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July 7, 2017

'Honky Château' – A Classic Revisited

Honky Château, Elton’s fifth studio release and Elton’s first US #1 album, has been re-mastered by Grammy Award winning mastering engineer Bob Ludwig and is now available on 180gm vinyl.

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You won’t find the expression “Honky Château” in any dictionary or book of Anglo-Franco phrases. The pairing of the words is an Eltonism – playing off the title of the album’s opening song Honky Cat (“chat” is French for “cat”) and the name of the studio in which it was recorded, the Château d'Hérouville, in France – a live-in recording complex where Elton would produce three of his most successful LPs. So, even before hearing a note from the record, fans could perhaps sense that they were in for something a bit different from previous Elton albums.

Originally released in May 1972, Honky Château did reveal a marked change in direction for both Elton’s song writing and his approach to recording. By the time the project began, in January of that year, Elton had left the days of fully-arranged material and multiple session players behind him. While his previous three studio efforts averaged 26 musicians apiece, Honky Château was anchored by his four-piece band, one that would immediately become his touring group for the heady years ahead. Joining Elton in the French countryside were Davey Johnston (electric & acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin and backing vocals), Nigel Olsson (drums, tambourine, congas and backing vocals) and Dee Murray (bass and backing vocals). As Elton explained to Danny Holloway of the New Musical Express in a 1973 interview:

I decided to use the band more prominently and add Davey. We didn’t rehearse with him or anything – we just invited him to France with us.

A few guest artists participated as well, most notably jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (also on albums by Frank Zappa and the Mahavishnu Orchestra) on two songs and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s “Legs” Larry Smith tap dancing on the jaunty I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself.

The songs, starting as they always have with Bernie writing the words, were tighter than most of Elton’s previous material. The lyrics were more conducive to becoming “pop” songs, even as they continued to show a variety of styles and topics not usually found in the work of Elton’s contemporaries. In addition, every album up until now had contained songs written over a stretch of months or in some cases years; Honky Château was entirely composed in a four-day stretch at the studio…and recorded almost as quickly. This pace of creation would become the template for many Elton albums to come.

The approach proved very successful; Honky Château spent 14 months on the Billboard Top 200 album chart and became Elton’s first number one album in the US (it reached #2 in the UK – his next album would become his first chart-topper in Britain – and spent 23 weeks on the UK Album Chart). Honky Château began a run of seven consecutive number one albums for Elton in the US and the LP was in included in Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2012.

The LP also spawned Elton’s highest-charting single at the time, Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time), which peaked at #2 in the UK and #6 in the US. It proved to be Elton’s second-highest charting UK single of the 1970s, behind Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. The follow-up, Honky Cat, also placed in the US Top 10, and introduced Elton fans to the more jovial side of his writing.

Honky Château received acclaim from music critics as well as the record-buying public. Roy Carr, writing for New Musical Express, called it, “A chart-topper if ever I heard one.” Jon Landau reviewed it for Rolling Stone, declaring it, “A rich, warm, satisfying album that stands head and shoulders above the morass of current releases…it rewards each additional playing with increased enlightenment and enjoyment.” And Robert Hilburn called the album, “One of the year’s most joyous works.” in the Los Angeles Times. Wanting no one to misunderstand his excitement, Bill Frangus, writing for the Orlando (Florida) Sentinentel, exclaimed: “Listen to his piano on Honky Cat and I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself. It will destroy you.”

Elton’s albums had already started to win over discerning music listeners, each more so than the last, but Honky Château can be regarded as the beginning of his quickly becoming the most popular recording artist of the 1970s and one of the most successful artists of the past five decades. It is a must-have in anyone’s collection of Elton vinyl album reissues and is also now available as part of The Elton John Vinyl Club 2017.

Honky Château track listing:

Side 1
Honky Cat
Mellow
I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself
Susie (Dramas)
Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)

Side 2
Salvation
Slave
Amy
Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters
Hercules