It’s been over two decades since Elton John has released a cd collection of this magnitude. In 1990, as was the trend then, he released To Be Continued…, a 4-cd collection of rarities, hits and album tracks. Fast forward to 2020, and well, he wasn’t kidding. To be fair, there was a 2-cd collection called Rare Masters in 1992, and countless greatest hits compilations along the way, but none of those compare to Jewel Box – a sprawling 8-cd collection of deep album tracks, early demos and lost b-sides that include extensive liner notes and details in a lavish hardback book.
24 Nov 2020
21 Nov 2020
Jewel Box: Elton's bountiful baubles big deep, and make "Captain Fantastic" come alive (Part One) by James Turano
New comprehensive rarities compilation is a vital first step in revealing the primitive beginnings and eventual depth and breadth of Elton John’s masterful musical legacy
Simply, the new “Elton: Jewel Box” collection is an Elton John fan’s wet dream.
In these uncertain times, absent new music from Elton’s piano and Bernie Taupin’s pen, this enlightening, comprehensive collection of old and rare music from The Captain and The Kid (and others) is a most welcome surprise – a comforting gift to the fans.
And that is what it is: a most grateful gift. The casual Elton John fans looking for just the best-known, radio favorites have been indulgently catered to for decades. Finally, Elton’s diehards get their due.
Because for more than 45 years, longtime fans have been enduring an onslaught of frustratingly re-packaged and re-configured greatest hits compilations that basically recycle the same 25 songs.
Ironically, vinyl and CD compilations distributed by Pickwick Records in the ‘80s, may have been budget bin throw-offs, with titles like “The Album,” “The Collection,” “Song Book,” and “Love Songs,” but these stood out for their impressive mix of big hits and idiosyncratic deep cuts, and I admit I played them more than the “legitimate” hits collections.
The official, varying volumes have covered the years of 1970-74, 1976-1986, 1970-2002, and boasted grandiose titles including “Greatest,” “Definitive,” “Very Best,” “Number Ones” “One Night Only,” “Love Songs,” “Rare Masters,” “To Be Continued,” “Volume II,” and “Volume 3.”
The most recent and re-mastered, three-disc “Diamonds,” is the best of them all, so no need for more. Despite decades of these redundancies, we fans have bought them. All of them. We have to.
Conversely, the new box set, “Elton: Jewel Box.” is a bulging, bursting, tastefully designed and carefully curated 148-song collection of revealing rarities that blends many never before heard demos from 1965-1971, sought-after B-sides, and long overlooked and deserving deep cuts personally chosen by Elton with input from Bernie.
It’s exacting presentation almost makes all those previously rehashed “greatest” groupings irrelevant.
“Elton: Jewel Box” is a marvel. It’s aimed to celebrate Elton’s indisputable legacy. And it’s about time. Elton’s full legacy must be exposed to the masses and established for the ages for its originality, innovation, heft, and high standard for quality. During the last 50-plus years, Elton John has been ridiculously prolific and popular. But it’s been a blessing and a curse.
The blessing: the global embracing of Elton’s most beloved hits has made him one of the most successful musical artists of all time.
The curse: those scores of timeless, crowd-pleasing classics have obscured the true expanse, diversity, depth, and breadth of his complete career output.
And though he is currently taking a prudent pandemic hiatus from -- as he describes it -- “being Elton,” to rest, get fit, and spend some unexpected and prolonged quality time with his family, he cannot lose sight of the endgame; he must proactively position his full legacy.
Unlike fellow classic rock peers like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury, the music critics won’t do it for him. They never have.
Dating back to his rousing U.S. debut in August 1970, Elton quickly went from favored critics’ darling to pop’s punching bag within a couple of years. Literally overnight, Elton was “it,” thanks in large part to Robert Hilburn’s raving review in The Los Angeles Times declaring Elton would become “one of rock's biggest and most important stars.”
He returned to England a supposed conquering hero, but the British music press that had previously given him little more than a passing glance was not prepared to pass Elton the pop crown.
In 1970, the British press felt it had it had the right to ordain rock music’s next big thing” after The Beatles’ abrupt break up. Elton John was not their choice.
While the Brit press pushed their “preferred” heirs like David Bowie, Marc Bolan and T-Rex, Roxy Music, and The Faces, Elton began to steadily and impressively climb the charts and sell-out bigger and bigger venues.
Leading U.K. publications’ like the New Music Express covered Elton in the ‘70s more out of obligation than enthusiasm. More gossip than deep musical analysis or genuine excitement.
Even though they had first crack to recognize his talents and potential, the U.K. scribes seemingly punished Elton for leaving British shores and finding fame without their approval. And they have held the grudge ever since.
