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

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Welcome to another installment of The Sunday Six. To those who follow my blog I no longer need to explain the idea behind the weekly recurring feature. For first time visitors, basically, these posts celebrate music in many different flavors from different periods of time, spanning the past 60 to 70 years or so. Ready?

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Let’s start off our little musical excursion with one of the most beautiful guitar-driven instrumentals I know: Albatross by Fleetwood Mac. This track goes all the way back to the Mac’s beginning when they were a blues rock band led by amazing British guitarist, vocalist and co-founder Peter Green who also wrote Albatross. At the time this dreamy track was released as a non-album single in November 1968, Fleetwood Mac also featured co-founders Jeremy Spencer (guitar, backing vocals), Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass), as well as Danny Kirwan (guitar, vocals) who had just joined two months earlier. In fact, it was Kirwan who helped Green complete Albatross, which was recorded without Spencer. The tune was subsequently included on the U.S. and British compilation albums English Rose (January 1969) and The Pious Bird of Good Omen (August 1969), respectively. Green’s guitar tone is just unbelievable.

Supertramp/Take the Long Way Home

The other day, I found myself listening to Breakfast in America, the sixth studio album by English prog-rock-turned-pop band Supertramp. I got it on vinyl shortly after its release in March 1979 and own that copy to this day. While I played the record over and over again at the time, it’s still in fairly good shape. It also turns out I continue to enjoy the songs – something I certainly cannot say for a good deal of other music I listened to back then as a 13-year-old in Germany. Breakfast in America, which spawned various hit singles, was hugely popular in Germany where it topped the charts, just like in many other countries in Europe and beyond. Take the Long Way Home remains one of my favorite tracks from the album. Written by the band’s co-frontman and principal songwriter Roger Hodgson, the tune also became the record’s fourth single in October 1979. BTW, you also gotta love the cover art, which won the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Recording Package.

John Prine/Angel From Montgomery

I still know very little about John Prine, who is widely viewed as one of the most influential singer-songwriters of his generation. But I’ve finally started listening to his music. According to Wikipedia, Prine has been called the “Mark Twain of songwriting.” The likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Roger Waters have called out Prine. He mentored younger artists, such as Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile and Margo Price. In fact, I first listened to at least one John Prine song a long time before I even knew his name: Bonnie Raitt’s great cover of Angel From Montgomery, which she recorded for her fourth studio album Streetlights that appeared in September 1974. Here’s the original from John Prine’s eponymous debut album released in 1971. I’m starting to like it as much as Raitt’s rendition.

Peter Frampton/Avalon

If you read my Best of What’s New installment from a week ago, you probably recall it featured a great instrumental cover of George Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity from Peter Frampton’s new album Peter Frampton Forgets the Words. Since my recent “discovery” of the all-instrumental record, I’ve enjoyed listening to it. Here’s another beautiful track that’s perfect for a Sunday morning: Avalon, the title song of the eighth and final studio album by English outfit Roxy Music, released in May 1982. Written by frontman Bryan Ferry, the tune also became the album’s second single in June 1982. I was a bit surprised to see it “only” reached no. 13 in England, while it didn’t chart at all in the U.S. – unlike the record that topped the charts in the UK and climbed to no. 53 in the U.S. and became Roxy Music’s best-selling album. In 1983, Ferry dissolved the band to focus on his solo career. In 2001, Roxy Music reformed for a 30th anniversary tour and was active on and off until they disbanded for good in 2011. Check out this great clip of Frampton and his band. Not only does he sound great, but you can clearly see how he and his fellow musicians enjoyed recording the tune. I don’t think you can fake this!

Traffic/Dear Mr. Fantasy

Time for some more ’60s music, don’t you agree? While I hate traffic when I’m in my car, I love it when it refers to the British rock band. Undoubtedly, much of my affection has to do with Steve Winwood, one of my long-time favorite artists. I get excited to this day when I hear the man sing and play his growling Hammond B-3. But amid all my love for Winwood, let’s not ignore excellent fellow musicians Jim Capaldi (drums, vocals), Dave Mason (guitar, bass, multiple other instruments, vocals) and Chris Wood (flute, saxophone, Hammond, percussion, vocals), who founded Traffic with Winwood in April 1967. It’s quite amazing that at that time, 18-year-old Winwood already had had a successful four-year career under his belly with The Spencer Davis Group. Dear Mr. Fantasy, co-written by Capaldi, Winwood and Wood, is from Traffic’s debut album Mr. Fantasy released in December 1967. When I saw Winwood live in March 2018, he played guitar on that tune, demonstrating his impressive fretboard chops.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

