Tag Archives: Talking Old Soldiers song

“Poignant Elton”
On Birth & Old Age

Early 1970s photo of Elton John at piano by Chris Walter.
Early 1970s photo of Elton John at piano by Chris Walter.
In the repertoire of Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs – and by one count, there have been more than 450 of those – there are a few that focus on themes of life and death; birth and old age. And some of these are offered in a poignant style, typically with basic but elegant piano by John, along with the personal stamp of Bernie Taupin story-lines.

Among this poignant catalog are two from the early 1970s: “The Greatest Discovery,” from John’s second album, Elton John, and “Talking Old Soldiers,” from Tumbleweed Connection, his third album.

“The Greatest Discovery,” found on side two, track No. 8 of the Elton John album, was not released as a single. According to one source, the song was recorded virtually live at Trident Studios in London, with Elton singing at piano and backed by orchestra, which is heard in particular at the song’s opening.

“Elton John” album cover of 1970. Click for album and/or digital singles, including “The Greatest Discovery”.
“Elton John” album cover of 1970. Click for album and/or digital singles, including “The Greatest Discovery”.

“The Greatest Discovery” was produced by Gus Dudgeon with orchestra arranged by Paul Buckmaster, also featured on a cello solo.

 

Music Player
“The Greatest Discovery”
Elton John-1970

[see lyrics below]

The lyrics, by Bernie Taupin, are about a young boy discovering the arrival of a new baby brother. Reportedly, the Taupin lyrics tell of his own birth as imagined through the eyes of his older brother.

 

“The Greatest Discovery”
Elton John & Bernie Taupin
1970

Peering out of tiny eyes
The grubby hands that gripped the rail
Wiped the window clean of frost
As the morning air laid on the latch

A whistle awakened someone there
Next door to the nursery, just down the hall
A strange new sound you never heard before
A strange new sound that makes boys explore

Tread neat so small those little feet
Amid the morning his small heart beats
So much excitement yesterday
That must be rewarded, must be displayed

Large hands lift him through the air
Excited eyes contain him there
The eyes of those he loves and knows
But what’s this extra bed just here

His puzzled head tipped to one side
Amazement swims in those bright green eyes
Glancing down upon this thing
That make strange sounds, strange sounds that sing

In those silent happy seconds
That surround the sound of this event
A parent smile is made in moments
They have made for you a friend

And all you ever learned from them
Until you grew much older
Did not compare with when they said
This is your brand new brother

This is your brand new brother
This is your brand new brother

Songwriters: Elton John / Bernie Taupin

 
One posting and review of “…Discovery” at TheGreatestSongs.com – ranking it at No. 323 in a listing of 500 top songs – offers the following:

“The Greatest Discovery” …. is a hidden gem that never got much attention… The song is about a young boy who hears strange new sounds in his home and goes exploring to see what they are. He notices an extra bed in his house…what is this? It turns out he has a new baby brother. Getting to know this strange looking new creature is a bizarre and exciting new discovery for the boy.

What makes “The Greatest Discovery” unique is that it is unusual territory for a song—and that is exciting. The song is tender, and imagines the wonder of being a boy and meeting your new brother for the first time. Taupin’s lyrics help provide that feeling of wonder and foreignness that someone new coming into your house must feel like for a child. John’s melody is on point- it is sounds like a journey through the kids’ point of view and he sings it delicately.

There are also a number of postings about the song from listeners and reviewers online, at various YouTube.com offerings and elsewhere.

David Huber, at one of the YouTube airings of this song, added comments in 2018, calling the song a “true masterpiece” and “timeless,” adding: “one of the few songs that moves me deeply every time I hear it. I have 2 sons, 10 and 7, so I can relate to this song with my boys… ‘They have made for you a friend.’ Thank you Elton John for a wonderful song, and music that has spanned a generation.”

