One day as I was driving around my new home town of Asheville, I flipped through the local radio stations and came across a fantastic radio station giveaway. “The first three people to meet me in the Westgate Shopping Center parking lot will win Elton John’s complete catalog on CD.” I looked up to find myself at the shopping center’s exit. Quickly pulling off and driving around the lot, I found the radio station’s van within fifteen seconds of hearing it on the airwaves. There I was, carrying a large stack of cellophane-wrapped long boxes to my car. I now had all of Elton’s albums from Empty Sky to Reg Strikes Back, even the live albums, 11-17-70, Here And There and With the Melbourne Symphony, Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2, and the newly released Complete Thom Bell Sessions. This was 1990. I was in heaven.
Curiously there was one CD that was not included, but it happened to be the only one of his that I owned at the time – Greatest Hits Vol. III, 1979-1987. It was one of the first ten CDs I purchased when I bought my Fisher single-disc CD player in 1987. I was given such hell by my friends for buying it. I don’t see those guys anymore, but I still listen to those songs. In time, I will come to realize that music will always be one of my best friends, inspiring and comforting, challenging and soothing.
The CD sold slowly when it was released for the 1987 Christmas season and it took two years to sell 500,000 units and go Gold. Eventually, it will go out of print and be replaced by Greatest Hits 1976-1986. For me, it was one of the first albums that started a lifelong obsession in looking back, even before I reached 21.
Here are my quick thoughts on the twelve tracks from that CD that were my gateway into absorbing the catalog of one of the greatest Pop singer/songwriters of all time.
1. I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues – When I hear Elton sing this, it takes me back to that lonely teenager, dreaming about love and heartache, wondering if I was going to be as painful as ihe made it sound. I misunderstood the lyrics to this song for years, but words aside, the sadness I feel while I listen during these four-plus minutes was as real then as it is today.
2. Mama Can’t Buy You Love – That wah-wah pedal sure feels out of place for 1979 when it was a Top 10 hit or even 1977 when it was initially recorded. Thom Bell is a master, and even if the sessions were contentious, at least something good came out of it. And damn, those are some mean parents.
3. Little Jeannie – I’m sitting in a back seat of a powder-blue VW Rabbit, in the parking lot of Roosevelt Field Mall begging for a few sips of my mom’s Fresca. That’s where my mind goes when I hear those first few chords on the electric piano. And why does he want you to be his acrobat? My literal brain wondered if Elton John worked for a circus somewhere. It’s his biggest U.S. hit without the lyrics of Bernie Taupin.
4. Sad Songs (Say So Much) – My English teacher would have loved his use of alliteration. My economics teacher would have loved how he turned sad songs into Sassons, selling designer jeans with a song about how music can help one grieve.
5. I’m Still Standing – Now Elton has entered my video world, appearing on MTV as much as Duran Duran and Hall & Oates. This song filled my Summer days and evenings in 1983.
6. Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny) – I just watched an interview with Elton from October 1980. While he’s talking about John Lennon, you can tell how much he adores him, idolizes him, and considers him a friend. I mean, Elton was Sean Lennon’s godfather. There was a definite kinship. And yet we also understand that the friendship is still new and there’s much to still learn and enjoy from one another. Six weeks later, John was gone.
7. Heartache All Over the World – Elton said he doesn’t like this song because it’s disingenuous. First of all, we’re sorry that we created a horrible atmosphere that prevented you from fully coming out. Second of all, as I read these lyrics, it’s easy for me to read between the lines. We certainly did back then. Third of all, this song is catchy as hell and lots of fun, in a coked-up hedonistic way. Sometimes you just have to let the artist work through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.
8. Too Low for Zero – We get nothing from The Fox album, but four tracks from Too Low For Zero? Why not, Nobody Wins or even Who Wears These Shoes from Breaking Hearts? Even Song For Guy from A Single Man would have been better. Can someone please mash this up with Saved By Zero and called it the redemption mix?
9. Kiss The Bride – I’ve warmed up to this song over the years, but I still prefer #7 over it. At least he got the band back together, and you can definitely feel that comfortable energy.
10. Blue Eyes – I remember driving a girlfriend home late one night during high school in the 80s and I was playing this song in the car. “Is this Elton John?” she said. “Bleh. Why don’t you listen to David Bowie?” We disagreed back and forth, but the implication was that Bowie was a much more significant and cooler artist than Elton. I couldn’t make a coherent argument back then, but if I could have I would have said that, they are both different artists both with great value and can be loved equally. Why does that take us until adulthood to figure that out?
11. Nikita – Nikita is a boy. The video turned her into a girl. Elton came out with this song, and we didn’t catch it. And yes, that’s George Michael providing the falsetto vamps that Elton used to do.
12. Wrap Her Up – The presence of George Michael sold this song as he was a hot commodity at that time. Why would he pass up an opportunity to sing with an idol of his for a piece of campy fun? I also love that Kiki Dee is singing backing vocals, and they even call her out in the list of women at the end as well as icon Dusty Springfield whom she replaced on the sessions for Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.