In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in celebration of the newly remastered Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, we’re picking our favorite Elton John songs.
As a kid who very nearly went to college to pursue a piano performance major, I spent much of my too-late indoctrination into popular music looking for fellow piano superstars, the better for me to get as proficient as possible at rockin’ out. (When you sit down at a piano at a house party, nobody wants to hear Chopin or “Abide With Me.” “Piano Man” or the theme from Cheers, though, they can usually get behind.) Despite this, I mostly stuck with Billy Joel and Ben Folds Five, never quite finding my way to Elton John, probably the most popular of three of the four faces on my teenage piano pop Mt. Rushmore.
Much of this, I now realize, was that Elton John’s piano parts often run counter to his song’s vocal melodies, which means that a lot of them don’t really sound like anything without John singing over them. (Quick. Hum the piano part to “Crocodile Rock.” You’ll get the opening measures, then probably fall flat.) Joel and Folds both write technically complicated piano parts—the better to show off—but they also write piano lines that provide for showy flourishes and other opportunities to run all over the keyboard. John’s piano parts can be fucking murder, but they also tend to stay confined to the same sorts of backup parts to the singer, particularly on the songs everybody knows.
But there’s another good reason for your junior piano player to dig into the Elton John catalog, and that’s because John is nothing if not a showman. His best songs take on an operatic grandeur, and so many of them build and build and build, continually scaling a mountain that seems unlikely to stop ascending in front of the listener, until the peak is suddenly attained and sunlight bursts through. Perhaps that’s why one of my favorites by the artist—both to listen to and to play—has been “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” from 1975’s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. The song combines one of John’s more instantly memorable piano parts (that endlessly ascending and descending series of octaves in the bass line, the long slog of rises and falls on the way to the mountaintop) with one of his most inventive melodic vocal lines, one that pushes and pushes and pushes and doesn’t reach its climax until the song’s final 30 seconds.
Captain Fantastic is the last album from John’s most prolific and best known period in his career, usually marked by his recording with the original Elton John Band (two members of which were dismissed after this album) and singing lyrics by Bernie Taupin (whose collaborations with John would become more sporadic in the next several years). It’s also one of John’s most personal albums, with Taupin channeling the frustrations the two felt as musicians trying to break into the recording industry into the songs. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” in particular, is about John’s ultimate decision to not marry fiancée Linda Woodrow. The thought of that marriage nearly drove John to commit suicide, and his friend Long John Baldry (the “someone” of the song’s title) finally told him to simply leave his relationship if it was going to cause him to kill himself. For that advice, Baldry got to be forever immortalized as “sugar bear.” The song would take on an added poignancy when John finally began living openly as a gay man—and the thought of why he might kill himself over marrying a woman gained that much more dimension.
Yet even with that history lesson, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” will forever evoke for me not John’s struggles or even that longed-for mountaintop. Instead, I think of long summer nights swimming out to the middle of a cool lake with my friend, bursting up in such a way as to shatter the surface of the moon reflected on the lake (“someone saved, someone saved, someone saved my life tonight”) or descending a hill through waving prairie grasses toward the Missouri River (“tonight!”) or even locking eyes with a girl at a party while clumsily picking my way through an Elton John song I kept trying to remember had four fucking flats in the key signature. Sometimes, the true context doesn’t matter. Sometimes, a song can save your life just by being there to score moments you never want to forget, to make sure they’ll echo as long as you’re alive.