Tag Archives: Elton John

The piano player and the perfect playlist

Elton John, Portland, 2019

It must be thrill to create a perfect piece of music, to touch or capture such a elusive thing. Some musicians do it once or twice, some a little more often – very few have achieved it repeatedly, over decades.

I’m not the biggest Elton John fan. For years – probably because of a string of cheesy ‘80s music videos – I avoided his work entirely. That’s long since changed, which is how I found myself sitting – with 20,000 other people – in Portland’s Moda Center last Saturday night, witnessing the man’s last go-round, his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.

Perfection was in the air. I’ve attended hundreds of shows over the years, but never one with such a bulletproof setlist.  

As he moved from one classic pop song to the next, I wondered how it must feel to be the guy sitting behind the piano, knowing that you’ve written a bunch of pretty-much perfect popular songs? To play a set so tight that there’s no room for “Honky Cat” or “Sacrifice” – tunes that would be the high point of most other composers’ nights?

Having written two dozen or more great songs, where do you go next? Are you tormented by them, or are they like cash in the bank (in more ways that one), a form of artistic security to be drawn down when necessary? Are you bored? (How may times and ways can you play the piano solo on “Bennie And The Jets”?)

Maybe the burden of perfection doesn’t weigh heavy. Perhaps, like Elton John, you handle it by just playing the songs. He looked like he enjoyed his three hours on stage in Portland. The audience – including this awed listener – certainly did.

_____

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You play it, I’ll hum it (and hum it, and hum it)

Not so fast Elvis... Dodging earworms.

Not so fast Mr Costello.

It struck at 3.40am last Wednesday. Waking briefly in the middle of the night I lay in bed as it looped around my head.

Twenty four hours later it hit again, this time in the middle of a morning run.

After I returned from my jog it pestered me in the shower.

Later that day, walking down a flight of stairs at work, it sprang up, maddeningly.

He’s a Battered Old Bird 
And he’s living up there 
There’s a place where time stands still 
If you keep taking those little pink pills…

The words are from a not-very-well-known Elvis Costello song, Battered Old Bird. The tune torments me.

I’m vigilant about it, though. On the occasions that I listen to Blood and Chocolate, the album on which Battered Old Bird features, I rush to hit the skip button as soon as the song preceding it begins to wind down.

Last week it popped up on shuffle and somehow caught me unawares. This led to 48 or more hours of the chorus erupting every time my brain dropped into ‘stall’ mode: while eating, washing the dishes, tying my shoelaces, putting out the bin.

After two days I managed to dislodge it.

'God, no...not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!' 'The Scream'. Edvard Munch. Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

‘God, no…not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!’
‘The Scream’. Edvard Munch.
Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

How? By listening to the only other melody which burrows even deeper into my short term auditory memory, an infuriating Richard Thompson tune.

And so the process began again.

So it is with earworms – otherwise know as stuck song syndrome (or, it you’re being clinical, ‘musical imagery repetition’).

Some 98pc of us encounter them (and three quarters of our earworms are songs with lyrics – perhaps I should listen to more classical and jazz).

Edgar Allan Poe was writing about them back in 1845, their length is usually between 15 and 30 seconds, and two proven methods of stopping them are reading a good novel and completing a moderately-difficult anagram.

So prevalent are they that two researchers (for whom I have a great deal of sympathy) endeavoured in 2012 to find the most common earworm in the UK. It turned out to be Queen’s We Will Rock You (go on, hum it, I dare you).

This led, in an act of research likely precipitate insanity in the coming 48 hours, to my considering my personal top five earworms.

Here they are, the songs I will never play, the tunes that drive me from stores or coffee shops within four bars, the numbers that could see the radio silenced, possibly permanently, against a wall.

Deep breath…

5. The Clancy Brothers, Finnegan’s Wake

4. Pete Seeger: Guantanamero (or anyone’s version, really)

3. Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

2. Richard Thompson: Let It Blow

1. And, finally, Battered Old Bird. Really, listen to this one at your peril

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