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Jan 11

ELTON JOHN – “Sacrifice”/”Healing Hands”

FT + Popular74 comments • 6,561 views

#647, 23rd June 1990

In the latest X-Factor series they did an Elton John theme week for the first time. Nobody sang “Sacrifice”, probably because it’s very glum and not terribly good. But the choices they did make brought out the unique qualities not so much of Elton but of Bernie Taupin, and the pleasure lay in hearing voices groomed for today’s smooth-milled lyrics suddenly have to struggle with horny-back toads and wide-eyed warriors.

Taupin is a chewy lyricist, sometimes oblique, often awkward in the way he comes at clauses or ideas. That infuriating bit in “Your Song” where he changes his mind mid-line about whether to be a sculptor or not is pure Bernie. So is “maker of potions at a travelling show”, for that matter. These lines give Elton’s songs their character, but they can also make them unwieldy and doughy. And I think this is what happens in “Sacrifice”, a bit. He’s not being cryptic here – if you didn’t know he was having marriage troubles you certainly wouldn’t win a prize for guessing – but couplets like “Into the boundary of each married man / Sweet deceit comes calling and negativity lands” feel clumsy.

But then maybe clumsy is how they’re meant to feel. The emotional landscape of “Sacrifice” is one where the individuals lack agency – only emotions and states are active: it’s temptation, negativity, deceit, sensitivity that are doing stuff while the two people in a marriage drift listlessly towards its end. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” starts with a similar trick – “Routine bites hard… resentment rides high…” – though its protagonist makes a doomed attempt at connection whereas Elton/Taupin just glides on, numb and regretless.

So actually my problem is that the rest of the record – is filled with tells that this is quite a different kind of song. The production – plush and cosseting – suggests the kind of single you don’t have to work very hard at to get the point of. The singing and songwriting is supposedly influenced by Percy Sledge, which I guess means Elton is reaching for the kind of wracked everyman storytelling Sledge did on “When A Man Loves A Woman”. So for me the performance and the lyric are pulling in different directions. I guess all the “It’s no sacrifice” stuff is meant to hint that yes, it is a sacrifice despite what’s being said, but Taupin’s done too good a job of showing us it’s not. And I finish the single thinking – well, why do I care? Which, I suppose, is how the protagonists feel too.

(Oh, “Healing Hands” – it’s more enjoyable on one or two listens than “Sacrifice”, muscly rock-gospel with Elton in full-throated, barking, form. But I don’t remember ever hearing it in 1990 – or since! – so I’m treating this as an A-Side in all but name.)

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Jonathan Bogart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Score?

  2. 2
    Tom on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Hmm, I put one in but it’s not displaying. Alan – is the slider bar thing broken?

    3, anyway.

  3. 3
    Tom on 3 Jan 2011 #

    There we go! My fault – I’d forgotten to tick the box marked “Popular”, doh.

    Fascinating insights into the FT back end, there.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    In 1997, I saw an ITV special, ‘An Audience With Elton John’, featuring the great man performing to an audience of fellow celebrities, duetting with a few of them and answering their questions.

    Richard E Grant presented Elton with a challenge. He’d heard that he could compose a song from scratch when supplied with lyrics. Grant brought along the instructions for his new oven to turn into a song. John accepted the challenge. Reading the booklet he observed “‘Delicious mouthwatering meals’, well that’s the hook…” And Lo and behold the instant rinkytink song was rather fun (certainly superior to similar efforts that actually made their way to vinyl by The Cure and The Fall)

    I think that the stunt illustrated the musical problem that John faces every time that Bernie Taupin hands him some new lyrics. How on earth can he make sense out of this convoluted and hamfisted stuff? And to his immense credit, he almost always does!

    Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I really like Sacrifice. Its not much of a song, really, but Elton’s phrasing, the tune, and the doomy mid-eighties arrangement that takes its time to add new flickery bits of instrumentation that always work make the single a source of real pleasure to me, even though I can’t draw much emotional resonance from the actual song. Elton wins the Taupin challenge once again!

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    #2 Watch: 3 weeks of Luciano Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’, followed by a week for Craig McLachan & Check 1-2’s somewhat underwhelming ‘Mona’.

