Rubbish. A load of old trash. Garbage. These are the words that always spring to my mind when I hear the opening tracks of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. Not, though, because Funeral For A Friend and Love Lies Bleeding are in themselves unsavoury – quite the opposite, in fact – but because they always conjure up memories of the halcyon summer of 1974 when I was working as a dustman for Egham District Council.
Back then, in the days before wheelie bins by the roadside, dustmen used to have to walk around to the back of houses and – please try to stay with me on this one – pick up heavy metal dustbins, lug them back to the refuse truck, empty them and then carry them back whence they came. Not much fun, you might correctly think, except when your round included the exclusive Wentworth estate and when the bins being emptied belonged to the likes of Donovan, Frank Muir, Danny Blanchflower and, of course, Elton ‘Hercules’ John himself.
Emptying Elton’s bin was the highlight of the week. We would approach the threshold of his mansion, press the buzzer, sonorously announce our presence with the guttural utterance of a single word – ‘dustmen’ – and then wait for the automatic gates to open before waltzing the 50 yards or so up his drive to where he kept his bins. Not once did I ever see a soul but it was all terribly exciting.
A few years later somebody started photographing celebrities’ rubbish and made a bestselling coffee-table book out of it, but my interest in Elton’s trash went deeper. I had been introduced to the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road LP by my girlfriend at the time, who was a big fan, and being desperate to impress her – I was a dustman after all – I used to pilfer stuff from Elton’s bins to give to her as presents (quite why the relationship didn’t last is still a mystery to me).
Anyway, Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding is the song that got me hooked on Elton John. It is a magnificent piece of music from his finest album and the theatrical intro of swirling winds, haunting chimes and horror-movie synthesiser never fails to send a shiver up my spine. The first half, Funeral For A Friend – Elton’s visualisation of the type of music he’d want for his own funeral – is an instrumental, almost classical in its ambition, featuring some impressive piano and guitar sequences, which then segues, courtesy of Davey Johnstone’s blistering riffs, into the hard-rocking Love Lies Bleeding.
Elton was solely responsible for the instrumental Funeral For A Friend but Love Lies Bleeding is where his writing partner, Bernie Taupin – one of the all-time great lyricists – begins to sprinkle his own magic on the album.
The roses in the window box
Have tilted to one side
Everything about this house
Was born to grow and die
Oh it doesn’t seem a year ago
To this very day
You said I’m sorry honey
If I don’t change the pace
I can’t face another day
And love lies bleeding in my hand
Oh it kills me to think of you with another man
I was playing rock and roll and you were just a fan
But my guitar couldn’t hold you
So I split the band
Love lies bleeding in my hands
This is an angry, bitter break-up song, which is about as far as you can get away from the tone of the classic Taupin-John composition that currently features in the Christmas ad for Elton John's farewell tour (er… I mean for John Lewis and Partners).
The lyric for Your Song – in stark contrast – is gentle, longing, romantic, naive even, and layered with a heavy dose of sugar, rather than with the acid of Love Lies Bleeding. In many ways the two songs represent the bookends of love’s various and tangled emotions and demonstrate the breadth of Taupin’s craft.
It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside
I’m not one of those who can easily hide
I don’t have much money, but boy if I did
I'd buy a big house where we both could live
If I was a sculptor, but then again, no
Or a woman who makes potions on a travelling show
I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do
My gift is my song, and this one’s for you
And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done
I hope you don’t mind
I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is, now you’re in the world
Taupin wrote the lyric to Your Song while sitting on the roof of 20 Denmark Street in London, where a young Elton was working as an office boy for a music publishing firm (which explains the line that starts the third verse ‘I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss’). Your Song was John’s first major hit and catapulted him to fame. In no time at all, he found himself on the other side of the Atlantic and the talk of America.
Even John Lennon was impressed. In a 1975 interview in Rolling Stone he said: ‘I remember hearing Elton John’s Your Song, heard it in America – it was one of Elton’s first big hits – and remember thinking, “Great, that’s the first new thing that’s happened since we [The Beatles] happened.” It was a step forward. There was something about his vocal that was an improvement on all of the English vocals until then.’
Seeing Elton John and his band live is to experience a musical tour de force and Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding is always a highlight and well worth the price of a ticket on its own. Indeed, I have already booked my seats for Elton’s final lap of honour at London’s O2 in November 2020 in anticipation.
Must go now as I need to put the bins out.
This is an expanded version of a blog that previously appeared on The Guardian website in February 2012