Tuesday, September 29, 2015

10 Underrated Elton John Songs


A few weeks ago I listed what I feel are ten underrated songs from America's "Piano Man", Billy Joel; today, I felt compelled to list ten from the UK's Piano Man, Sir Elton John. It's a funny thing, but I never considered myself much of an Elton John fan until I started revisiting his musical catalog, which has existed for a good 45 years now. 

Just how amazingly prolific has John's career been, especially during the 1970s? Well, how many artists today release two albums in one year? John did it three times during the '70s: in 1970 (Elton John and Tumbleweed Collection), in 1972 (Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) and in 1975 (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies.) Actually, in the U.S. Elton John saw the release of three albums in 1975 if you count the American release of Empty Sky, which was really his 1969 debut album but remained unreleased in the States for six years. Today's music industry is mostly about the flash and appearance, but John's talent actually matches the flamboyancy of the costumes and glasses he's worn throughout the years. 

A warning for the diehard Elton John fans who read this list: you're probably going to hate it. That's because I included several songs from the '80s. I know that a lot of long-time fans are not crazy about the direction John's music took during the decade of excess, namely because he fired his backup band in 1975. However, my love of pop and rock music didn't truly begin until the early '80s, when I received my first portable radio with headphones and music videos were starting to be shown on television. Some of the '80s tunes I've included here have faded from the radio waves and in my opinion deserve a little resurrection. 

Of course, the toughest part of any of these lists is sticking to only ten songs; definitely a challenge with John's amazing body of work. So please keep in mind that it's subjective, and here are ten underrated songs from Reginald "Reggie" Kenneth Dwight, aka Elton John (and his long-time songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin!)


"Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" (1973)



The instrumental "rock opera" masterpiece that is the first half of "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" is considered among Elton John fans to be one of his finest compositions. John says he was inspired to write it when thinking about the type of music he wanted for his own funeral, but the lyrics to the second part of the song are definitely about the death of a relationship. The piece kicks off the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album and its sound is reminiscent of Queen and Electric Light Orchestra. It became a set list requirement for many of John's tours throughout the '70s and '80s, and remains a fan favorite. 

"Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word" (1976)



Sad, tender, lovely, and a song I think most people can relate to in their lives at one time or another. 

"Ego" (1978)



This track from A Single Man pretty much sums up Elton during this phase of his career, when he was king of the music charts and was developing a reputation as a party animal who tore up hotel rooms. Then again, it pretty much could be the theme song of any number of big musicians from back in the day and now. John had this to say upon the song's release: "I wrote the song jointly with Bernie Taupin, and we never thought of it as an autobiography until it came out. It's about the silliness of rock 'n' roll stars, and the video film was supposed to show just how stupid rock 'n' roll can be. It's the grotesque side of rock 'n' roll. And it's turned out to be one of the most sincere songs we've ever written."

"Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" 1982



One of John's biggest hits was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, "Candle in the Wind", that was later adapted as a tribute to Princess Diana with reworked lyrics and renamed "Candle in the Wind 1997". As lovely as that song is, many people may forget that he wrote and recorded a bittersweet tribute to John Lennon in 1982 called "Empty Garden." John and Lennon were close friends, performing together at Madison Square Garden in 1974 at what would be become Lennon's last concert performance, and John is also Sean Lennon's godfather. 

I get a lump in my throat when I hear the lyrics, "It's funny how one insect can damage so much grain" and "Hey Hey Johnny, can't you come out to play in your empty garden?" John has said that he rarely performs the piece in concert, as it's too painful and personal for him. 

"I'm Still Standing" (1983)



This is one of my favorite Elton John songs of all-time. I've always likened it to be the male equivalent of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and equally as defiant. And...how fun would it have been to be one of the dancers in the music video? The colorful and fast-paced video is one of the most memorable ones of my teen years and extremely well-choreographed. Fans of Dancing With the Stars will recognize judge Bruno Tonioli in several scenes. A little bit of trivia: while in Cannes to make the video, John ran into the boys of Duran Duran and ended up partying pretty hard with them.

"I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" (1983)




At the time this song came out I thought the lyric "rolling like thunder under the covers" was VERY suggestive; my, how times have changed! I love the harmonica work -- contributed by Stevie Wonder -- and its doo-woppy tone. 

