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Elton John – These Strings Are a Tough Test

More of the Music of Elton John

Reviews and Commentaries for Elton John’s Self-Titled Second Album

What’s especially remarkable about this album is the quality of Paul Buckmaster‘s string arrangements. I don’t know of another pop record that uses strings better or has better string tone and texture. Strings are all over this record, not only adding uniquely interesting qualities to the backgrounds of the arrangements but actually taking the foreground on some of the songs, most notably Sixty Years On.

When the strings give in to a lovely Spanish guitar in the left channel (which sounds like a harp!) just before Elton starts singing, the effect is positively glorious. It’s the nexus where amazing Tubey Magical sound meets the best in popular music suffused with brilliant orchestral instrumentation. Who did it better than The Beatles and Elton John? They stand alone.

Correct string tone and texture are key to the best-sounding copies. The arrangements are often subtle, so only the most transparent copies can provide a window into the backgrounds of the songs that reproduce the texture of the strings.

Without extension on the top, the strings can sound shrill and hard, a common problem with many pressings and one that positively ruins any chance of musical involvement.

Without a good solid bottom end the rockers (“Take Me to the Pilot”) don’t work either of course, but you can even hear problems in the lower strings when the bass is lightweight.

String tone on a pop record is a tough nut to crack, even more so on a record like this where the strings play such a prominent role. It’s the rare copy that allows you to forget the recording and lets you just enjoy the music.

For that you really need a Hot Stamper.

These Are Some of the Qualities We’re Listening For in Our Shootouts for Elton’s Eponymous Second Album

There are probably closer to a dozen, but some of the more important ones would be:

Ambience, Size and Space

High Frequency Extension

Midrange Congestion 

Midrange Presence

Smear

String tone and texture

Transparency 


Extraordinary Engineering

There are three amazing-sounding Elton John records on our Top 100 list, one of them engineered by the estimable Robin Geoffrey Cable, Trident Studios’ house engineer in 1972. His work on this album and Tumbleweed Connection marks him as one of the All-Time Greats in my book. Madman Across the Water, the album to follow, seems to be a more difficult recording to master properly. That said, the best copies — we call them White Hot Stampers – are very nearly as good sounding as the two titles mentioned above.

*The others are, in order of quality: Tumbleweed Connection (#1), Honky Chateau (#2), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (#3) and Madman Across the Water (#5).

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Elton John – Self-Titled

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Reviews and Commentaries for Elton John’s Second Album

  • This is an original UK pressing with superb sound — it’s a Must Own album for all right thinking audiophile record lovers, not just Elton John fans
  • No modern record has ever sounded like this – these sides are HUGE, with sound that positively jumps out of the speakers
  • Some of the most remarkable string arrangements (and Tubey Magical string sound) ever recorded for a pop album
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Even with the strings and choirs that dominate the sound of the album, John manages to rock out on a fair share of the record. …Elton John remains one of his best records.”

Folks, if you’re looking for Classic Popular Music that still appeals to sophisticated adults fifty-plus years after it came out, this is the album for you. It’s one of the four Classic Elton John records (five if you count GYBR) that belong in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection.

(The others are, in order of quality: #1) Tumbleweed Connection, #2) Honky Chateau, #3) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road , and #4) Madman Across the Water.)

It’s full of analog Tubey Magic — the richness, sweetness, and warmth are nothing short of stunning. The transparency, clarity, texture, dynamics, energy, spaciousness, and three-dimensionality of this recording are really something to be heard.

The piano has real weight, the vocals are breathy and full, and the string tone is some of the best we have ever heard on a pop album.

Drop the needle on Border Song. When it hits the big “Holy Moses” chorus, you can pick out and follow all the different voices. What sounds like a harp on Sixty Years On is actually a Spanish Guitar. Whatever it is, it’s positively sublime on the best pressings.

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Elton John / Honky Chateau – Salvation Is a Great Test

More of the Music of Elton John

Reviews and Commentaries for Honky Chateau

More Records that Are Good for Testing Big, Clear and Lively Choruses

We award the Four Plus A++++ grade so rarely that we don’t have a graphic for it in our system to use in the grading scale. So the side two here shows up on the chart as A+++, but when you hear this copy you will know why we gave it a fourth plus. [We no longer give Four Pluses out as a matter of policy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t come across records that deserve them from time to time.)

When I hear a record with a side this phenomenally good, with the stereo tuned-up and tweaked within an inch of its life to reproduce the album at the highest level I can manage, I will sometimes sit my wife down and play her a track or two. I did it for a Four Plus Deja Vu earlier this year [2016] as a matter of fact, playing Country Girl: Whiskey Boot Hill on side two, with that crazy HUGE organ blasting out of the right speaker — what a thrill!

For this record I played her Salvation, with one huge chorus following another, like powerful waves crashing on the shore, until Elton takes a deep breath and belts out the final, biggest chorus, hitting his peak an octave higher and taking the song to a level neither one of us had ever experienced. We followed it up with the lovely Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, and that was about as much Elton John live in my listening room at practically concert hall levels we could take in one sitting.

Hearing Elton with such energy, standing right in front of use, with instruments and singers encircling him from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, was so powerful and immersive it left us both with tears in our eyes.

That’s what gets you a Fourth Plus around these parts. (more…)

Elton John – Empty Sky

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More Debut Albums of Interest

  • This outstanding pressing of Elton John’s debut solo album boasts excellent sound throughout
  • With plenty of energy, killer bass, and clear, present vocals, this pressing has all the key qualities we look for in an Elton John record
  • About as quiet a copy as we can find — they’re usually pretty beat which is why you so rarely see them on the site
  • “… it also marked the beginning of his long and fruitful collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Empty Sky is quite indicative of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s era. With its ambitious arrangements and lyrics, it’s clear that John and Taupin intended the album to be a major statement…”

The undiscovered gem in the Elton John catalog

This original British Import demonstrates just how good a recording this is. The sound is excellent and the music is surprisingly good — and weird in a fun way! It certainly bears little relation to the middle-of-the-road pop songs Elton’s been making since the ’80s. These guys were young and figuring out their sound here, and this album takes Elton to some pretty interesting places. A fun debut album that is certainly worth a listen if you’re a fan of the classic albums that were soon to follow.

We’ve had dozens of these on our shelves for years but struggled to get this shootout done until recently. The main thing holding us back was how noisy most copies are, even the minty looking ones. Anyone who’s played DJM Brit pressings knows those guys had a very hard time pressing quiet vinyl.

This isn’t the best sounding Elton John album, but it’s certainly one of the best sounding copies of his debut we could find out of the dozen or so we played. While it varies a bit from track to track, the overall sound here is wonderful.

This is a bunch of young guys figuring things out — some of it works very well and some of it not so well — but I think any Elton fan is going to enjoy hearing this early material with sound that’s always correct and often wonderful. It’s been a long time coming, but we think in the end the music is worth all the trouble we went through to find quiet enough vinyl with good sound. (more…)

Elton John – Just the Right Amount of Tubey Magic Is the Key

More of the Music of Elton John

More Titles Only Offered on Import Vinyl

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Elton John

You don’t need tube equipment to hear the prodigious amounts of Tubey Magic that exist on the best copies of Madman. For those of you who’ve experienced top quality analog pressings of Meddle or Dark Side of the Moon, or practically any jazz album on Contemporary, whether played through tubes or transistors, that’s the luscious sound of Tubey Magic, and it is all over the album.

The problem is that most British copies — the only ones that have any hope of sounding good in our experience — don’t have all the Tubey Magic that can be heard on the best copies. They are simply not as rich, tubey, and LUSH as the best that we’ve played.

This is the one quality that separates the winners of the shootout from the copies that came in second or third. Lushness isn’t the only thing to listen for of course. The rich copies can’t be too rich, to the point of being murky and muddy.

Achieving just the right balance of Tubey Magical Madman Sound with other qualities we prize such as space, clarity, transparency and presence is no mean feat.

It’s the rare copy that will do well in all these areas, and even our best Shootout Winning sides will have to compromise somewhere. There is always a balance to be struck between richness and clarity, with no copy able to show us the maximum amounts of both that we know are possible.

You’ll Know

Having said all that, it has been our experience that one copy in the shootout will make clear what the ideal blend of all the elements is — the right balance of Tubey Magic, clarity, space, weight, top end and much, much more.

When you find yourself lost in the music of Madman because the copy playing has the right sound, it shouldn’t be all that hard to recognize it. When the record is not only doing what it’s supposed to do, but doing more than you ever expected it could do, with more energy, more dynamics, more bass, more clarity, on a stage that’s wider, taller and deeper than you thought it could be, that’s when you know you have reached the highest level of sound.

Seeing All Sides

This will happen on each side independently of the other. That’s just the way records work. Sometimes a copy has two matching sides with that ideal blend — we jump for joy and happily award them our rare Triple Triple grade — but on a ridiculously difficult record to master and press properly such as Madman chances are good that one copy of the record will win for one side and a different copy will win for the other.

Engineering and Production

Elton John is one of the handful of artists to produce an immensely enjoyable and meaningful body of work throughout the ’70s, music that holds up to this day. The music on his albums, so multi-faceted and multi-layered, will endlessly reward the listener who makes the effort and takes the time to dive deep into the sound of his classic releases.

Repeated plays are the order of the day. The more critically you listen, the more you are sure to discover within the exceedingly dense mixes favored by Elton and his bandmates. And the better your stereo gets the more you can appreciate the care and effort that went into the production of the recordings.

Elton John albums always make for tough shootouts. His producers’ (GUS DUDGEON being the best of them) and engineers’ (KEN SCOTT and ROBIN GEOFFREY CABLE likewise the best) approach to recording — everything-but-the-kitchen-sink as a rule — make it difficult to translate their complex sounds to disc, vinyl or otherwise.

Everything has to be tuned up and on the money before we can even hope to get the record sounding right. Careful VTA adjustment could not be more critical in this respect.

If we’re not hearing the sound we want, we keep messing with the adjustments until we do. There is no getting around sweating the details when sitting down to test a complex recording such as this. If you can’t stand the tweaking tedium, get out of the kitchen (or listening room as the case may be). Obsessing over every aspect of record reproduction is what we do for a living. Pink Floyd’s recordings require us to be at the top of our game, both in terms of reproducing their albums as well as evaluating the merits of individual pressings.

When you love it, it’s not work, it’s fun. Tedious, occasionally exasperating fun, but still fun nonetheless.


Further Reading

Records that Sound Best on the Right Early Pressing 

Records that Sound Best on the Right Import Pressing

Elton John’s Caribou Is Usually Noisy and Sounds Bad – But Why?

More of the Music of Elton John

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Elton John

There’s a good reason you’ve practically never seen this album for sale on our site. In fact there are quite a number of good reasons.

The first one is bad vinyl — most DJM pressings of Caribou are just too noisy to sell. They can look perfectly mint and play noisy as hell; it’s not abuse, it’s bad vinyl.

Empty Sky is the same way; out and out bad vinyl, full of noise, grit and grain.

The second problem is bad sound. Whether it’s bad mastering or bad vinyl incapable of holding onto good mastering, no one can say. Since so many copies were pressed of this monster Number One album (topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic):

  • Perhaps they pressed a few too many after the stampers were worn out.
  • Or pulled too many stampers off the mother.
  • Or made too many stampers from the father.
  • Or used crap vinyl right from the start.

Of course there’s not an iota of evidence to back up any of these assertions, but I just thought I would throw them all out there as a topic for speculation.

Speaking of speculation, have you noticed how much audiophiles and audiophile reviewers love to talk about things that they have no empirical evidence for, one way or the other? (More on unproductive speculation here.)

Very little of that sort of thing can be found on our site. We like to stick to the sound of the records we’ve played and leave most of the “reasoning” about the sound to others.

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Elton John / Honky Chateau – A Must Own Classic

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Reviews and Commentaries for Honky Chateau

  • Honky Chateau contains some of the most Tubey Magical High-Production-Value rock music ever recorded – thanks Ken Scott!
  • Not the quietest copy we’ve ever played – Mint Minus Minus to EX++ on both sides – but obviously one of the better sounding
  • 5 stars: “The most focused and accomplished set of songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever wrote … It’s one of the finest collections of mainstream singer/songwriter pop of the early ’70s.” 

