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Elton John, "Friends" a Highly Upgraded Reissue

06-20-2024 | By Gary Lea | Issue 133

Elton John and Bernie Taupin, "Friends" 50th Anniversary Edition. The Original Soundtrack Recording. Paramount 3555744. Pinky Vinyl Edition. Sourced new from eBay. $26

For those who look at the title Friends you should know this is definitely not the soundtrack of the famous and still wildly popular sitcom. This album is the soundtrack for a French movie from the early 70s. It is a combination of Elton John performing vocals and keyboards along with orchestral music conducted and written by Paul Buckmaster.

The story, written by Lewis Gilbert along with Vernon Harris and Jack Russell, centers around two young runaway kids in their early teens. Michelle is a 14 year old French orphan and Paul is a 15 year old English lad from a wealthy family. Directed by Gilbert, the film was met with mixed response. In the US it met with some success, was a bombshell in England, and did very well in Italy, Mexico, and Japan. There was some serious backlash to the movie, including a 14 year old girl in a nude sex scene. Many critics found it gratuitous and unnecessary. I have to admit that I never got a chance to see the movie, and just found out it is available on Prime.

The two meet on a train and instantly become inseparable friends. They decide to create a life together away from the adult world they live in. They decide to go to the idyllic marshlands of the Camargue, to a small cottage that belonged to her late father and was their vacation home. The young couple set up house and begin to live together. They become lovers, have a baby, and face most of life's struggles together. The adventure ends when the police find them.

Regardless of what people think of the movie, I found the album to be one of the best works of early Elton John and Bernie Taupin. I have worn out a few copies of this album since its release in 1971. It is admitted that this certainly helped the song writing duo get exposure they had not been able to generate on their own prior to the movie. There are ten tracks, of which six are performed by Elton alone providing the vocals and keyboards with orchestra, while four others with are of orchestral movements to round out the album.

This particular LP is a 50th anniversary that is cut on pink swirl vinyl, and weighs in at 180 grams. The first play of the album (after ultrasonic cleaning and VPI scrubbed and vacuumed) was virtually silent. The original was never a stellar recording sonically. Then again it was recorded 53 years ago. A lot has changed and remastering has become a serious art form. Where the original lacked a bit of tight and tuneful bottom end, the remaster is exceptionally well balanced.

The title track "Friends" is a wonderful mix of Elton's piano and vocals with the orchestral backing. It is a lilting tune about how friends we meet along the way can seriously improve our lives and the joy we find. "Friends are found on every road." So true. The piano comes across sweetly underpinning the vocals. It has just the right amount of underlying percussion to reinforce the orchestral movement when it comes in at the second verse. The bass is full while not as crisp as it might be if it were originally recorded today. The strings are silky smooth and lift the song up to the feeling of sailing along the open water.

It is followed with the song "Honey Roll." A rollicking rocker and one of two songs that employ his backpack band of the day, with Nigel Olson on drums, Dee Murray on bass, Caleb Quayle on guitars, and Rex Morris on saxophone. The performance is tight, and Nigel provides plenty of punch. His snare drum is sharp and direct, with kick drums giving punch without over excessive bloom, and the cymbals all crisp with excellent decay. Rex's sax just hails and really lifts the energy level to the max on the song. Elton's vocals are amazing and so solid. Hard to not play knee drums or stomp your feet a bit.

As goes with the entire album this is followed up by "Variations On A Theme," one of the three instrumental orchestral tunes that combine loads of string, and I believe an oboe and numerous woodwinds in a subtle support role. It is a beautiful and soulful tune that leans heavily on the romantic side. The kind of music that fits right in with a cold snowy winter night, a bottle of red wine, and your love curled up on the couch together. What follows is anyone's guess. (Just not a hard question to answer).

This leads into the Elton/ Bernie tune "Seasons," which opens up with a beautiful clarinet against acoustic guitar strings with added soft horns and strong string ensemble overtones. This leads us into a song about the how seasons, and with them, life, change and young friends turn into lovers. It paints a landscape of the entire movies theme into one song. It leaves you with vivid images of a young couple's journey of innocence into adulthood. It ends with the line, "Its funny how young lovers start as friends"!

A short but impactful song to be sure. Always take me back to the first time I put the album on my small stereo. I was deeply in love with a girl I thought I was going to marry. Alas sadly, things didn't work out after three years, but the song brings back very fond memories and places me right back in that time. How many of us experience that. Feeling when an old favorite song (it doesn't even have to be a favorite) comes on and transports us to a different time and place. The fact that this pressing is so much better with dynamics, clarity, focus, and soundstaging. It is leaps ahead of the original and makes it a serious winner for any Elton John fan, especially if you are a fan of his earlier releases.

"Seasons" fades into the next track, the Buckmaster tune "Variations On Michelle's Song," an orchestral interpretation of the vocal track of "Michelle's Song" that comes two tracks later. Buckmaster's tribute to the Elton/Bernie song is splendid and captures the essence of the vocal track. The flute is fanciful and almost has angelfish quality to it. You can envision yourself in a beautiful meadow under clouds that change shapes from horses to swans to rabbits and on as you lay in the cool grass. This section brings back the clarinet but also infuses a French horn for depth. It is one of the most relaxing tracks you can listen to.

Up next is the second rocker of the album, another Elton/Bernie tune "Can I Put You On?" It speaks to the tough life of a salesman supporting his family and trying to make enough to treat his family occasionally to the little treats of life, like candy and other niceties. The drums really drive this tune, and Nigel's metronome time keeping is really evident through out. Lots of impact without being bombastic. Kick drum drives hard, and the constant ride cymbal play is front and center in what is a very wide, deep, and accurate soundstage. Elton front and center. Nigel behind him, Dee's bass slightly right and to the back of Elton and Caleb's guitar a bit back to the left. Great job with the soundstaging, and the focus and air around each artist is quite clear and distinct.

The second side opens up with the Elton/Bernie "Michelle's Song." Again with Elton on vocals and piano with Buckmaster filling in with the orchestral base. The lyrics are a diary of the two young lovers' decision to go it together on their own. A cross between a rocker and classical music combination. Captivating to say the least.

The next track, "I Meant To Do My Work Today" is a short narrative that uses the speaking voices of Michelle and Paul talking about doing their daily work. It is set against and string section musical background sprinkled with a few horns. A lovely track that underscores the nature of their existence.

This is followed by the track "Four Moods" which is exactly what it is. Starting off light and lilting and goes into a full frontal attack of a string quartet that darkens the mood significantly and builds to a crescendo before dropping back off to a more harmonious and softer ending.

The album ends with "Season's Reprise." Without a doubt this is my favorite song on the album, and to get it presented twice is just icing on the cake.

I will have to admit that this was the first album that began to draw me away from classical rock formulas and into the world when rock and classic meet, mingle, and combine to produce an offspring that hits both genres squarely in the teeth. The Beatles were the first that I took notice of on Sergeant Peppers, but this album took it to another level. I really began to lean towards more of this via the Moody Blues who became masters of melding the two on into the era of the Doobie Brothers on the Captain and Me album when they penned "Dark Eyed Cajun Woman," replete with blues guitar licks intertwined in a counter point with a string orchestra.

I have never grown tired of this album and if you are a fan of both Elton and Bernie this is a must have in your collection. While it is not going to impress the most hardcore vinyl enthusiasts as a true audiophile pressing it is still a huge improvement over any other copies I have latched on to and I am ordering another for safe keeping.

I highly recommend this 50th Anniversary release. Impeccable soundstaging, focus, and air around performers make this the best version of the album yet.