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Listening/Viewing Report: Elton John’s Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary Boxed Set Preview (Part 1 – The Bonus Videos)

Mark Smotroff explores an expanded edition of one of his favorite albums…

I’ve waited 50 years to review one of my all time favorite albums and about 20 to talk more publicly about the surround sound mix (which I’ll do later this week). The new 50th anniversary super deluxe edition box set of Elton John’s fourth studio album Madman Across The Water — coming out later this week! — is a wonderful celebration of a crucial crossroads in the artists’ career. It also happens to be a very important album to me personally.

Keeping a long boring story short, when I was around 10 years old my Dad noticed I was playing my older brother’s first Elton John album a lot. So he started buying me Elton’s subsequent albums as they came out, first Tumbleweed Connection and then Madman Across The Water.  I can’t underscore how much this latter record meant to me then and still does today.

While I will soon get to the Surround Sound and Stereo mixes ’n demos ’n stuff in an upcoming segment of the this listening report, I thought it would be fun to begin this boxed set journey with one of the happy surprises included in the set: high quality broadcast video from the period.  On the Blu-ray Disc are two live performances filmed at the BBC: Sounds For Saturday (taped November 11, 1971, aired April 29, 1972) and The Old Grey Whistle Test (broadcast December 7, 1971).  The video quality — especially the Sounds For Saturday piece — looks pretty incredible for its age.  

The Old Grey Whistle Test material has some visual anomalies but it is important to consider that it is amazing that this footage even still exists! The BBC was notorious (especially in the 60s, and I assume into the early 70s) for “wiping” video tapes after a performance had been broadcast.  Given that this was recorded on relatively primitive color video of the day, it looks pretty terrific all things considered, even playing on my 50-inch 1080p television. There might have been clips of this circulating among fans on VHS back in the day but I suspect that most of us haven’t seen early footage of Elton from this period in quite this quality. Some of this footage seems to have been previewed on Elton’s YouTube channel in recent years but its great to be able to add it into the collection, accessible whenever we’d like without having to worry about internet connectivity. 

Navigation screen from the Blu-ray Disc of Madman Across The Water

Of course the performances are exemplary, with Elton and his band — drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray — remarkably delivering the necessary buoyant lift to these songs which on LP were often wrapped in lush orchestral studio creations. If you’ve ever heard Elton John’s live album from 1970 (originally titled 17-11-70 in the UK and 11-17-70 in the US) you know just how rocking they could get when performing material from the prior albums.  

To hear tracks like “Indian Sunset,” “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” in this manner is spectacular. We get to hear different arrangements and even some alternate lyrics (there is an extra verse in the live version of “Holiday Inn” which is fun, though I can understand why it was left off the studio release). 

It is especially rewarding to hear “Madman Across The Water” live as it became a platform of improvisation for Elton. Given that there are none of Paul Buckmaster’s over-the-top (and wonderful) orchestral arrangements here, Elton and the band rock and jam out on the song for quite some time, with often great washes of sound coming from his piano.

The Old Grey Whistle Test performance is exciting for me as Elton performs a solo piano version of arguably my favorite of his songs, “All The Nasties” live, a song which I suspect he didn’t have much opportunity to play live at the time. That it is a fantastic performance makes it all the more mesmerizing.  

Taken together, these performances give us a complete live version of the Madman Across The Water album!

It is worth noting how impressive Elton is on these live-without-a-net performances, especially as they were taped at the end of their exhaustive U.S. tour. He appears incredibly calm and confident, barely breaking a sweat under the no doubt hot studio lighting (especially when wearing likely polyester clothing at the time!).  The band is perfectly in sync with Elton, especially their harmonies on tracks like “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches.”  The vocal blend is just about perfect.

Included in Elton John’s Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary edition is a dedicated CD of the Sounds For Saturday performance which you can enjoy on its own. The audio quality is excellent for its age.  While it sounds like it is Monaural — broadcast television was only mono at that time folks —the fidelity is terrific to the point where I wonder if they had a dedicated audio recorder capturing the performance as a back up (vs. just taking audio off the video tape).  Whatever the source, is I’m grateful this has been officially released. 

There is so much more to talk about on this set which I’ll get into tomorrow in part two of my listening report on Elton John’s Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary boxed set. Stay tuned! 

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