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

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Another Sunday morning means it’s time for another selection of six tunes that don’t reflect any overarching theme. Pretty much anything is fair game as long as I like it. In general, I also aim to make these posts a bit eclectic. This installment includes beautiful new age style harp music (a first!), soulful blues, country rock, pop, pop rock and edgy garage rock.

Andreas Vollenweider/Behind the Gardens, Behind the Wall, Under the Tree…

Andreas Vollenweider is a harpist from Zurich, Switzerland. His instrument is no ordinary harp but an electro-acoustic harp he created. A New York Times article from October 1984 characterized his music as “swirling atmospheric”, evoking “nature, magic and fairy tales.” This story appeared ahead of Vollenweider’s U.S. tour debut at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in October of the same year. According to Wikipedia, he was introduced by Carly Simon who had come across his music the previous year. Vollenweider ended up collaborating with Simon 10 years later on his first album to include vocals. He also has worked with Luciano Pavarotti, Bryan Adams and Bobby McFerrin, among others. Behind the Gardens, Behind the Wall, Under the Tree… is the title track of Vollenweider’s second studio album from 1981. To date, he has released 13 additional albums. Until the other day when I randomly remembered his name, I had completely forgotten about Vollenweider and his beautiful and relaxing music. It’s perfect to kick off a Sunday morning.

Chicken Shack/I’d Rather Go Blind

My dear longtime friend and music connoisseur from Germany pointed me to this beautiful song recently. Coincidentally, around the same time, Music Enthusiast mentioned the band Chicken Shack in an installment of his previous four-part series about Fleetwood Mac’s middle period. So what’s the connection between Chicken Shack and the Mac you might ask? Christine Perfect (later Christine McVie) who sang lead and played keyboards in Chicken Shack before recording her eponymous solo album Christine Perfect and joining Fleetwood Mac in late 1970. Chicken Shack released I’d Rather Go Blind as a single in 1969, scoring a no. 14 on the British charts. Written by Ellington Jordan, the tune was first recorded by Etta James in 1967 and appeared on her seventh studio album Tell Mama from February 1968. Perfect’s vocals on Chicken Shack’s cover are – well – just perfect! BTW, Chicken Shack are still around, with the current lineup including founding member Stan Webb (guitar, vocals).

Blue Rodeo/Hasn’t Hit Me Yet

Canadian country rock band Blue Rodeo were founded in 1984 in Toronto. They were formed by high school friends Jim Cuddy (vocals, guitar) and Greg Keelor (vocals, guitar), who had played together in various bands before, and Bob Wiseman (keyboards). Cleave Anderson (drums) and Bazil Donovan (bass) completed the band’s initial lineup. After gaining a local following in Toronto and signing with Canadian independent record label Risque Disque, the group released their debut album Outskirts in March 1987. They have since released 14 additional studio albums, the most recent of which, 1000 Arms, came out in October 2016. Blue Rodeo have enjoyed significant success in Canada. Hasn’t Hit Me Yet was co-written by Keelor and Cuddy who together with Donovan are part of Blue Rodeo’s current lineup. The tune is included on the band’s fifth studio album Five Days in July from October 1993, their best-selling record in Canada to date.

Bruce Hornsby & The Range/The Way It Is

The debut album by American singer-songwriter and pianist Bruce Hornsby with his backing band The Range quickly became one of my favorites when it came out in September 1986. After I hadn’t touched it in many years, I listened to it again about a week ago – turns out I still like it. Hornsby went on to record two additional albums with The Range. His fourth studio album Harbor Lights from April 1993 was the first solely credited to him. Four additional solo albums and four albums with his touring band The Noisemakers have since come out. Hornsby also was a touring member of the Grateful Dead in the early ’90s and has collaborated with numerous other artists. After his first two albums with The Range, Hornsby had dropped off my radar screen. Here’s the title track of his debut. Both the album and the tune enjoyed major international chart success. Not hard to understand way – it’s pretty catchy pop.

Rainbirds/Blueprint

For some reason, the above Chicken Shack tune trigged my memory of German pop rock band Rainbirds. Other than the fact that both tunes feature female vocalists, they really don’t have anything in common – funny how the brain sometimes works! The group around singer-songwriter Katharina Franck, which was formed in Berlin in 1986 and named after a Tom Waits instrumental, enjoyed significant success in Germany with their first two albums. After the band dissolved in 1999 and Franck pursued a solo career, Franck reformed the group in 2013 with a new lineup. Another album appeared the following year. While Rainbirds haven’t released new music since, the group still appears to exist. Blueprint, co-written by Franck (guitar, vocals) and fellow band members Michael Beckmann (bass) and Wolfgang Glum (drums), is from Rainbirds’ eponymous debut album released in January 1987.

The Kinks/All Day and All of the Night

I felt this Sunday Six needed a dose of real rock. The Kinks and All Day and All of the Night looked like a great choice. I love the raw sound, which is very much reminiscent of You Really Got Me, the band’s third single from August 1964 and their first no. 1 in the UK. Written by Ray Davies, All Day and All of the Night came out in October of the same year. It almost matched the success of You Really Got Me, climbing to no. 2 on the British charts. In the U.S., both tunes peaked at no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Oh, get ’em hard!

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; YouTube