All The Nasties


I have a scratch in my copy of “Tiny Dancer.” Which was never a hit. Cameron Crowe shot “Tiny Dancer” into the stratosphere with that scene in “Almost Famous,” but you’ve got to know, if you wanted to hear “Tiny Dancer” back then you’d better have purchased the album, “Madman Across the Water,” which was seen as somewhat of a stiff, as it didn’t contain an AM radio smash, as a matter of fact many people were overloaded on Elton, with four LPs in a year, they didn’t want him to succeed, they thought he was overexposed, but then he had his comeback hit, “Rocket Man,” in the spring of ’72, from “Honky Chateau,” and then it was an endless streak of successes, one of the greatest runs ever, up there with those of Stevie Wonder and the Beatles, he didn’t release a stiff until ’76’s “Blue Moves,” and starting with “Honky Chateau” that’s six albums in a row, before “Blue Moves,” all containing tracks that are embedded in the culture.

Okay, everything’s relative, “Madman Across the Water” was not a disaster, but at that point to get into the economic/mindshare stratosphere you needed to cross over to AM, like Neil Young with “Harvest” in early ’72, otherwise you were just another album act, putting out records, sustained by the road. But, despite Elton’s pooh-poohing it, saying it was just a blip on the radar screen, his coming out as bisexual did ultimately hurt sales of “Blue Moves,” it did not live up to the prior double album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” artistically or commercially.

But this is about “Madman Across the Water.

But you can’t tell this tale without mentioning what came before. Not “Empty Sky,” no one in America had it, no one knew it, I ultimately bought it on import, but the American debut, the eponymous “Elton John.” Sure, today the story is all about the Troubadour shows, and if you were an insider, a rabid fan, you knew about them from the rock press, but it was “Your Song” that instantly put Elton on the map. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who needed to change their sound to cross over to AM radio, Elton was built to straddle AM and FM, which is one of the reasons he became so gigantic, as for “Your Song”…you only had to hear it once to get it, if only today’s acts had such chops. But “Your Song” was never my favorite cut on the LP, which is the album I play most these days, for decades now, because of the sound, it’s dark, it’s just for you. And I’ll tell you the track that reached me first, that I could not get out of my head, that I had to play every day after coming back from skiing, and that’s “Take Me to the Pilot.” Elton was spitting the lyrics, he was truly rocking, he grabbed you by the throat immediately. And then came that pre-chorus and ultimately the chorus itself, which you could not help but sing along with. This is rock and roll, because it squeezes out every other thought when you listen to it, and Elton’s piano flourishes between the verses, and the strings…positively MAGICAL! And the other hit from “Elton John” was “Border Song,” but once again it was not the one I preferred on the second side, it could never adequately follow “Sixty Years On.”

“Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age”

When I first heard this I was eighteen. Sixty was way off. But now I’m past it, Elton too. And I hope you have a great stereo, or great headphones, so you can listen to “Sixty Years On” in high quality, to hear the strings, this is why we bought big rigs, component stereos, to get closer to the music.

And at this point “Sixty Years On” is my favorite cut on the LP, but it used to be the closer, “The King Must Die.”

“And sooner or later

Everybody’s kingdom must end”

If you’re my age in the music business, you’re running it, you’re the head of the label, a bigwig at the touring company, otherwise you’re out. But you’d be surprised who is out, in many cases still alive, they were giants, we hung on their every word, they were starmakers. But those days are through, there’s not a single act in the charts today who is anywhere near as big as Elton was, he was worldwide famous, everybody knew him and his music.

But back in ’71, when Elton was dominating, the album that got all the press, that I thought was the best, was “Tumbleweed Connection.” And my favorite track at the time opened the second side and no one ever talks about it, “Where to Now St. Peter?” Elton took that blue canoe and floated downstream like a leaf and you were another leaf beside him in the water, just the two of you, it was so enchanting.

The other killer was the second cut on side two, “Come Down in Time,” which people talk about today, but it took decades for people to recognize how great it was, kind of like Brian Wilson/The Beach Boys’ “‘Til I Die.” But the most famous songs were the long ones, especially the two ending each side, “My Father’s Gun” and “Burn Down the Mission,” however I can’t leave out “Amoreena,” and can I be sacrilegious here and admit I prefer Rod Stewart’s version of “Country Comfort”? Then again I heard it first. And no, I don’t prefer Spooky Tooth’s version of “Son of Your Father.”

Then came “11/17/70.” This was long before the release of radio shows was de rigueur. Actually, it never really was. Music was scarce back then, acts dribbled their tunes out, it wasn’t until Napster that all those live radio shows really surfaced. And what made “11-17-70” was the energy, the sound put out by this three piece band. Now the version in circulation today has bonus cuts, but on the initial release the keepers were the new, unknown cuts, “Bad Side of the Moon” and “Can I Put You On,” the latter of which is my favorite from the LP, actually one of my favorite Elton John cuts, that to this day most people still don’t know.

“I work for the foundry for a penny and a half a day

Like a blind street musician I never see those who pay

It’s dirty work in Birmingham

Better deal for a Sheffield man

If he can rivet then his kids can buy

Candy from the candy man”

It was so PERSONAL! It was an aural movie, you could see the images in your mind, and this was just for dedicated listeners, not everybody, but the definitive version was on Elton John’s fourth album in less than a year, the soundtrack to the movie “Friends.”

