Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy – Elton John (1975)
“And just like us / you must have had / A Once Upon a Time…”
No one conquered, defined, and defied the 70s sound quite like Elton John. Year after year and album after album, Elton had established he was a player and singer of both depth and talent. By the time Captain Fantastic was released in ’75, Elton was a household name and a millionaire. He has just taken the pop/rock world by force with his magnum opus double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, followed by the slightly timid and cheesy Caribou in 73 and 74 respectively. He had numerous top ten hits, many reaching and staying at number one on both the American and British charts. His world tours commanded sell-out crowds and his frantic stage antics either garnered sneers or applause from those who watched. Elton, together with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, had established themselves on the center stage of the music scene, as both serious songwriters who could paint vivid and impressionable scenes, as well as songwriters who could let loose and have fun. Elton and Bernie albums were populated with melancholy ballads, soulful musings, and full on rockers. These shifts in style and approach came to characterize the music of Elton and Bernie, as they, along with Elton’s band of Dee Murray, Davey Johnstone, and Nigel Olsson, came to be seen as musical chameleons, morphing and adjusting through various styles, not limited to: jazz, rock, classical, blues, country, and gospel. Bernie and Elton have a very unique partnership and style that was relatively alien to the rock scene. Bernie would write the lyrics (at first on paper, then with a typewriter) and would give them to Elton, who would then write the music all alone. This give and take between the two of them established a catalogue of songs which flex the creativity and ingenuity of both, as well as the rest of the band. Bernie’s soft wit and creative use of imagery pairs nicely with Elton’s virtuoso understanding of melody and chord structure, creating songs as much valued for their lyrics as for their music. All of this leads up to the beast that is Captain Fantastic¸ an album where Bernie and Elton take a walk down memory lane and indulge us with their musical autobiography.
At it’s heart, Captain Fantastic is a roughly chronological series of musical vignettes or stories, all of which chronicle the early days of Elton and Bernie’s musical careers, from the time they met in 1967 all the way to the writing of Your Song in 1970. To make a long story short, Elton (then still called Reg Dwight) was a struggling keyboardist from the Pinner region of London coming out of the band Bluesology, who could write music but not lyrics. Bernie was a farm boy from the county of Lincolnshire (eastern coast of England) who could write lyrics but not music. Both had strikingly different backgrounds, as is highlighted in the first song on the album, the title song Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Elton grew up in a very strict and tedious household and took piano lessons alongside his studies as a junior student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied piano and music theory. He loved rock and roll but wasn’t really allowed to pursue it until his mother remarried. Bernie grew up in a rural area where he found interest in literature, nature, and his big obsession: America and the American West.
The two answered the same advertisement from Liberty Records which requested young and talented songwriters in 1967. Elton was handed a random envelope of lyrics from an executive there, which just happened to be the words of Bernie. The two got in touch and Bernie moved down to London to join Elton. The two got an apartment together and went to work crafting songs together. They found work as songwriters for Dick James Publishing, in the famous Tin Pan Alley on Denmark Street in London. Bernie wrote lyrics and Elton wrote music to be performed by various musicians of the time. They had no memorable hits of this time and felt very stunted in their musical capacity. This era of their career is highlighted in the songs Tower of Babel and Bitter Fingers (more to be said in the song-by-song breakdown later.) As the months went by, frustration ensued as Bernie felt lost and out of place in the big city, and Elton became frustrated by his sexuality and love life. He was engaged to be married to a woman, and in 1968 he was given the ultimatum of choosing between their marriage or his musical career. Uncertain and scared, he attempted suicide by sticking his head in an oven (even though he left the window wide open). Bernie and close friend (and fellow Bluesology alumni) Long John Baldry convinced him to ditch his girlfriend for his career instead. These events are unfolded in the chilling Someone Saved My Life Tonight.