The U.S. music press initially welcomed Elton’s sudden ascension because back then, anything imported from Britain carried cache. Less than a year after his August 1970, arrival, Elton grabbed the coveted cover of Rolling Stone, on June 10, 1971. Still, he was viewed more as a temporary, interesting oddity. Hardly a hero.
In the early ‘70s, Elton didn’t meet the music press’s expectations of a “new sensation.” It wanted a Dylanesque artist to change music, the culture, and the social order. Elton made music that entertained. It wanted a guitar player. Elton played piano. It wanted a rock god with Mick Jagger looks. Elton’s physical frame didn’t fit into hipster hip huggers. It wanted singer-songwriters who bared their own souls and emotions though their songs. Elton didn’t write his own lyrics.
And later, even as Elton dominated the music scene from 1972-76, eventually the U.S. music press passed him off as a mainstream popster rather than a “serious” artist and treated his music as such.
Looking back at Rolling Stone reviews of Elton’s classic ‘70s output – including the masterpieces, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy,” and “Blue Moves” -- they are lukewarm at best, begrudgingly complimentary in spots, and focus more on his flamboyant persona than the songs at hand.
Rather than exalting Elton for his melodic diversity and seamless spanning of many genres with authenticity and passion, he often was dismissed as derivative or a shallow imitator. And during this era, though Taupin often tackled tough and taboo topics including racism (“Texan Love Song”), homelessness (“Razor Face”), prostitution (“Sweet Painted Lady”), lesbianism (“All The Girls Love Alice”), mass murder (“Ticking”), drug use (“Feed Me”), and suicide (“Someone’s Final Song”), among others, he rarely was credited for bravely venturing into such non-pop subject matter.
Almost 50 years later, these overtly biased Rolling Stone reviews read as dated and downright foolish.
Further, after gracing its cover in 1971, 1973, 1974, and 1976, Rolling Stone did not feature Elton on its cover for another 35 years – until February 17, 2011. This inexcusable oversight despite Elton achieving “cover-worthy” milestones within those three decades including his groundbreaking Russian tour in 1979; his solid ’80s comeback; winning an Oscar in 1994; comforting a grieving the world in 1997 at Princess Diana’s funeral; conquering Broadway and The West End with original music that forged the hit stage shows “The Lion King,” “Aida,” and “Billy Elliot;” and making some of his best albums of his career (“Songs From The West Coast” and “Peachtree Road”) in the early 2000s.
No, it was not the music press on either shore that made Elton John a star. It was the public. The public bought the records. The public sold-out the shows. While the music press haughtily scoured for its next phenomenon, the public found theirs.
And despite the acclaim, the awards (none of Elton’s ‘70s albums or songs won a Grammy) and the many unrivaled accomplishments, Elton’s music still is judged by and mostly known for…the hits. That’s the historical perception that must be changed or at least expanded.
To assure Elton’s music is still being played and enjoyed in the coming centuries – yes, centuries – similar to the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Gershwin, Bernstein, and other timeless musical artists, the work and heavy lifting must be done now.
For instance, in addition to retrospective releases like “Jewel Box,” Elton also can help his cause and inject excitement into his older catalog on stage. After his current “Farewell Tour” ends, the advantage of Elton finally staging an appetizing “Deep Cuts Concert” that’s he’s been teasing for many years, and featuring a wider variety and more “unknown” songs from all phases of his career can establish a much-needed appreciation for these older tunes.
While the world sings along to the massive hits such as “Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “I’m Still Standing,” the diehard Elton fans have been singing the praises of lesser-known album tracks including, “Harmony,” “High Flying Bird,” “Ticking,” “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford,” “Burning Buildings,” “Blue Avenue,” and dozens of others. More people need to hear and know these “other” songs.
Yes, Elton and Taupin undoubtedly will continue to look to the future with new projects and new music (in Rolling Stone magazine, Taupin recently revealed he has written more than 20 new lyrics that he describes as “special,” that are just waiting for new Elton melodies).
And they both would rather not than dwell on their past – but it’s one helluva past. It should be dwelled on for history’s sake. The Elton John and Bernie Taupin team deserves it.
Hopefully, “Jewel Box” is the beginning of a regular record release effort to rectify, unify, and deliver the full scope of Elton’s massive musical canon, and elevate it to a higher level in the ears of the public the critics, and the rock historians.
Because Elton John rightfully belongs among the most respected, talented, popular, and successful musical artists and songwriters of all time.
“Elton: Jewel Box” is impressive first step toward that goal.
Technically, it’s a second step. In 1992, the excellent “Rare Masters” collection was the “first step” and the best of Elton’s past compilations. It astutely amassed some of his best music up to that point that fell through the cracks since Reg Dwight became Elton John.
