- Elton John – I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.
I remember this when it was first out. I wasn’t buying records by that point and wouldn’t have bought this even if I was, even though I really liked it. I still like it – in fact I think it’s fab, but that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with it because I do.
I have a memory of being on a school bus with the under 14s rugby team, someone’s radio tinnily blaring this out and everybody singing along at the tops of their voices, including me, and thinking – as it was happening – that was a strange situation, a bunch of twelve year old pseudo hard men singing along to a pretty soft song on their way to a game of rugby somewhere in Yorkshire. I didn’t get it, but I did enjoy the camaraderie, even if I couldn’t be arsed with it for much long after. You know, singing along to this was one thing, playing a sport I didn’t really understand the rules of (rugby union, I’d never even watched it), being naked in vast baths with everybody else, having your bare arse whipped with wet towels along with everybody else, they were all something else altogether and all that wore pretty thin pretty quickly.
Still, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, eh? I still have a relatively complicated relationship with it because even though I really like it, part of me recognises that it’s also a bit shit.
I don’t even mean because it sounds like the early 1980s because I don’t mind that either, although it makes some records hard to love. It sounds a bit like kitchens to me – sort of tinny and echoey – the early 80s. Anyway, I don’t mind it, even though the piano sound is a bit cheap and nasty in comparison to Elton John’s 70s records, a good seven or eight of which (singles) I like a lot.
The problem I have with it, unlike Sylvia’s Mother, is that the lyrics are a bit crap – or at least, I don’t subscribe to a lot of the sentiments expressed. Also, due to their working methods (Elton John wrote the music to lyrics that Bernie Taupin had already written in full. I mean, it works most of the time. When it doesn’t, it can sound a bit odd, like “It’s no sackerifi-yi-ice...” and even on the better records, Elton’s having to mangle a load of syllables around a melody that doesn’t quite fit it. It happens regularly on the verses of this, which I mostly don’t like.
The video’s typical of the early 80s, what with the Rock ‘n’ Roll fancy dress theme and everything, but also because it’s sort of a story. I’m not very up on Elton John, but I think this might be around the time he was trying to convince himself that he liked girls and married that lass to raised eyebrows the world over.
Anyway, it starts off introducing a Rock ‘n’ Roll greaser kissing and leaving the homecoming queen-esque girl behind at an empty disco, then we’re with Elton John in his straw boater phase, singing at a grand piano. In the eighties. You can tell it’s the eighties because the colour scheme is shades of grey, they’re in a big, empty warehouse with smoke swirling in and out of the shadows. Cut to some sort of army camp in Britain in the 1950s and we see that the Rock ‘n’ Roll greaser’s gone off to his National Service or something because he gets prodded about by some drill sergeant who’s not in favour of drainpipes, quiffs or beetle crushers. Interspersed in this black and white vision of Rock ‘n’ Roll about to be challenged by authority, we see the girl standing, lonesome as can be outside the cinema as everybody else goes in. And everybody else, naturally, is a couple.
Then briefly back to Elton and, during the chorus – gasp – he getting his greasy quiff lopped off. Perhaps losing your hair is as symbolic of the blues as anything. Why not, eh? While that’s happening, the girl’s looking sad in a cafe, drinking a milkshake, sitting next to her friend, but still all alone, really.
As the second verse begins, which is where the lyrics really start to grate on me, she’s getting bullied by yet another greasy Rock ‘n’ Roll dude, who her now-soldier-formerly-another-Rock ‘n’ Roller boyfriend would have probably thumped. Meanwhile, he’s getting grey meat and potatoes in an army cafeteria. And then he’s off to lie on his bed, next to a photograph of the girl as he wistfully looks at the ceiling and reminisces about snogging her in the back of a classic 1950s car. The chorus kicks in again – and it’s a great chorus – and she’s getting rained on outside the dancehall now and he’s getting singled out and shouted at by the drill sergeant on the balcony of some block of flats they’re all running round. Back at the dancehall and check it out! Elton’s playing and singing there. Two worlds collide, eh? As Elton rocks the joint, two of her girlfriends sit her down and she seems a bit happier. Not the bloke though because he’s still running around and swinging on ropes as Stevie Wonder’s always outstanding harmonica tweets and flutters around the middle eight like a young blackbird in love with spring.
As this is going on, a line dance gets going at the dancehall and the three girls are busting some sitting down backing dancing and finger snapping, so at least one of the lovelorn pair is coping a little better. Thank God for Elton John, eh kids?
Well, good for her, but as fellow-me-lad’s busy doing star jumps under a rain machine, the bully from the cafe gets her up to dance and, as if this is being transmitted through the awesome power of nature’s rain, he lies down on the yard, as if defeated by everything that the earth has had to throw at him.
Then, all of a sudden, he’s on a pier in suspiciously 1980s colour film stock and – hello? Who’s this? – along comes his girl and they’re finally reunited in the classic leaping into his arms and spinning around move.
Again, I don’t really know what that video’s about. I suppose it’s leaning on the early 80s Rock ‘n’ Roll revival theme a bit, but more for the sake of it than anything. Mainly though, the blues is about wanting and not getting, or at least having and then losing, otherwise it’s not the blues, is it? And the guy gets the gal in the end, so the video’s the opposite of the blues, isn’t it?
Musically, it’s not really the blues either, although there’s a I-IV change (Doo-Do, Doo-Do) all the way through it, it takes more than that – or less than that, to be more precise – to constitute the blues.
I’ve said it’s all 1980s as hell – not just the tinny piano, but the whole thing: the groove, the too clean and spangly guitar stabs, the lolloping yet still machinelike bass locked in too tightly with the uptight, not especially 80s to be honest, drums.
But those lyrics, eh? Pfff. It starts off relatively promisingly, “Don’t wish it away, don’t look at it like it’s forever.” I don’t love it, but it’s better than what follows, apart from the chorus, which is arranged beautifully to be fair to it, all punctuated chordal stabs that lift the whole thing up, as if to emphasise that a taste of honey is worse than none at all, so to speak.
The second half of the verse struggles to make peace with the melody and rhythm and the line “Dust out the demons inside…” is practically unintelligible. In fact, most of the way through it, Elton’s enunciation is redolent of a man trying to sing with a pool ball in his mouth.
The chorus is the bit that everybody likes, as it should be, and you don’t find many records that take fewer chances than this one, the melody line rises and falls, there’s the rule of three which ends on the “Rolling like thunder, under the covers...” which means sex in a way that wouldn’t upset Mike Read on Radio and is made for shouting along to on a school bus, before ending, as the chorus began, with the title. Hats off. Clap, clap. A borderline hysterical arse he may have been a lot of the time but he knew how to put a pop song together.
The second verse though. Yack. Like a lot of writers, Bernie Taupin – who I find to be a strange chap, even though I know next to nothing about him, with his transatlantic accent, Norfolk roots and cowboy obsession – he’s shot his bolt in the first verse and the second’s just marking time. Whoever wrote Sylvia’s Mother (and I’ve just looked it up, it was the same man who wrote A Boy Named Sue for Johnny Cash, which my dad did like) knew how to move a song along verse by verse and, to be honest, I don’t think Bernie Taupin always did. I appreciate it’s half of the song, but Bernie Taupin’s a bit shit, if you ask me. The odd great line, but there’s a hell of a lot of cringeworthy crap to plough through too. The second verse sounds like it was taken from some sort of positivity handbook – “Just stare into space, Picture my face in your hands, Live for each second without hesitation, And never forget I’m your man…” Just crap, isn’t it? Filler. Nothing to say, but there’s time to fill. As pop lyrics go, alright, fair enough, but if your only job is writing lyrics – you don’t play an instrument, you don’t get involved with the melody, basically, you’re writing a poem – you should be aiming higher than that. Maybe he did aim higher and this was what came out, I don’t know, but it’s a shame.
Even though the lyrics don’t make much more sense than the video, it’s still a wonderful pop single. No, it’s not I Want You Back by The Jackson 5 (my all time favourite single of all time) it’s not a dancing song, it’s another crying song, even though there’s no crying in it, certainly not like Sylvia’s Mother.
But, even though the lyrics are crap and it’s all a bit 80s for comfort and it’s Elton John after he was hot shit, it does its job because it encapsulates what it’s like, being in a relationship that’s past its sell by date. You reminisce about how great it used to be and, at that point in the relationship, these memories are not yet fond ones. These memories are currently a painful reminder of better days and you’re getting older every day and maybe that’s all you’re going to be left with: happy memories that currently make you miserable because that’s all they are – memories. Later on, maybe you’ll look back on those same memories with something approaching fondness, but that’s a long way off. And I guess that’s why they call it the blues and not Yacht Rock. Cheers.