The Writers Room: Episode 03:
Some songwriters think that analyzing music (or learning more about it) will somehow contaminate their writing. For them, seeking enlightenment beyond the yellow brick road will reveal nothing but a timid little man, pulling levers and pushing buttons while cowering behind a curtain.
Don’t believe it. Studying *and learning to play* a song not only will help you enjoy it more — but you’ll be able to marvel at the skill and musicality that brought it to life. Getting those chords and changes under your own hands and absorbing the details of great writing can inspire you with specific ideas for taking your songwriting onto new roads, in new directions
Let me show you what I mean.
Millions of fans who have discovered Elton John’s 1973 album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” have experienced the poetic and sonic wonders of “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-34).” If you haven’t heard it, do yourself that favor.
Lying in wait on a double LP (originally four sides of vinyl, bursting with a huge variety of superlative music and stellar song craft), “The Ballad of Danny Bailey” is a deep-cut jewel of masterful songwriting and imaginative storytelling.
Musicians and non-musicians alike can certainly appreciate the song without knowing what makes it tick. They can simply experience it on a gut level, thanks to the viscerally descriptive lyrics of historical fiction, conjured up by Bernie Taupin at the height of his creative powers, and accompanied by the virtual rollercoaster ride of Elton’s chords and melody, which we’ll talk about later. But let’s dig a little deeper, because there’s so much more to appreciate.
TBODB recounts the life-and-death story of a young gangster. It reads very much like a guest-op obituary for a public figure or folk hero. Because in the thirties, some gangsters really were regarded as folk heroes and a gunslinger’s death notice was often the inevitable sequel to his wanted poster.
The first thing you might notice from reading the song lyric is that the title includes Danny Bailey’s date of birth and death, suggesting that this fictitious character is part of our historical record. As we’ll see in a minute, placing Danny’s death in 1934 is no accident.
Since reading a lyric can’t deliver its full impact, we rely on the singer to breathe emotion and life into it. And so, a swiftly repeated pronouncement of ominous bass notes from Elton’s piano heralds our troubadour’s somber entrance. He intones quietly and respectfully, in fits and starts:
This vivid opening conjures images of John Dillinger, American depression-era bank robber, being gunned down outside Chicago’s Biograph movie theater. The ghostly reverberation of a single snare drum rimshot (the fatal gunshot?) by Nigel Olsson dramatizes the event which has already occurred.
Notice the seemingly insignificant detail that he was murdered in a motel and not a hotel. It’s a hint that as criminals go, Danny was too small-time for a hotel, much less a fancy theatre.
Gradually, the narration grows more fervent as our eulogist testifies that
He’s memorializing Danny as a victim of his circumstances and asking us to be sympathetic toward his demise. “I guess the cops won again,” fleshes out his myopic portrait of Danny Bailey as an anti-hero.
Here’s an interesting question: Is the storyteller saying that the “punk with a shotgun” was himself a rogue cop who couldn’t wait for the wheels of justice to turn — or is he saying that the cops won through some random punk’s proxy? It makes sense either way, but because he’s glorifying Danny and disparaging the cops, the former idea is at least plausible.
For fans who grew up with the relative innocence of Elton & Bernie’s singles like “Your Song” and “Crocodile Rock,” this song was one giant thematic leap to the dark side. The duo had certainly visited darker material before, but primarily on their album tracks. As Elton’s star began to skyrocket (man!), legions of fans were paying much closer attention to the songs nestled between the singles. And on this album, there was plenty of dark chocolate to sample and savor.
Speaking of dark:
“Now it’s all over, Danny Bailey... and the harvest is in” is a haunting and devastatingly clever way to begin and end the chorus — suggesting that the “harvest” is a collection of dead boys whom the police reaped during a recent season of crime. (Actual American gangsters — Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson — were all killed by the FBI and other law enforcement within a seven-month period in 1934. A grim harvest, indeed.)
Typical to their collaborative workflow, Bernie’s lyric was completed alone, before Elton added his music. The natural cadence of the two verses are different, which means they sit comfortably in their own unique rhythms. That’s why I always recommend to early songwriting students that they write a melody for whichever verse they finish first before penning succeeding verse lyrics. This can be helpful for matching their initial musical and rhythmic template, if commercial simplicity is their goal. Elton took a more sophisticated (albeit slightly less commercially accessible) approach, by changing the rhythm of the second verse melody to fit the natural flow of the lyrics. (For another example of this, listen to the verses of “Bennie & The Jets,” from the same album.)
