The “Listen Again” series went over well enough here in the Los Angeles area that your favorite rockin’ record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some L.A. TV executives and do a spin-off. In this series we once more examine previously-released albums BUT the platters we shall peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) FIVE-STAR albums. In this edition we discuss Elton John’s Greatest Hits.
For those of you not in the know, Sir Elton Hercules John (a.k.a. Reginald Kenneth Dwight) was born on March 25th, 1947. John is an English singer, pianist and composer. He is best known for songs he co-wrote with famous lyricist Bernie Taupin (his partner since 1967). To date they have written material for over 30 albums.
John was one of the most massively successful and favorite stars of the mid-seventies. He was sometimes criticized for his sometimes sloppy technique, for indulging a bit too much in hardcore sentimentality and even for simply reveling in his fame at the time. What not every critic knew back then was John became a star by indulging in these faults and by combining them for what he considered a true fan’s enthusiasm for the opulence of rock ‘n’ roll. This was also how he managed to co-create some of the perhaps most long-lasting pop rock ever made. Indeed, John has sold over 250 million records including perhaps his most critically-acclaimed (ninth) album, Greatest Hits.
This five-star album on MCA Records, included almost 48 minutes of music and was released in late 1974. It included material from the years 1970 to 1974 including ten of John’s singles. The lead-in is the smash hit “Your Song”.
Side One also included some of the best radio music of the era such as the dreamy-styled “Daniel” on which his piano work is nothing short of lugubrious, his ballad voice sounds almost as if he is attempting to sing into his stomach and he draws out certain syllables beyond recognition. It all works well enough, however and soon enough he moves into the fast albeit slightly lengthy song “Honky Cat”. There was also “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” the title track from John’s most surprisingly provocative platter, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and closes with another highlight from that LP, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” which was another commercial triumph for John and Taupin.
The flip side opened with “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long Long Time)”. At this point on the playlist the US and UK vinyl versions differ. The commercial hit “Bennie and the Jets” appeared on the North American release because it had topped the charts in both countries but not been put out as a single in the UK.
In the UK the song would be replaced with the maudlin Marilyn Monroe tribute “Candle in the Wind”. This song was criticized by some as being very embarrassing and yet even they admitted that the tune exerted a strange, queer fascination which simply compelled that one listen to it. This track had also scored in both countries but had not been a single in the US.
In both cases, the following track is “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and then “Border Song” which outside North America was originally only al album track but would hit number 92 on the Billboard Hot 100 as a 1970 single. The remainder of the material here climbed into the Top 40 in the US and the UK and even made the US top ten including the closing cut “Crocodile Rock”. The latter, of course, was one of several of the fast songs that–when coherent anyway—vapidly adolescent with John practically ranting with truly unfulfilled (and in actually closeted) lust and tinged with petty rebellion.
One particularly pertinent criticism of the platter at present is that those in charge of compiling the song list left a few of John’s hits from that era off the album. The hit tunes “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” from Madman Across the Water went to number 41 and 24 respectively as US singles and “The Bitch Is Back,” his then most recent single, slotted in at number 4 in the U.S. and even topped the chart in Canada. This cut is certainly his most endearing misogynist cut.
Then again, upon second listen one might consider that John doesn’t truly hate women because his vocals practically parody the blithe macho spirit of Taupin’s lyrics and simply undermines the song entirely. One may further pose that John was actually intentionally “Bitch”-slapping himself here as perhaps he was one artist who was quite capable of bitchiness. The song is surely an archetypal Elton John hard rock tune as it’s practically one huge hook complete with an inseparable chorus and melody.
John pounds the keys like Jerry Lee Lewis’s odd, English nephew while Davey Johnstone lays down a cushy foundation of practically vibrating lead guitar and Nigel Olson supports them both with wry, exact percussion. Some critics reflect that “Border Song” was simply included over these other hits simply because it was the first Elton John single to chart in any market. Whatever the case, Greatest Hits climbed to the top of both the US and UK charts and camped out at number one for ten weeks in the States and eleven in Great Britain.
In 1976 John would finally top the UK singles chart with his duet with Kiki Dee—“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” While the album would be re-released on CD this would be yet another 1970s hit that would go ignored (at least until sometime in the 1990s). In 1984 MCA would reissue the US version on CD. This version, of course, did not include “Candle in the Wind” despite the fact that there certainly would have been room for it on a CD version.
The 1990s would begin with another release of Greatest Hits. This time Polydor would put out a CD version. This one would contain 11 tracks including “Candle in the Wind”. A second release of this version reportedly hit the stores in 1992 and this version would also include all 11 cuts.
Finally, in 1996, Mercury would reissue the work. They added four tracks including the previously-mentioned “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, “Skyline Pigeon”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Madonna” and “It’s Me That You Need”. This addition of largely lesser-known tunes changed the original presentation and left fans wondering why bigger hits were still ignored. Nevertheless it was a slightly more productive use of the CD format.
The new millennium would not John’s Greatest Hits forgotten either. In 2003 the album Greatest Hits was slotted in at number 135 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. This was the first of several compilation albums including Greatest Hits Volume II, Greatest Hits 1976-1986 and Greatest Hits 1970-2002. These follow-ups, however, would never be quite as successful as the original.
More recently rated five stars by Allmusic, Elton John’s Greatest Hits/MCA 3007 has gone platinum in the UK, gold in France and has sold over 17 million copies in the US giving it Diamond certification. It remains a critically-acclaimed work and his best-selling album to date. My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.