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: Elton John performed Sacrifice twice on Top Of The Pops. Of the Christmas edition, more anon;

    22 June 1990. Also in the studio that week were; Magnum, Big Fun & Sonia and Yazz. Jakki Brambles was the host.

  7. 7
    thefatgit on 3 Jan 2011 #

    “Sacrifice” pushes none of my buttons. Not in the way “Daniel” or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” did in the 70s which evoked some kind of fantasy life to my childhood ears. Here we have adult responsibilities and difficult choices. No escapism at all, which is what Elton’s songs and Taupin’s lyrics had been about for so long. Even “Nikita” had that looking through another’s eyes about it. Poor Bernie must have suffered to have written lyrics this turgid.

    So this was a bit of a pain in the arse to listen to tbh. And listening to it now, I’m still pretty much unmoved by the whole exercise. That clunky drum pattern and those chiming synths don’t do anything for me. A Steve Wright in the Afternoon record for the mums, at the risk of generalising Elton’s intended target audience.

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 3 Jan 2011 #

    it sounds as if elton had taken note of the success Phil Collins had been having with his dreary ballads and decided to follow suit.

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Ha, yes, I can confirm that 1990 Crown Woods School sixth form reaction was very much that this was ‘parent music’. Much of the reason for Sacrifice’s unexpected success (it had struggled to #55 in November 1989) was ‘Everything I Own’-style public goodwill towards the artist, who had never got to number one on his own before.

  10. 10
    Tom on 3 Jan 2011 #

    #9 yes an ENORMOUS amount was made of this which combined w/the fact it was #1 for seemingly EVER was quite enough to put me off Elton for a decade-plus.

  11. 11
    23 Daves on 3 Jan 2011 #

    I’m fairly sure that “Healing Hands” received a few outings at the time – I think (although cannot conclusively prove) that the “ITV Chart Show” may have played that track instead of “Sacrifice” on one occasion.

    Still, both tracks to me sound like a classic case of an artist scoring a freak number one hit during a creative lull. Whether this was fanbase driven or otherwise is hard for me to say, but it’s difficult for me to understand how Elton’s fans could have wanted to hear something as damp and weak as “Sacrifice”. There are some fantastic songs in his catalogue, but this sticks out like a sore thumb on any “Best Of”, with its half-hearted chorus, irritatingly clean production with those pitiful pinging and chiming noises, and delicately plucked acoustic guitar. It’s a cliche, but it really applies in this case – erase the vocals and it’s disturbingly close to elevator music.

    “Healing Hands” has a bit more oomph, as Tom rightly points out, but it’s not particularly memorable. In short, I really don’t understand what drove this up to the number one spot. Both songs fared badly when originally issued in their own right, missing the top 40 by some margin (“Sacrifice” got to Number 55 in November 1989, “Healing Hands” number 45 in August 1989). Technically speaking it’s a charity single, of course, which may explain some added sales, but there are plenty of other examples of middling charity singles performed as solo artist or band (or non-ensemble) productions which failed to catch fire. I’m a bit bemused by it, to tell you the truth.

  12. 12
    Bertie Fox on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Over Christmas 1990 I had the very bad luck to lose my virginity while the fella in question had Sacrifice on REPEAT PLAY. I’ve tried never to hear it again since. But I remember it was very sludgy and depressing. The song.

  13. 13
    Izzy on 3 Jan 2011 #

    I like the focus on Taupin, Tom. His role has long fascinated me, because although he’s doubtless competent enough, so often I find the details meaningless and rather clunking. “Blue jean baby…” or “I was made in England, like a blue cortina” – not exactly memorable imagery.

    Which invites the question why Elton chose to work that way, instead of just doing it himself and pocketing all the cash. No doubt they don’t split 50-50, but Bernie made enough, quickly enough, to set himself up with a Caifornia ranch, which seems a bit of a gap between effort and reward to me.

  14. 14
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Well, Elton needs something to latch onto. If it hadn’t been for Taupin, he’d probably have remained a respected sessionman/ bandmember, albeit a much-loved music business character. If you look at, say, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (which I’d say was the best thing they ever did), every song has got a striking idea behind it that Elton can make something of; Marylin Monroe, Science-fiction girl group, Country boy rejects the big bad city, lesbians, arsonists, hooligans, and so forth over four sides of fun.

