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Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Elton John

MCA 2142
Released: May 1975
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 43
Certified Gold: 5/21/75

Elton JohnFirst things first. This is one of Elton John's best albums. He hasn't tried to top past successes, only to continue the good work he's been doing. And he's succeeded, even taking a few chances in the process. The record is devoid of the gimmicky rock numbers from Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player phase. It isn't weighted down with the overarranging and overproduction that marred so much of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It sounds freer and more relaxed than Caribou. His voice sounds rough, hoarse, almost weary. But that only helps make him sound more personal and intimate than in the past.

It is by now beyond question that Elton John is a competent and classy entertainer. Few people who have achieved his popularity have succeeded in maintaining his standards for performance and professionalism. And in his relationship to his audience, Elton not only gives of himself in terms of output and energy but he does it graciously and generously. Unlike his American counterparts (many of them neither as talented nor as popular), he hasn't soured on success.

But the question remains -- is Elton John something more than a great entertainer? I'm not sure. for one thing, despite his ability to sound profound, he seldom projects a tangible personality. After so many albums and tours, few people have any sense of him at all. And for all his production and enthusiasm, he remains a largely passive figure, the creator of music that one can get comfortable with but which is never challenging or threatening.

Elton John can be a master of the sleight of hand. The arrangements make it seem like there are substantial melodies underneath the tracks -- but almost nothing demands repeated listenings. Similarly, he always sounds like he's singing up a storm, but his voice glosses over the material, reducing most things to an uninteresting sameness.

More importantly, his music is often devoid of noteworthy emotional content. That problem can't be talked about without bringing up the controversial lyrics of his collaborator, Bernie Taupin.

Elton John himself never seems pretentious in a clever sort of way, but pretentious nonetheless. There is a conflict between Elton's and Bernie's personal styles, no doubt about it. Perhaps that conflict is at the root of what is good as well as what is bad about Elton's work, but it must be dealt with just the same. When Elton simply wants to fool around and put out something that's pure tapioca, Bernie still winds up handing him something labored, for example, "Crocodile Rock."

Naturally Taupin's weaknesses come to the fore on this concept album about the songwriting team's scuffling days. But it's a strong commentary on his glibness that on a record that is supposed to evoke two people's personal experiences, there is no sense of particularity. Taupin's lyrics generate more of the album's quality of sameness than John's singing. His clever names and bloated images can't disguise the lack of original thought throughout.

But besides being clumsy and overbearing, Taupin has a puritanical streak which appears to be wholly at odds with John's presence. It struck me most when I listened to "Tower of Babel." I thought it was just another melodramatic slow sizzler until I actually looked at the lyrics. I would have never gotten from Elton's intonation and approach that he was singing anything as apocalyptic, self-important and hateful as:
It's party time for the guys in the tower of Babel
Sodom meet Gomorrah,
Cain meet Abel.
Have a ball ya'll
See the letches crawl
With the call girls under the table.
Watch 'em dig their graves,
'Cause Jesus don't save the guys
In the tower of Babel.

In reality, Taupin has been dabbling in this sort of allegorical, pseudoreligious crap for a while -- but it is definitely out of control here.

But it is surely wrong to dismiss the lyricist altogether. For one thing, he has at least one piece of excellent ersatz gospel to his credit, "Border Song." And secondly, he has consistently been able to transcend himself on one or two cuts per album -- in this case, on "Someone Saved My Life Tonight."

On that one, both Elton and Bernie disprove the criticisms made here. There's no illusion of saying something, they are saying something; there's no illusion of a superb performance but a superb performance itself; no imitation of quality but rock of very high caliber.

As long as Elton John can bring forth one performance per album on the order of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," the chance remains that he will become something more than the great entertainer he already is and go on to make a lasting contribution to rock.

- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 7/17/75.

Bonus Reviews!

It doesn't take a genius to realize Elton John is going to have another number one LP, and it's obvious nobody has to tell Elton this. The pleasant surprise, however, is that, as always, the artist continues to change and progress. Lyrical content here is primarily autobiographical (the music careers of both John and lyricist Bernie Taupin) with stories centering around difficulties with publishers, life on the road, good and bad reviews, writing and so forth. Musical content is more varied than the last few LPs, with countryish flavoring here and there, one cut with soul/disco type strings, more emphasis on solos (particularly some rock items from guitarist Davey Johnstone) from band members, and a strong classical feel on several of the cuts. Majority of the set is self-contained (handled by Elton's band) and the music itself is of a simpler structural nature than the past few LPs. One grows to expect a lot from an artist the stature of Elton John, and there is no disappointment here. No really radical changes from past product (the loose conceptual idea is a difference as is the reliance on band members) which is fine. Best cuts: "Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy," "Bitter Fingers," "Tell Me When The Whistle Blows," "(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket," "Writing," "We All Fall In Love Sometimes."

