Sunday, July 23, 2023


Sir Elton John has been a constant and welcome presence in popular culture for over fifty years because he is seen as honest, genuine and emotionally complex as the songs he and Bernie Taupin have written since 1967, and we have responded in kind: “Your Song” is everybody’s song, his speaking about his sexuality helped change public attitudes, and he’s now been in the public eye longer wearing a wig than not, and we still don’t care.

Having not engaged in the sort of alternate persona building or avantgarde soundscapes that became expected with each new David Bowie album, an Elton John album has sweeping ballads, or barnstorming rock standards, with chords influenced by gospel, all coming from the minds of two people who found their Georgia located north of Wembley. 

This is why I’m still bemused by “Regimental Sgt. Zippo”, having only just become aware of its existence. The first Elton John album was a psychedelic rock album inspired more by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Procul Harum than Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, with heavy organ and harpsichord forming the album’s sound as much as piano. Recorded between November 1967 and May 1968, the album was ultimately shelved - some songs were released in a box set in 2018, with the full album not seeing the light of day until July 2021.

The title track is the sticking point. John started recording this album six months after the release of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and the same month as their single of “Hello, Goodbye” and “I Am the Walrus”. “Regimental Sgt. Zippo” is evocative of that period, when that heavier, psychedelic sound was prevailing in pop music, and can subsequently be folded into any playlist of music from that period, its being an Elton John album making it a novelty. To that end, I latched on to the heavier sound of “Nina” as making it the best song on the album, followed by the title track, with the more frivolous sound of “When I Was Tealby Abbey” being welcome. For an album that would have been released in 1968, there had to be songs titled “Angel Tree” and “A Dandelion Dies in the Wind”.

For me, the weak points were “Turn to Me” and “Sitting Doing Nothing”, sounding more like standard pop songs, the former sounding like it could have been written by anyone. The curiosity of “Sitting Doing Nothing” is its rarity as a song with Elton John lyrics, with music by producer Caleb Quaye - a nice little poem about being told you are lazy by people who wished they were as free as you are, the melody makes it sound simpler still.

At the time of the album’s recording, John and Taupin were staff songwriters for Dick James Music, cranking out songs on demand for clients - Taupin was given an hour for lyrics, and John just thirty minutes for the music. These songs feel like they were written under these conditions, meeting the moment rather than making it. With John having a parallel career at the time as a session musician, backing vocalist and anonymous performer of cover versions on cheap compilation albums, having your own album is the inevitable next step, but not with these songs. 

The first released Elton John album is “Empty Sky”, released in June 1969, and while I previously put its sound down to having been released that year – more progressive rock than psychedelic, more harpsichord than organ, and John and Taupin directed to write more for themselves – it now sounds like a bridge between “Regimental Sgt. Zippo”, which has the same band, and the first “proper” Elton John album, the self-titled 1970 release that includes “Your Song”, “Border Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot”. This third album, and most people’s first encounter with Elton John, properly displayed John’s and Taupin’s own voice as songwriters, which belied its origin as a sampler for those songs more than a proper album, and John’s confidence as a singer that saw him break the United States before the UK. That’s what you get for being yourself. 

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