Elton John’s recent Glastonbury performance marked the end of an era. As part of his long-running Goodbye Yellow Brick Road farewell tour, the piano-thumping songster finally signed off on a live career the likes of which most rivals can only dream of.
Thankfully, the wonders of musical storage mean EJ’s hits live on, and when we say hits, the word is well-earned. There aren’t many mainstream singers who can lay claim to such a hefty collection of instantly recognisable bangers, with Elton’s appeal spanning genres, generations and demographics. He has been, to be clichéd, a (rocket) man for all seasons.
There’s also a lot to be said for using Sir Elton as a musical guinea pig for your new (or established) hi-fi setup. From his early beginnings as a floor shaking rocker to his incomparable talent as a balladeer and heartfelt crooner, there’s plenty of deep, rich variety to give your system a chance either to flex its muscles or else fall flat on its flabby face.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Also the name of Elton’s last ever tour and his critically acclaimed 1973 magnum opus of an album (arguably, at least), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the man encapsulated in a single song. Big, overblown and with an obvious reference to the camp and gay-friendly cultural rallying point The Wizard Of Oz, GYBR hits all the right notes at just the right times. It’s also been a hugely inspirational track for many subsequent artists ranging from The Scissor Sisters (see Return To Oz) to Ed Sheeran.
The accompanying piano sound needs to come through clearly as you listen, as do the subtler instrumental flourishes across what is a deceptively complex, layered arrangement, especially when those intermittent guitar twangs surface and dissipate.
Your Song, (Elton John, 1970)
You’ve probably heard Your Song so often it might as well have been written about you by an overly-attached, musically inclined significant other. That, rather than being a deterrent, actually makes this one of the best test tracks you’ll find, as your familiarity with its melodies, details and emotional peaks means you’ll know exactly when something is off and when things are really working as they should be.
Are Taupin’s lyrics and John’s melodies hitting you in the emotional solar plexus? Do you feel swept away by the melodies or are they merely passing you by? Is this a routine performance, or does Elton’s voice pierce through with clarity, lucidity and sincerity?
Ghetto Gospel (Tupac Shakur ft. Elton John), (Loyal to the Game, 2005)
A bit of a cheat? Maybe, but try to think of this as a bending of the rules rather than a flagrant disregarding of this list’s criteria. After all, Ghetto Gospel is still an Elton John track, albeit one that uses a rearranged sample from the Rocket Man’s 1971 Native American eulogy Indian Summer.
It’s also, as it happens, everything you want in a test track: a big, powerful rallying call from Shakur to end street violence interspersed with John and Taupin’s colourful, emotive picture-painting in which “the red sun sinks at last into the hills of gold”. Check for goosebumps at the appropriate moments.
Levon, (Madman Across the Water, 1971)
Google any list of Elton John’s finest songs and the usual suspects tend to pop up time and again. No writer worth his or her salt, after all, is going to omit the likes of Your Song, Rocket Man or Candle In The Wind if he or she doesn’t want to open some very angry correspondence asking in very colourful language just how dare such seismic classics be omitted from the final cut.
One such track that might not be so familiar to a mainstream audience but which consistently ranks highly on such lists is Levon. A typically rollicking sort of symphonic rock ballad for which Sir Elton was becoming well known by the time of its release in 1971, Levon is a grand, ambitious tale anchored by those signature piano clunks and intermittent string sweeps. A great track if you’ve got a pair of big, beefy speakers that need a good run in.
Tiny Dancer, (Madman Across the Water, 1971)
That’s Tiny Dancer, by the way, not American TV actor Tony Danza as many a smart aleck has deliberately misheard throughout the years. So much of Elton’s work is built on the fusion of uplifting sincerity with an inescapable sense of melancholy and sadness, a potent blend that sees its most powerful iteration on one of the singer songwriter’s earlier efforts, Madman Across the Water.
At nearly seven minutes long, there’s a lot going on for your speakers to digest, but it’s that chorus that should really hit you in the heart, all at once crushingly sincere and soaringly uplifting, especially when Elton’s piano is accompanied by rising violins. The strings should land with texture, the piano should always feel sparkly and alive, but it’s the high, resonant vocal line that must always be taking centre stage. A wonderful arrangement that deserves the best.
Bennie And The Jets, (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
There aren't as many tracks that are as fun to enjoy as this one, and while we're always happy to break out the Max Richter or Philip Glass, kicking loose with a groovy, honky-tonk slice of glam rock is always welcome.
Bennie And The Jets, aside from its own intrinsic qualities as a piece of music, is a superb test of how your speakers and other audio equipment deal with rhythm – something you might have heard us refer to as “rhythmic drive”. Essentially, if your kit gives you a sense of kinetic energy, of a sort of pulsing forward motion beneath the track, then it’s likely nailing the basics of what’s required rhythmically.
Crocodile Rock, (Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, 1972)
There’s no better song to test how your system conveys a sense of fun and rhythm than a song containing the lyric “crocodile rocking is something shocking, when your feet just can't keep still”. This is the camp key-thumper at his most fun, kicking things into top gear from note one and never relenting for a single second.
The above lyric, incidentally, as we’ve said before when compiling lists of the best test tracks, is often the litmus test for whether a song’s fun and bounce is really coming through. If your feet just can’t keep still, then Crocodile Rock is probably being given its proper dues.
Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting), (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
It’s odd to think that many casual listeners still think of Elton John as nothing more than a piano-bound crooner as opposed to a firecracker performer, even if Taron Egerton did a lot to dispel that myth in Dexter Fletcher’s 2019 semi-autobiography Rocketman.
Yes, it’s a little tongue in cheek and tinged with the irony of a man who, while rarely well behaved, probably spent most of his life avoiding a scrap rather than actively looking to break bricks on a rowdy evening out in Soho. Still, it’s a marvellous evocation of Elton’s ability to observe humanity with a keen eye as he encapsulates the rambunctious excitement of youthful joie de vivre spilling over into downright recklessness. Let’s ‘ave it!
Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be a Long, Long Time), (Honky Château, 1972)
One of the most famous of Elton’s entire catalogue, Rocket Man might well be his finest, melding theatricality and sincerity, bravado and vulnerability, and then splashing these emotions across a sprawling galactic canvas. If Elton has a masterwork, this certainly has to be in contention for the accolade.
Rocket Man demands to be included not only for its status as a stone-cold classic that sees John at his theatrical best but because it veers into the realm of the dramatic without Elton ever losing himself in a sea of overdone melodrama. A fantastic tester for any occasion and a wonderful song that you just can’t help but fall in love with.
Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters, (Honky Château, 1972)
Many EJ fans (and the man himself) cite Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters as one of their favourites of all, and it isn’t hard to see why. Everything about the proggy rock ballad feels definitive, using that classic, arpeggio-style piano underlying Taupin’s characterful, almost mournful lyrical vignettes of humanity's highs and lows.
Elton’s voice is really at the forefront, though, meaning your speakers can have a really good go at dealing with the voice as an instrument in and of itself, especially when the song’s storytelling reaches its highest points with lines such as “Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown, and I thank the Lord for the people I have found.”
Candle In The Wind, (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
It was pretty much unavoidable, wasn’t it? No, Candle In The Wind isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially thanks to its associations with the death of Marilyn Monroe and, latterly, Princess Diana, marking the ballad out as one of the most maudlin and emotionally on-the-nose tracks to emerge from the Taupin / John oven.
Nonetheless, it remains an absolutely colossal hit that, like Your Song, is made useful by its ubiquity and emotional intensity. For those of a particular generation or emotional disposition, it’s simply a case of finding out whether your face is submerged underwater by your own tears by the time the last notes are played.