If there happen to be any regular readers of our blog, they may by now have cottoned on to fact that I love a theme – the manoeuvring of my record club chums (and myself) into redundant, dust ridden corners of our respective collections brings me great pleasure, especially when the process uncovers long forgotten or unfairly neglected treasures. To be honest, I suspect that we all own more than enough music now to keep us happy for the rest of our lives yet still we push on looking (usually in vain) for the next pearl, when we already have necklaces worth of the buggers lying dormant, waiting to be re-discovered. That’s where the notion of a theme comes in…put it this way – I have probably bought less new music in the last five years than at any time since my late teens!
As Rob has intimated, this particular theme was not that well formed in my mind when I hamfistedly attempted to articulate it to the others but its aim was, ostensibly, to direct us to parts of our record collections beyond that which we would normally consider, pushing back through those early forays into what we considered ‘cool’, back to a time in our lives when music was simply music – all the other accouterments; the image, the album art, the lyrics, the message and, crucially, whether it was ‘OK’ to like it or not….well they weren’t even a consideration. In other words, the stuff you loved when you were a kid!
I listened to nothing other than the Beatles for years. Eventually, having acquired all their major albums and most of the solo and Wings related McCartney (whoops) I thought I might dabble with the dark side and turned to their arch rivals The Rolling Stones. And there it ended for a significant amount of time – as far as I was concerned that was enough music for me to last a lifetime (it probably was, to be honest!). I stopped exploring, hunkered down with my copies of Revolver, Get Stoned and Pipes of Peace and played them over and over and over, stubbornly refusing to accept (whenever anyone was foolhardy enough to suggest it) that anything else of worth was out there. Alternatives were superfluous and, inevitably, inferior.
I have my Aunt Beatrice to thank for breaking this cycle. She had a cassette of Elton John’s Greatest Hits in her car and played it to me and my brother on one occasion when she was giving us a lift. At first I tried to resist but those songs were just undeniable and it wasn’t long before one of my parents’ friends who actually owned some records that weren’t jazz or classical (I found this hard to compute at the time) was, somewhat foolishly, lending me his Elton John LPs.
I’m pretty sure the self-titled second album was one of them, Honky Chateau was definitely another and maybe Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was in that original batch. But, somewhat bizarrely, Tumbleweed Connection was the one that really hooked me in. Why a 14 year old from rural Somerset would particularly enjoy listening to adult orientated psuedo-Americana as sung by a young man from Pinner is beyond me – all I can say looking back with over thirty years of experience is that, the tunes are still damn fine (on the whole) and, for the 14 year old me, that was enough.
I posited on the night that perhaps the fact that the album was a unified statement as well, as opposed to the wide ranging eclecticism of the Beatles and Stones best regarded work (and, for that matter, the majority of Elton’s other major albums) might have added to the fascination. Whatever, I was hooked and can vividly recall, to this day, sitting in my parents’ back room waiting in fevered anticipation as the dual cassette assault of the mid 80s (the computer game uploading whilst the music rewound) played out – much to my mum and dad’s annoyance, no doubt!
What of the album itself? Well, until only a few years ago, I hadn’t heard Tumbleweed Connection since my mid teens. The cassette had probably warped or snapped and by then I was probably listening to Husker Du or That Petrol Emotion…or Dire Straits(!) and so I wasn’t going to waste my money buying an album I already knew so well and which simply wasn’t cool enough to like!
Becoming re-acquainted with it in the last few years has been interesting. I find about a third of the album bemusing, perplexing and..pretty boring to be honest! Opener Ballad of a Well-Known Gun is as plodding a piece of southern fried pub rock as you could ever have the misfortune to meet and Country Comfort has some of the most (unintentionally) hilarious lyrics ever written – come on Elton, do you even know one end of a barn, let alone a hammer, from the other? Musically its as predictable as the lyrics are surreal. Son of Your Father is risible in its lack of ambition, every note signposting itself before it arrives, this is country rock by numbers and, frankly, my teenage self should have known better! And closer Burn Down The Mission…well, it’s alright but it doesn’t half go on a bit!