The well-chosen collection of early music, ‘70s B-sides, and the misunderstood and under-appreciated “Friends” soundtrack from 1971 – which still has never been released as a standalone CD – offered a refreshing and deeper level of Elton’s musical history. It gathered laudable, scattered early material into one, detailed, convenient package and historical listening experience.
Unfortunately, “Rare Masters” was never followed up with additional collections through the years that could have continually shed more light on Elton’s old material. Finally, almost 30 years after “Rare Masters," “Jewel Box” and its clear commitment to Elton’s legacy has arrived. The new set is not flowery, stunting nostalgia, but rather, necessary, and legacy building.
Young and Springsteen, for example, regularly swing their vaults wide open to release long-rumored, fully completed “lost albums,” unheard demos, decades-old outtakes, and memorable live performances to build and cement their legacies.
“Jewel Box” is proof Elton’s vaults are lined with plenty of dusty, musical gems waiting to be unearthed. He may claim after this collection there is “nothing left in the tank,” but based on remaining demos and desirable outtakes from the last several decades floating around on YouTube and on bootleg vinyl and CDs, yes, there are more unpolished “jewels” to be mined.
These notable nuggets from the past – like the recent “discovery” of the exquisite and ear-delicious “jazz version” of “Come Down In Time” (it’s a shame this was found too late to be included in “Jewel Box”) -- also deserve to be re-mastered, historically annotated, and given their time in the spotlight.
“Elton: Jewel Box” offers revelations for all audiences. Newer fans now have a wealth of “new” material to digest, process, and add to their overall knowledge. Though most longtime fans have heard much of this material on bootlegs, as CD re-issue bonus tracks, or on the original vinyl, there are still many startling moments for even the most avid “Eltonographer.” Thankfully, “Jewel Box” organizes it and presents it in excellent sound quality.
As a pure listening experience, “Elton: Jewel Box” is unequaled for providing a dynamic, sonic portrait of Elton’s music, from fledging upstart to rock phenomenon.
From a historical perspective, it is detailed and inclusive, but still not definitive. There are more songs and eras that demand attention. Granted, this may be nitpicking when you consider all the material that is on these eight discs, but nonetheless, it’s true.
Could any collection truly please every Elton superfan? Of course not. No fan is ever completely satisfied when any new material is issued. This intense scrutiny is at the core of every diehard fan. It’s what makes fans endlessly endearing…and probably, in all honesty, a bit irritatingly irrational.
But it is all offered from a devoted, positive place of admiration, deep feeling, and intangible connection. We just can’t get enough of “our” Elton.
When viewed and listened as a whole, “Elton: Jewel Box” unfolds like a musical scrapbook – literally and figuratively. It’s compelling packaging and painstaking attention to detail all compiled in book form is eye-catching and user-friendly.
Sprinkled with vintage and iconic images, photos, album covers, backstage passes, and vinyl picture sleeves, founded on a sprawling narrative, extensive credits and recording information, and boasting track-by-track, insightful, misty water-colored memories and comments from Elton, the book presentation alone is a fan treasure trove.
Ultimately, for the diehard fans “Elton: Jewel Box” is a joyous validation of our seemingly life-long devotion, obsession, and admiration for Elton John, his talent, and his music.
“Jewel Box” and its riches enables Elton John fans of all levels to proudly proclaim, “I told you so.”
(To be continued)
(Picture of Jim Turano courtesy by himself)
Jewel Box: Elton's bountiful baubles big deep, and make "Captain Fantastic" come alive (Part Two) by James Turano
DISCS 1 AND 2 : DEEP CUTS
Elton’s deep cuts: the “other” Elton John.
There are two sides to the Elton John catalogue. There are his popular hits known and loved the world over. And there are the hundreds of unknown album tracks or “deep cuts” that were never released for wide radio airplay, and thus are appreciated only by his most diehard fans.
His hits have defined him for most but have overshadowed some of the best music he’s ever written.
The “Deep Cuts” discs of “Jewel Box” – unlike the early demos -- are fully realized, performed, and produced album tracks meant to be heard in all their glory. These songs – the sacred ones – are not known by the masses but the tracks I listen to most. They are the songs that vibrantly shape Elton’s catalogue. An album’s deep cuts are the ones I want the world to hear and sing along with.
Musically, “Elton: Jewel Box” begins and ends with a “Deep Cuts” disc. The first two encompasses 31 worthy songs chosen by Elton. They are an inspired selection touching his entire career, from 1971’s “Tumbleweed Connection” (“Where To Now, St. Peter?”) to 2013’s “The Diving Board” (“My Quicksand” and “The New Fever Waltz”). The final disc is an eclectic mix of Elton choices that keenly connect his many moods and life experiences.
It’s difficult to argue with any of the deep cuts chosen here. They all belong and are excellent examples of Elton’s many musical hues through the years. Also, how do you question these when Elton picked them? I mean, Elton is the ultimate judge.
Or is he?
Certainly, when discussing many of Elton’s best songs and “obscure” deep cuts from his 33 studio albums, no list is complete without most offered on “Jewel Box,” including “Where To Now, St, Peter?” “Mellow,” “The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34),” “Chameleon,” “We All Fall In Love Sometimes,” “The North,” “Ticking,” “Tell Me When The Whistle Blows,” “House,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket,” “Shoot Down The Moon,” “Have Mercy On The Criminal,” “Blues For Baby And Me,” “My Father’s Gun,” “Elton’s Song,” “Amazes Me,” The Last Song,” and “American Triangle.”
Interestingly, evidence that tastes and preferences change with time, several years ago, a hand-written list by Elton of songs for a rumored “Deep Cuts Tour,” surfaced online, and of the 20 songs he chose then, less than half on that list appear on the three “Deep Cuts” discs on the “Jewel Box.”
And based on his track-by-track comments, many of his somewhat surprising deep cut selections like “Boogie Pilgrim,” “Crystal,” “Understanding Women,” “My Quicksand,” “Stone’s Throw From Hurtin’” “Too Low For Zero,” “Hoop Of Fire,” “The Power,” and “All That I’m Allowed” were selected more for their musical influences, personal anecdotes, or because they were musical departures from the expected “Elton John sound.”
However, when analyzing some of Elton’s greatest and “unknown” songs, the best the songs are those that do sound like Elton; that do feature his dramatic chord structures, his passionate, playful, and pleading vocals; that do feature many of Taupin’s metaphorical images and pointed thoughts; that do glide on a Paul Buckmaster orchestral arrangement; or do get a shredding from a Davey Johnstone rocking guitar riff.
They are songs representative of the hypnotic grandeur conjured by producer Gus Dudgeon. They are the songs that can only be Elton.
So, yes, while even these unexpected deep cut choices have their place here, it’s hard to choose them over arguably, some of the best songs Elton has ever written – period. Songs including “High Flying Bird,” “Harmony,” “Come Down In Time,” “Seasons (Reprise),” “Mona Lisa And Mad Hatters,” “” ”Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” “Roy Rogers,” “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy,” “Better Off Dead,” “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford),” “Planes,” “Tonight,” “Crazy Water,” “Idol,” “Cage The Songbird,” “Carla/Etude/Fanfare/Chloe,” “Burning Buildings,” “Blue Avenue,” “A Woman’s Needs,” “Live Like Horses (The Buckmaster Demo Version),” “Latitude,” “The Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes,” “Original Sin,” “Old ’67, “Mandalay Again (with Leon Russell),” “Not Me (“Aida” Demo Version),” “Circle Of Life,” and “You Gotta Love Someone.”
You may have your own favorites and choices.
As Elton insightfully mentioned in his autobiography “Me,” he didn’t start his career as a pop singer or “singles artist.” And he’s correct. His first several official releases were compared more to the rustic sound of The Band and the soulful blues-rock of Leon Russell than the puppy love pop of Donny Osmond.
Elton and Bernie’s early albums from 1969-1971 -- “Empty Sky,” “Elton John,” “Tumbleweed Connection,” and “Madman Across The Water” -- were dominated by complexly written, structured, orchestrated, and produced melodies, augmented by creative, literate, and cinematic storytelling lyrics that challenged and transported the listener.
Additionally, many of the early John-Taupin compositions clocked in at five or six minutes in length. This prevented many of their best early songs from receiving airplay on the hit-making AM radio stations in the ‘70s. The commercial behemoths dominated the dial and refused to play songs longer than 4 minutes to both serve their young, short attention spanned listeners and pack in as many commercials as they could within an hour.
Therefore, many of Elton and Bernie’s best early songs never were released as singles and most people have never heard them. Granted, some of Elton’s early, non-singles music from “Elton John,” “Tumbleweed” and “Madman” did get airplay on the emerging progressive FM stations in America. These stations featured freeform formats and strove to play more “serious” non-traditional, non-pop music of the day. However, these smaller, “underground” radio stations didn’t command the influence of their AM Top 40 powerhouse counterparts.
In fact, after 1970’s “Your Song” became a hit, though he released several singles afterward, it wasn’t until 1972 with “Rocket Man” that Elton returned to the upper levels of the U.S. and U.K. singles charts.
One reason a collection like “Jewel Box” is not only welcome but mandatory in enhancing Elton’s full body of work is because during his dizzying ‘70s decade, most of his albums between 1972-76 were exceptional efforts from top to bottom. Unlike most albums of the day, there was little filler between the hits.
