So far in his personal trajectory, Elton John has managed to tackle every genre worth tackling, with the possible exception of white rap, which didn’t serve either Ozzy Osbourne or Robert Plant when they attempted it. This is partly because John is a prodigy, both as a piano player and a singer, but also because he’s well served by Bernie Taupin, the lyricist who brought an emotional heft to John’s melodies. Mick Wall’s Hercules! The A to Z of Elton John looks at the various factions of his career, compiling the narrative alphabetically – much like Mark Blake did in 2021 with Magnifico!: The A to Z of Queen.
Our encounter with John’s life-changing event starts with “Ackles,” which coincided with the pianist’s “first-ever show in America.” With remarkable economy, Wall exhibits the country that inspired many of his bluesier vocals, which might explain why The Rolling Stones were so impressed by his vitality and work. Once in the music industry, John was determined to bring his artistry into a series of unlikely avenues. What he found on his odyssey was a willingness to embrace humility, not least in the presence of solo Beatles, as he encountered when he came face to face with John Lennon (the two collaborated on the enjoyably jaunty ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’ in 1974.)
This character trait was at odds with his more unflappable persona, bristling across a piano in front of thousands at Madison Square Garden. John himself recognized the genius of Marc Bolan (filed under ‘B’). John himself is said to have jumped on the glam bandwagon, but that does him a disservice, as he spent much of the 1960s harnessing his craft as a session player. John played the sorrowful piano that cements ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.’ Unlike David Bowie, John’s flamboyance merely complimented the records, and didn’t detract from the stellar musicianship that chimed behind the arrangements, every note pressed for perfection.
John’s first and second instruments were piano and vocals, with his third instrument, guitar, being unveiled on A Single Man in 1978. Guitar, however, was the instrument he left to other musicians, most notably Pete Townshend whom he worked with on the Tommy soundtrack (filed under ‘P’ for, you know, ‘Pinball Wizard’).
John’s style of piano playing mirrored that of an electric guitarist, which might explain why Axl Rose enjoyed him so much. “I play piano in a style influenced by Elton John and Billy Joel,” Rose admitted. “But it’s minimalistic. I know what I can and can’t do, so I aim it real carefully. But it’s basically influenced off Elton John’s attack – and his singing. If you want to learn how to sing different styles, try singing like Elton John – anything from the blues on.”
Hercules! The A to Z of Elton John comes down to us in three primary mediums: the typography, the text, and the music. Not exactly a memoir, but a memento of events that can be pieced together into one fascinating work, and one that will be a shoo-in for anxious aunts searching for possible Christmas presents. Elton John has become one of England’s most enduring songwriters and boasts a legacy more accessible than Freddie Mercury’s and more esoteric than Gilbert O’Sullivan’s. He also appears on the new Rolling Stones album, which makes this book all the more timely and worthy of your attention.
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