#136: Elton John, "Greatest Hits" (1974)

136 Elton Greatest Hits.jpg

I struggled to find what words I would say about Elton John. He is one of the most famous musicians in the world. I always picture him in London laughing over tea with the Queen during the day, and purchasing more sequins suits at night. Maybe somewhere in the middle he’ll be with the entire cast of Love Actually at a fancy restaurant with a piano and the entire crowd claps and encourages him to “do please play us something!” Who am I, a mere peasant millennial, to write about him? His music has surrounded me my entire lifeon the radio in the car, on a movie soundtrack, at the top of someone’s lungs at karaoke. It has allowed me to freely and mindlessly sing along to his popular songs- particularly his greatest hits.

It’s rather amazing that he came out with a greatest hits album four years into his career. He’d already had enough top hits to make him an icon before he turned 30. Most bands don’t even think to make a greatest hits album until they realize they’re fresh out of ideas and need a filler before their next album. But not Elton. The songs on his Greatest Hits had come out only four years before, and yet it still was a top selling record. On the cover he even managed to pull off an all-white suit complete with an oversized hat and sunglasses topped off with a matching cane, a combination that would make anyone else look like they were selling timeshares in Florida.

Elton John and his big name may have been too intimidating to write about, but I can surely talk about how much his music moves me. Where did these lyrics about little resources, getting back to simpler times, and nostalgia come from? The truth is his greatest hits album would not exist without songwriter and poet Bernie Taupin.

Bernie Taupin was raised on multiple farms in England, many times without power, and dropped out of school when he was 15. He spent the rest of his teen years traveling, partying, and picking up odd part-time jobs along the way. When he was 17, his poems caught the eye of 20-year-old Elton John, who, as musically talented as he was, admitted to not being able to write his own songs.

I can’t say I have any strong opinions on Elton John or Bernie Taupin, but I can describe how emotionally grabbing their early music is. I think it’s because of how personal Taupin’s lyrics were. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was influenced by Taupin’s desire to get back to his roots. He used the story from The Wizard of Oz as a metaphor to get back to simpler times after being immersed in life’s fantasies (I should have stayed on the farm / I should have listened to my old man). He wrote “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” after looking back at his rebellious teenage days in which he’d get into fights at his local bars (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). “Border Song” is about the isolation and alienation Taupin felt when he moved to London to work with Elton John, and his desire to visit home as much as possible (Now the wind has changed direction and I'll have to leave / Won't you please excuse my frankness but it's not my cup of tea).

What makes these songs so unique is Taupin’s ability to tell stories in his writing. The first track on this album, and Elton John’s first ever top hit, “Your Song,” is more than a song by Elton John: it’s a beautiful story about a humble man in love. It’s someone who is passionate yet gentle; who is blurting out their love but doesn’t always know the right words to say. They have very little resources but still to give their love the whole world. It’s also someone who might not be able to fully articulate how they feel, but who desperately wants to communicate their feelings. Elton John probably hasn’t related to this narrative in like 60 years, his mind filled with poetry and his wallet full of diamonds, but I deeply connect to this song. It always stops time for me. If I had to teach a new species about love, I’d pull out this little number.

Taupin’s lyrical themes about simpler times seems to follow him throughout his successful career. He went on to co-write Starship’s 1985 hit (and arguable disaster) “We Built this City,” in which the singers wanted to write a song that reminded music industry greed monsters about the importance of the music, not just money (Who counts the money underneath the bar / Who writes the wrecking ball in two wild guitars / Don’t tell us you need us / ’Cause we’re just simple fools / Looking for America / Coming through your schools. Bernie wanted to branch out and write for more artists than just Elton John at this point; and this was during a time that clubs in LA were getting shut down and live acts had no place to perform, so it must have been fairly easy for him to come up with great lyrics. But when a big-time pop record producer got his dirty paws on the demo, it became an unrecognizable, futuristic mess. If there’s ever a biopic about Bernie, I hope this is the point where he leaves the record producer’s home and runs in the pouring rain to find the first love he should have never left in the first place, Sir Elton.

Without Taupin, I’m sure Elton John would still have the lavish, sequins-filled life he lives now. He is undoubtedly an extremely talented musician, after all. But luckily he found out early in his life that he could take Taupin’s lyrics and turn them into beautiful music. These two found each other completely by chance when neither of them were even old enough to drink yet, but their understanding of each other’s talents has allowed them to collaborate for years and continue to do so.

—Jenn Montooth