It Isn’t Yellow (and That’s Ok)

Matthew Restall, author of Elton John’s Blue Moves, on why he didn’t write a 33 1/3 on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Early in my Blue Moves book I ask the question that Elton fans almost always ask me when they discover that there is a 33 1/3 book on a John album: why did I write about Blue Moves and not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road? Yellow has sold ten times as many copies as Blue. It is the only John album consistently ranked in listings such as Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums of All Time (where it made the Top 100). So why Blue and not Yellow?

Nobody has asked me that question after reading the book. Because it is, in a way, a book-length answer to that very question. But there’s a twist. The book is, in fact, about Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. That is, in part; about a fifth of it compares the two albums, a comparison that was unavoidable. The two records were the only double albums of John’s career, released almost exactly three years apart (in the autumns of 1973 and 1976). Within months of its arrival, Yellow was established as the sales monster and creative masterpiece against which all subsequent John product would be compared. Blue was a little longer; but, the critics declared, so much less of an achievement.

In retrospect, Blue stands up against Yellow far better than the critics insisted. That alone is a reason to write about it. Revisiting Yellow, simply to confirm its brilliance, is surely less interesting than revisiting Blue Moves, in order to see whether it may be worthy of rehabilitation.

It certainly is worth listening to the album afresh, with open ears. It is worth multiple listens, and arguably requires them—for it is lush and layered in its production, complex in its relationship between music and lyrics, and defiant in its refusal to stick to one genre. For example, John does more with his voice than on any other album, showing a versatility and ability to project emotion than will surprise listeners used to “Your Song” and “Rocket Man.” It is also the jazziest of John’s albums, an adjective seldom associated with him—which helps to explain, as my Blue Moves book shows, the album’s mixed reception.

But arguing that Blue Moves is a better album than it is reputed to be is not the only reason to write about it. In fact, it isn’t even the main reason. More compelling, I think, is the context in which the album was released, the historical circumstances of the late-1970s—both in terms of John’s career decisions and the larger shift in popular culture and popular music.  If the words “punk” and “disco” are popping into your head right now, you are on the right track.

The multifaceted context to the release and reception of Elton John’s new album in 1976-78 was therefore very different to that of 1973, when he released two hit albums (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road being the second). The difficulties encountered by Blue thus help us to better understand the rapid success of Yellow, and by extension the contextual reasons why any album by any artist hits or misses.

There is a final reason to approach the music and career of Elton John through Blue Moves, rather than through Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or any of the other dozen albums that fans and critics typically rank above Blue. It is the same reason why other authors of 33 1/3 books have (in part, of course) chosen albums that were not that artist’s greatest success, commercially or critically: sometimes the less obvious choice leads us to the more surprising insights and more interesting conclusions.

Take a deeper look at Elton John’s Blue Moves here!

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