Talking Sides

Matthew Restall on the four glorious sides of Blue Moves.

You may be unlikely to listen to a double album today as exactly that—a set of four sides of vinyl. And there is nothing wrong with streaming it as a single sequence of eighteen tracks (re-sequencing or editing the album is a trickier issue, as I discuss in my Blue Moves book). But it is worth considering why an album from the vinyl era was assembled the way it was—in the case of Blue Moves, by its brilliant producer, Gus Dudgeon. So, here is a brief side-by-side take on the album.

Side 1. It is well over four minutes before Elton starts singing. It is eleven minutes before we hear the full band sound. Only one other John album begins with such an extended instrumental beginning, his only other double—Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. But listeners expecting something of the arena-rock bluster of the earlier album’s openers were disappointed and confused by the start of Blue Moves. To some, the short, lightweight instrumental that prefaces “Tonight,” that song’s long orchestral beginning, its length (almost eight minutes) and opening line (“Tonight, do we have to fight again?”), amounted to something gloomy and pretentious.

Yet viewed as a whole, Side 1 of Blue simply arranges differently the same three signature elements of the Elton John sound that are famously present on Side 1 of Yellow: John at his piano, his band of skilled and polished veterans, and an orchestra arranged with equal talent and effect. The thrill of a classic John/Taupin Americana-themed rocker, “One Horse Town,” is enhanced by its long anticipation. So is the wait for the power-piano ballad that closes the side, “Chameleon,” a lush oft-overlooked gem that surely—had the album’s timing been different—would have been a successful single and a staple of John hits collections for decades.

Side 2. The same could be said of “Crazy Water,” one of the four tracks on the second side; it was a minor hit in Britain (not released in the US), at a time when two genres were competing to dominate popular music: punk and disco. “Crazy Water” is great, but it is neither of those. Dramatically different in many ways from each other, punk and disco were nonetheless both subversive antidotes to an industry that by 1977 seemed bloated by excess and exploitation. As a millionaire rock star, John was suddenly spectacularly uncool.

Side 2 of Blue Moves is a good example of why the album somehow seems fresher now than when it was new. Unmoored from the need to be an expression of the moment, it is free to explore and celebrate the John/Taupin musical history, their influences and passions. By the end of Side 2, it is clear how much this is a music lover’s album.

Side 3. The album produced one hit single, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” which opens the third side. It helped the album’s long-term sales less than one might imagine, due to its inclusion on a “greatest hits” record within a year of the release of Blue Moves (an episode in a tale of record label competition told in my Blue Moves book). It also added to the album’s reputation as depressingly blue, packed with maudlin ruminations on divorce—for the marriage of John’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin, to the woman celebrated in beloved John/Taupin love songs like “Tiny Dancer” was collapsing.

To be sure, the theme of love’s endings runs thickly through the album, but it never drags it down. Only eight of the eighteen tracks touch on the theme—four of them on Side 3—and John gives almost half of them mid- or up-tempo musical treatments. The musical tone of the side is, in the end, varied and poignant, not mawkish. How can five tracks that begin with the line “What have I got to do to make you love me?” and end with a song about a suicide be anything other than a bummer? Listen (and read) and decide for yourself!

Side 4. Dudgeon, wishing Blue Moves was a single album, buried on Side 4 the songs he least liked. But while the side does include a couple of the album’s weaker numbers, it also includes two of its most interesting—“Idol,” which inspired a whole chapter of my Blue Moves book, and the silly, delirious, irresistible closing track, “Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!)” One of my book’s arguments regarding the reception of the album is built around John’s decisions to stop touring in the years right after its release. The contrast between his touring schedule before and after Blue Moves had major consequences.

But if any doubt remained as to how differently the troubled double and its singles might have fared on the charts had John continued his hectic touring schedule, it is put to rest by his performance of “Bite Your Lip” in Central Park in 1980.  Wearing an oversized Donald Duck costume, John used the song as an encore (it is easily found on YouTube), giving a hint as to how the album might have been successfully promoted three years earlier.

Hardcore vinyl enthusiast? Read more about how Blue Moves was assembled here!

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