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Music Review: Elton John – Blue Moves

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On October 22, 1976, Elton John released a double album, Blue Moves. This release would mark a significant change and temporary downturn in the career of the man whose sleek pop/rock recordings, savvy songwriting, and exciting stage shows had made him the unchallenged Goliath of the music world.

To understand how this rather dark and moody album came to be, it is helpful to review the extraordinary run of success that preceded its creation as well as the pressures and unhappiness that seemingly became its writers' muse.

The Backstory:

By 1976, Elton John had conquered the world’s music scene. He had released ten studio albums, one soundtrack record, and a live recording. Aside from his debut album, Empty Sky, all of his releases had achieved much acclaim and huge commercial success.

The release of Honky Chateau in 1972 had marked the beginning of a streak of seven straight number one albums. In 1975, his autobiographic concept album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, had debuted at number one, a feat never before achieved in the music industry. The follow-up, Rock of the Westies, had done the same.

During this period, Elton’s music had dominated radio. “Rocket Man,” his 1972 single, had started a run of sixteen consecutive top twenty hits, and at one point in the mid-70’s, Elton John’s recordings had accounted for over three percent of music sales worldwide.

Further, at the height of his fame — in October 1975, while Elton was in town for two sold-out shows at Dodger Stadium — the city of Los Angeles had proclaimed an “Elton John Week” and honored him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In short, Elton and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, had risen from total obscurity to become the most prominent songwriters in the industry.

After only six years on the scene, Elton John had already become a legendary recording artist and live performer.

His hard work ethic had raised his prowess in the music world. But by 1976, the years of nearly constant touring and the excesses of a rock-star life (which had come to define Elton as much as his music) were beginning to take a toll. When it came time to record his eleventh studio album, the Rocket Man was a shadow of his former self, already having attempted suicide a year earlier during L.A.’s "Elton John Week."

Entering the studio in Toronto for the Blue Moves sessions, Elton John was finding an uncomfortable spotlight placed on his sexuality (he admitted to being bisexual in Rolling Stone the same year). He was addicted to drugs and alcohol and exhausted from his punishing schedule. It seemed to many that his star was nearing a burn-out phase.

Likewise, the pressures of staying on top of the charts as well as a failing marriage had left Bernie Taupin in a dangerously dark mood. It was amid these trying times and personal struggles in the lives of both writers that the songs for Blue Moves were born.

As was usually the case, Taupin wrote the lyrics for the album first and then passed them off to Elton to be set to music. As he penned this cycle of songs, he was ever aware that the duo’s time on top would, at some point, inevitably come to an end. In fact, both men knew that there would come a day when their albums would not debut at number one and might never reach that coveted spot on the charts again. It was with this in mind that they, separately, went to work composing.

As his marriage further deteriorated and a career downturn loomed, Taupin was sinking into a bout of depression and was beginning to loath the lifestyle that success had brought him. This resulted in some of the most brooding, sad lyrics he has ever produced. Elton has even claimed that some of the lyrics were so dark that he turned them down, as he was unable to compose music for them- let alone sing them.

In approaching the music, Elton decided to take the future direction of his career into his own hands and record an album that was purposely non-commercial. By doing so, he wished to free himself from the pressures of producing radio-friendly singles and the expectations of following up the unprecedented success of his previous albums. It seems Elton planned for Blue Moves to be his artistic “magnum opus” and, though the public wasn’t aware of it, his farewell to the music scene for awhile.

The Album:

Having fired his original rhythm section of Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson (retaining guitar master Davey Johnstone and percussionist Ray Cooper) after the release of Captain Fantastic, Elton used his new stage band for these sessions along with a plethora of high profile guest musicians. An unusual aspect of this album is that some of the band mates share writing credits with John and Taupin on various tracks, showing how the music was truly created in the studio.

To add to the desired grandiose nature of the album, Elton even enlisted the London Symphony Orchestra for select arrangements. He retained Gus Dudgeon as his producer, as he had been part of the star’s team since the Elton John album in 1970. Blue Moves would mark the last time Gus would work on one of Elton’s albums for many years.

In addition to a few all-out instrumental numbers (one of which opens the album), there is a long orchestral introduction that is arranged by the band’s new keyboardist, James Newton-Howard, to the song “Tonight.” The orchestrated section of the song is well written and riveting, and the actual song that appears after all the fanfare is quite beautiful and is a standout on the album. Elton has even claimed that some of the lyrics were so dark that he turned them down, as he was unable to compose music for them- let alone sing them. However, his once gorgeous falsetto shows the first signs of trouble on this song. In fact, “Tonight” sounds much better when performed in present-day concerts with his new baritone voice. This troublesome falsetto performance is something that plagues the record throughout.

