To mark his 60th birthday Elton John‘s record company have made his entire back catalogue available to download and shuffled together 16 of his numerous hits into a new order, added the new single Tinderbox (interesting melody, really quite good) and a bonus track, and cast it like bread upon the water, in the hope that Elton John fans will repay them with significant sales.
There are countless Elton John greatest hits collections, more probably than there are Elton John hits. There are no less than seven others called Rocket Man, for starters. The marketplace is not exactly crying out for more compilations. So why should you pick up this selection more than any other? Well, for a start I think they get the balance right. Bigger collections contain every chart hit, many of which are frankly forgettable; this cherry picks, leaving out embarrassments like Nikita and allowing itself to be weighted heavily in favour of early songs.
In 43 or so years in the business John, and lyricist Bernie Taupin, have reflected the changing musical fashions (from the quasi-calypso of Daniel to the early ’70s glam flirtation with science fiction imagery in Rocket Man, to late ’80s stadium rock of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me) while continuing to deliver heartfelt ballads with sweet tunes irrespective of what was in vogue. And this collection contains all the well known ones: Your Song, Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, and the wonderful rolling chorus on I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues. These songs display John’s continuing ability to appear vulnerable and Taupin’s skill at describing the uncertainty of love in everyday language.
It kicks off with the highly vocally stylised live recording of Bennie And The Jets, perhaps hoping to remind us that John is not just a smooth ballad singer your dad liked, followed by the swooping exuberance of Philadelphia Freedom. I remember growing up with punk and doing my level best to dislike performers like Elton John, but there is a conviction and power to his delivery that’s hard to ignore, even when the song is nonsense. And when the song is good…
It’s very fashionable to say “I liked their early career but they went off in the ’80s/the ’90s/recently (delete as applicable)”. But the truth is that the early ’70s was by far Elton John’s most productive period when he took the most risks musically and vocally, and seemed to release an album every six months in a burst of creative excitement. Only I Want Love and the new single represent this century, and there’s nothing from the ’90s.
In the last 20 years we’ve become used to regarding him as a slightly risible figure, more concerned with flowers and fancy dress than music, making it easy to overlook his continued talent as a singer. And for many people becoming almost irrevocably associated with the nation’s wallowing in grief following the death of Princess Diana has done his reputation no good (beside making the original version of Candle In The Wind, one of his finest if most sentimental songs, virtually unmistakable now).
So forget the embarrassing tracksuits, the hair obsession, the distracting glasses and penchant for dressing up; forget the news stories about extravagance and the penchant for bitching about fellow stars; erase Candle in the Wind entirely from your memory if you must; clean out your ears and shake off your prejudices and just listen to some fine musicianship, expert vocal delivery and beautiful songs.