Imagine a portal in the space-time continuum opening up, and through it collapsing an album that has never been: the long-lost psychedelic opus of Pinner’s teenage pianist prodigy, arriving from a studio filled with incense in the London swing. The title may seem like a parody, but in 1968 Regimental Sgt Zippo truly intended to introduce 19-year-old Elton John to the world with songs about the reincarnation of a religious ruin in Lincolnshire (When I was Tealby Abbey) and a love affair with a woman who looks like a kilt (Tartan Colored Lady).
Representing the first flower of the writing partnership between Reg Dwight (music) and Bernie Taupin (lyrics), 12 songs were recorded in the studio of publisher Dick James between late 1967 and spring 1968. A tracklist was assembled and a cover artwork commissioned, depicting the man who would become Sir Elton John with a handlebar mustache and grandma’s glasses. But the wiser probably thought it would be better to pair this promising newcomer with an already fading musical trend, and the album was shelved.
Now, for just one day, Sir Elton Rocket’s label is releasing this long-discontinued debut album, limited to 2,000 vinyl copies and only available for purchase tomorrow for Record Store Day, an annual celebration of independent record stores. Hardcore fans were able to piece together a partial version of Regimental Sgt Zippo from demos from last year’s 148-track Jewel Box album. But this is the first chance to hear full versions of eight songs, with a debut album for the Merseybeat-meets-Motown band, You’ll Be Sorry to See Me Go.
What is striking, even on John’s early works, is his stylistic and melodic palette. Although Regimental Sergeant Zippo is full of the fashions of the era – arbitrary sound effects, echoing flanged guitars, itchy, perky woods and horns – the songs cover ’60s pop (Turn To Me; Sitting Doing Nothing) and the lush romantic epic genre preferred by Procul Harum and the Moody Blues (the dramatic Nina; the dreamer Watching The Planes Go By). Taupin’s flowery lyrics have yet to find a strong narrative line, but John is already singing with complete conviction, able to make you believe in his ardor for this Tartan Colored Lady.
To say that the production leaves something to be desired is an understatement. The instruments are slapped on top of each other in both loaded and flat arrangements, John drowning his own rugged piano with too much Hammond organ. Producer Steve Brown would put a little more order into John’s actual debut, Empty Sky, in 1969, but it would take Gus Dudgeon’s more dynamic approach and Paul Buckmaster’s luscious string arrangements to harness the duo’s potential. of composers on the 1970 breakthrough, Elton John.
Still, it’s a treat to finally hear this slice of alternate history. If you were crating at a second-hand record store, you might think you’ve stumbled upon a true lost gem from the psychedelic era: Sgt Elton’s band Everything-and-the Kitchen-Sink. I wonder what happened to them?
Available in limited edition tomorrow only, for Record Store Day