Released: May 1972
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 61
Certified Gold: 7/24/72
Elton John's Honky Chateau is a rich, warm, satisfying album that stands head and shoulders above the morass of current releases and has now succeeded in toppling the Stones from the top spot on the charts in only three weeks. Musically more varied, emotionally less contrived, lyrically more lucid than Tumbleweed Connection, Chateau rivals Elton John as his best work to date and evidences growth at every possible level.
The core of Tumbleweed was lyricist Bernie Taupin's confused evocation of the American past, especially the Civil War epoch. On Chateau, his interest in myth has been transformed into an obsession with fantasy. John continues to assume a wide range of separate personalities who act out their personal traits against suggestive social backgrounds -- most notably on "Slave," in which he sings of having been liberated and his need to now liberate his brothers and sisters, or on "Rocket Man," where he plays the part of an astronaut literally lost in space -- a lyric that will have a mighty impact on any real astronauts who hear it.
But in "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself," "Amy," and "Hercules," he sings as people no less imaginary but much closer to home: each song concerns a teenage obsession with an unreachable woman and an unfulfillable relationship.
The remainder of the album falls somewhere between these two lyrical extremes while the music provides the ultimate definition and shading that distinguishes the different feelings and moods of each cut. Thus, "Honky Chateau," a song about the evils of the city that uses New Orleans-styled horn work, "Mellow," about finding and keeping the right woman, is done soulfully. "Salvation," another John-Taupin inspirational number along the lines of "Border Song," is performed with gospel overtones and "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself" is ironic, with a rollicking music hall ambience.
If there is a flaw in the music it is in the way John interacts with the band. He usually sings at the top of his range without much dynamic variation; in the process he forces the group and arrangements to supply most of the color. The result is that the music breaks up and the effect becomes a little too ragged.
On the other hand, no Elton John album has ever sounded looser; the bogus over-production that marred both of the earlier releases at crucial moments is never in evidence, and the album sounds more intimate and personal than either of its predecessors. John and associates are obvious creatures of the studio and so shy away from nothing in terms of technique -- there is plenty of vocal double tracking, but their use of it is more natural than ever before.
"Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" shows how much John can really do in the space of a single cut. Using minimal instrumentation and singing one of Taupin's most direct lyrics, John effortlessly reveals the myth beneath the myth of "...a rose in Spanish Harlem." He expresses his involvement with the city, his need for its people, and his final desire to be alone through one of his best tunes, simplest arrangements, and most natural vocal performances.
- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 8-17-72.
A new Elton John album is just as much fun to review as it is to listen to, principally because it's completely different from what has gone before.
The immediate benefits of having Nigel and Dee as the rhythmic section on every cut are just staggering because this is really the first time they've had a chance on record to show how inventive they are. They are a pair of musicians who are constantly improving, searching for better ways to communicate with each other.
As for Davey Johnstone, his versatility on all stringed instruments is just what the band needed. Both his immediate intuitive grasp of the John/Taupin music, and his commitment to it, marks a terrific upward surge in creativity for the band; his musicianship has inspired them all.
Sheer power reigns on "Salvation" and "Hercules," but on different levels. The former is very intense lyrically, and so Elton's vocals and the band's performance are suffused with an almost quasi-religious fervor: "A chance to put the devil down/Without the fear of hell/Salvation spreads the gospel 'round/And frees you from yourself." On "Hercules" we hear the band flat out, hitting superb peaks behind Elton's vocals and Bernie's most amusing lyrics.
"I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself" is a tour de force for both Elton and Bernie. The lyrics are about a kid who decides to commit suicide but also wants to hang around to see what people say about him: "I'd like to see what the papers say/On the state of teenage blues." It encapsulates, within its five verses and two choruses, a whole generation's feelings.
"Susie (Dramas)"'s power shows how fully integrated the band has become in so short a time; now fully capable of that funky rock they've been searching for. But more, "Susie" shows how far Elton, himself, has developed as a writer. The melodies of the majority of songs being written today can easily be reproduced by instruments -- horns for instance. What Elton has learned to do is construct his melodies specifically for the peculiar phrasings of the human voice. It's a difficult thing to do and requires a great deal of sophistication.
Honky Chateau, as a whole, presents us with deeper ramifications than mere track analyses can encompass. It displays the band as an organic whole -- "Slave," for instance, revolves around Dee's bass and Davey's superlative double-timed banjo. It displays some of Bernie's most thoughtful lyrics -- "Rocket Man" is as complex a blending of sci-fi with our own frightening present ("And all this science/I don't understand/It's just my job/Five days a week/A Rocket Man") as was Clarke/Kubrick's 2001. "Mellow" is one of the most unusual love songs ever written, with an erotic, wonderfully wistful pulse running through it. It displays, lastly, Elton's growing ability to work with his voice; do different things with it. His vocal on "Kill Myself" is light, mischievously arrogant, and deliciously self-mocking; on "Susie," his voice is thick and vibrant -- terrifically virile -- which is in sharp contrast to "Rocket Man," where he's infinitely sad -- almost detached.
All this represents a continuing development in the major artists writing, playing and singing on Honky Chateau. And for that, we should be most grateful.
- Eric Van Lustbader, Words & Music, 9/72.
Apparently Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin made all their mistakes on their last album. Honky Chateau is delightful, deadpan, straight-ahead, colorful -- aw, gee, it's just swell. The title tune owes a lot to "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," but what the hell? The arrangements bubble and pop, John is in fine form and firm control, and everybody seems to have decided they have a good time and not get too serious. "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" vies with "Honky Cat" as the best cut on the album. It's good to hear Elton John again.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 10/72.
Trading his blue suede shoes and Disney dwarf outfit for a soft piano style, Elton John is off and running with Honky Chateau, a lopsided structure of tepid rock numbers and muzak ballads. There are several outstanding residents in John's Chateau, but without a doubt, the star boarder is "Rocketman," a stunning tale of space travel that soars to the ranks of an Elton John Classic. (Could be his best song yet.) Aiding John in his housekeeping are David Henchel (whose ARP sythesizer gives "Rocketman" his thrust) and Zappa graduate, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
- Ed Naha, Circus, 9/72.
John is here transmuted from dangerous poseur to likable pro. Paul Buckmaster and his sobbing strings are gone. Bernie Taupin has settled into some comprehensible (even sharp and surprising) lyrics, and John's piano, tinged with the music hall, is a rocker's delight. Also, he does have a knack for the hook. If like me you love "Rocket Man" despite all your initial misgivings, try "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself," about the state of teenage blues, or "Slave," about slavery. A-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
More slickly produced music for the masses, but this time out the whole affair is more crisp and up-tempo; less impeded with obvious filler. In addition, the piano playing and overall tone of the work take on the old English music hall sound (á la Sgt. Pepper) and because it's all so obviously showbiz, it works. There is nothing meaningful here -- but when some good time, silly pop music will fill the bill, look no further (and it does have the absurdly wonderful "Rocket Man"). The production is impressive in its crisp, spatial definition, but the sound of the compact disc suffers from a slight overbrightness. B+
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
Notable not only for the hits "Honky Cat" and "Rocket Man" but also for "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself" and "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters." The first of John's seven U.S. #1 albums. * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Like Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau is an ambitious, powerful set. * * * 1/2
- Simon Glickman, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
After a couple of weightier singer-songwriter outings, it was delightful to hear John revel in the simple pop pleasures of "Honky Cat." Written in four days, and utilizing his signature touring band for the first time, Honky Chateau is a snapshot of an artist loosening up and coming into his full powers.
Honky Chateau was chosen as the 357th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Elton John had already scored a few hits as a mild-mannered piano man, but Honky Château was the breakthrough where he learned to rock. He banged out the songs in a week with his lyrics wingman, Bernie Taupin. For anyone else, this could have been a greatest-hits album: the New Orleans boogie of "Honky Cat," the country-rock strut of "Hercules," the slow-burn grooves of "Mellow" and "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters." One moring during the sessions, Taupin came down to the breakfast table with a stack of lyrics he'd dashed off overnight. Elton picked one -- "Oh, I quite like this" -- sat at the piano and wrote a tune in 10 minutes, ready to be recorded by the time the band finished eating. The result was "Rocket Man," the space ballad beloved by everyone, except maybe David Bowie. Honky Château was where Elton truly turned into the Elton John the world has treasured ever since.
- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 3/23/17.
After a couple of weightier singer-songwriter outings, it was delightful to hear Elton John revel in the simple pop of "Honky Cat." Written in four days and recorded with his touring band, Honky Château is a snapshot of an artist loosening up and coming into his own.
Honky Château was chosen as the 251st greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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