For the last tune in this Sunday Six installment, let’s have a true rock and soul party. In this context, I can’t think of anything better than this live clip of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, captured in June 2000 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden at the end of the band’s triumphant 1999-2000 reunion tour. In this 19-minute-plus version of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the Boss is literally taking his audience to rock & soul church. Yes, it’s long and perhaps somewhat over the top, but I believe Springsteen was authentic when at some point he noted, “I’m not bull-shittin’ back here.” Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, written by Springsteen and first appearing on his legendary breakthrough album Born to Run from August 1975, tells the story about the band’s formation. Watching this amazing footage, I get a bit emotional when seeing the big man Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, who sadly passed away in 2011 and 2008, respectively. Though at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful celebration of their lives. If you haven’t seen this, I encourage you to watch it. And even if it’s not your first time, it’s worthwhile watching again. Live music doesn’t get much better!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Welcome to the second installment of this feature, which I spontaneously launched last Sunday. Now I guess I gotta keep feeding the bear! 🙂 The good news is in music the possibilities are endless. With that being said, let’s start it nice and easy, before we finish it nice and rough!

Donald Fagen/I.G.Y.

I’d like to kick things off with some smooth pop jazz from the great Donald Fagen, who together with Walter Becker was the mastermind behind one of my favorite music acts of all time, Steely Dan. I.G.Y., which stands for International Geophysical Year, is the opener to Fagen’s solo debut album The Nightfly. Released in October 1982, it remains my favorite Fagen solo effort. I.G.Y., which ran from  July 1957 to December 1958, was a global project to promote collaboration among the world’s scientists. The tune, written by Fagen, also became The Nightfly’s lead single in September 1982.

Paul Simon/Train in the Distance

For some reason, that Paul Simon song randomly popped into my head the other day, so what could be a better selection for this feature? Of course, this may pose the question what’s going to happen when something like Itsy Bitsy Spider suddenly comes to my mind – well, I guess we have to wait and see. As for Train in the Distance, I’ve always dug this tune. Simon wrote and recorded it for his sixth solo album Hearts and Bones from November 1983. Interestingly, the track wasn’t released as a single…Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true/Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true…Love the soothing sound of that song and the great image of the sound of a distant train.

Sade/Smooth Operator

Let’s do another smoothie – after all, it’s Sunday morning! Smooth Operator was the first Sade tune I recall hearing on the radio in Germany back in the ’80s. It’s on the British songwriter and vocalist’s smash debut album Diamond Life from July 1984. Sade, also professionally known as Sade Adu, began her career as a model before becoming a backing vocalist in a British band called Pride. Subsequently, she and three other members of the band, Paul Anthony Cook, Paul Denman and Stuart Matthewman, left to form a group named after her, Sade. Co-written by Ray St. John, another member of Pride, and Sade, Smooth Operator also appeared separately as a single in September 1984 and became a major international hit. Yes, the tune about a con man and pimp sounds like gentleman club music. I still love Sade’s soulful singing and the smooth jazzy sound.

World Party/Ship of Fools

My dear long-time music friend from Germany reminded me of this great tune yesterday, which is a perfect fit to our crazy times. Ship of Fools was the debut single by World Party, released in January 1987. World Party was the name of a music solo project by Welsh multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and record producer Karl Wallinger. He started it in 1986 after his departure as keyboarder of The Waterboys. Ship of Fools, written by Wallinger, was also included on World Party’s 1986 debut album Private Revolution. Wallinger’s love of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and other ’60s music is quite evident, both sonically and visually. In fact, the vocals on Ship of Fools at times remind a bit of Mick Jagger. In 2001, Wallinger was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, which required surgery and put his music career to a near-full stop for five years. He was able to resume touring in 2006, though no additional World Party albums have appeared since Wallinger’s dangerous health episode. Based on World Party’s website, the project appears to have been on hiatus since 2015. No idea what Wallinger is doing these days.

Leon Russell/Crystal Closet Queen

Let’s get it going with some great rock & roll from Leon Russell. When my streaming music provider recently served up Crystal Closet Queen as a listening suggestion, I decided right away to feature this tune in my next Sunday Six installment. Why? Coz I can! Plus, that’s the beauty of a feature about random songs. Composed by Russell, the tune is from his second solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People, which came out in May 1971. This really cooks!

