Elton John — Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player

This is the one that started it all.

I’ve written before about my life before I owned any vinyl at all — when in seventh grade I was forced to produce record reports using either my mother’s single modernish record or a library copy of “Revolver.” Perhaps it was those circumstances, perhaps it was just the greater freedom that comes with being 12 (!), but that was the year that I bought my first records.

Don't Shoot Me front cover
Don’t Shoot Me front cover – the height of romantic imagery for my 12-year-old brain

It started with a single from this album: “Daniel,” released in January 1973, which was a huge hit for Elton John, going to no. 2 on the pop charts. It was amazing, a beautiful song with mysterious lyrics and a unique sound (which turned out to be both Fender Rhodes and a Mellotron). I had just gotten into listening to radio, just gotten into the wonders of Top 40, just gotten into tracking the charts and caring about what was a hit and what wasn’t. This song played on the radio constantly. And for the first time, there was a record that I needed to own.

Across the river was Schenectady’s Apex Music Korner, where the top hits of the week hung on wooden pegs. In case you hadn’t heard a song enough to decide you wanted it, you could try pull down the sample 45 from the pegs, put it on and ancient record player, and listen through single little speakers you held up to your ear. As low-fi an experience as possible. Whether I listened before buying that day, I don’t remember; certainly there were times when I did that. 45s were 79 cents in those days, about 79 cents more than I usually had. Listening to the record was something of a stalling tactic, a way of being absolutely sure this was the record I just had to have.

I loved the song “Daniel” so much — I pretty much considered it the best song ever written, because that’s how things feel when you’re in 7th grade. And the album it came from, “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player,” was being heavily promoted. It felt like a concept, a romantic concept, an interesting call on western imagery, while the album cover itself had a deliberate ’50s feel (appropriate to “Crocodile Rock,” another big hit) and used a movie theater marquee to present the title, which I thought was so clever, and which, again, appealed to me because I was (am) a huge movie fan. The album just looked amazing. In a way, it had a very adult look to it. So soon after I bought that single, I bought this album. My first album of my own.

Don't Shoot Me inside cover
Don’t Shoot Me inside cover — the left gatefold was done up like a movie poster.

Well, what an album to start off with – it’s a packaging experience. The beautiful, conceptual cover (front and back). An inside front cover with credits done up like a movie poster, fitting the cover theme. A lyrics booklet filled with pictures of Elton and the band — quirky, artsy pictures, and definitely not the standard sepia collage other bands were sticking in their ’70s records. The lyrics were a gift because half the time I didn’t quite understand what Elton was singing; at the same time, they weren’t necessarily much clearer even on the printed page. But there was so much to study on those pages: lyrics, individual instrument credits, production credits, even the photographers were credited (I was already the weird kid who studied movie credits). So much to stare at while I listened, and listened, and listened to my only album.

I don’t know what my second single was, or my second album. Though, based on looking at what else was big in 1973, there’s a good chance that second album was “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.” Long, long gone, I assure you, purged probably before I even got to college. Or! Or, it could have been the Godspell soundtrack, because that was a thing. Also purged, purged, purged.

What my second album was not, was any number of other incredible albums from 1973 that I didn’t discover for years or sometimes even decades. My next buy wasn’t The Faces’ “Ooh La La,” one of my all time favorite albums. It wasn’t Moody Blues’ “Seventh Sojourn,” or Carole King’s “Tapestry.” There were so many other good albums that came out that year. No matter. Most of my purchases then, and really for the next few years, would be 45s. I was an AM radio fan (and didn’t really even have an FM radio at that point), and that meant experiencing music through singles and chart positions. My friends were the same – we were all Top 40 obsessed. I bought singles because singles were what I heard; albums were a risk, because you might only have heard two or three songs from an album. How could you know the rest would be any good? (It was the ’70s: there was a lot of padding and suck.) Besides, 45s got you the greatest variety for your buck. It was much easier to have a diverse collection of songs and artists if you went the singles route. (Remember how people lamented that iTunes was going to ruin the music industry because people would only buy the songs they wanted, and not entire albums? When it comes to predicting the future, even when we get it right, we get it wrong.)

Interestingly (at least to me), despite my studying this album with religious intensity in junior high school, it doesn’t necessarily take me back there. There are some other records that do — the first chords of The Raspberries’ “Go All The Way” instantly transport me back, walking into a darkened eighth grade gym for the first of many dances at which I would not be able to scare up the nerve to dance with anyone. Some other songs put me right in my bedroom, or at Saratoga, or some other specific places from those teen years. This one brings back those feelings, in the fondest of ways, but it also just stands alone, as it is still a great album.

I’m also surprised, verging on stunned, that this record still plays okay, something like 47 years later. I always took care of my albums (can’t say the same for my 45s), except that I often had the crappiest of turntables with the cheapest styluses available. That they didn’t destroy this and other records over the years amazes me. That’s not to say this sounds pristine or anything, but it’s not nearly as bad as one would expect after hundreds, probably thousands, of plays on bad equipment.

So, this was the one that started it all off — this mad obsession not only with music but specifically with vinyl. My very first vinyl distraction!

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