Wednesday, 5 September 2012
Elton John Part 2: The Wilderness Years
Look at Elton’s early 70s LP’s, and you will see plenty of critically acclaimed long players in the back catalogue. Look at the albums from the mid 80s, and you will see a chunk of hit singles strewn across these records. But for several years after leaving DJM to release records on his own Rocket imprint, Elton seemed to fall from view. Singles flopped, albums crashed and burned, and huge chunks of what was recorded was destined to never get played on stage.
Now, perhaps it is because some of these albums are a bit obscure, and it’s just the hipster in me, but I have found myself being drawn to many of the albums from the period between 1976 and 1982. There would usually be a trigger that would draw me to the likes of “Blue Moves”, “The Fox” and “A Single Man”, but once I was there, then I was hooked. It could also be that, given that a lot of this stuff was never played onstage, and some of the singles bombed, you often find you want to play these albums to try and remind yourself as to what they sound like. And whenever I play those three in particular, I find that there are gems scattered amongst all of them.
Following on from last months look at the DJM albums, this blog looks at what Elton released on Rocket (and DJM, still) between these years. Again, the discography lists all essential and important single releases, listed in chunks to tie in - broadly - with the corresponding LP. Not listed here are the 1978 “cash in” DJM reissue 7” singles, as these were covered fully last time around, although in the interests of completeness, they were released between “Ego” and “Part Time Love”.
Again, for any releases originally issued on vinyl that have never been reissued, or not reissued in any special edition on CD, details of this vinyl pressing are listed. For the rest, as before, the current CD issue is listed. In terms of understanding the catalogue number system, it works around what was reissued when. Those in the “500” series were reissued between 1996 and 1998, and were also part of the “Classic Years” reissue campaign, which started with the original DJM albums. Many, but not all, had bonus tracks, and those that were reissued at this time were deemed to be the “critically acclaimed” ones from the back catalogue. Those in the “000” series were reissues from circa 2003, coming under the banner of the “Remastered” series - basically, these were the albums that were deemed not quite as good, but Mercury obviously figured they needed to make them available again.
Blue Moves (Mercury 532 467-2)
Whilst parts of “Blue Moves” followed in the disco-esque footsteps of that single, elsewhere, it goes all over the place. The opening numbers of the first and third sides, “Tonight” and “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”, were simple piano ballads, whilst “Out of The Blue” sounded not unlike the FM rock finale of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (although that appeared the year after) - indeed, both were used as TV theme tunes by the BBC.
Had things turned out differently, then “Blue Moves” would not only have been Elton’s first LP on Rocket, but also his last. He famously announced his retirement from the stage of his final gig in 1977, only to edge back into the world of the live show late in 1978.
Several singles were lifted from the record, and although “Sorry” is the most famous, the best is undoubtedly the incendiary album closer “Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!)”, possibly the greatest thing Elton ever did. A seven minute long disco work out, with the ending just repeating again and again in a sort of Studio 54 style hypnotic trance, it’s utterly superb, THE great lost Elton 45. It’s rarely been played on stage, which is a shame, because if it was seventy minutes long, it would still sound good.
When “Blue Moves” was first issued on CD, record companies had a bit of a phobia about putting double LP’s out as double CD’s. They were concerned that they would cost twice as much to produce, and then this cost would have to be relayed to the buyer. As such, initial versions on CD have several songs missing, in order to reduce the playing time by enough for the record to appear on one disc. However, some years later, people began to realise that offering the consumer only nine tenths of an album was stupid, and the 1996 reissue of “Blue Moves” dutifully returns the album to it’s original 85 minute running time, with sides 1 and 2 on CD1, and sides 3 and 4 on CD2. There are no bonus tracks, however, presumably as nothing “of note” exists in the vaults. Either that, or the label felt that returning the album to it’s original state was good enough.
It is also worth pointing out that, between the release of “Crazy Water” and “Four From Four Eyes”, Elton had released a privately pressed 7” called the “Goaldigger’s Song”, which even got the odd outing on stage, but as you are unlikely to own a copy (some will tell you it‘s really nothing more than a limited edition promo), I have decided to not list it here. It’s not the first oddball 45 released by the man, as a 7” called “From Denver To LA” got released in the US, then withdrawn immediately, way back in 1970.
Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word/Shoulder Holster (1976, 7”, Rocket ROKN 517, p/s)
Crazy Water/Chameleon (1977, 7”, Rocket ROKN 521)
Four From Four Eyes EP: Your Song/Rocket Man/Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)/Whenever You’re Ready (1977, 7”, DJM DJR 18001, p/s)
Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!) (7” Remix) +1 (1977, 7”, Rocket ROKN 526)
Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!) (12” Remix) +1 (1977, 12”, Rocket RU1, die cut p/s)
Elton John's Greatest Hits Volume 2 (DJM DJF 29520)
In the UK, there was never a Volume 3. However, in the USA, it was a different story, with Elton’s North American label knocking out such a release in 1987. Rather curiously, this release covered a period from 1979 to 1987, meaning material from 1978’s “A Single Man” was thus not represented. The release had been put out by Geffen, the label Elton had just left in the states, and was done deliberately to shift attention away from his new live album on MCA.
Due to various contractual issues, Volume 3 was deleted, and replaced by another US only release in 1992, entitled “Greatest Hits 1976 - 1986”, which thus technically overlapped with “Volume 2”. In order to overcome this issue, certain “oldies” from Volume 2 were replaced by other songs for a 1992 reissue of said record. The likes of “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” were then able to be used on the “1976 - 1986” release instead.
Although you will be lucky to find a non-import copy of Volumes 1 or 2 on CD in the UK, they are still on catalogue in the US. In the UK, 2002’s “Greatest Hits 1970-2002” has effectively replaced all previous compilations, although there have been others - before and after - of some note. These will be covered in a future blog.
A Single Man (Mercury 558 474-2)
Well, “A Single Man” has never been much of a favourite with the critics, but again, it’s one of the Elton albums that I find myself always wanting to return to. Musically, it’s the same rock/pop mish-mash of “Blue Moves”, exemplified quite well by the album’s two singles - the disco/soul funky fun of “Part Time Love” on the one hand, and the tearful, near-instrumental piano ballad that is “Song For Guy” on the other.
“Song For Guy” is one of Elton’s finest moments, but remained one of the more obscure choices for a 45, thanks to it’s instrumental nature. It had been written one Sunday, and it’s dream like feel was supposed to represent the idea of Elton looking down ’from the heavens’ on his own self slowly dying. The following day, Elton was informed that an employee at Rocket, Guy Burchett, had died on the same day that he wrote the song, in a motorcycle accident. The song was thus titled in his honour, and the single lyric “Life Isn’t Everything” was, I think, added as an afterthought as a tribute.
The 1998 reissue of the LP adds five bonus tracks. Both sides of the 1978 stand alone 45 “Ego” are included, along with the B-sides of “Part Time Love” and “Song For Guy”. Also included is another b-side, “Strangers”, taped during the album sessions but not released until 1979. Also issued at some point in 1978, was - as briefly mentioned last month - a 12” featuring the opening duo of tracks from “Yellow Brick Road” on the a-side, and the closing pair from “Captain Fantastic” on the flip.
Ego/Flinstone Boy (1978, 7”, Rocket ROKN 538, p/s)
Part Time Love/I Cry At Night (1978, 7”, Rocket XPRES 1, p/s)
Song For Guy (7” Edit)/Lovesick (1978, 7”, Rocket XPRES 5)
Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding/We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains (1978, 12”, DJM DJT 15000, p/s)
Elton John Box Set (DJM LSP 14512)
Issued by DJM, there is nothing very rare on here. Yes, you have a “Lady Samantha” here, and a “Friends” there, but this was basically just a very big compilation album. It was released as a 5-LP box, had a free poster tucked inside, and each LP comes in it’s own titled sleeve (disc 1 was “Early Years”, disc 2 “Elton Rocks”, blah blah blah). Rather strangely - and RCA did this with an Elvis Presley Greatest Hits box four years previous - the back of the box only lists LP’s One to Four, and the fifth LP, “Classics”, is referred to inside as a bonus LP. Thus, the track listing is only revealed for disc 5 once the box is opened. And, whilst the first four LP’s come in die cut sleeves, “Classics” is the only one to come in a spined sleeve, with an inner bag, with the box sets’ sleeve notes printed on said inner bag.
