Elton’s Test Tube

Elton John’s first album, Empty Sky, was released in the UK in 1969, and it bombed. First released in the States in 1975, less than three months after Greatest Hits, at the very beginning of Elton’s most epic year, it rose to #6 in an 18-week chart run. When it reached the top 10 in February, it was one of four Elton albums on the Billboard 200along with Greatest Hits, Caribou and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. And it is not remotely as good as any of the others. Elton himself has said as much, calling it “naive” while at the same time feeling quite nostalgic about the circumstances under which it was made. But knowing what we do about Elton, and about the long arc of his career, it’s fairly interesting to listen to just the same. The whole album is here. While you listen, I’ll break it down song by song.

The album opens with the title song, which is like nothing else Elton John would ever do. It’s apparently something he’d had in his back pocket since his days with Bluesology, a stretched-out jam that owes more than a little to the Rolling Stones. It has one of the stronger lyrics on the album, mostly because Bernie Taupin doesn’t try too hard. But that would not be the case for too long. The next track, “Val-hala,” lays the Viking references on thick and gets some of them wrong (no, Bernie, their ships were not called “galleons”), but Elton’s melody and the song’s arrangement are lovely enough so that it doesn’t matter.

“Western Ford Gateway” is probably the earliest example of Bernie’s fascination with cowboy mythology and the American West, while “Hymn 2000” is the earliest example of his ability to write poetic nonsense:

She chose the soft centre
And took it to bed with her mother
And the ideal confusion was just an illusion
To gain further news of her brother

“Hymn 2000” is redeemed a little by the line about “collecting submarine numbers on the main street of the sea,” which isn’t much more meaningful but has more art in it.

On the album’s rockers, young Elton sounds like Elton in his prime, but on the ballads, such as “Lady What’s Tomorrow,” he sings in a soft, nasal tone that’s almost as hard to abide as the rasp his voice has become today. “Lady What’s Tomorrow” is pretty, though. “Sails” is pretty too—as in “pretty much a disaster.” The hook is built on the leaden lines “While the seagulls were screaming / Lucy was eating.” The image of Lucy and her lunch is supposed to represent . . . something. It wouldn’t matter if the song were more compelling, but it just sits there for 3:45 and never really goes anywhere.

There are two songs on Empty Sky that would have made fine singles. “The Scaffold” might be Elton’s first great melody, although once again, he sings it in a way that listeners in 1975 would have found odd. “Skyline Pigeon” would become the album’s most famous song, but not until Elton befriended Ryan White, the famous young AIDS patient, in the late 80s. The 1969 original is magnificent, with Elton on harpsichord and organ, and without the soft nasal vocal.

The 1975 release of the album closes the way it opened—with something utterly unlike anything else in Elton’s future catalog. “Gulliver” is a solid song spoiled by gimmickry—it abruptly cuts to a cheesy instrumental called “Hay Chewed,” which gives way to a montage of clips from all the songs on the album. It was different, if not a particularly good idea. The deluxe CD reissue adds four songs Elton released on singles. “Lady Samantha” is the most famous; “It’s Me That You Need” is a pretty obvious bid for a hit single, if not by Elton, than by whomever his music publisher could sell it to. The others, “All Across the Havens” and “Just Like Strange Rain” are nothing special. In fact, the covers of famous pop songs Elton was recording anonymously at the same time for British “as seen on TV” compilation albums (eventually released in a couple of different configurations, including Chartbusters Go Pop!) are more compelling.

Heard in 1969, Empty Sky would have marked Elton John as a talent to watch. In 1975 it provided—as it does today—a fascinating glimpse of the ingredients of his fame, all mixed up in the test tube before they were poured out.

5 thoughts on “Elton’s Test Tube

  1. I have a copy of “Empty Sky” because you got me turned on to it. You asked me to be the studio engineer for a broadcasting class project in college. You used the beginning of the song “Empty Sky” to begin the recording and I liked it so much, I bought the album. OK, so the album as a whole wasn’t so great, but I still like the song “Empty Sky” to this day. Thanks for introducing me to the early years of Elton John and some of his great work.

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