"Who Wears These Shoes" (1984)



A totally forgotten, upbeat earworm from John's Breaking Hearts album released in 1984. Poor Elton gets tormented by an ex-girlfriend and her new amour in the very '80s music video...and rocks a giant heart on his jacket. 

"Healing Hands" (1989)



Inspired by the Four Tops "Reach Out, I'll Be There", this is a hopeful song about being able to heal and move on after having your heart broken. It's unclear if the healing hands are coming from divine intervention, another lover, or simply time -- but it's definitely one of my favorites. 

"Sacrifice" (1989)



As mentioned, a lot of EJ fans hated the direction he took in the '80s, and I saw at least one nasty barb on YouTube about this next song on my list, "Sacrifice." After hearing it for the first time in many years, however, I personally feel that this is one of Elton's saddest, most beautiful, and thought-provoking songs. The lyrics are deceptively simple to me. There's no doubt that the song is about a married man who has an affair. Where things get a little murky, though, is whether he's dismissing the end of the marriage as a sacrifice and if he's being sarcastic with the use of the word. For the record, Bernie Taupin said the song was about, "the breakup of a marriage where the loss of the relationship is no sacrifice."

However, I have a slightly different interpretation of the song. I think it could also be about people who stay in unhappy marriages and sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children's. The tip-off for me is the lyric, "It's two hearts living in two separate worlds." 

Either way, it's one of the best ballads that Elton John has ever written. 

"Something About the Way You Look Tonight" (1997)



I know I've overused the word beautiful in this post, so I'm going to overuse it one more time: this is a beautiful love song. You definitely don't hear people writing music like this anymore.  

OK...which songs would make YOUR list?

9 comments:

  1. Really great selection.

    Never understood why his 80's stuff is disliked by some fans. I know he had a tough personal time during the early part of the decade, but his music remained strong.

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  2. Hi Dar - thanks for your comments. From what I gathered on YouTube, a lot of his fans were disappointed when he fired his backup band in '75, including guitarist Davey Johnstone (he has since returned to John's line-up.) After that they feel he was less rocking and gravitated towards a sappier sound. I'll admit I'm not much of a fan of The Lion King or his releases from the past decade or so, but I agree with you about the '80s -- he continued to have a lot of hits during the era and his creativity remained strong. I would have loved to have seen him in concert back in the day when he used to wear elaborate costumes on stage.

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  3. I wore out Honky Chateau and Greatest Hits I and II albums (which highlighted his earlier work pre-1977). Honky Cat/Rocket Man/Crocodile Rock?Bennie Jets/Saturday Night/Bitch Is Back/Dont Go Breaking My Heart got a lot of radio play in the early 70s. Except for a few notable songs, he lost me after, say, Island Girl and Philadelphia Freedom though. My list starts with Levon, Daniel, Your Song, Rocket Man, and some favorites came a little later, like Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Philadelphia Freedom, Pinball Wizard (Tommy!); I am sure I missed a few.

    SAHD

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  4. Hi Stay-at-Home-Dad! Great to hear from you after all this time. That's a great list, but made up of his hits. I was going for underrated ones people had forgotten or hadn't heard in a while. I really wanted to include his duet with KiKi Dee, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", except a lot of people are still very familiar with it. However, it would go on a list of underrated love songs for sure; it's one of my favorites. Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting is another fave of mine.

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  5. Hi Pam; I DID say I wore out Honky Chateau - few would know the songs, though it was considered one his and Taupin's greatest writing?. Good Post Pam!
    SAHD

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  6. He's had some wonderful songs that don't get airplay at all, as should be expected for a guy with a 45 year career. "Roy Rogers" off Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, "Bitter Fingers" from Captain Fantastic, and "The Club at the End of the Street" from Sleeping With the Past are probably my favorites.

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  7. I would add "Too Low For Zero" from the album of the same name -- a masterpiece of early Dreampop with Elton's quiet desperation sneaking through his lyrics about the numbness of his sad life. Nothing goes right, nothing is getting better. So sad, so elegant.

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  8. "Measure of a Man" was easily one of his best and most underrated songs. It stands as an iconic moment in the "Rocky" series - the black and white end credits to the fifth film - fitting the saga perfectly.

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  9. What agreat selection - I wholeheartedly agree! These are brilliant songs.

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