Album cover of "Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player" (Elton John).

The Rocket Man has landed

Elton John was the first musician I was aware of.  I became conscious of his catchy tunes and wonderfully elastic voice from hearing him on my brother’s cheap record player, my Dad’s stereo and my Mom’s car AM radio. His hits were the the soundtrack of my early childhood, in the early to mid 70’s and I was fascinated with the sound of his records, way beyond my pre-kindergarten existence.  My brother and I had quite a few of Elton’s 45’s from his UNI Records days, then MCA and we had to badger our Mom into buying multiple copies of them, because we wore them all out, because they were really, really good. Elton John’s music has been an anchor throughout my life.

By the late 1970’s and 80’s, Elton, was still enormously popular but slowly losing steam as the hit making machine he had been before he hit the age of ripe old age of 30. This hardly derailed his career. Although he did not start out that way, Elton became the consummate showmen, with outlandish costumes and stage antics accented by oversized novelty glasses, all of course for the benefit of those in the nose-bleed sections of the venues. (Look on youtube for his Central Park performance in 1980 and you’ll see what I mean.) Despite a dotting of hits through the 80’s and 90’s, Elton’s performances allowed him to continue to sell out large-scale venues, and still do.

I also have to add that Elton’s foray into soundtracks and musical theater composing, and  success with the “Lion King” helped keep his professional resume in the mainstream, and sell concert tickets, though some of his older fans, myself included, couldn’t muster up too much enthusiasm for these kinds of projects, not that there’s anything wrong with it. I suppose.

While I would have liked to have added his amazing voice alongside his showmanship as to why he has continued to sell out in the present day, that would be more than a bit of an overstatement. As you can hear from this youtube clip from 2013, Elton’s voice is, I would have to say, noticeably different.

I hear the argument from his die-hard defenders that of course his voice has changed. He’s in his late 60’s, what should I expect? My problem with this argument is two-fold. First, on an aesthetic level, his voice, with its severely diminished range, deeper and somewhat gravelly tone, excessive vibrato and minus his old trademark falsetto, is no longer enjoyable for me to listen to, especially in comparison to his records from the 70’s and early 80’s. And while age itself might be a legitimate excuse for his vocal deterioration, it isn’t that simple or even true, bringing me to my second point. Elton abused the heck out of himself from the mid 1970’s to the 1990’s, with drugs and alcohol as well as abusing his voice due to excessive touring. In addition to being in and out of rehab for substance dependency, by his late 30’s (around 1986-87) Elton had polyps removed from his vocal chords. Subsequently, the upper register of his vocal range was severely compromised and his falsetto gone, now leaving him to compromising his songs by lowering their keys or overcompensating vibrato, cartoonish sounding characterizations and leaving much of the more challenging work to backup singers. (And yes, I know he’s always used backup singers, but for accompaniment and embellishing. Not for carrying his melodies or hitting high notes for him).

And while this piece may sound a little preachy and judgmental, I’m not really writing this to tear the guy down for the sake of it. I think his earlier albums are masterpieces and he had one of the most compelling voices in the history of rock music. And, I will always consider him, unquestionably, to be one of the most significant artists in the history of rock and roll.

What I guess I’m really getting at, and this is what sticks in my craw, is that I think it’s amazing how celebrity culture seems to be self-reinforcing, i.e., Elton John, despite a severely diminished voice, is a world-famous, concert selling-out and hit-making composer and legend so the public will keep buying gobs of tickets to his shows. Which reinforces his celebrity status. And then they buy more tickets. So what if his voice is gone? After all, he still is Elton John!

My head hurts.

Anyone else’s thoughts. Feel free to argue with me.

12 thoughts on “The Rocket Man has landed”

  1. Hello,
    Great subject I will have to totally agree with you I will compare two more great artist to this blog, George Harrison and Bob Dylan, I love The Beatles both as a group and solo artist, when George Harrison went solo after he breakup of The Beatles he did rather well, he played here in Providence R.I. in 1975 I’ve seen videos form the concert as much as I love George Harrison music I will have to say his performance that evening is not what you would expect form George Harrison his voice was very weak and at one point during the concert he sang a lot of Indian music not what people wanted to hear, but after all it was George Harrison Ex. Beatle, now you have Bob Dylan American music icon, I like Bob Dylans songs but not a fan of his singing same as George Harriosn he performed many years ago here in Rhode Island although I didn’t attend the concert you could here it from the streets it was an outside concert, it sounded like a bunch of teenage kids playing in a garage the singing was terrible at some points in the songs you couldn’t hear the singing just the music but it was a sold out concert WHY! because it was the American megastar Bob Dylan, I think that at some point these artist that have made their impact in music and can longer deliver the same quality music that made them who they are should bow out gracefully and let people remember them for who they were when they were STARS!!!! not a falling STAR!!!

