Still Ticking After All These Years

I have had Elton John on the brain lately. Here and There accompanied me in the car for several days a couple of weeks back, and entirely by accident, Caribou did last week. Caribou was the first Elton John album I bought with my own money while it was a hit. (My brother had its predecessor, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, although I’m not sure when he bought it.) I can remember the day I got it, an autumn Saturday in 1974 after “The Bitch Is Back” had hit the radio.

I was concerned that my parents might not approve of “The Bitch Is Back,” but they had never raised any objections before about what I listened to. There were no complaints about “hear him whip the women just around midnight,” or “Let’s Make a Dope Deal,” or about “The Bitch Is Back,” either. They just wanted me to keep the volume down—hard to do with “The Bitch Is Back,” which rocks harder than almost anything else Elton ever did, with the possible exceptions of “Stinker,” a track from side 2, or “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”

After “The Bitch Is Back,” there’s “Pinky,” a song about a girl who’s “as perfect as the 4th of July.” At that moment of 1974, I knew one myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, even as I couldn’t work up the courage to tell her, and “Pinky” didn’t help matters one bit. However, it brightened my mood considerably to crank up “Grimsby,” country twanger “Dixie Lily,” and the goofy “Solar Prestige a Gammon,” with its lyrics of utter gibberish, which bounces along on one of the most fetching instrumental tracks Elton’s band ever performed. Over on side 2, “I’ve Seen the Saucers” was the track I liked least back in the day, although it sounds pretty tremendous now. The singer has been abducted by aliens and comes back bearing great knowledge, which in 1974, I didn’t feel like I needed. Today I’d listen.

What struck me about Caribou the other day is how dated some of it sounds. The lead single, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” hasn’t worn well at all. “Pinky” and “Solar Prestige a Gammon” contain Moog synthesizer lines that mark them indelibly as early 70s material. The same sound is heard on the last track, “Ticking.” But that’s the only way in which “Ticking” is dated. It’s the story of a mass shooting in New York City, in which a crazed young bar patron, his mother’s voice continually scolding in his head, kills 14 people with a gun. There have been many years, many killers, and many killings since “Ticking,” but they leave us with the same sick, sad, horrible feeling, the same questions why, and the same realization that we’ll never really know why the killer’s “brains just snapped.”

Caribou has been reissued with four bonus tracks, including “Sick City” and “Cold Highway,” which were the B-sides of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “The Bitch Is Back.” Neither is particularly noteworthy. Also included in the reissue are two songs out of time: “Pinball Wizard,” which came out in 1975 and more properly belongs with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and “Step Into Christmas,” which was a hit at the end of 1973 and would be a better chronological fit on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Long post short: Caribou, good album, listened to it a lot back then, listen to it a lot now, think you’d like it too.

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5 responses

  1. Caribou to me is a transition album for Elton, Captain Fantastic builds on some new music directions started here and finishes with Rock Of The Westies which is still one of my favorites from him just because it was so different. After this comes Don’t Go Breaking My Heart in 1976 which signals for me a downturn as he disappears almost completely by the end of the decade. The hits were still there, but something had disappeared in his music. Jamming alot in this post, but Caribou is a good listen even today. What followed was interesting progressions.

  2. I would call “Captain Fantastic” my single favorite album by anyone, but it has moments where it feels like Elton is trying too hard to make a masterpiece. “Caribou” although it’s plenty ornate, sets the bar lower, and as a result, is a more satisfying record in some ways.

  3. Everything’s relative, as they say. Maybe it depends where you were age-wise and station-in-life wise. But the depth and overall quality of the first 4-5 Elton albums were so substantial, anything after Yellow Brick sounds flimsy and lacking to my ears.

    1. I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “flimsy,” but otherwise agree. A year ago, I put the stylus to ‘Caribou’, ‘Fantastic’ and ‘Westies’ for the first time in decades and was surprised at how little had remained memorable, particularly in the case of the latter two albums. To be sure, there were a few “oh, wow!” surprises amongst the non-single cuts, but on the whole, I found it odd that the hotter E.J. had gotten on the charts, the less compelling I found his albums. I’d much rather revisit the ’69-’73 sides.

  4. Proof that Nashville will hunt down a song, C&W singer Roy Drusky charted “Dixie Lily” not long after this LP was released.

    I heard a story from a radio vet that our local AM could play “Bitch is Back” but could not say the title on the air.

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