Here’s a clip of a very green, not yet larger than life, Elton John in 1970 performing his early gem of a track “Burn Down the Mission” as taken from his Tumbleweed Connection album, which came out the following year.
When starting out, and at the moment of musical history in which he found himself, Elton John was awash with admiration for his contemporaries. And even if by the time he recorded Madman Across the Water and Tumbleweed Connection, he’d cemented his style and was putting consistent great albums anchored by his partnership with Bernie Taupin, Elton was still very much under the spell of his heroes. Gospel music clearly fed into his early work. But so did Leon Russell, and The Band.
After having seen Elton on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV show, apparently this song “Burn Down the Mission” was Elton’s attempt to do a song like something that Laura Nyro might have written, particularly all of the tempo changes for which Nyro was famous.
But, what he said on the program was that, much like Bob Dylan Laura Nyro opened up the possibilities for songwriting, in her case particularly for piano players like Elton John. No longer was he restrained to the verse chorus verse treadmill. He could throw in a middle section with a quick tempo, and then take it back to where it was. And like Nyro, he could put in a gospel feel, while making it a bit theatrical at the same time.
One thing which really came out of the interview with Elton John, and in how his music comes off too, is that he was always a music fan. And its clear that he was an intent listener, pulling in the influences of his contemporaries, and in older styles like gospel music too, and making it a platform for his own songwriting.
He would later begin to employ some more overt theatricality of course , with larger scale shows and outrageous costumes. But, many consider this early, more Americana-based songwriting, to be his most interesting period as a songwriter.