But the other songs are as sublime today as they ever were. From the heart wrenchingly tender ballads Come Down In Time and Love Song (a dead ringer for some of Mark Eitzel’s more touching moments), to the soulful My Father’s Gun, which has an exquisite instrumental interlude proceeding it and, possibly best of all, the rollicking Amoreena, the good bits of Tumbleweed Connection more than make up for the rest and showcase a rare talent – the piano playing is, at times, breathtaking, the singing so unforced, so easy and the lyrics…oh, dang it, they are actually just awful pretty much all the way through the album!
But despite the fact that I now own plenty of records that Elton was trying to ape here (most directly The Band’s first two albums) and even though they are, in most cases, superior in pretty much every department (apart from the piano playing, of course) I still have a soft spot for Tumbleweed Connection..and I guess that after all these years, I probably always will!
Steve listened: Tom thought that I would hate this. Someone from the UK apeing an American sound. Parallels were drawn, before he revealed who it was, between Ronan Keating singing “life is a rollercoaster” with an Atlantic drawl that is about as contrived as it gets. But then the unmasking of the album itself. When I was a teenager I frequented the library for my early musical meanderings. MOR typified the non-distribution of taste within the libraries’ record collection – although there were a few gems that I will endeavour to cover at our subsequent meetings. I remember this album from their collection well, and actually quite liked it at the time. Listening again with fresh ears I can hear the terrible lyrics and the clear posturing to an American market by both singer and songwriter (Bernie Taupin was writing at this stage). There are moments of beauty though and you can hear the formation of the hits hiding around the corner. He is,on this album, one step away from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Rocket Man” etc. Waiting in the sidelines where he could probably still walk down a street and not be recognised we catch Elton here at a time in his career when it was all about to break through. So, perhaps this is more experimental than all his other albums as we hear him honing his craft?
Rob listened: Well, this is quite something. I guess we can’t be too surprised to find our Elton adopting a musical persona that he thinks is natural, but viewed by anyone else seems a little… over the top? Still, some of the moves he tries to pull off on ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ are simply jaw-dropping. Tom has referenced ‘Country Comfort’ and, well, wow, it’s amazing. We picture Elton in his grimy dungarees, a mouth full of tacks, sweating under the summer sun just to fix up old Grandma’s barn. It’s amazing to think that just 10 short years after he worked on the Grammy’s farm and rode the riverboat to New Orleans (whilst planting the seeds of justice in his bones) he was sat behind a white grand piano dressed as Donald Duck playing to 400,000 people in Central Park. What an incredible journey.
I think Steve has a point in that you can hear classic Elton tucked away beneath the surface here, waiting to break through. What’s remarkable for me about Tumbleweed Connection is just how completely he commits to the concept. For someone making only their third album it’s quite some side-step, perhaps the sort of thing we might have expected him to try 20 years into his career once he was safe in his own success. And so, as silly as it seems to a newcomer like me, it’s still quite a thing to behold, and weaved throughout here are some lovely moments. As I type I’m listening to ‘Where To Now St.Peter?’ which seems to be a melange of about five different other songs by Elton, Creedence, Joni, Skynyrd, all delivered from the perspective of a man who is keen to make it clear that “I took myself a blue canoe”. It’s very silly, but also very lovely. Perhaps a little like Elton John himself.
Graham listened: I did not know this album existed. I’ve never listened to an Elton John album until now. Was this a serious attempt to break America? Was it a record company idea? Was it drugs? It’s wonderfully bonkers, even down to the fact they made the sleeve photos look like they had been taken in ‘sweet home alabama’. Unfortunately every time something musically interesting happened, Elton soon popped up with some lyrics about the sawmills, barns, rocking chairs, bayous and porches of Pinner.