The incomparable Elton John celebrates his birthday today (March 25), and while it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment that truly defines his genius, this moment from Inside The Actor’s Studio surely a contender.
During the Q&A portion of the episode, John is asked by one of the students in attendance what criteria he has to write a melody. While Sir Elton doesn’t give a definitive answer (he says a lot of melodies he’s written happen by accident), he then says he can write a melody to almost anything and asks for a member of the audience to hand him a book. The student who asked the question handed him Peer Gynt, a five-act Norwegian play.
…And that’s when the magic happens.
If you aren’t blown away by this clip, then frankly, I feel sorry for you.
Elton John: His 40 Greatest Songs
There have been a few times in Elton’s career where he claims a “return to roots,” but in 2010 he really did go back to his roots for ‘The Union.’ It was a duo album with one of his early influences, Leon Russell. Elton has been a solo artist since 1969, but here, you got the sense that he was trying to impress his collaborator, and this mid-tempo blues rocker is the highlight of the LP.
Many of Elton’s songs with heavy orchestration sounded good in the studio, but sounded great on stage in Australia in 1987 with the backing of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Maybe his voice wasn’t quite as good as it was fourteen years earlier (“Have Mercy On The Criminal” was originally released on 1973’s ‘Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player’). But as an older man, he had a bit more gravitas, and that helped to make this live version of the song the definitive one.
For his first album of the 1990s, Elton proved that he would still be a viable force in pop music with the title track and first single from ‘The One.’ Elton’s elegant piano playing was the perfect compliment to some of Bernie Taupin’s most romantic, yet simple, lyrics: “When stars collide like you and I/No shadows block the sun/You're all I've ever needed/Oh, baby you're the one.”
After the massive success of ‘The One’ and ‘The Lion King’ soundtrack, ‘Made In England’ was a bit of a dud, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore “Believe,” one of Elton’s best vocal performances. It’s the most recent song in the Elton John catalog that he’s playing on his current farewell tour.
Originally from 1970’s self-titled album, this is another song where an older Elton sounds better than the younger version. The orchestration here is better than it was on the original as well.
The B-side of “Crocodile Rock,” it has a similar retro sound that harkened back to the days when saxophones ruled rock and roll. The lyrics here were a bit more somber, even as the song was upbeat: a guy ruminates on a woman who left him, while reminiscing on the fun they had while drinking the wine that gives the song its name.
Had Elton never become a star, there’s a good argument to be made that he and Bernie Taupin could have picked up their bags, head out of England and gone to Nashville, and written country songs. “Holiday Inn” is exhibit A.
The clear highlight from ‘The Diving Board,’ it would have been a fine final single (Elton released one album, 2016’s ‘Wonderful Crazy Night,’ since then). It features some of Taupin’s most heartfelt lyrics of the millennium, where he (again) negotiates between the desire to transcend his beginnings and also to return to them.
Originally from 1976’s ‘Blue Moves,’ it’s another one of Bernie Taupin’s most heartbreaking lyrics. The narrator resigns him or herself to the inevitable end of a relationship. For now, (s)he just wants some peace, and maybe to go to sleep.
“Daniel” was the next single after “Crocodile Rock,” Elton’s first #1 in America. This time, he only hit #2, but “Daniel” has survived the test of time much more than most ‘70s chart-toppers.
These are some of Bernie Taupin’s most moving lyrics: “The Last Song” tells the story of an estranged father coming to terms with his son, who is gay, and dying of an AIDS-related illness. Taupin wrote the lyrics shortly after the death of Freddie Mercury. The song’s proceeds went to the newly-established Elton John AIDS Foundation, which still does great work today.
‘Sleeping With The Past’ was kind of a dud of an album, but “Sacrifice” is one of Elton’s loveliest ballads, despite the very “soft rock” production. Believe it or not, this was his first ever solo #1 hit single in England (he’d previously topped the charts with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with Kiki Dee).
Here’s another song that benefits from the older Elton’s more aged voice (and the bigger budget orchestra). Taupin’s lyrics, however, are classic young-guy-poetry, which makes sense; “I Need You To Turn To” is originally from Elton’s 1970 self-titled album.
A deep track that was recorded for ‘Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player,’ it’s one of Elton’s most raucous jams, perfect for the bar (or the barroom brawl). So, it’s also perfect as the b-side for “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”
We love Elton, but some of his albums are just not that great (and he’d be the first to admit that). ‘Breaking Hearts’ is definitely one of his lesser albums, but even in the midst of some uninspiring songs, there was this pop gem, about how listening to sad songs can make you feel better.
