Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has proved to be one of his most popular and enduring works. The man at the controls, David Hentschel, tells us how it came to be.
In January 1973, Elton John was reaching a career apotheosis. His sixth studio album, Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player, was released amid widespread acclaim en route to topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and that record's first single, 'Crocodile Rock', was also on its way to becoming his first American number one. Nevertheless, suddenly tagged with the 'superstar' label after more than a decade of earning his stripes in the music business, Elton knew better than to ease off the accelerator just as he was hitting cruise speed and high altitude.
Instead, the singer-songwriter formerly known as Reginald Kenneth Dwight opted to capitalise on his exploding international status — and comply with a two-albums-per-year contractual obligation to MCA — by commencing sessions for another new collection of songs penned with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Impressed that the Rolling Stones had recently been recording tracks for Goats Head Soup in Kingston, Jamaica, Elton also opted to work there. It was a decision he, Taupin, producer Gus Dudgeon and the band members — guitarist Davey Johnstone, bass player Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson — quickly regretted, thanks to the economically depressed locale's tense, violent atmosphere and a studio that fell far short of professional standards.
"The first sign we got that something might be a bit wrong was when the guy who ran the studio, we heard him say, 'Carlton, get the microphone!'” Johnstone recalled in a 2001 VH1 Classic Albums TV documentary. "We went, 'Oh, fuck! Get the microphone?' We used 20 mics on the drums even in those days. It was like, 'Oh, we're in deep shit here.'”
"There was no gear in the studio,” Olsson confirmed. "Gus was kind of looking around: 'Well, we need some 414s and 57s...' 'Don't worry, mun, they come tomorrow.' Well, tomorrow never came.”
"There was barbed wire around the studio, guys with machine guns, people yelling obscenities at us in the street,” Taupin added. "There wasn't one positive vibe in the place.”
The John/Taupin system of co-composing separately has been well documented down the years: Bernie writes the lyrics by himself and hands them to Elton, who then very quickly sets them to music. For the longest time, there was no interaction between them as songwriters, and this was still the case at the start of 1973. After Bernie had crafted many of the lyrics for their latest collaboration, Elton — avoiding the riots outside — spent three days composing the music in his suite at Kingston's Pink Flamingo Hotel. The only new song to be tracked, however, was a subsequently shelved version of 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting' — likened by Elton to having been "recorded on the worst transistor radio” — before the decision was taken to quit Jamaica and relocate to the far more familiar and relaxed surroundings of Strawberry Studios. A residential facility, this was housed within the rural and remote 18th century Château d'Hérouville, located in a village within the Oise valley just outside Paris, where Elton and his fellow musicians had tracked the Don't Shoot Me... album and its predecessor, 1972's aptly named Honky Château.
Equipped with an MCI 416 console and 16-track Ampex machine, Strawberry's small control room and more spacious live area were on the château's first floor. There, courtesy of two walls of double-glazed windows, everyone was afforded good sound isolation from the outside, plenty of natural daylight and extensive views over the surrounding corn fields.
"Recording music is all about concentration, and when you're living together at a residential facility there are very few distractions,” says David Hentschel, who engineered the 17 tracks that ended up on the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road double album. "You can easily say, 'No phone calls,' and there are also no people dropping by. What's more, being that you continue to see each other between sessions, everybody's focused on the music the entire time and, as in this case, it can be really, really productive. According to my own experiences, this works for about three weeks before people start to get fed up. It's like having a friend come to stay at your home — even if he's a really good friend, you eventually get pissed off with all of his little foibles and peculiarities.”
Born and raised in Lindfield, West Sussex, Hentschel began life as a classically trained musician, learning to play the piano, church organ and clarinet. This was while he simultaneously harboured a love for the pop and rock that he heard on early Beatles albums and, a little later on, records by Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground. Playing keyboards in school bands, he also developed an affection for soul and jazz, and it was with this broad musical grounding that, as a 17-year-old in the summer of '69, David Hentschel took advantage of a pre-college gap year to land a job as a tea boy at Trident Studios in Soho.
"I didn't tell them I only planned to be there a few months,” he says, "but on the first day I walked into the main room and there was David Bowie recording 'Space Oddity' alongside Rick Wakeman on piano. Carrying a tray with cups of tea, I promptly spilled them and made a complete arse of myself, but in actual fact I'd really landed on my feet. Gus Dudgeon was the producer, and little did I know that I'd soon be working with him.”
What's more, Hentschel would soon also be working with Bowie when the latter produced Mott The Hoople's classic All The Young Dudes album, only to quit after a week due to a good old "clash of personalities” with frontman Ian Hunter. Beforehand, Hentschel had assisted on Van der Graaf Generator's H To He, Who Am The Only One. This was produced by John Anthony, who'd ensure that Hentschel engineered Van der Graaf Generator's next LP, Pawn Hearts, in 1971, as well as Genesis' Nursery Cryme that same year.
"That's when I met Phil Collins,” Hentschel recalls. "He became a friend, and that friendship then led to me producing Genesis further down the line on the Trick Of The Tail, Seconds Out, And Then There Were Three, Duke and Three Sides Live albums.”
In the meantime, having been a second engineer during the mix of a track on Elton John's 11-17-70 live album, Hentschel assisted on his next studio project, Madman Across The Water.
"Gus Dudgeon used Trident a lot,” he says. "I engineered a band named Audience that was produced by him, and by the time of Honky Château I had also become a session synthesizer player because I was probably the most musical — and certainly the most musically trained — person then working at that studio. In those days, Trident was very small, only about 15 people were on staff there and, after the co-owner Barry Sheffield became aware of the introduction of the Moog, he figured it would be really good to have a synthesizer to offer to clients. Next, having thought about who could operate it, he said, 'David, it's you!'
"I flew out to Boston with Barry to visit the ARP factory, where he bought the 2500. This was about six months before Honky Château, and after I got to grips with it I started doing sessions for a number of acts, including Blood, Sweat & Tears, Nazareth, Pilot and Byzantium. The synth, which could be moved around, was sitting in the mix room when it came to Gus's attention, and he asked me to play it on 'Rocket Man'. That was the start of my working relationship with Elton and his entourage, and then, when his usual engineer Ken Scott wasn't available to record Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, I got the call.”
This was after the sessions had switched from Kingston to the Château d'Hérouville where, according to Bernie Taupin, he and Elton enjoyed "a new lease on life and a new enthusiasm for writing”.
"The way we'd write at the château, we had an area at breakfast where a little electric piano was set up and a little drum kit,” Elton explained in the Classic Albums documentary. "So, the band would learn it as I was writing it and then we'd go over and record it.”
"I've seen him write songs in the time that it's taken me to make a chicken sandwich,” added Davey Johnstone. "If he wrote a song in roughly 20 minutes, we'd go over there, and by the time we plugged in and got our shit together and played it a couple of times [that would be] another 15 minutes. Then the red light would go on, and usually the second or third take would be the one that we'd end up with. Sometimes it would go to four or five, but that didn't often happen. A lot of times we'd use the first take.”
Such was the case with the re-recording of 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting', which was captured live without so much as a run‑through.
"They knew the track,” says David Hentschel. "But then, none of the tracks were rehearsed to death anyway. They knew each other, they knew all of the material, and even the songs that were written in France were done fast. I remember Elton sitting at the piano one morning, writing 'Candle In The Wind'. Bernie had given him the lyrics overnight, we watched him write the song while we were having breakfast and then we recorded it about an hour later. It was just unbelievable. Three or four songs were written like that at the château after the majority of them had already been written in Jamaica, and this could only be accomplished because David, Dee and Nigel were so in tune with Elton.”
"It wasn't hard, it wasn't an effort, it was a pleasure,” Elton would subsequently remark. "Nowadays, sometimes, it's an effort and recording can be difficult. But I think in those days, because we were a unit, because of my relationship with Bernie and the band and the management team and everything that went with it, it was just like a little family and it was great.”
While the studio's live area was only large enough to accommodate a four-piece band and a seven-foot grand piano, audio separation was enhanced by Gus Dudgeon having previously commissioned a wooden box to be constructed and placed over the piano instead of the instrument's own lid.
"The box was a couple of feet high, so there was enough space to fit in a couple of microphones while achieving a degree of separation from the drums,” Hentschel says. "There were no isolation booths, so everyone just set up in the same room. We screened off the guitar amp and the bass amp, and Elton alternated between the grand piano and electric piano while putting down a scratch vocal with each tune. Then, the day after recording a track, we'd overdub his lead vocal and he was done. Bless him, he gets terribly bored in the studio — he's got no patience for fiddling around with overdubs and doing backing vocals. So, during those sessions, he'd do his bit and bugger off into Paris, where he'd visit Yves Saint Laurent and buy 20 pairs of trousers in different colours along with loads of jewellery and God knows what else.
"Sound-wise, the main room was kind of no man's land. It was carpeted and it certainly wasn't very live — in those days, few pop and rock studios were. So, at the château, looking through the control room window, Nigel Olsson's drums were near the far left corner, Elton's piano was to the right of them, Dee Murray's bass was on the near left side and Davey Johnstone's guitar was on the near right.
"The bass drum, which had the front skin off, was miked with [an AKG] D12; there probably would have been a small Neumann [KM]56 pencil condenser on the snare; long [AKG] C28s on the tom‑toms; either [Neumann] 67s or [AKG] C12as for overheads; and, on the hi‑hat, whatever directional mic they had there. Then, for the bass, I would have had a DI as well as a 67 on Dee's Ampeg cabinet, while a C12a would have been on the guitar amp along with two 67s on the piano and a 67 for Elton's vocals.
"The songs were recorded in about two weeks. We did all of the backing tracks, all of the guitar overdubs, any obvious keyboard overdubs, and all of the lead and backing vocals. Davey, Dee and Nigel were a fantastic unit. They had three completely different voices, but because they'd been doing it so long they had this blend going and it was just incredible. I'd put the track up beforehand and we'd work out the parts together in the control room, with me chucking in a few notes for harmony. Most of the time, however, they would naturally fall into the right parts — it was quite extraordinary — and then we'd double or quadruple them while a couple of the guys might change some of the parts around so that the same voices weren't doubled. There'd be different voices doubling the same parts to make the whole thing sound thicker, and we'd just bounce them down as we went along.
"Given that we were limited to 16-track, the bass drum would have been recorded on its own track while the rest of the drum parts were mixed together on two others. The piano would have been stereo, the bass guitar would have been on one track and the guitars on another four. So, we had to be quite prudent in terms of our use of tracks, especially since we had to leave space for the overdubbing of orchestral parts back in England.”
If Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has a theme, it is one of nostalgia for the simpler pleasures and experiences of a pre-fame childhood. Not that this childhood necessarily belonged to Elton Hercules John. Certainly, he may have shared Bernie Taupin's yearning for old-style Hollywood glamour, as represented by the yellow brick road that led to the Emerald City in 1939's epic movie The Wizard Of Oz starring Judy Garland. However, since Elton grew up in the London suburb of Pinner, it was somewhat incongruous for the title track to feature him singing, "I should have stayed on the farm” and "I'm going back to my plough”. Instead, just as 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting' referenced memories of the Aston Arms pub in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, where Bernie used to hang out in his teens, so 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' alluded to his humble beginnings as the son of a farmer.
"I don't think it was about disillusionment [with] fame,” he'd later comment regarding the number that is one of Elton's signature songs. "I think it was more about this battle I had about being the sort of country kid coming to town. Being originally a little out of my depth, it was sort of the Dick Whittington tale. You know, the country kid going to the big city. But at the same time, yes, I think it could have been the all-encompassing world of fame... It could be rock & roll. Is it everything it's cracked up to be? Possibly not.”
Elton John's brilliance lay not only in the music that he blended with Taupin's lyrics after initially noodling on the piano for a chord sequence and hitting upon the distinctive intro. It is also evident in his singing, seamlessly alternating between head and chest voices to take possession of the song and make the sentiments sound straight from the heart. To quote Allmusic's Stewart Mason, "it's very likely his single finest vocal moment, one that creates shivers every single time.”
"One of the secrets in his piano playing was his ability to think [about] where the vocal was going to lay against the track and then put in certain piano lines which would link the lines together vocally,” Gus Dudgeon stated in the Classic Albums documentary while appraising the singing of the title song. "The vocal sounds like it's sped up. I don't know why he did it; he just went out and sang in a sort of sped‑up voice. A lot of people have asked me if I sped the tape up, but in fact it's not sped‑up, it's just the weird way that he decided to do it. That's Elton.”
"As with everything, he did his vocals very quickly,” adds David Hentschel who, after leaving Trident in 1974, wrote the theme music for the films Educating Rita and Operation Daybreak; established one of LA's first dedicated MIDI studios while living there in the mid-'80s; and is currently part of a four-man transatlantic production team. "There was no comping. We might patch up or do a verse again, but there was very little compression or fiddling about. Elton just did it. Again, this goes back to being in the zone and concentrating. He's a thorough professional. When he sang, all of the expression and dynamics were taken care of. It was unbelievable, really.
"Then again, Gus Dudgeon was a very personable man with a huge knowledge of music. His love of music was infectious and he was all about creating a good environment and making sure everyone was happy. He was an absolute master at getting the best results by knowing how to treat the musicians and others he was working with.
"The only thing that caused a problem on 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' was the effects pedal that Davey used on that song. It may have been a Mu-Tron and it produced these incredible transients. We didn't see them with the equipment that we had, but when we mastered the track we had terrible trouble with it distorting because of all the hidden transients in this bloody guitar. It was double-tracked left and right and the cutting lathes didn't like it at all. It was extremely difficult to master to disc anything that was really, really quiet, so we actually had to go back and remix it and use some very judicious limiting.
"The mix was done at Trident and the equipment there wasn't all that sophisticated either. Whereas the château only had a couple of UA LA2A compressors, a UA 1176 limiter and not even a graphic equaliser, we had a few more limiters and compressors at Trident, as well as some graphic EQs and a couple of EMT plates, but that was about it. The orchestral overdubs, Ray Cooper's percussion, some little bits of guitar and my synth part on 'Funeral For A Friend' were recorded in the famous live room there using the custom Trident A-range console and 16‑track 3M tape machine, and then we went upstairs to mix the whole thing on the old 20-input Sound Techniques desk.”
Widely regarded as Elton John's best album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is certainly his most popular record, having notched up worldwide sales in excess of 31 million copies after topping the US chart for eight weeks in 1973. It also went to Number One in the UK, where the title track peaked at number six. In America, it reached number two.
"It was magic,” Elton John recalled nearly 30 years later. "That time in my life, that creative period will never, ever come back again. You search for it and you try to say, 'Oh, it would be great to do,' but it'll never happen like that again. It was a special time.” .
Borrowing from a line in 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' — "It'll take you a couple of vodka and tonics to set you on your feet again” — one of the album's working titles was Vodka & Tonics. Another was Silent Movies, Talking Pictures, and it was with this in mind that Gus Dudgeon originally intended to open the record with the type of Twentieth Century Fox‑style signature music that precedes the start of each film. Then, when the necessary licensing couldn't be obtained to use such music, something else had to be added to the front of the opening track, 'Funeral For A Friend', which segues into 'Love Lies Bleeding'.
"Gus and I talked about it,” David Hentschel recalls, "and he said, 'Well, this synthesizer thing seems to be working. We did 'Rocket Man' — why don't you see if you can come up with an idea that's a sort of overture for the whole double album? We'll try to have it run into 'Funeral For A Friend'. So, make it a part of that, but also make it sound like an overture.'
"I therefore went away with a rough mix of 'Funeral For A Friend', thought about it for a couple of days and came up with these oblique, three‑note references to other songs on the album; 'Candle In The Wind' being one and 'The Ballad Of Danny Bailey' being another. I created a funereal, atmospheric kind of piece and recorded it on the 16-track at Trident with the ARP 2500.
"Elton only heard it when it was finished. For a start, 15 years before MIDI I couldn't run up a demo of it. I wrote a chart and played it monophonically part by part. You'd get many more dynamics that way — with this machine you could play up to three notes, but you'd get no internal dynamics whatsoever. So, I did all of the parts separately and had one hand on a pot while I played with the other hand just to get the dynamics. No one could have heard it until it was actually finished. I did it in one day.”
"Half of the time you're flying by the seat of your pants in virtually any situation,” Gus Dudgeon told me in 1998 when we were discussing his production techniques. "Happy accidents happen all the time. You just think, 'Oh, wow, where did that come from?'
"A classic example was 'Bennie & The Jets'. That was never intended to be live and it was never discussed at any point during the recording. First of all, when I saw the lyrics I thought it was going to be an out-and-out rock & roll thing, so when it turned out to have this quirky sort of jump feel I thought, 'How bizarre.' That kind of threw me a bit, and then we were doing the mix at Trident and it just so happened that [on the tape] Elton struck a chord an exact four beats before the downbeat of the actual song, which was not something that he had ever done before, and I initially hadn't even noticed it. I suppose it was in place of a count-in, and while I was doing the mix I was just about to mute that piano part off the front when it suddenly occurred to me that every time I played the tape it made me think of something; it made me think of somebody on a stage trying to cue a band as they're about to start playing a song. This flashed into my mind and I thought, 'Hey, wait a minute, let's try something.'
"We basically threw slap-back tape echo onto everything so that it sounded more like it was in a concert hall, and then I said, 'Oh, let's get some applause in,' and so we dragged in some applause from Jimi Hendrix At The Isle Of Wight along with crowd sounds from Elton at the Royal Festival Hall several years earlier. Then David Hentschel, our assistant Peter Kelsey and I went into the little vocal overdub booth next to the mix room to overdub whistling, hand claps and foot-stomping onto the wrong beat to simulate a British audience, and slowly converted it into a 'live' song. I didn't even say to Elton, 'What do you think?' I just got on with it, and so the first time he heard it like that he went, 'Bloody hell, how did you do that?' It's not that clever, actually; it's dead basic, but it sort of paid off somehow. Those things happen all the time...”
Released in the United States as the third single from the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album following 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting' and the title track, 'Bennie & The Jets' became Elton John's second American chart‑topper.
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