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3.8 out of 5 stars
Empty Sky
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42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Elton John & Bernie Taupin are probably the longest-lasting songwriting duo in history, beating out Rodgers & Hammerstein or even Gilbert & Sullivan, yet definitely on a level of those legends. It's hard to believe the two have been working together for well over 35 years by now & have seen more hits than a birthday pinata. But while some people think "Your Song" was what started Elton & Bernie on their way, it was just their first major success. Before that, they had released an album that was an ambitious debut, but it was clear greater things were in store for them. That album was 1969's EMPTY SKY.
At the time, Elton & Bernie (I mention both at the same time because while Elton may be the one out front, Bernie's songwriting is just as, if not more, important as Elton's showmanship) were barely out of their teens, so for an album like EMPTY SKY to debut with, you'd think the two had been around for a while. But also because of their youth, it's fair to call the album a little too didactic for its own good & sure enough, they can stretch themselves thin on EMPTY SKY. But when they succeed, it's fantastic.
The title track is one of those times, with a Stones-sounding rock tune that would prove to be Elton's stock in trade during the 1970s when he rocked more than crooned. This being 1969, it has more than a slight psychedelic tinge to it (almost like MAJESTIES-era Stones, only better) with the proverbial backwards guitars & false ending. But instead of coming off as dated, it's actually quite endearing & by far one of Elton's most overlooked songs. "Sails" & "Western Ford Gateway" continue the mostly-straightahead rock sound & are good examples of both Elton's way with crafting a melody & Bernie's still-developing lyrical talent.
But EMPTY SKY was probably intended as something more bold & risky, which explains why the album doesn't really fit well into the rock category or even pop. Are there blunders? Sure, but only 3 glaring ones: "Hymn 2000" doesn't work too well, with its futuristic theme coming off as STAR TREK-inspired sci-fi in the end. "Scaffold" & "Lady What's Tomorrow" also suffer from overambitious lyrics that have Bernie still discovering what his style is as a writer.
On the plus side, "Val-Hala" has the feel of a sea shanty with its infectious chorus that dares anyone not to sing along. "Skyline Pigeon" is deservedly the song on EMPTY SKY that has outlasted its otherwise inauspicious parent album, managing a delicate beauty with Elton trading in his piano for a baroque harpsichord (I haven't heard the piano-based outtake that found its way onto 1973's DON'T SHOOT ME I'M ONLY THE PIANO PLAYER as a bonus track, but the lowdown is that it is superior to its released version). The main reason for this song's belated acclaim is Elton having performed "Skyline Pigeon" at the funeral of Ryan White, and its modern-day hymnlike structure makes it perfect not just for the memory of White, but of any departed loved one.
The closing medley of "Gulliver/Hay Chewed/Reprise" ends the album in grand style with the first part being an ode to Bernie's childhood dog; the second part is a jazzy instrumental that shows Elton is one heck of a piano player, which is something that would get less attention over time, then recently see a resurgence; the last part recaps all the previous songs from the album & whether or not that was necessary is in the ear of the beholder. After all, this was the late 1960s, what artist wasn't experimenting like this back then?
The remastered version not only offers better sound & clearer production, but it contains bonus tracks that were among the very first songs Elton ever recorded & again, despite their rather lofty ambitions, it's still clear something special was afoot. "Lady Samantha" might be recognizable to some Elton fans, for it was first recorded by Three Dog Night at about the same time EMPTY SKY came out & while this catchy rocker wasn't a hit for them, it nevertheless helped get Elton's name out to the American public. "All Across The Havens" once again has Bernie trying hard to impress with his lyrics, while "It's Me That You Need" is a kind of straightforward love song which Elton & Bernie would almost neglect until around the 1990s when Adult Contemporary radio became their biggest target. "Just Like Strange Rain" also falls into the ballad category, but with lyrics that point towards the heights Bernie would scale in just a few short years.
The 1960s were ending at the time EMPTY SKY came out & the psychedelic sound the album used in abundance was also starting to lose its freshness. That might be a valid reason why EMPTY SKY didn't sell well originally (it wasn't even released in America until 1975, after Elton became a superstar). Yet it's always interesting to see where a legend first began his body of work & EMPTY SKY is certainly worth a listen to see where Elton John was headed, as well as hear some of the things he'd rarely ever do again (except for "Skyline Pigeon", the songs on this album have been forgotten for the most part). Who knew the two young men making this album would soon change pop music forever?
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2001
Empty Sky is the album that first introduced Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin to the world (except for the US where the album wasn't released until 1975). When I first heard it, I was less than impressed, but on repeated listenings, I've learned to appreciate it more. It's crude, dark, with overly pretentious lyrics from the usually great Bernie Taupin, and Elton has told stories of how the piano he recorded with was out of tune. However, you've got to start somewhere. You can hear the promise of what was coming on Elton's very next effort, the self-titled ELTON JOHN. These songs began as poems that Bernie wrote before he ever met Elton. Their early efforts at writing pop songs produced some largely forgetable songs,and Steve Brown (I think) suggested they try using Bernie's poems. That's why these songs seem as disjointed as they do. "Skyline Pigeon" is my favorite track (although like so many have said, I prefer the piano version which was the B-side of "Daniel" and available on the
remastered DON'T SHOOT ME, I'M ONLY THE PIANO PLAYER). "Valhalla" and "Lady, What's Tomorrow" are also worthy
of note. The bonus tracks are a very welcome addition. The
orchestral arrangements of "It's Me That You Need" make up for
the sappy, simplistic lyrics. (Sorry, Bernie)
I'm a huge fan of the John/Taupin team, and I would say it's worth the price of admission to hear how these great songwriters got their start.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICEon January 18, 2001
Empty Sky is the debut album from Elton John. It is a very solid effort, lacking in spots, but shows the immense potential that would be fully realized on future albums. The title track is a good rocker that opens up the album. "Val-hala" is the best song from the album with it's mystical Bernie Taupin lyrics and Mr. John's harpsichord gives it the baroque sound that would permeate his second album. "Sails" and "Skyline Pigeon" are good songs as well. The closing medley of "Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed/Reprise" is an interesting way to close the album. The middle section is an instrumental with touches of jazz and the reprise is made up of pieces of songs from the rest of the album. "Lady Samantha" and "Just Like Strange Rain" are the best of the bonus tracks on the album.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2010
You know, I've had several people tell me to avoid Elton John's Empty Sky because, according to them, Elton's songwriting lacked focus since it's just an early effort that should be forgotten. I have to strongly disagree.

