Time for another fascinating tidbit of Colin trivia: if I recall correctly, Elton John’s initial Greatest Hits collection was the very first album I ever owned. Actually, I should amend that to indicate it was the first rock album I ever owned; I definitely got into the soundtrack to The Aristocats as a toddler, and I remember some Sesame Street records that shook my world.
However, Elton would be my first formal excursion into the world of more adult sounds. I received it for Christmas in 1974. Hey, I think I was pretty hip for a seven-year-old!
Over the years, I maintained some attachment to Elton’s music. He was one of my favorites as a youngster, and I continued to enjoy some of his work as I aged, though I’ve never been more than a moderate fan. When I really like an artist, I really like them and get into their material as heavily as I can. For example, David Bowie’s my absolute favorite artist. My Bowie collection contains hundreds of albums and other recorded materials, and I’ve seen him live 52 times over the years. Granted, Bowie’s an extreme, but I still extend fairly similar interest in many others.
The presence an artist makes in my compact disc and record collection is a good indication where they stand with me. For Elton, I have a copy of his 1990 four-CD compilation to be continued… and I also own his Live In Australia disc from 1986. I’ve seen Elton live four times since an initial concert in 1984. I like Elton to a degree, but for the most part, I can take him or leave him.
Still, I do enjoy a lot of his work from the Seventies, so I was interested to check out a new entry in the Classic Albums line, one that examined Elton’s 1973 hit double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This was my fourth look at a Classic Albums release; I also watched U2: The Joshua Tree and The Who: Who’s Next in early 2000 and the recent release of Metallica. I found myself impressed with the presentation of these albums, as the discs involved provided a good look at the recording of the records. We heard from virtually all the main participants - at least those still alive, which left out Keith Moon - and they gave reasonably detailed accounts of their work, along with cool demonstrations of the mixing possibilities, some live performances, and other elements.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road follows the same blueprint. In addition to Elton himself, we hear from longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, drummer Nigel Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone, producer Gus Dudgeon, lyricist/later John collaborator Tim Rice, journalist Robert Sandall, broadcaster Paul Gambaccoli, engineer David Hentschel, MCA Records A&R man Russ Regan, MCA marketer Rick Frio, Rocket Records vice president Connie Hillman, Elton John fan club organizer Linda Stacy, orchestral arranger Del Newman, and MCA promoter Pat Pipolo. Of Elton’s band, only bassist Dee Murray doesn’t appear since he died in 1992. These new interviews mix with archival footage that shows various performances of the Yellow Brick tunes, some rough music videos, and shots from the recording sessions. We also get some live performances from Elton at the piano, while Johnstone demonstrates some of the riffs on electric guitar. Finally, we find some shots of Dudgeon and Hentschel at the mixing board as they separate various bits and pieces of the tunes.
Yellow Brick offers a minor look at Elton’s career prior to that landmark release, but the emphasis remains on the record itself. In that regard, Yellow Brick covers the album well. We learn about the abortive sessions in Jamaica - which Elton thought he wouldn’t leave alive - and get information about the eventual studio in France where most of the production took place. Elton and Taupin cover their collaborative process, and we get lots of good details about small but vital components such as the recording of background vocals.
As was the case with the Metallica DVD, Yellow Brick feels a little incomplete when we consider only the main 49-minute program. However, as I’ll discuss in the “supplements” area, this DVD also follows the example of Metallica in that it includes copious “bonus interviews”. These strongly flesh out the material and make Yellow Brick a much more complete production.
That said, I thought the main program here seemed better developed than that of Metallica. The latter seemed to omit a lot of useful details, but that wasn’t as much of a problem with Yellow Brick. If the “bonus interviews” didn’t exist, the show would indeed feel a bit truncated, but it’d still provide a reasonably rich and full telling of the creative process.
As usual, some of the best moments came from the mixing board. There we’d heard isolated elements of tracks like “Bennie and the Jets”, “Roy Rogers”, and “Candle In the Wind”. “Bennie” benefited most from this treatment since it was the tune that featured the highest level of post-production work. Dudgeon really made it a producer’s affair as he supplemented the basic track with a variety of effects. We listened to the song without these elements and then got them introduced gradually; it’s a terrific deconstruction of the song.
Fans will also enjoy the solo performances offered by Elton. We got snippets of tunes such as “Funeral for a Friend”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, and “Candle in the Wind”. These didn’t do that much for me, mainly because they didn’t illustrate much about the songs. Most of these clips included no singing, so they felt more like “virtuoso moments” than actual informative bits. Still, they’re a nice addition for Elton’s strongest adherents.
Some isolated guitar work from Johnstone seemed a bit more valuable. That’s because those elements focused more closely on particular aspects of the songs. Yeah, one could argue the same about Elton’s solo piano playing, but I got a different vibe from those shots; they appeared to exist mostly to give us a little new material from John, whereas Johnstone’s snippets were more clearly intended to illustrate components of the tracks.
The archival material added some nice depth to the program. We saw clips from the actual recording of Yellow Brick, though the audio came straight from the record; unlike Metallica, we don’t get to listen to any natural sound from the studio. In addition, there were crude music videos for songs like “Your Song” and “Harmony” as well as bits from a variety of Elton concerts, including a frightfully over-the-top performance at the Hollywood Bowl; that topic got a little extra attention.
