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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. 31
    wichita lineman on 3 Jan 2011 #

    It’s not.

    More worthy contenders in the Top 20 during Sacrifice’s 5 weeks at number one: Betty Boo’s Doin’ The Do, The Charlatans’ The Only One I Know, MC Tunes’ The Only Rhyme That Bites, D Trance’s Yaaah, The B 52s’ Roam.

    But then so was Big Fun & Sonia’s version of You’ve Got A Friend. Jeez – anyone remember that?

  2. 32
    MikeMCSG on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Some interesting comments on a not very interesting record.

    Yes you do sometimes wonder why people like Elton or Brian Wilson for that matter are so unconfident about expressing themselves in words. Mind you when you hear some of Elton’s Taupin-less stuff like “Blue Eyes” it starts to make more sense.

    In terms of fitting music to difficult lyrics I think Elton takes second place to James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore. How they could come up with the music for “Motorcycle Emptiness” when they were presented with that lyric is beyond me.

    I seem to remember this was number one when Inspiral Carpets brought out their debut LP “Life” from which their career never really recovered.

  3. 33
    Hazel on 3 Jan 2011 #

    I really like Sacrifice but then I really like Elton John. Plus the thing Swanstep mentions about it being full of complicated grown-up emotion is something I’m very drawn to in music, especially the sad exhaustedness of it, whereas probably by dint of being too young to have been there at the time I find Elton’s more fantastic numbers gratingly brash.

    Edit: too young to have been there for the fantastic bits, that is. Sacrifice is one of the songs I remember from being really quite little, which I suppose might be why it’s an 8 from me and clearly much lower from a lot of people.

  4. 34
    swanstep on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Yikes, well Sacrifice is a bit of a horrible shock to the system after our run of good-to-excellent, intensely memorable #1s isn’t it? The song’s new to me and it’s pretty unpleasant (watching the vid. it was hard to make it through and I was honestly thinking ‘”No sacrifice”? Speak for yourself mate, that’s 5 minutes of my life I’m not getting back, and I could have used it to listen to Sinead’s Last Day of our Acquaintance.’).

    I agree with Tom that the lyrics are only superficially the big problem, it’s the music and arrangement that flummox. The vocal line is very constricted, wibbling about just a handful of notes for almost the whole time, and as a result EJ’s voice is strangulated, and loses the color and dimensionality it has when it ranges a bit. His enunciation is also uncharacteristically poor: I hear ‘Cocoa heart’ throughout. The melody needs a lot of work I reckon, and probably a few more chords to force some movement into the thing. Doing that would also have the benefit of giving the instrumentation something to play. Overall, the song reminds me quite a lot of late Abba stuff (which can definitely irritate if you aren’t in the right mood for them), but those songs are really well written for their particular singers to *do* something, show off some particular features of their voices, and the instrumental arrangements are very fine.

    With Sacrifice usual service has been restored in the charts and I’m not happy (and I want to take back every mildly snippy thing I might have written about WiM or Killer or The Power or….):
    2 or 3

  5. 35
    Snif on 3 Jan 2011 #

    Was not very impressed by this, but quite liked Sinead O’Connor’s cover of it.

  6. 36
    crag on 3 Jan 2011 #

    I remember Neil Tennant (or poss Chris Lowe)saying writing music to a lyric-rather than the other way round- was a recipe for disaster and citing Sacrifice as a key example with words to the effect of “Sorry but the word ‘Sacrifice’ has 3 syllables-NOT 4! It’s not pronounced “Sac-er-if-ice’!!”
    I still have asoft spot for One Love though I’ve not heard it for a few years. Somethings Burning is great though.I remember being confused for several years when I read somewhere that it was a Kenny Rogers cover! Same title, different song i think…
    Doin the Do would have been an amazing #1- as would Betty’s forgetten “comeback” single Let Me Take You There complete withPet Sounds instrumental break..

  7. 37
    George on 3 Jan 2011 #

    It’s already been mentioned but the production on this makes it sound incredibly dated compared to the prevailing winds of 89/90. Thank you very much Steve Wright!

    I’m quite fond of ‘Kiss The Bride’ but ‘I’m Still Standing’ was the last genuinely great pop single he released. He already had six US#1’s to his name by this stage (seven if you count DGBMH). His measly UK total in comparison is a real oddity for such a major artist.

  8. 38
    Billy on 3 Jan 2011 #

    I can’t hear this song without expecting the words “You’re listening to Mellow Magic” at the end.

    It’s tied into a very specific memory for me, getting a taxi on the way to meet my family in Dublin at about 4am in the morning in May 2006, and this playing from that same radio station. With the sun slowly rising on the motorway drive to Luton Airport, it sounded quite beautiful, and forms a music video of the song in my mind. More than anything, that gives it a higher grade for me.

    In fact for me it’s this, not World In Motion, that brings to the end of one of the most amazing runs of number 1s ever, going right back to Nothing Compares 2 U. Even I admit that by the time we get to the next one things have gone very wrong…

  9. 39
    wichita lineman on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Not forgotten in our house, crag! Gorgeous cover too. The second Boo album – Grrr! It’s Betty Boo – is a great mix of ice rink organ and cheeky steals (Lady Madonna!), and is if anything an advance on Boomania; some of it sounds like double-speed Lily Allen. Top marks for (third single) Hangover and its Pocohontas/Calamity Jane video.

  10. 40
    chelovek na lune on 4 Jan 2011 #

    This just seems like an inexplicable number one to me, still, just as it did at the time. Elton was hardly, overall, at the peak of either his creative or commercial success at this time – probably the best single from the previous album, “Reg Strikes Back” (which is to damn with faint praise), “A Word in Spanish” hadn’t even made the top 75).

    But then…looking through the top 40s for the weeks that this was on top – well, there is no other way to say this: there was a hell of a lot of really crap songs in the charts that summer. As bad as the mid-80s in fact! And, well, I must admit that even “Sacrifice” is preferable to Craig McLachlan and Check 1-2’s absolute dross. (And as for the stinkers yet to come at number one…). I think, overall, my favourite from among them (and I was another who rushed out to buy “One Love” when it was released, I think on my 15th birthday, and was just shocked at how uninteresting the A-side of it was – although in retrospect this was a good warning for what to expect of the future career of both the Roses as a group and of the members thereof) was The Inspiral Carpets’ “She Comes In The Fall” (B-side “Sackville” – also exceptional stuff)

    Of course this was also the summer in which (in London, at least) the stronghold of Radio 1 and the established commercial radio stations started to be threatened by a range of legal newcomers (and also the end of pirate radio playing killer, but verging on the poppy, tracks like “Lies” by En Vogue – another favourite of that summer. which the illegal stations around Hackney seemed to be broadcasting as frequently as the latest, pretty damn good, offerings from the Ragga Twins). I think Jazz FM had already become legal by this point of the year, and the legal (and as yet unwatered down, and also as yet not aimed solely at the socially and intellecutally subnormal – as it was for a while in the mid-2000s, Kiss FM was I think to follow a few months later, and Choice FM (for our friends on the wrong side of the river) , and Melody (later Magic). And then later on, Heart, XFM and so on.

    (And then of course later on in the decade or in the 2000s almost all of these got swallowed up and emblandened by conglomorates. Hmm. Time to wave the flag for distributism I suppose)

    As for what impact all that had on the charts…well, there clearly was some. Jazz FM (and Gilles Peterson in particular) must have helped out acts on the Acid Jazz label a bit – I guess the Brand New Heavies being the big beneificiary, while already by the end of 1990, and more so a bit later, loads of “Kiss records” were scoring very respectable chart positions (Shut Up And Dance’s rogue, illegal, number 2 in 1992 being toppermost among them I suppose).

    Much I would love to say that the somewhat excessive success of “Sacrifice” (and, yes, “Healing Hands” is, marginally, better) marked the end of Radio 1 promoting ultra-bland music to great commercial success….well, by the following year it was quite clear that films could do that too. Oh. I didn’t mean to wake the spoiler bunny there, as it appears we may need to discuss that far sooner than we might have liked.