    1. Hi Willie. I think you have three very different cases with Elton, George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Elton’s voice went south after years of self-abuse with age being the other significant factor.

      George Harrison, on his US tour in the mid 1970’s was going through serious throat issues, and was battling hepatitis which contributed towards his diminished vocal abilities on that tour. He definitely was tough to listen to on that tour no doubt. I believe he blew his voice out while recording the Dark Horse album and rehearsals for the tour. You can hear it both on that LP and the tour recordings. But his voice dramatically improved after some rest and he was back to singing just fine until his death. In fact, I think some of his singing on his last album, Brainwashed, is some of his finest.

      Bob Dylan’s voice has undergone some major transformations since his 1960’s folk, and folk-rock days. I think smoking and age had something to do with it, though I’m sure there’s other factors. Bob’s got a mercurial voice to go along with personality and he alters it depending upon his moods and feelings towards his material and probably his audience. I don’t think he’s ever sang a song the same way twice. And his voice, to me, has been pretty spotty since the 1980’s, getting raspier through the years and far more “mumbly” than he was in his earlier years.

  2. Hello Michael,
    I have to agree with you about George Harrison his voice did get better I do like a lot of his later material it seems like his style was more into the power ballads, as for Bob Dylan he always had a nasal type of voice but still fitted for his type of music. I think when you listen to a lot of artist you get used to the type of music they have done in the past so when they try something different it just doesn’t seem as good, example take Black Sabbath can you imagine what it would sound like if they did a cover of the Beatles -Yesterday/Electric.

  3. You and Willie beat me to the punch, but I will add that Robert Plant is in that group too. Drugs, alcohol, lack of rest and age had ravaged his vocal cords from 1972 to the present. He went from a singer of super high range and growling vocals to basically a crooner in a very short period of time. I must say that there are still vocalists out there who still have it. One in mind is Glen Hughes of Deep Purple fame. As recently as 2013, he was in a band called Black Country Communion who included Jason Bonham and Joe Bonamassa. His range was absolutely incredible for a guy in his 60’s. He was hitting the notes as if he was still in his 20’s. Maybe he is a genetic freak but who cares…LOL It’s very difficult to listen to today’s Elton considering I know what he used to sound like. You just want to say, “Hey Elton, it’s time to pack it in”, but who am I to judge.

    1. Robert Plant’s voice changed dramatically through the years. What I find astounding is the vast difference in his range between 1969-1975. Just six years and the top end of his register was gone. And like Elton, LZ toured excessively and Plant soldiered through sicknesses and self-abuse and his vocal cords never had time to recover, causing permanent damage.

  4. Hello Fred,
    I agree with you maybe Elton John should leave good memories of what he did and not try to go on and leave a bad impression, your right about Robert Plant I saw a few videos of later concerts not the same old Zeppelin from the 1970’s one guy who still has a great voice and can reach those high notes is Jay Black from Jay & The Americans his voice is still flawless!

    1. Hi Willie

      There is a small list of veteran vocalists that could still belt it out, but I think it is very small. Like Robert Plant and Elton John, most over-tour and as a result their vocal chords get no rest. In addition, the heavy partying, smoking and drinking are not conducive to good long term vocal chord health.

  5. Hello Michael,
    I just listened to Stevie Wonder doing We Can Work It Out, to be honest I liked the beginning of the song but I didn’t like it in the middle of the song when he broke up the song like a repeat where The Beatles version had harmonies bottom line I like the original version by The Beatles!

    1. While I also like the Beatles’ version better, I do also like Stevie’s original 1970 single version of We Can Work It Out because he doesn’t try to replicate what the Beatles did and does a R&B take on it. As a rule, I prefer artists trying to cover well-known songs in their own style over exact replications. Now I don’t necessarily feel that these different versions are always good but at least their trying to put their own stamp on those songs, as Stevie successfully did with WCWIO.

    1. It’s decent Willie! I would say it’s relatively faithful to the original but Steven Tyler gives it enough of his own attitude to make it is own, a bit. The Beatles version is the best though with the coolest swampy-bass line and drumming ever! Unbeatable.

      On a personal note, I saw Ringo, in person directly in front of me, air drum to the original recording of “Come Together”. It was mind-blowing, to say the least for this fan.

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