Review: Elton John’s Greatest Hits (1974)

Legend has it, that when Elton John and John Lennon first met on an airport tarmac, Lennon, in a star-struck awe, bowed down at the feet of Elton. It is a wonderful and appropriate story, especially because Elton John then supposedly said to the former Beatle bowing before him: “Get up! For god sakes, you’re John Lennon!” But, Lennon had every reason to be in awe.

While he was a relative newcomer at the time of their meeting, it was very clear that Elton John was someone to marvel at. From 1971 to 1974, Elton John had an incredible amount of success on the back of his singles, which to this day stand as some of the era’s best. What made John’s work a step above and beyond nearly everyone else is that he was not easy to pigeonhole. He could never be classified as a one-trick-pony, he was always innovating and reinventing himself, as shown on this compilation, Greatest Hits, which was released after the release of his 8th studio album, Caribou in 1974. One listen through this quick, eleven track compilation, shows that Elton John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, did everything remarkably well, from intimate ballads ( “Your Song,”) floating, slow-burning epics (“Candle in the Wind,” “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to be a Long, Long Time),” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me”), edgier, glam-rock (“Bennie and the Jets,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”), gospel (“Border Song,”) and everything in-between (the laid-back island-vibe of “Daniel,” the classic rock and roll stylings via farfisa organ and plucked guitar of “Crocodile Rock,” the jumpy-piano of “Honky Cat”). Despite the various styles, each song remains distinctly its own, epic, multi-dimensional, resonating, and timeless.

Visually, Elton John was certainly a colorful and unique icon of the seventies – but, big sunglasses, shimmering capes, and leprechaun outfits aside, behind the glam, John and Taupin were flat out some of the best pop geniuses of their time. John and Taupin’s compositions were much more interesting, varied, and remarkably colorful, than any of his counterparts. Take a track like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which floats magnificently alongside swelling strings and John’s trademark falsetto, or “Bennie and the Jets,” where the reverbed handclapping, canned applause and echoed vocals gives the track a unique live feeling, the backing vocals of “Candle in the Wind” which complement the hook so devastatingly well, or the punchy horns of “Honky Cat” – I could go on and on about the little things in each song that make each of them wonderfully unique and majestically beautiful pieces of music, but, to be succinct, it is musical ecstasy just getting lost in the layers of pop mastery that each of these compositions brings to the table.

Greatest Hits may be essential listening from front to back, but it is certainly not a complete picture of Elton John’s musical career. One wonders why successful tracks from this era like “Levon,” “The Bitch is Back,” and the immortal “Tiny Dancer,” were left off in favor of songs that did not have nearly as much success at the time (all three of these tracks would later be included in the nearly as essential companion compilation, Greatest Hits Volume II). Despite this relatively large miscue in track choice, Greatest Hits remains one of the best selling albums ever, and remains not only a classic of the time, but also of popular music.

[originally posted on on 8/20/2015]

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