  11. 41
    23 Daves on 4 Jan 2011 #

    #34 – Yes, I originally referenced late period Abba in my post, then quickly deleted it as I thought it was unfair to everyone’s favourite Swedish quartet. It’s a reasonable point, though – their world-weary relationship songs were quite similar in theme and tone to “Sacrifice”, but they had range and dynamics whereas “Sacrifice” is just one long grey sulk.

    Oddly though, years ago I used to have a Solitaire game on my computer which had a synthesised muzak library you could turn on if you wanted to hear elevator-orientated versions of tunes like “Runaway Train” and “Bad Moon Rising” while you played. I’m almost certain that “Sacrifice”, “The Name of the Game” and “The WInner Takes It All” were all present on the unpleasant jukebox.

    Another note on its production – I can’t quite justify this with a proper written description, but there’s something rather 1985 about it, as if it belongs three quarters of the way through the “Hits 2” compilation. It’s a very dated sounding record for 1990 (as at least one other poster has already pointed out).

  12. 42
    Lex on 4 Jan 2011 #

    I think the Sinéad O’Connor cover of this is gorgeous (though I’ve never listened that closely to it, it’s mostly about the chorus melody than anything else).

    There’s something about Elton John’s voice that I find really offputting, even – especially – when it’s singing really strong melodies (strong as in obviously catchy), but I’ve never really worked out what it is.

  13. 43
    Cumbrian on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Agreed with the comments about the production. It now sounds incredibly dated. The sealer for me is the 4 note synth line that periodically comes in – we wouldn’t know it at the time but this now sounds like the start up noise that your PC makes (or a text message ringtone).

    That synth part in particular reminds me of the Bruce Springsteen album “Tunnel Of Love” – possibly his last great album, in which he basically confesses to having an unhappy marriage and probably being a rubbish husband – that for me is hamstrung by some fairly awful late 80s production (the descending synth line to mimic wedding bells in “Walk Like A Man” being the main offender from memory).

  14. 44
    punctum on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Fourteen years later came the double-sided sequel to “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” The bonding has frayed, there has been betrayal (“Sweet deceit comes calling”), bitter endings (“Sensitivity builds a prison/In the final act”) and darkness (“I never knew it could hurt so bad/When the power of love is dead”).

    Similar sentiments could be found in abundance in Blue Moves, the exhausting double album which came in the wake of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and the record which marked both an ending and a self-built barrier for its artist; his self-immolating solo performance of the record’s lead single, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” looked uncomfortably out of place in the disturbingly surreal environs of the 1976 Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show (“HE IS HERE”? “HE IS GONE”? Repeated Subbuteo goosesteps? The boxing match halfway through the Angela Rippon routine? The house blowing up at the beginning of the show and a satanically cackling Des O’Connor machine-gunning them at the end? The incogent streams of improvised nothing throughout the endless WW2 sketch? Did somebody seriously think that this was light entertainment?). Soon afterwards, as Dellio and Woods put it, “he did, after all, turn thirty in March 1977, coinciding almost exactly with his semi-disappearing act. He likely just looked in the mirror one day and muttered, ‘Enough’s enough.'”

    I suspect punk and disco hurt Elton more than he cared to admit. Unable to adapt readily to the latter – as Bowie had already done and Jagger was shortly to do – he retreated, recording an unreleased album with Thom Bell in the dying days of Philly. When the E.P. salvaged from the sessions, with its lead track a cover of the Spinners’ “Are You Ready For Love?,” eventually sneaked out in 1979 it seemed as out of place in that year as Alma Cogan. Having devoted a double album to setting Bernie Taupin’s post-breakup angst to music, he experimented with other lyricists, issued disturbing one-off singles like “Ego,” albums with self-deflating titles like A Single Man and Reg Strikes Back, and they all disappeared into a void – it is significant that his only remaining major hit of the seventies was “Song For Guy,” a bleak threnody and virtually an instrumental.

    1983’s “I’m Still Standing” suggested a superficially brisk comeback, along with the Taupin reunion – but it came from an album entitled Too Low For Zero on which few other tracks were redolent of emotional resuscitation. The suspicion was that the glam era had provided Elton with convenient cover, and when that ended he simply reverted to being the introverted, troubled songwriter of Empty Sky and Tumbleweed Connection, albeit with a bigger budget and celebrity guests. Indeed the 1989 album from which both “Sacrifice” and “Healing Hands” were taken was entitled Sleeping With The Past; the spectre of Aids was hard to dispel.

