Writing songs for “The Lion King” makes you very rich but it doesn’t exactly make you cool. In other words, Elton John doesn’t get the kind of cred that Dylan does. But Elton made his choices, he knows what he did, and for a guy who once claimed to be “only the piano player” (not entirely untrue), he’s done exceedingly well for himself.
Of course, the purpose of this tale isn’t to besmirch one of the pop’s most enduring voices and biggest personalities. It’s to explain how, on the album where John made his humble claim (Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player), he also set out on his sometimes uncool yet very successful path toward being the kind of artist who is routinely dubbed A Legend. That album – his sixth – was released 40 years ago this week, while the first week of February marks the 40th anniversary of Elton’s first No. 1 (U.S.) single, “Crocodile Rock.”
“Crocodile Rock” is crucial in the EJ universe. Not only is it sonically different than anything else in his discography, it was the first international hit that went top 10 in nearly every market where Elton was getting airplay at the time. “Crocodile Rock” was also John’s first million-selling single, and amidst his other early hits, it sounds like the one that was written with that goal in mind. In the 1995 reissue of Don’t Shoot Me, John admits, “I wanted it to be a record about all the things I grew up with. Of course it’s a rip-off, it’s derivative in every sense of the word.”
For as successful as “Crocodile Rock” was, its level of derivation from 1950s sock-hop pop rubs a lot of listeners the wrong way. From the “la-la-la-la-la’s” to the cheesy storyline about “holding hands and skipping stones,” “Crocodile Rock” is a far cry from Elton’s biggest hit up to that point, “Rocket Man.” He progresses from a ballad about an astronaut struck in his situation, which was inspired by a Ray Bradbury short story (and a bit Ziggy Stardust-esque), to the shameless sheen and cheese of “Crocodile Rock” with a just one stop in between (“Honky Cat”). The follow-up to “Crocodile Rock” and second hit from Don’t Shoot Me was right back to the serious stuff: “Daniel,” a commentary on Vietnam veterans and one of John’s most powerful songs ever.
“Crocodile Rock” leaves people thinking of Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player in a certain light. It will never be as “classic” an album as 1972’s Honky Chateau, which will never be as “classic” as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, released just eight months after Don’t Shoot Me. But without “Crocodile Rock” and Don’t Shoot Me, Elton wouldn’t have had the star power to catapult Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to such fame and longevity. Basically, he was setting himself up for the huge hits that were on their way just months later: “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” He was still in the process of transitioning from a singer-songwriter type to a real pop star, playing around with all sorts of genres and styles of songwriting on Don’t Shoot Me. From a little country twang on “Texan Love Song” to a Rolling Stones ripoff on “Midnight Creeper,” the album’s most common criticism – too derivative – comes into focus. He’ll get the mix right on the cohesive Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and go on to cement his place in music superstardom – just give him a little time.
– Jillian Mapes, Radio.com
Elton John on WZLX.com: