Maybe your first thought on Elton John’s announced retirement tour was something along the lines of a shrug. Oh, right, another Boomer from the classic rock canon’s hanging it up, how’s about that. And then maybe one of his songs’ll plunk into your forebrain — something from The Lion King? A hit you heard redone on Glee or American Idol? And then more will pour in, and it might, hopefully, finally click: that initial rush of music he made during the first wave of his career with Bernie Taupin, from roughly 1970’s sophomore breakthrough Elton John to 1975’s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, is almost obscenely riddled with greatness. That body of work sounds, even now, like a repositioning of rock-after-psychedelia as a showbiz artform that challenged the po-faced auteurism of the singer-songwriter era shouting “no seriously listen to this Madman Across The Water album, it’s astounding.”
The music that the team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote and released after that initial creative barrage remains a bit uneven — Too Low For Zero is as close as they got to recapturing that early ’70s onrush, and that was 35 years ago, though the low-key comeback they staged starting with 2001’s Songs From The West Coast restored a lot of that old feeling. Still, there’s plenty of reasons besides some supposed diminishing returns to linger on the music that came from those first eight albums they put out in the ’70s.
John and Taupin — Brits fascinated with the idea of popular song as a window into America that they could still see their reflections in — careened between glam and country, hard rock and easy listening, sentimental and sardonic, like few of their peers, and if every hit of theirs found different inroads into examining their own sympathies and frustrations and shameless joys, it all still feels like genuine facets of the same two people. A lot of other musicians found, filtered, or honed their voices through them — here are ten of those best moments, including a track each from Revamp and Restoration, the two Elton John tribute albums released today.
Aretha Franklin, “Border Song (Holy Moses)” (1970)
Elton’s had a decent amount of R&B crossover in his career — “Bennie And The Jets” famously hit #15 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1974 and got him on Soul Train. But in 1970, as his singles were only just beginning to earn any traction on any charts anywhere, the John/Taupin partnership earned one of the greatest privileges any song could earn from the world of soul: a cover by Aretha Franklin. A cut from John’s self-titled second LP and his first single to get within squinting distance of the charts (#92 Billboard Hot 100), “Border Song” took Taupin’s mood of disillusioned loneliness and expanded it into a plea for tolerance with the Elton-penned final verse. In his performance, it was already close enough to a gospel song; Aretha just confirmed it in the most spectacular way, adding a parenthetical to the title that became boldface in the music. Her performance defies simple description — if you don’t know by now just what it means to hear both Aretha Franklin’s voice and her piano at peak emotion, there’s a big hole somewhere in your life — so let’s take a little breathing room and give Chuck Rainey and Cornell Dupree their due for a heartbeat-realigning bassline and a resonant minimalist Harrisonian guitar solo, respectively, and thank the Lord for the Sweet Inspirations singing backup while we’re at it. If you’re an aspiring artist and you had one of your lowest-charting early singles given this kind of treatment, who knows how thrilled you’d be.
Bo Diddley, “Bad Side Of The Moon” (1971)
And go figure — one of the titans of rock ‘n’ roll took on the B-side. How’s that for return on investment? “Bad Side Of The Moon” never made a studio album, but it did hold a pivotal place on Elton’s live album 17-11-70 (11-17-70 in the States) as Side 2’s leadoff cut and the introduce-the-band moment — an underheard gem in a career that eventually left little room for the underheard. It’s a great small-band piece, just voice/piano/bass/drums (Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson handling the latter in early exhibitions of their integral role in John’s band), and fits as another strong example of how the lines between rock and soul didn’t matter much to them. Bo Diddley, who was in the midst of his last great studio-album run for Chess, had transitioned into a sort of all-genre country-funk/blues/rock generalist role, with 1971’s Another Dimension featuring three different Creedence covers of varying quality and a pretty tight version of the Band’s “The Shape I’m In.” His “Bad Side Of The Moon” is a keeper, especially if you’re a beathead: the dub-adjacent opening that echoes its way right into a slippery drum break any circa-’88 hip-hop producer would savor (courtesy of a drummer alternately credited as “John Birganti” and “John Briganti,” and short on credits either way). As for how one of the guitarists who helped build the backbone of rock and R&B’s postwar rhythms fares in a song that originally didn’t actually feature a guitar part? Hey, he can sing just fine.