The Spencer Davis Group/Gimme Some Lovin’

To wrap up this collection, what’s even better than a rocker like Crystal Closet Queen? Yep, you guessed it correctly – more rock! I’ve always loved this gem by The Spencer Davis Group. When then-18-year-old Steve Winwood hits and holds those keys of his mighty Hammond B3, it still sends chills through my spine, not to mention his amazing soulful voice! Co-written by Winwood, Spencer Davis and Steve’s older brother Muff Winwood, Gimme Some Lovin’ appeared as a non-album single in October 1966 and became one of the band’s biggest hits. The title is also a good motto we should all embrace, especially these days.

Sources: Wikipedia; World Party website; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: April 14

I can’t believe almost three months have passed since my last installment in this long-running recurring feature. For some reason, at times, I need to convince myself to start digging through music history for a specific date yet again, though once I do so, I’m usually intrigued with what comes up. Of course, there are occasions where what I find only mildly excites me. When that happens, I tend to refrain from writing a post.  Anyway, April 14 turned out to be an interesting date.

1945: Richard Hugh Blackmore, better known as Ritchie Blackmore, was born in the southwestern English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. This means the guitarist and songwriter is turning 73 years old today. Blackmore is best known as one of the founding members of Deep Purple, which is still my favorite hard rock band to this day. Yes, there are other great hard rock bands, first and foremost Led Zeppelin, but if I had to choose one, it would still be Deep Purple. Blackmore also founded Rainbow in 1975 and revived the band as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in 2015. In 1997, he kissed rock music goodbye and established Blackmore’s Night, a British-American traditional folk-rock band with then-girlfriend Candice Night, who became his wife in 2008 – I suppose he carefully listened to what many parents tell their kids about getting engaged or married: Don’t rush it! 🙂 In 2016, Blackmore was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Deep Purple. Here’s Blackmore in action with a cool high-speed guitar solo: Highway Star, from my favorite 1972 Deep Purple album Machine Head. Happy birthday!

1963: The Beatles saw The Rolling Stones perform for the first time at The Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, a suburban town in southwest London. “They were still on the club scene, stomping about, doing R&B tunes,” recalled George Harrison, according to The Beatles Bible. “The music they were playing was more like we’d been doing before we’d got out of our leather suits to try and get onto record labels and television.” Added Paul McCartney: “Mick tells the tale of seeing us there with long suede coats that we’d picked up in Hamburg, coats that no one could get in England. He thought, ‘Right – I want to be in the music business; I want one of those coats.'” And what did Ringo Starr have to say? “I knew then that the Stones were great. They just had presence. And, of course, we could tell – we’d had five weeks in the business; we knew all about it!” Last but not least, here’s some of John Lennon’s recollection: “They [The Stones] were run by a different guy then, Giorgio Gomelsky. When we started hanging around London, the Stones were up and coming in the clubs, and we knew Giorgio through Epstein. We went down and saw them and became good friends.”

Rolling Stones At Crawdaddy Club 1963
The Rolling Stones at the Crawdaddy Club, April 14, 1963

1966: The Spencer Davis Group was on top of the U.K. Singles Chart with Somebody Help Me, scoring their second no. 1 single in the U.K. Like their first chart-topper Keep On Running, the tune was written by Jackie Edwards, a Jamaican musician and songwriter. The song was also included on the band’s third studio album Autumn ’66 released in August 1966. If my math is correct, Steve Winwood, who sang lead and played keyboards, was all of 17 years when they recorded the single. He was still known as Stevie Winwood at the time – what an amazing talent!

1967: The Bee Gees released their debut single in the U.S., New York Mining Disaster 1941. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, it became the band’s first international single release and their first song to chart in the U.S. and the U.K., peaking at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 12 on the U.K. Singles Chart, respectively. When the tune was released, there were rumors the Bee Gees actually were The Beatles recording under a pseudonym. “If you sounded like the Beatles and also could write a hit single, then the hype of the machine would go into action, and your company would make sure people thought you sounded like the Beatles or thought you were the Beatles,” recalled Barry Gibb, according to the 2012 biography The Bee Gees – Tales of the Brothers Gibb, by Hector Cook, Melinda Bilyeu and Andrew Mon Hughes. “And that sold you, attracted attention to you. It was good for us because everyone thought it was the Beatles under a different name.” While it’s safe to assume opinions about the Bee Gees are divided among readers of the blog, I’ve actually always thought they were pretty talented vocalists and songwriters.

1972: David Bowie released Starman as a single in the U.K., which became his second major hit there since Space Oddity from July 1969, peaking at no. 10 on the singles chart. In the U.S., the single performed more moderately, reaching no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Bowie, the tune was a late addition to his fifth and, in my opinion, best studio album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars released in June 1972. It also happens to be one of my favorite Bowie tunes.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, This Day In Rock, The Beatles Bible, YouTube