While most artists of the day struggled to put just one or two hit singles on a 10-song album, Elton and Bernie were writing and recording a plethora of potential hits. I contend Elton’s albums recorded during this heyday included four or even five possible hit singles.
Unfortunately, many compelling songs were relegated to B-side status or never got a chance to be heard by the masses on the radio because of Elton’s outdated and restrictive recording contract. He was obligated to deliver two albums a year, which at the time may have been standard practice for a standard artist. But from the start it was obvious Elton John was no standard artist.
With a little foresight and savvy, the powers at be should have recognized the wealth of great music on each album, and rather than pressing for something new every six months, they could have relaxed his recording schedule and extended the chart life of each current album.
For example, in 1973, with a double album of stellar material, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” could have been on the charts for a year or even two, and most likely yielded at least five or six hit singles. Instead, in the U.S,, only the title track, “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” and “Bennie And The Jets” were released as singles, leaving potential chart-toppers like “Candle In The Wind” (in the U.S.), “Harmony,” “Grey Seal,” “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and others stranded on the shelf.
I argue if “Come Down In Time” and “Harmony” became singles in the ‘70s, for example, today they both would be among Elton’s best-known and best-loved greatest hits and would have to be played at every concert. Instead they are known by only the most ardent fans.
That’s why “Jewel Box” is essential: it exposes more people to the great expanse of Elton’s complete catalogue. And it does meet its mission. Almost. If we couldn’t expand “Jewel Box” to 10 discs to include more deserving deep cuts, why not another stand-alone collection promoting these older songs as “new songs”?
After all, we have seen how “Tiny Dancer,” which was originally released in 1971 as a single and failed, was instantly elevated to “greatest hit” and “beloved” status. Thanks to a short but thrilling scene featuring it in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 “Almost Famous” rock ‘n’ roll diary film, it was viewed as a “new” song despite being 30 years old.
And remember the sadly abandoned, “Thom Bell Sessions” from 1977? In 1979, it yielded a Top 10 hit, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” and miraculously, in 2003, thanks to an accidental Ashley Beedle re-mix, “Are You Ready For Love?” gave Elton his most unsuspecting U.K. #1 song of his career.
The point being, Elton has LOTS of older music many people haven’t heard, and when they do, it feels “new” to them and it gains the popularity it always should have. So why not give these older songs a second chance to fulfill their intended vocation?
I believe a collection of deep cuts promoted and marketed as a “new” album would bring throngs of new listeners to Elton’s older songs and play a major role in widening his legacy. How cool would it be to have an album with the following songs, and to hear Elton play many of them live?
Indulge my fantasy for a moment, and imagine diving into “Elton: The Lost Gems” with a track list that, in addition to the missing deep cuts I mentioned earlier, would also include: “Strange Rain,” “Into The Old Man’s Shoes,” “Can I Put You On?” “Rock Me When He’s Gone,” “Sick City,” “Cold Highway,” “Pinky,” “Hercules,” “Crazy Water,” “Red,” “Planes,” “Sugar In The Floor,” “Queen Of Cities,” “The Best Part Of The Day,” “White Powder, White Lady,” “Give Me The Love,” “Healing Hands,” “Elderberry Wine,” “Between Seventeen And Twenty,” “Skyline Pigeon (1973 piano version),” “Love Letters” (with Bonnie Raitt), “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” (with Kiki Dee), “One Day At A Time” (Lennon cover), “It’s Me That You Need, “Love Song” (Live with Lesley Duncan), “Sweet Painted Lady,” “Dixie Lily,” “Electricity,” “Teacher I Need You,” “Grey Seal,” “One More Arrow,” “Gypsy Heart,” “Too Young,” “Mansfield,” “The Captain And The Kid,” “Voyeur,” and “The Open Chord.”
I’d buy it. And I’d never stop playing it.
Yes, I realize this totals more than 60 additional deep cuts. It only accentuates my initial premise. Elton’s got a an incredibly vast body of work of superior quality and people today and in the future need to hear more of it and be fully converted.
Finally, the most glaring deep cut excluded on “Jewel Box” is one of Elton and Bernie’s most difficult but triumphant songs: “Candle In The Wind 1997.”
I understand the song’s unique connection to history and a sad, tragic event, but nonetheless, this song is also one of Elton’s crowning public performances. And Taupin’s expressive re-working of the original to honor Princess Diana was emotive, not maudlin, celebratory, not sorrowful. It was a song that perfectly served the moment.
“Candle In The Wind 1997” helped heal a nation and the world, and as painful as the circumstances for its existence may be, its achievement should not be forgotten, understated, or hidden. It may be Elton and Bernie’s ultimate, most defining deep cut of all.
