Elton John - Empty Sky

Elton John
Empty Sky

Released 1969 on DJM
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 31/10/2009ce

Side 1
1. Empty Sky 8:28
2. Val-Hala 4:12
3. Western Ford Gateway 3:16
4. Hymn 2000 4:29

Side 2
1. Lady What's Tomorrow 3:10
2. Sails 3:45
3. The Scaffold 3:18
4. Skyline Pigeon 3:37
5. Gulliver/Hay Chewed/Reprise 6:59

I have a confession to make. I haven’t always been a Head. Well, I’m not strictly a Head now, but my taste for the more underground types of music didn’t kick in until I was well into my twenties. Most people have their musical epiphanies in their teens, but I’m not too proud to admit that I spent much of my adolescence listening to the music of Elton John. I’d become an instant fan of the former Reginald Dwight in the late 70s when I saw him being eaten by a crocodile on The Muppet Show and, ours being a frugal household, the resulting trip to a record shop brought home the LP ‘London & New York’, a budget reissue of the 1976 live LP ‘Here & There’. That was it until 1983 when my interest was reignited by Elton’s return to the charts with the LP ‘Too Low For Zero’ prompting me to scour the record shops for anything I could find from his extensive back catalogue. My first purchase was the self-titled 1970 album, which I took to be his debut. Well, it did open with ‘Your Song’ after all. It also felt like a first album: ambitious, a tad precious, and maintaining a tone of dark romanticism with which the cover photo of Elton peering gloomily out of the shadows was perfectly in keeping. But a subsequent rifling through the racks at Our Price threw up an LP bearing the date 1969. Rather startled by this discovery, yet comforted by the fact that it contained ‘Skyline Pigeon’ (familiar as the opening song on that cheapo live LP), I thought I’d pay my £2.99 and give it a try. But, for a cautious 13 year old who constantly worried about wasting his pocket money on music he might not like, the opening song on Elton’s first album is probably the least comforting thing he has ever laid down. However, before I take a proper look at this most underrated of debut albums, let’s have a bit of context.

In 1969 Elton John was hedging his bets. After several years stuck in the background as keyboardist with Bluesology, and a period churning out demos for Dick James Music (leaning towards sub-Bee Gees whimsy, with the odd sub-Scott Walker existentialist ballad thrown in for good measure), as well as a fair amount of session work, he'd finally landed a recording contract in his own right, but wasn't giving up the day job just yet. Besides, this day job was extremely varied, ranging from cheesy hackwork (writing Lulu's failed Song For Europe entry; anonymously covering the latest hits for Top Of The Pops LPs), to playing and singing on Joe Boyd's Witchseason demos and nearly becoming lead vocalist for both Gentle Giant and King Crimson (he was contracted to replace Greg Lake on 'In The Wake Of Poseidon' before being cruelly rejected). Elton seemed similarly uncertain which musical direction his own career should take, debut single 'I've Been Loving You' being a slice of MOR in the Engelbert Humperdink vein. When this flopped, follow up single 'Lady Samantha' tried the psychedelic route and achieved a good amount of radio play as a result. This didn't translate into actual sales, but it made people take notice and resulted in a handful of BBC radio sessions, including one for John Peel’s esoteric Night Ride show. With this kind of encouragement, it made sense to embrace the hipper influences of the day, and with the help of guitarist Caleb Quaye, who had already contributed 90% of the acid rock quotient to ‘Lady Samantha’ and cut a great Brit psych single of his own (‘Baby Your Phrasing Is Bad’), he set to work on an LP which displays such influences as Leonard Cohen, Procol Harum, Traffic and The Incredible String Band. And it all kicks off with a deliberately ugly eight-and-a-half minute title track that couldn’t be further removed from ‘Your Song’.

An ominous conga pattern plays solo for a few bars before being joined by a few desolate piano chords. The piano soon picks up a rhythm before the drums and Caleb Quaye's extremely dirgey electric guitar get in on the groove. Elton's voice then makes its first appearance, tunelessly wailing 'I'M NOT A RAT TO BE SPAT ON...' - a startling beginning to his very first album, and a far cry from ‘It’s a little bit funny...’ His voice has an abrasive, world weary tone quite absent from his best-known work, providing an edge that makes up for the rather hackneyed high/sky/fly rhyming scheme of the chorus. The whole thing is carried along on the most relentless 4/4 beat from drummer Roger Pope which, even during the brief drop outs at the end of each chorus where organ and floating flute provide a moment of serenity, seems to be chomping at the bit in the form of heavily reverbed bursts of hi-hat. A miserable, minimalist harmonica joins in as the second half of the song descends into a jam session, but a closer listen reveals that this seemingly spontaneous recording has been subjected to a certain amount of post-production. How else could Caleb Quaye simultaneously play both congas and guitar (including a head-spinning backwards solo)? What’s more, the band’s apparent response to Elton’s mid-song request ‘I want you to shhhhh....’ is entirely created in the mixing process, with the instruments faded down but clearly still playing at full throttle almost inaudibly in the background. There is enough conviction in the performance to make even Elton’s improvised ‘Get down with it baby’ stay just the right side of risible. It’s a great track, but it was all a bit much for me when I first played it on my mum’s record player back in 1983 (it was a relief to get a hi-fi in my own room the following year, where I could test my musical purchases in private). The young Elton, back in 1969, was convinced it was the best thing he’d ever heard.

Much more instantly palatable is track 2, ‘Val Halla’. Lyrically steeped in Norse mythology, and decorated with twiddly harpsichord, it tumbles along on a wonderfully loose rhythm section with piano, drums and acoustic guitar constantly threatening to trip each other up. The vocal styling has lost none of its miserablism, but the melody is so delightfully plaintive that it could easily have been a hit for Procol Harum. Elton’s voice takes on a more familiar tone on ‘Western Ford Gateway’, largely because it features an early example of his tendency to add an extra syllable to a line (‘It-a-flowed upon the cobbled floor’). Bernie Taupin’s evocative lyrics now display a more original rhyming ability, particularly on the bridge between each verse and chorus: ‘And a baby cried/And I saw a light/And I wondered where and I wondered why/There’d be a loss of life/Down here tonight.’) It’s a very appealing song, with soaring lead guitar in an acid rock style, and some nifty fiddling around on the upper register of the organ. Side one closes with ‘Hymn 2000’, which tends to be used by the album’s detractors as Exhibit A in the case against. But the extreme pretentiousness is the very thing that I find endearing. Who knows where Bernie Taupin’s head was at when he scribbled such doggerel as:

But the comfort of mother was just an appeal for affection
For the cat from next door was found later at four in surgical dissection


For soon they’ll plough the desert and God knows where I’ll be
Collecting submarine numbers on the main street of the sea

Elton matches these lyrics with something musically just as puzzling, managing somehow to be both jaunty and downright miserable at the same time. There is a hymnal quality that at least partly explains the title, the singer intoning drearily while a revivalist tambourine shakes spiritedly away. The flute from ‘Empty Sky’ returns to try and add some pep to the intro, but is replaced by cheerful whistling from tape operator Clive Franks over the outro. Elton and Bernie were still young and pretentious and not afraid to release songs that a year later they would probably have felt deeply embarrassed by, a folly of youth that can only be admired.

Side two kicks off in a bucolic mood with the ecologically-concerned ‘Lady What’s Tomorrow?’ before heading into groovier territory with ‘Sails’. The whole band is cooking on this one, but it’s Caleb Quaye who steals the show with a long and funky guitar solo that comes in where a second verse should be. The cool and laid back ‘The Scaffold’ has hints of the Incredible String Band with its references to minotaurs and hangmen, and features lovely interplay between the electric piano in the left channel and mellow, fluid guitar lines in the right. The almost hymnal ‘Skyline Pigeon’ is considered by many critics to be the only decent song on this album. It certainly sounds like an instant classic, and was chosen by Elton to represent his early days on the chronological first side of the aforementioned live album. But to me it feels like the one song on the album whose potential remains unrealised. The recording is rough and the arrangement feels a tad undercooked, which may be why Elton returned to the song to give it a lusher production a few years later. Closing track ‘Gulliver/Hay Chewed/Reprise’ is a curious affair. ‘Gulliver’ is a gorgeous and extremely moving ode to a deceased dog, which manages to avoid the depressing mawkishness of ‘Old Shep’. It concludes with Elton ‘Aah-ing’ over a series of pounding chords, in an obvious nod to John Lennon’s linking section on ‘A Day In The Life’. Heavy distortion is applied to his voice and there is an abrupt cut to – a jazz instrumental, completely sabotaging the mood established by the preceding eulogy. The title ‘Hay Chewed’ is an obvious pun on ‘Hey Jude’ but bears no relation to the Beatles song. And then, as if things can’t get more puzzling, the chorus of ‘Empty Sky’ fades in, beginning a haphazard montage of snippets from all the songs from the album, concluding with the distorted ending of ‘Gulliver’ which abruptly cuts into silence, making the end of the LP as disconcerting as the start.

Original UK vinyl copies of ‘Empty Sky’ are still easy to find, suggesting that DJM kept it on catalogue once Elton’s career went into overdrive. On CD it is enhanced immeasurably by the addition of ‘Lady Samantha’ and it’s excellent b-side ‘All Across The Havens’, plus the follow up single (also a flop) ‘It’s Me That You Need’, a wonderful piece of acid-MOR with a soaring chorus and a swooping string section. The b-side of the latter, ‘Just Like Strange Rain’, closes the CD with an enjoyably child-like slice of psychedelia, referencing the Stones ‘She’s A Rainbow’ and 'Citadel' but musically evoking the spirit of Donovan or Dave Mason.

Much as I like this album, it’s easy to see why it is generally considered something of a false start. Elton and Bernie were young and naive and still finding their feet. It didn’t get released in the USA until 1975, which meant that for a good five years many record buyers in the States shared my own misconception about the second LP being a debut. Fortuitously, the next step was to team up with producer Gus Dudgeon and arranger Paul Buckmaster, both fresh from working on David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, a perfect meeting of minds which resulted in an incredible run of classic albums. Whether or not you’re a fan, you have to be impressed by a work rate which produced 5 more LPs in the next 2 years, including a kinetic live album showcasing the power trio of Elton, Dee Murray and Nigel Olssen and a film soundtrack which featured a handful of classic songs amongst the orchestral mush. Funnily enough, in retrospect, my Elton John LPs don’t actually seem so out of place sat alongside my other 70s stuff. For a while he was as much of an albums artist as Led Zeppelin or Yes, particularly in the case of ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ and ‘Madman Across The Water’ which (in the UK at least) contained no singles and were housed in lavish textured gatefold sleeves with elaborately designed booklets. Such is the general moodiness of his early work, I can’t help feeling that if Elton had retired in 1971 he’d probably be something of a cult figure today. But then we would have been denied one of the more unlikely stars of the glam era, even if his musical reputation has tended to be overshadowed by the often ridiculous image. It’s tempting to put together an Unsung compilation akin to Julian’s re-evaluation of Kiss, which would have to include extraordinary collaborations with the likes of Mick Ronson (an incredible, rejected at the time, 9 minute hard rock rendition of ‘Madman Across The Water’), Robert Kirby (the spooky ‘All The Nasties’) and Jean-Luc Ponty (the taut and funky ‘Amy’). And then there are several mellotron-laden glam rock classics from 1973 which prove that the music could be every bit as gaudy as the image. Nowadays he may be a rather portly gentleman with a reduced vocal range who churns out songs that rely mostly on clichés. But at least they are clichés he himself invented, so for that he can be forgiven.

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