50 Years Ago: Elton John’s Debut ‘Empty Sky’ Hints at the Greatness to Come
For most artists, the first album is the one they essentially spend their entire lives to that point creating.
Then there are the artists that give it a solid try on their initial outing, but find their true voice later. Elton John's first album, Empty Sky, is a great example of a debut album that only hints at the brilliance to come. It's not a bad record by any means, but it is a product of its time, and you can hear John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin learning their way and finding their voice as they go.
The man born Reginald Dwight began his collaboration with Taupin in 1967, but the pair had little success in trying to sell songs to other artists via Dick James' DJM Records. After anointing himself Elton John, he recorded Empty Sky in late-1968 and early-1969 for DJM. Although the record hit stores in the U.K. in June 1969, it wasn't released stateside until 1975, when MCA picked up the record after John had already found major success with his unprecedented run of early '70s classics.
The real Elton is somewhere on Empty Sky. You can hear his masterful way with a hook in the choruses of songs like "Western Ford Gateway" and "Sails." His piano work throughout is explosive, surpassing even some of the records for which he would later become far more famous. The chunky piano chords that punctuate the intro to the album's title track make you wish the song had somehow found its way into his live set over the years; the Pete Townshend-ish guitar chords that slice across the top of the song call to mind Davey Johnstone's work on John's albums to come.
Empty Sky also includes at least one song that would become a deep cut classic for fans, the tender ballad "Skyline Pigeon." John would re-record it in 1972 during the sessions for Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player in a version that abandoned the original's harpsichord accompaniment for a band and full orchestra. Even today, "Skyline Pigeon" makes an occasional and welcome appearance in John's live sets.
It's just weird to hear all those touches we've come to know as "vintage Elton" on an album that amounts to bluesy psychedelic pop. Reverse-tracked guitars, bongos, harmonica drenched in reverb, pan flute: It's like the Rocket Man stumbled into a lost Strawberry Alarm Clock session. Taupin's lyrics don't help matters at all. It's hard to believe the guy who would soon pen the words to "Your Song" could be quite so jazzed about chronicling the Vikings who worshiped Thor on "Val-Halla."
In a strange way, Empty Sky sounds like a transition record, except there's nothing to transition from. It's more like John and Taupin were working out the kinks in their own collaboration and getting some serious stoner music out of their system before becoming the rock-pop legends they were destined to be.