In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“I think it’s about time all this Chuck Berry idolizing came to a halt.” That was Elton John, talking to Rolling Stone in 1973. He was right in the midst of a rant about how “pathetic” he now found the OG ’50s rock ‘n’ roll acts — even the ones like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, whom he’d grown up idolizing back when rock was young. On Chuck Berry, he went on: “I can dig the nostalgia trip, and I dig his old records, but I find that side of the business very irritating. I feel sorry for them. I wouldn’t like in 15 years’ time to still be playing ‘Crocodile Rock.'”
That was 46 years ago. Right now, Elton John is in the first year of a three-year globe-spanning farewell tour. And every night on that tour, he still plays “Crocodile Rock.”
Elton John was not a new artist when he scored his first #1 with “Crocodile Rock.” He’d been around. He and eternal collaborator Bernie Taupin had started working together in 1967, when both of them answered an NME ad looking for songwriters. They’d started out writing pop songs for other people, including a losing 1969 Eurovision entry for Lulu. 1969 was also when John released Empty Sky, his debut album. By the time of “Crocodile Rock,” he was six albums in. And he’d had success in the US, hitting the top 10 with singles like 1970’s “Your Song” (peaked at #8, an 8) and 1972’s “Rocket Man” (peaked at #6, a 9). But “Crocodile Rock” was what took Elton John over the top — which is appropriate, since it’s an over-the-top song.
Thematically, “Crocodile Rock” has a few things in common with Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a previous #1 hit. Both songs are consumed with nostalgia for the ’50s, the early days when “rock was young.” Both wallow in the already-clichéd imagery of Chevys and blue jeans, and of young love. Both of them lament a time when rock ‘n’ roll “died.” But the approaches are vastly different. McLean looks at that moment and finds profundity — an expansive and metaphorical end to American innocence. Elton John, on the other hand, looks at all of that and sees some fun and silly bullshit.
There’s a story to “Crocodile Rock.” Once upon a time, Elton John and his young sweetheart Suzy would get together and dance, doing a now-forgotten boogie called the crocodile rock. (We never learn how to do the crocodile rock; I imagine it involves pretending that your arms are giant chomping jaws.) But that era ends. Suzy leaves Elton “for some foreign guy.” (This might be a line about the British Invasion, but that doesn’t make sense, since Elton John and Bernie Taupin are British themselves.) And the crocodile rock becomes lost to the mists of nostalgia.
A couple of decades later, Elton John said, “I wanted it to be a record of all the things I grew up with. Of course, it’s a rip-off. It’s derivative in every sense of the word.” He’s not lying. The immediate inspiration was “Eagle Rock,” a massive 1972 Australian hit from the band Daddy Cool, which John encountered while touring Australia. But “Crocodile Rock” also comes crammed with quotes, musical and lyrical, of a whole slew of ’50s and early-’60s rock ‘n’ roll nuggets: Bill Haley And The Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock,” the Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’,” Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance,” Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales.” The homages are blatant enough that they basically qualify as sampling.
So “Crocodile Rock” is pure novelty homage. It’s got force and energy to it, and it’s fun to hear a songwriter as melodically expert as Elton John throw himself completely into this outmoded style, playing dress-up with the records he heard as a kid. There’s a little more vengeful fuzz on Davey Johnstone’s guitar than you’ll hear on most of those ’50s records, so that’s cool, too. But “Crocodile Rock” is also about as insincere as it gets. You can practically hear the dancing quotation marks, especially on the pinched falsetto that John uses on the chorus. And it’s annoying. In going big and demonstrative and knowingly silly, Elton John wrote a song that sounded like a playground taunt. I can’t imagine how irritating it must’ve been to encounter this song again and again when it was still new.
Elton John must’ve felt the same way. By the time of that Rolling Stone article I quoted above — one that came out only a few months after “Crocodile Rock” had hit #1 — Elton John was clearly already over it. Talking to Rolling Stone again in 2013, he had this to say about “Crocodile Rock”:
My career wasn’t about “Crocodile Rock” — it was just a one-off thing — but it became a huge hit record, and in the long run, it became a negative for me. Because people said, “Oh, fucking ‘Crocodile Rock.'”
His career turned out OK, though.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Elton John performing “Crocodile Rock” with crocodiles on a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Boston punk band Gang Green’s chaotic cover of “Crocodile Rock,” from the 1991 album Another Wasted Night:
THE 10S: Marvin Gaye’s tense, silky blaxploitation theme “Trouble Man” peaked at #7 behind “Crocodile Rock.” It’s a 10.