Elton John released a spectacular run of albums in the early 1970s. From his self-titled sophomore effort to Tumbleweed Connection, on through to Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Each of these records has their own distinct style and unique vision. Madman Across The Water, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is a prime example of the masterful work of Elton and his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin.
Elton’s magnificent music meshes perfectly with Bernie’s one-of-a-kind lyrics. In 1971, this talented duo was close to the peak of their powers. After a series of successful live shows in both the UK and the US, Elton’s label wanted another record, despite the fact that the year had already seen the release of the live album 11-17-70, and the soundtrack of the movie Friends, which featured songs composed by Elton and Bernie.
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Madman Across The Water was recorded at Trident Studios in London. While Tumbleweed Connection was epic and cinematic in scope, Madman is a more introspective journey. The songs on the disc deal with deeply personal and often dark-hued themes. “Holiday Inn” gives voice to some of Elton, Bernie, and the band’s experiences on the road, while the gospel-flavored “All The Nasties” takes a not-so-subtle swipe at the media, who were often pretty rough on Elton, even in his early days. The moody, Leon Russell-inspired title track was originally recorded with Mick Ronson during the Tumbleweed sessions. The song shows up on the album that bears its name in a powerful new version featuring guitarist Davey Johnstone, who went on to become a vital part of Elton’s studio and live band for many years. Tony Burrows, who sang on a number of US and UK pop hits, including “Beach Baby,” percussionist Ray Cooper, and keyboard player Rick Wakeman, who was about to make a splash as part of the progressive rock band Yes, also appear on the disc.
There are emotional moments, rich textures, and memorable vignettes throughout the record, on songs such as “Razor Face,” “Rotten Peaches,” and the poignant “Indian Sunset,” the tale of a Native American warrior taking a final stand. The album is probably most renowned for two songs that have become legendary since Madman’s original release. “Levon” is an evocative tale of the title character and his son, featuring Bernie’s colorful storytelling and a passionate vocal performance from Elton. The record’s opening track, “Tiny Dancer,” written about Taupin’s experiences in California while on tour with Elton, as well as his first wife, Maxine Feibleman, is a romantic tune full of extraordinary images. “Tiny Dancer” gained a second life when Cameron Crowe used it in an unforgettable scene from his semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous. Both songs benefit from the orchestral flourishes of arranger Paul Buckmaster, and the fine work of producer Gus Dudgeon, who were frequent collaborators on Elton’s work.
Madman Across The Water was more successful in the US than in the UK, rising to the top ten here, but only hitting number forty-one on the British album charts. Elton felt a bit conflicted about the record upon its original release, relating in interviews at the time that he felt he’d been pressured to rush it out, and didn’t have time to properly work on the songs. His stance on the album has changed a bit in the years since. Elton noted in his recent autobiography, Me, that he loved the record, and it gave him a chance to write longer and more complex songs than he’d done previously. The album is consistently rated as a favorite among his diehard fans, myself among them. Madman was one of the first Elton John albums I owned, thanks to a cousin who gave me the 8-track, which I promptly wore out. Songs from the disc have been covered by artists like Bruce Hornsby, Bon Jovi, Ben Folds, Warren Haynes, and Florence and the Machine.
While there were more classic albums to come, including Honky Chateau and Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy, Madman Across The Water stands as a timeless snapshot of Elton’s music circa 1971, and it perfectly illustrates how Elton and Bernie’s songs, at their best, make a deep and lasting emotional connection with their fans.
Photo: Pop singer Elton John poses for a portrait with his lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1969 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)