So far I have yet to encounter a Classic Albums release that covered all of an album’s tracks, and that trend continued with Yellow Brick. During the main program, we learned about six of the record’s songs, which left out eleven of its 17 tunes! I don’t expect the shows to detail each of the tunes, though I’d like to see one of them try. Still, the scope of Yellow Brick felt a little limited since so much of the album was omitted.
Nonetheless, I thought Classic Albums: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a consistently informative and engaging look at the recording of a famous record. As always, the inclusion of so many vital participants gave the project depth, and the level of material seemed solid. At times the show felt a little rushed and truncated, but I still really enjoyed it and found it to be yet another fine Classic Albums release.
Reminder note: the comments above addressed the main Classic Albums program. As I noted earlier, the DVD includes a significant amount of additional material that alters the overall impact of the presentation. I didn’t think this should be discussed during my review of the basic show, but I wanted to mention it again because it does strongly enhance the DVD.
Classic Albums: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Programs that feature copious amounts of archival footage are always a nuisance to review, and Yellow Brick is no different. Overall, I thought the DVD offered decent but unspectacular visuals.
For the new material, sharpness appeared nicely crisp and detailed. The picture looked consistently clear and accurate. Focus was more problematic in the older clips, however, especially in regard to the fairly soft and fuzzy shots from the Yellow Brick recording sessions. Some of the videos and concert footage also came across as rather indistinct.
The program seemed to display no significant jagged edges or moiré effects, and I also saw no evidence of edge enhancement. The older footage showed a mix of small print flaws such as grain, grit, speckles, and some spots, but for the most part those elements appeared reasonably decent.
Most of the Classic Albums releases feature fairly subdued colors since they take place in studios and other indoor settings. Yellow Brick followed along those lines, but the tones looked more warm and inviting than usual. Some gently vivid hues emerged in the modern footage. Colors were paler during the archival shots, but they seemed acceptable. Black levels looked fairly deep and rich for the new stuff, while shadow detail appeared clear and accurate. Overall, you won’t view Yellow Brick for its dynamic visuals, but it adequately represented the original material.
Somewhat more impressive was the Dolby Stereo 2.0 soundtrack of Classic Albums: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Not surprisingly, this mix stayed with a front-oriented presence that largely hewed to the original stereo presentation of the music. Virtually everything other than the songs stayed in the center; I detected no evidence of effects or dialogue from anywhere other than the middle speaker. The music showed good stereo separation, though I expect some of that may have resulted from the original production of the album. Overall, it seemed like the music provided clean spread across the front, and the track used the rears for decent reinforcement of the songs.
Audio quality was somewhat erratic but generally positive. Dialogue sounded a little muddy at times, but for the most part speech was reasonably natural and distinct. Despite some excessive boominess to the words, I always understood them easily, and I heard no signs of edginess. As for the effects, well, there really weren’t any; this production featured music and dialogue almost exclusively.
Of course, the songs were the most important aspect of the mix, and they usually came across well. The original tracks from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road fared best of all, as they showed good clarity and depth. The tunes sounded dynamic and clear. The bits during which Elton played at the piano also showed nice accuracy and depth. Archival footage worked acceptably well, though of course it displayed a fair amount of variation. Those segments were usually clear but somewhat thin and flat. As a whole, the audio seemed good but unexceptional, largely due to the variety of source materials.
As mentioned earlier, we find a collection of 10 Bonus Interviews. These constitute a serious amount of footage and aren’t the short add-ons one might expect. Each clip lasts between 50 seconds (“Recording Elton’s Piano”) and nine minutes, 40 seconds (“Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”). All told, that gives us 36 minutes and 38 seconds of footage. Obviously, that’s a substantial hunk of material, and these elements neatly flesh out a lot of the material absent from the main program.
Though the interviews don’t improve the show as strongly as the extras of Metallica did, they nonetheless broaden the picture nicely. Without question, the most informative section is also the longest, the extended discussion of “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. This fascinating segment covers the way that the two tracks were developed and ultimately combined, and it also gives us some excellent isolated information from the mixing board.
In addition, we learn about some topics not specific to Yellow Brick. Useful segments relate how both Dudgeon and Johnstone came to work with John, and we also hear about his crucial early gigs at the Troubadour. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Candle in the Wind” get a little more attention and dissection, and we also find out about some regrets in regard to “Harmony”, the hit single that never was. Some additional material about the recording studio pops up as well, and we finally discover some discussions of the recording of backing vocals and Elton’s piano.
While I really liked these elements, they still didn’t broaden the scope of the album discussion greatly. Of the four songs discussed specifically, two of them already received attention during the main program, which meant that only two tracks were new to us. Actually, we heard parts of “Funeral” and “Harmony” during the main show, but they weren’t detailed, so I considered them new to the supplements. Again, I’d really like to see a Classic Albums release that covers all of an album’s songs; though these “bonus interviews” were very good, the disc still fell short of that goal. Even with the extra footage, the program still went over less than half of the album’s songs.
Nonetheless, if we combine the main Classic Albums show devoted to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road with the extensive “bonus interviews”, we have a very good view of the creation of the megahit album. The program related a high level of interesting facts about the production of the album, and it did so in the usual compelling and entertaining manner that should appeal to both diehard fans and newbies. The DVD offers bland but acceptable picture with fairly solid sound. The Classic Albums series is a near-godsend for music fans, as it gives us greater access to the recording studio than ever, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road provides another strong entry in the series.