Great Covers: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
In 1973 there was no indication that one day Elton John would become one of the leading Friends of Dorothy, but he unintentionally hinted at the yet-to-be-invented codeword with the metaphors in the title and on the cover of his double album.
The album’s title, also the name of the lead single, seems to be at odds the artwork on the cover. Both, song and cover, take their imagery from The Wizard Of Oz, in which the yellow brick road played as much a central role as any thoroughfare ever did in the movies. Where the song tells of disillusion at the end of that bright road, the cover promises the beginning of an escape from reality as Elton – spangly mauve platforms instead of ruby slippers – steps into a poster and on to a yellow brick road.
The poster is on a tatty wall, covering a previous poster (the font of which suggests that it might have advertised a music hall), with chimneys in the background telling of a drab existence, quite at odds with Elton’s flamboyant get-up.
The cover was drawn by the illustrator Ian Beck, who was 26 at the time. Beck has since illustrated magazines, greeting cards, packaging and a few children’s books. He has also written a few novels.
Beck came to LP cover design through John Kosh, whose credits included the Abbey Road cover. They shared a studio at 6 Garrick Street in London’s Covent Garden when Kosh arranged for Beck to do illustrations for an LP cover he was designing for Irish folk singer Jonathan Kelly, Wait Till They Change The Backdrop.
Elton John bought that album on strength of the cover, and wanted the same graphic for his new album. Beck told him that this was not possible but offered to create new artwork for the cover.
He was given tapes of the songs (which included future classics like Benny And The Jets, Saturday Night Is Alright For Fighting, Candle In The Wind and the title track), and typed lyrics sheets, and began working on a concept. His friend, fashion illustrator Leslie McKinley Howell, stood in as a model for Elton John in polaroids which Beck took (hence the long legs) in preparation for his watercolour, pastel, and coloured crayon pencils artwork. The piano on the front cove and the teddy bear at the back were placed there at the request of Elsie, as Beck only later realised Elton was known to his staff.
It was the last LP cover Ian Beck designed, though this had nothing to do with his experience of creating the iconic sleeve for one of the great double albums in a decade of many double albums.
The album is regarded by many as Elton John’s finest work. It is indeed filled with many great songs, too many to be released on single, and too many to find inclusion on retrospectives. Songs like Sweet Painted Lady (a song Paul McCartney might have written), I’ve Seen That Movie Too, This Song Has No Title, Roy Rogers and Harmony could have been hits (and Harmony was intended to be the album’s fourth single release); now they are remembered only by fans of the album.
The Who – Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) (1991)
Sandy Denny – Candle In The Wind (1977)
Dream Theater – Funeral For A Friend – Love Lies Bleeding (1995)
Sarah Blasko – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (2006)
Beastie Boys feat. Biz Markie – Bennie And The Jets (live, 1995)
Elton John – Harmony (1973)