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40 Years Ago: Elton John Releases ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’

It almost seems too easy to call ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ Elton John‘s masterpiece, but it’s hard to argue against it. Released on Oct. 5, 1973, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ was the second studio album he put out in 1973, and his seventh in five years. Oh, and it was a double album.

That’s a staggering tally for even the most prolific artists, from a time when the insatiable nature of the pop charts demanded constant product. In comparison, John has released just four studio albums, or about half that amount, in the past ten years.

Such was the era, and such is his talent. It may be a run of success, quality, and humility unprecedented in rock history. He had six No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts in the 1970s, second only to the Bee Gees. Although ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ didn’t have enough time to beat out 1973′s top-selling album, ‘The World Is a Ghetto’ from War, it outsold all other records the following year. He’s described the era as a time “before the drugs set in,” and his overdose in Los Angeles wouldn’t come until 1975, but at that moment, there was only the music, the studio and the road, on and on.

John writes the music for most songs in twenty minutes or less — “in the time it would take me to make a sandwich,” as longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone would later remark. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ was completed over just two weeks in France, after an aborted attempt to record in Jamaica (the source for Bernie Taupin’s lyric on “Jamaica Jerk Off,” no doubt). The band would wake up in the morning for breakfast, Elton would retire to the piano to write, they’d learn the day’s song, and it took usually no more than four takes to cut each track.

That doesn’t count overdubs and additional instruments, and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ is an album full of lush, rich productions, with strings, horns, and sound effects in abundance across its 17 tracks. Horses gallop on “Roy Rogers,” a chilling wind blows through “Funeral for a Friend,” and a fake crowd claps the off-beat on “Bennie and the Jets.” Pop, rock, country, reggae, soul and R&B melt together into a gorgeous, rocking mosaic. Every song stands as its own tone poem, Taupin’s lyrics conjuring images of a wistful, sometimes painful past that you can’t really escape, no matter how many yellow brick roads you walk away from.

‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ finds an artist at the top of his talents, in a moment when the world was at his feet. Elton John’s had countless legendary moments in his career, from winning Oscars for ‘The Lion King’ to entertaining all of Central Park in a Donald Duck outfit. But there may be no record that captures his gifts more perfectly than ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.’ It’s the quintessential Elton album.

Next: Top 10 Elton John Songs

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