Elton John and Bernie Taupin: “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”

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When I was fifteen years old, my favorite album was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Even then, I knew it was something special, a truly unique album.

Recently, I listened to the album again – for the first time in over thirty years. Wow! It still holds together. Elton John himself – among numerous other musicians, producers, and critics – believes Captain Fantastic is his best album. The ninth formal studio release album for Elton John, Captain Fantastic was the first album to debut at number one on the US Billboard 200. Rolling Stone ranks it at number 158 on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” The album was recorded at Caribou Ranch outside of Nederland, Colorado – just a hop and a skipfrom our home in Boulder.

Taken in its totality, the album tells the powerful story of the growing relationship – both musically and personally – between Captain Fantastic (Elton John) and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (Bernie Taupin). The album follows their beginnings as a songwriting duo churning out songs in the late 1960s for a pop hits mill in London. Their managers have no thought in the least that they’re working with a lyricist and composer who have the potential to hit it big themselves. For this reason, Bernie Taupin (who wrote the lyrics to the songs) and Elton John (who wrote the music) say that they were writing with “bitter fingers” (the title of the third song on the album).

Also chronicled is Elton John’s narrow escape from what would have been a disastrous marriage to Linda Woodrow, who did not see the value of his music. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” also tells of Elton John’s failed 1969 suicide attempt in response to the engagement. This song was, of course, the big hit from the album, but I think it’s important to put it next to “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” which appears near the end of the album. Even as a fifteen-year-old, I thought – and still think – the song tells of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s deepening personal relationship.

Elton John said in later years, “Captain Fantastic was written from start to finish in running order, as a kind of story about coming to terms with failure – or trying desperately not to be one. We lived that story.” Accounts of the recording sessions indicate that the album was also recorded from start to finish, including the last two songs – “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains” – which were recorded in one continuous take.

Music critics laud the songwriting accomplishments of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, with one calling them “the most successful writing duo since Lennon and McCartney.” Unfortunately, the two men had a falling out starting in 1977 and didn’t resume working together again full-time until 1983’s Too Low for Zero album.

Even though the two men patched things up and began writing together again, they seem to have lost their mojo and have never quite gotten it back. Elton John and Bernie Taupin were at their best in the early years – from their first album, Empty Sky (an album that has never gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves), their follow-up classics, Madman Across the Water, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, and finally Caribou (also recorded in Colorado) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

Of course, in the decades since Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy came out in 1975, Elton John has gone from being a mega-hits pop star (Captain Fantastic) to being a beloved friend of Princess Diana, from marrying his long-time partner, David Furnish, to being knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Though the music he has written and recorded since the 1970s doesn’t come close to his early output, Sir Elton has come a very long way.

For more on Elton John and Bernie Taupin, read “From the End of the World to Your Town: The Decline and Fall of Captain Fantastic” or watch the 1991 film documentary Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. For insights into this particular album, visit Elton John’s official website and read “10 Things You Need to Know about Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” And to learn more about the legendary Elton John’s life and career, pick up a copy of the recently published Captain Fantastic: The Definitive Biography of Elton John in the ’70s.

Rock music – especially rock music of the 1970s – has seen many concept albums, but this one is very much worth returning to. Give it a listen again . . . after all these years.

Watch and Listen:Watch a clip of Elton John singing “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” in a 1976 concert. Watch the original television commercial for Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. And listen to the title song, which opens the album.

Image Credit: Publicity photo of Bernie Taupin (left) and Elton John in 1971. Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elton_John_Bernie_Taupin_1971.JPG.