When we think of Elton John’s iconic 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the songs we immediately think of are the title track, Candle In The Wind, Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, and Bennie And The Jets.
This week, however, I spent some time diving in a little deeper. I listened to the entire album, which I hadn’t hear in years, and thought I’d share a few gems I noticed in the “album” tracks, that is, those songs that didn’t become big hits.
“This Song Has No Title”
This is a very unusual, wonderful song. Elton begins with a piano style that I call “guitar fingerstyle piano.” It sounds like an acoustic guitarist using a fingerpicking technique, and in fact, the way the vocal enters mid-chord progression reminds me very much of Bob Dylan in his folk days. The musical feel shifts during the choruses to a fun, old-fashioned ragtime feel with high, almost barber-shop style vocal harmonies. Elton is a master at combining musical styles like this and can inspire us to do the same.
Elton’s love of Progressive Rock may be most evident on instrumental “Funeral For A Friend,” but it also surfaces on this song. The fast, arpeggiated piano intro would feel right at home on a Genesis record, and then the band comes in with dramatic, orchestral “hits” reminiscent of the group Yes. (Both Genesis and Yes, incidentally, were in their prime when Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded.)
The song itself sounds at first like a fairly typical pop/rock 70’s song, but try counting the measures during the verse. Not easy, right? Elton not only puts in a 5-bar phrase now and again, but he also inserts a 2/4 measure. Pretty subtle stuff for a “hit-maker!”
“The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-34)”
What a great piano intro!!! Elton is a master of the catchy piano intro, and this one’s right up there with his more well-known intros like those on “Your Song” and “Bennie And The Jets.” (To my ears, Elton’s piano intros bring to mind those of Broadway’s Kander and Ebb, who composed the famous intros to “New York, New York” and “All That Jazz,” among others.)
After this dramatic start, Elton brings it down, way down, by playing sparse, unaccompanied chords beneath his vocal verse. This is the exact opposite of the busy type of playing he did on “Grey Seal” and “This Song Has No Title” and reminds us again not only of the sheer variety of pianistic textures he employs in general, but his use of musical contrast within a specific song.
Slow 12/8 Gospel music. Elton’s vocals were influenced by the Gospel singer Albertina Walker, and he goes right into that musical style here. Gospel is also a place where rock meets the blues, and as such it is a comfortable place for Elton, who began his career by playing in blues bands, to merge that style with his image as a pop superstar.
There are more great places on the album, of course, and I hope that these observations will whet your appetite for more musical exploration. Enjoy listening to Elton’s music, and then apply what you hear to your piano playing.
Have fun, and “let the music flow!”