It does look very nice, I have to admit. But, as a 5 piece vinyl set, you’ll be lucky to get one for less than twenty quid, and twenty quid for a posh greatest hits set is possibly not great value for money. The track listing works quite well, the closing number from “Captain Fantastic” closes this box, but unless you are a committed collector, you might wonder if it’s worth shelling out for. So, it’s very much ‘horses for courses’.
Victim Of Love (Mercury 077 116-2)
In 1977, Elton worked on a planned album with US soul producer, Thom Bell. The songs were written by a mixture of personnel, with Bell, Elton and Bernie Taupin all having a hand at some point. Quite what happened next, I am not sure, but Elton’s US label at the time, MCA, apparently baulked when they heard the songs, and refused to release them. Quite why Rocket didn’t try to issue them in the UK, I really don’t know, given that Elton owned the damn label! At least six songs were written and recorded, and all remained in the vaults. “Shine On Through” got a second lease of life, when a newly recorded - and heavily edited - version made it onto “A Single Man”.
In 1979, the decision was taken to issue some of the material from the sessions, when “Are You Ready For Love” was released as a single. A lengthy, eight minute soul workout, it had to be chopped into two for the 7” release, with the first half of the song appearing on the A-side, dubbed “Part 1”, and the remainder on the flip, as “Part 2”. Also released was a 12”, called the “Thom Bell Sessions 77” EP. This included the unedited version of “Are You Ready For Love” on the A-side, with two more Bell outtakes, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” and “Three Way Love Affair” on the reverse. The single was a bit of a flop, only gaining it’s current status as “Elton mega hit” after a reissue in 2003 saw it hit the top of the charts.
Rather unusually, the decision was taken to issue one of the B-sides as a single in it’s own right soon after, and thus “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” appeared as Elton’s next single in the USA, where it became quite a sizeable hit. UK copies were also pressed by Rocket, with a famously mis-spelt title (“Mamma Can’t Buy You Love”), but was withdrawn almost immediately. The aforementioned “Strangers” was on the b-side.
No sooner had “Mamma” been withdrawn, than it was replaced by a 45 release of the title track of Elton’s next studio LP, “Victim Of Love”. The catalogue number was the next one in line (“Mamma” was XPRES 20, “Victim Of Love” XPRES 21) and “Strangers” appeared on the flip again. Copies of the UK version of “Mamma” now change hands for £450-500, but US copies are nowhere near as collectable.
“Victim Of Love” is a bizarre LP. Full of covers or songs written for Elton, with no involvement from Elton nor Taupin, it was a full blown disco extravaganza. Perhaps it was done to make up for the cancellation of the Bell album. Elton plays no piano on the record either, and the songs segue from one to another in true dance floor style. None of the singles issued from the album were particularly big hits, but you find that because it’s so out of character, you want to listen to it again. Despite it’s un-lofty reputation amongst critics, the album was reissued in remastered form in 2003, although with no bonus tracks.
Are You Ready For Love (Part 1)/(Part 2) (1979, 7”, Rocket XPRES 13)
Are You Ready For Love/Mama Can’t Buy You Love/Three Way Love Affair (1979, 12”, Rocket XPRES 1312, p/s)
Victim Of Love (7" Mix)/Strangers (1979, 7”, Rocket XPRES 21, p/s)
Johnny B Goode (7" Mix)/Thunder In The Night (7" Mix) (1979, 7”, Rocket XPRES 24, also on 12”, p/s)
Lady Samantha (DJM DJM 22085)
To be fair, at the time, this record was probably quite an interesting one for the fan base, as it’s objective was to make available, on one record, old B-sides and non album a-sides that had been lost in the midsts of time.
Space constraints on a single slab of vinyl prevented it from including everything, so some of the bigger ‘non-album’ singles were excluded. The other reason for this was that this pressing was actually a reissue of a Cassette/8-Track only release that had surfaced in 1974, so everything actually dated from the early part of Elton’s career, meaning that the likes of “Philadelphia Freedom” were excluded on the basis that they, of course, dated from the latter part of Elton’s career. What you had here, really, was a rarities set covering 1969 to 1973 only.
It did get reissued on CD at one point, but has been made defunct by the “Rare Masters” set. It is also worth pointing out that, despite the fact that they were both officially from the “Friends” LP, both sides of the “Friends”/”Honey Roll” 7” made it onto “Lady Samantha”, presumably on the basis that the “Friends” LP was now getting difficult to find.
