In broad historical terms, 1973 was the year that Elton John went mega. The lavish double-album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, rich in motifs and myths of Hollywood glamour, not only catapulted him to rock’s top table but ensured he had a massive and ornate throne to sit on.
How he got there is surprising as, only three short years earlier, he’d wormed his way into the public consciousness as a relatively low-key singer-songwriter – oozing with obvious talent, but a much humbler prospect than the strutting peacock superstar he would become, the larger-than-life showman in a dazzling array of sequins, stack heels and garish spectacles.
This limited edition box set brings together his five immediately pre-Yellow releases, bar live albums and film soundtrack commissions; Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection (both 1970) in particular suggested a less fanciful “road” lay ahead. The solidly structured and persuasive melodies aligned to lyricist Bernie Taupin’s eloquent wordplay indicated an artist in thrall to his own singer-songwriter heroes, such as Randy Newman, Leon Russell or David Ackles.
Taupin’s contribution should never be underplayed, especially on the old west obsessions of Tumbleweed Connection; “Elton John” the commodity is an intriguing hybrid of the two men. Further embellishment of the persona came with the arrival of guitarist Davey Johnstone from progressive folksters Magna Carta for 1971’s Madman Across The Water, on which lush orchestrations played a greater role in the overall sound (Indian Sunset, the title track).
Several cuts had originally been earmarked for the previous album, but so prolific was the writing duo’s output that it necessitated another release, Madman… being John’s third long-player in less than 18 months. That’s not to suggest it’s a casually knocked-off mop-up exercise; it’s arguably the most enduring of the discs in this box set, and includes the beautifully fragile classic Tiny Dancer.
1972’s Honky Chateau hinted at the flamboyance to come, though the bearded scruff on the sleeve might have suggested otherwise. Honky Cat and I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself find Elton exploring the upbeat showmanship and bluesy vibes of Dr John, neatly dovetailing with more familiarly introspective material (Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters) and articulate Americana (Slave).
The following year’s Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player constitutes an all-out assault on pop sensibilities, with the likes of Teacher I Need You, Crocodile Rock and Elderberry Wine bordering on pastiches of bygone genres (clearly, this is an album Billy Joel played a lot). It’s still a distinctively “Eltonesque” set of songs, but with a more focused eye on the mainstream, household name status an inevitable shoo-in.
That’s where we leave the story: five albums (each augmented by a handful of B-side bonus tracks) delivered over an astonishingly short period of time that represent the core DNA of a legend in waiting. In keeping with the flamboyance to come, can we have a souped-up, spangled and expanded reissue of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road next, please?