Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
No matter how far out the pianist/singer takes things on this classic double album bursting with fresh ideas, drummer Nigel Olsson adds just the right touch.
Elton John’s landmark 1973 album feels more like a career-spanning, seventeen-track “best of” collection than a batch of songs written, recorded, and mixed in a fevered seventeen-day burst. As often happens, the increased pressure raised everyone’s game.
Like many of rock’s great four-siders of yore, the album is a grab bag of styles. Side four’s opening one-two punch of “Your Sister Can’t Twist (but She Can Rock ’n’ Roll)” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” bears the mark of a scrappy young artist fresh out of the bars. The eleven-minute album-opening suite, “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” sounds as if we’re catching up with the artist a few years down the line to find him exploring more sophisticated song forms, steeped in dynamics and tension. Then elsewhere we get the lilting “Jamaica Jerk-Off” (dig the early example of playing over a drum-machine groove) and the country-tinged ballad “Roy Rogers,” where perhaps it’s a few more years down the line and John is just having a laugh seeing how far out he can take things.
This is music that felt classier than so much of the blues-rooted guitar rock of the day. It needed a drummer who could lock in with John’s piano, not the other way around. John’s keys (not to mention his voice and heavenly melodies) are the thing here. Elton had long channeled his love of American roots music through his piano-based compositions, and that piano provides the key rhythmic link between Nigel Olsson, bassist Dee Murray, and guitarist Davey Johnstone. The songs, by John and lyricist Bernie Taupin, don’t feel as though they were assembled from the bottom up, like traditional rock. Rather, they’re rooted in Elton’s piano. And that results in a unique vibe.
Olsson displays an empathetic ear and incredible feel for that musical chain of command on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, particularly on the ballads. In many ways his impeccable playing on songs like the title track and “Candle in the Wind” establishes a blueprint for rock ballad drumming to follow. Olsson manages to play a starring and supportive role on the slow numbers, showing restraint when in the pocket and boldness when it comes time to fill (check out the measure-long beauties on “Candle” and the tasty hesitations and pauses during his licks in “Goodbye”), and he always enters and exits with grace. Behind the ragtime-shaded piano chords of the languid “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” he employs an arrow-straight feel in the verses, then swings ever so slightly in the choruses as John’s vocal cadence grows a little looser. It’s a subtle shift that takes the song to another place.
When the tracks rock a little harder, Olsson works the grooves with a firm hand that isn’t overwhelming. Note how free and easy the shuffle feels on “All the Girls Love Alice,” as Olsson’s kick pattern plays off Johnstone’s guitar part and lets the steady quarter notes of Murray’s bass and John’s piano push things along. Olsson whips some serious grime into “Dirty Little Girl” with a behind-the-beat thump that builds in intensity with the piano as the song progresses. And time has shown that some of Nigel’s most straightforward parts—“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” isn’t rocket science, but it sure does the trick—are as memorable as any drumming performances from the classic-rock canon.
A light cymbal touch. Throughout the many changes and dynamic swells in “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” Nigel Olsson digs in while exercising great restraint with crashes. Without the cymbal wash and overtones gumming up the frequencies—and with a fairly low cymbal level overall—the sonic space is wide open for all those moving parts to blow minds.
A great little rhythm section. With a few records and lots of touring under their belts by the time of the Yellow Brick Road sessions, Elton John on piano, Dee Murray on bass, and Olsson on drums make a tight rhythm section. “Grey Seal” is a perfect example of their collective proficiency. They hit all the accents in the choppy verses without busying up the groove too much, and the surge they achieve by going to double time in the chorus feels totally natural.
Funky stuff. “Bennie and the Jets” landed John on Soul Train and on Billboard’s soul chart for good reason—the track is funky. Olsson’s slow and steady groove provides the perfect pulse for John’s iconic glam-soul hybrid, and the song is a rapper’s delight, being covered by the Beastie Boys and Biz Markie and sampled by Frank Ocean, among others.