To use the title of one of the songs included on this album, Elton John’s Caribou is indeed a “Stinker.” That said, this beautiful turd of an album, his first to be recorded in the U.S., captures Elton John at his commercial apex and at the height of his creative powers. The fact that it contained two of his most indelible singles, “The Bitch Is Back” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” was just the icing on the cake of a very hectic year.
By the release of Caribou in 1974, Elton John’s career was so white-hot he could do no wrong. His previous albums Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player (released in 1972) and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road had both topped the charts in 1973, and combined, they sold in neighborhood of 24 million copies.
Hence, Elton unleashed a flimsy, tossed-off album chock full of half-baked songs (by a fully baked superstar), that topped the charts all over the world. But let’s be kind and cut Elton and the band some slack. They were under extreme pressure to record the record very quickly and had only about nine days to get the job done before embarking on a world tour. At one point, the title of the album was to be Ol’ Pink Eyes Is Back, which was a comment on the extreme fatigue Elton and the band were feeling at the time, and also a pun on the title of Frank Sinatra’s classic Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back album. Instead, the album takes its title from the studio it was recorded in, Caribou Ranch in Colorado.
Musicians on the album consisted of Davey Johnstone on guitar, Dee Murray on bass, Nigel Olsson on drums and Ray Cooper (making his first appearance on an Elton John album) on percussion. The band was joined by special guest including The Tower Of Power Horn Section featuring Lenny Pickett on saxophone, Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Clydie King, Shirlie Matthews, Billy Hinsche, Toni Tennille and Dusty Springfield on background vocals, and Chester Thompson on organ. And, of course, Bernie Taupin wrote all the lyrics to the songs, and Daryl “The Captain” Dragon was credited with arrangements.
Only two tracks on the album rank among John’s best work. “The Bitch Is Back” is the terse self referential rocker that kicks off the album. It has also become one of Elton’s signature songs and a concert staple. The song climbed to the number four slot on the pop charts, and the title came from a comment Bernie Taupin’s wife made about Elton John. The song was later masterfully covered by Tina Turner.
The other is the timeless love song “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” which is one of Elton’s most beautiful ballads. The track features lush background vocals by Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys, Toni Tennille of Captain & Tennille and Dusty Springfield, and went all the way to the number two position on the pop charts.
Today’s Song Of The Day is one of several lesser gems on the album that have become fan favorites over the years. According to the Songfacts website, Bernie Taupin grew up on a farm that was about 50 miles away from a fishing port on the Lincolnshire Coast of England called Grimsby. Elton prompted Bernie to write the song
because Randy Newman wrote a song about Cleveland.
Several other songs on the album also make the grade including “Dixie Lily,” which is a country tribute to a Louisiana riverboat with a honkin’ “Yakety Sax” style solo by The Tower Of Power horns, and “Pinky” which is also another great Elton John love ballad that really deserves to be elevated to “classic” status.
The rest of the album is composed of forgettable rockers like “You’re So Static” and “Stinker,” and the somewhat bloated ballad, “Ticking” which is a tale about a mass murderer. The song has unfortunately become all too relevant over the years.
“Solar Prestige A Gamon” is the Seinfeld of songs, meaning that it is a song about…nothing! “Solar” is the “Mairzy Doats” of the 1970s, and if you are too young to know what that is (and you probably are), you should check out that precedent-setting Merry Macs’ hit from 1944 on YouTube. The song, whose lyrics are purely gibberish, was inspired by none other than The Beatles’ Abbey Road track “Sun King.” Elton thought it would be fun to sing a song comprised of real words strung together to mean nothing, so Bernie Taupin wrote up a set of on-demand nonsense lyrics to fulfill his wishes. Sure, it’s a goof performed by the ultimate goofball, but if this musical dud doesn’t manage to put a smile on your face, you are far more jaded than I am.
And finally, there’s the unintentionally silly song “I’ve Seen The Saucers,” which is a pseudo epic tale of alien abduction. It ranks among Elton’s weakest tracks, but it is saved by the terrific backing vocals that sound like they were peeled off of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Several B-sides were also recorded during the Caribou sessions including “Sick City” and “Cold Highway.” Both songs can be found on the CD reissue of the album. Elton would go on to recover his creative mojo with his next album, the sublime Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, and his massive popularity would continue unabated for several more years.
As an added bonus for reading this far, I am also including a rare Old Grey Whistle Test solo version of “Grimsby” performed on 12/24/74. As a Christmas present to fans, Elton brought out Rod Stewart and Gary Glitter to perform “White Christmas.”