Images of the old American West and scenes of Southern country life have inspired countless British rock recordings through the years, none more so than the early albums of Elton John. And no wonder. His lyricist Bernie Taupin was in love with romantic visions of Americana…scenes of cornfields and cattle towns, frisky colts and fringed-front buggies, field bosses and chain gangs, Geronimo and gunslingers. All of Elton’s songs began in the mind of Bernie, who turns 65 today. He wrote the lyrics that the pianist-showman set to music – creating vivid sound portraits of days gone by.
Bernie was no stranger to the slow, simple country life. He was born in a rural area in Lincolnshire, England – in a farmhouse that lacked electricity. Later, his father bought a run-down farm in the Lincolnshire village of Owmby-by-Spital. It was there that Bernie spent his days hitchhiking to dances, frequenting pubs and playing snooker. Boppin’ in the country, fishin’ in a stream — like the Honky Cat character he created.
His life changed forever in 1967 when he and Elton – unknown to one another – both answered a newspaper ad placed by a record label seeking new talent. Although neither artist passed the audition, Liberty Records A&R man Ray Williams put the two in contact, and they clicked. Bernie was 17 at the time. He’d end up following Elton down the yellow brick road to fame, but he’d never lose his memories of the family plow or the howling old owl in the woods.
The two artists have collaborated on 30 albums through the years, but my favorites are the ones that evoke those idealized visions of an untamed, open-road America — the kind of place where we all picture ourselves rolling through the hay and running through the grass for hours. Your musical education won’t be complete until you’ve discovered Elton’s early gems — “Tumbleweed Connection,” “Madman Across the Water,” and “Honky Chateau,” all released between 1970 and 1972. These works resonate with the beautiful sounds and images that formed everlasting grooves in my brain, many years ago.
Bernie truly was the Brown Dirt Cowboy to Elton’s Captain Fantastic.
Here’s a real American beauty: “Amoreena” from “Tumbleweed Connection:”
“You’ll pick rotten peaches for the rest of your life.” This song about life on a chain gang is from “Madman Across the Water.” The album features two of Elton’s most enduring songs, “Tiny Dancer” and Levon.” Interestingly, “Madman” was the lowest-charting album of his career.
This is a live version of one of Elton and Bernie’s loveliest creations:
© Dana Spiardi, May 22, 2015