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Feb 20

ELTON JOHN – “Are You Ready For Love?”

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#959, 6th September 2003

Elton John’s best moment at number one comes with a forgotten track from a barely-noticed late-70s EP, lucked onto years later by someone in Sky Sports’ ad agency, remixed (delicately and discreetly) by Ashley Beedle, used to promote the new football season, and received with delight as a lost gem from a national treasure.

For all that the big beasts of pop have deep catalogues, it’s relatively rare for anyone to have a latter-day hit with a genuine obscurity. Record labels can be philistines, but once an act’s on their books they’re usually canny or venal enough to squeeze the material for what it’s worth. Besides, it’s a lot easier to run with the public’s initial verdict – why try and give some forgotten recording its due when you could just put out another Greatest Hits? “Are You Ready For Love” sounded like a hit the minute it resurfaced, but the fact of that resurfacing remains deeply unlikely.

Why was the song neglected in the first place? It’s probable Elton just didn’t especially like it. He didn’t write it, after all, and the Thom Bell sessions it came from were fraught and incomplete. What should have been a natural collaboration – John’s love for the Philly sound was deep, and “Philadelphia Freedom” tipped the hat to Bell with its early-disco string hooks – went sour; hardly surprising nobody was keen to do much with the results. When “Are You Ready For Love” did come out, on a 3-Track EP, the disco era was beginning to overripen, and perhaps there wasn’t much interest in a declining star’s stab at dance-pop.

The song didn’t necessarily make more sense in 2003, but it made a different sort of sense. What might once have sounded tacky had aged into classiness, and “Are You Ready?” was able to feel reassuringly comfy while dodging the trap of over-familiarity. The teasing, twinkling plucked string intro, and the easy bounce of the percussion, make the song feel especially welcoming, like you’re being ushered into a disco VIP room which turns out to be a cosy snug.

Elton gives a well-judged performance too – he starts intimate and conversational, not breaking out into his louder registers until the chorus, and then his earnest gruffness on “Yes I am… Yes I am!” makes it come off as honest yearning. It’s hard to overstate how much the absence of Bernie Taupin helps – no wild metaphors, no mawkishness, no knotted scansion. Elton John without those things wouldn’t be Elton John, but a break from them for these few joyfully straightforward minutes is exactly what he needed, even if it took 26 years to realise it.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Shiny Dave on 11 Feb 2020 #

    Of course, as came up in discussion of his last appearance at the top, this particular big beast of pop has a deep and weird catalogue even by big-beasts-of-pop standards – Elton’s 1980 album was “21 At 33” because it was his 21st album at the age of 33, and even counting just studio albums it was his 14th.

    To put Elton’s “making up for lost time” Popular track record into context; this non-album track is the fourth Elton John single to be recorded pre-Thatcher and top the charts in some form post-Thatcher. And there’s one more that’s still bunnied! And all of these had different parent albums!!

    Of course, none of these topped the charts in completely the same form; two were duet covers, the bunny to come is half that and half a new record, and “Candle In The Wind ’97” is a lyrical rewrite. And this is a lightly remixed radio edit of what, in original form, was an eight-minute track. Except it really doesn’t sound remixed at all, more remastered; as a teenager at the time I certainly thought it was “the original” even when it wasn’t quite; the only giveaway is that Elton’s recorded the second verse that he didn’t sing before.

    Having not listened to this in ages, hearing it again makes me feel the same giddy sense of retro-freshness it must have had in 2003. This revival couldn’t have happened without the critical change of heart on disco, and singlehandedly justifies it even if it hadn’t already been justified many times over long before this. 8

  2. 2
    ThePensmith on 11 Feb 2020 #

    I bought the ‘Diamonds’ greatest hits set that Elton put out recently – mainly as a result of watching the ‘Nation’s Favourite Elton Song’ poll show hosted by David Walliams on ITV that accompanied its release. This was one of the first tracks I skipped to, because of my familiarity with and love of it. And it’s such a thing of pure beauty, particularly when you consider firstly it’s original place in his career canon, but also offering an emphatic answer back to those critics of his that suggested his best work from the earlier part of his career was solely the Bernie Taupin stuff.
    Even now it’s a floorfiller – I put this on the playlist I curated for the reception at my sister’s wedding when she got married six years ago and the second it came on, everyone went ‘Yay’ and got up for a little boogie (her husband also sang ‘Your Song’ to her in the ceremony, possibly influenced by a famous wedding speech by a soon to be met multiple bunny holder). That it took a Sky Sports ad campaign for it to finally surface in this country was no bad thing, if anything it just bought it to people’s wider attention, because my knowledge of Elton up to that point in September 2003 was ‘Candle In The Wind’, The Lion King and the Blue re-work of ‘Sorry Seems…’ we discussed previously.

    This helped me realise that actually, there was more to him as an artist and songwriter. But it’s also one of the few chart toppers from this year that still makes me smile. For all that, I heartily award ‘Are You Ready For Love?’ a 9.
    Some other strong new entries in the top 10 the week this hit the top: Sean Paul coming so near and yet so far to dethroning himself at number one with ‘Like Glue’, his third single entering aptly at #3. Kelly Clarkson’s first UK release with ‘Miss Independent’ at #6 (her coronation single from American Idol not receiving a release here, although I do recall my HMV stocking it on import), and oft-forgotten Scots pop rock outfit Speedway at #10 taking the ‘Freak Like Me’ approach and re-recording the infamous bootleg of The Strokes’ ‘Hard to Explain’ and Christina Aguilera’s ‘Genie In A Bottle’. Suffice to say it was their only top 10 hit, just two more low charting top 40 hits of Texas meets Dido cast-offs awaited before they were dropped.

