In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1974: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
In 2019’s Rocketman, we see Elton John’s career play out as a musical within a biopic. It hits a lot of the same notes as your usual musical biopic but instead of doing it in the same tired formula we’re used to seeing it does something else with it turning each moment into its own musical number. The movie is pretty good but the one thing I always found frustrating is how it seems to speed through a lot of his imperial period in the mid-’70s. In the movie, his imperial phase is largely represented through a fast-moving montage showing John’s continuing rise through concerts, various headlines, and charts before we get to 1976’s Kiki Dee duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” the very end of that imperial phase.
In real life, all this success must have felt like a fast-moving montage to Elton John and his people. But as someone who likes watching these stories, it would have been cool to see John at the absolute height of his fame working on the songs and albums that would truly define him. Even 2018’s hugely flawed yet ridiculously successful Bohemian Rhapsody got that right. All of it culminates with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the biggest-selling album of 1974.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the sound of an artist at the absolute zenith of their imperial phase. They’ve put in all the effort to get to where they are and are now allowed to make any artistic decision they want knowing full well that it’ll sell no matter what. That’s where Elton John was in real life when he made the hit album. At the dawn of the ‘70s, John had quickly established himself as the next big thing in music constantly releasing albums that sold well and hit singles that are still beloved standards today while living the standard sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle.
Before all that fame, Elton John had slowly worked himself up through the music scene in his native London where he grew up as Reginald Dwight learning to play the piano at an early age which got him a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at 11 where he attended for five years. At 15, John began playing piano at local pubs and with a few friends formed the band Bluesology which in time turned into a backing band for American R&B acts touring England.
John got his big break when he answered an ad in NME looking for songwriters at Liberty Records. There he was hooked up with emerging songwriter Bernie Taupin tasked with writing the music to Taupin’s lyrics. They originally started writing for other artists including a song for British pop star Lulu that was the UK’s entry in the 1969 Eurovision contest. Soon after, they began writing songs for John’s own music beginning with his debut album, 1969’s Empty Sky. The album made little impact but it was the second self-titled album that turned Elton John into a star thanks to his Top 10 breakthrough single, the sweet devotion ballad “Your Song” which helped the album to go Top 5.
There was no looking back from there releasing four more studio albums between the self-titled and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road with all of them doing big business and with 1972’s Honky Chateau got his first of seven consecutive #1 albums. The next album, 1973’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player landed John his first Billboard Hot 100 #1 with the kitschy ‘50s throwback “Crocodile Rock.” When Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released in October 1973, all of the elements were in place for it to be a big hit and yet it wound up outperforming all his previous albums to date.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road spent the last eight weeks of 1973 at #1 on the album charts but continued selling into 1974 that it outsold everything that was released that year. It’s gone on to be certified eight times platinum and remains arguably his best known and most acclaimed work. The album also launched three hit singles from the leadoff rocker “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” (#12) to the wistful title track (#2) and the big #1 hit the satirical glam dress-up of “Bennie and the Jets.”
From my research, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road seemed to be business as usual for Elton and his team. Using working titles like Vodka and Tonics and Silent Movies, Talking Pictures, Taupin and John spent only a few weeks writing the music and lyrics for what would become their most successful work eventually coming up with 22 songs to make a double album. John had attempted early in 1973 to record what would become Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in Jamaica due to The Rolling Stones recording there for their recent album Goats Head Soup but conditions there weren’t great so they went to the Château d’Hérouville outside Paris, an already familiar place since John had recorded Don’t Shoot Me and Honky Chateau there, recording the album in just two weeks.
In a way, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road marks a major shift for Elton John not just that it’s his first double album but in sound too. Before the album, much of John’s hits were largely stately ballads that fit well within the early ‘70s singer-songwriter and soft rock styles popular. Those styles are still there on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road but John was now proving something more. While nominally a rock album, the album shows John applying his theatrical and raucous voice to a variety of styles whether it’s glam rock, kitschy ‘50s rock and roll throwbacks, ballads, down the middle piano singer-songwriter tunes, and for some reason a piss poor take on reggae with “Jamaica Jerk Off” by far the weakest song here.
The first four tracks are some of the best listening experiences you can get on an album since they’re the big songs everyone remembers from classic rock and greatest hits compilations. After the warm-up of “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” you get the torch ballad “Candle in the Wind” originally a tribute to Marilyn Monroe before it became more remembered for John’s 1997 blockbuster rewritten version honoring Princess Diana, “Bennie and the Jets” which along with being a Hot 100 #1 was also a #15 hit on the R&B charts which John took to heart becoming one of the few white acts to perform on Soul Train, and the title track being a somber like reverie to simpler times. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” might just be my favorite for being the hardest rocking song Elton John has ever put out.
The major theme that seems to dominate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is nostalgia which is evident in the title track which uses the yellow brick road imagery from the Wizard of Oz to represent wanting a simpler life from all the fame and the excesses it brings. Taupin admitted that much of his lyrics come from classic cinema and TV he grew up on along with personal experiences as with “Saturday Night’s Alright.” But he also admitted to having no memory of how he wrote some of the songs as with “Love Lies Bleeding” and “Jamaica Jerk Off” and that some songs come to him after figuring out the first line as with “The Ballad of Danny Bailey.” John himself also doesn’t seem to remember much of the process.
You can kind of tell all of this by listening to the album. The theme of cinematic inspired nostalgia is a loose one at that. Instead, it sounds like a songwriting team at the height of their powers writing an album of grand songs with a theme to go with it. Considering their insane work schedule at the time, I have to imagine much of these songs were done without much thought other than needing to finish an album. But it’s a good listen nonetheless and you can’t go wrong with listening to these great classics.
An album as big as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road could have had more hits with John noting songs like “Harmony” could have been singles. But with records moving fast in those days, John was already finishing his follow up album Caribou when “Bennie and the Jets” was released. Caribou was released in June 1974, not even a year after. The album was a step down critically and commercially but since John was in his imperial phase it didn’t matter as it still went double platinum and spawned two more Top 10 hits with “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” and “The Bitch Is Back.” And only several months after, another album was released that was explicitly cashing in on Elton John’s massive popularity and it too became a hit with the Elton John train continuing into the next post.
Honorable Mention: The top albums of 1974 are an interesting bunch: John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres, the American Graffiti and The Sting soundtracks. But the one that strikes me as the most interesting of the bunch is Paul McCartney & Wings’ Band on the Run, the #3 best-seller. Recorded largely in a run down Nigerian studio with two of its members leaving the group before recording, McCartney and his band defied all the odds to make a perfectly listenable album containing some of Paul’s most famous solo hits that for the moment helped to restore his critical standing after the Beatles.
Next time: Elton John’s imperial phase would hit its dizzying high in 1975 thanks to a collection of his greatest hits that outsold even his biggest work released that year