As the months moved on Elton and Bernie began to increase their clout in the London music scene. Elton played pub after pub while he and Bernie began writing songs out of his parent’s home in Pinner. They finally got the clear to produce their own album, with Reg adopting the stage name “Elton John”. Elton became the singer and keyboard player/pianist, along with a cavalcade of session musicians. This project, launched toward the end of 1968 and into 69, was titled Empty Sky. Elton and Bernie began to explore more folksy and experimental styles, with Elton’s harpsichord just as prominent as his piano. While neither regard the album very highly in retrospect, it gave them bursts of creativity and proved that they could make magic happen together. Then, in late 1969, the duo hit pay dirt with the simple yet sweet ballad which was titled Your Song. Bernie wrote it and handed it to Elton, who then wrote it in an afternoon at his white upright piano in his mother’s living room. This became the foundation of their career, and after their breakout in 1970, things were never the same for the two of them.
Overall, the album is essentially as flawless as an album can get. This album is what I would show to people to demonstrate why Elton was so important to popular music, and music as a whole. The lyrics are poignant and personal, but just abstract enough to connect to the listener. Elton really shines here and takes center stage with his beautiful melodies and musicianship. The heavily produced and arranged style of both Yellow Brick Road and Caribou are abandoned here (only one song, “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows”, features string arrangement.) Elton flexes his musical muscles here, taking on all keyboard duties, including heavy use of piano, harpsichord, mellotron, clavinet, and ARP String Ensemble. But more than that, the band itself really comes into its own. Elton allows for creative freedom and expression, allowing Dee, Nigel, and Davey room to show their immense talent and ear for harmony. Each song expresses a distinctive style and character, from the country-twanged titular song, to the funky “Tell Me”, to the psychedelic and powerful “We All Fall in Love Sometimes / Curtains.” The production from Gus Dudgeon is fantastic as always, as he lifts and projects both lyrics and music equally. And now for the part by part breakdown
Style, Artwork, and Packaging – 10/10 – The first thing that stands out about this album is the intense and beautiful cover art. Stylized in the fashion of The Garden of Earthly Delights, it depicts Elton as Captain Fantastic on the front side, with Bernie as the Brown Dirt Cowboy on the back. It depicts them within bubbles, with scenes familiar to them surrounding the interior of the bubble: for Elton, it’s of suburban London with terraced houses and people walking in the rain with clocks strapped to their backs. For Bernie, it’s of nature and wild critters surrounding him clutching a notepad and pencil. You can honestly scan this album cover for hours and probably still find something new. But even more, in the original LP edition, there is, alongside a very lovely lyrics book, a “scrapbook” filled with pictures of Bernie and Elton during the period that the album narrates. It’s of them going on vacation together, with their families, in the studio, and just with each other. It’s also filled with lyric sheets of their early songs as well as diary entries from Elton in the 68-69 range. All this creates a true sense of nostalgia, brotherly love, and friendship. Listening to the album while flipping through this scrapbook is one of the truly original and remarkable experiences of this album and achieves a level of resonance and emotion that few albums can do.
Production, Lyrics, and Musicianship – 10/10 – Gus Dudgeon doesn’t get half the credit he deserves for adding the sparkle to Elton and Bernie’s music. On this album, he places all the guys in the band where they need to be, toning down where it needs and raising certain instruments when necessary. He really elevated Elton’s music, and together with engineer Dave Henschel, gave the album a glossy sheen and a stiff backbone. The way he blends the vocal backdrop of Nigel, Dee, and Davey is nothing short of beautiful, and he has a wonderful way of blending in the various keyboard instruments of Elton. Of great production note is “Someone Saved”, which features fantastic mixing of vocal harmonies. Lyrics wise, Bernie is on top performance on this album. He manages to concentrate on the nostalgia while retelling stories in a very welcoming and sometimes biting way. The Musicianship is nothing short of flawless, the band had really found their sound and harmony amongst each other. Elton allows the other guys to come alive and express their creativity while not sacrificing his keen ear for piano and vocals. Elton takes up a heavy keyboard workload, the last for him in many ways. Davey really manages to flex his guitar abilities and diverse styles. Dee Murray really shines as a bass player on the funkier tracks and matches beautifully with Elton’s electric piano. Nigel comes through as well as he plays tit-for-tat with the virtuoso talent of Ray Cooper, who provides stunning and versatile percussion to round out the music of the album. This is the last album for many years where Elton would play with his classic line up, and that it sad in and of itself. They worked so well together.
