26
May 11

GEORGE MICHAEL AND ELTON JOHN – “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”

Popular145 comments • 14,345 views

#671, 7th December 1991

There are fantastic number one records which are over and done with in two minutes thirty, which is how long “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” takes to hit its chorus. A streamroller chorus, to be sure, given a chest-thumping delivery, but it’s near impossible to care. George Michael at this point was a defensive, self-conscious sort of pop star. He was all-too aware he’d been a teen idol, desperate to be part of the pop establishment at the exact point – poor George! – when that establishment was going ironic or weird or getting cold feet about the half-decade of wholemeal soul-pop it had just served up. He’d catch up in the end, but meanwhile this is a grim trudge of a single: you can hardly hear the song through the sound of mutually slapped backs.

3

Comments

  1. 1
    Pete on 26 May 2011 #

    Wasn’t this an EP? Did it go to No.1 because Freddie Mercury died and they hadn’t got round to a rerelease yet. Was
    a) Elton
    b) George
    publicly out by then.

    All these things seem related in a brain join the dots way, but possibly are post fact reconstructions.

  2. 2
    Tom on 26 May 2011 #

    SOME of the money went to AIDS charities, and yes it’s linked in my brain too. It definitely has the feel of a placeholder.

    George wasn’t out, I think Elton was?

    EP – some confusion with an upcoming 1993 No.1 I think (which may account for the bogus mental link too)

  3. 3
    pink champale on 26 May 2011 #

    “ladies and gentlemen…mr elton john!” the thing is, by 1991 george had already created more far more pop greatness than Elton ever had or would (or George ever would again, unfortunately) so he had no need to be so craven. let’s face it, bringing elton on is only going to make things worse. “ladies and gentleman…mr andrew ridgely” is what we really want.

  4. 4

    Wikipedia says EJ came out as bisexual in 1976, to Rolling Stone*; and by 1988 had publicly stated he was “comfortable being gay”. So very much yes.

    *So admittedly within the fashionable glam penumbra for “being” bi; but nonetheless…

  5. 5
    flahr on 26 May 2011 #

    Oh dear. 2

  6. 6
    Scott M on 26 May 2011 #

    Pete, I think the George Michael EP you might be thinking of comes a couple of years later, but I’ll say no more here. I’ll give this 4.

  7. 7
    JLucas on 26 May 2011 #

    I always assumed this was a cover of an older Elton song. It sounds so dated.

    MEH

  8. 8
    pink champale on 26 May 2011 #

    #2 i’m not sure if he was out before, but he certainly was after the sun’s bizarre and relentless crusade against him a couple of years before. best SHAME claim: that he had cut the tongues out of his guard dogs so they’re barking didn’t disturb him while he was committing ACTS OF SHAME.

  9. 9
    Mark G on 26 May 2011 #

    Ah, thanks, you at number 6.

    This was what it was, no more and no less.

  10. 10
    Cumbrian on 26 May 2011 #

    A re-tread of a performance from Live Aid, where Elton wheeled George out (whilst Andrew Ridgely gamely provided backing vocals with Kiki Dee), rather than the other way around. I can imagine it went over well at Live Aid, as a good celebrity cameo. For me, it doesn’t work here because the song is too long and, I would say, pretty over-wrought. Lyrically, it seems pretty obvious: “losing everything is like the sun going down on me”. Really? Losing everything – including your life – would indeed be like the metaphorical sun going down on you.

    3 seems reasonable – I might stretch to 4 as the chorus (musically at least) is pretty good. But the tempo and the length do give it the feel of a wade through treacle.

  11. 11
    Tom on 26 May 2011 #

    #7 it is! From Caribou, apparently. Those with more patience for Elton than I can tell you if his original was any cop.

  12. 12
    Cumbrian on 26 May 2011 #

    Re-reading my entry – must find new adjective/adverb. Clearly grammar not a strong suit.

  13. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 26 May 2011 #

    A harsh review, but a fair one.

    What a pity that several immeasurably superior George Michael singles from the period leading up to this time (and, ah, dare I say, much more recently too – I’m thinking of the Christmas number from the winter before last more than the New Order cover) were barely hits at all. GOing back to 88 even, “Kissing a Fool” was a bit of a flop, but either that, “Waiting For That Day”, “Freedom 90” or “Cowboys And Angels”, would have all been far more worthy big hits than this (though only “Kissing A Fool” really says “should’ve been a number 1” to me.)

    At least Elton’s other contemporary stuff was mostly at least as uninteresting as this.

  14. 14
    AJ on 26 May 2011 #

    If anything, the original is more turgid and pedestrian.

  15. 15
    Weej on 26 May 2011 #

    The first few notes sound like “Everything I do…”, then lots of showboating by George & Elton, banking on recognition of their voices to carry this nothingness of a song. Dull, dull, dull and long, long, looooooong. Even Sacrifice was better.

  16. 16
    Cumbrian on 26 May 2011 #

    On the subject of George coming out – wasn’t Outside the “coming out” record? So 1998.

  17. 17
    Andrew Hickey on 26 May 2011 #

    Cumbrian – while Michael only officially came out in 1998, I read a review in Q or Mojo of Older, which was I think in 1995, which described the dedication of a song to (IIRC) his dead boyfriend as (can’t remember the exact words but something like) “the most tasteful and understated coming out I can remember from a public figure”. I think the review was by Andrew Collins.

    So even if he wasn’t publicly out in 1995 (and it didn’t hit the headlines until 1998), he certainly wasn’t hiding anything at that point.

  18. 18
    punctum on 26 May 2011 #

    In 1991 it is probably fair to say that neither George Michael nor Elton John had a clear idea of who they were or what they wanted. Listen Without Prejudice Volume One painted a portrait of someone increasingly turning back into himself, as the young and insecure Yorgos would have turned away towards the window on the outside seat of his school bus. The famous Weegee beach crowd shot which supplied the album’s cover signified everything George wasn’t, or didn’t want to be; the very light which, as the words of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” have it, blinded him.

    The record did well enough, but only a fraction of the business that Faith had done, unsurprisingly in view of its heavily signposted message of wanting to be left alone. Unsure about where to go next, but also in part because of a long court battle with his record company (the second in his career – he was beginning to develop a reputation for being difficult in this respect), George would not release another album of new material for a further six years, and instead busied himself with cameo appearances, charity functions, helping out on Andrew Ridgeley’s ill-fated solo album Son Of Albert, and releasing the occasional, random single (“Too Funky”). Elton, meanwhile, had not quite yet become British pop’s officially-approved National Institution.

    George’s concert appearances at this time were pointedly and wholly comprised of sets of cover versions; perhaps out of a lack of confidence in his own work, possibly to stop Sony from making any more actual money out of him, but audiences were baffled and disappointed. While recognising the direct link between “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “Killer,” it still seemed like stadium karaoke. But it was from one of these concerts, at Wembley Stadium, that his reading of “Don’t Let The Sun,” with Elton guesting, stemmed; a repeat of their 1985 Live Aid duet.

    The single – another multifocal charity fundraiser – was an immediate transatlantic number one, as opposed to Elton’s 1974 original which, in Britain, peaked at a relatively modest #16 (though its parent album Caribou was a huge seller). While not wishing to exaggerate the parallels between Elton and Nick Drake, “Don’t Let The Sun,” even with (or because of?) its lush orchestration and Beach Boy backing vocals, seems to me Elton’s direct equivalent of “Black-Eyed Dog.” Some commentators persist with the what-if scenario of “Northern Sky” being the huge international hit instead of “Your Song” but this is naively wishful thinking; Elton and Nick were the same age and both began as troubled, sensitive singer/songwriters – the distance between Empty Sky and Bryter Layter really doesn’t exist – but Elton, though essentially an intensely shy person, strived to be more outgoing and was undeniably better at putting his name about and better at dealing with people in general, whereas Drake, a decade before Asperger’s syndrome was formally recognised as a legitimate medical condition, couldn’t cope with people at all and, in the end, not even with himself. Still, “Don’t Let The Sun” in its original form represents a desperate plea for rescue from drowning (“Frozen here on the ladder of my life/It’s much too late to save myself from falling”) and death; a would-be Other, frightened by his intensity, has shut him out (“But you misread my meaning”) and he doubles his anti-suicidal screams, demands that she – or he – recognise his pain. “Don’t discard me just because you think I mean you harm/But these cuts I have/They need love to help them heal.” But at the same time he recognises that his huge dependency may also create a prison for his Other (“I’d just allow a fragment of your life to wander free”).

    As it turned out, those suicidal ideations were real, as gruellingly demonstrated on 1975’s slow release catharsis of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (and the “someone” in real life was, of all people, Long John Baldry, who talked his mind out of the gas oven). So it is both puzzling and disturbing to hear George and Elton’s enthusiastic audience a generation later screaming their approval, as though “Don’t Let The Sun” were simply an upmarket “Puppy Love.”

    Nevertheless the idea of performing the song as a duet is intriguing, mainly because structurally it can now be read as the story seen from both perspectives, and that the Other’s mind is just as confused and messed up as the original singer’s. And George’s is the greater vocal performance here, and may even join some Donny Osmond dots; the range and truthfulness of his delivery – note the emphasis he puts on the final “to wander free” – far exceed that of Elton, who seems content to improvise melismatics around George rather than sing the actual song. An interesting concept, then, which doesn’t quite come off and certainly didn’t move either of its singers any further towards discovering what – or whom – they actually wanted; they dutifully searched themselves but still saw someone else.

  19. 19
    Cumbrian on 26 May 2011 #

    @ 17: Cool – good knowledge. Got to be honest, other than the bunnyable EP coming up, was not really into George’s music in my adolescence – so this is all news to me (probably because I wasn’t paying huge amounts of attention). I wouldn’t say I am a huge fan now but have come to appreciate him more as time goes by.

  20. 20
    Erithian on 26 May 2011 #

    Going to have to differ with most of you on this – I don’t join in with the game of giving marks out of 10, but this would be a lot higher than 3 with me. Only a UK number 16 hit in 1974 in the original version, and kept off the US number one by a combination of John Denver and Roberta Flack, this always struck me as a beautiful stately song that deserved to be taken at its own leisurely pace, with one of Bernie’s more poetic lyrics, although you rarely get such a combination of poetry and singalongability. I always thought 16 in the UK severely undervalued the merits of the record, and this felt like due payback.

    Elton had been the severely shocked-looking figure introducing the BBC’s Freddie Mercury tribute programme on the day of Mercury’s death, and this was the most opportune of times for an AIDS charity-related single to chart. As someone remarked, for several years the victims of AIDS were unknown to most of us, then in 1985 there was a victim known to millions in Rock Hudson, and now an even bigger star had gone and public perception was ripe for change.

    Agree with Chelovek that any of George Michael’s singles from “Listen Without Prejudice” would have been deserved big hits – my fiancée was a big fan of George’s since schooldays and we both thought every moment of the album was quality – but if he wasn’t going to get to the top with them, this one would do nicely. From the audience reception, it’s clearly an exercise in giving the people what they want. If LWP had performed better critically than commercially, this was a pretty good way of reinforcing his profile.

  21. 21
    swanstep on 26 May 2011 #

    Apart from its pretty ghastly piano sound (EJ’s piano on the original sounds great by comparison) I think this is a decent record (and the underlying song is a fine vocal showcaser). I don’t see what the problem is supposed to be with the occasional song taking its own sweet time to get the chorus (Tiny Dancer doesn’t hit its chorus proper until after 3 minutes or so from memory, and Station to Station goes for at least 3 minutes without vocals, and they’re some of the best things ever). My memory of DLTSGDOM (and its vid.) is that it stood out quite nicely at the time from everything else that was going on. It’s stately but not especially overblown (certainly compared to, say, Axl Rose’s of-the-time-ego-trips such as Don’t Cry and November Rain), and there’s something amazing about having a stadium-filling song that’s just a massive vocal line (this is to agree with Erithian, #20 from a slightly different direction). Anyhow, I like Mull of Kintyre and Sailing a lot and a hell of a lot respectively, too, so shoot me:
    6 or 7

  22. 22
    thefatgit on 26 May 2011 #

    I’m sure that no useful object has ever been made of wood and tin. Elton is woody and solid and George is by comparison, tinny and hollow. Put them together and all you have are two components of an object that serves no practical purpose. I’ll give credit to a knowledgable audience that recognises a dreary gospel-lite almost-hit from 1974 (and the audience’s reaction fools us into thinking the song was a major player in Elton’s squad, when it’s really just a b-teamer) George adds nothing of value to DLTSGDOM, indeed the two of them seem to be competing to wring every last drop of emotion from such a damp sponge of a song, into a wooden handled billy-can.

  23. 23
    pink champale on 26 May 2011 #

    @21 this, sir, is no ‘station to station’!

  24. 24
    Tom on 26 May 2011 #

    It’s no “November Rain” either – that’s a great record.

    But yes, there are brilliant songs which take their time to get to the chorus, I can think of a couple of big ballads yet to come on Popular which do the same. My problem with this one is that the chorus is the only thing I can ever remember about it, after a dozen listens – the chorus doesn’t feel like a payoff for me, it’s more like I’m checking my watch waiting for it (which is the case with Tiny Dancer too FWIW – hurrah for Girl Talk cutting that one to the chase)

  25. 25
    Wheedly on 26 May 2011 #

    As a long slow-builder, with lots of chances of improvise around the melody and hold big notes, this screams ‘singer’s song’ to me, and I hear Elton and George having a lot of fun with it. Elton’s studio recording from a decade and half earlier, on the other hand, is as turgid and unrewarding as others have indicated above.
    The piano sound, as Swanstep points out, is the horrific early-nineties digital piano sound (probably labelled ‘studio piano 1’ on the keyboard), much in evidence on piano-led records of the era (I seem to remember Beverley Craven’s output scarred by the same contagious production misstep).
    Not that bad a song, with the agile and nimble Michael singing rings around Elton, whose voice is evidently in decline (although whether you prefer early Elton’s thin squeaky tenor to later Elton’s flabby bellowing baritone is perhaps a matter of personal preference), Bernie Taupin as ever letting the side down with his lyrical input, strained, forced and never easy to believe in. Overall, a 5?

  26. 26
    Rory on 26 May 2011 #

    @21 ‘I’m sure that no useful object has ever been made of wood and tin’: Pshaw! And pshaw again!

    I’m with swanstep on the slow start; nothing wrong with that per se. And I don’t mind this; the chorus is pleasant without being particularly compelling, and the performances are neither’s worst. 5 from me.

    @3: I always thought Elton John was pretty huge in the late ’80s, but maybe some of that was the Aussie perspective: his tour and live recording with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra were a big deal locally a few years earlier.

  27. 27
    MikeMCSG on 26 May 2011 #

    # 20 George self-sabotaged “Listen Without Prejudice” by refusing to do interviews around its release or appear in its videos. An interesting exercise in seeing how much his music would sell without distraction perhaps but he shed a fair few fans in the process.

    Good review Tom but at what point are you saying he caught up ?

  28. 28
    Erithian on 26 May 2011 #

    #27 – Although he did feature in a South Bank Show profile on the eve of the album’s release, so he didn’t dodge interviews totally.

  29. 29
    23 Daves on 26 May 2011 #

    #18 – a brilliant interpretation of this single, which I like enough to pay attention on the very rare occasions I actually hear it these days, but not enough that I’d actually buy a copy of it. Elton’s original version did indeed sound rather tepid, as other posters have suggested, and it actually took this cover to open my ears to the better aspects of the song – the dramatic piano lines, the vocal harmonies, the nagging, melodramatic self-doubt in the lyrics. Sometimes subtlety works with songs of this nature and a considered mid-seventies production is the best thing for them, other times a rawer, live reading of the work allows you to appreciate the artist’s intended emotional impact a bit more. I think this is a fine example of the latter.

    Still though, Taupin as always frequently confuses with his lyrics which try too damn hard and dazzle rather than illuminate, the song really doesn’t need to be as long as it is – I’d agree with Tom that the lead-in to the chorus is excessive – and I’d probably rather this were a George Michael solo effort than a piece of Elt ‘n’ Yog chumminess. Something about the track just suggests solo introspection to me rather than a matey trading of vocal duties. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” it most surely isn’t, and whilst Punctum makes an interesting case for the duet, it never entirely succeeds in its objectives.

    It’s not bad, though, for all its flaws, and the concluding melodic lines to it tie the whole bundle up brilliantly for me. A 5 or a 6. I’m a bit surprised it’s getting so mightily panned.

  30. 30
    swanstep on 26 May 2011 #

    @pink champale, 23. Heh, well I guess I asked for that didn’t I! (I originally intended to use ‘Air that I breathe’ as a fairer/less hyperbolic-seeming comparison, but when I checked it, the big chorus you seem to wait and wait for nonetheless arrives before the 2 min mark…. so StS it was).

  31. 31
    thefatgit on 26 May 2011 #

    #26 Rory, *slaps head* maybe I should have said “tools” rather than “objects”. Plus I was thinking chiefly of this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T70-HTlKRXo

  32. 32
    lonepilgrim on 26 May 2011 #

    I wasn’t sure why this was such a hit at the time and still find it underwhelming. Is this the first ‘live’ number 1?

  33. 33
    thefatgit on 26 May 2011 #

    “My Ding-A-Ling”?

  34. 34
    flahr on 26 May 2011 #

    Yeah and “The Specials AKA Live”, “Gamblin’ Man”, “The Wonder of You”, “My Old Man’s A Dustman” and possibly “Shaddap You Face”. Bunny prevents me naming the other two, especially on this thread.

  35. 35
    anto on 26 May 2011 #

    I would dismiss this as part of Eltons ongoing plan to duet with every other singer on the planet despite having the kind of voice which never seems compatible with anyone, but of course he’s the guest here.
    This was always a drudgy trudge of a song with Bernie Taupin at his most back-of-the-jotter (“Frozen here on the ladder of my life”).
    Neither of these two superstars have ever won me over so it’s a double header of indifference to me.

  36. 36
    Mark G on 26 May 2011 #

    This record is a ton better than their other duet, “Wrap her up”

    Hilarious: It sounds like two gay men, both trying to convince the other that they are as hetero as the next guy. What were they thinking, really?

  37. 37
    Another Pete on 26 May 2011 #

    Anyone know why the single was released in the first place. Did George Michael have a live album out or something? Should of been a B-side though I suppose back then having two popstar heavyweights duetting live at a concert was considered a big thing. Where as it seemingly happens all the time these days with it more a case of ‘Who hasn’t rapped with Rihanna yet’

  38. 38
    Alfred on 26 May 2011 #

    An unusual hit. In America George Michael’s popularity had begun its slow slide, while Elton was scoring fair to middling hits until the comeback of The One and The Lion King soundtrack. I’d rather have seen “Too Funky” or George’s other surprisingly vital post-house dance tracks from the Red Hot and Rio comp at #1.

  39. 39
    Doctor Casino on 26 May 2011 #

    The local karaoke DJ carries on a “sing the mystery song and win” contest, adding new hints to the current song each week until somebody gets it. So it was last year that I found myself signing up to sing this duet (solo – – more money for me!). To be prepared, I sang the chorus to myself in my head – yeah, how hard could this be? Unfortunately, it turns out that the entire rest of the song is a phantom, one of those classic “I just heard it and I can’t tell you how it goes” numbers. It was a long, sweaty five and a half minutes, desperately hamming a melody out of thin air to try and go with the lyrics on screen, enlivened only by the karaoke DJ chiming in and changing “the sun” to “your mom.” He might have also added the “Mister Elton John!” part, which of course I forgot completely. A real disaster, except that I won the eighty bucks. Needless to say I bought the guy a drink, and if the place hadn’t been so empty by that point I would have been treating some others as well, in an attempt to atone for what they’d just had to listen to.

    Listening to George and Elton’s, I can’t say that it’s any better or worse than what I came up with. I suppose they made more money on it; it’s a passable rendition of the song, and at least it’s not like they’re taking a polished jewel of songwriting and blowing it out of proportion for late-80s arena heft. The original was not one of Elton’s best ballads, and I agree with Cumbrian about the last line of the chorus – – just swap that in for something else and the song improves tremendously. Even if he just said “I’m losing everything – it’s like the sun’s going down on me!” “Losing everything is like the sun going down on me” feels like he’s demoing the song for a friend and pausing to explain the previous few lines. “See, I’m losing everything, and…”

    Would love to hear Michael doing, I dunno, “I Feel Like A Bullet In The Gun of Robert Ford.”

  40. 40
    Matthew H on 27 May 2011 #

    #27 George definitely catches up in bunnyable form in 1996. I think so anyway.

    This is an overblown rendition of an already pretty puffy song, but I’m keen on it. I suppose I always had a lot of time for the two chaps – and that “Ladies and Gentlemen – Mr Elton John!” is now a required precursor to any of Reg’s appearances to this day, around my way at least. They make good sense of the song’s hooks, attacking the highs with gusto, and the long withheld release of the chorus makes my heart swell. Yeah, I’m a sucker.

    My favourite “holding back the chorus” number is Sinead O’Connor’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, which takes the entire song to get to what isn’t really a chorus; little more than the title. I’m always intrigued to hear where it’s going even though I know.

  41. 41
    MikeMCSG on 27 May 2011 #

    #40 Same with a classic number 2 (hurry up Lena !) Squeeze’s “Up The Junction”.

  42. 42
    will on 27 May 2011 #

    Personally I really like the original. For me, it’s always packed more of an emotional punch than most of Reg’s ballads, but the bombastic showbiz-y nature of this version leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s still worth a 6 though.

    As I recall, Elton’s next single, The One, was virtually a re-write of this..

  43. 43
    Mark G on 27 May 2011 #

    There’s a massive difference between Nick and Elton: Nick wrote the words. Elton didn’t. This means, for all that Elton probably did feel what he sung, it would not have taken him as long to ‘forget’ the depth of feeling in favour of the ‘default good performance’ of a song such as this. So, he can make it a good old singalong with the help of George.

    Although, notably, the “goodbye england’s rose” never had such a ‘forget’ as he never played it live again with his modified lyrics (or did Bernie do those as well?) (yeah, I know, bunny bunny, but perspective dudes)

  44. 44
    Lena on 27 May 2011 #

    #41 I’m hurrying up, don’t worry!

    There are certain moments in songs that are ones I really…well *enjoy* isn’t the term, I think…they are gratuitous but in their gratuity there is a moment where a torch of sorts is being handed over; and so it is here. When George introduces Elton it’s one of those times when I just have to stop and smile, even if to myself – both of them embody the song, in their histories (past and present and indeed future) and this feels more like a confessional with two people rather than one. The showbiz here is just this becoming public…in some ways it feels more European than British, as if the song would make more sense *emotionally* if sung in French or Spanish, for instance. Neither of these singers has a ‘side’ so to speak, and that gets emphasized here.

  45. 45
    Kat but logged out innit on 27 May 2011 #

    I love George’s voice on this track – thick and meaty and rich (like gravy?). When Joe McElderry did it on X Factor he made a really good fist of it, but then George himself turned up a few weeks later as a special guest, and they did it together as duet. EPIC SADFACE resulted :(

  46. 46
    23 Daves on 27 May 2011 #

    #40 – actually, the best bit about the “Ladies and Gentleman, Mr Elton John!” line for me is the fact that the piano immediately kicks in afterwards with that doomy, recurring line. It’s the kind of melody you hear whenever a baddie enters the room in a rubbish old B-movie, or in an episode of “Batman”.

  47. 47
    wichita lineman on 27 May 2011 #

    I used to like the bit on Midweek Sports Special when Jim Rosenthal roared “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Elton Welsby”.

  48. 48
    LondonLee on 27 May 2011 #

    #3: by 1991 george had already created more far more pop greatness than Elton ever had or would

    Oh come on. I can understand a fair amount of generational antipathy towards certain artists (I have it myself) and iconoclastic statement-making but that’s just too silly.

  49. 49
    pink champale on 27 May 2011 #

    is it? it’s not like i was saying howard jones is better than dylan or something. admittedly i’m no elton expert, but nothing apart from rocket man, goodbye yellow brick road and benny and the jets strikes me as being particularly outstanding (i do really love all of those though). which isn’t that great a return for someone who’s been around for forty years and has made god knows how many boring records in that time. while i wouldn’t particularly claim GM as one of the all time greats either, by 1991 he’d made everything she wants, father figure, careless whisper, different corner, wham rap, freedom, young guns, etc. at the very least there’s an argument that george has the better average.

  50. 50
    23 Daves on 27 May 2011 #

    #48 – That’s probably the other reason I’m struggling with the prevailing tone of this Popular entry, actually. The weight of Elton’s output is mighty, and without question there’s some serious rubbish in his back catalogue, but during his imperial phase he surely topped George Michael’s best material? Has George ever come up with anything better than “Rocket Man”, “Daniel”, “Crocodile Rock”, or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”? He may have equalled the quality of those tracks on a few occasions, but I think it’s pushing it to argue he was a far better artist – especially as Elton’s recording contract in the seventies required him to produce material at a rate I doubt George Michael would ever manage to get his head around.

  51. 51
    LondonLee on 27 May 2011 #

    While I’m usually in favour of quality over quantity, George has released a grand total of SIX albums of original material in 28 YEARS. Of course he has a better average.

  52. 52
    AndyPandy on 27 May 2011 #

    I’m a George Michael fan ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ and ‘Older’ and ‘A Different Corner’ are respectively among by favourite albums (and in the case of the former helped me get through one of the lowest times in my life) and singles of all time, and also someone who looks on the 80s as his decade, but I can stand back and be neutral enough to know that overall George doesn’t get anywhere near Elton on a career level -and that’s without me even knowing too much about many of Elton’s albums and I’ve heard that at his peak they were very good.

    ‘Daniel’, ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’, ‘Your Song’ A Song For Guy’, Rocket Man, Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ ‘Tonight’ ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ even ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’ the list goes on and on of songs of an extremely high quality.

  53. 53
    hardtogethits on 28 May 2011 #

    Elton John was the first act I ever saw live. He was enthralling, and I remain rapt by much of his work up to and including 1983’s fault-free, under-rated “Too Low For Zero”. Similarly, George Michael is a supreme artist who has produced a collection of albums since 1983 which are indispensible.

    But then. Whether to comment on this record, or its role as a chart topper? This song is old, over-wrought, lyrically stale, and on this version of the worn-out song, sung with those histrionic noodlings that many believe characterise a good singer, but I can’t concur.

    Some have said that a great love song is like a hymn. This has many of the characteristics of a hymn – it has no pace and the melody is laboured; the words are timeless but do not draw in those who are indifferent.

    Further difficulty occurs because, as others have pointed out, the metaphors are mixed, hackneyed and ineffective (closing a door, pictures fading, stuck on a ladder, sun going down). By the time the vocalists have finished singing, the sun will indeed have gone down.

    And why so popular? If anyone had wanted to they could have bought an astonishingly similar version between 1975 and 1990, when it had been continuously available.

    It is sometimes nice when one’s favourite artist faithfully covers an old song – or when one’s favourite artist endorses a cover version of their own material; I bet we have all enjoyed one or the other. But when so many enjoy it that it sends a familiar standard to no.1, it feels like we are being deprived of something that has a unique role to play in defining what was popular at the time – a contemporary number one. Plus, here, it was sent straight in at number one, which felt like insult to injury. A new entry at number one in 1991 still seemed like fair reward for artists having developed such anticipation of something new that people rushed out and bought it urgently like U2 and Michael Jackson in preceding weeks. This sense of fairness prevailed even if one felt somewhat neutral to the material itself.

    So if I were to be kind, I could label this ‘timeless’ and just say I want number ones to be ‘of their time’. And give it 2.

    Isn’t this review an over-long rehash of something I did earlier? Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, like Mr Elton John.

  54. 54
    hardtogethits on 28 May 2011 #

    #32, 33, 34. D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

  55. 55
    weej on 28 May 2011 #

    Was Gamblin’ Man live, though? The version on Youtube is, but IIRC the (slightly inferior) recorded version isn’t.

  56. 56
    wichita lineman on 28 May 2011 #

    Doesn’t start with crowd noise (it ends with it) but, consulting the original 45, I’m pretty sure Gamblin’ Man is a live recording and not faked up. Popping mike and all. Thanks for the excuse to dig it out.

    Elton has a better track record record than George is all. As mentioned up thread, Someone Saved My Life Tonight. Very good indeed, and should occupy the place in the Elton canon that this mildly moving but over-egged creation occupies.

  57. 57
    George on 29 May 2011 #

    Although it famously stiffed in the U.S compared to it’s predecessor ”Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1” did similar business to ”Faith” sales wise in the UK (both 1.2M-1.5M units shifted) and the European figures were respectable. For me the airless, pious ”Praying For Time” feels like the song which brings the curtain down on the eighties.

  58. 58
    punctum on 29 May 2011 #

    This is as convenient a place as any to mark the return of Then Play Long, after what seems like an eternity of inactivity (caused by book publication, then having to deal with family illnesses, and other such distractions), with its first nod to Elton:

    http://nobilliards.blogspot.com/2011/05/elton-john-dont-shoot-me-im-only-piano.html

  59. 59
    Wizi on 31 May 2011 #

    I was a Wham! fan and even though I got fed up with George constantly withdrawing from the public gaze and being annoying, then coming back with one scandal or another and being even more annoying, I have to say that Mr Michael has IMHO, been more accomplished than Mr John. Elton has mostly bored me except for “I’m still standing” and “Saturday night…” and George Michael and Wham! are just so loaded in optimism.

    Mind you, when it comes to trying to find purpose in life through connection with “the great and the good”, Elton has it licked whilst George has left himself looking a little silly with that song for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

  60. 60
    Ed on 1 Jun 2011 #

    I am intrigued by what a polarising figure Elton seems to be; I would have assumed that he was pretty universally respected, if not always loved. Is it a generational thing, I wonder? If you first discovered him around the time of ‘I’m Still Standing’, as I did, you might have found it hard to understand why anyone rated him at all. I had to make an effort to check out the seventies albums to se why Elton had such a high reputation. If you heard the seventies stuff as it was released, then you would see him very differently. And – unless I am forgetting something – Elton never came close to the heights of his imperial phase again.

    Has there ever been a pop career that declined so steeply, from peak to trough? Prince after ‘Lovesexy’, maybe?

  61. 61
    hardtogethits on 1 Jun 2011 #

    #60 – interesting point. I agree heartily about the steep decline for Elton John, but the question you raise about generations, and appreciating things as they were released etc raises the ‘intrigue’. I still think Too Low For Zero (1983) is a fine piece of work, and always under-rated. Breaking Hearts (1984) however, was a strong indication the Glory Years were over, and they were, never to return. But if Too Low For Zero is either removed from the equation or accepted as inferior to his 70s work, then his decline might be seen as quite steady (perhaps caused by the demands of an album every year or so) – after all, who these days lauds the follow ups to Blue Moves: A Single Man, Victim Of Love, 21 at 33, The Fox, Jump Up?

    Steepest decline artistically? I nominate Stevie Wonder.

  62. 62
    MikeMCSG on 1 Jun 2011 #

    #61 Or Paul McCartney, Simple Minds , Bryan Ferry , Kraftwerk ….

    It might be harder to find someone who does maintain the standard beyond half a dozen albums.

    My beef with Elton was always the amount of support he got from R1 when he was in decline . Even garbage like the unintentionally meta “Just Like Belgium” got a lot of airplay.

  63. 63
    Wheedly on 1 Jun 2011 #

    #61, After Stage Fright Robbie Robertson only wrote a handful of worthwhile songs, and most of them were on Northern Lights Southern Cross.
    Honorable mention for the couple of newies on disc four of The Last Waltz, and that still leaves him washed up in 1976.

    #62, but Elton’s commercial decline and his artistic decline were distinctly separate things, weren’t they? (They would be for most artists, I guess.) Looking at his singles placings, Elton John’s never had a straightforward career decline; rather, a couple of lean years here and there and then a comeback album with another top-ten single or two. Radio 1 programmers would have learned not to write him off too quickly.

