Although we might all have a stab at naming Elton John’s best albums, in these times of Spotify, there sometimes needs to be a reason why a particular record should be bought on vinyl.
Happily in Elton’s case there are several reasons. Firstly, his records are often beautifully packaged, with posters and lyrics sheets. Second, they can be found in used condition for pennies – there’s frequently little difference between the cost of Elton on (used) vinyl and (used) CD. Third, those early analogue albums often sound better on vinyl than MP3 or CD – they were well produced and vinyl allows them room to breathe.
But first, here’s some early Elton John recordings you can find cheaply, but might be better off avoiding…
Elton: The Early Top Of The Pops Recordings.
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a singer with a small income is in need of additional work.
As Elton John recorded his first two albums, “Empty Sky” and “Elton John”, he worked as a session musician, honing his craft on a popular series of albums of cover versions of the day, titled “Top of the Pops”. Difficult to imagine as it may be, these were an even worse version of the modern day Now! Compilations, as none featured the original artists.
For a budget price, the undiscerning or impoverished record buyer could buy ten or so cover versions of current hits (these things were often released monthly) recorded professionally, but, naturally, with all the magic that made the original records special taken out. If you want to hear the Stones’ Street Fighting Man with all the spit and venom removed, this is the place to come. A limper and less inspired version of Spirit in the Sky you will be hard pushed to come across. Lest we be accused of being mean, let’s say in some cases the covers are equally as dubious as the middle of the road pap of the originals.
What is notable about these records is that some are early examples of Elton John’s vocals, as he sang lead on such classics as “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.
Happily, we don’t have to sift through dozens of the actual records to hear Elton at work, as they are all on Spotify. For what it’s worth, here’s a playlist of some of Elton John’s lead vocal performances on those Top of the Pops albums:
That these records were produced before, during and after the recording of Elton’s first two albums is fascinating. Because this workmanlike fluff was coming off the production line just as Elton was knocking out some solid gold on his own records.
The self-titled second of Elton’s records is the first of his classic LPs to be worth picking up on vinyl. It contains “Border Song”, a song so good that Aretha Franklin covered it on her album “Young Gifted and Black”
Other classic but less well known songs on the album include “The Cage” and “Take Me To The Pilot”. For vinyl hounds who want to dig a bit deeper, the b-side to “Border Song” was a song that only otherwise appeared on the live album 17-11-70, the superb “Bad Side of the Moon”. There is a RSD 2017 extended version of 17-11-70 out there, but originals can be picked up cheaply.
For the “Elton John” album, look for one with a gatefold matte textured sleeve. You should be able to find this for around £5 or less in very good condition. There’s not much point picking up anything that is too damaged. These aren’t rare, and you can afford to wait until you find one in good nick – there will be plenty about.
Later in 1970 came Tumbleweed Connection, an LP with strong American / Americana influences and the next slab of Elton vinyl for your collection.
Tumbleweed Connection has a lovely sepia-tinged gatefold cover depicting a none-more-Old-American railway station – that is, until you notice the Daily Telegraph advert and you realise it was shot at the Sheffield Park railway station on the Bluebell line in Sussex – and none of the songs were huge hits, so for people only acquainted with the radio friendly canon, it’s a chance to discover an album of unfamiliar songs.
And what songs! “Son of your Father”, “Amoreena”, “Burn Down The Mission” and “Where To Now St Peter” all extraordinary and not overplayed on radio. “Country Comfort” was later covered by Rod Stewart, and is a perfect slice of life in early-century America…
…except for one small detail…
Taupin writes eloquently. The local Deacon preparing his sermon, of fixing barns and of Clay, a man who prefers horse drawn machinery to the new fangled variety. It’s the Penny Lane of Americana, written by The Band.
And then he writes about cooking and eating hedgehogs and suddenly there are questions.
Not least of which is “Where did they find hedgehogs? Were these flying, migrating hedgehogs? Had the hedgehogs been wily enough to fashion a raft and sail across from Europe yet stupid enough to be caught between bricks on a fire once they got there?”
I guess all we can say in Taupin’s defence is a) he isn’t David bloody Attenborough and b) this was the seventies, and Google hadn’t yet been invented.
The other thing to say about Tumbleweed Connection is the packaging – gatefold sleeve, illustrated pages of lyrics – superb stuff.
Elton followed this up in 1971 with Madman Across The Water, another gatefold sleeved package with illustrated lyrics.
As with many of Elton John’s early ‘70’s records, you may find your LP is a “red” colour when you shine a strong light through it. Many of Elton’s early albums have this quality, due to the type of vinyl used at the Pye pressing plant used for Elton’s LPs. They aren’t worth any more than regular copies, but it’s fun.
