As musical legends go, Elton John is one whose discography spans nearly all of my lifetime. Growing up, it was his songs like “Rocket Man” and “Daniel” that were some of my earliest FM radio pop memories. Through middle school, it seemed that Elton John’s music was stuck in a holding pattern. With his early to mid-’70s glory days behind him, the second half of his 70s era output was low profile to the point of being almost obscure by comparison.
Much of that glory was made through the partnership with Bernie Tauplin, the primary songwriter of John’s many hits. This partnership went on hiatus during the late ’70s and the hits stopped. By the time I was in high school, Elton John had re united with Tauplin and the hit machine would start again in full effect with 17th studio album Too Low For Zero.
In addition to being a return to form for John who by 1983 with over 20 albums was considered a veteran rocker, it would also be the point where the “Piano Man” would embrace synthesizers fully. He played them alongside his piano with his old touring band from the’70s.
Right off the bat, Too Low For Zero signaled the return of John to the top of the charts. The now classic “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” became one of 1983’s biggest ballads. With its blusey piano against John’s almost gospel-like delivery, it featured Stevie Wonder on harmonica. The song was instrumental in getting John chosen for the one off hit with Dionne Warick and Friends “That’s What Friends Are For” a few years later. While the downbeat songs were enduring, the album might be best remembered for its upbeat dance pop singles “Kiss the Bride” and “I’m Still Standing” a proclamation that John was back to old glory.
Both songs with subtle and overt synths embellishments established that John was down with the MIDI fueled ’80s while keeping the things that made him popular in the first place, his enchanting voice and Taupin’s excellent songwriting skills.
I have to admit that my pop music biases were still in full effect when this album was all over the radio in 1983, but good music is good music. My resolve would eventually weaken, despite the nasty rumors that came from his choice to break the cultural apartheid against South Africa and perform in Sun City. While his personal issues may have been obvious to long time fans (he came out in 1976), his cat and mouse themed songs and videos maintained appearances to his many new fans unaware of his past. Like Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones and Micheal Jackson, Elton John had become a cross generational star.
It was clear that John was back in the mainstream in a big way. With Taupin by his side, the next few releases would confirm that Elton John would be as big in the ’80s as he was the decade before (prompting more greatest hits albums) as he became a regular fixture on the pop charts for the rest of the decade.