  15. 15
    lord darlington on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Pardon my ignorance, what was the charity?

    I remember the Stone Roses’ first single since Fools Gold coming out the week Sacrifice reached number one and, expecting it to cruise to no.1, thinking “no competition there”. One Love being as disappointing a follow up as New Order’s Confusion, it only made no.4 and Elton was safe at the top for a month and more.

    Healing Hands got plays, just not as many. There’s another dubious Elton double A-side coming up a few years hence.

    As for Elton/Bernie clunkiness, his previous hit (no.30) had the spectacularly bad title I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.

  16. 16
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    The B-side of ‘One Love’, ‘Something’s Burning’, is great, though – It sounds like Can!

  17. 17
    Izzy on 3 Jan 2011 #

    The other reason it seemed strange is how committed Elton is/was to expressing himself in the music and performing. I’d’ve thought someone like that (Barry Manilow works the same way) would want to be singing his own words & ideas, to be projecting himself 100%.

  18. 18
    lord darlington on 3 Jan 2011 #

    I haven’t heard Something’s Burning in years (checks… yes, Can doing Fools Gold!). Can seemed to become a major influential drop around this time – Happy Mondays had certainly listened to Tago Mago.

  19. 19
    Tom on 3 Jan 2011 #

    The first play of “One Love” is a strong memory: three of us – each with our own copies – sitting in silence trying to work out whether the other two thought it was as bad as they did. A falsely chirpy “It’s alright” was all anyone could manage.

  20. 20
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Re #15. The royalties were split between four AIDS charities; The Terrence Higgins Trust, London Lighthouse, Jeffriss Research Wing Trust and Body Positive.

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    The most exciting thing about One Love at the time was its original CONTROVERSIAL SINISTER SUBLIMINAL SWASTIKA SLEEVE.

  22. 22
    wichitalineman on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Re 19: I remember the same thing happening in my kitchen with a few friends when Love Spreads got its first play – tumbleweed! The production on One Love was a mess, widdly guitars (a pointer to the Roses’ future) masking quite a decent chorus. “I’m a dolphin – I just don’t swim in the sea” wasn’t quite “I am the resurrection”, either.

    Sacrifice has less of a hook than One Love; try and imagine (please do) a muzak version with a sax replacng the vocal. There’s nothing there. It took plenty of airplay before I could remember how it went. A bloody weird idea to pair two flop singles as a charity record, as if Paul McCartney had decided to benefit AIDS charities by releasing Old Siam Sir b/w Press.

  23. 23
    Izzy on 3 Jan 2011 #

    I won’t hear a word against the first few seconds’ snap-into-focus on ‘One Love’. ‘Something’s Burning’ *is* fabulous though.

  24. 24
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Jan 2011 #

    “old siam sir” has a great sekrit hidden macca bassline, ircc

  25. 25
    wichitalineman on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Proof that Bernie needs Elton, if not vice versa:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaNhUz-A2p4

    He sounds so BO-O-O-RED!

    And the poor chap’s trying really hard to hide his outer-suburban accent – the effect is like Caroline Flint reading If (Kipling or Savalas) out loud.

  26. 26
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Jan 2011 #

    oh maybe — having just relistened — it doesn’t and i’m thinkin of something else :(

  27. 27
    tonya on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Saccharifice.

  28. 28
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Cover version watch: Sinead O’Connor!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWa-aMiqQKE

    I am now intrigued to hear this album, although I think it might require some fortitude;

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Two-Rooms-Celebrating-Bernie-Taupin/dp/B000025SX8/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1294081900&sr=1-1

  29. 29
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Aha, if Wikipedia is to be believed the credit for the rerelease of Sacrifice should go to Steve Wright, who continued to play the recent flop single on his Radio One afternoon show through the early months of 1990.

  30. 30
    the pinefox on 3 Jan 2011 #

    I don’t know that much about EJ, and haven’t heard this for years, and probably didn’t like it at the time, but I have an idea that as #1s go, it’s probably quite good.

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