10 April 2021 | James Porteous | Clipper Media
“Burn Down The Mission” – Elton John
You tell me there’s an angel in your tree
Did he say he’d come to call on me
For things are getting desperate in our home
Living in the parish of the restless folks I know
Everybody now bring your family down to the riverside
Look to the east to see where the fat stock hide
Behind four walls of stone the rich man sleeps
It’s time we put the flame torch to their keep
Burn down the mission
If we’re gonna stay alive
Watch the black smoke fly to heaven
See the red flame light the sky
Burn down the mission
Burn it down to stay alive
It’s our only chance of living
Take all you need to live inside
Deep in the woods the squirrels are out today
My wife cried when they came to take me away
But what more could I do just to keep her warm
Than burn burn burn burn down the mission walls
Writer(s): Elton John, Bernie Taupin
John F. Higgins takes a look back at Elton and Bernie’s seminal Americana concept album for eltonjohn.com.
Leaving behind the lush, British landscapes so poetically put forward on their previous album, Elton and Bernie reached for their sepia-soaked paintbrushes with both hands to evoke the American wild west on the third LP.
“The sound of the album is sepia-tinted, like the cover art,” arranger Paul Buckmaster said in 1996. “When I think of those songs, that is what I see, visually. You think of old western steam trains and you think of clanking wheels on the rails. Hard-bitten creased faces of cowboys with squinty eyes looking off in the distance. You can almost smell the old leather. That’s the feel of the album; it’s very authentic. It’s a tribute to the American Old West.”
“I was determined not to follow up ‘Elton John’ with another orchestra album, because if I had done that in England, that would be me for life and I wouldn’t get in that bag.”Elton John (‘New Potato Caboose’ magazine, June 28, 1971)
Tumbleweed Connection is also a soul-felt homage to The Band and the music of Delaney & Bonnie, whose pianist, Leon Russell, had recently become Elton’s idol.
Both American groups had released groundbreaking albums in the summers of 1968 (The Original Delaney & Bonnie) and 1969 (Music From Big Pink), and it does not take much to imagine the minds of Elton and Bernie being blown the moment the U.S. imports arrived at their favourite record-shop, Musicland, in London’s Soho.
Even those native to the United States could be pardoned for reaching for their encyclopedias to look up the many references Bernie included in his lyrics: Pinkertons, Stage Coach Times, Deacon Lee, tramline, and so on. Not all of these were real-life people, places, or things, but the way that the teenage British writer framed them, they all sounded like they were just waiting to be found in in the pages of American history books.
This brings us to perhaps the most amazing thing about the songs, many of which were written at the same time as those on the Elton John album; they were composed before their authors had ever stepped foot on American soil. That was not to happen until almost a month after the album sessions had concluded, when Elton, Bernie, and the band flew to Los Angeles for his debut at the Troubadour.
The sessions between the first two albums Elton recorded at Trident could not have been more different. Whereas the Elton John album was all done in one week, with a great deal of planning beforehand, the Tumbleweed sessions were scattered over a span of four-and-a-half months.
As Paul Buckmaster remembered, “There was a different vibe for Tumbleweed because it was not recorded all at once. We weren’t always available at the same time. Gus may have been on other projects. Elton was probably touring [he performed 30 times in the UK and Europe between March 20 and August 14, 1970]. Maybe studios weren’t available.”
“The degree of progression between ‘Elton John’ and ‘Tumbleweed’ is exactly what I wanted. ‘Elton’ was a complicated album, really, whereas ‘Tumbleweed’s‘ songs are much simpler, less orchestrated and easier for people to relate to.”Elton John (‘Rock Magazine’, USA March 1971)
Guitarist Caleb Quaye, whose band was used throughout the album, said in 1994 that Elton, who did not have his own group at the time, would join Hookfoot (Caleb on guitar, Roger Pope on drums, David Glover on bass, and Ian Duck on harmonica) on stage at some of their gigs.
At the London School of Economics, for example, “he would play some of his songs on stage with us, so we would know the songs already. If Elton was to present something new to us in the studio, it didn’t take us too long to nail it. We were a team; we knew how to work with one another. This was before Walkmans and so on. We didn’t have the opportunity to carry tapes around with us and play them outside the studio. So, we would play around the piano with Elton, live in the studio, when we needed to work out a song.”
Six of the ten songs on Tumbleweed were recorded without much more formality than that; Elton and Hookfoot recorded live in the studio, with the occasional overdub (Caleb on a second, or third guitar, and the like) put on afterwards. Paul Buckmaster fully arranged two of the other songs, with the remaining two being pretty much one-instrument-and-vocal efforts.
“I’m so pleased about the ‘Tumbleweed’ reviews. Because the ‘Elton John’ album got ridiculous reviews and I thought well it’ll never happen with the new one, perhaps people will accept it but that’s all but instead, ‘Tumbleweed’ got even better reviews. I don’t know. We didn’t set out to make it a better album.”Elton John (to Penny Valentine/’Sounds’ magazine, December 26, 1970)
The album peaked at #2 on the UK Album Chart, where it began its 20-week run on January 16, 1971. In the US, it reached #5 on the Billboard Top 200, entering on January 23, 1971, and staying on the chart for 37 weeks. It was one of four Elton albums to place in the Top 200 simultaneously in the spring of 1971. Tumbleweed Connection was #458 in Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2012 and is currently certified Platinum in the US.
“We played ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ to The Band, and they went berserk. It was such a compliment that I couldn’t believe it.”Elton John (to Richard Williams for ‘Melody Maker’, November 28, 1970)