  64. 64
    swanstep on 1 Jun 2011 #

    Sick Boy: It’s certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life.
    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: What do you mean?
    Sick Boy: Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed…
    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: Some of his solo stuff’s not bad.
    Sick Boy: No, it’s not bad, but it’s not great either. And in your heart you kind of know that although it sounds all right, it’s actually just shite.
    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: So who else?
    Sick Boy: Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley…
    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: OK, OK, so what’s the point you’re trying to make?
    Sick Boy: All I’m trying to do is help you understand that The Name of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.
    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: What about The Untouchables?
    Sick Boy: I don’t rate that at all.
    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: Despite the Academy Award?
    Sick Boy: That means fuck all. Its a sympathy vote.
    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: Right. So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore. Is that it?
    Sick Boy: Yeah.
    Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: That’s your theory?
    Sick Boy: Yeah. Beautifully fucking illustrated.

  65. 65
    wichita lineman on 1 Jun 2011 #

    I’d nominate The Kinks – uniformly great from 1964-68, slim pickings after Arthur in 1969, and bugger all after 1972.

    I’m not familiar with Elton’s albums (I’ve tried, admittedly not too hard, and found them all patchy) but loved pretty much all of his singles up to ’76.

    His workrate was insane, sometimes releasing two albums a year, and that doesn’t include doubles!

    Being contrary, I just gave The Fox (1981) a listen – Elton’s Song is excellent, and I can’t hear a massive drop in standards on the whole. “Tough as an ox, yes I am the fox”… he must have occasionally wished he could write lyrics, though.

  66. 66
    MikeMCSG on 1 Jun 2011 #

    # 63 Right but that pattern hadn’t been established in the 79-81 period I was talking about. A lot of his 70s contemporaries – Gilbert O Sullivan, Clifford T Ward, The Carpenters, Moody Blues , The Sweet, Thin Lizzy to name a few – were dropped from the schedules to accommodate Blondie, Police etc but he survived despite very sub-standard material.

  67. 67
    Conrad on 1 Jun 2011 #

    Quickest creative decline? Stone Roses, from Fool’s Gold to One Love in the blink of an eye.

  68. 68
    Wheedly on 1 Jun 2011 #

    #66 Fair point, and I’ll happily concede it. I was just a baby at the time and wasn’t really aware of Elton John as a contemporary singles artist until Sacrifice, although I was aware of older stuff like Rocket Man and Candle in the Wind that my parents had.
    Perhaps he just had a lot of folks rooting for him at Radio 1 back then.

  69. 69
    Matthew K on 1 Jun 2011 #

    #18 – Punctum, did you know of the circulating 1968 demo tape of Elton covering Nick Drake songs among other contemporary folk? Day Is Done, Saturday Sun, Way To Blue, Time Has Told Me. Can’t say they do a lot for me but it’s at least interesting.

  70. 70
    MikeMCSG on 1 Jun 2011 #

    # 68 He did – that was exactly my point.

  71. 71
    Mark G on 1 Jun 2011 #

    #69, file it along with his CD of “Pickwick Cover Versions”

  72. 72
    wichita lineman on 1 Jun 2011 #

    Re 69: Elton did some pretty unlikely cover versions, presumably for the dosh, right up until Your Song was a hit but this has to be the least likely . I think it’s, err, pretty good!

  73. 73
    23 Daves on 1 Jun 2011 #

    #60 – Actually, disturbingly enough… according to my parents, Elton John was the first artist I ever “responded” to, in that I’d try to dance if they put his records on. And certainly, his albums were a constant in our household from a very young age, as both my mother and father were fans for a period (though curiously, they almost never mention him now).

    I was aware of his seventies output before I could really talk properly, never mind articulate my views on how finely crafted “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is, and even as I got beyond knee height I only knew instinctively that his was good stuff – and as I also liked “Birdie Song” by The Tweets for a time, that wouldn’t have held much weight with me by the time I actually paying close, studied attention to music and music criticism, by which point I saw Elton as naff.

    It’s only really in the last few years (thanks to some cheap second hand finds) I’ve actually started listening to his seventies period output again, and I’ve been struck by the gaping chasm between the quality of that and the quality of just about all of his post-1983 output. To be honest, I like his seventies work despite myself. I’m not a big fan of pop prima-donnas and don’t find their tantrums entertaining or charming. I really do have to hand it to Elton, though – for all his flaws, he was, for a period, one of the finer songwriters in Britain. Not particularly ground-breaking or adventurous, but certainly crafting some fine tracks.

  74. 74
    LondonLee on 1 Jun 2011 #

    It doesn’t bother me too much if an artist goes into decline creatively as long they put in a good body of work before it (like Elton, McCartney, Bowie), I can’t think of anyone who’s kept it up over a decade consistently (obviously there are occasional flashes of the old genius)

    My problem with George Michael is how quickly he went from boy band pin-up to “serious” singer-songwriter, it was almost unseemly the haste he swapped one set of clothes for the other. Much as like the guy he got “old” very quickly.

  75. 75
    MikeMCSG on 1 Jun 2011 #

    # 74 i know what you mean LL but it’s a bit too dismissive of his time in Wham to sum it up as “boy band pin up”. Yes they were very popular with young girls but there’s some good songwriting on both their LPs.

  76. 76
    Mark G on 1 Jun 2011 #

    Well, i had the feeling he had the whole thing planned out from day one:
    1) become teeny pin-up style pop star
    2) become solo
    3) become serious artist

    But then, he seemed to run out of steps, and, unsure what to do next, ended up doing nothing.

  77. 77
    LondonLee on 1 Jun 2011 #

    I didn’t mean it to be dismissive, it was more a reference to the image, not the substance.

  78. 78
    thefatgit on 1 Jun 2011 #

    Prince’s output (47 inc. studio albums, live albums, soundtracks, compilations and online releases) does put George Michael to shame. Also, both artists had seious beef over their contracts with Warners and Sony respectively. If I was to sympathise, I would probably sympathise with Prince, but first you would have to consider that both artists got paid a helluva lot of money for their work, and secondly both had been heavily indulged by their paymasters.

    Warner’s: “Prince, we want you to do the soundtrack for Batman.”
    Prince: *sighs* “But I’m touring this year, plus putting down tracks for my new album.”
    Warner’s: “Ok, we’ll bring in Danny Elfman, but we still need a couple of tracks… shall we say, in 2 weeks time?”
    Prince: “How about a month?”
    Warner’s: “How about we phone the tour promoter and add 10 extra dates?”
    Prince: “Ok, you’ll have something in 2 weeks” *sighs*

    Sony: “George, how’s that new album coming along?”
    George: “LOOK, WILL YOU JUST F**K OFF AND LEAVE ME ALONE!!!”
    Sony: “Ok, we’ll call back when you’re not so busy, shall we?”

  79. 79
    Mark G on 1 Jun 2011 #

    Yeah, but Prince’s beef came after his contract negotiation, and Georges was before, wasn’t it?

  80. 80
    wichita lineman on 1 Jun 2011 #

    Re 74: They don’t seem to be the most popular group among Popular posters, but the Bee Gees were ridiculously consistent. Their only bum album is 1973’s flat-out dull Life In A Tin Can. Right through the eighties they were turning out classy songs and productions for Babs Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross and Jimmy Ruffin as well as their own occasional (usually less impressive) solo albums.

  81. 81
    Alfred on 2 Jun 2011 #

    Let me put in a good word for 1981’s “Elton’s Song,” a rather explicit homosexual love song (lyrics by Tom Robinson) with a gorgeous major/minor key arrangement.

  82. 82
    Ed on 2 Jun 2011 #

    Re 81 Yes, that’s what I meant, really. Of course, everyone declines, often in a straight line, although sometimes in a wobbly one. So the Arctic Monkeys have been a classic “straight line” band, where ‘Whatever You say…’ >> ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ >> ‘Humbug’ >> (probably) the new one >> (probably again) whatever they do next. Tricky, too, where ‘Maxinquaye’ >> ‘PMT’ >> all those other ones. I mean artistically in all these cases, although in Tricky’s case it was probably commercially, too.

    The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, followed an arc, where The Early Albums << 'Aftermath' << 'Their Satanic Majesties' << 'Beggar's Banquet' <> ‘Exile on Main St’ >> ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ >> The Late Albums.

    But I digress… My point was not that Elton declined, but that he fell so far – from brilliant to terrible – and so fast – in the space of maybe a year or two, wherever you draw the cutoff. Because I agree, some of the stuff from the turn of the decade is great. I love ‘Never Gonna Fall in Love’, for example, although Tom Robinson may have done it better.

