- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

To anyone under the age of, say, 40, Elton John today might pose the same conundrum that Elvis Presley presented to me when I was an AM-radio-addicted preteen growing up with Elton John in the ‘70s. Back then, Elvis, I understood, was as famous as an entertainer could be, a major cultural figure. I just couldn’t for the life of me see why. The Elvis I watched on TV was a bloated show-biz hack, and the few radio hits he continued to have captured this flabbiness all too accurately.

Like Elvis in the ‘70s, Mr. John’s defining work is now at least 20 years behind him. He is still commercially powerful enough to get airplay, but his songs sound ever more tepid and smudgy, the aural equivalents of a once-pristine document that has been faxed and refaxed far too many times. Knighted and securely enshrined as an “international treasure,” Sir Elton dispenses his risk-free elder statesman’s duties (singing at royal funerals, scoring Broadway-esque Disney cartoons, acknowledging encomia such as the Kennedy Center Honor he will receive Sunday night) with a haughty air of entitlement that to many observers may seem unearned.

But between the signature bookend ballads “Your Song” (1970) and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (1975), Mr. John enjoyed a record-breaking string of almost mystically pleasurable hit singles that made him the last undisputed king of top-40 AM radio.

Mr. John and his cohorts effortlessly blended elements of hard rock, bubblegum, soul, country music and timeless balladeering to unleash a six-year pop tidal wave that washed away differences of age, class, race and sexuality with a gleeful inclusiveness that would be unimaginable in today’s more rigidly segmented music industry.

Initially marketed as a “serious” singer-songwriting, Mr. John’s early albums (“Elton John,” “Tumbleweed Connection” and “Madman Across the Water”) combined sophisticated piano-pop craftsmanship (often complemented by Paul Buckmaster’s lightning-strike string arrangements) with a lilting, mock-rural airiness that was not uncommon among English records at the time. But as Mr. John picked up the pace, he shed his influences and began to zero in on his own flamboyant identity as both a composer and a performer.

With 1973’s “Honky Chateau,” he began recording with his touring band, and the sound instantly became funkier, more electric, more flexible, and the innate catchiness of the songs seemed to increase exponentially at the same time. His often-underestimated singing voice had always been soulful, wide-ranging and burnished by an unusually appealing timbre. But on this breakthrough album, Mr. John seemed to take new delight in displaying his entire arsenal, from a convincing rocker’s growl to a playful, campy falsetto.

“Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player” came next, and although Mr. John had already conquered the charts (“Honky Chateau” had spent a brief time at No. 1), this was his first indisputable smash. Complete with a gatefold cover and full-color lyrics booklet, “Don’t Shoot Me” was an exuberant Technicolor teenage fantasia of crushes, cars and dancing, spiked with just enough self-pity to go straight to the heart of its target adolescent audience.

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a double-record set, was the follow-up, and it remains Elton and company’s most towering musical achievement. From the audacious opening (the six-minute instrumental “Funeral for a Friend,” an enduring wonder of drama and dynamics) to the haunting keepsake ending (“Harmony”), this was the album on which Mr. John finally spilled all of his various musical jewels out on the carpet for the close inspection of teenagers around the world.

Of course, there was a subversive subtext to his creative generosity on “Goodbye.” In retrospect, it’s striking just how much angst this cuddly pop star (remember, he was not Mick Jagger — even moms loved Elton) had smuggled onto the bedroom stereos of so many junior high school kids. An air of world-weariness pervades the record, and as the needle spirals along, Mr. John sings about prostitution, masturbation, bootleggers, drunks, lesbians and death in several forms.

Like its predecessors, the album yielded a varied array of hit singles: the damp and disillusioned title cut; the raucous, English-lads-night-out “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”; and the improbable crossover R&B; hit “Bennie and the Jets,” which joins rave-up glitter-band lyrics with smarmy cocktail music and some of the most archly sarcastic playing and singing ever heard on record. (Listen for the canned applause and whistles after Mr. John’s piano solo.)

“Caribou” (featuring the taboo-busting No. 1 hit “The Bitch is Back”) and “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” proved to be the last albums of Mr. John’s spectacular run. An autobiographical concept album, the latter was built around the centerpiece ballad “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” which, though almost seven minutes long, transfixes listeners, expertly unfurling its scenes like a taut one-act play.

Still, there was one last diamond in the jewel box, the non-LP single “Philadelphia Freedom,” which is in many ways the apotheosis of the entire Elton John phenomenon. “Philadelphia Freedom” crams virtually everything there is to know about hit singles into its five-plus minutes. Set among spot-on Motown bass fills, crunching T-Rex guitars, psychedelic orchestral flourishes and celestial harmonies, the song’s perfectly sung bittersweet lyric triumphantly ties together the longings of our entire mosaic culture — for love, for family, for home, for work and for country — like so many brightly colored ribbons floating through the sky on an eternally sunny day.

After that, the effortless hit-making came to a screeching halt. Top-40 AM radio itself, which had been in its death throes for years, finally gave up the ghost for good as station owners across the country switched to all-talk formats. 1983’s “Too Low for Zero” saw Mr. John’s original band reunited, with new producer Chris Thomas (Pretenders, Roxy Music) at the helm. The resulting hits, including “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing,” marked the last gasp of life from what had become a sputtering machine.

By the mid-‘80s, most of Mr. John’s headlines involved drug and alcohol problems, decadent spending habits, a serious throat operation and the belated public acknowledgement of his bisexuality. Still, there was the occasional adult-oriented hit, and after a while, there emerged a new crop of pop stars, such as George Michael, who’d grown up on Mr. John’s music and weren’t shy of saying so. These kinds of associations allowed Mr. John to recast himself, especially in Britain, as a kind of national heirloom.

“The Lion King” soundtrack in 1994, along with his tireless charity work, helped solidify this new image. The new mold was permanently set with his 1997 performance of “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral. (The resulting re-release of the song originally from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” went on to become the top-selling single of all time.)

I am ashamed to admit that I laughed at fat Elvis when he died, but I didn’t know any better at the time. You may be tempted to laugh, too, when you see the rather foppish and self-important figure of Sir Elton John, with his not-quite-right hair and his grating voice, throwing one of his trademark public tantrums. But there’s a lot to be said for survivors, and even a toothless Lion King brings genuine happiness to children.

Philip Shelley is a musician and freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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