DeepSoul: Elton John - "Bennie and the Jets"

At a time when crossover records were rare, John demonstrated that great music knows no boundaries.
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This week saw the release of the 40th Anniversary Edition of Elton John's 1973 landmark album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  While it boasts several now-classics such as "Candle in the Wind," "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," and the title track, another hit signaled John's broad appeal.  "Bennie and the Jets," a salute to a fictional glam rock band, gained airplay on R&B radio and led to John's groundbreaking performance on Soul Train.  Its driving beat, pounding piano, and soaring falsetto reveal John's deep affection for R&B music.

Lyricist Bernie Taupin penned the lyrics as an homage to a fantastical glam rock band, perhaps envisioning a female version of T. Rex.  Some lines can be seen as satire, commenting on rock star hedonism: "We'll kill the fatted calf tonight / So stick around," John sneers at one point.  Yet the heavily syncopated piano softens these biting words, accenting more positive lines such as  "But they're weird and they're wonderful / Oh Bennie she's really keen / She's got electric boots a mohair suit."  Sound effects of an audience applauding and clapping along recreate a rock concert, allowing the listener to vividly envision this wild scene.  Yet the lyrics remain dark: "Hey kids, plug into the faithless / Maybe they're blinded / But Bennie makes them ageless," John sings, conjuring images of false idols a la the Who's Tommy.  As the song fades out, a darker mood prevails as John proclaims "We shall survive, let us take ourselves along / Where we fight our parents out in the streets / To find who's right and who's wrong."  Is this a commentary on the generation gap, or something more sinister and violent?

John performs "Bennie and the Jets" with abandon, nailing the campy lyrics with his over-the-top vocals.  He stutters, he hits impossibly high notes, he growls, he hisses--in other words, John pulls out all the stops to create the "solid walls of sound" as he howls.  His piano serves as a percussive instrument as well as a melodic one, with a spacey synthesizer riff inserted toward the end.  The groove is irresistible, a stellar example of blue-eyed soul.

Interestingly, John thought "Bennie and the Jets" was too strange to be released as a single.  Radio stations in Ontario and Detroit began playing the song; the word spread to other stations, and it soon became one of the most requested tunes in the nation.  After finally receiving its single release in 1974, the track soared to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at number 15 on the R&B charts.  Its positive reception in the soul community led to his appearance on Soul Train on May 17, 1975; a huge fan of the show, John leapt at the opportunity to share his passion for soul music with the audience.  

As seen in the accompanying video, John seemed to delight in his guest starring role.  Wearing a fairly tame outfit for him at the time, he pounds away on his plexiglass piano while singing live.  As the song progresses, John grows more animated, pulling his trademark faces and standing up while hammering the keyboard.  The dancers work the groove, with one man even doing the robot next to John's piano.  He charms the audience with his antics, and they participate in the ending singalong with grins on their faces.  Indeed, he proves how much he loves American soul music, and could transform it into his own sound.  Later in the show he played "Philadelphia Freedom": an appropriate choice, since it resembles the string-filled 1970s Philly Soul records.  

At a time when crossover records were rare, John demonstrated that great music knows no boundaries.  "Bennie and the Jets" may mainly receive classic rock airplay, but deserves to be a continued feature on R&B radio as well.