In fact, I absolutely love Elton's classic early to mid 70's period (including Blue Moves) and I really don't understand how supposed gigantic fans of Elton's music can possibly find *any* major problems with Empty Sky.

There's honestly nothing to hate about this album. It's completely loaded with one highly melodic song after another. In fact, much of the style feels similar to his Tumbleweed Connection album, which is considered a masterpiece to most Elton John fans, so it makes no sense why Empty Sky is constantly ignored the way it is.

Perhaps people are turned off by the choice of background instruments. You will hear flute, harpsichord, and electric guitar jams much more frequently than on future Elton John albums, but that's hardly a big deal. Most of the time these instruments are played quite tastefully anyway.

Also, Elton's usual singer-songwriter style of piano-dominated pop/rock is all over the place here. No kidding. You'd never guess this is a late 60's album because it sure doesn't sound like it. It sounds like Elton John already knew what kind of music he wanted to make from the beginning, so he went ahead and did it... for the next 40-something years.

Picking a favorite song is literally impossible and I'm honestly not saying that to get OUT of doing it either. It really is a difficult thing to do considering there's not a single weak point on the entire album (including the bonus tracks- though to be fair, the last of the bonus tracks has a chorus that does repeat a bit too much).

I prefer this album to his follow-up self-titled album by *far*. If you're an Elton John fan, you will be humming these memorable songs over and over again.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2001
Well, this is where it all really started. "Empty Sky", 1969..If I could, I would would give this album another half star, because though it is lacking, there is still something rather charming, and enjoyable about it. At first, I listened to this album very little, and wasn't impressed, but all the sudden, I would be in class, or doing whatever, and I would have "Val-Hala" stuck in my head, a very haunting song. The title track is probably my favorite, I'm surpised it doesn't get classic rock airplay, or performed live. "Western Ford Gateway" is a catchy one, along with "Sails"(watch out for the lyrics on that one, though). "Skyline Pigeon" is a great song, but I am more partial to the versions on "Here And There", or "Rare Masters", and why oh why, did it have to be about a pigeon... One thing that I don't understand about this album, why was there a non-album single, "It's Me That You Need", released right before, but not included on the lp? There for, the album has no singles, this never really made any sense to me. Overall, I would say this is a decent, experimental album, a little rough around the edges, but any true fan has to hear where it all started.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 1999
For someone familiar with "Greatest Hits" era Elton John, this debut album came as a refreshing and pleasant surprise. The album kicks off auspiciously with the titular "Empty Sky", which is one of Elton's most propelling rockers. The bare bones "rock and roll" feel of the song, though, belies the delightful inclusion of psychedelic flourishes like backward taped guitar solos, a fake fade-out, and "Mr Fantasy"-esque harmonica wailing. Indeed, there seem to be subtle shades of British acid-pop sprinkled throughout the album (leading one to appreciate how much cross-pollination must have occurred among musicians in England around 1969!) Elton's jazzy instrumental "It's Hay Chewed" covers similar territory as Traffic's "Giving to You", cheery harpsichord melodies like "Skyline Pigeon" invoke "Benefit of Mr Kite"-style Beatles, and the bonus track "Just Like Strange Rain", both beautiful and surreal, is worth the price of the album alone.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2006
I think it's the best album of the twentieth century... Well, it is for sure Elton's best.

At the time Elton wasn't that much famous. He wasn't the Big Pop Star he is right now. At the time, Elton had a magnificent musical universe, macabre and sentimantal at the same time. At the time, he was naive, musically and vocally - his vocals on this album are dreadful, but who cares? At the time, he didn't spend time and money in studios recording the same love song again and again, just like he did later on in the seventies.

The "universe" of this album is so precise... It's the kind of songs that, when you hear them, you see old images in "Blue & White"... I won't say a thing, I'll let you discover.

Buy this, and the (very) early Elton Albums ("Madman", "Tumbleweed"...). Remember, Elton was naive in 1969, but I think a brand new sound is better than the same Elton love song.

PS: On this edition, you can also hear some of Elton's very first records as bonus tracks - now that's quite impressing for a debut, Sir!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2009
This album is simply awesome. It is uncut, un "prettied up," un "pop-produced," and simply raw. the opening track is awesome, with a solid, driving bass guitar/drum rythm and excellent lead guitar by Caleb Quaye. Elton's piano playing on that album is also very good, and the song is very creative, delving into a false ending then coming back with a cool (but somewhat cheesy) loud ending. Val-hala is also awesome, showcasing EJ's harpsichord playing which sounds a bit "playful," but with inspiring, mysterious lyrics. In fact, mysterious lyrics are what dominate much of the songs on this album, leaving the listener to use their imagination to figure out what the lyrics mean. Hymn 2000, with seemingly pointless lyrics, is an excellent interplay between the bass guitar, the flute, Caleb's acoustic guitar, a tambourine and Elton's Piano. Weird as the lyrics are (singing about a cat from next door being found in surgical dissection), the musical interplay provides a nice, humble, but still somewhat musically exotic listening experience. Sails is undoubtedly my favorite song, and quite possibly my favorite EJ song. It's just a straight rocker with excellent, driving keyboard playing from Elton and an awesome lead guitar work by Caleb. The bass is also excellent, providing an excellent "under" rythum off of which for everyone else to work. Skyline pidgeon is also good and is very bare and basic, having an almost warm, humble feeling. Lady, What's Tomorrow is also a good song, the lyrics seeming to delve into the future of a relationship. Lady Samantha is also an awesome, airy, but bare-bones rocker.

