(ON THIS DATE) Elton John: Honky Château


ON THIS DATE (39 YEARS AGO)
May 19, 1972 – Elton John: Honky Château is released.
RF Rating 5/5
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Robert Christgau (A-)
# Rolling Stone (favorable)
Honky Château is the fifth studio album by Elton John, released on this date in 1972. In 2003, the album was ranked number 357 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. This was the final Elton John album on the Uni label in the US and Canada before the Music Corporation of America consolidated all of its various labels under the MCA brand. This and Elton’s earlier Uni albums were later reissued on MCA Records.
This is the first album since John’s debut (Empty Sky) not to feature strings on any songs, except for violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on “Mellow” and “Amy”. It also marks the beginning of his transition from a singer/songwriter in the mould of James Taylor, Leon Russell or Carole King to a more rock ‘n roll style that would become more evident on such albums as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou and Rock of the Westies.
It was also the first album to feature Elton’s road band of Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums (along with new member Davey Johnstone on guitars and other fretted instruments) as the sole core group of musicians. Previously, per his record label’s insistence, Elton was limited using his road band for only one track each on Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water. The rest of the songs on those two albums were done by various groupings of studio session players.
The opening track “Honky Cat” is a New Orleans funk track reminiscent of Dr. John and Allen Toussaint and features a four-piece horn section, arranged by Gus Dudgeon. Also of note is the debut on record of the backing vocal combination of Johnstone, Murray and Olsson, who first added what would soon become their “trademark” sound to “Rocket Man.” The trio’s unique approach to arranging their backing vocal tracks would become a fixture on Elton’s singles and albums for the next several years.
In 1995, original producer Gus Dudgeon remastered the album, adding only an uptempo, rock and roll version of “Slave” that was sidelined in favor of the steamier, more laconic version that made the LP’s original lineup.
Jon Landau of Rolling Stone approved the original LP as “a rich, warm, satisfying album that stands head and shoulders above the morass of current releases”. Other reviews were likewise mostly positive. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic confirms that the album has stood the test of time by proclaiming that “it plays as the most focused and accomplished set of songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever wrote”.
Honky Chateau became the first of a string of albums by Elton John to hit #1 in the Billboard Charts in the United States. In Canada, the album peaked at #3 on the RPM 100 Top Albums Chart, reaching this position on July 29, 1972, dropping two places to #5, then returning to #3 for a further straight twelve consecutive weeks before falling to #9 on November 4 of the same year.
REVIEW
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine, allmusic.com
Considerably lighter than Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau is a rollicking collection of ballads, rockers, blues, country-rock, and soul songs. On paper, it reads like an eclectic mess, but it plays as the most focused and accomplished set of songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever wrote. The skittering boogie of “Honky Cat” and the light psychedelic pop of “Rocket Man” helped send Honky Chateau to the top of the charts, but what is truly impressive about the album is the depth of its material. From the surprisingly cynical and nasty “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself” to the moving ballad “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” John is at the top of his form, crafting immaculate pop songs with memorable melodies and powerful hooks. While Taupin’s lyrics aren’t much more comprehensible than before, John delivers them with skill and passion, making them feel more substantial than they are. But what makes Honky Chateau a classic is the songcraft, and the way John ties disparate strands of roots music into distinctive and idiosyncratic pop — it’s one of the finest collections of mainstream singer/songwriter pop of the early ’70s.
REVIEW
Amazon.com essential recording
By 1972, Elton John was already a rising star in America, although most casual listeners still identified him as part of the singer/songwriter explosion, thanks to the success of “Your Song” and “Levon.” Honky Château changed all that, beginning with the success of “Honky Cat,” a rousing New Orleans-ish R&B powerhouse that kicks off this terrific collection of songs. This was the album that first revealed John as a pure-pop craftsman, and he’s all over the musical map on this set, moving from country-ish rock to blues-based rockers. But the best things here still might be two gorgeous ballads: “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” (displaying the young vocalist at his best) and the hit single “Rocket Man” (which had many rock fans debating which was the better space odyssey of the day–this or Bowie’s). And lyricist Bernie Taupin was revealing a new, slightly darker side here via tunes like “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself.” ~ Bill Holdship
TRACKS:
All songs written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin except where noted.
Side one
   1. “Honky Cat” – 5:13
   2. “Mellow” – 5:32
   3. “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” – 3:35
   4. “Susie (Dramas)” – 3:25
   5. “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” – 4:45
Side two
   1. “Salvation” – 3:58
   2. “Slave” (Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Lucky Dube) – 4:22
   3. “Amy” – 4:03
   4. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” – 5:00
   5. “Hercules” – 5:20
Bonus track (1995 Mercury and 1996 Rocket reissue)
   1. “Slave” [Alternate take] (Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Lucky Dube) – 2:53
PERSONNEL
    * Elton John – acoustic and electric pianos, organ
    * Davey Johnstone – guitars, banjo, mandolin
    * Dee Murray – bass
    * Nigel Olsson – drums, congas, tambourine
    * Davey, Dee, and Nigel – backing vocals (tracks 3, 5, 6, 8, 10)
    * Ivan Jullien (fr.) – trumpet (track 1)
    * Jacques Bolognesi (fr.) – trombone (track 1)
    * Jean-Louis Chautemps & Alain Hatot – saxophones (track 1)
    * Jean-Luc Ponty – electric violin (tracks 2 and 8)
    * “Legs” Larry Smith – tap dance (track 3)
    * David Hentschel – A.R.P. synthesizer (tracks 5 and 10) (credited as “David Henschel” on sleeve)
    * Ray Cooper – congas (track 8)
    * Gus Dudgeon – rhino whistle & backing vocals (track 10)
    * Madeline Bell, Liza Strike, Larry Steel, Tony Hazzard – additional backing vocals

Charts

Album
Year Chart Position
1972 UK Album Chart 2
1972 US Billboard Pop Albums 1
1972 Canadian RPM 100 Top Albums Chart 3

Singles
Year Single Chart Position
1972 Honky Cat UK Singles Chart 31
1972 Honky Cat US Billboard Adult Contemporary 6
1972 Honky Cat US Billboard Pop Singles 8
1972 Rocket Man UK Singles Chart 2
1972 Rocket Man US Billboard Pop Singles 6

Certifications

Organization Level Date
RIAA – USA Gold 24 July 1972
RIAA – USA Platinum 11 October 1995
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