21 At 33 (Mercury 077 114-2)
On the other side of the coin though, critics seem to have never been impressed by this record, whilst live performances of material from this record veer between non-existent (“Chasing The Crown”) to very occasional (“Little Jeannie”, again). But it did see members of the old Elton John band returning to the fold, albeit very briefly (namely Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray), and for some reason, the cover has always seemed very familiar to me, unlike - say - 1982‘s “Jump Up!”. Perhaps I just saw a lot of copies in charity shops over the years. Taupin, having also been mostly excised from the whole set up post-”Blue Moves”, was also partly back on board with this one as well.
So, of all the wilderness years releases, it may not be the best, but it is probably the most well known. In my mind anyway. After dabbling with the 12” format in the late 70s, the singles released from this LP appeared on 7” only. And despite the fact that the three B-sides were all new, non-album songs, no reissues of “21 At 33” have ever made an attempt to include them as bonus tracks. This is a fault that has continued with many of Elton’s post-1980 albums. Another of the album tracks, “Dear God”, was also issued as a single much later that year, more details in the next section.
Little Jeannie/Conquer The Sun (1980, 7”, Rocket XPRES 32, p/s)
Sartorial Eloquence/White Man Danger/Cartier (1980, 7”, Rocket XPRES 41)
The Very Best Of (K-Tel NE 1094)
This 1980 release was issued by K-Tel, who had also done a Bowie best of the same year. And like the Bowie one, a sizeable number of songs were squeezed onto the record - 16 songs in all. Quite impressive. But it’s not all hit singles. Yes, “Your Song” is on there, as is “Daniel”, and so on and so forth, but there are also oddball non-hits (“Friends”), well known album tracks (“Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters”), and more obscure album tracks (“High Flying Bird”). So, really, it’s actually a bit random.
“Harmony”, from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, was on here, and was even issued as a single to coincide. It had originally been touted as a possible 45 way back in 1973/74, but it never happened. It was followed by the release of “21 At 33”’s “Dear God”, which appeared only as a double pack 7”, the standard version having been withdrawn before release for some reason. It came backed with three new songs, all of which - again - are missing from any of the current reissued editions of Elton’s albums from the same period.
Following John Lennon’s assassination in December 1980, DJM issued a 3 track 7” featuring all three of the songs he and Elton had performed at the famous 1974 NYC gig, Lennon’s last stage appearance. Although all three songs are on the expanded “Here And There”, the versions on the single are of a slightly different mix.
Harmony/Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters (1980, 7”, DJM DJS 10961, p/s)
Dear God/Tactics/Steal Away Child/Love So Cold (1980, 2x7”, Rocket ELTON 1, p/s)
I Saw Her Standing There (Live)/Whatever Gets You Through The Night (Live)/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (Live) (1980, 7”, DJM DJS 10965, p/s)
The Fox (Mercury 077 113-2)
Now, again, this album fascinates me. It’s seemingly totally unknown, spawned a number of mega flop singles, and comes in what seems like a slightly surreal sleeve. And yet, I find myself being drawn to it again and again, unlike some of the albums that followed. Whilst the over-produced sound of some of those mid 80’s records can be attributable as to why people never seem to talk about them with any great love, “The Fox” is far classier, and seems to have died a death simply because it never got any real promotion at the time.
It’s a pop record, yes, but doesn’t seem weighed down by the blandness that blighted the production values of so many other records that appeared later during the decade, not just by Elton, but by just about everybody. “Breaking Down The Barriers” is a sprightly opener, with some lovely piano flourishes, whilst the aforementioned “Carla Etude”, which segues into another song, which then segues into yet another, could have slotted onto any of the records he made in the 70s. What makes it all the more curious, is that huge chunks of the LP was recorded during the “21 At 33” sessions, making this album full - technically - of discarded material, but it doesn’t feel that way. OK, play it back to back with “Tumbleweed Connection”, and it might struggle to match it, but it has something about it that I like.
Again, singles released from the LP included new B-sides, but no reissues of “The Fox” add any bonus tracks at all, let alone these. Earlier CD pressings included the “Carla Etude”/”Fanfare”/”Chloe” section as a single, 10 minute long song (maybe, given my love of some prog, this automatically made me want to love this LP), but a mid-noughties CD repressing splits these sections up into individual (but still segued) tracks, making the 9 song original now an 11 song CD.