Song by Song Breakdown:
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy – 7/10 – I have to say this is probably my least favorite song on the album, even though it’s still a really good song. It has a country/western feel to it that is reminiscent of his Honkey Chateau or Don’t Shoot Me sound. It’s got a nice open acoustic sound and Ray Cooper adds very interesting backing percussion on this. The lyrics paint the scene of young Red and Bernie in their respective upbringings and sets the tone for the story to unfold. Still, it lacks some of the grip that the rest of the album possesses and doesn’t hold up as well I think. Still, it’s a great opening chapter and creates a lovely mental image.
Tower of Babel – 10/10 – This is probably one of the best numbers, from a lyrical standpoint, that Bernie ever wrote. The lyrics are punchy and whimsical, but still possess a message that can be understood by all: that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the world of luxury is corrupt and sinful. The vocals here are very well managed and Davey’s guitar work really starts to come into its own. Of note here is the line “But where were all your shoulders when we cried / were the darlings on the sidelines dreaming up such cherished lies / to whisper in your ear before you die.” It really paints a picture of struggling musicians looking to the musical world, and not liking what they saw. Struggle is juxtaposed with luxury, and really serves to illustrate the nasty underbelly of the music industry filled with sex, drugs, and overindulgence.
Bitter Fingers – 10/10 – This song manages to show off both Elton’s piano and vocal skills alongside Bernie’s sharp and twisting lyrics. The song documents the frustration B and E felt towards Denmark Street at not being able to write the songs they wanted to. It sheds light on what all of us feel at times: a lack of support and stunted creativity. This song allows the listener into the minds of up and coming musicians who just try to scrape by, while also yearning to break out and do what they want. The lines “It’s hard to write a song with bitter fingers / so much to prove, so few to tell you why” should resonate with us all at one time or another. Again, Davey’s guitar and Nigel’s drumming stand out here as really sparkling and adding a lot of contrast to the piano provided by Elton. This is a band working as a unit, and it really shows. Piano, guitar, bass, and drums fuse together in perfect harmony.
Tell Me When the Whistle Blows – 9/10 – In true fashion, Elton and co radically switch style and genre in this tale of Bernie stringing himself back to his home in Lincolnshire aboard a train after becoming disillusioned and uncomfortable living in London. The song is funky and groovy, the only song on the album to feature a string arrangement. Elton’s Rhodes piano is prominently featured alongside Dee Murray’s marvelous bass riff, which really rises up for air at several points in the song (producer Gus Dudgeon enjoyed showcasing Dee’s playing). They lyrics and singing fit the mood very well, and the listener truly gets a sense of what it’s like to be that “boy heading back home.” One set of lyrics that really stand out to me are “It’s not so bad, I really do love the land / and I’d rather all this than those diamante lovers / in Hyde Park holding hands / blowing heat through my fingers / trying to kill off this cold.” Hands and fingers are prominent motifs on the album. Overall a funky song that manages to reach out, but unfortunately falls in between the two best songs on Side A, so it is overshadowed.