DISCS 3, 4 AND 5: RARITIES 1965-1971
Obviously, these three discs of rare demos written and recorded between 1965-71 are the collection’s “Holy Grail” for many, and a long overdue generous gesture to the fans. Though many of these demos have appeared on the previously “must-have” three-disc “Dick James Demo” bootleg series, many old and new fans still will be enticed by these early efforts.
I know I have been. These discs were the first ones I listened to just out of the shrink wrap. And that’s saying something, considering I probably haven’t listened to my three “Dick James Demo” bootleg discs since I first bough them almost 30 years ago.
Some fans flock to Elton’s demos from any era with greater interest than much of Elton’s finished material. Though I’ve appreciated the historical significance of this embryonic work, and as a collector felt almost obligated to have it, I haven’t devoured it. I don’t know all the origins and recording details. I know most of them more by title than by melody or lyric.
I have always viewed Elton demos for what they are – rough experiments, first attempts, and often times, unfinished works that may have held promise; unreleased demos are musical snapshots of a work-in-progress that faded from artist interest and into obscurity. They thrive on their mystery.
“Jewel Box” uncovers the mystery.
One motivating mystery solved in “Jewel Box” is the detailed disclosure of a delayed debut album in 1968 tentatively titled “Regimental Sgt. Zippo.” Though the song itself is known in Elton collector circles, the possibility of an entire debut album before “Empty Sky” is a new wrinkle in the Elton John career narrative.
Hearing the demos that were intended to become “Sgt, Zippo,” the decision to abort the mission was correct. First, the song and the title are an obvious “Sgt. Pepper” influence, and Elton undoubtedly would have been savaged by music critics for the lesser results.
Most significantly, based on its potential track list, songs like “Nina,” “Angel Tree” and “Watching The Planes Go By” though steeped in their era are fragile buds of future growth. “Tartan Coloured Lady,” with its harpsichord and hippie lyric hints at songs to come later on their 1969 debut album “Empty Sky.” These and other songs are close, but both Elton and Bernie still show signs of growing pains as they search for their individual creative “voices.” Their collective mojo still hadn’t gelled in 1968.
As I gorged on these demos with three consecutive and complete listens, I found myself captivated. It was like hearing both an old and new Elton John at the same time. Most of all, it was so exciting to hear Elton’s piano playing so dominant throughout these three discs.
If there is one aspect of Elton’s music that sadly has diminished through the years – except on 2013’s “The Diving Board” – it’s his piano placed high in the mix and leading the melody. In concert his digits dance with dexterity on the piano keys with flair, purpose, and feeling, but in the recording studio the piano varies in its prominence and importance.
Hearing Elton playfully pounding with confidence and commitment on all these demos IS “Elton John.” To hear so much of Elton’s piano song-after-song-after-song is pure bliss it’s worth the box set’s price of admission.
Also, fully legible versions of two of Elton and Bernie’s earliest songs, “Scarecrow” and “A Dandelion Dies In The Wind,” are indeed tasty treats. There are more, including the 1971 demo for “Holiday Inn,” which includes the infamous “lost verse” about a broken TV, lack of hotel room service, and cold fries.
I found I liked two demos – “Where It’s At” and “Whose Gonna Love You” – that were not written with Bernie Taupin, but co-written by Nicky James and Kirk Duncan, respectively. Both are straightforward pop-oriented songs, not in the Taupin style, even in his earliest, raw days.
These experiments are catchy, bouncy radio-ready tunes that signaled Elton’s innate, uncanny ability – even at this early stage – to put almost any set of words to some kind of appealing melody, and effortlessly slide into one musical genre and shift gears to another with authenticity.
Early on, I did gravitate most to the John-Taupin songs, as crude and dated as many are. These previously-vaulted, promising musical sketches like “Hourglass,” “Turn To Me,” “When I Was Tealby Abbey,” “There Is Still A Little Love,” “If I Asked You,” “Bonnie’s Gone Away,” “Just An Ordinary Man” (with its Bacharach opening), “There’s Still Time For Me,” “When The First Tear Shows” (which impresses thanks to the added horns), and “Sing Me No Sad Songs” give “Jewel Box” instant credibility for what they convey – the beginnings of the newly-seeded John-Taupin partnership taking root.
These demos – especially those on Disc Two -- show Elton growing in vocal style, sureness, risk, and bravado, and he gradually gives Taupin’s lyrics deeper, melodical foundations to shine and soar. The demos confirm the crucial, enthusiastic advocacy of early supporter, mentor, and first producer, Steve Brown.
