Saturday, December 11, 2010

Your Song, Elton John (1970)

I've resisted and resisted it, but the time has come when I must write about Your Song. For probably a year I've been trying to find any other output of Elton John's to write about - and there could be many candidates - but the truth is no Elton John song has ever affected me as pervasively as this one did. John's first true hit in America, it was - and is - the one song I most closely associate with falling seriously in love for the first time.

Your Song came out at precisely that moment when both of us were trying to pretend that we weren't really that important to each other. I was going away to college; he was staying home. It didn't seem like a recipe for success. Plus we were both weird and hung up. Falling in love, while exciting and an important rite of passage, was risky and made us very uneasy. 

Nonetheless, we did get together, and were a couple all through college and a year thereafter. But Your Song wasn't "our song," not by a long shot. It always had to be appreciated in the shadows, because my boyfriend loathed sentimentality, at least in music. So while we were both music aficionados - the more avant-garde the better - and following music was a significant way in which we bonded, Your Song was strictly my song. I doubt he was ever aware that I loved it and spent much time emoting and exercising my vocal cords over it - much less felt it represented anything pertinent to our lives. If I'd told him what it meant to me, I just knew he would have had a bad reaction.

But that's pretty crazy, when you think about it, so I'm coming out of the Your Song closet, as it were.  I have no earthly idea whether I was right about how he would have felt about it. So I will state it unequivocally for the record - Your Song is one of the most elegant, beautiful and heartfelt songs ever written or sung - at least during that era - about what it's like to have profound romantic feelings for another person when you're young and idealistic, and to feel "how wonderful life is while you're in the world."

A song carrying John's melodious, multi-layered tenor and piano virtuosity, along with the song's orchestral arrangement, made it a notable departure from what was usual for the time. Longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin made the first of what would be decades of appearances contributing unforgettable lyrics. But this wasn't a case, as so many are, of two childhood friends realizing their dream of fame and fortune. 

No, the stars merely aligned in 1967 when piano prodigy Reginald Dwight, who'd been playing since the age of 3 (he was later classically trained), and teenager Taupin, who had a way with words, were matched up by a British record label, Liberty Records. Liberty had placed an ad in England's music newspaper, New Musical Express, seeking songwriters. What the two had in common was a voracious appreciation for music of all genres. (Taupin has said Marty Robbins' El Paso was the catalyst for becoming a songwriter in the first place.) 

Initially they wrote for other artists, and John would sing on their demos. One such group was Three Dog Night, who generally performed songs written by outside songwriters. Until now, I did not realize that they recorded Your Song first (it was on their 1970 LP It Ain't Easy), but did not release it as a single, which cleared the way for John to have a hit with it the same year.   

Interestingly, the first artist to take a John-Taupin composition into the top 50 of Billboard's Hot 100 was Aretha Franklin. She and John had dueling versions of his Border Song but Aretha's version actually charted higher. (Here they are performing it together in 1993; I didn't know they had any connection at all until now.)

To say that the John-Taupin collaboration has been a fertile one is, of course, an understatement. No blog post can encapsulate all that has transpired since those early days, and how many lives they've touched with their respective musical talents. Someday, they should collaborate on the Broadway musical of their lives - now that would be a blockbuster.


Holly A Hughes said...

No surprise -- I too am a closet "Your Song" fan. For several years I kept on buying Elton's records, waiting for the magic to hit a second time. It never did, though he churned out several plausible attempts (Rocket Man, if it hadn't been such a rip-off of Space Oddity; Daniel, which turned saccharine with repeated plays; and just possibly Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters or We All Fall in Love Sometimes). I suspect Your Song wins out because -- like you -- I heard it at the right time in my life; it was also early enough that he was still curbing his fatal weakness for bombast. This track still brings back the person I was then with a heady rush. Thanks for paying it tribute!

Melissa said...

I'm also a "Your Song" fan - but not through Elton John; rather, from Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge. Again, another great example of how a song from "your" generation is made relevant and resurfaces to someone from my generation. I saw Moulin Rouge in the theaters and remember loving it -- while a few other moviegoers actually walked out of the showing. I immediately had to find the songs (on Napster probably!) and listened to them over and over again. To this day, I associate this song with that movie. If you're not familiar with the Ewan McGregor version, the video's online: