50 Years Ago, Elton John’s Madman Across the Water Was the Calm Before His Popstar Storm

Looking back at the "make or break" album that gave us "Tiny Dancer"

Elton John Madman Across the Water
Illustration by Steven Fiche, photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

    Madman Across the Water was part of the “blink and you’ll miss it” phase of Elton John‘s career.

    Still legally Reginald Dwight until shortly after Madman‘s release in November 1971, the burgeoning British artist released a dizzying six albums during his first four years of recording, including the soundtrack for the 1971 film Friends and the 17-11-70 live album. The pace was so fast — even furious, given his legendary temperament — that it was hard at that time to take the full measure of where everything fit into that still young career.

    In that context, time has been good to Madman. It was successful at the time in the US — Top 10 on the Billboard 200, certified gold three months after its release (eventually double platinum) — but somewhat of a disappointment in England, where it peaked at No. 41 on the UK Albums Chart. That weighed heavily on John, especially in the wake of his Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection albums, both released in 1970 (and both of which went Top 5 in each country).


    Biographer Philip Norman notes in 1991’s Sir Elton that it was a “make or break time” for John in his homeland, pushing to “silence for all time the critical chorus which dismissed him variously as a publicist’s hype, a late-night BBC2 fad and a hula-hoopish American flavour of the month.”

    For all that pressure, perhaps perceived and self-inflicted, John came into Madman prepared and seemingly confident. He writes in his autobiography ME that the recording took just four days at Trident Studios in London. “It was supposed to be five,” he says, explaining that they lost a day when Paul Buckmaster spilled a bottle of ink on the only copy of his score, forcing him to re-compose the arrangements. “I was furious. It was an expensive mistake to make, and we stopped working together for decades afterwards. But I was also quietly impressed when he wrote the whole score again in twenty-four hours. Even when Paul screwed up, he screwed up in a way that reminded you he was a genius.”

    Madman also spotlighted the early genius of the John and Bernie Taupin songwriting team. Despite the professed desire for hits, the album is decidedly uncommercial. Only one of the nine tracks, the coda “Goodbye,” runs under four minutes, and the singles “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” weigh in at more than five and six minutes, respectively. There’s an abundance of melody and even a fair share of hooks, but those are sophisticated and at times subtle — and, in the case of Buckmaster’s string signature on “Levon,” come late in the songs rather than hitting the listener square from the start. It’s rich and cinematic, not immediate, and there’s an abundance of musical nuance that’s revealed with each subsequent listen.



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