HAPPY BIRTHDAY SIR REG!

It’s odd to think of Elton John as a Sixties artist. But Reginald Dwight first played and recorded in that decade of innocence and transformation, most notably with Long John Baldry in Bluesology. A solo career and an enduring song-writing partnership with fellow Englishman Bernie Taupin beckoned, as did one of the most famous name-changes in pop history; goodbye Reg, hello Elton.

Empty Sky was John and Taupin’s first album. Recording began late 1968 and concluded a few months later in (Northern) Spring. It was released on 6 June 1969.

Very much a tentative beginning, Empty Sky is pleasant if not particularly memorable overall. The singer-songwriter muscles are neither as toned nor as deft as they would become, but intimations of future accomplishments are audible, especially in the opening title cut and “Skyline Pigeon”.

The sound of the album is a bit of a mish-mash, amply illustrated by “Empty Sky”. The arrangement boasts a robust rock sound, as befits a song about being imprisoned. Yet little touches—the freebird flute phrases and some neat backwards guitar—show a young team open to experimentation and exploration. “Empty Sky” also has harmonica and a guitar solo—pretty much everything on the album is contained in this extravagant eight-and-a-half minute opus.

Elsewhere we have a song based on Norse mythology (the inspiration for Led Zeppelin, perhaps?), albeit a somewhat confused one where Greek sirens intrude into Valhalla, and another that canvases the Amazon and Eldorado while referring to the Orient. At this stage Taupin’s vision was wide and unfettered by any particular demands for coherence.

“Western Ford Gateway” is another strong moment, a kind of “Grey Seal” prototype. Caleb Quaye (who later toured with EJ) drops a neat little solo into “Lady What’s Tomorrow” and on several occasions we get to hear Elton tinkling away on harpsichord.

The outro of the album is downright bizarre, a medley of snippets from the album’s songs that adds, er, not a lot. Overall, the report card for the album would probably read “shows promise” or “an encouraging start.”

To finish a personal note, although Vinyl Connection has a few classic 70s Elton albums, I would not have gone near this debut in a pink fit, except that the 1972 re-issue features cover art by one of my favourite painters, Folon. But I’m glad I picked it up because the cover really is terrific and it provides an excuse to say “Happy 71st Birthday Sir Reginald.” With 78 million album sales in the US alone, you truly are a colossus of pop.

 

24 comments

  1. I hadn’t realized Mr. Dwight shared a birthday with my brother Tom, who would have turned 60 today. Elton John was a major contributor to the soundscape of my teenage/college years, but Empty Sky is an album that, for some reason, never made it into my collection. I sampled several numbers via iTunes: I like it! When you consider it’s the work of a 22 year-old, it’s rather impressive, wouldn’t you say? Hints at larger ambitions. I can see why you liken “Western Ford Getaway” to “Grey Seal” (one of my favorites)…similar declarative chord progressions. There’s a bonus track on the 1995 re-issue that I also really like: “Just Like Strange Rain”. (Hmmm, “unfettered by any particular demands for coherence” could describe our President!)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “Hints at larger ambitions” is a most apt phrase, JDB.

      One reason you and other Nth Americans might be unfamiliar with Elton’s debut is that it wasn’t released in the US! The first appearance of Empty Sky (with a different cover) was in 1975.

      Like

  2. I’ve never seen the album version of him sitting at the piano. Is that from your own collection, Bruce? It’s a cool cover. We tend to forget how difficult it was back in the day to get information about groups and artists, other than whatever might have been written in the music mags that is. You basically had to go to the record stores to learn anything. I recall starting to like Elton around the Honky Chateau release, and it was still a few years after that even when our local record store (re)stocked Empty Sky. I remember thinking, “What’s this?” I do hear “Skyline Pigeon” played every now and again on the radio, but never, ever “Empty Sky.” A pity. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marty. This cover first appeared on a re-issue in 1972. The Etlon-at-piano drawing was the UK original. As I mentioned to J, above, this debut was not even released in the US until 1975 (after he’d become well-established as a seller of records!).
      You’re so right with the ‘information’ observation. A bit of radio, newspaper reviews, an actual shop… we were hunter-gatherers for both albums and information!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve seen this one (with the original cover) a few times and have always left it sitting. I’ve never even considered there’d be anything on there that I’d like until reading this post. So there you go. That being said, I didn’t think I’d like any of his stuff until a few years ago! I only have the self-titled album (pretty beat up copies of Captain Fantastic… and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road have entered and left the collection as they didn’t work so well) and I quite like that one. I think there are four or so I’d like to have (including the two that I no longer do).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Compared to GYBR and, say, Don’t Shoot Me, Sir Elt’s debut is far from essential, J.
      But if you saw a clean copy in a thrift shop for a quid, well…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Duly noted… though I need very little encouragement when it comes to a quid purchase 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  4. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    He’s one of my favorite examples of someone who gets “sentimental” without crossing the line (mostly), something I work on every time I write. Daniel, you’re the star…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. One could learn quite a lot about songwriting from the best of Bernie Taupin and Elton.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry Bruce, informative and great as you always are, I just can’t do Elton. It’s a recognised medical condition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No probs. Try the previous post.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What? Read two in one day?!!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, it’s your fault it was written. Seems only fair.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Thank you, that’s flattering.

          To shift subject again, I like Elton John very much as an interviewee these days – he always comes over as a real music fan. Just don’t make me listen to him.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I can absolutely see that. For me, my entire Elton thing orbits Goodby Yellow Brick Road which was released at a formative time for me and still remains a gold-star example of a double studio album with no filler.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. I like Song For a Guy (?). Sadly, I was part of the ‘Nikita’ generation!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. If that preliminary report card showed a promising start, his marks started to drift toward A+s on the next few!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love the phrase “unfettered by any particular demands for coherence”.
    GYBR was once a favourite. Maybe YouTube will oblige. It will have been a while since Elton has been consciously selected to be played, although he is in the midst of a long and weird complication that Z brought home from the hairdresser one day.
    Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hairdressers know their singer-songwriter shit.

      Like

  8. Bruce, I have a confession. I don’t know why I want to dump it on you but I’m going to.The very first “rock concert’ I ever saw was Reg. I went with a girl on a date (I didn’t know what a date was). I’d like to say it wasn’t very good but I can’t lie. It was very good (the date also).It was the ‘Don’t Shoot Me ” tour I guess because that album and songs from’Honky’ were the bulk of the show.
    Thanks Bruce , I feel better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Elt-confessions are good for the soul, CB. Lay all your glam piano based singer songwriter stories at the base of the VC turntable and return, absolved and enlightened (that means lighter, doesn’t it?) to the world. Amen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Rev. I’ll be back after I dig up some more music sins. I have some big time repenting to do.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Very glad to hear it!

          Liked by 1 person

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