Virtually every artist who has had a career that has covered multiple decades is bound to have peaks and valleys along the way. However, the music that Elton John created in the 1980s seems to always get unfair criticism when his music is discussed by many critics and bloggers. It’s important to put things into context, of which this rarely happens for Elton, for those comparing his recordings in the 1970s to the 1980s.
For instance, when looking at his contemporaries during the same time period, Elton often gets the short end of the stick. Let’s take the Rolling Stones as an example. We all know their early 70’s output was classic but will we ever compare their classic 1972’s Exile On Main Street album to 1986’s Still Life? Their lackluster cover version of Harlem Shuffle will hardly be confused with Tumbling Dice. Yet, they get somewhat of a free pass. Or how about Eric Clapton? The soaring guitars of the early 70’s Layla were a far cry from the Phil Collins produced ’86 album August, which resulted in the overtly slick It’s In The Way That You Use It hit. And Rod Stewart? Well let’s face it, ever since Maggie May kicked him out of bed, the singer-songwriter in him left the building. He has coasted ever since with simple, albeit catchy, pop songs. He clearly chose the easy road during this decade. And let’s not forget, he did actually sing Love Touch.
How then, does Elton’s music in the 1980s rank? Well, that depends of course your own musical taste and preference. And there is no disputing the fact that Elton has had two distinct overriding legacy’s in the 1970s. The first is the Elton John from his first album through Madman Across The Water. These albums were grand if not majestic early recordings that secured his credibly early on. Once Honky Chateau was released 1972 however, Elton became a pop sensation through the remaining part of the decade (with the help of Rocket Man and Honky Cat from that album to jump start it.) When the 1980s arrived, Elton seemed to take a more conservative approach as he appeared to be finding his feet again in the pop world. This led to a couple of early 80’s albums of inconsistency (21 at 33 and The Fox) to what became his first official comeback album called Jump Up! In 1982. It’s widely noted that this album is remembered mostly for Empty Garden and Blue Eyes, but there were some other great tracks that made for an overall solid album. But it was the 1983 album Too Low For Zero and 1984’s Breaking Hearts release that meshed together Elton’s pop hooks with the new video age and moved him into the decade of the levels he encountered in the mid-70s. I’m Still Standing, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues and Sad Songs made Elton one of the darlings of MTV and introduced him to a new generation of fans.
He made the successful transition from 1970s icon to 1980s rock star by updating with the times. Plus, the albums included not just the hits but incredible album tracks that may have been long forgotten now but are no less stellar in his overall songbook. Songs like Cold As Christmas, Too Low For Zero, One More Arrow, Restless, In Neon, Burning Buildings and Passengers were as good as anything that came from the ‘70s.
The mid-point of the decade is the weakest link during this decade. Ice On Fire and Leather Jackets were rather mediocre but still contained hidden gems (Cry To Heaven, Paris, Slow Rivers to name a few). That brief dip wouldn’t last long as the decade ended with one very strong album, Reg Strikes Back (hailed by critics at the time as the official comeback #2!) and an outright classic, 1989’s Sleeping With The Past. Both contained big hits and were evident of a renewed commitment to making quality albums again from start to finish.
Another factor during the 1980s was of course, his songwriting partners. It took a few years before Taupin returned as his exclusive lyricist (1983’s Too Low For Zero). And Elton was using studio musicians for a brief time as well (1980-1982) and changed the band members several times after that. Not to mention that a variety of producers were at the helm for his albums too. Simply put, this will lead to different production techniques, arrangements, etc. During Elton’s 1970s hey day, Gus Dudgeon was his sole producer from 1970-1976. And Gus only returned in the 1980s briefly and produced his biggest hit from those sessions with Nikita. Imagine if you will that George Martin didn’t produce the last 4 Beatles albums. Things mostly likely would have been different, right?
And lastly, while Bernie Taupin was back in full swing for most of the albums, he lyrics became less descriptive and his narratives were more based on variations of love, heartache and despair. Long gone were the days of storytelling songs in the vein of Indian Sunset, Danny Bailey, Country Comfort and Roy Rogers. Taupin was now writing in simple, short phrases that were ideal for the syn-pop marketplace of the day. While he was consistent and delivered the goods most of the time, the lyrics were not conducive to the themes that established he and Elton in the early days – perhaps that’s why they didn’t try (maybe a case of been there and done that?)
In summary, I certainly agree that what Elton John accomplished in those early years were never captured again but I contend that among his slick pop hits during the 1980s, there were some treasures that were equal to the classics. I wish that his 1980s output didn’t get such a bum rap. Some of it is deserved for sure (anyone remember Act of War?), but when compared to others of his legendary status during the same time, Elton held his own and survived. And every casual fan should explore that piece of his history as well