How Elton John Got Back on Track With ‘Jump Up!’
History has consigned Elton John's 16th studio album, Jump Up!, to also-ran status. Biographer Philip Norman dismissed it as "rather static and unenergized." In his memoir Me, John only touches on it regarding the single "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," his and lyricist Bernie Taupin's tribute to the late John Lennon.
Even Taupin, who cowrote five of Jump Up!'s 10 tracks, told Sirius in 2010 that "it's one of our worst albums. It's a terrible, awful, disposable album."
But it deserves better than that.
Four decades later it may be hard to remember the considerable excitement that surrounded Jump Up! when it was released. There was a sense of renewal in John's career thanks to a new label deal – with upstart Geffen Records, which released John's The Fox a year earlier — and the continuing return of Taupin to the fold, albeit part-time. Original John band member Dee Murray was back on bass for Jump Up!, and best of all, drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, fresh out of Meat Loaf's group, would tour to support the album, their first run as a quartet since 1973.
It was also John's first world tour tied to an album since Rock of the Westies came out in 1975.
There was an energy around Jump Up!, too, that was missing from John's previous few albums. Produced by Royal Academy of Music classmate Chris Thomas and recorded at George Martin's AIR Studios in Montserrat after sessions in France were abandoned, the 10-song set comes jumping out of the box with "Dear John," a pop-rocker out of the Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player school; the snappy "Spiteful Child," one of the five Taupin collaborations; and the shuffling "Ball & Chain," which featured the Who's Pete Townshend on acoustic guitar. "Blue Eyes" was one of John's more convincing crooner moments, and the closing "All Quiet on the Western Front" is as sturdy a ballad as you'll find across John's catalog. Tim Rice, meanwhile, wrote "Legal Boys" with John, foreshadowing their The Lion King team up a dozen years later.
Listen to Elton John's 'Dear John'
John added some lyrics to Taupin's for the rocking "I Am Your Robot," and with the string-laden, "Philadelphia Freedom"-echoing "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," he, for the first time, insisted that Taupin write lyrics to one of the melodies rather than the other way around.
All of that makes for an album that ranks comfortably in the upper third of John's prodigious catalog — you likely won't favor it before anything from between 1970-75, but there's a load of titles that it stands up well ahead of in the overall career pack. For those who accused John of repetition and formula, he told The Inside Track syndicated radio program, "You can only be yourself. I only try and write melodic songs. ... I'm a melody person. ... I was trying to write nice melodies that I like. There's nothing wrong with having a style of your own. I know I've written songs that have been too samey sometimes, and I'm the first to admit it. But I have tried, I think, in my career, to try and write varied songs. I always resented people who would criticize me without knowing exactly what I felt."
Listen to Elton John's 'Where Have All the Good Times Gone'
Jump Up!'s enduring moment is "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)." John and Lennon were good friends, and it was as a surprise guest during John's Thanksgiving night 1974 concert at Madison Square Garden that Lennon made his last performance. The appearance fulfilled a promise to join John onstage if Lennon's single "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" hit No. 1, as John predicted. The two played that song as well as the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," which John had covered, and "I Saw Her Standing There."
John had written an instrumental tribute to Lennon called "The Man Who Never Died," which was later issued as a B-side on the 1985 single "Nikita." "Empty Garden," meanwhile, was generated by a Taupin lyric — described by John in Me as "not mawkish or sentimental — Bernie knew John, too, and knew he would have hated anything like that — just angry and uncomprehending and sad." He added on The Inside Track, "[Taupin] came to Paris with a bunch of lyrics, one of which was 'Empty Garden.' He didn't push it forward or anything. I looked at it, 'Is this what I think,' it was fairly obvious what it was about. It said everything I wanted to say without being too cloying. ... It was one of those Taupin lyrics where I thought it was so perfect for me that I just sat down and wrote. The song came out straightaway. I looked at the words and there was the melody, coming out."
Listen to Elton John's 'Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)'
Jump Up! made it to No. 17 on the Billboard 200, returning John to the Top 20 after The Fox stopped at No. 21, while "Blue Eyes"' was a No. 12 showing on the Billboard Hot 100 (and No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart) was his best since "Little Jeannie" in 1989. Jump Up! was also certified gold, another return to form after The Fox failed to hit the mark, too. The tour, meanwhile, was a worldwide success and created momentum for even greater success the following year with Too Low for Zero.