    Individually released as singles in 1989, with little success (“Sacrifice” and “Healing Hands” peaked at #55 and #45 respectively), both songs were reissued on one 45 in 1990 with royalties going to sundry Aids charities, and rather surprisingly gave Elton his first solo UK number one, nineteen years after “Your Song.” It is difficult to see how such unsparingly bleak songs could have succeeded in the SAW era, but clearly by 1990 a threshold had been crossed, and the rather stilted approach he applies to both tracks heralds the reborn, corporate Elton of the Lion King/Princess Di nineties. “Sacrifice” mulls gloomily over the suppressed doom of adultery, the unspoken glances (“No tears to damn you/When jealousy burns”), the simmering sorrow (“Some things look better, baby/Just passing through”) but does so rather gloopily over its five very slow minutes against its ticking wine bar MoR setting. “Healing Hands” – which despite its double A-side status was hardly played – attempts redemption (“You gotta wade into the water/You gotta learn to live again/And reach out for her healing hands”) but does so against a tackily bland echt-gospel setting which sounds exactly like a Lion King demo. To paraphrase James Ellroy: the concept rocked, the reality…doesn’t exactly stink, but does appear rather mouldy in its impenetrable cocoon. Best to try to rescue Two Rooms, the 1991 various artists Elton/Taupin tribute album, the next time you see it in the bargain bin, where Sinead O’Connor lends “Sacrifice” the serenely sobbing emptiness which the original doesn’t quite capture.

  15. 45
    the pinefox on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Boss: magnificent LP but I think you take the period touches as part of the historical magnificence, rather than a distraction from it. Different intuitive ways of listening, perhaps.

  16. 46
    Cumbrian on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Tunnel in particular is a lyrical peak. It is very much of its time though. I find myself going back to it less than I do Darkness… as a result. You’re right though, that it fits the narrative of its times and Bruce’s career too; I suppose it is a logical progression from the synth usage on “My Hometown” and “Dancing In The Dark”.

  17. 47
    Billy Smart on 4 Jan 2011 #

    #44. I don’t have it to hand at the moment, but there’s a fascinating NME cover interview with Elton in late 1978, where he reflects about working without Taupin, his yesterday’s man status, and casts his eye around the contemporary scene. Rather oddly his thoughts seem to concentrate around complaining about Ian Dury, who he sees as being some sort of phoney or hypocrite. One gets the impression that the phenomena of an older man becoming hugely popular and being hailed for his credibility really touched a nerve.

  18. 48
    JLucas on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Ouch, this one isn’t very popular, is it? I’m afraid it’s something of a guilty pleasure for me. I remember it being all over the radio when I was a child, so it has a warm nostalgia for me. Objectively, I can appreciate that it’s fairly bland though, and yes ‘sack-uh-ri-fice’ is a bizarre bit of pronunciation.

    This definitely sticks out as a rather odd chart topper among all the forward-thinking songs that preceded it. But there is a warmth to this song that sort of envelops you (despite the depressing lyrics).

    Two Rooms is a very hit and miss project. Sinead O’Connor definitely does the nicest job, as ever she effortlessly gets to the emotional core of the song. Kate Bush could never have sung Rocket Man badly, and Wilson Phillips give a very sweet rendition of Daniel which showcases their harmonic skills beautifully, their inherent wholesomeness lending the song a sweetly naive reading.

    Tina Turner covering ‘The Bitch Is Back’ was quite fitting too, although it’s a bit shrill for my taste.

  19. 49
    thefatgit on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Of course with the pirates going legit in London, the focus is drawn away from the North, which seem to be incubating the dance DJ’s and producers that will come to dominate the new decade.

    July 1990 sees the release of LFO’s eponymously titled debut single on Sheffield’s Warp label. A quick check on Wiki says it got as far as #12 in the charts. Deliciously dark and industrial, with a bassline that could annihilate your average set of speakers. It certainly contributed towards the idea that poor Elton was way behind the times with “Sacrifice”.