Overall, this is a great insight into Elton's roots. A definite must buy if you want to see where EJ originally came from, musically speaking.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2014
You will appreciate/like/love/worship this album IF...
-You prefer (almost exclusively) Elton John's work prior to 1980
-You listen to enough albums recorded in the sixties and seventies to not get hung up on "corny" recording techniques (think early Beatles where you here the guitar only in the left ear and bass only the right...stereophonic experimentation)
-You believe that the death of vinyl was the death of real music
-You prefer the sound of EJs voice in "Someone Saved my Life Tonight" over "The Circle of Life" (more fragile and expressive VS his current "meatier" timbre)
-The names Nigel Olsson and Caleb Quaye are near and dear to you
-experimental music that avoids convention is fairly common in your collection

All that being said, you will NOT understand this album after less than five hearings. It is so singular in style and so void of convention that it is hard to figure out where to hang it on the walls of your inner music sanctum. But once it has you it has you. I know a couple of people who could not stand EJ and after hearing me play this album a few times found they suddenly had to have it. I have considered this album a friend in hard times and a vacation from the mundane when the daily grind gets to be too much. Each track is splendid in its own way and completely without peer. EJs voice is young, expressive, hopeful and full of promise. His genius is bursting at the seams and desperately finding a way to be contained by the restrictions of "the popular song". I personally own the vinyl copy with the rare "sphinx" cover but its charms are not lost on CD and MP3 as well.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2004
Elton John's first album Empty Sky dates from 1969, which was near the end of the 22-year-old Elton's pre-fame period. The album was produced by original Elton producer Steve Brown, and features voice and keyboards from Elton, guitar from Caleb Quaye and session men on other instruments. It is good, and is now collectible owing to Elton's huge commercial success later on in the 70's, and represented an initial opportunity for Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin to try for some recognition in the world of progressive album-orientated art-rock. Unable to compete on the charts at this early stage due to a severe lack of public awareness of Elton John's music and lack of radio airplay, Empty Sky did at least catch the ear of some discerning rock listeners and reviewers at the time.

Best is the early classic Skyline Pigeon, a lovely melody for a tale of the yearning for freedom. Elton's harpsichord works beautifully on this excellent song. Also good is Lady What's Tomorrow - also a nice melody. Sails has peculiar lyrics and the electric guitar sound also heard in the slightly-psychedelic rockout title track Empty Sky. Val-Hala is a good early example of Elton John tunecraft- even at this stage he could write a good chorus melody. The last track is the haunting tale of deceased farmdog Gulliver which segues into a snippet of groovy instrumental stuff called Hay Chewed (an Eltonian pun on Hey Jude!!). A rather unnecessary Reprise sort of spoils this track (yes, one of those annoying medleys of bits of all the songs on the album right at the end) as it then segues onto the end of this.

I discovered this album in the local lending library on vinyl way back in 1990, and liked it. It was not a big hit at the time of initial release, but charted in the US Top 10 much later in 1975 when Elton was the hottest pop/rock act in the world. This US version had different cover art.

A significant addition to the album has been made with the inclusion of Elton's four sides of 7" vinyl singles from 1969 as bonus CD tracks here. Best of these was Lady Samantha - a really good track that gained some limited airplay on minor stations in 1969 in England as Elton's first record to receive any recognition at all(though not a hit)and it's an acid-rock tinged tale of a lonely wraith! Its B side was All Across The Havens. It's Me That You Need was an early orchestrated pop love song that was not a hit, and its B-side was Just Like Strange Rain. These songs were recorded at about the same time as the album, so add to make a nice collection of 1969-model Elton. His fine voice makes a strong first impression here, handling soft and hard, loud and quiet equally well.
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