Billy Paul, “Your Song” (1972)
Consider this the third of a trifecta of R&B greats covering tracks from Elton John’s 1970 — though, of course, this song is a take on the John/Taupin team as genuine hitmakers, recognized as such by a braintrust in Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff that were en route to joining them. There’s a fun little recursion somewhere in Elton John paying tribute to Philadelphia International’s trademark proto-disco with “Philadelphia Freedom”, which PIR house band MFSB wasted little time in covering themselves, but this is the earlier and more nuanced example of two not-entirely-distant musical worlds riffing off each other. By ’72 “Your Song” had become just the first big Elton John hit in a string of them that, by the time of 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul’s November release, had grown to include “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon,” “Rocket Man,” “Honky Cat,” and “Crocodile Rock.” But even if he’s still a little less renowned in hindsight than fellow PIR hitmakers the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, he was maybe the most stylistically versatile singer on the label, a jazz-rooted artist who could cut yearning love songs and raise civil rights calls-to-arms with equal fire. (In his singles catalog, he and PIR followed up “Me And Mrs. Jones,” his #1 velvet-smooth infidelity ballad, with the defiant clavinet-laced symphonic funk of “Am I Black Enough for You?“) And if Paul’s voice is singularly unusual — maybe the only artist ever whose voice could be equally described as both froglike and seductive — it’s also remarkably transformative, changing the tone of Elton’s first and maybe most lasting performance from a wistful sigh of appreciation to a bask in complete joy. Elton hopes you don’t mind; Billy — and that arrangement — know you won’t.
Flotsam And Jetsam, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” (1988)
Flotsam And Jetsam are known by many as the band Jason Newsted was in before he joined Metallica to replace Cliff Burton, and known by somewhat fewer as a particularly underrated thrash metal band that earned their place as lifers off the goodwill earned off a string of good-to-great albums they cut in the late ’80s and early ’90s. 1988’s No Place For Disgrace, their first without Newsted, is generally regarded as the best of these, and it’s the kind of record that can be appreciated both for its technical qualities (i.e. shredding) and its wild thematic range. You want an opening title cut about the Bushido code? A scattershot lashing out at America’s enemies (“N.E. Terror”)? An advocacy for euthanasia (“Escape From Within”)? A fuck you to the PMRC (“Hard On You”)? You’ve got all that and then some, enough to make a cover of Elton’s most uptempo hard-rocking cut seem at least a bit less unlikely. It’s weirdly faithful in a lot of ways — Eric A.K.’s vocals prove that even an underground thrash metal band can beat the Sunset Strip brigade at their own game — even if some of the lyrical changes jump out in an awkward way (“It’s seven o’clock and I wanna mosh”), you’d best believe they pull off the whole “I’m a juvenile product of the working class/ Whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass” vibe.
Kate Bush, “Rocket Man” (1991)
Two Rooms: Celebrating The Songs Of Elton John & Bernie Taupin is a largely disappointing tribute album, one of those situations where a carefully selected group of an artist’s peers leans too far in the direction of safe choices filtered through rock-as-Adult Contemporary malaise. (Ever wanted to hear Jon Bon Jovi barf out “Levon” or Wilson Phillips drown “Daniel” in bubble bath? Me neither.) But holy shit does Kate Bush ever bring the otherworldly uncanniness factor to the proceedings: a #12 on the UK singles chart recorded in the midst of one of Bush’s most creatively and personally tumultuous times in her life, her version of “Rocket Man” is pure iconoclasm without the snottiness or irreverence that usually comes with a deconstructive cover. It’s simple in its unfamiliarity to start: By replacing those instant-stimulus piano chords with a gauzy synthesizer that sets the tone just a bit off-register, it eases you into a sense of bewilderment that keeps arriving in layers. Synthesizer is joined by concertina, they both melt into some sort of plastic calliope sound, and then the bridge hits and it’s reggae? And then Bush, whose voice has been one of the only vivid connections to the original’s recognizable structure, gets to the line “I’m not the man they think I am at home” (pronoun unchanged) — and then waits another few extra beats to even say “oh no,” stretching out that anticipatory ramp-up to the chorus so that when it finally hits… well, watch the video. Fwoosh is what it is. It’s playful silliness and stunned melancholy all at once, in a way that doesn’t have to make sense but damn well carves a path to reach a destination at least somewhere close to making sense. There’s Uilleann pipes, it’s wild.
Beastie Boys Feat. Biz Markie, “Bennie And The Jets” (1995)
Do you know the lyrics to “Bennie And The Jets”? Because wow, Biz Markie super doesn’t. Not that you can blame him — given his background not just as an MC but an encyclopedia-minded DJ, the Biz probably has more than enough musical info up in his brain taking up storage that having to paraphrase an already notoriously half-coherent set of lyrics is pretty excusable. Originally a flexidisc included with the second issue of Grand Royal magazine and reissued as part of their The Sounds of Science compilation four years later, the Beastie Boys’ “Bennie and the Jets” has become one of the band’s notable cult hits thanks largely to Biz’s mumbly, mondegreen-filled performance that sounds more or less like what most of us would sound like trying to recall the song from memory, mistaking “electric boots” for “electric boobs” and everything. There’s some funny bits of mystery around this performance — for one thing, is that crowd noise fake, since there seems to be no record of the Beastie Boys performing this live before this flexi was released? — but the funniest of all is just how easily the backing band could be mistaken for just a straight-up karaoke version until the unmistakable wah-wah’d electric piano of Money Mark places this right in Ill Communication-eraturf.
Tortoise & Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Daniel” (2006)
Sometimes cover albums collapse under the weight of expectations: some of the ’90s’ finest composer-musicians in Tortoise cut an album with a songwriter on the level of Will Oldham, and it’s a bunch of reinterpretations? And wildly divergent reinterpretations, at that — given that The Brave And The Bold features versions of Milton Nascimento’s MPB dopamine shot “Cravo é Canela,” Bruce Springsteen’s slow-burn American epic “Thunder Road,” and The Minutemen’s herky-jerk post-punk anxiety attack “It’s Expected I’m Gone” all off the bat, how can you expect it all to cohere into something unified? The knock against this record was that it tended to lose something of the original personalities that drove the source material’s true feeling. But in the case of their take on “Daniel,” they really unearth another layer of that true feeling, scrapping all the original’s billowy Mellotron-and-Fender Rhodes pathos for something more nerve-twisting and enigmatically traumatized, where the most prominent instrument is the way-in-the-red distortion that turns bass into static hiss that seems to toss Oldham’s falsetto through inescapable waves. The undertold story about “Daniel” is that Taupin wrote it about a Vietnam veteran trying to find some unretrievable peace after the war, which makes the chorus — “Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won’t heal/Your eyes have died, but you see more than I” — twist the knife deeper than you might expect.
Bettye Lavette, “Talking Old Soldiers” (2007)
45 years after her first single for Atlantic (“My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” b/w “Shut Your Mouth”) and 25 after her first officially released full-length album (1982’s Motown one-off Tell Me A Lie), Bettye LaVette had found herself in a career resurgence that earned her more acclaim and success than ever. Getting signed to ANTI- and cutting her fantastic record Scene of the Crime with Patterson Hood and Drive-By Truckers certainly helped — as did the narrative around her of a star-quality singer only belatedly getting her due. But in another, more concrete sense, this album is simply her recording with a band that had a spiritual and familial connection to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, where she cut the album Child of the Seventies (featuring Patterson Hood’s father and Swampers alumni David on bass) only to see it shelved by Atco. A simultaneous feeling of past frustration eclipsed by redemption seems to permeate much of Scene of the Crime, largely a covers album with the notable exception of LaVette/Hood cowrite “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)” — an autobiographical industry-struggle story immediately preceded on the album by Tumbleweed Connection deep cut “Talking Old Soldiers,” which she inhabits autobiographically in a less specific but more devastating sense. Taupin’s lyrics are paraphrased just enough to feel more distinctly personal, where the “old soldier” is reframed as a music lifer who’s made and then outlived the kind of friends who made her life what it is.
Q-Tip & Demi Lovato, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (2018)
Let’s just shrug off that baffling ODB/Macy Gray version of the Elton John/Kiki Dee duet and point to this as a prime example of how a hip-hop artist can really upend an Elton John song — aside from via sampling, of course, which Q-Tip already had a career highlight with a couple years back. The best thing you can say about Tip here is he’s not the worst singer — not that he has to be the best, since he’s got Demi Lovato in the Kiki Dee role giving a fine glossy sheen to the whole thing. But as a producer, he’s taken the sophisticated-soul/art-pop tendencies he first flaunted alongside Dilla on the (initially contentious) Amplified back in ’99, and found a way to turn the original’s uptempo tribute to ’60s Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell and dial the time machine forward just enough to bring things up to the Leon Ware era. It’s not the most radical transformation shifting things from euphoric disco to simmering minor-key funk, but those strangely plaintive strings on the chorus really give Lovato something to play off.
Kacey Musgraves, “Roy Rogers” (2018)
While the Q-Tip/Demi track comes from Revamp, a scattershot contempo-rock/pop tribute album that ranges from the inspired (Queens Of The Stone Age doing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” with accompanying horror-flick synth) to the well-whatever (can one comp sustain Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Sam Smith at their sleepiest?), the album’s country-centric twin Restoration makes a bit more cohesive sense; John and Taupin wrote standards that feel divorced from genre as well as time, and it doesn’t take a lot of embellishment (or reduction) to pick up on their fascination with Americana and translate that into country. As the sustained critical enthusiasm for Kacey Musgraves hits new levels off her new album Golden Hour, an album that envisions country as a far more universal pop genre than the bro-pandering good-time emptiness of its most chunkheaded practitioners, it’s a hell of a thing to hear her take on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’s “Roy Rogers.” One of the best songs to be overshadowed by the 1973 double LP’s massive hit parade, the ode to nostalgia-clinging saudade in the face of disappointing adulthood doesn’t have far to go to become a dust-swept country ballad and an even shorter distance to go for it to feel like one of Musgraves’ own studies in feeling detached from all the good times and blunty yet cuttingly wondering where to find a smaller solace in her own corner.