It may not be as instantly quotable as Greil Marcus reviewing Bob Dylan’s New Morning (“What is this shit?”) but Lester Bangs’ take on Elton John’s Victim of Love in 1979 packs a similar punch:

“There’s no getting around it,” he wrote in the Village Voice. “Elton’s got problems.”

As they say, truer words were never spoken—or in this case, written. For fans used to John’s usual long-players, full of tuneful pop and careful arrangements, dropping the needle on Victim of Love must have been a shock to the system. Soulless disco? No songs by John and Bernie Taupin?

“I wanted to make a record that people could dance to without taking the needle off,” John told journalist Tom Doyle for his book Captain Fantastic: Elton John's Stellar Trip Through the '70s. “I can understand why it wasn’t successful. I enjoyed it, [but] it was self-indulgent. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not going to hide that record in the cupboard.”

Maybe he should. John has released his share of stinkers over the years, and if you ask the singer and his songwriting partner, their picks for “worst Elton John record” have their own questionable merit. John singles out 1986’s Leather Jackets as the low point, while Taupin has cited 1997’s The Big Picture as the bottom.

“I thought that was one of the most anemic records we made,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “In fact, it was miserable being in the studio, since it was all done on machines.”

Victim of Love wasn’t created on machines, but it may as well have been. You may find it impossible to believe that anyone could suction all the charm, grit and rock out of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” but that’s exactly what John and the backing musicians on Victim of Love manage to pull off—on the record’s first track.

Could it possibly go downhill from there? Not exactly, but it definitely doesn’t rise much from that low point either. Maybe the biggest problem is that it isn’t much of an Elton John record at all. He was approached by an old friend, Pete Bellotte, who had become a producer working with electronic music icon Giorgio Moroder. Bellotte raised the suggestion of collaborating with John on a disco record in 1979; John was interested, but only if Bellotte assembled the songs and backing tracks—Elton would only appear as a singer.

Bellotte assembled a crew of collaborators and studio musicians to write and record the backing, then informed John that he was ready for the singer, who recorded his vocals in a single eight-hour session, then seemed to forget the album ever existed. It’s the only album for which John did no promotional press, and the only album of his that has never had any of its songs performed live.

Because John didn’t write the songs or perform any of the instrumentation (not even keyboards or piano), it doesn’t feel like an Elton John record at all. It would be roughly the same effort if they’d roped in Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens or even an anonymous studio singer to perform lead vocals.

The album’s chief “selling point,” that it’s one continuous sequence of disco cuts designed primarily for dancing, becomes a flaw in any listening environment other than a loud club where the champagne and cocaine are flowing freely. There’s no chance to breathe, or even recognize each song as its own distinct number. It all bleeds together in a wash of synthesizers, strings and thwomping bass lines.

Victim of Love isn't horrible because it's an Elton John disco record. It's simply a terrible collection of forgettable songs that happen to be disco. They lack Donna Summer's soul and power, ABBA's classic pop smarts or the grit that other rockers were adding to their attempts at the genre. And they are sung by a pop star who sounds more concerned with where his next toot of blow will come from than with acquitting himself with skill or verve. Add in the absence of Taupin’s words or the dependable passion of such backing stars as guitarist Davey Johnstone or percussionist Ray Cooper, and you have the worst possible thing an Elton John record could ever be—boring.

 

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