When His Majesty Sir Reginald Dwight (excuse me) Sir Elton John, hit the Yellow Brick road for his three-year extended Farewell tour not long ago. I took in the first of his two shows in Detroit at Pizza Pizza Place (excuse me) Little Caesars Arena. I’d never seen him live and I’m really glad I caught his act before he hung up the duck suit and feather boas. He sat and delivered for a full-throated and fabulous two-and-a-half hour retrospective of his celebrated career. Still a world-class performer at the age of 71.
I shared the set list with my good friend Joe Fu (long-time vegetarian) and we both began to pine for the ’70s Elton of our misspent youth. Fu suggested that we do a list in honor of Elton’s swan song. “Brilliant, mate!” said I. We placed the following restrictions on the list:
-B sides allowed
Here’s how it came out.
“Where to Now St. Peter”
from Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
Trippy and pastoral, this tune has a rustic psychedelia to it. Bernie Taupin’s Romantic lyric could be about a dying Confederate soldier or a mescaline trip. It all depends on your interpretation of “blue canoe.” This clip lacks Caleb Quaye’s Leslie + wah-pedal guitar that features on the original recording (so definitely check the playlist below). Elton shows off that full vocal range that he inevitably lost somewhere along the Yellow Brick road. This is Fu’s favorite EJ tune.
“Madman Across the Water”
from Madman Across the Water (1971)
The cruelty of mental illness haunts this orchestral rock exploration. It’s tunes like this that made album-oriented rock radio so special in the 70s. Not a single, but received tons of AOR airplay. Elton wails and pounds the keys and Bernie is at the height of his powers with lines like, “Is the nightmare black/Or are the windows painted?” And I love the narrative irony of “Take my word/I’m a mad man don’t you know.” Dig the extended jam on this live performance clip.
“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”
from Honky Chateau (1972)
Elton’s piano and bass guitar melodic interplay with Dee Murray came to full bloom on this paean to NYC. Check out the original recording in the playlist for Dee in all his glory (and the great harmonies). The lyric has a lush familiarity to it, even though Elton and Bernie had just come to New York for the first time. I love this live performance clip with Davey Johnstone on mandolin (especially his hair).
from Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
This tune is a total throw back to Elton’s early days bashing the keyboard in the pubs. A crowd-pleasing rocker that never failed to get the crowd stomping and clapping when it was a staple in EJ’s live set. This 1973 London performance audio captures the propulsive power of the band’s on stage. Check the playlist for more virtuosic Dee Murray bass on the original recording. (BTW: Does anyone else think he’s singing “How can I ever get it together/Without a white line?”)
“Sweet Painted Lady”
from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Gotta admit I was a little surprised when this bit of tipsy schmaltz showed up in Fu’s 5. Ole boy betrays his tender, wistful fondness for hookers, I suppose. Lines like “Getting paid/For being laid” really tug at something – I suppose it’s the old heart strings. This solo performance clip is quintessential ’70s Elton – dance-hall chording, thinning pate and funky-ass glasses. Safe to say he won’t need a gutter to sleep in tonight. (Not sure about Fu, though.)
The yellow-brick road has been a long and winding one for Sir Elton Hercules John, CBE. Not sure anyone had knighthood for the man on their bingo card back in the ’70s. I hope you had a chance to see his shtick before he parked his 50-year travelling road show for good.
Oh, OK I hear you in the back there. You want an encore. Here’s my eyewitness video of EJ and his killer band doing “Bitch is Back” at the Pizza Place on 12 October 2018: