Honky Château could almost be described as the quintessential album of Elton John’s “early” period. It retained the classic line-up of Sir Elton on vocals and keyboards, Davey Johnston on guitars, Dee Murray on bass, and Nigel Olsson on drums/percussion. That core group would contribute music and backing vocals to almost every track, along with a few guest session musicians here and there. The album sported three of Elton’s best-known and most-beloved songs in “Honky Cat”, “Rocket Man”, and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” — the first two becoming classic rock staples after hitting the US Top 10 singles chart. The album itself went to #1 in the US and #2 in the UK, and not only continued a series of classic LPs that started with Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water, but also began a string of powerhouse #1 albums that rocketed Elton John into the 1970s stratosphere.
The Nawlins shuffle that drives Honky Cat makes it one of Elton’s most pleasurably memorable tunes. While the honky-tonk piano and thick horn section hearkens back to Tumbleweed Connection‘s thematic Americana, Honky Cat lacks that albums measured artifice, instead showcasing a freewheeling toe-tapper that acts as a precursor/companion piece to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In that later tune, the narrator is fleeing the fast city life like a bandit; here he’s disregarding his local-yokel naysayers and off on his grand adventure.
Mellow is a lyrically simplistic yet earnest take on the simplest pleasures, flowing grass and bare feet and cold beers and Roman noses and all that. It’s a slower, more personal and intimately enjoyable tune from Elton. Close your eyes and sway to this one, folks. Then toss all those happy good-time chill vibes aside for the darkly comic I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself, a ridiculous ode to the ridiculousness of predictable teen angst. I enjoy the bouncy drive of the song, its snarky lyrics, and its lampooning of self-entitlement. Almost reminds me of a saloon number, at least until the final line of each verse which takes a weird detour into “magic changes” balladry. Still, a fine song.
Elton brings the funk with Susie (Dramas), an ode to a sexy street urchin girl who steals off with the narrator’s heart. The bass-driven vibe that propels this song paints a vivid picture of lust-driven affection, yet with a playful youthfulness that makes this a fine album cut. And speaking of fine cuts, another Elton classic emerges with the peerless Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time). This song has been dissected, analyzed, and celebrated more times than I care to recount. It’s just a lovely, affecting, absorbing song. Taupin’s lyrics, as usual, can be taken dozens of different ways. Is it about road loneliness? Introverted isolation? Walter Mitty-esque dreamlike self-aggrandizement? Or literally the thoughts of an astronaut heading to Mars? Perhaps all of the above. But wrapped up in such a perfectly crafted package, it hardly matters. The “And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…” repeat on the outro is haunting and strangely beautiful.
The gospel-influenced Salvation is a serviceable if unremarkable album cut. I like the song musically, but lyrically I find it a bit trite and preachy. Coming after Rocket Man almost any song might seem second-rate, but Salvation doesn’t rise all that much to the occasion. I find the country/western feel of Slave much more agreeable. Elton’s vocal performance is simple, earnest, and highly effective. Nigel Olsson’s percussion on the track is tasteful, memorable, and appropriate, as is Davey Johnstone’s banjo and steel guitar work. Slave is another fine deep album cut worth seeking out. Dee Murray’s hook-laden bassline and guest musician Ray Cooper’s conga work on Amy are irresistible. It’s probably the strongest musical number on the album — the drive under the chorus is powerful and immediate, but the solo jam featuring Jean-Luc Ponty’s electric violin sticks out the most on a thundrously excellent song.
It’s almost impossible for me to write about Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters. The song represents Elton John and Bernie Taupin at the absolute top of their game, which in turn makes this one of the great pop songs ever recorded. It’s tender when it needs to be, then lifting and anthemic as it crescendos and unwinds into touching, affecting musical wonderment. OK that sounds a tad bit overly effusive. Maybe it is. The lilt of Davey Johnston’s mandolin, the steady reassurance of Dee Murray’s anchoring bassline, and John’s driving piano work and remarkable vocal performance make this one a classic for the ages. I don’t view the song as a deconstruction of Leiber & Spector’s “Spanish Harlem”. I see it as simply another view and appreciation of the beauty in the urban mundane, while acknowledging its paradoxes and unseemliness. Your mileage may vary. That’s fine. The song is still utterly magnificent.
So how do you finish up the album, especially after the previous awesomeness? You keep the energy going but instead of going for majesty, you bring the fun. An uptempo acoustic guitar introduces us to a cat named Hercules, which puts equal measure folk and corner doo-wop fun into an enjoyable romp. I love how David Henstchel’s synths highlight a righteously fun guitar solo from Davey Johnstone. This is the song with which it’s impossible NOT to grab a partner and hit the dance floor at the end of the night. A fantastic album closer if there ever was one.
Honky Château is highly regarded as one of Elton John’s best albums, and it’s not entirely that difficult to see why. The album is almost entirely enchanting and enjoyable, with only the average Salvation a step below its brethren. And even that track is still pleasant enough to not outrage anyone’s musical sensibilities. Honky Château doesn’t provide the thematic unity of Tumbleweed Connection, nor the emotional turbulence of Madman Across The Water. It is, in essence, simply a fine album that aims to please. It succeeds.