Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Elton John -- "Tower of Babel" (1975)

There are too many amazing Elton John songs, and it would be a no-brainer to pick a classic like "Your Song," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "The Bitch is Back." I actually loved many of his songs that were not necessarily chart-toppers, like "Burn Down The Mission," "Take Me To The Pilot," "High Flying Bird," "Teacher I Need You," "Harmony," "Pinky," "Dixie Lily," and "Elderberry Wine" (and that's just the tip of the iceberg).

Earlier this week, actor Kiefer Sutherland was on a local rock station discussing the five or six albums that had the biggest impact on him, and he had the class to name Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy among others (Led Zeppelin IV and Abbey Road were two others). For this post, it's as good an out of left field album to pick from, especially since I believe the first two thirds of it stand up as good as anything Elton John has done.

Captain Fantastic appeared two years after the massive success of the double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, following on the roaring success of Caribou. Elton John was on an unparalleled prolific global run of success, fame and fortune, cranking out a new brilliant album every year, which nowadays is unheard of.

My younger brother owned nothing but Elton John records, so basically played them in rotation one after the other, and I just didn't have to buy them myself. I found it easy to overdose on non-stop EJ, so I kept my album collection diverse, when I could afford to.

Captain Fantastic
was the first album to ever debut at the number one spot on the Billboard charts, a testament to the frenzy the man caused in the 70's. Even more impressive was that it was an autobiographical concept album that ran a little deeper and more personal than the records before it, and from a musician's viewpoint, the compositions more sophisticated.

Despite its cartoonish cover and artwork inside, Captain Fantastic was a gritty autobiographical look at the destitute and emotional days that John and lyricist Bernie Taupin were trying to make it as songwriters. From a sardonic shot at the Denmark Street publishers who dismissed their work ("Bitter Fingers") to nearly getting married young to the wrong person ("Someone Saved My Life Tonight") to scraping enough up enough money to eat ("(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket," this was far from the cinematic fantasy world of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

"Tower of Babel," the album's second song, dives right into some of the anger, sarcasm and betrayal that permeates the record. It starts cold on John's voice accompanied by his piano, Dee Murray's electric bass, and the slight woosh of a ride cymbal for the first 40 seconds. Stark and bitter, "Tower of Babel" is a tableau of corrupt and dark times growing up in Middlesex. With a complex chord and melodic structure that goes through three different key changes, John was blessed with making all these elements flow together naturally. While each verse was low-key and full of hurt, the choruses sped up with full drums and guitars, laying on the vindictiveness.

Snow, cement and ivory young towers.
Someone called us Babylon.
Those hungry hunters
Tracking down the hours.
But where were all your shoulders when we cried.
Were the darlings on the sideline
Dreaming up such cherished lies
To whisper in your ear before you die.

It's party time for the guys in the tower of Babel
Sodom meet Gomorrah, Cain meet Abel.
Have a ball y'all
See the lechers crawl
With the call girls under the table.
Watch them dig their graves
`Cause Jesus don't save the guys
In the tower of Babel.

Watch them dig their graves
`Cause Jesus don't save the guys
In the tower of Babel, no no no.

Junk, angel, this closet's always stacked.
The dealers in the basement
Filling your prescription
For a brand new heart attack.

But where were all your shoulders when we cried
Were the doctors in attendance
Saying how they felt so sick inside
Or was it just the scalpel blade that lied

I remember it taking a while for this song to sink in, as I was just coming off the lighthearted bombast of the Caribou album ("The Bitch Is Back," "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me"). As an American, I was thrown by Elton John's pronunciation of "Babel" ("bay-bull"), which I didn't know if it was an English quirk or a convenient device to rhyme with the word "Abel."


Duncan Monserud said...

I agree with the columnist and Kiefer Sutherland that this is one of my very favorite albums. I think it is very much tied with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (and in places exceeds it) though not as hit-filled. Very autobiographical of Taupin/John though, which makes the songs difficult to cover.

Anonymous said...

the tower of babel is a biblical reference. its a story from the bible.

Anonymous said...

In September of 1974 Robbie McIntosh, drummer from the Average White Band played a gig at the Troubedor, were Elton made his famous first US appearance. After McIntosh left the Troubedor he attended a wild party where he took what he thought was coke (snow) but was really heroin. He died of that overdose (Watch em dig the graves) Given the timing of McIntosh death, and Elton's connection to the venue, it seems obvious the song is a dark tribute to McIntosh and the Troubedor.