(Pictured: Reg Dwight buys lunch.)
In the late 60s, as a scuffling artist trying to make a name for himself, young Elton John played every session he could get. His best-known pre-fame recordings have been released under several titles, most famously Chartbusters Go Pop!. They were covers of popular hits that were intended to sound like the originals, and they appeared on budget-priced, quickie compilations. Upwards of 50 songs on which he played or sang have been documented, recorded between 1968 and 1970, the last of them cut during the same month Elton traveled to Los Angeles for his famous American debut at the Troubadour.
While Elton was preparing to record his first album, Empty Sky, he was invited to join a group being put together by producer Chris Thomas. It included two members of his Empty Sky band, guitarist Caleb Quaye and drummer Roger Pope, as well as Bernie Calvert, who played bass in the Hollies, and two percussionists, Lennox Jackson and a guy known only to history as Rollo. Thomas and another colleague, Tony King, hoped that the group might end up a powerhouse studio outfit, maybe England’s answer to the Funk Brothers—and they would be its impresarios.
In August 1968, Thomas and King, who worked for George Martin, had some down time at the office while the boss was on vacation and the Beatles weren’t around much, so they assembled their guys at Abbey Road. They recorded mostly at night following afternoons down the pub, with studio ambience provided by colored lights the Beatles used when they worked. The group ended up with a dozen songs, mostly reworked instrumental covers of past hits, including “Wooly Bully,” “The Letter,” “Needles and Pins,” and “If I Were a Carpenter.” Decca was sufficiently interested to release a single, “Dick Barton Theme (The Devil’s Gallop)” backed with “Breakdown Blues.” It came out in February 1969 under the name of the Bread and Beer Band. The record got some brief and positive notices in the British music press, but Decca decided not to release anything more. So the stuff went into the vaults, just another job that came and went for Elton and his mates, leaving behind only a small paycheck, if that. And Elton went looking for his next gig.
Seven years later, in 1976, Elton John was on top of the world. Tony King was running Elton’s label, Rocket Records, and he gave the boss a birthday gift that year: an acetate of the never-released Bread and Beer Band album. King told a reporter that when he listened to it for the first time in seven years, he was ready for it to be “god awful.” It was instead “halfway decent,” King said. “Everybody who played on it still likes it.”
Elton’s management team had no plans to release the Bread and Beer Band stuff, and in fact, Elton’s birthday acetate was the only physical copy in existence, apart from the studio master tapes. But “Dick Barton Theme (The Devil’s Gallop)” and “Breakdown Blues” finally appeared on last year’s Jewel Box collection of Elton’s deep cuts. “Breakdown Blues,” with Quaye’s blazing guitar, is the better side, but on “Dick Barton Theme,” Elton’s piano style is easily recognizable.
(You can hear all of the Bread and Beer Band album here. If you’d prefer only a sample, here’s “The Letter,” with ghostly Elton vocals, the extremely reimagined “Wooly Bully,” and a version of the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night” that smokes. If you are inclined to get a bootleg mp3 version of the album, go here.)
On some of Elton John’s earliest anonymous recordings, his talent is impossible to contain. You can hear it on some of the Chartbusters stuff, which was intended to be disposable product and not lavished with a great deal of love and care in the studio. Even there, however, the chops and charisma that made him a superstar are audible. Similarly, the Bread and Beer Band had the potential to be the kind of virtuoso outfit that could play anything, sound good doing it, and thereby never be out of work. Perhaps, in some alternate universe, instead of becoming the flamboyant ruler of the 70s pop world, Elton John became one of the most in-demand studio musicians in Britain.
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