Nobody Wins/Fools In Fashion (1981, 7”, Rocket XPRES 54, p/s)
Just Like Belgium/Can’t Get Over Getting Over Losing You (1981, 7”, Rocket XPRES 59)
Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever (Edit) +1 (1981, 7”, Ariola ARO 269, Kiki Dee 45)
Jump Up! (Mercury 077 112-2)
“Blue Eyes” is a classy number, a shuffling, jazzy piece of elegance that stands head and shoulders over the rest of the record. John had started to sing in a deeper tone on this record, and it works to brilliant effect on this single. Along with “Empty Garden”, the LP spawned two other singles, although the sales of these were poor, so don’t go thinking this was another “Thriller”.
“Jump Up”, like it’s predecessors, has been made available on CD on a number of occasions, but even the most recent edition fails to include any bonus tracks. This, despite the fact that all four singles from the LP produced non album B-sides each time. “The Retreat” does appear on the expanded edition of the next studio LP, “Too Low For Zero”, on the basis that it appeared as a B-side of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” in North America. We shall look at this LP, and others, next month.
Blue Eyes/Hey Papa Legba (1982, 7”, Rocket XPRES 71, p/s)
Empty Garden (Edit)/Take Me Down To The Ocean (1982, 7”, Rocket XPRES 77, p/s, Picture Disc copies also pressed)
Princess/The Retreat (1982, 7”, Rocket XPRES 85, p/s)
All Quiet On The Western Front/Where Have All The Good Times Gone (Alternate Version) (1982, 7”, Rocket XPRES 88, p/s some with poster)
By the end of the 80’s, the Bell material had surfaced in the US on an album called “The Complete Thom Bell Sessions”. This included the six known outtakes from the period, including the three songs that had made it onto the 1979 EP. However, the mix of “Are You Ready For Love” was different, with various guest singers singing the second verse instead of Elton. The LP has never been officially released in the UK, but of the other three songs, two have since been made available in the UK in one form or another - we have already mentioned “Shine On Through”, whilst “Nice And Slow” finally turned up in 2004 as the b-side of “All That I’m Allowed”, but on 7” only. Only “Country Love Song” is unavailable in any form in the UK, but imported copies of the CD can still be tracked down, helped by the fact that it has been reissued on several occasions by MCA.
In 2003, “Are You Ready For Love” got a second lease of life when it was used in a TV advert, and arrangements were made to reissue the single. For reasons I am not entirely sure about, it was to be repressed not on Rocket, but by dance label Southern Fried, seemingly as a number of remixes of the track were to be made for selected formats of the single.
The standard format was the CD Single, which used the same image of Elton as was on the original EP, but coloured in a lurid shade of pink. Two different mixes of the track were included, listed as the “Radio Edit” and the “Original” mix. The “Radio Edit” does not seem to be the same as the original “Part 1” mix from the 1979 7”, whilst some reports show the “Original” mix as having a different running time to the version that appeared on the Thom Bell EP. Similarly, the b-side of the CD, “Three Way Love Affair”, also shows an alternate timing on some sources when compared to the original 12”.
Although there seemed to be multiple 12” singles pressed, I am under the impression that only three were issued commercially. At least, I only bought three. At least three others exist, all listed as promos on the Eltonography site, so if anybody can confirm if any others than those listed below DID make it into the likes of HMV and Virgin, then let me know.
Song For Guy/Blue Eyes (1988, 7”, Old Gold OG 9791)
Are You Ready For Love (Radio Edit)/(Original)/Three Way Love Affair/Are You Ready For Love (Video) (2003, CD, Southern Fried ECB 50 CDS)
Are You Ready For Love (Original)/(Ashley Beedle Love And Protection Mono Edit) (2003, Pink Vinyl 12”, Southern Fried ECB 50)
Are You Ready For Love (Original)/(Freeform Five Remix) (2003, 12”, Southern Fried ECB 50 LOVE)
Are You Ready For Love (Radio Slave Remix)/(Serge Santiago Re-edit) (2003, 2nd 12”, Southern Fried ECB 50 LOVER1)