“Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the wide-screen epic that opens Elton John’s magnum opus, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973), would suggest an elaborate production effort, extensive overdubs and endless tinkering in the studio. But a live version of the mini-suite from London’s Hammersmith Odeon — included in the expanded box-set reissue of “Yellow Brick Road” that was released Tuesday — suggests a band that needed no doctoring.
That core unit — John on vocals and piano, Davey Johnstone on guitar, Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums — had been playing together since recording John’s 1971 LP “Madman Across the Water,” but its incredible musicianship and range, from grand ballads to all-out rockers, would become evident to concert-goers as John was rolling out material from his new album, beginning in September at the Hollywood Bowl. Pound for pound, these guys could play as tight, and with as much depth, as anybody at a time when pop/rock giants ruled the earth.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” isn’t John’s most thematically cohesive record, that would be “Tumbleweed Connection” (1970), nor his most elaborately orchestrated, such as the string-intensive works associated with arranger Paul Buckmaster (“Elton John,” 1970; “Madman” 1971). But it was his most ambitious effort at a time when the double album marked the peak trajectory of many of the era’s superstars, from the Stones to Zeppelin to Stevie Wonder. John would continue to record admirable works, including “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” (1975), but “Yellow Brick Road” might be considered his last masterpiece.
It also marked a turning point in his public image, going from the studious-looking virtuoso with seemingly classical leanings to the poster boy for glitter rock, with his outrageous eye wear, platform boots and ambiguous sexuality.
Miraculously, the album was completed in only 17 days, including mixing, at Château d’Hérouville, a studio near Paris that John had dubbed “Honky Château” from his album of the year before, according to the essay written by Alexis Petridus in the box-set’s hard-cover booklet. This after an ill-fated attempt to record at Kingston’s Dynamic Studio, hence the track “Jamaica Jerk-Off.”
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” would mark the eighth album that John would churn out in under four years, a flowering of creativity unimaginable today, and yet he was only 23 at the time. His partnership with his bandmates, lyricist Bernie Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon had much to do with the quality of his output, but still, he and Taupin were much more advanced at this stage in their careers than such songwriter teams as Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards and even Bacharach/David were in theirs.
As far as the deluxe box set goes — which includes the remastered double album, the aforementioned 100-page illustrated book, a DVD of Bryan Forbes’ 1973 film “Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye To Norma Jean and Other Things,” and a disc of mostly negligible covers by the likes of Fall Out Boy and The Band Perry along with more valuable demos, including an early version of “Grey Seal” that dates back to 1970 — the two live Hammersmith discs are worth the purchase price alone.
Those sets include many of the hits that made “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” such a sensation, including “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” But there’s also evidence of John and Taupin’s ability to craft majestic compositions out of cinematic imagery (“I’ve Seen That Movie Too”) along with rollicking rockers that allowed the band to stretch out (“Elderberry Wine,” “Hercules”).
John’s then-falsetto voice never sounded more youthful, elastic or vital, or his piano playing more propulsive and fleet-fingered. Forty years on, this is one anniversary package that truly deserves to be celebrated.