- Billboard, 1975.

Says B.T. as E.J.: "I once wrote such childish words for you." Do they feel guilty about it? Have they put away childish things? What's happening to our children when a concept album about the hard times of a songwriting team hits number one on all charts the week its released? Does it matter that the five good songs on this one aren't as catchy as the five good songs on the last one? Probably not. B

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Bernie Taupin's most ambitious lyrical effort, Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy is an autobiographical song cycle that also drew an unusually strong musical effort from John, resulting in perhaps his strongest overall record since Tumbleweed Connection. * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Bernie Taupin, John's lyricist, wanted to make a self-mythologizing album about his and John's rise to fame. The ballad "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," for example, was about a night when Taupin stopped John from committing suicide with a gas oven. While Taupin sweated over every line, John dashed off the music on a luxury ocean liner. "I'd tried to book the ship's music room, but an opera singer had it for the whole five days," John said. "The only time she wasn't there was when she scoffed her lunch for two hours. So every lunchtime I'd nip in there and grab the piano."

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was chosen as the 158th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin (John's lyricist) turned inward for 1975's Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy to take stock of their incredible rise from struggling songwriters to international stardom.

The first album ever to debut at the top of the US albums chart, Captain Fantastic came amid a tortuous time for the singer who, while arguably then the most famous musical star on the planet, was fighting depression and chemical dependency. Its highly personal theme is illustrated by the set's best-known cut and Top Four US hit, the hauntingly beautiful "Someone Save My Life Tonight," apparently inspired by a suicide attempt by the artist while he was living with a girlfriend who hated his music.

Written on a cruise liner, the album was the second following 1974's disappointing Caribou to be recorded in the Caribou ranch in Colorado and was his first new studio release in nearly a year after a prolific period in which he put out six all-new sets in little more than three years.

Though a commercial triumph, it is a more subtle affair than its predecessors as it follows a distinct theme rather than comprising one potential hit single after another. It managed seven weeks at Number One in the US -- Two in the UK -- and marked a creative peak for the two songwriters, but from then on a decline set in.

As of 2004, Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy was the #79 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

(2005 Deluxe Edition) From the breakout success of his first hit single "Your Song," in 1970, through the release of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in May 1975, Elton John could do very little wrong. This loosely autobiographical disc is esteemed by many as the last of John's start-to-finish great albums, the kind of record ambitious troubadours of today like Sufjan Stevens would make if they'd somehow found themselves making millions. Its sole single was the melodic melodrama "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," a song dealing with Bernie Taupin pulling John back from the brink of suicide before an aborted wedding to pickled-onion heiress Linda Woodrow. But the entire album flows through boogie-rock, breezy pop, ersatz Philly soul, Queen-like prog and rhinstone country flashes with masterful tunes, restless arrangements and Taupin's typically oblique but image-rich lyrics.

The major selling point of this double-disc edition is a gutsy seventy-one-minute live set recorded at Wembley Stadium just a month after Captain Fantastic's release. Although he'd score several dozen additional hits, John's craft and commercial savvy would never again attain this poptastic synergy. * * * * 1/2

- Barry Walters, Rolling Stone, 10/6/05.

First Disc: His Sirdom's self-mythologizing 1975 concept album (and extra tracks from that period, like "Philadelphia Freedom"). Still as soggy as it was back then, although rousers like "(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket" make you pine for the years before all those movie and Broadway ballads. Bonus disc: A complete live version of the album, recorded the same year and notable for many additional guitar solos. (And you know John overthought the concept, when he introduces one sone as being about "signing contracts.") For Fantastic fanatics only. Overall grade: B

- David Browne, Entertainment Weekly, 11/18/05.

Elton made history with this autobiographical concept album -- the first album ever to debut at Number One. Not bad for his most defiantly unpop statement; "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" was seven minutes of morbid angst and butterfly symbolism. But is was so undeniable, it became a smash anyway.

- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 3/23/17.

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