    MikeMCSG at 62, to take a couple of your examples, I think both McCartney and Ferry have had late flashes of genius, in a way that John never has. And I can see why you would say Simple Minds, but I think that took a bit longer. I am actually quite partial to ‘Sparkle in the Rain’, and of course ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’. So I see John as a more clear-cut case of just waking up one day and finding that the muse had deserted him.

    Conrad at 67, on the other hand… I think you may be on to something.

  83. 83
    wichita lineman on 2 Jun 2011 #

    The Stone Roses are an odd case, because they had been playing the songs on their album for several years – they just polished their set, stuck it out in ’89 to massive acclaim, and realised they had bugger all to follow it with. Same story (though obv with less initial impact) for the Vines and the House Of Love.

    Still don’t see it with Elton John as everyone seems to have different cut off points! I can see why Radio 1 continued to support him when singles like Song For Guy, Blue Eyes and Little Jeannie – not earth shattering but perfectly pleasant – were part of this fallow period. Is Too Low For Zero the last decent album, then?

    Oh, how about Diana Ross for a precipitous drop? Pretty much a chart regular from 1964 to the mid eighties, then… horrible Disney ballads which only sell in Japan.

  84. 84

    “Everyone declines” may be true in rock and pop, and obviously it’s true in the sense that no one is actually immortal, but it’s not at all the only pattern in jazz or blues or country or folk or composed music inc.songwriting, where the golden era is surprisingly often an autumnal period

  85. 85

    also, counterexample to this iron law of rock/pop: SPARKS, who have been goin for roughly 40 years, with hiati, and are better now than ever!

  86. 86
    vinylscot on 2 Jun 2011 #

    Unfortunately, as a fan since 1974, I need to disagree about Sparks. Their last two bona fide albums “Hello Young Lovers” and “Exotic Creatures of the Deep” (discounting the Ingmar Bergmann “musical”), have been deeply disappointing , as poor as any of their 1980s output.

    They are a counterexample in that they have had two short periods of creative success, rather than just one, i.e the 1974 albums, and the “Gratuitous Sex” and “Lil Beethoven” LPs more recently, but they have also had two pretty steep periods of decline.

  87. 88

    Plus Russell’s hair is better than it used to be

  88. 89
    Mark G on 2 Jun 2011 #

    A bit like Paul Nicholas’ reggae, then.

  89. 90
    wichita lineman on 2 Jun 2011 #

    Lil Reggae Beethoven

  90. 91
    vinylscot on 2 Jun 2011 #

    That version of Dick Around is enough – the album version is 6 minutes 35 seconds long – about twice as long as it needed to be. Many of their songs on the last two albums have suffered similarly. Producing themselves has unfortunately allowed them to become too self-indulgent, and their quality control faculties have never been the best.

    For every “Dick Around” there’s a “Very Next Fight”…. or the turgid “Rock Rock Rock”…. or the terrible, hackneyed “Metaphor”.

    Unfortunately, it seems to me that “Lil Beethoven” may have been a fluke – a sort of “dead cat bounce”. I hope they prove me wrong.

  91. 92

    Hazel Robinson of this parish or somewhere very near it pointed me first to “Dick Around” — which I instantly adored — and then the whole of “Hello Young Lovers”, which she correctly noted was (a) great and (b) something I would totally love.

    Hadn’t heard anything by — or ever thought of — Sparks since “Number One in Heaven” (which was one of my favourite LPs at the time it came out): I knew of but had never heard any of the 70s stuff except “Town Ain’t Big Enough”. I was taken aback they still existed.

    I don’t hear the decline you do, in the sense that none of the 70s stuff has struck me as obviously better than “HYL” or “N1iH” yet, but I’m enjoying it all — and obviously taking it all in in one huge vast gulp, pretty much.

    But basically “Hello Young Lovers” made me check out 40 years worth of a band’s back catalogue, which really doesn’t happen very often.

  92. 93
    Ed on 3 Jun 2011 #

    @84 Ageing as I am, I am always delighted to hear evidence that decline is not inevitable. But “it’s not at all the only pattern in jazz” is no more than half-true, is it?

    My knowledge is pretty patchy, I admit, but Miles Davis and Sun Ra were clearly past their (spectacularly high) artistic peaks when they died. Parker, Mingus, Ayler and Coltrane all count as untimely deaths, and we cannot know how their music would have changed. Coleman has stayed interesting, but in that company he looks more like the exception than the rule.

    Composed music, I will give you. I don’t think I am going to be able to make the argument that Mozart and Beethoven were past it by the time they went on stage at the great gig in the sky.

  93. 94
    swanstep on 3 Jun 2011 #

    @ed, 93. In painting, the Beethoven path of getting more and more radical and interesting the later you go is quite common: Turner, Goya, Rembrandt, and even people today such as Naumann and Keifer seem to get better and better.

    In film scores, Herrmann probably never topped his late 1950s/early 1960s work for Hitchcock but his Taxi Driver score (1975) is the equal of that stuff, and, amazingly, Herrmann conducted the final recording sessions for that score the night before his death.

    Lastly, Philosophy has one notable late bloomer: Kant. Didn’t do anything that great until he was 57, and after that it was 20 years of manic productivity (and whole academic sub-industries are devoted to arguing that it’s only in the light of items produced ever closer to Kant’s death at 79 that one can really make sense of the stuff he published in his late 50s and early 60s). Yee haw.

  94. 95
    swanstep on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Oops, that should be ‘Nauman and Kiefer’.

  95. 96

    Well I did say “autumnal”: I cannot deny that even jazz musicians are mortal, and that old people are often ill before they die, and (unless we’re cut down early) winter faces us all one grim day — but the “best before 35” assumption need not be universal, and there seem to be musics for which the “late mature” period really is arguably the best.

  96. 97
    Mark G on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Well, I remember Davy Graham saying something to the effect that his heroes were people like Segovia, and that those people only did their best and most noted stuff after decades of playing and practicing.

    Which is unfortunate, seeing as how his “Anji” was side 1, track 1 of his first (e.p) record.

  97. 98

    There was a Nemi cartoon about this in the Metro only two days ago.

  98. 99
    thefatgit on 3 Jun 2011 #

    #96, I humbly offer Seasick Steve as an example.

  99. 100
    AndyPandy on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Isn’t pop music the exception to the rule? because as Lord says “yes we all die, some earlier than others” and so more of us are alive in our 20s, 30s 40s than later on which therefore equates to more great work being produced at those ages purely because more people are working then.
    But of course this debate returns us to the thorny issue of whether most pop/rock music is ever true art anyway ie are image,looks, youth and beauty as important as what is actually produced…

    but as far as those who survive in reasonable health great work can be produced at just about any age – just of the top of my head I can think of Haydn still producing great works (and still being ridiculously prolific)into his mid-80s, Thomas Hardy still writing great poetry into his mid-80s (with no real fall off in quality until he became unwell and stopped a few months before his death) indeed he didnt even start writing poetry seriously until he was aged 55-60 and in the subsequent 30 years staked out as good as reputation in that field as he had previously with his novels.

    As has been mentioned Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Shelley, and hundreds of others can’t prove the theory as they were long gone when any such later work would have been created…it also makes you wonder just what wonderful works we were deprived of by their early/relatively early deaths…

  100. 101
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Well, we’ve certainly all tended to internalise the idea that pop must work differently. And I imagine plenty of people actually go into it like sports, on the assumption that it’s about a few fast busy bright years and then out to pasture and run a pub, or whatever. But I wonder if it isn’t only a “truth of pop” if you unconsciously frontload your definition to exclude the people it isn’t true of…

  101. 102
    Cumbrian on 3 Jun 2011 #

    #101: The problem with comparing sports and pop in this particular sense (not that you have – I’m referring to the hypothetical practioner you raise in your second sentence) is that for pop, it seems that it is the expectation of decline that is seemingly built in. In sports, the decline is not expectation; it is a fact – as ability deteriorates with age (your eye goes, your not quite as strong as someone in their mid-20s, continued exertion over a prolonged period leads to a greater propensity to injury, etc), so you always have to plan for the decline. Planning for the decline in pop seems like it will be self fulfilling to me.

