On the Yellow Brick Road Again

The technological necessity of turning a record over has an impact on the way we experience albums, turning sides into discrete packages—and it’s likely that in 1973, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road benefited as a result. I suspect that listeners coming to it in the CD era find it starting to blur after about 45 minutes (a frequent problem with the longer albums made possible by CDs, although maybe that’s just me), but when you’re forced to refocus your attention every four or five songs, it makes the whole ambitious, amorphous thing a lot easier to digest. So let’s grade it, side by side:

Side 1: “Funeral for a Friend”/”Love Lies Bleeding,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets.” “Funeral for a Friend,” with its synthesizer-whooshing, sounds dated, but “Love Lies Bleeding” still rocks mighty hard. Nobody really needs to hear “Bennie and the Jets” or “Candle in the Wind” again, although “Candle” is beautiful, and the 2003 reissue of the album contains an acoustic version that allows a listener to appreciate the song anew. Grade: B.

Side 2: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “This Song Has No Title,” “Grey Seal,” “Jamaica Jerk-Off,” “I’ve Seen That Movie Too.” Also on the list of songs nobody needs to hear again is “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” although honesty compels me to report I didn’t like it much in 1973 either. “This Song Has No Title” would be painfully pretentious if Elton didn’t sing the hell out of it, which he also does on the faux-reggae number “Jamaica Jerk-Off.” “Grey Seal,” which he had first recorded in 1970, appears in a new version, but it still didn’t become a hit despite Elton’s belief that it should have. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is a moody kiss-off that probably became a hit in some other universe. Grade: A.

Side 3: “Sweet Painted Lady,” “The Ballad of Danny Bailey,” “Dirty Little Girl,” “All the Girls Love Alice.” Bernie Taupin’s misogynistic streak (noted when we were re-listening to Rock of the Westies) is in full obnoxiousness here with lyrics so retrograde I can hardly stand to listen. “Sweet Painted Lady” is a song about a prostitute that’s more concerned with the inner life of her customers; “All the Girls Love Alice” finds the singer gawking at lesbians who, he believes, are too dumb to know what they’re doing; “Dirty Little Girl” is just flat nasty:

Here’s my own belief about all the dirty girls
That you have to clean the oyster to find the pearl
And like rags that belong to you I belong to myself
So don’t show up around here till your social worker’s helped

The superb “Ballad of Danny Bailey” doesn’t fit too well in this rank company, but it raises the grade. Grade: C.

Side 4: “Your Sister Can’t Twist,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Roy Rogers,” “Social Disease,” “Harmony.” “Your Sister Can’t Twist” is a 50s knockoff, fun but slight, and a good match for what follows it, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” It’s hard to find more than a handful of records on the Top 40 in the 70s where the lead guitar blazed harder, although I’m not sure anybody needs to hear it anymore, either. The superb “Roy Rogers” is as beautiful a song as any Elton John ever sang. Bernie strikes exactly the right notes about a guy who seeks escape from daily life by dreaming himself into westerns on late-night TV. It’s followed, unfortunately, by another bit of rank nonsense, “Social Disease,” before the album ends with another hit-single-that-should-have-been, “Harmony.” Grade: B.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a double-disc album that needs to be—you can’t cut enough to make a good single disc out of it.  I might get rid of “Your Sister Can’t Twist,” “Social Disease,” and a couple of songs from the He-Man Woman-Haters Trilogy. I’d be tempted to cut “Bennie and the Jets” (and replace it as a single with “Danny Bailey”), and I suppose I could live without “Grey Seal” and “Jamaica Jerk-Off,” as much as I like them. But that only takes about 23 minutes out of it, and at 53 minutes, it’s still too long for one vinyl disc.

I don’t rank Goodbye Yellow Brick Road especially high on my list of favorite Elton albums. It’s behind Captain Fantastic, Caribou, Tumbleweed Connection and Rock of the Westies, and I’m not sure how it would fare if I listened to it alongside Madman Across the Water. But 76 minutes spent with it isn’t wasted time—especially if you pause it every four or five songs.

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