Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY 2:13 p.m. EDT March 18, 2014
Say hello again to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the album that put Elton John on a fast track to superstardom.
The expanded reissue, available in multiple formats, arrives March 25, on John's 67th birthday. The singer/pianist was 26 when the pivotal double album was released in 1973.
With its sterling songwriting, radiant showmanship and sparkling examples of rock, R&B, gospel and balladry, Goodbye encapsulated the powers that made John a '70s demigod. The album spent eight weeks at No. 1 and sold more than 7 million copies, 31 million worldwide.
"We were a band reaching our zenith at that point," John says. "Things were escalating, and the momentum was exciting. This is before I started drugs and drinking. This was pure Elton."
He considers Goodbye, which spawned such classics as Bennie and the Jets and Candle in the Wind, among his finest works, along with 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, 1976's Blue Moves and last year's The Diving Board.
Goodbye, the eighth studio album John and lyricist Bernie Taupin released in three years, jelled during a prolific and fertile phase, but had a rough start.
"We thought, 'Let's try something different,' so we went to Jamaica to record at the same studio (where) the Rolling Stones did Goats Head Soup and Cat Stevens did Foreigner," John recalls. "It always worked before with us going away. But it just didn't work out. The studio went on strike. The equipment wasn't up to scratch. We had a hasty meeting and decided to get out."
The band left Kingston for the studio at 18th-century Chateau d'Herouville near Paris, where John had recorded earlier. Goodbye was wrapped up in 17 days.
"We made up for lost time," John says. "At breakfast, Bernie would be sitting at the typewriter and I'd be writing at the electric piano. When the band came down, they'd pick up their instruments. We did three or four tracks a day.
"This was only the third record with the band. We found our direction and were at our most confident. All my original influences are on it. It was an outpouring of everything that was inside me at that time. We were on a roll and we had adrenaline on our side. It was the beginning of our ascent to the top. It was magic."
Goodbye will be reissued on CD, vinyl, limited-edition yellow vinyl and in a lavish box set that also includes the Live at Hammersmith 1973 CD, a DVD of Bryan Forbes' 1973 film Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye to Norma Jean and Other Things and a hardbound book.
The two-CD deluxe edition ($33) and box set ($98) also feature a set of nine new Goodbye covers produced by Peter Asher and sung by Ed Sheeran, Emeli Sandé, Fall Out Boy, Hunter Hayes, Imelda May, John Grant, Miguel featuring Wale, the Band Perry and Zac Brown Band.
John is flattered by the interpretations. His original Goodbye also moved him when he heard it for the first time in years three months ago.
"I was so impressed by the quality of the singing, the instrumentation, the sound of everything," he says. "I'm not one for looking back, but it made me realize how fortunate I was to have a wonderful band and writing partner and producer like Gus Dudgeon. It did make me very teary but in a beautiful, happy way."
Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" will be reissued in various formats March 25.(Photo: Universal)
His recollections of five Goodbye tracks:
?Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. The 11-minute prog-rock opener, which got wide radio play despite its length, links two songs. "We thought it would be great to have an overture before Funeral. Our engineer David Hentschel used an ARP (synthesizer), which looks like the telephone exchange Lily Tomlin used in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Switched-On Bach was played on one. You play one note at a time. David came up with that beautiful music that opens the door to the album.
Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting. The first single, a scrappy rocker, was later covered by Queen and The Who. "I tried singing and playing piano when we were recording. In the end, I did the vocal lying on the floor and put the piano on afterward, which is extremely rare. That's the only way I could get the performance I wanted."
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The ballad and second single inspired the cover art of John in glittery platform boots, a satin bomber jacket and his signature spectacles. He's depicted stepping from a generic street into an Oz-like fantasy. "It seemed like a great title for the album," John says. "It was like saying goodbye to a loss of innocence. And it's been the standout album sleeve of my career."
Candle in the Wind. John felt certain this poignant ode to Marilyn Monroe would be a surefire smash. And it was, years later. "Candle has an odd history," he says. "It wasn't a hit in America until we did a live album in Australia" in 1987, when it reached No. 6. The retooled 1997 version for Princess Diana's funeral became the biggest pop single in history, selling 33 million copies.
Bennie and the Jets. When label executives proposed releasing Bennie, John balked and fought for Candle instead. "I had a tough time seeing Bennie as a single. It's not your usual pop song. They changed my mind by telling me it was a No. 1 black record in Detroit. Being a white boy in England, I was very excited. It gave me my first R&B No. 1." The song also landed John a spot on Soul Train.