Following that Yellow Brick Road
Originally Published at Pitchfork.com
“Elton John‘s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” belongs on the short list of skating-rink songs that terrified me in my childhood. I could never understand why, but its bright, wordless chorus was troubling—it felt like something had gone askew inside it, reminding me of my parents’ voices through the bedroom wall when their conversation veered into argument. It was one of the first times I can remember music giving me a taste of ambiguity, disorientation. I didn’t know those words then; I just knew this song always made me skate faster.
Upon its release in 1973, the massive doorstopper of a double-album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” headlines represented John’s commercial apotheosis, holding at #1 eight weeks and eventually selling 30 million copies. By the time I heard the title track in the late 80s, it had settled into the Great American pabulum-distribution system—AM stations, supermarkets, and yes, skating rinks. But while I have liked or loved many other Elton John songs—“Take Me to the Pilot”; “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”; “Border Song”; “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore”—”Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is the only one that has ever actively haunted me.
It’s not the words, which are innocent and sweet. Like a lot of Bernie Taupin lyrics, they feel taken from a old-timey musical, maybe one where the country bumpkin gets fleeced by a city huckster (“Should’ve stayed on the farm/ Should have listened to my old man”). No, the trouble lurks in the chords. The opening lyric, “When are you going to come down? When are you going to land?” almost feels like a taunt, because the song never comes down, never lands. It is constantly moving in two directions at once: a never-ending upward lift and a soft fall that never reaches the bottom. It seems to have no ceiling or floor. The moment it approaches something like resolution, the chorus hits, and everything disappears again, like a Cheshire cat’s grin swallowing out the sky.
John built the song like an animated GIF of someone falling endlessly on their face. In the verses and bridge, a clutch of chords anchor us firmly in a home key of F major. Then, when the chorus arrives, a flatted sixth chord, brilliantine and alien, sails out of the blue, touching us down somewhere in the vicinity of A-flat major. It has no business here, and it is overwhelming. It is like being blinded by sunshine. John knew how potent this moment was, so he doubled up the melody with strings and so many backing vocals that they fairly flay your skin off when experienced in headphones.
In that one moment—the entire band bearing down on the F chord that just doesn’t appear—you feel music reminding you, wordlessly, that things are never quite as they seem, that life contains the possibility for revelatory surprise. It’s a musical bait-and-switch your mind never acclimates to, even after literally thousands of listens; my sophomore college roommate, a courteous soul who was not given to complain, was finally moved to issue meek protest during the initial grip of my obsession. I apologized to him, and then furtively found moments when he was away to listen more.
I was behaving like a lab animal but also trying to puzzle something out: Why did the song work the same way on me every single time? Narrative surprises in film don’t work like that; once you know that the sled was Rosebud, or that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, you don’t get that shock back. But there are no spoiler alerts in music; good surprises work every time. So whenever “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” approaches the ledge of that pendulous C7 chord and dissolves beatifically once again, the past disintegrates, and you are overwhelmed by the present.
That chorus section seems to always have been taking place, beneath the surface, on some other space-time continuum, and John is just ripping back the curtain on it to tantalize us. It’s a brief vision of paradise, albeit one with a sinister tinge—it’s a little too bright, as if someone had figured out how to weaponize the colors in a Miyazaki film. The song is about escape, and wherever its narrator is yearning to escape to, it probably sounds a lot like this. But it might not be safe to remain there. I think this is what frightened me about the song as a child; it represented all the shiny threats I didn’t comprehend—bright liquids I shouldn’t drink, smiling strangers I wasn’t supposed to talk to.