First up is a classic rocker who is not a favorite, but he’s a powerful lead-off. Eric Clapton was struggling through some ordeals when this record was released; there were no studio albums from Slowhand for several years. Still, this first track, ‘Border Song,’ is upbeat with the J.J. Cale shuffle Clapton had adopted as one of his common styles. His voice is warm and friendly here and his band is as tight and skillful as one expects from one of the planet’s top instrumentalists. The song appears to be a plea for peace and tolerance, and Clapton can be seen as a low-key example of those traits. If this record were a concert, this gentle but muscular mid-tempo number sets a good groove for the remaining artists.
The second track was selected in 2007 by The Observer as Greatest Cover of All Time. Wow. Well, it’s pretty good. ‘Rocket Man’ is familiar to anyone who has owned a radio in the last 40 years, and this version is Kate Bush’s only reggae work so far. I’ve always found the song a little facetious. The working-class gripe of an astronaut? Here, the lyrics are almost unimportant as Kate’s voice, delivery, and arrangement make the song softer and sadder than the original; it seems more homesick and less disingenuously grouchy. The instrumentation is typically odd and creates an atmosphere very unlike the original, which is welcome because so many of the artists hewed closely to the originals.
Researching this piece I found a review that almost exactly mirrored mine, by which I mean the opinions were near-perfect opposites. The next song was the reviewer’s choice for best on the album; I think it’s the weakest. Even so, Sting’s version of ‘Come Down in Time’ is quite good. This is Soul Cages Sting, the ghostly, hollow sound. It’s quiet, powerful, but not wholly engaging. I don’t dislike Sting from this period, but I always feel he’s singing at the audience, not to them. The detachment works here, though, suggesting that the singer’s indifference is partly responsible for the situation the song reveals.
So why am I choosing this album, since I’m not exactly raving about it? Next is the track for which I would have bought the album, followed by several more that make it one of my favorites to which I return time after time.
The Who had been dead for over a decade, really. Without Keith Moon, there was a band calling itself by the name but they weren’t making the right sounds. I can’t honestly say their ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ should go toe-to-toe with ‘Baba O’Riley’ or ‘5:15’ or even ‘Athena’. I will say it wouldn’t bother me to have had it as a bonus track on the re-release of Who’s Next, more than ‘Water’, for example. Without ruining it for those of you who haven’t heard it, the band pulls out techniques and flourishes that make it sound like a lost outtake from sessions twenty years older. It rocks hard again, with Daltrey sounding engaged in the studio, guitar work that surges with life, and drumming that actually fits a Who performance. Every aspect of this song pushes; nothing feels pulled along, dragging down another member. The band were in their mid-forties when this was recorded. They had not gotten old.
Apparently knowing better than to try to top the cut, the producers went another direction for the next track. Another crew of ‘60s workhorses deliver another great performance, if much more predictable. The Beach Boys who render ‘Crocodile Rock’ are not yet the Beach Boys cover band Mike Love drags around the world now; Love, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson offer up the sweet harmonies and nostalgic arrangement one would expect, along with a generic ‘Elton’s great’ liner note and a vocal hook that fits perfectly within the song. It’s very nice, but it’s not Brian-genius and it was no longer radio-viable. Too bad; these guys sure can sing.
So can their kids. It might have been no favor putting Wilson Phillips right after the Beach Boys, but I’ve always liked the sound of the girls’ voices. Raised together in households full of musical if not emotional harmony, their decision to sing together professionally seems to me a great gift to fans of the style. Here, ‘Daniel’ benefits from three-part harmony, strings, and sax. The reviewer I mentioned before calls this a ‘dentist-office’ rendition; Wilson Phillips has always had more of an edge to me. Just because they are girls from California doesn’t make them mere California girls.
It is hard to stand up to the next cut in grit, though. Joe Cocker’s ‘Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’ does what many of these versions do: blows past the original in emotion, arrangement, or that hard-to-define musical trait, feel. As another contemporary of Elton’s, Cocker has a perfect right to sing these songs and it’s a kick to hear this interpretation. The track leaves you wondering what an album of ‘Cocker sings John’ might bring.
The next in the parade of notable vocalists is Jon Bon Jovi. I didn’t have any strong feelings about Mr. Bongiovi, but didn’t expect much from his number based on Slippery When Wet et al. The singer claims ‘Levon’ is his favorite song and doesn’t hold back in the performance. A strange short story with no readily apparent point, the song is a melodic treasure for a singer and Jon does a fine job here, especially if one is already a fan. Joined by his drummer Tico Torres Jon feels comfortable and takes possession of the song with confidence.