There’s no attempt to maintain a consistent rhyme scheme from verse to verse. In other words, Bernie chooses not to force anything to rhyme where the writing is better served without it. That’s a bold choice. But we rarely rhyme in real-world conversation, so this lends authenticity and believability to the story. When he does utilize rhyme, it’s less expected and has more impact, using words we wouldn’t easily guess.
Taupin packs storytelling detail into almost every line. In the second verse we learn that “without Danny Bailey, they’re gonna have to break up our still.” This informs us that Danny was probably a thug, hired to protect Kentucky moonshiners.
Simple turns of familiar phrases can be very effective in writing song lyrics. Bernie combines the concepts of “gun-runner” and “young gun” to coin, “A runnin’ gun youngster in a sad, restless age.” In doing this, he re-invigorates the words from the old phrases and gives them a specific new (and original) context. Notice that at the end of that newly coined phrase, he cleverly confirms that these events occurred during the prohibition era of the *depression* by calling it “a sad, restless age.” That’s a double-barrel shot of creative ideas in a single sentence.
Now, let’s get back to that musical rollercoaster — or more appropriately: getaway car — speeding away from the city.
The verse melody starts off as if we’re in the Kentucky foothills, climbing the harrowing back roads into the hillside in a 1934 Ford Fordor sedan. Beginning on a minor chord, Elton holds this and then moves up half step to a major chord. After repeating this slow and steady progression several times, he steps on the pedal and modulates upward, continuing this thematic pattern while creating newer, higher tonal centers.
The band enters somewhat unexpectedly during mid-verse, establishing a stoically solid, half-time march (acknowledgement of a funeral?) as Dee Murray’s bass guitar provokes tension by scaling precariously upward in short, double-time phrases. By underemphasizing or muting his downbeats at the start of each phrase, Dee’s bass line keeps us thrillingly off-balance as our getaway resumes.
At the end of the verse, Elton wails “Oh____!,” at first gliding downward, then swinging upward, then falling lower, then rising again, then falling lower still. We travel in in spiraling bumps and waves, to announce the arrival of the chorus.
The chorus is rambling rather than repetitive, pushing our escape to new ground, with Del Newman’s string arrangement swirling over and around us. Tension and release abounds.
Even though the melody isn’t simple enough to be hit song material, somehow its symphonic tendencies and elusive tonal center never diminish the tune’s singability. And Elton accomplished this singability despite a lyric whose language and meter defy pop song expectations. While the lyric is brilliant in its own right, it’s the song’s musical contributions, spearheaded by Elton John’s melody, chords and musical framework, which propel it into the stratosphere.
Nigel Olssen’s drum fills in verse two deserve special mention, where he creates suspense in the storyline with rolling outbursts of scattered backfire.
We should also give kudos to the phenomenal, multi-tracked backing vocals, as sung by band members Dee Murray, Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson. First, when Elton sings “DILLINGER’S DEAD,” Elton’s regal chord inversions and the layered “OH!” harmonies which follow remind us of an authentic, period newspaper headline, announcing the gangster’s death in a massive font size, against a chorus of mourners giving a collective sigh of both sadness and release. (The original headline in the New York Daily News read, “DILLINGER SHOT DEAD,” and it blackened nearly a quarter of the front page.)
Just as remarkable is the sound the backing singers make as Elton sings, “I guess the cops won again.” They had been holding an “ah__,” and they close it off animatedly with an “__oomp!” The effect is killer. My brother, Rob, suggested to me that it’s the sound of the police dragnet swallowing up the bad guys. (“AH__OOMP!”)
The final chorus ends with a soaring, acrobatic wall of “Ahs_____,” bringing our ride gradually to a gentle landing on “Ooh____.” It’s reminiscent (in a good way!) of the start and end of the choruses of his song, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Both songs use these sections to start or end a modulation. Here, the last note is trails off with the fluttering, downward portamento glide of the string section.
But then, it appears we’ve driven straight into an ambush, because after a short pause, we restart our steady ascent into another verse, this time as an instrumental-only story soundtrack. For another full minute and a half, the band members and the string section vamp forebodingly, building additional tension as Elton injects percussive, machine-gun keyboard stabs and rocks his chord clusters rhythmically back and forth in a musical homage to an FBI shootout.
Because as history has shown, no self-respecting ballad of a gun-toting gangster would be complete without a prolonged hail of bullets — and bodies that “danced in death like a marionette on the vengeance of the law.”
But let’s save our analysis of Elton & Bernie’s “Ticking” for another day.