Someone Saved My Life Tonight – 10/10 – If it were possible to give this song 20/10, it would still fall short. This is, in the reviewer’s opinion, the best song out of the Elton and Bernie folio. A dark and eerie song documenting Elton’s attempted suicide and depression surrounding his engagement to a woman who wanted him to end his career in music for her, this song showcases in every way the enormous talent of Elton, Bernie, and the band. Bernie manages to paint vivid and naturalist imagery in his lyrics by throwing the listener into his dark and cloudy apartment in the East End of London. Elton matches this with an incredible vocal performance and a complex piano arrangement with the signature descending chord sequence. The lyrics “And it’s one more beer / and I don’t hear you anymore!” strike deep into the listener, taking us all to that moment where we felt everything was going to collapse. That is truly the magic of this album, I think. While it manages to convey a very personal and biographical narrative for Elton and Bernie, Bernie manages to leave the lyrics just loose enough so that the listener can connect and pinpoint a moment of their life where the songs on this album were about them. “A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams / I’m strangled by your haunted social scene / I’m just a pawn outplayed by a dominating queen / it’s four o’clock in the morning / Dammit! Listen to me good! / I’m sleeping with myself tonight / saved in time, thank god my music’s still alive”. These are quite possibly some of the finest lyrics ever crafted in pop music, and Elton’s delivery makes them sink into the mind of the listener and place him directly under the same noose. The vocal harmony of Davey, Dee, and Nigel is sublime and really curtains the song underneath the ARP string ensemble and piano provided by Elton. Production wise, this is such a wise choice to end Side A. The needle slows to a halt as the vocal harmonies cascade in a Beach Boys-esque waterfall, leaving the vinyl listener caught in the pull. This song serves to remind us that even one of the biggest stars in the world could have ended it all, and how sad we would be without him and his music.
(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket – 10/10 – This is hands down probably the best rocker Elton and Bernie wrote. It’s got that great guitar by Davey (possibly the most underrated guitarist in rock music) and Elton brings the pain as well with his thrashing piano and voice. The frustration of the song seethes through the frustration of being dealt a shitty hand by music executives, “Fifty percent / that’s hard to handle, ain’t that so! / oooo ain’t that so!” It reminds me of “Death on Two Legs” by Queen, that raw anger at the music industry for slashing money around and only caring about profit and ripping off the talented musicians that work hard. It also highlights the frustration of Elton and Bernie of needing to make that big break-out hit, to get them off Tin Pan Alley and onto the main stage. Overall a great opener for Side B, especially when contrasted to the end of Side A. Flipping the album over and hearing the roaring guitar start up makes you think “Yes! Elton is alive and better than ever!”
Better Off Dead – 10/10 – What better way to throw the listener into the dirty underbelly of the London music scene in the late 60s than to actually transport him/her to the dirty back alleys and all night cafes that Elton and Bernie scratched a living from? The piano is jumpy and loud and paired nicely with Nigel’s driving drum accompaniment. The lyrics here however are what really stand out, “Though the grease streaked window of an all night café / we watched the arrested get taken away / and that cigarette haze has ecology beat / as the whores and the drunks filled in from the street.” It’s hard to imagine that Elton John, a man who was playing gigantic stadiums and arenas by 1975 started out playing in dingy and crime-ridden holes around England. But Bernie uses this song to demonstrate that there is a secret beauty to all this: “If you ask how I am then I’ll just say ‘Inspired’ / if the thorn of the rose is the thorn in your side / then you’re better off dead if you haven’t yet died.” The moral of the story is that all things which are beautiful and nice have a nasty side to them, but that just has to be accepted when making music. This is Bernie shoving his middle finger out to all the snobs and critiques who can’t see the forest for the trees, and it’s brilliant.
Writing – 8/10 – This is probably the most upbeat song on an otherwise fairly melancholy album. It highlights the harmony and balance that had emerged from Elton and Bernie finding solace in writing and recording their own singles. Their system of writing had taken its full form, and it worked really well for them. The song is filled with ambition, with just a tint of worry and doubt which all songwriters feel. “Will the things we wrote today / sound as good tomorrow?” “Inspiration, the navigation of our new-found craft. / I know you / you know me / it’s always half and half.” A sweet and slightly satirical look at how well their system was working, Elton and Bernie started to discover just how much they meant to each other while also being songwriting partners. Things were finally turning around for them. By this time, they had set up shop in Elton’s mother’s home in Pinner, with Bernie writing his lyrics in one room before taking them to Elton at his white upright piano in the living room. The music here is light and refreshing, with again Davey Johnstone really standing out with his amazing guitar playing, contrasted with Elton’s electric piano.
