Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

It’s Wednesday and I hope this week has been kind to you. Time to take another look at a song I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. My pick for this installment is I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John. A search of the blog for this tune came up empty – hard to believe, given I’ve loved this tune since 1983 when I first heard it, and it remains one of my favorite ’80s pop songs.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues was composed by John and his longtime guitarist and collaborator Davey Johnstone. The lyrics were provided by Bernie Taupin, who first became John’s lyricist in 1967 and for the album resumed his full-time partnership with John, which had been paused in 1977 and had only partially been restored since the early ’80s. And, yes, that beautiful harmonica was played by the great Stevie Wonder. The song first appeared in April 1983 as the lead single for Too Low for Zero, the 17th studio album by the English music artist.

Following three non-charting singles in 1982, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues marked John’s return to the international charts. In the U.S., it climbed to no. 2 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and no. 4 on the Hot 100. In his home country, the tune peaked at no. 5, the same as in Ireland. It also made the top 30 in various other European countries, including Switzerland (no. 12), Belgium (14) and Germany (no. 22). Elsewhere, it reached no. 4 in Australia, no. 12 in New Zealand and no. 9 in Canada.

Too Low for Zero also did well, marking a comeback for John, whose previous four albums had failed to yield many enduring international hit singles and had disappointing sales. In each New Zealand and Australia, the album climbed to no. 2. In Europe, it was most successful in Germany (no. 5) and Norway (no. 6). In the UK and the U.S. it reached no. 7 and no. 25, respectively. Too Low for Zero became one of John’s best-selling records in the ’80s, especially in Australia where it was certified 5x Platinum. In England, Canada and the U.S., it earned Platinum status.

The above original music video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, an Australian film director who also directed 19 other videos for John. Filmed in the Rivoli Ballroom in London and at Colchester Garrison Barracks, Essex, the video tells the tale of two 1950s-era lovers. They get separated when the man needs to leave for National Service in the armed forces. After going through trials and tribulations there, he is finally reunited with his girl.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues became a fan favorite and a staple of John’s concerts. Later, he also performed the tune live with Mary J. Blige and separately with Luciano Pavarotti. Here’s a clip of John and Blige captured at New York’s Madison Square Garden in October 2000.

Following are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:

Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote this song as a love letter to his wife at the time, Toni Russo, who is the sister of the actress Rene Russo. In the album credits, Bernie wrote, “Hey Toni, this one’s for you.”

Discussing the meaning of the song, Bernie Taupin said: “I wrote this in Montserrat, an island that, tragically, no longer exists. [Devastating volcanic eruptions in 1995 left the entire southern half of the Caribbean island uninhabitable – CMM] Basically, it’s a letter home with a small tip included about making the most of time, not wishing it away just because you can’t be with the one you love. Time is precious; read books, paint a picture, bake a cake. Just don’t wallow, don’t be content.”

Too Low for Zero was the first Elton John album since Blue Moves in 1976 with Bernie Taupin as the exclusive lyricist. During their time apart, each had success working with other artists. Taupin collaborated with Alice Cooper, and Elton turned to Gary Osbourne for lyrics.

This song contains one of the few lyrics that Bernie Taupin regrets. He said: “The whole ‘loving you more than I love life itself’ is something I would never say now. It’s kind of a crass sentiment and totally false. It’s quite another thing to love someone deeply with your whole heart without stooping to this kind of lie. I loathe giving songwriting advice, but were I pushed, I’d say, ‘Never say you love someone more than life or that you’d die for someone in a song.’ It’s just such a disservice to your own spirit. I’d like to think that I’d lay down my life for my children, but until you’re faced with the reality, it’s kind of a moot point. Rambling, I know, but relative nonetheless.”

The Too Low For Zero album has special meaning for Elton, as it reunited him with Taupin and is also where he met his first spouse, Renate Blauel, who was an engineer on the sessions. Elton cites this song as his favorite from the set, telling Rolling Stone, “It’s just a great song to sing. It’s timeless.”

