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Elton John's deep cuts serve up quirky rewards
Beyond the hits
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Credit:Joe Rocco

Elton John and his band hit the Alliant Energy Center on March 22, but if you should lose out in the Ticketmaster stampede, there's consolation. The stadium-friendly hits may be great, but they make up just a fraction of a devoted listener's journey of discovery. Explore Elton's catalog and you'll discover that Caribou (1974), which boasts "The Bitch Is Back" and "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me," is otherwise a tacky atrocity through and through, and that the double album Blue Moves (1976), mostly remembered for two dreary songs, "Tonight" and "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," is actually rather lighthearted.

Here are some deep cuts you may not hear at the big show. Cherish them in their own strange way.

"Bitter Fingers"

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) isn't mad at the world like the Kinks' Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, even though both are concept albums about a naive young man's first tumble with the music industry. Okay, one track on the Elton album is mad at the world: "Bitter Fingers," which brings comic cheer to a songwriter's burnout. It's written as a crass order for product: "Could you knock a line or two together for a friend?/Sentimental, tear-inducing, with a happy end?" Actually, Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin filled that bill pretty tastefully with 1970's "Your Song."

"I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself"

Honky Chateau (1972) includes "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," perhaps the loveliest song Elton and Taupin ever wrote, as well as the family favorite "Rocket Man." But that doesn't mean the songwriters can't portray a suicidal teen who's a complete shit, as they do on this track. "If you want to save my life/Brigette Bardot gotta come and see me every night," Elton sings. There actually is YouTube evidence of Elton playing this at fairly recent shows, with percussionist Ray Cooper happily plonking along on a xylophone, but there's no beating the dementedly jaunty tap-dancing break on the original.

"I Am Your Robot"

It is fun to think the 1980s were more disastrous for Elton than they really were. After all, the decade produced good songs like "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" and "I'm Still Standing." Even 1982's Jump Up! offers some refuge from itself: The John Lennon eulogy "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" is crushing in its balance of celebration and grief. All the more mystifying, then, that elsewhere on the album, Elton plays a poor man's Gary Numan with "I Am Your Robot." It's too catchy to be called filler, but anyone would be embarrassed for the droid-speak in the outro: "I-am-your-ro-bot, and I'm pro-grammed-to-love-you/My serial num-ber is 4-4-3-5-7."

"Look Ma, No Hands"

Not only does 2001's Songs from the West Coast outclass anything Elton did in the 1980s or 1990s, it's more consistent than some of his finer 1970s albums. The relatively warm, simple production is a departure from his (at the time) more marketable Broadway musicals and Disney scores. Musically, "Look Ma, No Hands" is soft enough to almost obscure the lyrics' bite. An unnamed character traipses around the American continent, noticing hanging skeletons, but ever sure of himself: "Look ma, ain't life grand? / I'm a superpower, I'm a handyman."

"Can I Put You On"

11-17-70 (1971), which captures a live radio broadcast circa the lavishly orchestrated Elton John album, finds Elton in a now-rare setting, with just his own piano, drummer Nigel Olsson (who still plays with him) and bass player Dee Murray (who died in 1992). They take advantage of the loose format, jamming on covers of "Honky Tonk Woman" and "Get Back." The rawness serves them even better on "Can I Put You On," a witty tale of industrial England's working class: "I work for the foundry for a penny and a half a day/Like a blind street musician, I never see those who pay."

The song's original recording was for a film called Friends, but this version really gets at its sly heart. Elton's more convincing in his contempt for a man selling "fancy city things," who comes to "tell you that I love you people, sing a salesman's song, and put you on." Elton is a master of large-scale spectacle, but this track is a great reminder that he can thrive outside the stadium.

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