We All Fall in Love Sometimes – 10/10 – The opening piano really tells you all you need to know about this song. The emotions and feelings expressed here are sweet and loving, and no not that kind of love. It’s really about the love of two things. The first, and of course the most obvious, is the deep brotherly love between Elton and Bernie that had emerged. They became attached to each other and started to spend essentially all their time together. They went on vacation together, they celebrated holidays together, they went to concerts together, and they went drinking at pubs together. Through their joint love of music, they had found each other, and that was enough for them. The second love of the song becomes quite clear after examining the page in the lyric book for this song: It displays nothing more than the framed, handwritten page simply titled “Your Song.” Elton and Bernie had fallen in love with their music, and they had finally begun to write songs that they felt could really become something wonderful. The song is set in the backdrop of their working on their first album, Empty Sky, in 1969. “Did we? Didn’t we? Shouldn’t we? Couldn’t We? I’m not sure cause sometimes we’re so blind / struggling through the day / when even your best friend says / ‘Don’t you find, we all fall in love sometimes?’”. When that one song comes together, it’s like lightening in a bottle. Everything changed for the captain and the kid after Empty Sky and then “Your Song” were written. This is them on the brink of their career breakout “And only passing time could kill the boredom we acquired / running with the losers for a while / but our Empty Sky was filled with laughter / Just before the Flood – / Painting worried faces with a smile.” That uncertainty of not knowing whether you’re going to make it big or not, taking those creative risks, is what this song is all about. Finding love of person and love of music, Elton and Bernie had figured out that they could do more and be more, and it was never going to be the same for the two of them. The music on this number is definitely reflective of late 60s taste and conjures musical memories of Empty Sky with Elton rising to the harpsichord and mellotron to create that eerie atmosphere. Enter the year 1970, and Elton John officially enters the public consciousness with one simple phrase: “It’s a little bit funny…”. It really is true, we do all fall in love sometimes.
Curtains – 8/10 – Fast forward to 1975, and a nostalgic Bernie Taupin mentally revisits the field of music (painted in the fashion of his farmland home) that he and Elton had worked on up until that point. “I used to know this old scarecrow”. Bernie’s musings on the events which unfold throughout the album become haunting and sentimental. At the apex of their career, they had both become millionaires and achieved musical stardom. Elton took up in a very lavish manor house outside London, loaded with artwork and cars of all types. Bernie had moved over to America and had set up shop on a quiet ranch in California. “I held a dandelion that said the time had come / to leave upon the wind / not to return / when summer burns the earth again”. Both felt very emotional to look back on their humble origins and felt inclined to stand on the hillside of time and look back on that old scarecrow they used to know and love. “Beneath these branches I once wrote / such childish words for you.” In retrospect, their music of that era was seen as naïve and immature, but still contained lots of memories. “But that’s okay, there’s treasure children always seek to find…”. The music here is wistful and mellow, with Davey’s guitar tuned to play backwards in the style of a sitar. Ray Cooper tastefully chimes in his tubular bells at intervals and Elton again lavishes his harpsichord and mellotron skills in addition to his piano. The only reason this song does not score 10 is mostly because it simply goes on too long. The final half is nothing more than vocalizations layered over repeating lines of music. If the song ended after the final line, it would really add to the power of the song. But even with that in mind, the final verse is very powerful and echoes such a beautiful conclusion to their tale of struggle and friendship: “And just like us / you must have had / A Once Upon A Time…”. The final line is printed in large font in the lyric book just above a picture of Elton and Bernie from 1969, naïve and young, ready to conquer the world. That reaching out to the listener and proclaiming that we all have that rough struggle before getting to where we want to be, seals this album as a tale everyone has lived, and will continue to live. We all have that once upon a time, and we too can look back like Bernie and Elton to see the road we traveled to get there.
Overall album score – 10/10