The album also reunited John with the core of his backing band of the early ’70s: Johnstone (guitar, backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass, backing vocals), and Nigel Olsson (drums, backing vocals). Perhaps that explains at least in part the album’s great sound!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

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Elton John’s Honky Château at 50 Remains a Classic

While I know a good number of Elton John songs from throughout his 50-plus-year recording career, I cannot make that claim when it comes to his 30 studio albums. So why pick Honky Château to highlight in a post? Well, to start with, it includes Rocket Man, one of my all-time favorite tunes by John. I’ve also always dug Honky Cat. But the main reason for writing about Honky Château again today is the album’s 50th anniversary, another 1972 classic to hit the big milestone.*

Released on May 19, 1972, and named after Château d’Hérouville, an 18th-century French castle where it was recorded, Elton John’s fifth studio album is a gem that definitely has more to offer than the above-noted tunes. Moreover, it’s a significant album in his recording career. Honky Château became John’s first of seven consecutive no. 1 records in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. It also performed very well elsewhere: No. 2 in the UK, no. 3 in Canada and no. 4 in Australia, to name a few countries where it charted. John truly ruled during the first half of the ’70s!

Honky Château also marked the first record to feature core members of John’s road band: David Johnstone (acoustic and electric guitars, steel guitar, mandolin, backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums). Murray and Olsson had joined John’s touring band from The Spencer Davis Group. Johnstone, a session musician, had first played with John on predecessor Madman Across the Water from November 1971. He pretty much has been with John ever since. Johnstone, Murray and Olsson became instrumental in shaping Elton John’s sound during the ’70s.

Let’s get to some music, and what better way to start than with the opener  Honky Cat. Like all other songs on the record, the music was composed by John with lyrics from his long-time partner in crime Bernie Taupin. I always liked the tune’s New Orleans vibe. The brass section, which was arranged by producer Gus Dudgeon, featured Jacques Bolognesi  (trombone), Ivan Jullien (trumpet), as well as saxophonists Jean-Louis Chautemps and Alain HatotHonky Cat also appeared separately as the album’s second single in July 1972, backed by Slave.

I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself has some of Honky Cat’s New Orleans vibe as well. According to Songfacts, John said the song about a moody teenager’s suicide thoughts isn’t to be taken too seriously. I’m not sure a tune like this could be released today without causing controversy. Of course, the times they are a-changin’, and you could make the same observation for other ’70s tunes. The tap-dancing routine was performed by “Legs” Larry Smith, the former drummer of the comedy satirical rock group the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Smith was friends with George Harrison who would include a tribute song about him, His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen), on his 1975 studio album Extra Texture (Read All About It).

Closing out Side 1 is the majestic Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), as it’s officially titled. Not surprisingly, the tale about a Mars-bound astronaut’s mixed feelings about leaving his family behind to carry out his mission became the album’s big hit. Separately released as the lead single in April 1972, backed by Susie (Dramas), it rose all the way to no. 2 in the UK and reached no. 6 in the U.S. Rocket Man also was a hit in various other countries, including Canada (no. 8), Germany (no. 18), Ireland (no. 6) and New Zealand (no. 11). It truly is a timeless classic!

Side 2 opens with Salvation. There isn’t much to say about this tune other than it’s the kind of ballad John excelled at in the ’70s, in my view.

Amy is another nice tune on Side 2. The song about young lust has a great groove. It features French jazz violinist and composer Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Honky Château’s closer Hercules. Initial plans to make Hercules the album’s third single did not materialize. While I haven’t read this anywhere, I’m wondering whether there may have been concerns it could have interfered with Crocodile Rock. One of John’s biggest hits, it was released in October 1972 as the lead single for his next studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.

Here’s a Spotify link to the entire album.

Honky Château was generally well received by music critics at the time and is regarded as one of Elton John’s best albums. In October 1995, the record was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America  (RIAA), meaning it had reached certified sales of one million units.

In 2003, Honky Château was ranked at no. 357 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, a position that remained nearly unchanged (no. 359) in the 2012 list. Interestingly, the album moved up by more than 100 spots to no. 251 in the list’s most recent revision from September 2020.

