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Honky Chateau was an album of many firsts for Elton John. Most notably it was the first of his albums not to be recorded in London. Inspired by the Rolling Stones, Elton opted to record in France at the Chateau D'Hierouville, which gives the album its title. An old chateau featuring lodging for the band, a swimming pool, and various recreations in addition to a fully-functional recording studio, which had been previously used by the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd for their soundtrack for the French Film "La Valle" (also known as "Obscured by Clouds"). It would also be the first Elton John album to primarily feature Elton's touring band of Davey Johnstone on guitar, banjo, mandolin, and vocals, Dee Murray on bass and vocals, and Nigel Olsson on drums and vocals performing on all the tracks. It was also his first album to top the US Charts.
The album opens with "Honky Cat," a piano and banjo driven number with a full horn section arranged by producer Gus Dudgeon and a sprinkling of electric piano parts with Dee's Bass and Nigel's Drums— creating a stunning opening track.
The aptly named "Mellow" is next with a very laid back piano and bass driven melody with Nigel's drums and tambourine laying down a nice slow yet precise backbeat with Elton's Organ adding additional color to the song.
Next is "I Think I Am Going to Kill Myself," a song lyrically about teenage angst and suicidal thoughts but melodically one of the most upbeat songs on the album. It coincided with a tap dancing routine by "Legs" Larry Smith drummer for the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band who would also appear when Elton would perform the song live in the following tour. Elton would again use the "sad lyrics, Happy melody" trick on tracks such as "Better Off Dead," "Sad Songs Say So Much," and "And the House Fell Down"
Next is "Susie (Dramas)," a pretty straight forward rocker. Strangely a cowbell is clearly audible on the track yet the only percussion credited is drums and tambourine by Nigel Olsson.
"Rocket Man" one of Elton's most famous (if a tad overrated) numbers is next. The lyrics for the first verse came to Bernie Taupin one night while driving to his parents house in Linconshire. He says once he got there he immediately frantically looked for a pen so as to not lose the verse in his thoughts. Much of the charm of the song is provided by engineer Dave Henschel's ARP Synthesizer. This is also the first time the vocal blend of Davey, Dee, and Nigel which would become a signature of the next few albums would blossom on record. Elton still performs Rocket Man at every show he plays even if he could potentially fit in three more songs in the time it takes him to perform it.
The Gospel-tinted "Salvation" features a full chorus of background vocalists in addition to Davey, Dee, and Nigel are such Elton John regulars as Madeline Bell, Liza Strike, Larry Steel, and Tony Hazzard. It does it's job of being a hymn-like number that stands out from the other tracks on the album very well.
"Slave" was originally recorded with a very fast tempo, which the creative team felt was too fast. The opposite approach was used on the final track with a very steady tempo accented by Nigel Olsson on congas and Davey Johnstone on guitars and banjo.
"Amy" features future Elton John Band percussionist Ray Cooper on congas and the electric violin of Jean-Luc Ponty and is a pretty straight forward love song.
"Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" is based on Bernie Taupin's reaction to his first visit to New York. He has said he started writing it after hearing a gunshot from his hotel room in Manhattan. The song has since become Elton's anthem for New York City. Performing it at the tribute concert following the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Instrumentally beautiful, it features Elton's piano with Dee's bass and Davey's mandolin underscoring Taupins poetic lyrics.
"Hercules" is the albums straight-forward rocker track and features Beach Boys-Style background vocals from the band as well as producer Gus Dudgeon and Tony Hazzard.
Elton was clearly pleased with the results and would continue to record at the Chateau D'Hierouville for the next two albums.