wed 22/09/2021

Reissue CDs Weekly: Elton John - Regimental Sgt Zippo | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Elton John - Regimental Sgt. Zippo

Reissue CDs Weekly: Elton John - Regimental Sgt. Zippo

Reg Dwight's period as a psychedelic popster is revealed

Elton John reinterpreted as Regimental Sgt. Zippo

Empty Sky, Elton John’s first album was released in June 1969. Now, an album titled Regimental Sgt. Zippo has turned up. It’s marketed as “The debut album that never was.” The 12 tracks are annotated loosely as having been recorded from November 1967 to May 1968.

Regimental Sgt. Zippo is great. The album opens with “When I Was Tealby Abbey”: string-drenched psychedelic pop easily as good as the early Blossom Toes or a Mark Wirtz confection. As the album goes on, what was being absorbed is evident. The Zombies are in there. “And the Clock Goes Round” has the rolling piano chassis of The Left Banke’s “She May Call You up Tonight”. “Turn to me” nods to the Bee Gees. It’s obvious what “Regimental Sgt. Zippo” is. Going further into Fab-world, some of the wonderful “A Dandelion Dies in the Wind” suggests “Across The Universe” (unissued at this point). “Tartan Coloured Lady” has a Hollies “Dear Eloise” feel. The wild, windswept “Nina” would have been perfect for Barry Ryan.

Elton John Regimental Sgt. ZippoThis is major stuff. If an Elton John album along these lines had come out around the middle of 1968 it may not have sold, but it would have become as sought after as albums by Honeybus, The Zombies and so on. But his March 1968 debut single “I've Been Loving You” – stylistically unlike anything here – was a flop so it's surprising an album was on the cards. The next Elton John release was January 1969’s “Lady Samantha” single. The Empty Sky album followed.

That a pre-Empty Sky album had been mooted is no secret. In 1972, Elton John talked at length with ZigZag magazine’s John Tobler. He said: “Bernie Taupin and I were writing prolifically…total rubbish, but prolifically. I was doing demos of the songs and we made them into an album. There were songs on it like ‘Regimental Sgt, Zippo’ and ‘Watching the Planes go by’, but of all the songs from that era only a couple have seen the light of day; there’s one called ‘The Tide Will Turn for Rebecca’, a Johnny Mathis type thing that [actor] Edward Woodward recorded and “I can’t go on Living Without You’, which [music publisher] Dick James put in for the Eurovision Song Contest.” Dukes Nobleman and Guy Darrell also recorded Elton John co-writes in 1968.

He recorded these songs after failing an audition with Liberty Records in June 1967. A demo session was undertaken, but no contract was offered. However, the label’s rep gave him lyrics by untried lyricist named Bernie Taupin. They began working together. Back then, he was still Reg Dwight. A chance reunion with Caleb Quaye – they’d been in the band Bluesology together – lead John into a recording studio. Quaye was working as the engineer at the in-house studio of Dick James Music which, according to the interview with Tobler, had a two-track recorder. Without the proprietor’s knowledge, they began recording at the New Oxford Street set up. James found out, was duly annoyed and shouted “who the hell are Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin?” On hearing what had been taped, he was mollified, signed the duo and put them to work hoping the Quaye, Dwight, Taupin team would generate songs his publishing company could place with recording artists. This is the period Regimental Sgt. Zippo draws from.

elton john portugal ep 1968Whether this is what was referred to in 1972 as “an album” is moot. No evidence is provided that this as an actual unreleased album. All-but one track is plucked from last year’s Jewel Box box set. This feels like the remarketing of tracks from the box, and it’s likely that the 12 tracks have been collected in one place as they were full-band recordings from the Dick James period than piano-voice-only demos, and as they hang together stylistically.

What’s here is from the same period as Elton John’s debut single, released in March 1968 (he ceased being Reg Dwight just before this). The 45’s top side, “I've Been Loving You”, was a string-infused mid-tempo ballad with a mainstream pop vibe recorded in December 1967 – it’s OK, not psych, a bit like what Blue Mink would do later. Its blues-oriented flip “Here's to the Next Time” has brass and was along the Stax lines. Pretty strong. Though again not psych. A contemporaneous Portuguese EP (pictured above left) featured two further tracks: “Thank You For All Your Loving” (rollicking and soul influenced) and “Angel Tree” (soul-ish again, but with a Paul McCartney–esque bubble-gum-psych bounce). That was the entire aural evidence for what Elton John sounded like in 1968 and barring Angel Tree” it’s not the psychedelic pop collected on Regimental Sgt. Zippo. He was trying on various styles for size.

“Angel Tree”, as previously only issued in Portugal, is included on the new Regimental Sgt. Zippo. Deep-digging fans will know it. Actually, they’ll already know most tracks here as before Jewel Box, with the exception of “Nina” and “Watching The Planes go by”, they were on the two interesting 1992 bootleg CDs Dick James Demos (pictured below right). And of course all, except “You’ll Be Sorry to See me go”, were on Jewel Box set. This isn’t unknown territory.

elton john dick james demos vol 1Between these demos and the “Lady Samantha”/Empty Sky period, Elton John kept busy. Hedging his bets, he worked on sessions for budget-price cover version albums from at least May 1969 up to summer 1970. His recognisable voice was up front on versions of Lou Christie’s “She Sold me Magic”, Badfinger’s “Come and Get it” and much more. In 1968 and 1969 he was also a session player on singles by Tom Jones, The Barron Knights, Family Dogg and The Hollies. He was on The Scaffold’s “Gin Gan Goolie”. If his solo career had not picked up, he might have stayed as a music business back room player.

This take on Regimental Sgt. Zippo is a what if: what if Elton John had become a psychedelic popster in 1968? Unfortunately – and this information may be included in the Jewel Box set – there is nothing on specific recording dates or any liner notes. This is sloppy. It would have taken little effort to go these small steps further. Mysteriously, the back of the sleeve blithely says these are “2021 mixes.” Why was this done? What was done? How?

Even so and despite not convincingly making its case as a for-real unreleased album, this Regimental Sgt. Zippo is a winner. “Total rubbish” said Elton John in 1972. Pshaw.

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