Speaking of singers without restraint, Tina Turner. In 1991 Tina was a major attraction (again), and her history of covers of 1970s icons was already formidable (Honky Tonk Women, Acid Queen, Proud Mary). ‘The Bitch is Back’ is a clever choice and the production is prime work from her with the hard rocking band she had assembled and the voice that had evolved with her career. This number and ‘Levon’ represent a great adrenaline jolt after the slide downhill since The Who.
As natural as ‘Bitch is Back’ was for Tina, the next pairing of artist and material is inevitable. In 1991 Hall and Oates were still a huge act, and the Gamble and Huff ode ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ suits them perfectly. Only Elton cut’s ‘The Club at the End of the Street’ would match them as well, and that song was still fresh from the previous year’s Sleeping with the Past. Here electronic chimes open the number with a patriotic/dance feel and the blue-eyed soulmen step lightly into a more danceable track than the original had been. Daryl Hall also sounds more authentic singing the lines than Elton could, making it clear that what the city represents is what holds his heart.
That pesky reviewer called the next track one of the best, claiming another ‘60s vet had nearly pulled an Aretha on Elton’s Otis. Rod Stewart on ‘Your Song’ is pretty disposable to me; Rod was still in fine voice and the song fit his style well, especially the spare arrangement it gets here, but I’m tired of the song and don’t find Rod bringing anything new to it. Still, it’s every bit as good here as the original and there are enough differences to make it interesting to fans of Rod, Elton, or the song itself. Incidentally, although I didn’t find this cut cited as a single, I have heard it played on the radio.
The next artist was a cipher to me. After hearing the track and poring over the notes I found that Oleta Adams was a featured singer with Tears for Fears and the personnel of that band were her band here. None of which matters. Oleta has a traditional gospel voice, full of emotion, control and power, expressive and rich. Here, ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ is the plea to the heavens that didn’t sound properly compelling coming from Elton, who always sounded a little too commercial to me on this kind of material. The intelligent arrangement showcases Adams’ control and ability and brings in accompaniment that sets the singer in the proper spiritual environment.
In an album focused on the songwriting partnership of two men in two rooms separated by great distances of space and experience, there has been little attention paid to the instrumental side of the songs. Here is the fix, as Bruce Hornsby renders ‘Madman Across the Water.’ His distinctive, emotional voice and novel piano skills make this performance reward listening over and over.
Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Sacrifice’ allegedly received much attention when the album was released. Of course, this was a period when Sinead was getting a lot of attention all the time. ‘Spare’ doesn’t begin to describe the cut; the singer’s voice and a subdued, slightly muffled organ are all you get, and I wouldn’t have minded losing the organ. O’Connor is one of my favorite singers and what she does here wrings every bit of emotion from the song by showing the listener her soul through sound. When she switches the character of her voice for a handful of beats it makes you remember the power words, melody, and time can have. It’s beautiful, and pitiful, and glorious.
Almost all the big stars checked in for this effort, so it’s time for Phil Collins to take the mike and offer up ‘Burn Down the Mission.’ At almost seven minutes Phil doesn’t leave any of his tricks in the bag: slight echo on the verse vocals, punchy horns borrowed from Stax charts, stacked vocal choruses—it’s all Phil production (Hugh Padgham, actually), and it’s as radio-friendly as all his hits of the era.
The closer is George Michael’s ‘Tonight.’ (It was about this time that Michael covered ‘Don’t Let the Sun’ with Elton guesting on vocals, but that cut isn’t here. Too bad; I prefer it to this cut, but not to Adams’.) It’s still a lovely ballad and George Michael had proven he had the voice to handle most any brand of pop. The elegant piano is reverent to the original and the track is a peaceful, calm end to a great set.
If I haven’t sounded immensely excited about this album, it’s because it’s not very exciting, but it’s great listening, even if only a couple tracks really make you want to get up and dance. After ‘Philadelphia Freedom,’ the rest of the album is mid-tempo at most. I think it’s worth noting that while 16 tracks is hardly a fair sampling of the work of artists as prolific as John and Taupin, the songs here are among their biggest hits up to the time and many of them are both relatively slow and not particularly cheery. Songs of friends lost, innocence lost, love lost, love unrequited, love gone wrong, dissatisfaction, disaffection, misanthropy and malice, with only one true love song in the batch (and that was the first hit.) Still, they have a beat and the kids liked them, and the artists here are the best of the time. In every case, the performances here join the participants’ catalogs with honor. If you like the songs or the artists, pick up the album. The songs benefit from new treatments and the artists work with strong material. It’s not a great album in the sense of a strong narrative, or even a consistent thought, from start to finish, but it is what it sets out to be in the title: a celebration of (then) two decades of great musicmaking presented by some of the best performers of their time. Like lively conversation with interesting people on a variety of topics, it’s a great way to spend an hour and a half.