If you doubt that Elton John was an unusually gifted Pop Music Genius for much of the ’70s, just play this record. These eleven tracks should serve as all the proof you could possibly need. There’s not a dog in the bunch, and most of these songs are positively brilliant. Drop the needle on any track, you simply can’t go wrong.

Honky Chateau has to be one of the best sounding rock records of all time — certainly worthy of a prized spot on our Rock and Pop Top 100 List. It’s a shining example of just how good High-Production-Value rock music of the ’70s can be.

The amount of effort that went into the recording of Honky Chateau is comparable to that expended by the engineers and producers of bands like Supertramp, The Who, Jethro Tull, Ambrosia, Pink Floyd and far too many others to list. It seems that no effort or cost was spared in making the home listening experience as compelling as the recording technology of the day permitted.

The sides that had sound that jumped out of the speakers, with driving rhythmic energy, worked the best for us. They really brought this music to life and allowed us to make sense of it. This is yet another definition of a Hot Stamper — it’s the copy that lets the music work as music.

Big Production Tubey Magical British Rock just does not get much better than Honky Chateau. (more…)

Elton John and the Tubey Magical Top Ten

More Records with Exceptionally Tubey Magical Sound

Reviews of Tubey Magical Demonstration Quality Discs

The Tubey Magical Top Ten

You don’t need tube equipment to hear the prodigious amounts of Tubey Magic that exist on Tumbleweed Connection. For those of you who’ve experienced top quality analog pressings of Meddle or Dark Side of the Moon, or practically any jazz album on Contemporary, whether played through tubes or transistors, that’s the luscious sound of Tubey Magic, and it is all over Elton John’s Masterpiece, Tumbleweed Connection

Ranked strictly in terms of Tubey Magic, I would have to put this album on our list of Most Tubey Magical Rock Recordings of All Time, right up there with, in no particular order:

This has to be one of the best sounding rock records of all time — certainly worthy of a Top Ten spot on our Top 100 list. Engineered by Robin Geoffrey Cable at Trident, there is no other Elton John recording that is as big and powerful as Tumbleweed.

Elton John / Captain Fantastic… – Number Six of Seven Consecutive Chart Topping Albums

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The Classic Elton John

Besides being the most commercially successful period, 1970–1976 is also held in the most regard critically. Within only a three-year span, between 1972 and 1975 John saw seven consecutive albums reach number one in the US, which had not been accomplished before. Of the six Elton John albums to make Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003, all are from this period, with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ranked highest at number 91; similarly, the three Elton John albums given five stars by Allmusic (Tumbleweed Connection, Honky Château, and Captain Fantastic) are all from this period. – Wikipedia

After 1975, good Elton John music is hard to come by. A few songs scattered among a few albums — pretty slim pickins. But the four or five albums he made in the early ’70s are nothing less than AMAZING (when you get the right pressings of course).

The albums that went to Number One are listed below in bold.

Three of his best, including his absolute best album, Tumbleweed, did not go to Number One, although they did make the top ten.

1969 Empty Sky 
1970 Elton John 
1971 Tumbleweed Connection
1971 11-17-70 [live] 
1971 Madman Across the Water 
1972 Honky Chateau 
1973 Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player
1973 Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 
1974 Caribou 
1975 Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
1975 Rock of the Westies 

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Elton John – Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player

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More Titles Only Offered on Import Vinyl

  • A KILLER copy of Elton John’s 1973 release with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it from start to finish
  • Forget the dubby, closed-in and transistory domestic pressings – here is the relaxed, rich, spacious, musical, lifelike sound that only the best imports can show you
  • Thanks to Ken Scott’s brilliant engineering and Gus Dudgeon’s production savvy, every song here sounds better than you imagined, because finally you are hearing it right
  • 4 stars: “His most direct, pop-oriented album… a very enjoyable piece of well-crafted pop/rock.”

The amazing engineer Ken Scott (Ziggy Stardust, Magical Mystery Tour, Honky Chateau, Crime of the Century, Truth, Birds of Fire) is the man responsible for the stunning sound here.

The kind of Tubey Magical richness, smoothness and fullness he achieved at Trident in the early ’70s, as well as here at a certain French country estate, have never been equaled elsewhere in our opinion. (more…)