by Geno Thackara
It was 45 years ago next week that the former Reg Dwight brought a couple friends into a New York City radio station for a small studio gig, later to be partly compiled into a WABC broadcast. His record company hadn’t even been planning a live album after he’d already produced four LPs in the space of two years, but this sizzling performance got a response too enthusiastic to ignore. Of course his days playing in rooms that size were numbered; it was only two more years later that he’d start a string of consecutive #1 albums and become inescapable to a degree even beyond “Hey Ya” levels.
But nobody knew any of that back on 17-11-70. (In America the date and title were switched to 11-17-70, but I like to go with the original style to suit the band’s British sensibilities.) From the start, the simple design and lack of colo(u)r signify that it’s a no-frills affair all about the playing. John hadn’t even added a steady guitarist to the band at this point. It was just him and a bass-drums rhythm section pounding out some infectious pop-rock, playing off each other with glee, and with no need for arena-scale theatrics or glasses the size of dinner plates.
I still enjoy some of the man’s ubiquitous classics, but as any of my fellow seasoned musicologists would agree, after a while there are some songs (even great ones) you’ve just heard too many times. It becomes hard or impossible just to keep perspective and remember how something seems to fresh ears. Fortunately these tunes haven’t suffered from being played to death – well, except maybe the Beatles cover – and were never in any danger of becoming background music at the mall.
Just as importantly, the band tears into everything with such good humo(u)r and high spirits that the energy is irresistible. “Can I Put You On” and “Bad Side of the Moon” groove like mad, “Take Me to the Pilot” is as bouncy as it is nonsensical, and it wraps up with an extended surprise medley where the near-riot of “Burn Down the Mission” is only the start. You could say those songs deserved to be well-known hits too, but I’d hate to imagine a world where overexposure robbed some of their spark, so it’s really just as well.
For my teenage self dabbling with the piano, having grown up with the likes of “Nikita” and “Simple Life,” it was sheer delight to discover Elton and crew dashing off one crazy lick after another on recordings like this. They manage that knack of making tricky things sound effortless. You can keep the Disney tunes and George Michael duets (fine if that’s your thing). There’s just nothing like that wildly prolific anything-goes streak from the early days, and even today 17-11-70 is probably my favo(u)rite one of all.