4 August 2021    |    Music

Iain’s musings on Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

A few Mondays ago, my day off, I had time on my hands with nothing to do. Time to relax and listen to some tunes. I flicked through the record collection and pulled out Captain Fantastic, a long-time favourite recording and something to chill to with a mug of tea on a rare quiet afternoon.

The stylus hit the groove, I cranked the volume up and something quite miraculous happened. I was hearing the album like I’d never heard it before. The size of the soundstage and the quality of the recording just jumped out at me and made me smile. Revisiting the album again and again in recent weeks it all became apparent what was happening.

The album is a concept album which does tell a story. But unlike a lot of that genre, you can break it down into individual tracks which stand alone in free space without the need of their adjoining tunes to make an impact. Elton and Bernie do write a mean song and the collaboration on this album is, in my view, the finest collection front to back. Add in the well-established musicians, most of whom still work with EJ, and you have a fantastic recipe. Dee Murray is solid and effortless on bass, never too far forward but playing a key part. The most remarkable aspect for me is the wonderful piano touch which EJ shows off in spades and the effortless percussion of Nigel Olsson. What you get is a great counter to EJs piano with finesse and power in equal measure but never too much. Guitarist Davey Johnstone, an Edinburgh boy, did the orchestration on the album.

It’s difficult to point to any one standout track because, as I said before, it all just hangs together so well. Everyone knows ‘Someone saved My Life Tonight’ – sublime lyrics beautifully delivered with a great piano sound, drums building in the background to those delightful, underplayed fills which are just perfect. ‘Better off Dead’ opens with a fantastic staccato piano which hooks you in immediately and repeats through the track. Davey backs with great simple guitar with Bass and drums coming in and building the energy. ‘Writing’ has a subtle nod to the guitar sound of the Allman Bros ‘Jessica’ (Top Gear). I had to double check but ‘Jessica was 73 with ‘Writing’ 75′. It could easily have been the other way around. All in all, it’s a cracking American sounding track with a very lazy chilled feel. Overall, there’s a great sense of musicians playing well and playing together with a lyricist who knows his trade. Add in an engineer who was on his game and a graphic artist in the late Alan Aldridge who produced some of the most iconic sleeve work and you have a cracking collaboration.

So, why did it surprise me so much? Well, I had picked up not my original copy but the 2018 remaster taken from the analogue tapes. If you’d like this version, let me know, and I’ll order one in for you.

My reaction when I was putting the album back in its sleeve was, ‘Well, what do I play now to top that’. Ask me nicely and I’ll tell you!