In January of 1972, Elton John was in France. He had already been to America, a dream of both him and his writing partner Bernie Taupin, and now there were new horizons to explore. John felt that the typical studio environment wasn’t going to work for his new record when word came in about Château d’Hérouville, a large country house just outside of Paris which had been painted by Vincent Van Gogh and was previously ransacked by the Grateful Dead. It seemed like the perfect place to record John’s fifth album.
Honky Château was the moment where everything came together for Elton John. Free from the restrictions that came with a typical piano-focused singer-songwriter career, John was able to tap into rock and roll, country, blues, music hall, and soul. More than anything else, John feels comfortable: he’s finally able to record with his full band – including new guitarist Davey Johnstone – he’s made it to his fifth album without flaming out, and his writing with Taupin is hitting new highs. When John sings “This is a mellow time” on ‘Mellow’, stretched out in a French country house, it’s not hard to see why.
John had finally been able to escape the purview of record label executives, who had prevented John from consistently using his touring band, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, on his albums. Longtime producer Gus Dudgeon was the only other consisted presence at the château, which allowed for an unhurried recording process. Unlike previous albums, which were recorded quickly due to label pressure, the relaxed atmosphere allowed John and his band to record Honky Château in just one month.
Everything about the Elton John/Bernie Taupin songwriting partnership was beginning to solidify as well, with Taupin retaining his cowboy roots on ‘Honky Cat’ and ‘Slave’ while expanding his scope to sci-fi (‘Rocket Man’), domestic bliss (‘Hercules’) and even morbid pitch-black humour (‘I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself’). Largely in contrast to John’s freewheeling style, Taupin in more trepedatious about fame and success, themes that could carry over into the pair’s future songs.
The last of those songs is worth singling out, if only because it’s the one track that seemingly could never get put out on major label million-selling record today. Approaching teenage angst and suicide through the lens of tabloid notoriety and fame-aping, ‘I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself’ is nevertheless a rollicking and jaunty music hall tune with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Satire is a tricky subject, especially when its 50 years old, but ‘I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself’ is so gonzo and ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly inspire any kind of real backlash or thoughtful take down. How can a suicide note complete with a tap dance routine ever be taken seriously?
For most of the album, John adopts a back and forth approach. Alternating between slow songs and uptempo numbers allows for wonderfully varied listening experience, as the funky ‘Susie’ drops into the forlorn ‘Rocket Man’ before the record flips onto the gospel-tinged sounds of ‘Salvation’. Listening to Honky Château is a throwback reminder as to how artists viewed sequencing during the album era. The album only has ten songs, which is hardly enough to catch the eye of a Spotify algorithm these days, but John purposefully places each track for maximum emotional impact when those tracks rub up against each other.
The only real switch to this style is when John places two impassioned ballads, the titanic ‘Salvation’ and the more relaxed ‘Slave’, back to back to start side two. That turns out to be strategic as John and the band descend into the darkly lust-filled ‘Amy’ before bringing back the hope on ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’, one of John’s most underrated and transcendent piano ballads. While Honky Château is meant to hang together as a full album, ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ is one of the many peaks where John, Taupin, and the band, all seem to be working on another level.
Whereas side one ended with the longing on ‘Rocket Man’, side two of Honky Château concludes with the celebratory ‘Hercules’, a rocker that has become a hidden gem within John’s catalogue. Originally, ‘Hercules’ was meant to be the album’s third single after ‘Rocekt Man’ and ‘Honky Cat’, and it very well could have been John’s third top ten single in the US from the album. Instead, the ‘Hercules’ single (along with its B-side, a fast and raucous alternate cut of ‘Slave’) was shelved as John moved right on to his next project, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, recorded just one month after Honky Château‘s release.
Despite its relatively laidback nature, there’s no mistaking that Honky Château was the world’s first glimpse of Elton John the world-conquering rock star. With two top ten singles and a number one album in the United States, John had officially gone global, setting the stage for a decade of domination from the once-reticent piano player from Middlesex. Honky Château had everything that would come to define John, from the bravado to the flamboyance to the surprising tenderness, all in one place. It was less of an album and more of an announcement – a superstar has officially arrived.