ELTON: JEWEL BOX
UMe/EMI (8-CD Box Set)
Elton John has taken a unique approach to this overview of his career. Though much of the material is previously released, there’s only a smattering of well-known hits. Instead, he’s delved into his archives to create an anthology that offers a different perspective on his storied career. And with over a third of the tracks previously unreleased, it also delivers a lot to keep longtime fans happy.
The set takes a thematic approach. The two “Deep Cuts” CDs are where you’ll find tracks John feels have been overlooked. Like “Monkey Suit,” recorded with Leon Russell, John describing the song as something that might have been performed on the legendary “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour in 1970; “lots of brass, big backing vocals.” It’s fun to learn that he considers that “Mellow,” from Honky Chateau, features “the best piano solo I’ve ever recorded,” which will surely make you listen to it more closely next time around. Similarly, you’ll listen to “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-34)” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road differently after realizing John considers its “fantastic band performance” as an example of his classic ’70s touring lineup at its finest.
The three “Rarities 1965-1971” discs will likely be the ones that fans put on first, and they’re great fun to explore. They start with the simplicity of “Come Back Baby,” the first song John wrote, and his debut appearance on a record, the ’50s/Motown influences clearly on display. It’s also fascinating to hear the demo “Scarecrow,” that marks the first time John set music to the lyrics of his premier lyricist, Bernie Taupin. “Dick Barton Theme (Devil’s Gallop),” credited to The Bread and Beer Band (a collective of session musicians that included John), was what used to be called a “turntable hit.” But that was only in the U.K., so it’s unlikely that U.S. listeners were previously able to experience this rollicking delight (the liner notes even helpfully point out “Some copies [of the single] released “Gallop” spelled “Galop”). For diehard Elton John aficionados, these three CDs alone will be worth the price of the set.
All the tracks on the “B-Sides 1976-2005” and “And This Is Me” discs are previously released. But many of the “B-Sides” can be considered rarities, as this marks the first time 17 of them have been made available on CD. You heard “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” everywhere on the radio at the time of its release, but how many people that bought the single flipped it over to hear another duet with John and Kiki Dee, “Snow Queen”? Or remember the wild instrumental “Choc Ice Goes Mental” (the B-side of “Kiss the Bride” in the U.S.)? The “And This Is Me” disc is best enjoyed with a copy of John’s autobiography at hand, as each song is discussed in the book. It’s how you’ll learn, for example, that the ballad “All the Nasties” (from Madman Across the Water) was about John wondering whether he should come out (“Not a single person seemed to notice what I was singing about”).
The 60-page book gives plenty of additional detail and is well illustrated with photos, ads, lyric sheets and memorabilia.
Sets like 2017’s Diamonds covered John’s rich catalog of hits. Elton: Jewel Box provides another perspective, an insight into his full career. Together, they make an impressive body of work, and fans will surely want to add Elton: Jewel Box to their collection.
— Gillian G. Gaar