The song which gave the upcoming biopic ‘Rocketman’ its name. Many accused Bernie Taupin of lifting the lyrical idea from a rock classic, released a few years earlier, but in the liner notes to the 1990 box set ‘To Be Continued,’ Taupin contests that claim: “Everybody used to say that we ripped off David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity,’ and I’d say, ‘No, we ripped off Tom Rapp!’” Rapp was the singer and songwriter from the band Pearls Before Swine, who also had a song called “Rocket Man.” “It wasn’t the same storyline,” Taupin noted. However, Elton was a fan of the Bowie song, and hired Gus Dudgeon who produced that song, along with the arranger Paul Buckmaster for “Rocket Man.”
‘Blue Moves’ came after years of Elton’s chart dominance. “I was aware that we had been at the peak of our careers,” he said in the ‘To Be Continued’ liner notes. “And that that was going to level off.” Bernie Taupin agreed: “[There was] A feeling of, ‘How long can we keep doing this?’” As it turned out, they still had a lot of hits in the cannon, but “Sorry” feels like the end of an era, when binge-listening to the Elton catalog chronologically.. It’s been covered by Joe Cocker and Mary J. Blige, among others, and a Ray Charles/Elton John duet version of the song, for Charles’ 2004 ‘Genius Loves Company’ album, proved to be the legend’s final session.
A based-on-a-true story song about Elton’s suicide attempt in 1968; he wasn’t yet famous, and felt trapped in his relationship with his fiance. Legend has it that the “someone” in the song is Long John Baldry, a blues singer and one-time mentor to Elton (and also the inspiration for the “John” part of Elton’s stage name). But musically, the biggest influence on the song was the Beach Boys. Elton’s backing band -- guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson -- shine as backing singers here, clearly inspired by the California superstars.
One of Elton’s hardest rocking songs, he really lets guitarist Davey Johnstone tear it up on this one. Something of a theme song for Elton (he’s said as much himself), it was a number four hit. Maybe he should let Johnstone rock out more often!
One of Elton’s best ‘80s songs. Unlike the rest of the list, this isn’t an Elton/Bernie co-composition; Bernie wrote the lyrics, and Elton co-wrote the music with guitarist Davey Johnstone. The song, which featured the classic Elton band of Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, accompanied by Stevie Wonder on harmonica, also was one of Elton’s first videos to get a lot of play on MTV, introducing him to a new, younger generation of fans.
Like “Candle In The Wind,” it was a bigger hit the second time around; Elton re-recorded “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” in 1991 with George Michael and it was a #1 hit; the original only reached #2. While the second version is great, we’ll stick with the original, which featured backing vocals by Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, as well as Toni Tennille of the Captain and Tennille.
“Some of the playing on ‘11-17-70’ is quite incredible,” Elton says in the liner notes to ‘To Be Continued.’ “I get depressed sometimes when I hear it because I don’t know if I can ever play as well as that again. That three piece band, Nigel (Olsson, drums) and Dee (Murray, bass) and myself, we did different versions than the ‘Elton John’ record, and the response… we could not believe it.” And yeah, the original version of this song from Elton’s self-titled album is great, as is the version from ‘Live In Australia.’ But the intensity of Elton’s singing and playing, and the performance by his band at this 1970 radio session, would never be matched again.
With the possible exception of ‘Tumbleweed Connection,’ ‘Songs From The West Coast’ is Elton’s most underrated album. Sadly, by 2001, there were fewer and fewer avenues for an artist of Elton’s vintage to have a legitimate hit. But two things happened that made the ‘Songs…’ album so poignant. One was Elton being influenced by Ryan Adams’ solo debut, 2000’s ‘Heartbreaker,’ which inspired him to make a stripped down album. The other was Bernie Taupin’s third divorce; his lyrics on the album, and particularly on this song, really make you feel his pain. This wasn’t “Time for a new album, write some lyrics.” This was: “Here’s my soul crying out to the world.” Elton and Bernie’s faithful fans who were paying attention were rewarded with one of the best collections of songs the pair have ever unleashed.
Another gem from ‘Elton John’ that sounded better on ‘17-11-70,’ this is one of the few non-hits that consistently has made it to Elton’s setlists over the years. Even if Bernie Taupin’s lyrics don’t make much sense (he’s admitted that even he doesn’t know what they’re about), it’s one of the most fun songs in any Elton show.
The early ‘80s wasn’t Elton’s best era, and ‘Jump Up!’ wasn’t his most inspired album. But “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),” a tribute to his friend and collaborator, John Lennon is one of the most moving songs in Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s catalog.
Originally the B-side to “Border Song,” “Bad Side Of The Moon” isn’t on any of Elton’s studio albums, which is a shame, because it’s another of his most rocking songs from his early years. And it was perfect for the Elton/Dee Murray/Nigel Olsson trio on the ‘17-11-70’ live album.
Yes, we know that “Madman Across The Water” is the title track of Elton’s 1971 album, but the more famous version isn’t necessarily the best version. In 1970, Elton recorded an earlier “Madman Across The Water” featuring Mick Ronson, from David Bowie’s backing band, on guitar (this was before ‘The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’). Anyway, if you haven’t heard this version, which has since been released as a bonus track on reissues of ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ and on Elton’s ‘Rare Masters’ collection, check it out now and thank us later. But even the 1971 version, featuring Elton’s longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone, is amazing; this is one of Elton's greatest songs, despite not being a hit single.
Here’s another example of an album track so great, that it has remained in Elton’s setlists through the decades despite never charting. And by the way, the live version on ‘17-11-70’ is great as well, but at over eighteen minutes (thanks to bits of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me” and the Beatles’ “Get Back”), we figured we’d stick with the slimmer studio version, which clocks in at 6:21.
Years before the idea of the Elton biopic ‘Rocketman’ was close to being a reality, this song, which closed ‘Songs From The West Coast,’ saw Elton and Bernie looking back at the era in the ‘70s when they dominated the pop charts. The music video, starring a young Justin Timberlake playing a young Elton, led to rumors that the NSYNC singer might star as Elton. In the song the lyrics “This train don’t stop there anymore,” point out that while other people could play that character, Elton’s no longer that guy. Which was appropriate: that guy didn’t yet have the life experience to sing this classic, and a younger Bernie Taupin couldn’t have written these lyrics.
How many songs can an arena filled with people identify after just one note? Well, there’s the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and there’s “Bennie And The Jets.” This #1 single is as funky as Elton gets, and it got him on the R&B charts; he’d later perform the song on ‘Soul Train.’
In their early days, Elton John and Bernie Taupin were obsessed with The Band, and this song is one of their most Band-like numbers. With all due respect, this song could hold its own against anything off of ‘Music From Big Pink.’ The song is also notable for being the first track that Elton played on with his future rhythm section of Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums), who were a great band (lowercase b!) in their own right.
Elton’s definitive arena-rock epic, it holds up to the other extended-length classic rock jams like “Stairway To Heaven,” “Freebird,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Layla.” Conceived as two separate songs, they just sound so good together that they became two halves of a greater whole. “Funeral For A Friend,” featuring synthesizers played by future Genesis producer David Hentschel would be great on its own. But “Love Lies Bleeding,” one of Elton’s most aggressive songs, provides the most rocking part of his shows, and allows both Elton and guitarist Davey Johnstone to let it rip.
This song feels a bit out of place on ‘Tumbleweed Connection,’ as it’s a bit less country and more orchestrated; it was originally intended for ‘Elton John,’ and might have fit in a bit better there. Regardless of where it was placed, it remains one of Elton and Bernie’s loveliest and most underrated ballads.
Inspired by Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” (which is name dropped in the song), it’s one of Elton’s most famous non-hits. The New York-centric lyrics gave the song extra weight when Elton played it during a solo performance after 9/11 at The Concert For New York City at Madison Square Garden.
Probably Elton’s hardest rocking song ever, it surely must be a favorite of guitarist Davey Johnstone. The song gave Elton the cred to get played on rock radio stations alongside Aerosmith, AC/DC and Van Halen; it sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis backed by the Who.
Is the song about feeling out of place (he sings of a “Brand of people who ain’t my kind”)? Is it about racism (“Let us live in peace/let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease/there's a man over there. What's his colour? I don't care!”)? Whatever Bernie and Elton had in mind, it may well be the greatest non-religious gospel song of all time. It’s been covered by Eric Clapton, the Fifth Dimension and even the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Elton’s first hit (it went to #8 in 1970) might also still be his most well-known song; he’s probably played it at every concert he’s done since 1970; according to Setlist.fm, he’s played it more than two thousand times, more than any of his other songs. It’s easy to understand why: it’s beautiful and simple, and is there a sweeter lyric than “I hope you don't mind that I put down in words/How wonderful life is while you're in the world?”
The original, from ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ is amazing, and his “Candle In The Wind ‘97” remake is one of the most successful records of all time, but we’re still going with the live version from 1987. Unlike most of ‘Live In Australia,’ this doesn’t feature an orchestra. Instead, it’s just Elton and his piano, accompanied by some extra keyboards. And, sales figures be damned, this is the definitive version of “Candle In The Wind.”
It wasn’t a huge hit when it was first released, but the scene in 2000’s ‘Almost Famous’ gave this song another life and a new status as one of Elton and Bernie’s finest moments. You can’t resist singing along to this one.
The title track to Elton’s double-album masterpiece, which was released at the peak of his fame and the peak of his powers, the song sees him (or his lyricist, Bernie Taupin) showing some real animosity towards fame. Just like in The Wizard of Oz -- an obvious influence on the lyrics -- the song’s narrator chases a dream for years, only to realize that the keys to happiness are to be found in the simpler things in life, and sometimes were available to you all along. Taupin also looked at the dark side of fame on “Candle In The Wind” and explored similar ground on “A Simple Life” and “Home Again.”