“I hope the day will be a lighter highway

For friends are found on every road”

“Friends” is one of the best tracks Elton John has ever recorded, but it was not a hit, and most people didn’t hear it…most people still have not heard it. Actually, I had a scratch in “Friends” too, that was the problem with the turntables of yore, they had arms to steady a stack of records, and I never used it, but still, removing the LP occasionally the edge of the record, the opening cut, would get caught on the edge of the arm and you’d end up with a scratch. And I OCD’ed over that for decades, on my copy of “Friends” the track actually skipped, whereas on “Tiny Dancer” there was just a pop every time the vinyl circled, but finally in the CD era “Friends” was released as part of a boxed set.

“Elton John” was released in April of 1970, but the truth is no one really heard it until October of that year. And just when everybody became conscious of Elton, he put out “Tumbleweed Connection” at the end of October of that same year. And finally, in March of 1971, both “11-17-70” and “Friends”…and now you know why some people were burned out on him


But then came “Madman Across the Water.” Which was released at the beginning of November 1971.

There’s nothing like breaking the shrinkwrap and dropping the needle on an unheard record. I bought “Hotel California” on the day it was released, do you know what an experience it was dropping the needle on my new Technics SL1300 and hearing the music emanating from the JBL L100’s? It was godhead, it was a private experience, I needed to tell everybody about it. Same deal with McCartney’s “Band on the Run.” And “Tiny Dancer,” I loved it from the very first note, and it was a long number not obviously made for the radio, but for fans, you could feel Elton and Bernie reaching for the brass ring, trying to lift their work one step higher.

But it was the second side I preferred at first. I liked “Razor Face” better than “Levon,” the cut that was played on the radio if any was at all, and the title track closer of the first side was melancholy but…it was “Indian Sunset,” the opening cut on side two, that truly resonated, maybe because I’d heard Elton play it at Carnegie Hall the previous spring, before it was released. “Indian Sunset” has the feel of “Sixty Years On,” it’s haunting.

But then the record switches gears completely, into “Holiday Inn,” which has the swing of “Take Me to the Pilot,” albeit slower and less bombastic.

And after that came “Rotten Peaches,” another magical cut.

The second side closer was “Goodbye,” almost an afterthought, barely exceeding a minute, but what came before was…ALL THE NASTIES!

“If it came to pass

That they should ask

What could I tell them”

Elton’s vocal is exquisite, it’s hard to believe someone has a voice this pure, it’s positively angelic and then…all of a sudden they throw in everything, including the kitchen sink, and then there’s a retreat to the quiet of Elton and his piano.

“All the Nasties” is really the final cut on “Madman Across the Water.” And I’d never heard anything like it other than “Tea for the Tillerman,” the title number, the closing track of the album, just over a minute long, which starts off with just Cat and his piano and then…he too throws in the kitchen sink, the assembled multitude is singing and the effect is so joyous you want it to continue…but it doesn’t.

Elton just released “Jewel Box,” a collection of demos and unreleased tracks, and as I scanned the song listing what intrigued me, what I had to hear first, were the demos from “Tumbleweed Connection.” They’re shocking, so good, they could have been released by themselves back in the heyday. But then there are two demos from “Madman Across the Water,” the title track and…ALL THE NASTIES??

It was like coming across an unexpected piece of gold. Of all the cuts to include there’s a personal favorite, a track it seems only I know??

“If it came to pass

That they should ask

What could I tell them”

It’s the same, yet different. You truly feel you’re in the room with Elton, maybe with your elbow on the piano. It’s completely different from today’s music, it’s rich, it’s made to be heard in pristine fashion, it’s anything but a throwaway, it’s the essence of what attracted us to Elton, to music, back in the early seventies.

Today they do it with tricks, auto-tune, hard drives, but it used to be you had to be able to do it all by your lonesome to even get a deal, never mind make it. There was no lip-synching in concert. This is truly Elton John’s voice, you can only bow down and pay fealty.

We used to want to know how these records were made, to be in the studio, a fly on the wall, would be a wet dream, truly, it would be an explosion of inner goodness, the nougat inside the chocolate, something you looked forward to that was even better than your preconception. You have that experience listening to the demo of “All The Nasties.”


“Oh, my soul

Oh, my soul

Oh, my soul

Oh, my soul”

That’s what music does, touch souls. When it’s done right. And nothing can touch souls as much as wooden music, real people playing and singing, the humanity shines through.

“But I know the way

They want me”

They wanted us a certain way, they wanted us to be doctors and lawyers, professionals, but we couldn’t do that, because we’d heard this music.

It’s hard to jump the rails of your parents’ expectations. I even went to law school. But I never wanted to practice law, it didn’t interest me whatsoever, what I needed was to get closer to this music.

Forget the badge of honor of going to a show, back then there was no internet to publicize your attendance, and oftentimes people had no idea who the acts were that I went to see.

But in music you could be accepted. You’d be at the show, sitting in your seat, because back then all venues had seats, and you sat, except maybe for the encore, and you’d turn your head and look at the person next to you and you’d be singing the lyrics and they’d be singing the lyrics and you felt like you…


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