Elton John – Honky Chateau

by Ryan Martin

There are few artists whose careers are so transcendent of stardom that they become a new thing entirely. Their work is immortalized and held to another worldly standard. Typically prolific in their songwriting, a Superstar can churn out album after album – each magnificent in its construction – to sate the incredibly popular demand for their music. Elton John is one such Superstar. Transcendence into superstardom, like any great legend, requires a beginning. Elton John’s true beginning comes with the release of his fifth studio album, Honkey Chateau, released May 19, 1972, in the UK by the label DJM Records and in the US by Uni Records, which launches a long, seven album streak of number one albums on the American charts as referenced by The Elton John Biography: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One can read more on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame database found here: https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/elton-john

In the early 70’s, popular music was dominated by pop and rock artists like the Jackson 5, the Osmonds, and Queen, as well as solo singer songwriters that fell into this category including Paul Simon, Don McLean, and John Denver. Soft rock could be defined as combining the sensibilities of rock and roll with a higher emphasis on acoustic instrumentation rather than electric. It became increasingly harder to define the line between the hard rock and soft rock of the 60’s at the beginning of the decade.  Elton John, with the release of Honkey Chateau in 1972, came to define the soft rock movement, and according to Joel Whiteburn’s “Top Pop Singles: 1955-2006,” Elton John was the most successful artist of the decade.

One could say Elton John was born with talent for his craft. On the March 25, 1947,  Elton John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight. At a young age, only 3 years old, Dwight began playing the piano. According to both Philip Norman’s biography, Elton John, and His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John by Elizabeth Rosenthal, within a year, Dwight’s mother Sheila Eileen heard her son picking apart “The Skater’s Waltz,” by Winfred Atwell by ear. To play by ear, especially at such a young age, requires an innate knack for melody – and this intrinsic talent would remain with young Reginald Dwight as he grew into an artist.

After winning a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at age 11, Dwight began to professionally hone his craft. According to an instructor’s account in Rosenthal’s book, Dwight could, after a single listening to a four-page piece by Handel for the first time, play the song by ear “like a gramophone record.” This just goes to show Elton John’s mastery of melody, because anyone who’s listened to Handel would realize that his work is incredibly complex.

From 1962 to 1967, Reginald Dwight played in a band, Bluesology, that he had formed with friends, and by the mid 60’s, they were touring with American soul and R&B bands like the Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. But, according to an article at AllMusic, written by Bruce Edder (See: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/bluesology-mn0001598971), Dwight became disinterested in the project in 1967 and Bluesology dissolved.

After Bluesology was disbanded, Dwight answered an advertisement in a British music magazine, New Musical Express, by the A&R manager for Liberty Records, Ray Williams, as referenced by the article 30 Years of Music: Elton John with Bernie Taupin, written by Jim Bessman. Williams paired Dwight with Taupin, who had answered the same advert – and the two became a songwriting powerhouse. According to the Elton John Sundance documentary, Spectacle, directed by Dave Russel, as homage to his original band, Bluesology, Dwight then changed his name to Elton John in reference to band members, Elton Dean and Long John Baldry. John and Taupin began making records immediately.

As a pair, John and Taupin recorded four studio albums in quick succession, each with greater success – but it wasn’t until their fifth studio album, Honky Chateau, that they finally had a No. 1 album in the United States. This album is important within Elton John’s discography because not only is it the beginning of his superstar seven album streak, it also marks a transition from a singer-songwriter style to an album with more blues rock roots, which would go on to define Elton John’s style and  eventually go on to influence, according to the directory the Music Bloodline (found:http://musicbloodline.info) the likes of Billy Joel, Rufus Wainwright, and George Michael.

The album was lauded by both listeners and critics. Not only did it achieve the number one slot in the US album chart, it reached No. 2 in Elton John’s home country of the UK. Honky Chateau is certified platinum in sales.

Rolling Stone magazine gives the album full marks, five stars, and comments on the change of production style in an article written by John Landau:

No Elton John album has ever sounded looser; the bogus over-production that marred both of the earlier releases at crucial moments is never in evidence, and the album sounds more intimate and personal than either of its immediate predecessors (Tumbleweed Connection [1970] and Madman Across the Water [1971]). John and associates are obvious creatures of the studio and so shy away from nothing in terms of technique — there is plenty of vocal double tracking, but their use of it is more natural than ever before.

Just as Landau stated, the album has a loose, fun feel to it. The first track, “Honkey Cat”, exemplifies the new, loose rock and roll influenced style. John sings “Change is gonna do me good,” over a swinging horn section. Elton John wears the change of style well and we’re left with a track that conjures musical imagery of New Orleans and it feels like it’s fresh out of Mardi Gras.

The second track, “Mellow,” is just as its name suggests – a sedate and sexy, piano-dominated track in what has become the typical Elton John style — well-composed and “sweet.”

“Mellow,” leads into my personal favorite from the album, “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself,” a brilliant parody of teenage angst and suicide over a bed of happy, pop-y music. An interesting pairing to say the least.

“Susie (Dramas)” is a straight up rocker that rides off the energy of the previous track. An entertaining listen from start to finish. It’s most memorable component is its stop and go bass line.

The fifth track, “Rocket Man,” is nothing short of a classic – if not one of the best songs ever written. Taupin uses space travel as a metaphor for alienation, loneliness, and uncertainty. While the lyrics are heavenly, Elton John’s melody and the accompanying backing vocals by the backing band takes the song to space.

“Salvation” starts the second half of the album with another piano ballad that sounds almost like a hymn – true to the song’s title. The way the backing vocals swell on this track could make the hardest heart soften.

In “Slave,” Elton John takes a country western approach with acoustic, and even slide, guitar. It’s a very straightforward song in which Taupin’s lyrics tell the story of a slave who grows increasingly fed up with his situation.

After a brief country western interlude, Elton John brings the funk with “Amy.” A simple song about a woman – “Amy” proves to entertain with its infectious guitar and a shrieking fiddle.

Inspired by Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” the track “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” is perhaps Elton John’s most emotional song. It is distinctively less overwrought than the rest of his piano rockers and the instrumentation is stripped down. According to the New York Times article, Elton John Celebrates 60, Lavishly, In His Garden, Elton John states that this song is one of his all-time favorites.

The final track, “Hercules,” ends the album with the strength of the aptly named Greek demi-god. The album ends on a high energy moment, solidifying a classic album in history.

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