As the John-Taupin demos begin in 1967 we hear songs that stir with naïve, ambitious stabs at “Sgt. Pepper” pop psychedelia. Next, as we move into 1968 and ‘69, we hear a more focused and mature style emerging. And by 1970, their collective talents magically mesh.
By the time you get to the “Tumbleweed” and “Madman” demos, their work has drastically transformed. The musical and lyrical synergy that will become one of the best and successful songwriting partnerships in history is evident and ready. It’s a star-crossed, “star is born” tale come true.
After listening to all three discs, I had a startling epiphany.
When presented in this form and sound quality, these demos aren’t just individual songs or the manifestation of Elton and Bernie’s youthful hopes and dreams. These demos aren’t just some heart-tugging tokens of nostalgia.
Instead, “Jewel Box” has altered these demos from long-abandoned, boxed and stored pastiche of the past and bestowed on them new relevance; the personification of the “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” album. These demos directly inform the story Bernie was telling 45 years ago about how “hand in hand went the music and the rhyme” between him and Reg Dwight. How, at 17 years old, Bernie was “still green and growing.” The demos represent Elton and Bernie “stepping in the ring” and the start of their “long and lonely climb.”
We hear firsthand, how for Bernie, Elton became “the honey the hive could be holding.”
These demos are the struggles, the disappointments, the need for “all those shoulders when we cried“ in “Tower Of Babel.” These demos the evidence of why “it’s hard to write a song with bitter fingers.” These demos are the “naïve notions that were childish” and “the simple tunes that tried to hide it.”
For years in interviews, Elton and Bernie related the angst of their beginnings when they were “out for the count,” and signed to Dick James (one of the “old diehards on Denmark Street”) as writers for hire -- the so-called “Tin Pan Alley Twins.”
But now, we hear the sources of that angst. Many of these demos are what Taupin describes as “hawking hunks of garbage” while writing for other performers and being asked to “knock a line or two, together for a friend.”
We immediately hear through some of these crude efforts the duo’s “desperate desire for change,” but also recognize why some correctly felt “there’s a chance that one day, you might write a standard, lads.” Just two years after they were coupled by Ray Williams, they did just that with “Your Song.”
In these demos you hear Elton and Bernie’s youthful exuberance, their “inspiration for navigation” of their “newfound craft.” And how their songwriting process is “always half and half.”
Of all the songs on “Captain Fantastic,” however, these demos imbue deeper meanings to many of Taupin’s reflections and emotions in the album’s two final songs -- “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” and “Curtains.” These two songs are powerful in their reminisces and love, and these “Jewel Box” demos now enable these thoughts to burst and overflow.
The “Jewel Box” demos document how their “Empty Sky was filled with laughter” and are the basis for Elton and Bernie’s mythic and magical “once upon a time.”
DISCS 6 AND 7: B-SIDES 1976-2005
Ah, the Elton B-sides. The “Elton extras,” if you will.
In the days of vinyl buying in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, you knew you were a serious Elton John fan if you first played the flipside rather than “hit side” of an Elton single. You played the “B” rather than the “A’ side.
You did this because you’d already heard the hit single on the radio many, many times by now, but in most cases, rather than just plopping an album cut on the B-side of the single, Elton often gave his fans a little something extra – an unreleased outtake. For major Elton John fans, this meant a new song. More Elton to explore and enjoy.
And Elton’s B-sides were not sub-par studio throwaways. These were good or even excellent songs that for whatever reason weren’t deemed “album worthy.” However, these B-sides often were better than the songs that did make it on the albums. The consistently high quality of Elton’s B-sides through the years soon begged a regular and perplexing question for Elton fans, “How the hell could he leave that song off the album?”
The fact the “Jewel Box” includes two, count ‘em, two B-side discs – 36 songs – is proof the fans weren’t wrong all these years. And this fact is compounded because there are several B-sides that were left out.
There are deserving “discards” within the 1976-2005 time frame this set features that are missing, including “Lovesick,” “Suit Of Wolves,” the John Lennon-inspired, “The Man Who Never Died,” and even some outtakes like “Planes,” “Strangers,” and “Dreamboat.” Other excellent album worthy B-sides dating back to 1973 could have been included, like eternal head-scratchers like “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again), “Jack Rabbit,” “Screw You (Young Man’s Blues),” “Sick City,” “Cold Highway,” “Skyline Pigeon (Piano Version),” “One Day At A Time,” “Sugar On The Floor,” and “House Of Cards.”
True, these latter tracks were on the 1992 “Rare Masters” collection, but so what? Why not re-master these, give them some added exposure and offer them for completist reasons? Couldn’t we make “Jewel Box” a 10-disc set? Go big or go home, right?
