A First Glance at Albums Hitting the Big 50 This Year

With a new year upon us, I thought this would be a good opportunity to preview albums that are turning 50 in 2023. Taking a closer look quickly confirmed my expectation that 1973 was yet another great year in music. Based on Wikipedia, I came up with an initial list of 40 records released that year. I’m going to touch on six of them. A Spotify playlist at the end features songs from those albums, as well as one tune from each of the remaining 34 records.

Pink FloydThe Dark Side of the Moon (March 1, 1973)

Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album The Dark Side of the Moon remains among my favorites by the English rock band. Released in March 1973, it was primarily developed during live performances and premiered before the recording sessions began. In fact, as reported by Variety and other music outlets, last month, Pink Floyd quietly released 18 of these concerts on streaming services before the recordings hit 50 years and would have lost copyright protection. The Dark Side of the Moon, a concept album around themes like conflict, greed, time, death and mental illness, is Floyd’s best-selling record and one of the most critically acclaimed albums in music history. Here is Time, with lyrics by Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and the music credited to all members of the band, who also included David Gilmour (guitar, vocals), Richard Wright (keyboards, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums, percussion).

Steely DanCountdown to Ecstasy (July 1973)

Steely Dan’s sophomore album Countdown to Ecstasy, released in July 1973, was recorded when they were still a standing band. In addition to masterminds Donald Fagen (acoustic and electric pianos, synthesizer, lead and backing vocals) and Walter Becker (electric bass, harmonica, backing vocals), the line-up featured Denny Dias (electric guitar), Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (electric and pedal steel guitars) and Jim Hodder (drums, percussion, backing vocals). Countdown to Ecstasy followed the departure of David Palmer and was the group’s first album where Fagen sang lead on every song. After their third record Pretzel Logic, Fagen and Becker turned Steely Dan largely into a studio project, relying on top-notch session musicians. One of my favorite tracks on Countdown to Ecstasy is My Old School, which like all other tunes was co-written by Becker and Fagen. Baxter’s guitar work shines and is among his best.

Stevie WonderInnervisions (August 3, 1973)

Innervisions, Stevie Wonder’s 16th studio album released in August 1973, is part of his so-called classic period, which spans six records, bookended by Music of My Mind (March 1972) and Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” (October 1979). Following his 21st birthday on May 13, 1971, Wonder allowed his contract with Motown to expire. He returned to the Detroit label with Music of My Mind and a much more lucrative contract that also freed him from the artistic straitjacket of the past. Wonder’s lyrics changed and started to explore social and political topics in addition to standard romantic themes. Musically, he began exploring overdubbing and recording most of the instrumental parts himself. Innervisions and the excellent Living for the City perfectly illustrate these changes.

Lynyrd Skynyrd(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) (August 13, 1973)

August 1973 also saw the release of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first album (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd). And what a debut it was, featuring classics like Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man, Tuesday’s Gone and the epic Free Bird. You wouldn’t necessarily guess it, based on the album’s relatively moderate chart performance when it came out. In the U.S., it reached no. 27 on the Billboard 200. Elsewhere, it climbed to no. 20 in Switzerland, no. 44 in the UK and no. 47 in Canada. But over time, the picture looks better. As of July 1987, it was certified 2X Platinum in the U.S. The album also made Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was ranked at no. 381 in the most recent revision from 2020. Here’s the aforementioned Free Bird, co-written by the group’s original lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins.

Elton JohnGoodbye Yellow Brick Road (October 5, 1973)

Elton John truly ruled during the first part of the ’70s. With Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a double LP and his seventh studio album, he scored his third of six consecutive chart-toppers in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. The album also topped the charts in the UK, Canada and Australia. It spawned four singles, which charted in different countries. In the U.S., Bennie and the Jets became John’s second no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, while the title track topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand. I decided to highlight the magnificent opening medley of Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. As usual, John wrote the music to lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. What an opus!

Paul McCartney and WingsBand on the Run (December 5, 1973)

The final album I’d like to call out here is what I consider the Mount Rushmore of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles period: Band on the Run, his fifth after the break-up of The Fab Four and the third with Wings. By the time recording in Lagos, Nigeria began, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough had departed. This left Wings as a trio, which in addition to McCartney included his wife Linda McCartney and Denny Laine. As such, Paul ended up playing bass, drums, percussion and most of the lead guitar parts, with Laine providing guitars and Linda keyboards. Both also sang backing and harmony vocals. After recording the majority of the album’s basic tracks and some overdubbing in Lagos under difficult conditions, Wings returned to England and finished the album in George Martin’s AIR Studios in London. After initial modest sales, Band on the Run became the top-selling studio album of 1974 in the UK. More importantly, it revitalized the critical standing of Paul McCartney whose earlier post-Beatles records had received a mixed reception. Band on the Run’s opener and title track, credited to Paul and Linda, is a longtime favorite of mine.

