Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The #85 Album of All-Time in the Rock Era--"Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" by Elton John

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the ninth studio album from Elton John, found Elton and his band at the pinnacle of their careers.

It is a true concept album, fashioned by lyricist Bernie Taupin to give an autobiographical account of the struggles that John and Taupin went through in trying for a career in music. It's not anywhere near as easy as it seems; there are countless groups that are talented but don't make it. As Music Director at KFXD, I would get 60-100 new 45's per week and out of that group, we would choose an average of 3-4 to add to our playlist. I can tell you first-hand that there are scores of good records that we passed over. So to hear that the Beatles struggled in the beginning and the trials and tribulations of Elton John on this album, it should hit home to all of us how tough it is to be a star.

"Captain Fantastic", of course, refers to John while Taupin is the "Brown Dirt Cowboy". The album only had two hit singles, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" and "(Gotta' Get a) Meal Ticket". That's a low number for Elton, but there are many great tracks on this album. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is one of the top songs of the rock era and certainly one of Elton's best. It tells the story about how Elton was lured into an engagement to Linda Woodrow and survived a 1969 suicide attempt. The "Someone" in the song is Long John Baldry, who we read about in The British Rock Family Tree article on this blog. Baldy persuaded Elton to end the relationship in order to save his music career. "Meal Ticket" refers to the stark reality that Elton had to find work in order to eat.

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."

This was a labor of love. Elton, Bernie, the band and the entire staff worked extremely hard on this album and the results bear this out. Producer Gus Dudgeon had this to say: Captain Fantastic was the best the band and Elton had ever played." "There's not one song on it that's less than incredible," Dudgeon said.

Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy made history in 1975, becoming the first album ever by a solo artist to debut at #1. It remained there for seven weeks, spent 17 weeks lodged within the Top Ten, and was on the chart for 43 weeks. It has sold three million copies and has a strong Track Rating of 9.15. This is a solid album that you can play from start to finish without skipping a track.

The title song remains another of Elton's best. "Bitter Fingers", "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows", "Better Off Dead" and "We All Fall In Love Sometimes" are all, well, fantastic.

(All songs written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin)

Side One Side One

1. "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" --5:46

2. "Tower of Babel" --4:28

3. "Bitter Fingers" --4:35

4. "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" --4:20

5. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" --6:45

Side Two

1. "(Gotta' Get a) Meal Ticket" --4:01

2. "Better Off Dead" --2:37

3. "Writing" --3:40

4. "We All Fall in Love Sometimes" --4:15

5. "Curtains" --6:15

Elton John played acoustic and electric pianos, clavinet, mellotron, the Arp String Ensemble Synthesizer and harpsichord on the album. Davey Johnstone played acoustic, electric and Leslie guitars and the mandolin, Dee Murray was on bass, Nigel Olsson the dependable drummer and Ray Cooper on percussion, which included the congas, the shaker, the gong, jawbone, tambourine, bells, belltree, triangle, bongos and cymbals.

This incredible album was recorded in May and June of 1974 at the Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado.Gus Dudgeon and Greg Penny produced the album, Jeff Guercio was the Engineer, Penny mixed it and Tony Cousins remastered it. The album was released May 19, 1975 on MCA Records Alan Aldridge was in charge of the cover design.

Landing at #85 in The Top 100 Albums of All-Time*, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, from Elton John.

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