I’ve been listening to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
There are so many great tracks, with complex, lush arrangements to go with the Taupin lyrics. A couple of stand out tracks – Grey Seal, Bennie and the Jets, and The Ballad of Danny Bailey.
The latter of course is a saga of “… a running gun youngster in a sad restless age”. Not too many pop songs sing about historical gangster figures such as John Dillinger, the bank robber of the American mid west during the Depression years. Mostly I love the introductory low keys intro heralding the bad guy’s entry, and the trills that Elton gets out of the piano towards the end, running up the keys as the song ebbs away. Coming in at just under four and a half minutes, it wasn’t the kind of thing you heard played on radio in the 1970s.
It’s a good complement though to Billy Joel’s Ballad of Billy the Kid, (Piano Man) which is probably less successful in its execution and was perhaps influenced by the Taupin/John composition – although both albums were released in 1973. The Billy the Kid song is not an historically accurate account of Billy the Kid’s life and times, and the transference of the persona in the last verse is confusing with Joel reportedly denying that that Billy was himself. Similarly, though, its arrangement is full on, with orchestral snippets reminiscent of the High Chapparel theme.
While Bonnie and Clyde, Desperado, and even Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive run the same meme, the only other song of similar ilk and grandeur that I can think of is The Highwayman, by the wondrous Jimmy Webb. He related in an interview that he dreamed the song up, but that it took years for it to be recorded, initially by Glen Campbell, and then by The Highwaymen – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. A rather esoteric story of four souls, starting with a bandit and ending with a spaceman, The Highwayman was recently recorded by Mark Knopfler and Jimmy Webb. It’s a more pared back piece of music – a bit of banjo and fiddle – and it’s a long way from the Ballad of Danny Bailey. The ballad is not so common any more – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds did The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane. But that’s a very different kettle of fish best left to pick over another day.