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Empty Sky, Elton’s debut album, and also his most honest, laid-back sounding set of songs, hit the shelves 50 years ago this month. It didn’t make much impact at the time, but it is greatly loved, both by fans, and by the people that created it. 

This episode tells the story of the album through interviews with the gang of ‘lost boys’ who were credited on the sleeve – Elton, Bernie, Caleb, Steve Brown and David Larkham. In the process, their musical influences are identified, the lyrics are analysed, and the music is teased apart to reveal what lies under the surface.

In preparation for this episode, I have sequenced a 6 CD ‘possible deluxe edition’, based on what is known to exist. The first 3 CDs are discussed in this episode. They contain the stereo and mono mix of the music recorded in these sessions, alternate mixes that can be found on acetate, BBC sessions and live recordings.

The remaining CDs (full of demos, unreleased tracks, Elton's studio sessions, and covers by other artists) will be discussed in forthcoming episodes. The full tracklisting can be found in this pdf.

The image for this episode is the David Larkham photograph that was used as the basis for his cover illustration. 

There’s also a rant about Rocketman... 

 

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You are invited to a very special listening session and conversation with Peter Thomas, the preeminent Elton John collector and archivist.

Peter Thomas, in his role as founder of monitor and speaker company PMC, has worked with the finest studios, mastering houses and broadcasters in the world. He has a passion for sound quality, and this extends into his hobby, which is researching and collecting Elton's earliest and most obscure recordings. 

In this episode you will get to hear some snippets of Peter's favourite acquisitions, as well as the histories around the acetates and reels of tape that carry these sounds through to the present day. 

The image for this episode is Peter's promo copy of 'I've Been Loving You', along with the handwritten release and contact details, featuring Elton's home phone number in Pinner. 

Once again I'd like to thank Peter for the wonderful generosity he has shown, sharing his time, his treasures, and his memories. 

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This episode counts down the 15 biggest non-Elton singles on Rocket, and in the process, tells the story of the label, attempts to define the Rocket sound (spoiler - there isn’t one), and draws out the connections with Elton’s music, where these exist. The chart itself can be viewed here.

Thanks to Doug Sanders from The Lambrettas, who was interviewed for this episode, and gave some wonderful insight into what it was like to be the most successful Rocket artist (apart from Elton perhaps) at the turn of the eighties. The full interview can be found here. Doug has supplied some wonderful pictures from 1980, including the band posing outside the then Rocket HQ, and receiving their Silver Discs for Poison Ivy. Spot the familiar faces!

The signed Kiki Dee Box Set that I mention in the episode can be purchased (in the UK) here. 

The Elton-penned song featured at the end of the episode can be found on my YouTube channel here.

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This episode revels in the obscure, picking up the curios in the discography, studying them, and making an attempt at explaining them. Here are the early versions, the erroneous edits that never should have been heard, the remixes, the rough mixes and the acoustic mixes.

The highlight of this episode, for me, is the mono mix of Hymn 2000, which is played in full. Empty Sky in mono is so rare, it was thought for years not to exist at all.

You will have heard some of these, I'm sure, but I would be very surprised if you had heard them all!

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This is the story of Elton's personal redemption, through the prism of the song 'Passengers', the UK top 5 hit single with the unique songwriting credit - Elton, Bernie, Davey and South African musician Phineas Mkhize. 

This episode follows Elton from the lows of being placed on the UN's cultural blacklist in 1983, for playing at Sun City, to the highs of being recognised as Harvard's 'Man of the Year' for his charity work, particularly in Africa, in 2017.

At the heart of the episode is an email interview with Phineas' son Bennett. His story helps us to connect Elton - the megastar who wanted to make a statement about apartheid - with Phineas - the maskandi musician who hated politics. 

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In this episode, I finish going through the imaginary box-set. First, I detail all of the non-album tracks that were released between 1984 and 1990 (CD3 of the collection that I have programmed), and I then go on to discuss the rarities that might find their way onto Rare Masters Vol. 2 (annexed off onto CD4).

If you're inspired enough to get some of your singles out, to see how they compare against the transfers I've used in this episode, let me know how it turns out. I would love to hear some improved transfers of this material. It looks like we're on our own with this stuff. Someone must have a pristine Conquer The Sun out there!

