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In early 1975, an exhausted Elton John, Bernie Taupin and their entourage returned from an exhilarating world tour to Caribou Ranch in Colorado to put down their next album. The tour was highly successful; it featured the reemergence of one John Lennon at Madison Square Garden and the Elton John Band at the top of its game and Elton at the top of his fame.
But this album was going to be especially important as the first album from the Ranch, titled Caribou, had faced some critical backlash Elton had not previously experienced. In some ways this seemed natural given the phenomenon that was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but the album itself could certainly deserve blame as well. While it featured the usual two strong singles, the rest of the tracks were strange, scattered and downbeat; never in fact were the single choices so blatantly —maybe on any album. Caribou had no "Bennie and the Jets" or "Funeral for a Friend" that could force unexpected airplay and worse, the LP may have been the first John album since Empty Sky not to work as a cohesive unit.
Maybe sensing trouble, Elton revived an old British trick (see Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who): the non-album single. First was a"Wall of Sound" Christmas single called "Step Into Christmas," an obvious move now but then not all that typical. It was a hit and to this day is a standard on the Christmas stations and the December lists of classic rock outlets. Following were "Philadelphia Freedom," a nice piece of Philadelphia funk written specifically for Billie Jean King's fledgling World Team Tennis franchise, and an expansive remake of the Beatles "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" featuring Winston O'Boogie aka the song's primary author. In addition, Elton also made radio noise with his cover of "Pinball Wizard," featured in his appearance in the movie adaptation of "Tommy."
These singles kept Elton atop the charts and diminished much of the disappointment of the reception to Caribou. But after years of nonstop touring, it was a difficult time for the Elton John Band (we know this in part because much of the band that cut the album would not make it to its live debut).
In what now seems like a stroke of brilliance, Bernie Taupin decided to write a set of lyrics that can be described as a musical autobiography of the John/Taupin partnership at its pre-fame stages; a collection of songs describing their early years writing together leading up to the release of "Empty Sky," their UK debut, which would actually have its first US release later in the year. This move automatically gave the album a cohesion that Caribou sorely lacked and with the recent spate of non-LP 45s taking care of radio play, the need for obvious singles became secondary to a consistently strong set of songs to feed the concept. The strategy produced quick rewards: "Captain Fantastic" became the first LP ever to debut at number 1 on the Billboard charts.
The album opens with its ambling, 6-minute title track, establishing the character archetypes of Captain Fantastic (Elton) and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (Taupin). In later years Elton reflected that the song had literally become their lives, with Elton travelling the world bringing his music "From the end of the world to your town" and Bernie living on a farm raising cattle in relative obscurity. Following are two strong Elton deep tracks: "Tower of Babel" is an example of Taupin using quasi-historical/ biblical imagery as a metaphor for the music business. "Bitter Fingers" reminisces on Elton's years playing the club circuit with Bluesology and his need to expand his musical horizons.
"Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" recreates the bustling feeling of weekend train trips Taupin took between his home in Lincolnshire and Kings Cross station in London. Gene Page's orchestral arrangements give the song additional depth.
Next came the album's single--a song that is musically of a type with the previous album's masterpiece "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me." "Someone saved my life tonight" is another love letter to the musical and vocal styling of the Beach Boys but lyrically is about Elton's ill-fated engagement to his girlfriend at the time, Linda Woodrow. The ensuing pressure nearly drove him to suicide. The "Sugar Bear" mentioned is Long John Baldry who encouraged Elton to call off the engagement and thus whispered "sweet freedom" into his ear. The fact that Bernie could articulate Elton's emotions as well as his own speaks to the strength of his abilities and the depth of their relationship.
"(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket" is a upbeat rocker about the struggle to survive as a musician in the London scene at that time. For the acerbic, "Better off Dead," Elton pulls out the downbeat lyric, upbeat melody trick—best seen earlier in his career on "Think I'm gonna Kill Myself" from Honky Chateau. The processed drums by Nigel Olsson on this track are especially effective.
"Writing" is an account of the many days, nights and weekends Elton and Bernie would spend writing songs and the uncertainty of "whether the things we wrote today will sound as good tomorrow?"
The majestic album-closing pairing of "We All Fall in Love Sometimes" and "Curtains" puts into perspective the special relationship Elton and Bernie formed—a unique partnership in or outside of the musical world and one that has lasted in some way or another for more than 50 years.
The opening line in "Curtains," "I used to know this old scarecrow," is a nod to the song "Scarecrow," the first song Elton and Bernie wrote together (it was never recorded). The "We All Fall in Love Sometimes" follow-up is an ebullient love song that provides the album with a perfect coda; for some Elton-philes the dum-de-lu-de-lies out-fun the "Na-na-na-nas" of the by then 7-year old "Hey Jude."
In many ways the album marked an end of an era. Before it was even released, Elton had fired his longtime rhythm section of Dee Murray on Bass and Nigel Olsson on drums and his inner-demons would start to emerge. Thus, it was a different band that debuted the album with Elton at Wembley, a concert that can be found on the Deluxe Edition of the album many years later. But it was successful enough in their mind that Bernie and Elton would pick up the story 31 years later, releasing "The Captain and the Kid" about the "fame" years.