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Retro Rewind: “Captain Fantastic…” by Elton John

Captain Fantastic Album Cover

Captain Fantastic | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Sir Elton John and Bernie Taupin have had a long and fruitful songwriting partnership together. Since 1967, the duo has collaborated on more than 30 albums, writing such classic hits as “I’m Still Standing,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Your Song,” and “Rocket Man.”

One of these albums, a 1975 release, set out to tell the tale of John and Taupin’s early music careers, and in the eyes of its audience, it succeeded.

That record is the concept album “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” Released as John’s ninth album on May 19, 1975, one single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” arrived a month later.

“Captain Fantastic” became the first album in history to debut at the top of the Billboard 200 chart and it held that position for seven straight weeks.

The artist

Raised in London, Sir Elton John is one of the world’s best selling artists, having sold over 300 million records. John has released a total of 30 studio albums, four collaborative albums, and ten soundtracks between 1969 and 2019, and is currently on a farewell tour around the world.

More than 50 hits in the Top 40 charts of the U.K. and the U.S. can be credited to John, and he also released the best-selling single in both countries, “Candle in the Wind 1997.”

John’s list of awards is expansive and includes a knighthood, five Grammy Awards, two Academy Awards, a Tony Award, and a Kennedy Center Honor. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. The artist was also the subject of the biopic “Rocketman,” which was released in 2019 and featured Taron Egerton as John.

The tracklist

Side one of the album begins with the title track, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” which revisits the beginning of the partnership between John (Captain Fantastic) and Taupin (the Brown Dirt Cowboy).

“Tower of Babel” references the effort that the duo had to put in to reap their rewards, and the song features some of Taupin’s finest lyricism on the album. “Bitter Fingers” contains a grand piano part that continues into an enormously catchy chorus, and talks about the pressure to write hit songs that Taupin and John had to bear.

“Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” deals with Taupin being uncomfortable with city life, while “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is rooted in an engagement John felt trapped in and his subsequent suicide attempt.

John was talked out of the engagement by fellow musician and friend Long John Baldry, who is the “someone” the song refers to.

The record’s second side starts with “(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket,” which is a fast-paced jam about envy and jealousy towards those who were making it in the music industry when John and Taupin were starting their careers.

“Better Off Dead” is based on the duo’s experiences when visiting bars after recording. “Writing” is a song about writing a song and trying to become a better songwriter.

“We All Fall in Love Sometimes” focuses on the working relationship between John and Taupin, and the song segues into “Curtains,” which provides a gorgeous finale to the album.

The production

“Captain Fantastic” is a concept album that peers into the careers of John and Taupin between 1967 and 1970, which is when John broke through to the masses with his first hit single, “Your Song.” The music for the album was written by John on a transatlantic voyage between the U.K. and New York.

“Elton decided to take everybody on the boat to New York, and then we would go to Caribou Ranch out in Colorado to record,” percussionist Ray Cooper said. “His idea, which worked perfectly, was that he would write the material on the boat. We went on the SS France, and it turned out to be the last voyage of that ship. He had a suite with a grand piano, and he wrote all the material for ‘Captain Fantastic’ on that boat trip, which was six days. Go figure that one!”

Caribou Ranch Studios was indeed the site of recording for John and his band. The group spent almost a month working on “Captain Fantastic” at the studio. Gus Dudgeon, the album’s producer, praised John, his band, and the recordings heavily, saying “there’s not one song on it that’s less than incredible.”

John agreed with this praise. “I’ve always thought that ‘Captain Fantastic’ was probably my finest album because it wasn’t commercial in any way,” he explained in a 2006 interview with Cameron Crowe. “We did have songs such as ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight,’ which is one of the best songs that Bernie and I have ever written together, but whether a song like that could be a single these days, since it’s [more than] six minutes long, is questionable. ‘Captain Fantastic’ was written from start to finish in running order, as a kind of story about coming to terms with failure—or trying desperately not to be one. We lived that story.”

The album’s artwork was designed by Alan Aldridge and is partly based on Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

What critics thought of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”

Music journalist Robert Christgau gave “Captain Fantastic” a B in a 1975 review from “Christgau’s Consumer Guide.”

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing for All Music, said that with this album, each of the subjects was “at the peak of his power, as John crafts supple, elastic, versatile pop and Taupin’s inscrutable wordplay is evocative, even moving.”

“Captain Fantastic” is also a favorite of Vic Vela, news host for Colorado Public Radio, Denver’s NPR affiliate.

“This is one of those ‘stranded on a desert island’ albums for me,” Vela said. “It’ll always have a special place in my heart. For starters, it was recorded in Nederland, Colorado, a little mountain community outside of Boulder that maybe had about 700 residents at the time. So just picture Elton John – who was the world’s biggest rock star during that time – hanging out in little old Nederland. It’s a romantic vision.”

“If you are a fan of Elton’s voice, then it doesn’t get much better than ‘Captain Fantastic’. This was Elton in his prime. The harmonies have a very ‘Pet Sounds’ kinda feel to them at times; very Crosby, Stills, and Nash-sounding, reach-for-the-heavens harmonies,” said Vela.

In 2003, “Captain Fantastic” was ranked by Rolling Stone at number 158 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

What I think of the album

John, Taupin, and the rest of their crew really hit it out of the park with this one. I would have to agree with Dudgeon by saying that every song on this album is stellar, and my personal favorite tracks on the album would have to be “Bitter Fingers,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and “We All Fall in Love Sometimes.”

It’s filled with fast-paced and catchy tunes that are guaranteed to catch the ear, as well as slower songs rooted deep in the personal lives of its subjects.

Interesting grooves and lasting melodies are delivered throughout the tracklist; those grooves and melodies will definitely wriggle their way into the brain and slam the door behind them.

“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” leads the listener through its subjects’ early careers with unbounded grace and passion, and the final product is an incredibly cohesive and beautiful experience.