Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Reggie Dwight and Davy Jones
A couple-three years ago I bought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road from Amazon. I’m not sure why I did it– it was right around the time I purchased CD copies of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Station to Station, and I think I must have said, “oh, what the hell.” I mean, I’d never owned the record on vinyl, and I never cared much for Mr. John thirty years ago. But I’d also just seen Cameron Crowe’s very average Almost Famous, which brought the very average tune “Tiny Dancer” back into circulation, so I went rooting around Elton’s early albums, looking for “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” a song (from 1972’s Honky Chateau) I always considered better than decent. (I’m talking about the music, of course, not those hackneyed lyrics– remember, we drummers couldn’t care less about the lyrics.)
Well, over the short term, that purchase was a terrible mistake. For weeks afterward, folks, I was presented with Amazon e-mails telling me that the people who’d purchased Goodbye Yellow Brick Road had also purchased the whole Parade of Lite Horribles, from Rod Stewart to Billy Joel to Phil Collins to Michael Bolton Himself. Panicking, I quickly ordered all of Brian Eno’s ambient albums as well as some Soul Coughing to throw Amazon off the scent. (Actually that’s not true– I’d owned Eno before that, and I listen to those ambient CDs all the time when I’m working, particularly Ambient 4/ On Land. Highly recommended for all ages!) But over the longer term, as I actually began to listen to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for the first time, I began to think all manner of things about Elton John.
First, that he’d already begun jumping the shark in 1973. That much seems obvious in retrospect, now that he’s joined forces with the Disney Stable of Schlockmeisters and has foisted hideous soundtracks for El Dorado and The Lion King on our innocent, unsuspecting children (just try to listen to “Someday Out of the Blue” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Go ahead. I dare you). But those of us who listened to the radio thirty-odd years ago will remember that Elton John still had all kinds of rock credibility in 1973, getting massive airplay not only from the top-40 WABC-AM in New York but also from the coolest “progressive” rock in the metro area, WNEW-FM. After GYBR, it gets pretty rancid pretty fast: Caribou (“Bitch is Back,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”), Captain Fantastic (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Meal Ticket”), Rock of the Westies (all of which is cringe-inducing, but perhaps it is one of the small triumphs of political correctness that we are no longer subjected to Elton and Bernie asking, in “Island Girl,” “tell me what you wantin wid de white man’s world”).
But he hasn’t quite lost it yet on Yellow Brick Road, and that’s what’s so curious: it’s as if he loses it and gets it back here and there, song by song, verse by verse. Take a minor song like “Grey Seal”: it opens with the kind of ridiculous tinkling piano arpeggios one associates with motivational corporate videos, then come five crashing chords, and you think that maybe the corporate video will actually turn out to be a Barry Manilow-scored extravaganza. And yet the verses are surprisingly good, easily the equal of any of the catchy pop melodies he’d written to that point. The choruses suck, and the bridge couldn’t be cheesier. But still, forty-eight or fifty nice, hummable bars ain’t bad. Likewise with entire songs: “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” does not suck, whereas the very next tune, “Sweet Painted Lady,” explores new realms of suckitude (and do I hear a trumpet and a harmonium in that “orchestral arrangement”? aren’t there laws about this kind of thing?)
The same is true of the double album (hey kids, remember “double albums”?) as a whole: “Funeral for a Friend/ Love Lies Bleeding” has some great passages, “Bennie and the Jets” is unlistenable; the verses of “All the Girls Love Alice” actually rock (drummers: check out Nigel Olsson’s curious dotted eighths on the bass drum, which always sound like they come just a nanosecond too early in the bar, and give the song a nice stutter-step), whereas “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is an utter embarrassment. And what I find most intriguing is the back-to-back pairing of “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll)” and “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting.” They’re both neo-“rock” songs, and consciously so, the one trying to evoke the structure of feeling of 50s rock, the other sounding like a canny quotation of an early-70s kickass rock song about drinkin’ and fightin’ rather than the Real Thing (despite Davey Johnstone’s infectious opening riff, which really does sound like the Real Thing). Elton had done the neo- thing before, most obviously in “Crocodile Rock,” which wasn’t too bad (attaching the Diamonds’ “Little Darling” pretty deftly onto a soft-power-chord chorus, and of course announcing its ersatz status in the title), but for some reason “Your Sister Can’t Twist” sounds like the work of the annoying guy who approaches the drama club and says, “hey, everyone, let’s do the History of Rock for the high school spring musical! I’ll write all the songs in different ‘rock’ styles! It’ll be great!” (See, under this heading, Billy Joel’s Innocent Man– oh, hell, see half of Billy Joel’s entire bloody oeuvre). When I first heard it on this nice personal CD player here in my study, I broke out in the cold clammy sweats and thought, “oh my God, I know where this road leads– it leads straight to Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf! Stop! Stop it now!” Imagine my surprise when I read the 1995 liner notes by John Tobler, who says this was “possibly yet another song which influenced Jim Steinman.” Gaaaaaaah! But to this day, I can’t quite say why it is that one of these neo- songs still works for me, and the other makes me break out in the cold clammy sweats.
OK, so now that all that’s on the table, here’s my thing about David Bowie and Elton John. The former has vastly more credibility than the latter, and has for the past twenty-something years or so. Sure, Bowie gets some grief for raiding everyone else’s glam this and velvet-underground that (in fact, some of this blog’s very own commenters have given Bowie grief for this, I believe), but please– he wouldn’t be the first man or woman in popular music who served as a kind of Universal Recipient of cultural devices forged elsewhere, and he certainly hasn’t devoted his senescence to working with the likes of Tim Rice. And I should add that Ziggy Stardust is among my favorite albums (I simply skip over “It Ain’t Easy”) and Station to Station is among my favorite things that should have been EPs but were bloated into LPs that aren’t fooling anyone. Right up there with the second and third efforts of Declan McManus, I think. Nonetheless: at this distance, the similarities between these guys seem to be much more compelling than the divergence of their career paths since the early 1970s.
Both have an exceptional ear for melody: though you may be sick of hearing “Daniel” and “Your Song” by now, both are really quite crafty, and even though “Lady Stardust” and “Wild is the Wind” are of another order– glam-opera epics rather than quiet singer-songwriter fare– they’re all about their melodies, too. Both guys emerged in the late 1960s and then went on insane, white-hot songwriting tears, putting out seventeen albums by 1973 (eight by Bowie, nine by Elton). Both, of course, work under stage names, because their original names were too boring and straight. And both were basically done within a few years of redrawing the pop map.
Oh, now here come the howls from the Bowie diehards: what about Lodger? don’t you get the whole motif of Scary Monsters? and his latest work is his most searching and innovative yet! Give it a rest, folks, this humble blog is having none of it. We’ll go with you as far as Heroes (by which point Elton had released the turgid Blue Moves, signalling far and wide that he was permanently down for the count), but no further. And don’t even mention the appalling Let’s Dance, an album that sounds like someone doing a Bowie Revue and whose title song is almost as undanceable as Orleans’ “Dance with Me” (by common acclaim– that is, Janet’s and mine– the least danceable song ever to appeal to “dancing” in its title).
Instead, rather than debate when exactly David Bowie stopped being important to the development of modern popular music– four months after Elton John or four years– let’s give both men credit where credit is due: they were flamboyant, prolific, talented songwriters and performers at a time when AM radio was completely up for grabs (you remember– Malo’s “Suavecito” one minute, Wayne Newton’s “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” the next, then “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, followed by “Candida” by Tony Orlando and Dawn) and FM emerging from the shadows. Although Elton could never have written the edgy “Panic in Detroit” and Bowie would never have written the dirge-like “Philadelphia Freedom,” they each helped, in their own way, to make the Western world a queerer and a better place to be. For that, the Renard News Channel thanks them!
Next on the Renard News Channel: the deadly Beinart Effect, and how to counter it!
AND AN UPDATE in response to comments: the next item in this series will be a disquisition on The Hitherto Unremarked Similarities between Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Readers are welcome to begin writing that one on their own.