Editor’s Note: There are certain rock tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In this series, we look at one of them (and don’t forget to suggest your picks for an Epic Track in the comments).
Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has a colorful, almost dreamlike illustration as its cover. Before you even open up the double album (with more outstanding images), you have a sense you’re about to go on a magical journey.
So, why does that journey start with clanging bells, eerie wind sounds, and a gothic synthesizer straight out of a horror movie soundtrack? “Funeral For A Friend” seems an unlikely song choice for a guy just coming off a massive hit album earlier in the year; in January 1973, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player was released, going three times platinum in America thanks to upbeat hits like “Crocodile Rock.”
Now, it’s October of that same year, and fans are getting their first listen to Elton’s latest creative effort. It’s a, um, “surprising” introduction, that’s for sure.
In 1973, the team of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin was on a massive creative roll. Just months after Don’t Shoot Me, they had written 22 new songs, 18 of which would be used on GYBR. They composed the words and music in an astonishingly short window: Taupin wrote the lyrics over just two weeks, while John composed the melodies in three days. The entire double album was recorded in two weeks at the same French studio they’d used for Honky Chateau.
Elton has described “Funeral For A Friend” as the kind of song he’d like played at his own funeral, a good old heavy-handed, classically influenced, somewhat over-the-top “dirge.” The memorable synthesizer portions were programmed and performed by London studio engineer Dave Hentschel, one of the few people at the time who knew their way around this complex instrument.
As the song reaches a thundering climax, a delicate piano interlude breaks in, serving as the bridge into the wildly listenable, “Love Lies Bleeding.” The tale of a rock star angrily lamenting a symbolic death (in this case, Bernie’s marriage) cleverly bookends the opus. The demands of life on the road are quite literally a killer of relationships.
While “death” would seem an odd way to introduce an album, it’s appropriate considering the themes about nostalgia and loss of innocence running throughout GYBR (the title track alone is indicative of that).
At a little over 11 minutes long, “Funeral for A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” wasn’t radio-friendly, but it has proved influential. For starters, Guns ‘N Roses used it as the inspiration for 1991’s “November Rain”; when Elton John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Axl Rose did the honors, citing his impact on the band’s music. Dozens of musicians have cited the album’s importance to them (Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Gos recalled that she literally took it with her wherever she went).
Within days of its release, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road went Gold. In its fourth week on the Billboard chart, it hit #1 and stayed there for eight weeks straight. Not surprisingly, it was the best-selling album of 1974. By 2014, it had been certified 8 times Platinum, with well over 20 million copies sold worldwide.
To this writer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road closes out the beautiful era that included Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water. While a taste of that would return with Captain Fantastic in 1975, this particular period of Elton/Bernie would never be repeated.
So, in a way, “Funeral for A Friend” heralds an appropriate (and epic) sendoff to a magical era in rock.
Fair Use image of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road