Captain Fantastic

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(Pictured: Elton and tennis star Billie Jean King, to whom “Philadelphia Freedom” is dedicated.)

Regular consumers of this pondwater may remember that my favorite album is Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart on this date in 1975. It occurred to me not long ago that I have never tried ranking the tracks, as with other albums in the category The Re-Listening Project. So:

13. “House of Cards.” This was the B-side of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” although unlike the other bonus tracks appearing on the 2005 Deluxe Edition of the album, it was originally intended to be on Captain Fantastic but was left off. And that seems to have been a good decision: the lyric is overstuffed with gambling metaphors related to love, and the whole thing just kind of sits there for three minutes.

12. “One Day at a Time.” “One Day at a Time,” written by John Lennon and originally on Mind Games, is as sappy as the sappiest work of Paul McCartney. The tune and arrangement are pretty, but Elton’s jolly, music-hall-style performance, which originally appeared on the B-side of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” makes it a pleasant goof at best.

11. “Bitter Fingers.” When I do these rankings, songs that are perfectly fine end up toward the bottom because I like other stuff better, and this is one of them.

10. “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket.” This is a cousin to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” but in the context of Captain Fantastic, it doesn’t really fit. Elton might better have saved it for Rock of the Westies.

9. “Better Off Dead.” Nigel Olsson’s way-up-in-the-mix drum-whacking drives one of the better refrains on the album: “Cuz the steam’s in the boiler, the coal’s in the fire / If you ask how I am then I’ll just say inspired.” Also inspired: the backup vocals by Nigel, Dee Murray, Davey Johnstone, and company. Elton wouldn’t sound like Elton without them.

8. “Tower of Babel.” This, too, is perfectly fine, although it probably suffers by having to follow the album’s title song.

7. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” This, which was not on the original album, wears out its welcome at six minutes in length, but at its particular cultural moment, it was going to be huge no matter what.

6. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” This always seemed a weird choice for a single: too long, too slow. Elton is said to have refused to allow his label to release an edited 45, although some radio stations cut it themselves, as they did with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Philadelphia Freedom.”

5. “Writing.” When I first heard Captain Fantastic, this was the song I liked the best. It’s got one of the most charming arrangements in Elton’s catalog, and on an album intended to be autobiographical, it’s the most autobiographical song on it.

4. “We All Fall in Love Sometimes”/”Curtains.” These two songs run together at the end of the original album. “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” about lost love, is squarely in my wheelhouse. And so is “Curtains,” which is about the losses time inflicts upon us and how we remember. When I spoke at my high-school graduation, I quoted some lines from it, in my peroration about—wait for it—the losses time inflicts upon us and how we remember: “And just like us / You must have had / A once upon a time.”

3. “Philadelphia Freedom.” I am not sure I ever loved a song on the radio more than I loved this in the spring of 1975. I didn’t buy the 45, however, holding out for the forthcoming Elton album, only to find that it wasn’t on the album. And it was probably just as well, since it doesn’t fit the album’s autobiographical theme. But its Philly soul glide would have sounded pretty good next to . . . .

2. “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows.” The lyrics of “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” are in English, but they don’t mean anything. It ranks up here because the music accompanying that gibberish is so tremendous.

1. “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” When I started working up these rankings, I didn’t think this would be #1, but here it is. It may be one of the great album-opening tracks by anybody. It defines the best of mid-70s Elton, with a little bit of everything he and Bernie liked to do. It’s both a ballad and a rocker with a dash of country music thrown in, and it’s a perfect first chapter for the autobiography to come over the rest of the original album.

3 responses

  1. One of Davey Johnstone’s best….

  2. What I remember about the track “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” was that WABC-AM in New York, which had a tight, restrictive playlist of currents and which, by 1975, almost never played non-single album tracks, actually DID play this one in regular rotation at the same time that “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was climbing its singles chart.

  3. These days I listen to music primarily through wifi speakers strategically placed inside and outside the house but throughout my life there have always been albums I enjoy playing most on the turntable or disc player, speakers not too loud and, if the house is still, the music seems to be everywhere.

    Then there are those albums I most enjoy hearing in the confines of the car with the music coming at me from all angles at a high decibel level.

    And then there are albums like Captain Fantastic… that I prefer to hear primarily through quality headphones with every sonic nuance revealed at whatever volume my mood and the album du jour (de nuit?) call for. There is no better way I know of to pick up on what the vocalist is puttin’ down, explore the layered intricacies (or simplicities) of the production, marvel in wonder when it all comes together time & time again and how good the album SOUNDS even after something like a bajillion listens.

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