Monday, 29 February 2016
"Honky Chateau" by ELTON JOHN (2004 Universal/Rocket 'Hybrid SACD, Surround and CD Audio' Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...
"...I Am At Home..."
I always thought it odd that after the truly stunning 'Deluxe Editions' afforded Elton John's 2nd and 3rd albums "Elton John" and "Tumbleweed Connection" - Universal didn't follow up with more of the same for his revered and much-loved 4th and 5th LPs – "Madman Across The Water" (1971) and "Honky Chateau" (1972). But in a kind of a way – they did – it just seems that no one has noticed.
Instead of a two-disc DE – this variant of "Honky Chateau" is a single-disc 'SACD HYBRID' release – a new 2004 Remaster offering up three levels on one CD. The spine banner beneath the see-through jewel case tells you it's a 'SACD Surround Sound, SACD Stereo and CD Audio' release featuring new DSD and Surround Sound SACD mixes. It will play the 'CD Audio' variant on standard CD players - but if you want the best out of the Disc its better to have SACD playback or Surround or both. My Marantz CD Player has the SACD option – and man of man – do these digital babies shine compared to their 1995 Gus Dudgeon predecessors. There are SACD variants of 1971's "Madman Across The Water", 1973's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and 1975's "Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy" also. Let's get to the Honky Cat...
US released November 2004 (December 2004 in the UK) – "Honky Chateau" by ELTON JOHN on Universal/Rocket B0003609-36 (Barcode 602498240304) is a 'HYBRID SACD Surround Sound, SACD Stereo and CD Audio' Single Disc Reissue of the original 10-track 1972 album plus one bonus 'Alternate Version' and plays out as follows (48:34 minutes):
1. Honky Cat
3. I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself
4. Susie (Dramas)
5. Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)
6. Salvation [Side 2]
9. Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters
Tracks 1 to 10 are his 5th album "Honky Chateau" – released May 1972 in the UK on DJM Records DJLPH 423 and in the USA on Uni Records 93135. All tracks were written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin – Ken Scott was the Engineer and Gus Dudgeon Produced. It hit the No. 1 spot in the USA on the LP charts and No. 2 in the UK.
11. Slave (Alternate Version)
First appeared as a bonus track on the 1995 Rocket CD Remaster.
The 12-page booklet features the same layout as the Gus Dudgeon 1995 remaster in that it reproduces the inner gatefold of the original vinyl album (has the SACD logo in the bottom left corner). The JOHN TOBLER liner notes from 1995 are there also as are the colour pages with lyrics and musician credits. The only addition is a SACD HYBRID acknowledgement page that advises about the team of 4 who handled this version. GREG PENNY produced, mixed and mastered the Surround Sound version – RICKY GRAHAM did the Digital Transfers at Sphere Studios in London, GUS SKINAS did the DSD Editing at Super Audio Center, Boulder, Colorado while TONY COUSINS re-mastering the Original Stereo Mixes at Metropolis Mastering in London. You get a rounded-corner jewel case with a visible 'SACD Surround Soul, SACD Stereo, CD Audio' side banner to differentiate it from previous issues. I have to say that the audio on the 1995 CD always felt weedy to me – but I’m taken aback at how good these 2004 versions are – clarity, warmth and truly gorgeous audio throughout the entire SACD Remaster. I suspect fans who’ve grown up with this album for over four decades will be shocked when they hear LP nuggets like "Mellow" or the piano funk of "Susie (Dramas)" on this Hybrid Disc.
It opens with the wonderfully chipper "Honky Cat" – a Number 8 hit in August 1972 in the States (Uni 55343). I've had the 1995 variant and the Greatest Hits version to try to get the best Audio – but this 2004 baby trounces all that went before. The transfers of "Mellow" gives more muscle to Dee Murray's Bass and Nigel Olsson’s Drums (Jean Luc-Ponty plays his Electric Violin) while Elton's Piano on "I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself" and those great Harmony Vocals between him and Dee Murray get to shine too (Larry "Legs" Smith the drummer with the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band provided 'tap dancing' instead of his usual skill with the sticks). But if I was to nail down one track that exemplifies how good the audio is – it would absolutely huge punch that now comes off "Susie (Dramas)". As the piano pumps – you can now hear Davey Johnstone's Electric Guitar fills – and when that off-kilter solo hits the speakers – your cones will be rattling. We then get a truly gorgeous transfer of the classic "Rocket Man" which was the natural single choice (it made No. 2 in the in April 1972 on DJM DJX 501 and No. 8 in the USA in May 1972 on Uni 55328). Everything here is improved – those Acoustic strums from Davey Johnstone – the A.R.P. Synth played by David Henschel. You kind of wish they used this in Ridley Scott's film "The Martian" instead of Abba's hokey "Waterloo" in that prepping for departure from Mars scene.
The accumulated Harmony Vocals on "Salvation" are fantastically clear (Madeline Bell, Lisa Strike, Larry Steel and Tony Hazzard guest) as the song sails into your living room on a sea of voices and piano. The biting ‘bullwhip in his hand’ song "Slave" was the US B-side to “Honky Cat” and I’d forgotten how good (and indeed) funky "Amy" is – Jean Luc-Ponty’s wild violin strokes and Elton’s accentuated Vocals to the fore – both abled assisted by Ray Cooper’s rumbling Congas in the background. You also 'feel' the sweet playing of Dee Murray on Bass throughout the highlight that is "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters" – Davey Johnstone’s Mandolin and Acoustic suddenly crystal clear too (“...I thank the lord for the people I have found...”). It ends on five and a half minutes of "Hercules" piano boogie – nicely done even if that ‘distant’ Elton vocal still irritates and takes some power away from the song’s impact. The single Bonus Track is the ‘ridiculously fast’ Alternate Take of “Slave” that both Taupin and John felt wasn’t right – one of the few outtakes to have ever surfaced from the Chateau Sessions. It comes on like a barroom barrelhouse tune and I can see why they slowed it down – but you have to say that it makes for a fascinating listen (and its in tip-top audio too)...
The album is dominated and probably best remembered for the monster hit "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long, Long Time)" - but on re-hearing it in 2016 – I'm struck again by the songwriting/melody classiness of Elton John's "Honky Chateau". In seemed that 1971 to 1975 produced the best in Rock.
I've just finished reviewing 1971's "Madman Across The Water" on this format and all the same 'wow factors' apply. To sum up - this stunning 'Hybrid SACD' Reissue of Reggie's "Honky Chateau" leaves me awash with admiration...and isn't that the best recommendation of all...