Looking Back

Elton John’s Honky Château at 50

On the 50th anniversary of its release, we look back at one of Elton John's greatest albums

Throughout the 60s, American acts followed the lead of their counterparts from the UK, very much taking their cues from the British invasion. There’s something curious, then, about May 1972. That was the month when the boat turned around and sailed back, the month when two of the UK’s biggest artists released defining albums, albums that bore the overwhelming influence of American music and culture. Albums that were both, coincidentally, recorded in French châteaus.

You can imagine the allure of America when you’ve grown up in Richmond and Watford. It’s another universe, more than another world. But while The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street is as sprawling and messy as the country that inspired it, Elton John’s Honky Château is laser focused, cherry-picking all the right bits of rock ‘n’ roll, soul, country and Laurel Canyon folk and rearranging them in Elton’s own mould.

Elton John - Tiny Dancer

Elton John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin came into Honky Château after two ambitious records in Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water. It marked a brief in-between period where he and Taupin became a peerless songwriting duo, but before John turned into the consummate stadium-filler of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. If you’re going to have a transitional period, writing one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums of the decade isn’t a bad way to go about it.

The Honky Château of the title is the Château d’Hérouville on the outskirts of Paris, a mansion that had most famously been utterly trashed by The Grateful Dead. But where The Stones used their French retreat to delve into previously uncharted territories of excess, John found focus. Holed up with his touring band, it’s as if the separation from the outside world allowed a new clarity where everything came together for the first time.

The record saunters in like Robert Redford in The Sting, with a wink and a strut, via the saloon piano and Memphis horns of ‘Honky Cat’. It’s so utterly Elton John that it now sounds like a blueprint. ‘Mellow’, on the other hand, sounds like the kind of song you could only write when you’re hanging out in a French château.

From there, the ominously titled ‘I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself’ threatens a turn towards darkness, only to find Elton playing with satire, singing about suicide while throwing in a tap routine. It’s a tricky balancing act, but one that’s deftly executed, for want of a better phrase.

Elton John - Rocket Man (Official Music Video)

It’s impossible to discuss Honky Château without talking about its stunning centrepiece. ‘Rocket Man (I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long Time)’ is a song so embedded in our collective musical consciousness that it has now become more than a song, much the same way that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Hotel California’ are hard to judge solely on musical terms. But, imagining for a moment that you’ve never heard it before, it’s a singularly impressive piece of work, a beautiful composition that hints at the conceptual brilliance around the corner.

Although it gets overwhelmed by his more famous piano ballads (of which there are many, from ‘Rocket Man’ to ‘Tiny Dancer’), the standout of Honky Château’s second side is the lovely ‘Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters’. Elton John himself has said it’s one of his personal favourites and that’s a difficult opinion to quibble with. His version at the Madison Square Garden benefit in the wake of 9/11 ranks as one of his greatest live performances.

Elton John - Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters (The Great Amphitheatre, Ephesus 2001)

Producer Gus Dudgeon lets the silence sit for a moment afterwards, like the moment you need to digest the great book you’ve just finished. Then, the mood elevates in a heartbeat with the terrific ‘Hercules’, a hit single that almost but never was.

In the 50 years that have passed since Honky Château, Elton John has released many albums that deserve to be called great. It’s hard to think of any, though, that truly deserve to be called better.

Elton John is on tour from June 2022 to April 2023. Get tickets here.