his home town of Lincolnshire. For example, Grimsby or ‘Caribou’  was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a nearby port town often visited by Taupin and his friends. More famously,"Saturday’s Alright For Fighting" was inspired by Taupin’s experiences in the dance halls and pubs of his youth. More often he wrote in more general autobiographical terms, as in his reference to hitching rides home in "Country Comfort." These autobiographical references to his rural upbringing continued after his departure for London and a life in show business, with songs such as "Honky Cat," "Tell Me When The Whistle Blows" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," in which he thinks about "going back to my plough."
Together, Bernie and Elton found a niche with what might be assumed American folk, somewhere along the lines of Woody Guthrie or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, their music that storied, that romantic. For Tumbleweed Connection, Elton's forth LP, the pair crafted an LP of ten songs with a theme they couldn't have known much about, except through books and Taupin's imagination: the American Civil War and subsequent land expansion out west. Though falling short of a masterpiece, the duo found a way to express their fantasy in an unusually conceptual album. "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun" opens the album, addressing the concerns of a man arrested for unspecified crimes, yet showing deep remorse when he's thrown in prison by the Pinkertons (the forerunner of modern-day detective agencies), as well as losing all his ill-gotten gains. The dusty verisimilitude seeps out of "Song of Your Father" and "Talking Old Soldiers;" the former about a blind man who confronts a "friend" who owes him money by brandishing a rifle. The accused relents, but only to bide time to gain the advantage over the blind gun-toter; the result is two men "lying dead as nails on an East Virginia farm." That's storytelling, and Taupin is the kingpin of rock storytelling. The latter track deals with an aged Civil War vet who stumbles upon a fellow warrior. Taupin's lyrics are superb, and the idea of two former soldiers drowning their sorrows over everyone's lack of understanding as to what they went through, can be a hard topic to cover in a three minute pop song. However, with only Elton's rising and falling piano chords the only accompaniment, it works splendidly.
Of course, you have two wonderful love songs, "Come Down in Time", featuring the orchestration of Paul Buckmaster. Though the theme is esoteric, it lends an air of mystery and charm. "Love Song", a song written by Lesley Duncan, is a stark tune played on acoustic guitar with deft toe-tapping noticeable.
"Where to Now, St. Peter?" is a swirling blues rocker about a man's journey into death, while questioning his fate and faith. Again, Taupin's esoteric themes make this song less than cut-and-dried, and all the more intriguing. One of the best tracks is "Burn Down the Mission", an old concert favorite. The war between the haves and have-nots is eloquently stated, with Elton's rising and falling piano competing with Buckmaster's strings. "My Father's Gun" is the tale of the Johnny Reb who buries his father (killed by a Northern soldier), and vows to avenge his death by finding the nearest regiment. "Country Comfort" is hokey like a hoedown and the bouncy "Amoreena" is a lot of fun, strongly evoking the Southern coquette pictured so vividly in the listener's mind. Tumbleweed Connection is an album reminiscent of another Brit take on American life 100 years ago, The Notting-Hillbillies. Tumbleweed Connection is Elton country-bluegrass, and it works on just the right level.