What I’ve Been Listening to: Elton John/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

While I became aware of Elton John more than 40 years ago and have listened to him on and off ever since (admittedly more off for the past three decades), I mostly know him based on specific songs. Except for John’s 1983 album Too Low for Zero, which I really dug at the time and still enjoy to this day, I haven’t explored his albums in greater detail. This occurred to me the other day when I put together a post on Elton John rockers.

I always had been more fond of John’s earlier songs, so perhaps not surprisingly, once I decided to further explore his albums, it made the most sense to me to start looking at his releases from the first half of the ’70s. From there, it didn’t take long to get to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and realize why it’s widely considered to be John’s best album.

By the time Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released in October 1973, John had established himself as one of the most successful pop music artists of the ’70s. With predecessors Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, he already had two internationally successful studio records under his belt that had generated hits like Rocket Man, perhaps my favorite Elton tune, Crocodile Rock and Daniel.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road gatefold

Appearing only nine months after Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came together during what arguably was the most productive period for John and his close partner in crime, lyricist Bernie Taupin. They had a total of 22 tracks, for which Taupin wrote the lyrics in just two and a half weeks while John composed most of the music in a whopping three days. Narrowing down the songs to 18 tracks still meant there were too many to fit on one LP. That’s why the album became a double LP, marking the first of John’s four such studio releases.

Inspired by The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup, John wanted to record the album in Jamaica. Production there started in January 1973, but things became quickly hampered by technical challenges with the sound system and the studio piano, along with external distractions, including a professional box fight and political unrest. Work was speedily shifted to Studio d’enregistement Michel Magne at Château d’Hérouville located in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, France, where John had recorded his two previous above noted albums. The last-minute studio change apparently didn’t have a negative impact: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded in just two weeks. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the magnificent opener Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. The first part is an instrumental of music John felt he’d like to be played at his funeral – one wonders a bit in what state of mind he was! It’s followed by Love Lies Bleeding, which Songfacts describes as an angry song about a broken relationship. Had it not been fused together with Funeral, something producer Gus Dudgeon had come up with, I would have included Love Lies Bleeding in my previous post about great Elton John rockers. While due to the total length of over just 11 minutes the track initially wasn’t released as a single, it became a fan favorite and staple of John’s live set lists. It’s easy to understand why!

I could easily fill up the remaining post with just the hits the album generated: Saturday’s Night’s Alright for Fighting, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets and Candle in the Wind. The one I really cannot ignore is the title track, another contender for my all-time favorite Elton song. According to Songfacts, the yellow brick road is an image taken from the movie The Wizard of Oz, and it was rumored the ballad is about Judy Garland. But instead the song seems to be about Taupin. Songfacts: The lyrics are about giving up a life of opulence for one of simplicity in a rural setting. Elton has enjoyed a very extravagant lifestyle, while Taupin prefers to keep it low key.

Grey Seal initially was recorded for John’s eponymous sophomore studio album from April 1970, but the tune didn’t make the record. Songfacts notes Taupin has said that it’s one of the songs he wrote with lyrics he never really understood, but somehow work. As for Elton, the song is one of his favorites, as he loves the way the music matches up to the lyrics. In the tradition of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” the lyrics form a series of images that are open to translation. Elton called it “Procol Harum-ish absurd, like a Dali painting.” I love this tune and can easily see why it appealed so much to John.

Next up is Sweet Painted Lady, a deeper cut from the album. From Songfacts: Written in the style of the British composer Noël Coward, this song is about sailors back from the sea and the “sweet painted ladies” – prostitutes – waiting for them at harbor brothels.

Let’s do one more: Harmony, the album’s closer, and a track that had been considered as a single. But the timing was deemed too close to Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, the lead single to John’s follow-on album Caribou. Instead, Harmony became the B-side to the U.S. version of the Bennie and the Jets single. Songfacts notes the tune gained a fervent following, especially on the New York City radio station WOR, it won the “Battle of the Hits,” voted on by listeners, for 33 consecutive weeks.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road became Elton John’s best-selling studio album. In February 2014, it reached 8x Platinum certification in the U.S. In 2003, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s also included in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the most recent revision from September 2020, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road held up pretty well, coming in at no. 112, down from 91 in the corresponding lists for 2012 and 2003.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Venues: Hollywood Bowl

I rarely blog back-to-back in the same category, but yesterday’s post about Red Rocks Amphitheatre was so much fun that I decided to do another one. And the Hollywood Bowl certainly isn’t just any place, at least not in my book.

The first time I heard of the legendary Los Angeles entertainment venue was in connection with The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. It was one of the very first Beatles albums I got on vinyl. I must have been around 12 years at the time. I still own that copy!

Then, in 1980 as a 14-year-old, I got to visit the actual venue (though not for a concert) during a summer vacation in the U.S., which included L.A. – my first visit to this country. Also my very first time on an airplane! I still have so many vivid memories about this trip. Seeing the Bowl where The Beatles once played remains one of them.