A couple of minor errors have been corrected in the accompanying document, and the audio for Episode 25 has been subtly changed to reflect this. 

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The Elton John Podcast with the unwieldy name goes where the record company dare not go - Rare Masters Vol. 2. We all loved the first volume when it came out, and many of us have been going grey waiting for the next instalment. It didn't look like it was going to happen, so I've just gone ahead and done it. 

All of the non-album A and B-sides recorded between 1976 and 1990 have been collected and collated, and three wonderful CDs are the result. Unfortunately it's not actually available - the best I can do to provide this is this YouTube playlist that I've compiled.

This episode discusses CD1 and CD2, which takes us up to the end of 1983. The next episode will be about CD3 and also about the unreleased material that might find its way onto such a collection. 

All of the material has been thoroughly researched, in an attempt to determine what was recorded when, and in some cases who played on what. This is basic information, something that should be a matter of public record, but there are no reliable sources out there. This lack of information, alongside the the fact that we can't even buy the music, represents an insult to Elton and his collaborators, and to the fans that want to hear it. 

I have compiled a document to accompany the episode. Send me an email, let me know how well I've done, and where I've gone wrong - there are bound to be mistakes. I intend to update the YouTube playlist with improved sources, including my own in those instances where none of the transfers currently on YouTube are up to scratch. Please feel free to upload your own transfers - the more the merrier!

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Another treat - an interview with David Larkham – the man who controlled the visual element of the classic albums, liaising with Steve Brown, Bernie, Elton and others to bring their ideas to life.

David was there at Steve Brown’s house in 68/69 with Bernie and Elton, hanging out; he was there at the Troubadour, taking photos; he was out there in Jamaica, waiting for the studio to be ready like everyone else; on tour; in Caribou… You name it – he was there. He’s still involved in bringing together the imagery that is central to Elton’s farewell tour – Elton wouldn't have anyone else doing this work for him!

The episode image (which you can download from here) is an illustration of David's from late 1968, which was used as the front page of Elton’s first press pack, up until the release of Empty Sky. The interview about the sleeve for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which is mentioned in the podcast, can be found here

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In this episode, I attempt to play (and sing in one case) the three ‘new’ songs from 1967 that have come to light via Bernie’s upcoming auction. I also go through the working lyrics that Bernie is selling in New York on the 9th of November, and talk about what they tell us about Bernie’s process.

You can currently download the pdf featuring the lyric sheets here (click on the download arrow at the bottom of the page).

Caleb

I was lucky enough to be able to spend more than an hour in the company of the brilliant Caleb Quaye. Without Caleb, there would be no Elton John as we know him. He got Elton and Bernie the gig with Dick James, and it was his audacious approach to using Dick James' studio that made it possible for Elton to take his first, extraordinary musical steps there in 1967 and 1968. His guitar work is legendary - the man is essentially a virtuoso - and it's his playing that makes those first four Elton John albums sing.

Please show Caleb your appreciation by putting some money into his GoFundMe. He is raising money in order to get the rights to use some archival footage in the documentary of his life that he has put together, entitled 'Louder than Rock'. Put your hands in your pockets now - there'll never be a better chance than this to show Caleb how much you value the work and the magic that he put into Elton's career.

This episode features a slew of indescribable rarities and forgotten tracks. The image of the tape box that Caleb takes a look at with me can be found here

Elton Shocked

Stuart Epps is Elton John royalty! He was a huge part of the team that worked together to bring Elton out from the sidelines of Tin Pan Alley, into megastardom. He saw that process first hand, working in a variety of different roles. Here he tells his story.

Stuart's brand new audiobook can be ordered from his website

The rarity that I play in the episode is the Steve Brown produced version of 'Take Me To The Pilot' from Olympic Studios, recorded in something like August / September 1969. 

Elton Shocked

In this episode the cake is unbaked, and every ingredient of the Elton John recipe is celebrated. Complex drum and percussion sounds are unpicked, backing vocals are highlighted, lead vocals are isolated, and previously buried piano tracks are brought to the surface. 

A few techniques are used. As well as the out of phase stereo technique, (used extensively in episode 1), I make use of isolated channels from the 5.1 surround sound remixes, as well as multitracks of some songs, breaking them down and building them back up, track by track.

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