By Tad Dickens | 777-6474
A key figure in the all-time pop culture soundtrack, singer/pianist/songwriter Elton John, will be at Roanoke Civic Center on Thursday. And that’s huge news for folks of a certain age.
After all, many of those who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s still feel the resonance in many of John’s hits. And those numbers, written with lyricist Bernie Taupin, remain the highlights of his career in my judgment.
When we found out that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, class of 1994, would not be doing interviews during his tour, we went with plan B. The idea was to select my five favorite EJ songs.
That became more difficult the longer I thought about it. At least 10 still hold up for me. But I’ve whittled it down to five and will post them on The Roanoke Times music blog, blogs.roanoke.com/cutnscratch. You’re invited to comment with your own top five.
And now, with respect to the man born Reginald Dwight, who grew up to become a knight, these are my songs — with lyrical memory refreshment and relative accuracy courtesy of eltonography.com.
1. ‘Bennie and the Jets’
(“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” 1973)
The title cut from this album might be the most beloved number on this masterwork of a double-record. But “Bennie” is the baddest.
It was definitely a rock song, but John — dressed like St. Patrick’s Day at the disco — performed it on “Soul Train,” too. Check out the performance at youtu.be/8vLlpJc9mW0. That’s crossover power.
Taupin’s lyrics, about a band with the power to inspire youthful rebellion, matched the piano-driven low boil. John sings: “Hey kids, plug into the faithless/Maybe they’re blinded/But Bennie makes them ageless/We shall survive, let us take ourselves along/Where we fight our parents out in the streets/To find who’s right and who’s wrong.”
John slides into and out of a strong falsetto as he sings “Oh Bennie she’s really keen/She’s got electric boots a mohair suit/You know I read it in a magazine,” one of his best vocal moves.
Remarkably, two of the performers common to all of these recordings — guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson — will be onstage with John at the civic center.
2. ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’
(“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” 1975)
According to Rolling Stone magazine, in its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time collection, Taupin wrote the lyrics to “Captain Fantastic” in an attempt at “a self-mythologizing album about his and John’s rise to fame.” It includes this number, one of the pop canon’s most haunting.
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was about Taupin stopping John from committing suicide with a gas oven, according to the Stone piece.
Lyrical details of despair in crazy times are all over the song, both in the chorus (“You nearly had me roped and tied/Altar-bound, hypnotized/Sweet freedom whispered in my ear”) and more directly in the second verse (I never realized the passing hours of evening showers/A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams/I’m strangled by your haunted social scene/Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen … I’m sleeping with myself tonight/Saved in time, thank God my music’s still alive”).
Combine that theme with John’s typically brilliant match of chord changes to lyrical content — plus the Beach Boys-like harmonies of Johnstone, Olsson and original John bassist Dee Murray, and you have something for the time capsule.
3. ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’
Maybe one of the most beautiful and majestic pop songs ever written from a stalker’s point of view. But John’s powerful vocals make the listener feel sympathy with this creep that Taupin has created.
“I’d just allow a fragment of your life to wander free … I can’t find, oh the right romantic line/But see me once and see the way I feel/Don’t discard me just because you think I mean you harm/But these cuts I have they need love to help them heal.”
Somebody call the cops!
4. ‘Honky Cat’
(“Honky Chateau,” 1972)
This one starts with some barroom-style piano before John’s band comes in with its funky, jazzy groove.
John shows the blues and soul vocal chops that would make his voice among pop music’s most recognizable as he spits Taupin’s lyric about a country boy exposed to the city life. “They said get back honky cat/Better get back to the woods/Well I quit those days and my redneck ways/And oh the change is gonna do me good.”
As the song moves toward the fade, the band gets all syncopated while John wails, “Get back, honky cat/Get back, honky cat/Get back — wooo!”
5. ‘Saturday Night’s All Right (For Fighting)’
(“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” 1973)
Olsson’s snare punch and Johnstone’s compressed, slashing guitar intro signal that this song, too, is going to be a tough rocker. The promise holds true through nearly five minutes of hard, barrelhouse riffing.
The anthemic chorus, “Don’t give us none of your aggravation/We had it with your discipline/Saturday night’s alright for fighting/Get a little action in,” sounds just about right for those new country guys covering classic rock hits. But here’s hoping none of them will go for it — they won’t come close to John’s gritty vocal here, using a little muscle to get what he needs.