I suppose the trip planted the seed that led me to come back years later to study in America and eventually stay here for good. My girlfriend I met during my studies, who I’m happy to call my wife for now 20-plus years, also had something to do with it! 🙂

Back to the Hollywood Bowl and a bit of history before we get to the ultimate thrill. It all started 101 years ago in 1919 when the Theatre Arts Alliance asked William Reed and his son H. Ellis Reed to find a suitable location for outdoor performances. After the Reeds found and selected the natural amphitheater because of its amazing acoustics and convenient proximity to downtown Hollywood, the Community Park and Art Association began construction of the facility.

The Bowl began as a community space rather than a privately owned venue. The first events were held there in 1921. Proceeds from the early performances were used to finance construction of new elements, such as a stage, seating and background, which were added in 1922, 1923 and 1924, respectively. Initially, the Bowl served as a venue for concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as a community space for Easter services, the Hollywood Community Chorus and younger musicians including children.

In 1926, the first band shell was constructed but it was considered unacceptable from both a visual and an acoustics standpoint. Lloyd Wright came up with the now-familiar concentric ring motif and the 120-degree arc in 1928. But his wooden construction was destroyed by water damage and replaced the following year by a shell with a transite skin over a metal frame. That structure stood until 2003 and evidently was the one I saw in 1980.

In the early ’80s an inner shell made from large cardboard tubes that had been there since the ’70s to improve the acoustics was replaced by large fiberglass spheres designed by Frank Gehry. Eventually, in 2003, the 1929 outer shell was replaced with a new, somewhat larger, acoustically improved shell. Initially, a curtain served as a backdrop until a proper back wall had been constructed, which was first revealed in 2005. I suppose that’s the structure that stands to this day.

Now on to the real fun. Those who’ve visited my blog more frequently won’t be surprised what comes next: The Rolling Stones – just kidding! I love the Stones, but the first clip must capture my favorite band of all time. And, yes, there is historic YouTube footage.

The Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl twice, in August 1964 and in August 1965. Here’s A Hard Day’s Night, the title track of the corresponding studio album, which as usually was credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. This version is from the August 23, 1964 gig, an impressive illustration of “Beatlemania.” According to The Beatles Bible, all 18,700 tickets had been sold for the show. A Hard Day’s Night was the second-to-last tune of their 12-song set.

Are you ready to set the night on fire? On July 1968, The Doors did just that. Their performance that evening was captured on Live at the Hollywood Bowl, the band’s third official live album released in May 1987. A VHS version of the concert also appeared at the time. In October 2012, the full version of the show came out on CD, LP and Blu-ray as Live at the Bowl ’68. Credited to all four members of The Doors, Light My Fire originally was included on the band’s eponymous debut album from January 1967. Man, watching this footage gives me goosebumps, especially Ray Manzarek’s extended organ solo – even though by definition it doesn’t have any vocals! 🙂

Let’s get it on with a nostalgic piece, as Elton John called it during his September 7, 1973 gig at the Hollywood Bowl: Crocodile Rock. That show was also filmed, for inclusion in a documentary by English film director Bryan Forbes, Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye Norma Jean and Other Things. Co-written by John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, Crocodile Rock was first recorded for John’s sixth studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, which came out in January 1973. Now, that’s the Elton John I dig. You also gotta love the guy behind John in the crocodile outfit playing what looks like a Vox Continental keyboard!

Before jumping to the current century, let’s go to October 2, 1991, and a gig by Sting during his Soul Cages Tour that year. The show at the Hollywood Bowl also coincided with his 40th birthday. Here’s The Soul Cages, the great title track from Sting’s third solo release that appeared in January 1991. Like all songs on the album, the tune was written by him.

Next are two clips from the current century, for which it is easier to find YouTube footage. Let’s kick it off with The Rolling Stones and what according to Setlist.fm looks like the first of two dates played at the venue in 2005: November 6. There was another show there two days later. Both concerts were part of the Bigger Bang Tour. I caught the Stones for the first time during that tour on October 1, 2005 at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa. I realize Satisfaction is the most overplayed Stones song, but unfortunately, it was the only complete clip I could find from their Bowl gig. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction became the first no. 1 for the Stones in 1965 and was also included on the American version of their fourth studio album Out of Our Heads released in July of the same year. Hey, it may be over-exposed, but it’s still one of the coolest guitar riffs in rock & roll! When watching Jagger in this footage I noticed he was still moving like this when I saw the Stones again last year – unbelievable!

The final clip I reserved for an artist who has been near and dear to me for many years. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us: Tom Petty. The following footage is from his final show with The Heartbreakers. This gig at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25, 2017 marked the triumphant finale of the band’s 40th anniversary tour. You can watch the entire concert here. I’ve done it twice and have to say it’s just amazing. For this post I’d like to highlight the final two songs of the night: You Wreck Me from Petty’s second solo album Wildflowers (November 1994) and the classic American Girl, off the November 1976 eponymous debut by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Setlist.fm; YouTube