* This post was originally published on May 31, 2021. It has been slightly updated.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

What I’ve Been Listening to: Elton John/Honky Château

While I know a good number of Elton John songs from throughout his 50-plus-year recording career, I cannot make that claim when it comes to his 30 studio albums. So why pick Honky Château to highlight in a post? Well, to start with, it includes Rocket Man, one of my all-time favorite tunes by John. I’ve also always dug Honky Cat. But the main reason for writing about Honky Château now is that I recently grabbed a used vinyl copy of the album at a small vintage record store close to my house. The cover is captured in the images I used to illustrate the post.

Released in May 1972 and named after Château d’Hérouville, an 18th century French castle where it was recorded, Elton John’s fifth studio album is a gem that definitely has more to offer than the above noted tunes. It also is a significant album in his recording career. Honky Château became John’s first of seven consecutive no. 1 records in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. It also performed very well elsewhere: No. 2 in the UK, no. 3 in Canada and no. 4 in Australia, to name a few countries where it charted. John truly ruled during the first half of the ’70s!

Honky Château also marked the first record to feature core members of John’s road band: David Johnstone (acoustic and electric guitars, steel guitar, mandolin, backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums). Murray and Olsson had joined John’s touring band from The Spencer Davis Group. Johnstone, a session musician, had first played with John on predecessor Madman Across the Water from November 1971. He pretty much has been with John ever since. Johnstone, Murray and Olsson became instrumental in shaping Elton John’s sound during the ’70s.

Let’s get to some music, and what better way than to start than with the opener Honky Cat. Like all other songs on the record, the music was composed by John with lyrics from his long-time partner in crime Bernie Taupin. I always liked the tune’s New Orleans vibe. The brass section, which was arranged by producer Gus Dudgeon, featured Jacques Bolognesi (trombone), Ivan Jullien (trumpet), as well as saxophonists Jean-Louis Chautemps and Alain Hatot. Honky Cat also appeared separately as the album’s second single in July 1972, backed by Slave.

I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself has some of Honky Cat’s New Orleans vibe as well. According to Songfacts, John said the song about a moody teenager’s suicide thoughts isn’t to be taken too seriously. I’m not sure a tune like this could be released today without causing controversy. Of course, the times they are a-changin’, and you could make the same observation for other ’70s tunes. The tap dancing routine was performed by “Legs” Larry Smith, the former drummer of the comedy satirical rock group the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Smith was friends with George Harrison who would include a tribute song about him, His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen), on his 1975 studio album Extra Texture (Read All About It).

Closing out Side 1 is the majestic Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), as it’s officially titled. Not surprisingly, the tale about a Mars-bound astronaut’s mixed feelings leaving his family behind to carry out his mission became the album’s big hit. Separately released as the lead single in April 1972, backed by Susie (Dramas), it rose all the way to no. 2 in the UK and reached no. 6 in the U.S. Rocket Man also was a hit in various other countries, including Canada (no. 8), Germany (no. 18), Ireland (no. 6) and New Zealand (no. 11). It truly is a timeless classic!

Side 2 opens with Salvation. There isn’t much to say about this tune other than it’s the kind of ballad John excelled at in the ’70s, in my view.

Amy is another nice tune on Side 2. The song about young lust has a great groove. It features French jazz violinist and composer Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Honky Château’s closer Hercules. Initial plans to make Hercules the album’s third single did not materialize. While I haven’t read this anywhere, I’m wondering whether there may have been concerns it could have interfered with Crocodile Rock. One of John’s biggest hits, it was released in October 1972 as the lead single for his next studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.

Honky Château is regarded as one of Elton John’s best albums. It was generally well received by music critics. In October 1995, the album was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), meaning it had reached certified sales of one million units.

In 2003, Honky Château was ranked at no. 357 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, a position that remained nearly unchanged (no. 359) in the 2012 list. Interestingly, the album moved up by more than 100 spots to no. 251 in the list’s most recent revision from September 2020.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube