Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

ON THIS DATE (37 YEARS AGO)
May 23, 1975 – Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4.5/5
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is the ninth studio album by Elton John, released on this date in May 1975. It debuted at number 1 on the U.S. Pop Albums chart, the first album ever to do so, and stayed there for seven weeks. It was certified Gold on 5/21/1975 and was certified Platinum and 3x Platinum on 3/23/1993 by the RIAA. On the UK Albums Chart, it peaked at number 2. In 2003, the album was ranked number 158 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. This was the last album until Too Low For Zero that Elton John and his classic band would play together.
Written, according to lyricist Bernie Taupin, in chronological order, Captain Fantastic is a concept album that gives an autobiographical glimpse at the struggles John (Captain Fantastic) and Taupin (the Brown Dirt Cowboy) had in the early years of their musical careers in London (from 1967 to 1969). The lyrics and accompanying photo booklet are infused with a specific sense of place and time that would otherwise be rare in John’s music. John composed the music on a cruise ship voyage to the U.S.
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, the only single released from the album (and a number 4 hit on the U.S. Pop Singles chart), is a semi-autobiographical story about John’s disastrous engagement to Linda Woodrow, and his related 1969 suicide attempt. The “Someone” refers to Long John Baldry, who convinced him to break off the engagement rather than ruin his music career for an unhappy marriage. It was viewed by Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau as the best track on the album: “As long as Elton John can bring forth one performance per album on the order of ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’, the chance remains that he will become something more than the great entertainer he already is and go on to make a lasting contribution to rock.”
In a 2006 interview with Cameron Crowe, Elton said, “I’ve always thought that Captain Fantastic was probably my finest album because it wasn’t commercial in any way. We did have songs such as ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight,’ which is one of the best songs that Bernie and I have ever written together, but whether a song like that could be a single these days, since it’s [more than] six minutes long, is questionable. Captain Fantastic was written from start to finish in running order, as a kind of story about coming to terms with failure—or trying desperately not to be one. We lived that story.”
Elton, Bernie and the band laboured harder and longer on the album than perhaps any previous record they’d ever done to that point. As opposed to the rather quick, almost factory-like process of writing and recording an album in a matter of a few days or at most a couple of weeks (as with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), the team spent the better part of a month off the road at Caribou Ranch Studios working on the recordings. Producer Gus Dudgeon was apparently also very satisfied with the results. The album’s producer was quoted in Elizabeth Rosenthal’s “His Song,” an exhaustive detailed accounting of nearly all John’s recorded work, as saying he thought “Captain Fantastic” was the best the band and Elton had ever played, lauded their vocal work, and soundly praised Elton and Bernie’s songwriting. “There’s not one song on it that’s less than incredible,” Dudgeon said.
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
First things first. This is one of Elton John’s best albums. He hasn’t tried to top past successes, only to continue the good work he’s been doing. And he’s succeeded, even taking a few chances in the process. The record is devoid of the gimmicky rock numbers from the Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player phase. It isn’t weighted down with the overarranging and overproduction that marred so much of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It sounds freer and more relaxed than Caribou. His voice sounds rough, hoarse, almost weary. But that only helps make him sound more personal and intimate than in the past.
It is by now beyond question that Elton John is a competent and classy entertainer. Few people who have achieved his popularity have succeeded in maintaining his standards for performance and professionalism. And in his relationship to his audience, Elton not only gives of himself in terms of output and energy but he does it graciously and generously. Unlike his American counterparts (many of them neither as talented nor as popular), he hasn’t soured on success.
But the question remains—is Elton John something more than a great entertainer? I’m not sure. For one thing, despite his ability to sound profound, he seldom projects a tangible personality. After so many albums and tours, few people have any sense of him at all. And for all his productivity and enthusiasm, he remains a largely passive figure, the creator of music that one can get comfortable with but which is never challenging or threatening.
Elton John can be a master of the sleight of hand. The arrangements make it seem like there are substantial melodies underneath the tracks—but almost nothing demands repeated listenings. Similarly, he always sounds like he’s singing up a storm, but his voice glosses over the material, reducing most things to an uninteresting sameness.
More importantly, his music is often devoid of noteworthy emotional content. That problem can’t be talked about without bringing up the controversial lyrics of his collaborator, Bernie Taupin.
Elton John himself never seems pretentious but Bernie Taupin’s lyrics often do — sometimes pretentious in a clever sort of way, but pretentious nonetheless. There is a conflict between Elton’s and Bernie’s personal styles, no doubt about it. Perhaps that conflict is at the root of what is good as well as what is bad about Elton’s work, but it must be dealt with just the same. When Elton simply wants to fool around and put out something that’s pure tapioca, Bernie still winds up handing him something labored, for example, “Crocodile Rock.”
Naturally Taupin’s weaknesses come to the fore on this concept album about the song-writing team’s scuffling days. But it’s a strong commentary on his glibness that on a record that is supposed to evoke two people’s personal experiences, there is no sense of particularity. Taupin’s lyrics generate more of the album’s quality of sameness than John’s singing. His clever names and bloated images can’t disguise the lack of original thought.
But besides being clumsy and overbearing, Taupin has a puritanical streak which appears to be wholly at odds with John’s presence. It struck me most when I listened to “Tower of Babel.” I thought it was just another melodramatic slow sizzler until I actually looked at the lyrics. I would have never gotten from Elton’s intonation and approach that he was singing anything as apocalyptic, self-important and hateful as:
It’s party time for the guys in the tower of Babel.
Sodom meet Gomorrah,
Cain meet Abel.
Have a ball ya’all
See the letches crawl
With the call girls under the table.
Watch ’em dig their graves,
‘Cause Jesus don’t save the guys
In the tower of Babel.
In reality, Taupin has been dabbling in this sort of allegorical, pseudoreligious crap for a while—but it is definitely out of control here.
But it is surely wrong to dismiss the lyricist altogether. For one thing, he has at least one piece of excellent ersatz gospel to his credit, “Border Song.” And secondly, he has consistently been able to transcend himself on one or two cuts per album—in this case, on “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
On that one, both Elton and Bernie disprove the criticisms made here. There’s no illusion of saying something, they are saying something; there’s no illusion of a superb performance but a superb performance itself; no imitation of quality but rock of very high caliber.
As long as Elton John can bring forth one performance per album on the order of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” the chance remains that he will become something more than the great entertainer he already is and go on to make a lasting contribution to rock.
~ JON LANDAU (July 17, 1975)
TRACKS:
All songs written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, except where noted.
Side one
“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” – 5:46
“Tower of Babel” – 4:28
“Bitter Fingers” – 4:35
“Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” – 4:20
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” – 6:45
Side two
“(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket” – 4:01
“Better Off Dead” – 2:37
“Writing” – 3:40
“We All Fall in Love Sometimes” – 4:15
“Curtains” – 6:15
Bonus tracks (1995 Mercury and 1996 Rocket reissue)
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Lennon, McCartney) – 6:18
“One Day at a Time” (Lennon) – 3:49
“Philadelphia Freedom” – 5:23
Bonus tracks (2005 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
Disc one (Follows original album)
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Lennon, McCartney) – 6:18
“One Day (At a Time)” (Lennon) – 3:49
“Philadelphia Freedom” – 5:23
“House of Cards” – 3:12
Disc two (Live from “Midsummer Music” at Wembley Stadium, 21 June 1975)
“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” – 7:02
“Tower of Babel” – 4:38
“Bitter Fingers” – 5:06
“Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” – 4:39
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” – 7:17
“(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket” – 7:19
“Better Off Dead” – 3:01
“Writing” – 5:30
“We All Fall in Love Sometimes” – 3:57
“Curtains” – 8:48
“Pinball Wizard” (Pete Townshend) – 6:31
“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” – 7:40

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