  20. 50
    Alfred on 4 Jan 2011 #

    In America “Healing Hands” was the bigger hit (it almost scraped into the top ten), but “Sacrifice,” which charted lower, received and still receives much more airplay, while “Healing Hands” has disappeared into the void.

    Tunnel of Love is my favorite Springsteen album, and the strange production – the mixture of high-tech and acoustic – suits the material perfectly.

    I wrote a longer piece about it a few years ago:
    http://www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/on_second_thought/bruce-springsteen-tunnel-of-love.htm

  21. 51
    Cumbrian on 4 Jan 2011 #

    @50: You don’t need me to tell you that is a bloody good piece on ToL there. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    Indeed, after that, I should dust it back off and give it another listen. Memory tells me that I thought it better for lyrics than music but that I still thought it was good, despite what I thought of the musical aspects of it. Maybe I will revise my opinion on that. At this point it sits behind the run from “The Wild The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle” to “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” for me though.

  22. 52
    MikeMCSG on 4 Jan 2011 #

    # 36 No hetero male who saw Betty perform “Let Me Take You There” on TOTP in hotpants has forgotten it. Sexiest TOTP performance ever !

  23. 53
    Steve Mannion on 4 Jan 2011 #

    #49 That said Elton seemed to keep an ear out for new music and trends that he couldn’t incorporate (mercifully) into his own stuff. I remember him praising both ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ and ‘Maxinquaye’ in the press and on Saturday morning kids TV in the mid 90s at least.

    Music aside, my estimation of him went down severely after he took off the hats and put on that atrocious hairpiece which remains to this day.

  24. 54
    Erithian on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Seconded, and when I learned just before moving to a new workplace a couple of years ago that my HR contact would be someone named A1ison Cl@rkson, I was quite intrigued. Hmm, she’s nice but she’s no Betty. Wasn’t Madonna quite a fan of Betty Boo? – offering to sign her to her Maverick label.

  25. 55
    Tom on 4 Jan 2011 #

    #55 Yes I always get the feeling EJ’s listening is more up to date than almost any other pop star of his era. And it’s good that he doesn’t feel the need to reflect this in the music. But it also seems to have paralysed him a bit – from the mid 80s on his own stuff is utterly risk-free (unless there are missing classics I don’t know of).

  26. 56
    thefatgit on 4 Jan 2011 #

    You’re right, Steve M. I seem to recall that Victoria Beckham vanity piece she did with Elton, when she accompanied him to HMV in Oxford Street and he hoovered up a seemingly random stack of CD’s. What disappoints me is that he didn’t take risks musically compared to say, Bowie for instance or perhaps Scott Walker who proved you can be just as left-field operating within the middle ground as any experimentalist. Elton, I feel was frustratingly cautious compared to some of his contemporaries.

  27. 57
    Jimmy the Swede on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Yeah, but “Elephant” was very good on those two old Morecambe and Wise Xmas shows from the seventies they’ve just repeated. The ones with Angela Rippon’s legs. I remember those as a teenager. Oh, Mumma! Oh, oh, and what about seeing The Goodies again. Especially Kitten Kong. What a great backing track Bill Oddie did for that. It was funky. I mean, Christ, close your eyes and you’d think you were listening to Sly and The Family… (cont’d on p.94)

  28. 58
    Steve Mannion on 4 Jan 2011 #

    #56 I figure Elton was probably more concerned with having hits (or at least conventional songcraft) than Bowie or Walker. He was probably fed up with the talk about why he hadn’t had his own #1 hit prior to ‘Sacrifice’ but then spent the 90s unsure of how to follow it up, doing all sorts of nonsense (including the terrible ‘Made In England’) and reluctantly skulking in the uncool background until he became somehow “useful” (and bunnybait) to the pop scene again in the 00s.

  29. 59
    Jimmy the Swede on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Gerry Rafferty has just slipped away. No great surprise, perhaps but sad all the same. I guess he really has given up the booze and the one night stands now.

    RIP.

  30. 60
    MikeMCSG on 4 Jan 2011 #

    Seconded. I remember “Baker St” entered the Top 30 the same week as “Wuthering Heights.” I’ll let that speak for itself,

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