Midweek Music Break: Elton John, “Sixty Years On,” “Border Song,” and the Song Everyone Hates to Love

Elton John's 'Elton John' album (1970)Elton John’s self-titled album (that’s the cover over there at the right) wasn’t his absolute first. But it was the first one released in the US, landing here in 1970. As was common for me then, I didn’t latch onto the album on my own. I didn’t listen to the right radio stations, and never read music reviews. For Elton John, I relied specifically on the judgment of a woman who (since high school) I’d hoped might be my first girlfriend.*

Ida could neither sing nor play an instrument. But she had what I thought of as a musical voice. And she had a habit, when introducing me to new music, of reciting the lyrics aloud. I can still remember her voice saying:

It’s a little bit funny…
This feeling inside…
I’m not one of those who can…
Usually hide…

She’d pause melodramatically at the end of every line — or rather, where she thought the lines should break — and look at me expectantly. See? she seemed to be saying. This is the genius of poetry, is it not?

[Ah, the innocence of youth…]

Even people who never heard the entire Elton John album remember or otherwise know that song, of course. But for my money, the really good stuff — the music and lyrics that really lodged in my head, and kept coming back to me over all the decades to come — was buried in the middle.

“Sixty Years On” and “Border Song” appeared back-to-back. Memorability (and of course John’s voice) aside, they have little in common: the first, a (for me) haunting, lovely intertwining of gentle Latin-rhythmed music and lyrics, sort of nibbling around the edges of a mournful dirge for what might yet be; the second, a gospel-like, straight-ahead, piano-pounding rocker whose unambiguous lyrics hammered loudly at the door of social injustice.

And then there was, yes, “Take Me to the Pilot.” Nobody back then had any idea what the hell the words meant, and I doubt if anyone yet has done more than poke at them. I’ve read various reviews of the album which single this song out as an example of Bernie Taupin’s absolutely worst, most self-indulgent lyrics. But oh my, the music… It’s another rocker, and it’s — well, I’ll tell you, it’s like Velcro: covered with tiny little hooks. As rock critic Robert Christgau says, speaking of what he calls “the “Take Me to the Pilot” effect” in the midst of a very ambivalent Village Voice review of John’s career up to 1975:

…there are few people who like rock and roll, or any pop music, who remain unreached by Elton John. It’s not just that he’s so pervasive, although that helps; quite simply, the man is a genius. No matter how you deplore his sloppiness, or his one-dimensionality, or his $40,000 worth of rose-colored glasses, you will find yourself humming “Take Me to the Pilot”…

All three songs easily merit a midweek music break — especially for a blogger currently fighting to rid himself of their earworms.

An 'Elton John' Mini-Mix

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* In the end, she never became a girlfriend at all. But Ida was a good, good friend, and passed on to something like her reward in 2001.

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  1. When I was a kid back in the ’70s, Neil Innes – a comic songwriter who had worked with the Monty Python team – had a show of his own on BBC2, ‘The Innes Book of Records’: only two short seasons of six episodes each (that’s how we do comedy in England), but it was pure gold, one of the highlights of my childhood.

    Alas, I now find it impossible to listen to Elton John without recalling this dead-on parody of the Elton-Bernie songwriting style – catchy but often lyrically somewhat vapid and nonsensical:

    There are moments of surreal brilliance in these lyrics. I particularly like the climax:

    I guess I’ll never know or truly understand…
    Anyhow, it’s not just doorknobs that come off in your hand.

    That Youtube clip is from ‘Rutland Weekend Television’, the very Pythonesque post-Python project from Eric Idle. (There was a linking theme of programming ideas produced by a local TV station in England’s smallest – in fact, long since defunct – county, hopelessly ramshackle and underfunded. I think the gag here was that they could only afford an appearance fee of 200 pounds, which wasn’t quite enough for a complete performance.)

    • Oh, sorry to have missed this earlier! (“This” meaning both your comment(s), and the video.)

      Bernie Taupin’s lyrics often remind me of the Moody Blues’. As I said a while back, in a Midweek Music Break about them: “The ideal way to listen to them is to sort of let your mind go out of focus, so it doesn’t snag on a given incongruity.” If out-of-focus makes you uncomfortable, substitute something like “…let your mind sort of listen to the lyrics out of the corner of your ear, preferably while squinting.”

      What actually got me thinking about Elton John was an episode, which I saw last week, of this interview series with Elvis Costello. In it, EJ discusses how he and Bernie Taupin have never worked together in the same room; rather, Taupin writes the lyrics and turns them over to John, or John comes up with the music first and gives it to Taupin to craft a lyric. He (John) said that he’s always been very, very happy with the ease with which Taupin expresses just what John was shooting for.

      …and yet, John and Costello seemed to spend most of their discussion of lyricists talking not about Bernie Taupin, but about this guy, David Ackles (about whom I’d never heard a word before):

      (John and Costello dueted on a song of his during the episode.)

      After the US-debut self-titled album, I never bought another EJ album. I listened to a few, though — some belonging to my kid brother, some belonging to erstwhile lady companions. As with Elton John, the quality seemed terribly inconsistent.

      • That Elvis Costello series does look rather dauntingly high-powered: I imagine Leonard Cohen is peeved that he hasn’t been invited yet. There are occasions when I miss English TV.

        In England, Elton seemed to have settled into a zone of being already a bit of an industry dinosaur – past it, old-fashioned, appealing mostly to a middle-aged, middle class, middle-of-the-road demographic – by the end of the 1970s; but then he made a big comeback in the ’80s, particularly with the ‘Too Low For Zero’ album – which was pretty solid all the way through, and had some very, very catchy numbers on it. It was one of a handful of records that just about everybody I knew bought during our university years (the others being Men At Work – ‘Down Under’, Genesis – ‘Genesis’, Joe Jackson – ‘Big World’, Paul Simon – ‘Graceland’, and Dire Straits – ‘Brothers in Arms’).

        I think Innes here did a great job of nailing that Bernie Taupin quality of producing phrases that sound good even if they don’t strictly hang together all that coherently in meaning.

        This David Ackles seems worth checking out more of. Thanks for the introduction. I don’t believe my sweetheart du jour, Camille O’Sullivan (cabaret diva of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) has covered one of his songs yet – that would seem to be the ultimate accolade. I first became aware of her about 8 or 9 years ago, when, on the last day – darn it! – of my regular-ish Festival-going holiday in Edinburgh, I spotted one of her posters announcing that she chiefly performed the work of…. Nick Cave, Jacques Brel, and Tom Waits. Instant swoon! I made a point of going to see her show the following year… and two or three more times subsequently.

  2. I think RWTV came first, and this song was then recycled for the Book of Records. But don’t quote me on that – it could have been the other way around.

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