These minor quibbles aside, the 36 B-sides featured in “Jewel Box” add to the set’s growing body of evidence of just how bottomless Elton’s catalogue is when heard en masse.
Songs like the dreamy, cryptic “Snow Queen,” the driving ballad, “Conquer The Sun,” the Latin-fused, “Love So Cold” (complete with a spot-on Desi Arnaz imitation), the country-fried “Can’t Get Over Getting Over You,” the syth-swirling “Take Me Down To The Ocean,” and the funky, keyboard-driven “Rope Around A Fool,” all could have been solid album cuts -- and should have been.
The cavity-inducing, bouncing Beach Boys homage, “I Know Why I’m In Love” and the charging “Big Man In A Little Suit” would have been the best songs on 1997’s disappointingly over-produced, languid affair, “The Big Picture,” the alternate, harder rocking, guitar wailing mix of “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” included here should have been the version used on 1982’s “Jump Up!,” and the saucy, French charms of the two 1980 France Gall collaborations, “Les Aveux” and “Donner Pour Donner,” are hard to resist.
The soaring “The North Star” recorded during 2001’s “Songs From The West Coast” sessions definitely should have been on that album, which already is one of Elton’s best -- and this could have made it even better.
Equally, I argue the four B-sides offered from 2004’s under-appreciated “Peachtree Road” all were missed opportunities and their inclusion on the official album would have helped its second half take flight. Notably, “So Sad The Renegade” and “How’s Tomorrow” are two of the best songs Elton and Bernie have written in the 2000s.
And that’s what we love about B-sides. They were born with a dubious destiny. If the demo discs are the “might have beens,” this gathering of Elton “rejects” proves there are plenty of “should have beens” – excellent songs that deserved better than a B-side fate.
DISC 8: “AND THIS IS ME…”
The eighth and final disc, titled “And This Is Me…” refers to Elton’s autobiography and are songs Elton chose that reflect him professionally and personally. This imaginative list of 16 songs pre-date his first album, with the trippy, 1969’s single, “Lady Samantha,” and follows his yellow brick road to the present day – the 2019, Oscar-winning duet with Taron Egerton, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.”
Overall, it’s an interesting selection, with mostly lesser known album tracks that hold special meaning for Elton in their subject matter, influence, or recording.
He begins this final disc with the title track of his debut album, “Empty Sky,” a transcendent time capsule and jamming musical journey, and peppers it with a host of many classic deep cut ballads including the Bob Dylan favorite, “My Father’s Gun,” the hidden “coming out” quandary, “All The Nasties,” two Tom Robinson co-writing compositions -- the stately “Sartorial Eloquence,” and the quiet anguish of a school boy crush, “Elton’s Song” -- the gospel raving, “Amazes Me,” the AIDS-aching father and son reunion of “The Last Song,” and the elegant elegy for the hate crime slain, Matthew Shephard, “American Triangle.”
This disc holds a few surprises, especially for including one of Elton’s biggest hits, “Philadelphia Freedom.” At first blush it seems odd among the other lesser-known tracks, given its #1 hit status and zealous popularity.
But on further review, it makes perfect sense. Musically, the song reflects Elton’s lifelong love of soul, blues, and gospel, with a Gene Page (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and Barry White) arrangement that gives a nod to Gamble And Huff, and Thom Bell – key architects of the ‘70s “Philly Soul” sound so close to Elton’s heart.
It’s also a loving gift from Elton to one of his dearest friends, Billie Jean King, and includes some introspective lyrics including, “I used to be a rolling stone,” “I’d leave to find the answer on the road,” “I used to be a heart-beating for someone, but the times have changed,” and “gave me peace of mind my daddy never had.” Though Taupin penned these lines more than 45 years ago, they are eerily timely and can describe Elton in 2020.
The “And This Is Me…” disc is a fine final curtain for “Jewel Box.” It provides a personal coda to a personal musical journey. I’m listening to this one to this one a lot too.
Sure, I know I’ve rambled, over-analyzed, and both been over critical and over enthusiastic. In other words, I’ve been a diehard Elton John fan. No apologies.
I’ve been listening to Elton’s music for more than two-thirds of my life, and because of the plunder in “Elton: Jewel Box,” my excitement and passion for Elton’s music is rejuvenated. It’s just as strong and enveloping today as it was when that unsuspecting 9-year-old kid bought his first Elton John vinyl 45 of “Crocodile Rock” in 1973 and everything changed.
All involved in this project deserve to take a bow for a job well done. This box set has delivered something special that fans never thought they’d get.
“Elton: Jewel Box” is a godsend that drills deep to excavate many spectacular, sparkling, precious memories and moments of Elton John’s more than half century of musical mastery. We fans hope there are more gems to come.
You can never have enough jewels in your collection. Just ask Elton