    I can’t think of a cogent reason why “pop is a young person’s game” should be a truism. Not only is it potentially the case that it is a truth of pop only if you frontload the definition but also it may be that the pop consumer is more likely to look for the new and unexpected and thus start to ignore the older performer whose ability is taken as a given.

  102. 103
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 3 Jun 2011 #

    Someone should write a history of pop drug abuse arising out of pain-killer addiction: dancers like Michael Jackson and James Brown almost certainly did themselves irreparable physical injury when young, the management of which would possibly have serious impact later…

  103. 104
    Ed on 4 Jun 2011 #

    @96 I like the sound of having a “late mature” peak. Davis was in his 40s when he did his best work, Sun Ra in his 50s and 60s, so I see your point.

  104. 105
    weej on 4 Jun 2011 #

    I’d like to suggest Robert Wyatt as a candidate for never going into decline. Though he’s hardly pop he’s been consistently brilliant at what he does for about 45 years.

  105. 106
    Ed on 4 Jun 2011 #

    @105 Yes: Wyatt was one of the ones that I was thinking of. But although his stuff remains great, his absolute pinnacle was in the 70s, wasn’t it?

    I guess I would be more convinced by the unconscious frontloading argument if I could be shown a handful of pop / rock artists who were *better* after 35 than before it. Any takers?

  106. 107
    weej on 4 Jun 2011 #

    My overly extended highlights package would comprise the first three Soft Machine albums (68-70), Matching Mole’s first album (72), Rock Bottom (74), Nothing Can Stop Us (82), Shleep (97) and Cuckooland (03), which may look a bit 70s heavy until you factor in my least favourite albums, The End Of An Ear (70) and Matching Mole’s Little Red Record (72) – If anything I’d say he’s got more consistent over the years, if a little less productive.
    All of his contemporaries seemed to follow the usual pattern, though, most annoyingly Kevin Ayers, who had a near 100% hit rate until about 74-75, and then nothing particularly interesting from then on.

  107. 108
    Izzy on 4 Jun 2011 #

    #106: that’s a great question! I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head – Jarvis Cocker or Fleetwood Mac’s rhythm section are as close as I can get. Maybe LCD Soundsystem, I don’t know what age he is but he seems kind of jaded.

    There must be some, though – there are enough artists who’ve flourished way past 35 and there must be many peaks among them. I wonder whether we’re getting sample bias here simply because pop’s fundamentally a genre for young people – we judge its peaks by zeitgeist-catching, anthems or danceability, mostly, which are things only young people really need. So obviously things *by* young people are going to appeal most. It’d be slightly sad for mature artists to be trying for those things when they and their peer group have different needs and tastes – maybe Dylan’s most recent work or, I don’t know, David Byrne’s artwork or Nile Rodgers’ production duties are their real peaks, and your question presupposes the wrong criteria?

  108. 109

    “pop’s fundamentally a genre for young people” — it’s become this, but was it always?

  109. 110
    Wheedly on 4 Jun 2011 #

    #106 Sticking strictly to 35 and up makes it really tough. Being a little looser, it’s easier to think of a number of singer-songwritery folks who did great work (whether their greatest work is always going to be subjective) in their thirties: Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Fred Neil and Tom Waits sprung to mind, and there must be others. Indeed, Paul Simon was still consistently excellent in his forties, and is still occasionally so now.
    All of them were slightly younger than 35 when they made my personal favourites though.
    Oh, and Sinatra was 38 at the start of his Capitol contract, I think.

  110. 111
    Alfred on 4 Jun 2011 #

    Robert Forster, DJ Quik, Ghostface, and, of course, Dylan are all at their peak of their powers.

  111. 112

    Sinatra’s interesting because I think he highlights the issue of circular definition: is his Capitol work “pop”? And if we’re saying not, are we saying not simply because audience-wise it’s not on the face of it “young persons’ music”. What about Franco? Googoosh? Lata Mangeshkar? Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?

  112. 113
    Cumbrian on 4 Jun 2011 #

    35 being the cut off is quite stringent. Obviously, this is heavily my opinion – but Wayne Coyne’s best work with Flaming Lips is all post him turning 35 (and Clouds Taste Metallic is from when he was 33 or 34). Certainly this stuff mostly comprises their more commercially successful work (and is more to my taste than their early stuff).

    I couldn’t think of much else off the top of my head. XTRMNTR by Primal Scream was released after many of the key players’ 35th birthdays (though I would imagine the quality of this record is up for debate – I personally rate it highly but can definitely see that not being a consensus opinion). It also not really a standard that they’ve kept up, so debatable whether their best work in general was produced post 35.

  113. 114
    Ed on 5 Jun 2011 #

    @110 and @113: Yes, a couple I thought might get in there don’t, quite. Joni Mitchell was 32-33 for ‘THOSL’ and ‘Hejira’. Neil Tennant was 32-34 during the PSBs’ imperial phase.

    It’s easier if you get away from performers. Brian Higgins of Xenomania and SAW were post-35 for their imperial phases, or at least S and W were.

    @108 and @112: The demographics and playlist for Radio 2 surely suggest that even for a quite tightly defined category of modern Anglo-American pop/rock, its audience is not just young people. Another question, which you would probably need ESRC funding to answer: what is the average age of the performers compared to the audience for pop radio? And how has that relationship changed over time?

  114. 115
    Wheedly on 5 Jun 2011 #

    It’s easier for singer-songwriters and solo artists, I think, to carry their audiences with them into their thirties and for them to retain a creative drive forwards. I imagine that, as an example, the majority of fans of an artist like Aimee Mann would be about her age and that Mann is unlikely to be picking up new young fans at this point in her career.
    Bands tend to be hamstrung by the peculiar dynamics that go on within bands – all the internal compromises and jealousies and insecurities; the members’ tastes and sensibilities drifting apart; the divisive effects that overbearing labels and producers can bring to the fray. I’d argue that, at least in today’s industry, a band that survives three album cycles of all that (each lasting two to three years, and before all that a year or so of slogging around before beginning work on a first release) is actually doing rather well in terms of longevity. Given that it’s unusual for labels to sign new bands not in their 20s (it happens, but not often), it becomes inevitable that comparatively few of them will reach their thirties still in the group they started off in.

  115. 116
    wichita lineman on 5 Jun 2011 #

    Re 114: Brian Higgins’ imperial phase was more down to his chosen engineers/workhorses Tim Powell (in his early-mid 20s) and Nick Coler… who was in his 40s. Doesn’t prove or disprove the theory, then, but I thought I’d give them their due.

  116. 117
    Mark G on 6 Jun 2011 #

    It’s all about the kid in the window.

    The back-stage workers have usually been ‘older’ (cf: The Reynolds girls “the DJ at the radio station is almost always twice the age of me” – yes and the person writing the song is twice the age of the DJ)

    Still, what is “pop”, as can you really mean Paul Simon, Robt Wyatt, Dylan, etc? But then again, without calling them “rock”, what category can you give them?

  117. 118
    Wheedly on 6 Jun 2011 #

    #117, well, a musicological explanation of pop would always be unsatisfactory and subject to change on almost a weekly basis, but at bottom isn’t pop just song- or dance-based music that sells?
    Paul Simon has had UK and US number-one singles, and albums, as both a solo act and as part of Simon & Garfunkel. S&G’s greatest hits sold 14 million copies in the US alone. Fourteen million copies.
    Sure, he’s not Lady Gaga, and his sound may not be the defining sound of top-40 radio, but that’s a cultural reach that few artists can dream of.
    Wyatt I suppose would be harder to describe as a pop artist, but Simon and Dylan (tens of millions of albums sold, 7 UK number-one albums, 5 US number-one albums, four US top-ten singles) are surely pop musicians.

  118. 119
    Mark G on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Yeah, but the remit/question is “which pop artists are still in their prime, after the age of 35” ?

    They have great back-catalogue and chart hit stats, back when they *were* pop. now, they sell albums but don’t have chart singles.

    So. *Are* they still pop musicians? Well, inasmuch as they aren’t ‘classical’, but then these boundaries have changed so much since the sixties, in that the ‘classic artist’ fulfils the role that ‘classical music’ used to, i.e. make ‘highbrow’ albums…

  119. 120
    punctum on 6 Jun 2011 #

    There is such a thing as “adult pop” but in the UK that has been demographically sidelined by youth-obsessed radio programmers to such an extent that the singles chart is now governed by Logan’s Run rules. Even if an act is under thirty, they are unlikely to appear anywhere unless they are Cowell, Brit School, Glee or club banger-related.

    The radio stations in Britain which should be playing and focusing on this music seemingly prefer to concentrate on safe, same-200-oldies computer playlisting (Heart, Magic) or old indie (6Music) or quixotic selections of unsellable rubbish as long as the head of music likes it (Radio 2 – every time the quality of a show audibly dips when the DJ has to play something from their playlist, usually a variant of Quirky Woman or Sensitive MoR Country Woman or This’ll Do ‘Til Amy Sorts Her Act Out Woman or Hornby-Approved Sensitive Man. Other than that, we have the spectacle of a publicly funded radio station who still want us to think that “Brown Eyed Girl” was a hit and Abba only ever made five singles).

  120. 121
    Mark G on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Back when I used to work at NHS offices, one place would always have the Radio2 on, (I was massively helpful during the music quiz), but it always amazed me that it was basically the same old rubbish except occasionally they’d play “Teenage Kicks” to ‘prove’ they were ‘kids’ at ‘heart’ or something.

  121. 122
    Jimmy the Swede on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Do you know something else? If I hear “The Year of the Cat” or “On the Border” one more frigging time between rounds of “Pop Master”, I’m going to do Ken Bruce an injury!

  122. 123
    punctum on 6 Jun 2011 #

    I’d even rather hear the Crackerjack version of “Year Of The Cat” which subsitutes “Tom and Jerry” for “Peter Lorre.” Clearly the BBC thought we were all dragging our knuckles behind us on the ground even in 1977.

  123. 124
    DietMondrian on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Rather late to the party, I’d like to chuck in a couple of names:

    Yo La Tengo – began their imperial phase with their eighth studio album, 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, a good 13 years after they formed and when they were all in their mid-thirties (probably – I can’t find their actual ages).

    Kraftwerk – Ralf und Florian were in their fifties when they released Tour de France Soundtracks, an album every bit as good as their 1970s/early 80s output. (I’m not trolling, I’m completely serious. It’s an album that can pass one by as pleasant but slight on the first few listens, but keep listening and it reveals itself as a masterly work of subtle, hypnotic beauty [sonic cathedrals, gibber etc]).

  124. 125
    Wheedly on 6 Jun 2011 #

    #119 – American radio formats can be useful when thinking about what kind of pop music someone like Paul Simon might be making (AOR? Adult contemporary? Adult alternative? You could probably fit something from his new album into any of those formats), but what’s great about Tom’s work here (and Marcello’s on Then Play Long) is that these issues aren’t really that relevant.
    If an artist is being covered here (or on TPL), they’re pop. The purity of that is what I enjoy most about Popular. By the same token, it’s a shame that Radio 1 and Radio 2 don’t come closer to encompassing everything pop music is and can be.

  125. 126
    wichita lineman on 7 Jun 2011 #

    That’s pretty much my definition of pop – if it’s Top 40, it’s pop.

    The American Balkanisation of pop is depressing and only adds to snobbery. Adult Contemporary, I only learned from BBC4, is literally Easy Listening – they changed the name of the Billboard chart in 1979 (iirc).

    Re Radio 2 and Ken Bruce… might be on my own here, but that’s where I’ve first heard top notch, non hit, new acts like Lissie, and the Pierces, so I’m not complaining too hard.

  126. 127
    punctum on 7 Jun 2011 #

    The Pierces have a #4 album with their set of Belinda Carlisle/Bangles tributes. The “single” probably should and would have been a hit in different times but the sealing of the Radio 1 Customs gates has probably helped put pay to anything getting into the singles chart that doesn’t strictly adhere to the criteria listed above. One of TPL‘s many modest aims is to try and get these gates pulled down again.

  127. 128
    punctum on 7 Jun 2011 #

    A potentially interesting question which occurred to me while typing out the above; R2 faves like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald – how popular (or even “pop”) have any of these artists been with the British public at large, brief spells of interest, TV commercials and cover versions notwithstanding?

  128. 129
    wichita lineman on 7 Jun 2011 #

    I always assumed Ella was popular – you see original copies of Every Time We Say Goodbye a lot. Nina Simone had two Top 5 hits in ’69, but her best known hit is 80s ad related. You never see old UK copies of Billie Holiday records, but I’m guessing Desmond Carrington and David Jacobs were well aware of her in the olden days.

    Brian Poole’s version of Do You Love Me just came on Gold… not the Contours! Re-revisionist!

  129. 130
    wichita lineman on 7 Jun 2011 #

    Pierces – add F Mac to that list. It’s not exactly challenging, but everything on the album sounds like a ‘hit’ except the last two tracks. Sequenced for listening posts? Is that nineties retro??

  130. 131
    punctum on 7 Jun 2011 #

    It always seems to me that radio plays Nina, Ella etc., because programmers think it sounds “correct” to play them, fits in with the winebar/Giraffe café/drive kids to and from school/bedroom-painting pseudo-aspirational/demographic ideal ethos, whereas people who were truly popular, whether Kathy Kirby or Peters & Lee or Adam Ant, get ignored.

    No one ever plays the Dave Clark Five version of “Do You Love Me?,” almost the tonsil-ripping equivalent of the Fabs’ “Twist And Shout.”

  131. 132
    Jimmy the Swede on 7 Jun 2011 #

    # 126 – You’re not on your own, Lino. As a fellow Ken Bruce groupie, I am particularly grateful for being introduced to Rumer and her delightful work. Voice like Karen Carpenter, style of Carole King. An uber-talented young woman and extremely pleasant and unstarry to boot.

    Ken is a wonderful broadcaster. Still like when Zoe stands in for the old boy, though. She’s turned 40 now and what a box of delights she truly is.

  132. 133
    Izzy on 7 Jun 2011 #

    I think I’ve found a genuine, incontestable pop peak at age 35 – Barry Manilow released ‘Copacabana’ pretty much dead on his 35th birthday.

  133. 134
    wichita lineman on 7 Jun 2011 #

    Re 132: Phew! Ken B seems an odd target when the rest of Radio 2 appears to be happy to mimic Radio 1 in the late 80s. Aside from the late Ray Moore, I’d say he’s the funniest dj Radio 2 has ever had.

  134. 135
    Ed on 7 Jun 2011 #

    @120 Punctum, I like the sound of non-R2 “adult pop”. Where would I find it?

  135. 136
    Snif on 9 Jun 2011 #

    So is it a case of ‘Once a pop singer, always a pop singer”?

    What’s the statute of limits? How long after their last (or only) hit is an artist or group to be no longer considered Pop? Ever?

  136. 137
    punctum on 9 Jun 2011 #

    Pop is not AC Grayling.

  137. 138

    AC Grayling vs AC Temple: WHO WILL WIN?

  138. 139
    Mark G on 9 Jun 2011 #

    AC Marias, obv.

  139. 140
    Ed on 9 Jun 2011 #

    AC/DC

  140. 141
    Rashmika on 26 Mar 2014 #

    I’ve been waiting for you to post an origmai bunny for Easter! This looks like a challenge but worth it! I mean, check out the little bunny hands! I’m linking you up to my blog. Hope you don’t mind.Funny cause my daughter and i were just wondering the same thing—how do people imagine these things up?

  141. 142
    Rory on 26 Mar 2014 #

    Spoiler Bunny, meet Spam Bunny. Check out the little bunny hands!

  142. 143
    Alan not logged in on 26 Mar 2014 #

    We’ve had a spate of entirely harmless spam comments of late – all in the same random manner, and where the site link would normally link to filth or scams it’s just some random facebook profile. eh?

  143. 144
    Andrew Farrell on 26 Mar 2014 #

    They’re also getting eerily close to actual engagement with the topic. And in the 16th year of the Trigger, the wars started…

  144. 145
    Cumbrian on 2 Jun 2016 #

    Re: Mark S @ 103 in this thread. Following the leaked news that Prince probably was a victim of painkillers, I’d say this idea (i.e. “Someone should write a history of pop drug abuse arising out of pain-killer addiction”) whilst bleak would likely be illuminating.

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