He is, like no one since the Beatles, omnipresent, tossing out new singles month after month, virtually every one of them singing with surprises, flair, and a good groove. No Elton John 45 slips off the charts until another one is climbing them. His present string of hits–“Yellow Brick Road,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Benny and the Jets,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “The Bitch is Back,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Philadelphia Freedom” (with the mad live-with-John-Lennon version of “I Saw Her Standing There” on the back), and the current “Pinball Wizard” (only Elton would close off a remake of a Who tune with a riff from “Can’t Explain,” the Who’s first single)–probably constitutes, along with Steely Dan’s albums, the most vital rock and roll of the decade.
It is, or used to be, a big part of pop that there would be a figure you could count on: these days, Elton is it. He understands, among other things, that pop is (to quote a friend of mine) valid as work, and so he takes his work, but not himself, very seriously. His singles are carefully built around hooks that never turn soft, and thus they stand up under relentless airplay. I would have said that “Midnight Train to Georgia” was a much better record than “Yellow Brick Road,” but I can’t listen to the former any longer, yet thanks to Elton’s touch I never punch a button to get away from the latter.
By the same token, I have listened to Elton’s new album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, many times, and I would not, for any reason, ever play it again. A concept album dealing with the scuffling days of Elton and his partner Bernie Taupin, it is flat, painfully slow, and filled with the kind of self-awareness that in rock and roll so often comes off as mere self-pity. The music is far less interesting than the old-days scrapbook (and a good comic strip) that comes with it. Save for “Meal Ticket,” which ought to be the single (though, supposedly, perhaps to preserve the integrity of the album–remember Sgt. Pepper?–CF & the BDC will not be violated by having a single ripped from its wholeness). I cannot remember anything about this record except that it has a neat label.
Like many rockers, Elton John is haIf bad boy and half choirboy. When he brings the two sides together (“Yellow Brick Road”) he’s great, as he is when the bad boy is in command (“Benny and the Jets”). When the choirboy takes over–well, it’s like being fixed up with someone your parents “know you’ll love,” and who turns out to be the type who won’t listen to AM radio because all they play is “crap.” Out of such a paradox, you take what you need, and you leave the rest.
Village Voice, June 16, 1975