Next on the album is another heavily orchestrated track—this one is arranged by Paul Buckmaster— entitled "One Horse Town."  A driving rocker with an extremely innovative string and horn part, the song is filled with tempo changes, sound effects, and incredible contributions from the instrumentalists, particularly on drums and electric guitar. Taupin's lyric is about the mundane nature of small town life, and when read on paper seems to have been right out of Tumbleweed Connection. However, Elton fitted it with a bizarre rock melody that sadly, at times, courts disco. While it seems a bit of a disconnect between composer and lyricist, it still works for the most part. “One Horse Town” remains an obscure favorite for many fans, and it was even revived as a concert opener in the '80’s.

Perhaps the best and most well-known track from this album is “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word,” which features only Elton’s piano and voice, light bass, the strings, and a written accordion solo. It's a rare song in that Elton contributed to the lyric and composed portions of the melody before passing it back to Taupin to complete. The piece has become one of the team’s most beloved compositions, and it is one of their most covered tunes.

An interesting side note is that Ray Charles sang this with Elton as a duet on Genius Loves Company, the recording turning out to be the final one of his life. “Sorry” is a timeless, classic song that is far better than any of the other material from Blue Moves.

Aside for the aforementioned tunes, there are only a few other notable songs. While worth mentioning, though, these tunes in no way live up to his previous classics. However, they shine brighter on an album with so much relatively weak material.

Among them is “Cage the Songbird,” which is loosely based on the life and death of French singer and icon Edith Piaf. Legend has it that guitarist Davey Johnstone was playing a guitar part he’d written for Elton to hear. Elton loved it and picked up a sheet of lyrics, spontaneously composing what would be this “Cage the Songbird." It is a delicate, lovely song (in the vein of “Candle in the Wind”) with brilliant guitar work by Johnstone, a fantastic lead vocal by Elton, and smooth backing vocals by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Three notable upbeat songs from this album are the country/rock flavored "Shoulder Holster", the gospel tinged “Is There a God in Heaven?” and the rocker, “Crazy Water.” "Shoulder Holster" features a large horn section, and the other two tracks feature quite a bit of orchestration. The melodies are strong on all three and the productions, though a bit inflated, are nevertheless tasteful. “Crazy Water,” which was released as a single in a handful of countries and achieved limited chart success, features a prominent backing vocal arrangement by Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille fame.

A couple of nice, slow moments are found in “Someone’s Final Song” and “Idol.” “Someone’s Final Song” is a heavy and sad lyric about a writer’s suicide. Elton gives it a haunting and beautiful melody, and the backing vocal arrangement is lovely throughout. “Idol” is done in a jazz style with a prominent sax part and brushes on the cymbals. The vocal is nuanced and is among the best of Elton’s career. The lyric, about a washed-up star from a time gone by, is presumably about Elvis Presley. However, many speculate that Taupin was questioning what the future held for the Elton John act.

Though it has aged well, Blue Moves, unlike Elton’s previous double album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, seems to be weighted down with a bit too much filler material. For example, there are three extended instrumental tracks (perhaps due to Bernie’s sour mood toward the business and lack of interest).

One of these wordless tunes, “Your Starter For…,” isn’t even composed by Elton. It’s a peppy enough number written by guitarist Caleb Quaye, but it sounds like material for a high school marching band. While it's played fantastically by a talented roster of musicians, it is hardly in the league with Elton's instrumental masterpiece, “Funeral for a Friend.” The other two instrumentals— particularly “Theme from a Non-Existent TV Series,” which likely shouldn't have existed at all — don’t add enough to the album to merit their inclusion.

An unfortunate thing about the album is that the disco sound creeps in regularly. This is specifically evident in tracks like the forgettable album closer, “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!),” which is far too long and sounds fairly generic. All the string effects, gospel singers, and piano pounding do little to save it from its own blandness. Besides, why end such a melancholy album with a frantic and unmemorable rock/disco number?

There are several more instances of filler — often extended jams with meandering, unmemorable melodies and fade-outs that are far too long. In many cases — “Chameleon,” “Boogie Pilgrim,” “Where‘s the Shoorah,” "The Wide Eyed and Laughing," and “Between Seventeen and Twenty” — the music doesn't fit the mood of the lyric. Most of these songs also suffer from too much falsetto from Elton's now battle-worn voice. In the days of “Tiny Dancer,” his falsetto was a glorious thing to hear. On Blue Moves, those glory days have indeed passed.

Afterthoughts:

It seemed that with this album, Elton John aimed to record a collection of songs that was radically different than what was expected from him and for that album to be more artistic, grown-up, and ambitious. And while "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" was a number one single, the album as a whole only managed to reach number three in the charts. Instinctively, Elton knew that he couldn’t possibly excel any higher in the music industry than he already had, and so he chose to ensure that the next stage of his career progressed on his own terms. Artistically and professionally, Elton took many chances with Blue Moves, causing its quality, relevance, and place in rock history to remain subjects of fierce debate among fans and critics ever since.

Did Elton deliver an artistic masterwork with Blue Moves? Though it was a noble effort, I’m afraid he didn’t. In many ways, Blue Moves is overblown. It lacks coherence, as the tracks are so randomly sequenced and don’t share much of a theme (though sadness and despair do abound). While it is not the worst album of his career (I personally consider Rock of the Westies as worse), it is far from his best and in no way matches the genius of the Elton John to Captain Fantastic era. And in all honesty, it would have been tighter and stronger as a single-disc album.

On the bright side, Blue Moves was daring. It was a step out of character for the hit-making pianist, and the top-notch group of musicians played wonderfully on the record. Should it be considered as part of Elton’s classic period? I think so. It should be a bookend of sorts. Just as Empty Sky is an imperfect album that hints to the greatness to come, Blue Moves is an imperfect album that brought an end to an era of unabashed genius and hinted to the new stage of Elton’s career that lay ahead.

After Blue Moves , Elton took a couple of years off from touring and began recording only one album every year or two. Having proved his talents as a performer and composer with a record-breaking run at the top of the music world, he was ready to move into the future as an established statesman in the business. Since Blue Moves, most of his albums have been comparable in the sense that they've never lived up to his early-to-mid-seventies heyday. However, Elton John has remained a constant force on the music scene, maintaining a presence in the American top 40 charts for 26 consecutive years, breaking the record previously held by Elvis Presley.

While it may be possible to dismiss Blue Moves as a substandard and inflated double album that led to an extended stage of so-called mediocrity, most would admit that what some consider mediocre from Elton John is often far better than the best from many other Top 40 artists. Elton, himself, still refers to this work as a favorite in his catalogue. Blue Moves is no Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Honky Chateau or Tumbleweed Connection, but truthfully, it was never meant to be.

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About Jason Spraggins

Jason was born in Bells, TN. As a high school musician, Jason achieved membership in the All-West Tennessee Honor Band and, as a senior, received the John Phillips Sousa Award. He was also the 1998 recipient of the Joe Kincaid Memorial Scholarship for Musicians. He later earned his Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education with an English minor from Lambuth University in Jackson, TN. As a student at Lambuth, he participated in and was a featured soloist for the University Jazz Band (playing first alto sax). He also performed with the school's Brass Ensemble (on tuba) and Wind Band (playing first sax and tuba). Over the years, Jason has served as a summer camp instructor for various high school band programs in the area and has arranged concert band, small ensemble, and marching band music for a variety of ensembles. As a church musician, he has served as pianist and has directed vocal and hand chime groups. He has also taught instrumental music privately since his graduation. In 2004, Jason wrote the script and songs for a two act Christmas musical entitled Beyond Bethlehem. The musical has been performed twice locally and has now been submitted for publication. He is currently preparing the scores for two new shows, Elizabethtown: A Musical Western and Adventures in the Closet: A Children's Musical, both of which he is co-writing with his long-time friend and collaborator, Andy Brown. The two are also busy developing a cycle of songs for a concept album entitled Garfield County. In addition, Jason is working on a musical, "Beneath the Surface," based on the John Wayne Gacy murders of the 1970's. Aside from these projects, Jason is also preparing a set of instrumental pieces for a solo piano album called Daydreams and Reflections that is to be recorded in the coming year. Along with his current theatrical projects, Jason is actively writing stand-alone songs to be pitched to publishing houses and studios and is working to earn album placement and the inclusion of his music in T.V. and film. As a writer, Jason has a variety of approaches when crafting songs. At times he writes alone, creating both the lyrics and music himself. He most often writes with Andy Brown, setting Andy's lyrics to music. One of their new stand-alone songs, "Yours," just received a glowing review and was nominated as "Best of SongU.com" (an online songwriting community/music industry website based in Nashville). Recently, Jason has collaborated on a number of songs with composer Matt Glickstein from Hawaii, providing lyrics for Matt's compositions. The very first collaboration by Spraggins and Glickstein, a song called "Ghosts," was also nominated as "Best of SongU.com" (an honor several more of Jason's works have earned) by an award-winning professional songwriter with over a hundred cuts to his credit by major artists in country, rock, and contemporary Christian music.