“Madman…” features Levon – a US hit, and “Tiny Dancer” – the latter never a huge hit (#41 in USA, never released in U.K.), and almost forgotten until it cropped up on Cameron Crowe’s movie “Almost Famous”, since when it has gained a life of its own, having been name checked on Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Ray songs and, at the time of writing, has been streamed on Spotify over 126 million times, meaning it doesn’t make our “Alternative Best Of Elton John” playlist on the basis of being too well known.
What does make the playlist is the title track, a slow building, orchestrated epic, and “All The Nasties” another epic song embellished with a choir and a rolling, climactic choral chant.
Next for your collection is Honky Chateau. Jousting for the title of “best Elton album” with Tumbleweed Connection, Honky Chateau was recorded at the eponymous Chateau d’Hérouville in France, as had become de riguer thanks to The Rolling Stones and the UK Government’s grasping approach to collecting taxes at the rate of 75p in the pound. The studio was later used by David Bowie to record Pin Ups and Low.
If Tumbleweed is an Americana album, and “Elton John” and “Madman…” have orchestration, Honky Chateau ditches the strings and focuses on the band.
The packaging is innovative, with the LP nestling in a fold-over sleeve with a tab.
Honky has “Rocket Man”, “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself” and “Honky Cat”, but it’s the non-hits that make this one of his best. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” is a standout track, written by Taupin after arriving in New York and being scared witless by a police shooting outside the hotel he was staying at.
“Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player” is next, worth buying on vinyl for the gatefold sleeve and inner pages again. More of a rock n roll album than Honky Chateau, there are loads of unfamiliar Stones-style swampy rock tunes – see “Midnight Creeper” – but the real gold aside from the single “Daniel” is in a couple of hidden gems. “Teacher I Need You” is catchy pop, but rides roughshod over Ofsted guidelines whereas “I’m Going To Be Teenage Idol” slows the pace down and is a “Honky Cat” style groover with horns and the kind of percussive piano we associate Elton John with.
“High Flying Bird” slows down even further and is a prototype mix of “Sacrifice”, and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, and is a terrific ballad.
Elton’s next album was “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.
If you read those “1,000 albums to hear before you die” or “Top 500 Albums ever” lists, this is the one that will always feature, and for good reason – it is Elton’s most expansive record and has more than its fair share of hits: “Candle in the Wind”, the title track, “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” and “Bennie and the Jets”.
But I’m going to break with tradition and say don’t buy this one. Or at least buy this last. Like many double albums, it’s too rich for one sitting. It’s no place to start.
What I will recommend is to search for the yellow vinyl version.
If there was ever an album meant to be pressed in yellow vinyl, it is “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. This was a limited edition released a year after the black vinyl versions and is still decent value – I picked mine up for just £13. Of the lesser known tracks, “Grey Seal” is an older track, given a spruce up for the album and is all the better for it.
Skipping past Caribou (vaguely dull packaging, slightly below par album, therefore stick to Spotify), the final Elton album to recommend is 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy…
Available in black and the translucent red vinyl, this was lavishly packaged in a gatefold sleeve with a poster, a ‘Scraps’ book – which includes that Jackie comic strip of Elton’s early career, and a ‘Lyrics’ book.
A concept album about Elton and Bernie’s career so far, this has one well known hit, the under-rated “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and a bunch of less familiar tunes, all worth getting to know. Stand outs include the closing ballad “Curtains” and “Bitter Fingers”, a song about Elton’s Tin Pan Alley days.
There is a brown vinyl version of this album – 2,000 copies were released in the USA personally signed by Elton and Bernie. The price for these copies varies dramatically – perhaps more than anything I have ever seen in Discogs:
There’s one for sale for £760 if you are made of money. I am in the market for one, if you happen to have a spare, for around £10-£15.
And so finally a word on price for all of these records.
I picked Captain Fantastic up for £5 in near mint condition. To put that into context, that’s just £1.75 more than it cost when it came out in 1975. (If you had bought the same amount of gold, you would have £22 more today).
No-one is saying Elton’s albums are good financial investments…but it’s a great time to buy used copies now: Tumbleweed, Madman and Honky Chateau cost me £3 each, while Elton John, Captain Fantastic and Don’t Shoot… were £5 (and were in especially good condition). That’s six LPs for £25, less than what HMV want to charge for just one of Elton’s records. And don’t just buy the first, tatty copy you find – you can afford to wait and get one in decent condition.
Oh, and while I was looking for these, I also found a copy of Greatest Hits 2 – with the booklet inside – for £1, and for that price (and some claim GHV2 is Elton’s best album) it would have been rude not to…
Taking into account the songs, the packaging and the price, if you target these records, there may not be a better value artist – or one with such a deep and rewarding back catalogue – to buy right now on vinyl.