I’m planning dedicated posts on each of the above albums and possibly others released in 1973, timed to their respective 50th anniversaries. Last but not least, here’s the above-noted Spotify playlist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Variety; YouTube; Spotify

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

My Playlist: Rockin’ Elton

Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin primarily are known for great pop songs they wrote, especially during John’s most productive period during the first half of the ’70s. Your Song, Rocket Man, Daniel and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are some that come to mind. Occasionally, they also came up with more rock-oriented tunes. I thought it would be fun to put together a playlist focused on the latter.

Rock and Roll Madonna

Rock and Roll Madonna was released as a non-album single in Britain in June 1970. It didn’t chart. Even though the beginning and the end sound like a live recording, the audience noise was added, a technique John would use again some four years later for Bennie and the Jets, one of his various chart toppers in the U.S. and Canada during the 70s. Rock and Roll Madonna featured Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover.

Crocodile Rock

Crocodile Rock first appeared in October 1972 as the lead single for John’s sixth studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player from January 1973. The tune, which has a late ’50s and early ’60s flair, became John’s first no. 1 single in the U.S. In 1974, a lawsuit alleged John and Taupin had illegally copied the falsetto of Speedy Gonzalez, a song that been popularized by Pat Boone in 1962. The case was settled out of court.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting perhaps is my favorite rocker by Elton John. It appeared on the excellent Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, his seventh studio album from October 1973. It also was released separately in June that year as the lead single. The tune prominently features Scottish rock guitarist Davey Johnstone, a longtime collaborator who had become a full-time member of John’s band for his fifth studio album Honky Château released in May 1972.

The Bitch Is Back

Another nice rocker is The Bitch Is Back – sounds like it could be the title of Stones song. The tune was recorded for John’s eighth studio album Caribou from June 1974. It also became the record’s second single in August of the same year. Dusty Springfield sang backing vocals.

Pinball Wizard (Tommy soundtrack, March 1975)

Obviously, Pinball Wizard isn’t a John-Taupin song, but I just couldn’t leave it out. I almost like this excellent cover better than the original by The Who. When I heard John’s version for the first time, I thought this is how Pete Townshend should have written this rock gem instead of what feels like arbitrarily fading out the song at less than 3 minutes. John’s cover is part of the soundtrack for the 1975 film version of Tommy, in which he also starred, along with numerous other music artists like Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and the members of The Who.

(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket

Two months after the film version of Tommy had been released, John’s ninth studio album Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy appeared in May 1975. It features (Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket, another great rock tune.

Grow Some Funk of Your Own

The ’70s were a very productive period for John, especially the first half, during which he released nine albums. Rock of the Westies was John’s second studio record in 1975, which appeared in October that year, only five months after Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy. Here’s Grow Some Funk of Your Own, for which Davey Johnstone received a co-writing credit. The song was also released separately in January 1976 and became the album’s second single.

I’m Still Standing

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with the only track that’s not from the ’70s: I’m Still Standing, from Too Low for Zero, John’s 17th studio album that appeared in May 1983. Coming on the heels of four less successful records, especially compared to his releases during the first half of the ’70s, Too Low for Zero marked a comeback. It ended up being John’s best-selling album of the ’80s. I did like it at the time and still do. Here’s I’m Still Standing.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

It Was 35 Years Ago…

A look back on Live Aid benefit concert – Part 2

Here’s Part 2 of my mini-series recalling musical highlights from the Live Aid concert that took place on July 13, 1985. Like in the first part, the footage in this post was all captured at Wembley Stadium in London, England. The next installment is going to feature clips from John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, the second stage of the music marathon.

One of Live Aid’s definitive moments was the performance by Queen. Freddie Mercury once again vividly illustrated he was a born live performer and showman, and the rest of the band was on fire as well. Here’s We Are the Champions, the closer of Queen’s mini set. Written by Mercury, the tune combined with We Will Rock You was the lead single of the band’s sixth studio album News of the World. Both appeared in October 1977, with the single predating the album by two weeks.

It kind of must have sucked having had to follow Freddie Mercury, especially after that performance. The Who, who had reunited for Live Aid following their breakup in December 1983, proofed they were up to challenge. Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle, together with Kenny Jones and John Bundrick on drums and keyboards, respectively, were in decent shape. Here’s the mighty Townshend-penned Love, Reign O’er Me from Quadrophenia, the sixth studio album by The Who released in October 1973. And, yep, the chap announcing them is Jack Nicholson, who I guess was so excited he literally read everything from a piece of paper. 🙂

Let’s wrap up this second part with some Elton John. Bennie and the Jets, composed by John with lyrics from Bernie Taupin, first appeared on his seventh studio album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that came out in October 1973. The song was also released separately as the record’s third single in February 1974. Nice performance by John who had staged a comeback in 1983 with his great album Too Low for Zero, though seeing him without flashy glasses is unusual.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube