"Those were crazy times. I wouldn’t change it for the world": how Goodbye Yellow Brick Road reinforced Elton John's status as a global superstar

Elton John in a flamboyant stage outfit of white suit with feather trim and rhinestone encrusted glasses, circa 1973.
(Image credit: Terry O'Neill / Iconic Images)


‘There were several roads nearby, but it did not take Dorothy long to find the one paved with yellow bricks. Within a short time, she was walking briskly toward the Emerald City; her silver shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow roadbed.’ - The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, 1900

July 1973. It can now be confirmed. Elton John’s rocket ship has officially left Earth’s atmosphere. His latest hit-laden album, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, released at the start of the year, is his second in a row to top the charts in both Britain and America. Now his uncharacteristically barnstorming new single Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting is in the UK Top 10, and Elton is on his way to becoming an authentic rock god – bigger than The Beatles; stranger than the Stones; more glitter than Gary. 

The transformation begun when Crocodile Rock, already a hit in the UK, gave him his first US No.1 single in February. In Britain, just 12 months before, Elton was still a one-hit wonder known for Your Song. In America his fame was more widespread but still anchored in bearded singer-songwriter mode, respectfully bespectacled crooner of Your Song and its more knowing companion Tiny Dancer

Saturday Night’s Alright is his fifth major hit since Rocket Man unlocked the doors to the world’s singles charts the previous summer. Resulting TV appearances sporting ever more bizarre eyewear and a no-limits attitude to on-stage costumery unseen since the diamond daze of Liberace have transformed public perception of the singer from earnest musical artisan to glammed-up, arena-headlining rock star. 

Elton John is 26 and will never be so high again. High in the charts, high on the recent launch of his own record label, Rocket Records, high on his new name, now legally changed to Elton Hercules John. (Hercules because it was the name of the horse in the TV sitcom Steptoe And Son and Elton was a fan, true story.) Soon to be even higher on a new grand passion: cocaine. 

Inside, though, he is still chubby four-eyed Reggie Dwight, the insecure closeted teen from a broken home. As he confessed in his 2019 memoir, Me, despite becoming the biggest-selling star in the world in the early 70s, he was always filled with “self-loathing”. 

“There was no solitude, no reflection,” he confessed. “I was still the little boy from Pinner Hill Road underneath it all.” Nobody would have guessed it from seeing him on Top Of The Pops, dressed in spangly bovver boots and braces, pounding on the piano on Saturday Night’s Alright like Jerry Lee Lewis on black-and-white TV in 1957.

That single is up to No.7, and even butch Slade and Mott The Hoople fans are stomping their platforms and shaking out their dandruff to it. No one believes for a second that Elton is really a bottlewielding brawler with ‘a bellyful of beer’ any more than they believe his mate Marc Bolan is really a magic elf. But these are still the smoke-filled days when you must fight for your right to be on the UK’s biggest TV music show. You might be David Bowie with Life On Mars, but you are more likely to be Alvin Stardust with My Coo Ca Choo. Elton John wishes to appeal to both sets of fans.

Now his wish is coming true. His real journey has finally begun. He’s travelling the yellow brick road, destination: Emerald City, where everything is the colour of bejewelled greenbacks.


Elton John may have reinvented himself as a singles star, but everyone knew it was his albums where the real treasure was to be found. He’d never made a bad one, had the gold records in America to show for it. Now the unexpected leap from the gloomy prog-rock of Madman Across the Water in 1971 to the swaggering confidence of the glorious Honky Château in ’72 had led to a brace of multimillion-selling albums and no less than five multimillion-selling singles in the space of barely a year. 

With that journey leaving him so completely at ease in his new, more elevated role as rock star with a capital ‘R’, Elton now felt he could turn his hand to anything his writing partner Bernie Taupin’s lyrics suggested. 

His backing group – 22-year-old guitarist Davey Johnstone, 27-yearold bassist Dee Murray and 24-yearold drummer Nigel Olsson, soon to be formally named the Elton John Band – had a sound as instantly identifiable as T.Rex or Rod Stewart. His US label, MCA, thought he’d shit the bed when Saturday Night’s Alright made only No.12 there. But the message got through. This was no longer weepy James Taylor-style soul-searching, this was rock’n’roll genocide à la The Who and Led Zeppelin

Outwardly, Elton was on a roll. Inwardly he feared it might all just blow away any second. The only safeguard was to keep going and see how far his new ruby slippers could take him. To that end he had released five albums in the past three years. He had also already recorded the 17 songs that would comprise his seventh, from which Saturday Night’s Alright was the first track to be launched like a fireball. 

However, when he announced that his next album would be a double, enigmatically titled Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, there was a sharp intake of breath. You had to admire the audacity, but surely a sturdy third to complete a Honky Château-Don’t Shoot Me triptych was the right move. MCA certainly thought so. But Elton knew better. The Beatles, he pointed out, “did the White Album and now we’ll have our double too”.

A double album in 1973 was more than an artistic statement, it was a status symbol, a collection demanding everybody’s attention. Only rock giants made double albums. Bob Dylan had framed the conversation in 1966 with Blonde On Blonde, as Jimi Hendrix would do in ’68 with Electric Ladyland. The Rolling Stones followed suit in ’72 with Exile On Main St. All stone-cold classics. Conferring the kind of cachet no amount of money can buy. 

Now Elton wanted his music to be exalted in the same way. Only one caveat: if you were going to release a double album in 1973, it had better be better than good. It had better be fucking good. 

Yet Elton denied he was under pressure. “It felt like there was an unstoppable momentum behind me,” he said.

Elton John, Marc Bolan and Ringo Starr in 1973

Elton John, Marc Bolan and Ringo Starr in 1973 (Image credit: Michael Putland / Avalon)

When Elton and his travelling band arrived in Kingston, Jamaica in January 1973 to begin working on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, they looked on it as an adventure. It wasn’t until they arrived that the scale of that ultimately doomed enterprise sunk in. 

Byron Lee’s Dynamic Sounds Studio was a 180-degree turn from the elegant confines of the Château d’Hérouville where he’d made both Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me. The 18th-century Château was situated in lush French countryside 40 miles north of Paris. Converted into a state-of-the-art 16-track residential recording facility in 1969 by the French experimental composer Michel Magne, it boasted 30 rooms, outbuildings, a swimming pool and a tennis court. Gourmet meals would be prepared every night by the resident chef, and fine wines procured from local vineyards. 

Dynamic Sounds, once the home of Bob Marley’s Wailers, Toots And The Maytals and other herbaceous reggae pioneers, was a hot, dusty compound full of out-of-date gear and unsettling vibes. Producer Gus Dudgeon had ordered a raft of new equipment to be ready for when they arrived, but it never showed up. Elton’s grand piano didn’t arrive either, and the cobwebby old studio piano was a joke. The disconcertingly downcast mood was not helped by the facility having 24-hour armed guards patrolling the barbed wire perimeter. 

Elton and entourage had arrived the morning after George Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier at Kingston’s National Stadium in two brutal rounds for the boxing heavyweight championship of the world. Violence hung heavy over the city for days afterwards. With every hotel overflowing, Elton found himself billeted at the Pink Flamingo Hotel, in the middle of teeming Kingston, while everybody else was taken to a luxurious resort location across the island in Ocho Rios.

Elton was too terrified to step outside the hotel. When news arrived that Don’t Shoot Me had gone to No.1 in America, a celebration dinner was arranged at the Pink Flamingo. But Elton refused to join, and sulked in his room. 

When he arrived for the first day’s recording at Dynamic to find Gus and the band still trying to figure out how to make things work, it was the last straw. The vibes, man, they did not augur. “It’s hard to see how they could have been,” said Bernie Taupin, “with guards holding machine-guns outside the door.”

Elton returned in a huff to the Pink Flamingo and didn’t come out again for three days. Unable to sit still without worrying, he worked through a stack of new lyrics from Bernie. Dozens of sheets, neatly typed, that he sat alone in his room and wrote music for on a portable electric piano. By the morning of the fourth day he had 21 new songs, with titles including Bennie And The Jets, Candle In The Wind, Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. They just needed to be recorded. 

Once it became clear that wouldn’t be happening at Dynamic, they fled to New York, chased to the airport by various shady Jamaican ‘business figures’, many of whom carried guns. 

Better news awaited. The Château was available, opened again after a temporary closure. Recording began the moment they arrived back in France. Two weeks later they were done. 

“It was insane,” guitarist Davey Johnstone recalled when we spoke. “We were this factory, songwriting and recording together. As soon as we recorded it and released it, we’d take it straight out on tour. In the States especially it was just this giant unstoppable juggernaut.”

With a 35-date summer US tour booked to begin in August, first single Saturday Night’s Alright was released in July, the perfect crowd teaser. The clincher came in September with the second single, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The cathedral-like title track of the forthcoming album was Elton John and Bernie Taupin at their bitter-sweetest, their most sepulchral yet somehow uplifting. Their giddy peak. Bernie using his countryside upbringing to characterise London life as a place ‘where the dogs of society howl’, all the while dreaming of ‘going back to my plough’. 

Half a century later it would be the last song Elton chose to sing every night on his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, elegiac and pure. Bernie’s undisguised autobiography having evolved into Elton’s musical epitaph, the yellow brick road the symbol of his journey from smalltown Pinner to big-time pop stardom.

The rest of the album was a jamboree of familiar Taupin tropes – mythmaking American yarns (Roy Rodgers; The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)); his parochial childhood, but with a new twist (Saturday Night’s Alright was less about horny-backed toads and more about the dodgy Lincolnshire dancehalls of his teens); the pitfalls of Hollyweird fame (Candle In The Wind: the working title of the album Silent Movies, Talking Pictures); and the sometimes coarse nature of love (the achingly poignant I’ve Seen That Movie Too). 

There was also some of the most juvenile material Bernie had ever asked Elton to put music and voice to: the grungy Dirty Little Girl, about, well, an ardent but unhygienic fan; Social Disease, the everyday tale of a bibulous tenant humping his landlady; Sweet Painted Lady, about a sailor’s favourite port-in-a-storm prostitute; All The Girls Love Alice, about a wistful teenage lesbian dreaming of ‘two dykes in a go-go’. 

“It is a pretty blue record,” Bernie reflected years later. “I was a young kid, a horny twenty-three-year-old, among a lot of other horny twenty-somethings… I was basically writing about my fantasies at the time.” 

There was also the ‘problematic’ to modern tastes Jamaica Jerk-Off, Elton chirruping in a faux ‘islands’ accent over a white-bread reggae lilt. But then Paul Simon, who recorded his 1972 hit Mother And Child Reunion at Dynamic the year before, had been similarly ‘inspired’. As was Mick Jagger when the Stones churned out their own ‘reggae-influenced’ track Luxury, also recorded at Dynamic.

On a double album comprised of 17 tracks, however, these were flimsy side salads adjacent on the plate to the juicy steaks of reputation-crowning moments like the 11-minute opus Funeral for A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, a synth-laden prog overture that slowly builds into a bonfire of blazing cut-glass guitars, strategically detonating drums and a rhythmic hook so heavy it draws blood. 

Next up, Candle in The Wind, Bernie’s eulogy to Marylin Monroe and one of Elton’s finest ever ballads, Johnstone’s guitar motif twinkling like the neon ooze of Sunset Strip at night. Another hit single in the UK in February ’74, at first it wasn’t released in America, where MCA surprisingly chose the jokey Bennie And The Jets instead. 

Elton was not happy. “I said ‘No, I want Candle In The Wind’. Guess who was wrong?” 

For Elton, Candle In The Wind was class; Bennie And The Jets was throwaway. But when two R&B radio stations in Detroit started playing it and saw their listenership skyrocket, MCA made it Elton’s next single. The result, in April 1974, was his second American No.1 single, selling more than two million copies. 

On Bennie, the deliberate-mistake piano intro had prompted Dudgeon to, as he put it, “fake-live this”. Mixing in audience sounds from Elton’s show at London’s Royal Festival Hall a year before, along with audience crackle from Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, and some ambient mayhem from an Elton show in Vancouver, it would become the second most famous song on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Other album highlights: Grey Seal, originally a fey B-side to Elton’s 1970 flop single Rock And Roll Madonna, now reborn as a Bowie-meets-Beatles showstopper; the harum-scarum Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock’n’Roll); saving the best for last, almost, with the gorgeously swooning closer Harmony. Any of these could have been hit singles, and ift his had been the CD-driven 80s they would have been. But these were still the two-vinyl-LPs-a-year 70s, and Elton had already recorded his next album, Caribou, due out just nine months after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. There simply wasn’t time for more singles.

Released in October 1973, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road again topped both the UK and US charts (in the latter for eight consecutive weeks). As befitting its double-album eminence, it came in a lavish gatefold sleeve designed by illustrator and children’s novelist Ian Beck: the cartoon image of a stack-heeled Elton stepping from a down-at-heel city onto a yellow brick road winding towards a sun that was either rising or setting depending on your mood. 

The Goodbye Yellow Brick Road US tour was conducted from the same private Boeing 720B that Led Zeppelin had toured in that summer, the now infamous Starship. It had the words ‘ELTON JOHN BAND TOUR’ now emblazoned down one side of its red, white and blue fuselage, and came fitted with luxury leather lounge seats, proper dinner tables, a pseudo-electric coal fire, a fully stocked bar and TV lounge and – très chic, dear – a new-fangled video player. 

On board was also an electric Thomas organ, which Elton studiously ignored, and, in a rear cabin, a king-sized double bed covered in shaggy white fur which nobody slept in but many guests enjoyed. Unless Elton was having one of his tantrums. Then he would disappear in there for however long it took for him to calm down again. 

In a group photograph taken standing in front of his new floating palace, a wonderfully camp Elton is seen in a white-and-turquoise jumpsuit, a wide-brimmed Panama hat cheerfully atop his head, wielding a soul-brother ebony cane. Surrounded by a vast entourage of tour technicians, record label bigwigs, assistants, gofers,the four-man Muscle Shoals horn section, manager and lover John Reid, plus the band and singer Kiki Dee, recently signed to Elton’s label Rocket, who Davey was “having a scene with”. 

Exactly three years on from his breakthrough shows at the tiny Troubadour club in LA, Elton now headlined the Hollywood Bowl and the Long Beach Arena on consecutive nights. Two weeks after that he headlined New York’s Madison Square Garden for the first time. If Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, in all its versions – single-album-allegory-hymn – is about transcending humdrum reality, then the American tour, which ran until October, found Elton’s life transformed entirely into fantasy.

It was the same for Bernie, who toured with Elton. He didn’t need to, he wanted to. Bernie had been deeply in love with America since he was a child gaping at The Lone Ranger on TV. Most of his songs were about, or set in, or have characters from, or cultural references, dreamscapes and an almost cinematic sense of the real – in America. That America now loved him too was so far over the rainbow for Bernie that he would have trouble coming back. 

It was the same for the band and everyone else rocking in the clouds on the Starship. But while everyone else had a way to turn the volume down a notch if they wanted to – the band idled in peace; Bernie walked unmolested – Elton couldn’t escape any of it for a second. He sang, he wrote, he performed, he did all the press, all the TV and radio, all the business meetings. His was the face everyone knew. Now it had become a human shield for everybody’s bad behaviour but his own. 

“We weren’t angels, but we didn’t get dragged into the spotlight because Elton took the heat for all that,” Davey Johnstone told me frankly. “We did a lot of music together and had a lot of fun together too. A lot of fun.” 

He chuckled. “I’ve got to tell you. I can’t say that it was terrible. Waking up with a hangover after being up for two days was a nightmare. But we were young enough to be able to wake up and go: ‘I’m going to sleep for the next day so I’m okay for what’s coming up.’ But those were crazy times. I wouldn’t change it for the world.” 

In December 1973, Elton finished a 13-date UK tour on a triumphant note with three sold-out shows at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. It coincided nicely with his surprise novelty single Step Into Christmas sharing the Top 10 that week with other soon-to-be-perennial cool Yule classics like Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody and Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. For Elton John, for now, it felt like it was.

Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.