  3. 3
    Lee Saunders on 11 Feb 2020 #

    My impression at the time was that this must have been always one of his biggest hits and that it just so happened to have hit again for some reason (I weirdly probably didn’t read the write-up in the Now 56 booklet). I also remember the Elton John Greatest Hits 1970-2002 compilation that seemed to be in every music shop and supermarket for well over a year with this retrofitted into the track listing (it was also on Clubland 4 and, a few years on, one of those similar The Weekend bar/club/morning after comps – I never quite ‘got’ how this non-electronic disco tune was supposed to fit in with a bunch of house music).

    And it was also one in three Elton John songs I liked through childhood, along with Step Into Christmas and Crocodile Rock. Us reaching it on Popular right now is timely given my current endeavours in disco and Britfunk and it strikes me as so pretty I’m gonna rise to an 8. Makes me regret there isn’t much else in Elton’s catalogue like this (Victim of Love doesn’t count), but then I say the same thing about his flop of the previous year, 1978’s Ego, which for me is his best ever song and proof as with AYRFL he really could adapt his sound to new musics well in those troubled times. As a bit of a non-fan to Elton in general I prefer this to any of his Imperial Phase stuff.

  4. 4
    PapaT on 12 Feb 2020 #

    Thepensmith- The Speedway track really sticks in my memory from this era, for some reason. I thought it was a bit desperate at the time, and that’s before I knew it was a facsimile of a pre-existing mash-up. Listening to it now it seems truly baffling; why would you want to listen to a straight cover of a song that retains none of its melody? I do remember whichever chart recap site I followed at the time was a fan though.

  5. 5
    James BC on 12 Feb 2020 #

    The chorus is a winner on first listen, but after I heard the song a few more times it started to sound a bit insubstantial. A bit Philly-by-numbers. So if the original version really was eight minutes long, I’m not in the market for it.

    This did stand out on the radio, just because the Philly sound itself is so good, but there are much better examples around, performed by much better singers. Give me Gabrielle’s “When A Woman” any time.

    5 for me.

  6. 6
    ThePensmith on 12 Feb 2020 #

    #4 – I did actually buy the Speedway album (‘Save Yourself’) at the time. There wasn’t actually some bad songs on it as I recall. They were however, labelmates with Blue and Atomic Kitten on Innocent, hence why they were pushed somewhat unfittingly onto the former’s arena tour as a support act. Clearly Hugh Goldsmith was trying to be ahead of the wave, but didn’t seem to know what to do with them.

    Also because they’d launched with a cover – and some would argue lazy one at that – the pop press was reluctant to touch them for the same reason mainstream contemporary radio and the cooler press ignored them. Jim Duguid, their drummer, however, did go onto find success as drummer for Paolo Nutini. Likewise, their guitarist Dan Gillespie Sells (or Dan Sells as he was then) went onto be founding member and front man of The Feeling.

  7. 7
    AMZ1981 on 12 Feb 2020 #

    One thing I’ve just discovered is that the Thom Bell sessions did spawn a hit single in the US at the time; that was Mama Can’t Buy You Love (which made no impression in the UK but restored him to the US top 10 after a three year absence). I’ll also note that I was already familiar with all three original songs from the Thom Bell EP by virtue of them featuring as the B sides to the CD single of his minor 1992 hit The Last Song (and as an aside the third track, Three Way Love Affair, may be better than both).

    I can see why AYRFL might appeal to those who find Bernie Taupin’s lyrics a bit indigestible but at the same time it’s a reminder that, in a parallel universe where Elton John never met Taupin but still became a star, his output would probably resemble Rod Stewart’s with the occasional gem being offset by complete dreck. In fairness they have tossed off a fair amount of dreck together as well but what they get wrong is always offset by what they got right. It makes for a frustrating but intriguing catalogue that ultimately means Elton ends up in the same bracket as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, as opposed to Rod and Cliff Richard.

    Two final notes. Firstly if Elton John has a strange set of of UK number ones, his US list is equally strange despite the bulk of them falling during his imperial phase (when was the last time you heard Island Girl or his laboured treatment of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds). The second is the interesting fact that in terms of US chart toppers, Bernie Taupin actually has a two point lead over Elton as he also wrote We Built This City (for Starship) and These Dreams (for Heart).

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 14 Feb 2020 #

    I don’t care for much of Elton’s material but occasionally he produces something carefree and wonderful like this. It helps that the lyrics lack the convoluted conceits of Bernie Taupin and that Elton is caressing the words rather than bellowing them. A delight

  9. 9
    DJ Punctum on 20 Feb 2020 #

    In 1979 this could only get to #42 whereas Death Disco went top twenty. I don’t know what this says about traduced cultural circumstances but it tied in with the Guilty Pleasures “phenomenon” which I was partially responsible for popularising. Any pop past as long as it’s a comforting one. No one knows the Spinners original of this but it is much more convincing, perhaps because it knows how and where to relax – even at this relatively medium pace I sense some freneticism at work.

  10. 10
    Gran Torino on 21 Feb 2020 #

    I didn’t know about the Sky Sports thing, as far as I was aware its popularity was due to Fatboy Slim (who was still a big deal as a DJ partly due to his notorious Brighton beach gigs) playing it to close his sets. It was his record label, Southern Fried, that re-released it. Hence why it also appeared on house music compilations at the time. I seem to remember it was the playing of the original version that generated all the hype, with the Ashley Beedle remix simply being commissioned after it was signed, but I could be wrong.

  11. 11
    Paulito on 23 Feb 2020 #

    @9: Elton’s is the original. It was recorded in 1977 but not released until ‘79, the same year the Spinners recorded their version. (Although apparently they contributed backing vox to Elt’s version and it was first envisaged as a fully-fledged collaboration, with the Spinners sharing lead vocals with him.)

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