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.