Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Review: 'Elton John from Tin Pan Alley to the Yellow Brick Road'

Say what you will about the Donald Duck costumes and his lame MTV-era hits, but Elton John was one of the very best pop hit machines of the seventies. Not everything has aged well for various reasons (“Crocodile Rock”, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, and “Candle in the Wind” come to mind), but blockbusters such as “Rocket Man”, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, “Levon”, and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, and a net-full of album tracks such as “Where to Now St. Peter”, “Blues for My Baby and Me”, “Harmony”, and “Madman Across the Water”, rate among the richest pop released in the first half of the decade. So the fact that Keith Hayward’s Elton John from Tin Pan Alley to the Yellow Brick Road focuses almost exclusively on this period isn’t too much of an issue in itself. In fact, this book is actually a sequel to one that detailed the pre-stardom phase of Reg’s career. As Hayward suggests in his introduction, you won’t exactly be lost if you read volume two without reading volume one first, but a few important aspects—most notably John’s relationship with lyricist Bernie Taupin—will remain a bit hazy.

Nevertheless, we still get a fairly clear idea of who this unlikely superstar is just from these scant 200 pages. Elton John was a guy who used outrageous antics and attire to fight through his shyness and uncertainty about what kind of career he should pursue. While Hayward’s preface kind of frames his book as a tale of the music business in the seventies with John as the main reference point, this really is more of a biography than that, though certain limitations keep it from being definitive and may account for why Hayward chose to not represent his book as a biography. The people he interviewed often steer this story, and because they aren’t always the most integral characters in the core Elton John story, they sometimes steer it down tangential roads. For example, we get a lot more about the casting of Tina Turner in Tommy— a movie in which Elton John plays a very minor role— than is probably necessary because Hayward happened to interview the movie’s producer, Beryl Virtue. It’s an interesting story—I certainly cannot call any part of From Tin Pan Alley to the Yellow Brick Road anything less than interesting—but it is off-topic, and since this is a pretty short book, that is an issue worth mentioning. Discussions of John’s work and play with John Lennon, Rod Stewart, Kiki Dee, and Brian Wilson manage to fold other stars into the story without leaving out its main man.

Get Elton John from Tin Pan Alley to the Yellow Brick Road on Amazon.com here:

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