“Long Beacher,” also commenting on the song at a YouTube posting in 2017, notes: “This magical musical arrangement still moves me to this very day; after hearing it when I was 9 years old. Now, I have two grandsons…”. Writing his comment in 2018, “Arnie,” also praised the song and the Taupin/John team: “Extraordinary. Elton and Bernie wrote their best songs in the early 70’s and this is one of them.” At SongMeanings.com, one writer noted: “…The song is very poignant both lyrically and musically. Having a 6 and a 2 year old, this takes me back to how excited my oldest was when her little sister was born. I think that some of Elton’s (and Bernie’s) best songs are not the Top 40 hits that everyone knows…”

Beth Leinicke, writing a YouTube comment in early 2021, noted: “These gorgeous lyrics…have never failed to elicit a flood of tears. Elton’s plaintive, beautiful vocals & the orchestral arrangement fit perfectly together…”. And Sheila Ebinger, writing her comment at a YouTube posting in 2015, noted: “I have two sons and bought this album back when I was 11 in 1974. When I was pregnant with my second child I would play this song & sing it to my first son.”

 

Cover of Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection.” Click for album or singles, including “Talking Old Soldiers.”
Cover of Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection.” Click for album or singles, including “Talking Old Soldiers.”
“…Old Soldiers”

At the other end of the life spectrum, John and Taupin collaborated on “Talking Old Soldiers,” track No. 9 on side 2 of John’s Tumbleweed Connection album. This song was also recorded at Trident Studios in London, produced by Gus Dudgeon.

 

Music Player
“Talking Old Soldiers”
Elton John-1970

Tumbleweed Connection was released in late October 1970 in the UK, and January 1971 in the U.S., to rave reviews. Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hillburn wrote: “Tumbleweed Connection is that near-perfect album that artists often spend a whole career trying to produce.” None of the album’s songs, however, were released as singles, and some of them – such as “Amoreena,” “Come Down in Time”, “Country Comfort,” and “Burn Down the Mission,” were more popular than, and overshadowed, “Talking Old Soldiers,” making it one of the more obscure Elton John songs. The album as whole, however, did quite well, peaking at No. 2 on the UK Albums Chart and No. 5 on the U.S. Billboard 200, In the U.S., Tumbleweed Connection was certified gold in March 1971 and platinum in August 1998 by the RIAA.

“Talking Old Soldiers”
Elton John / Bernie Taupin
1970-71

Why hello
Say, can I buy you another glass of beer
Well thanks a lot, that’s kind of you
It’s nice to know you care
These days there’s so much going on
No one seems to want to know
I may be just an old soldier to some
But I know how it feels to grow old

Yeah that’s right
You can see me here most every night
You’ll always see me staring at the wall and the lights
Funny, I remember oh its years ago I’d say
I’d stand at the bar with my friends who’ve passed away
And drink three times the beer that I can drink today
Yes I know how it feels to grow old

I know what they’re saying son
there goes old mad Joe again
Well I maybe mad at that I’ve seen enough
To make a man go out his brain
Well do they know what it’s like
to have a grave yard as a friend
’cause that’s where they are boy – all of them
Don’t seem likely that I’ll get friends like that again

Well its time I’ve moved off
It’s been great just listening to you
And I might even see you
the next time I’m passing through
You’re right there’s so much going on
No one seems to want to know

So keep well, keep well old friend
And have another drink on me
Just ignore all the others
You’ve got your memories
You’ve got your memories

Still, “Talking Old Soldiers” – about a conversation between and old man and a younger passer by in a bar – has its fans. One description of the song at EltonsCafé.net, offered the following: “Elton John doesn’t write much in the minor keys, but when he does the results are often excellent. This one is an all around treat, most notably for the evocative lyrics and Elton’s heart-wrenching vocal. It has definitely achieved cult status among hardcore fans and the occasional live performances of it are eagerly anticipated…”

In a Rolling Stone interview, John explained that “Talking Old Soldiers” was “a very David Ackles-influenced song” – Ackles being a 1960s singer known for his narrative-styled pieces and also a favorite of John’s. Ackles, in fact, was on the bill at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles when Elton made his American debut there on August 25, 1970, and John would later dedicate the Tumbleweed Connection album to Ackles.

“Talking Old Soldiers” tells the story of chance meeting in a bar between a young man and an old war veteran, known locally as “old mad Joe.” The young visitor buys the old man a drink and a conversation begins.

The old man describes his loneliness and his former friends and soldier comrades, who in earlier good times he once drank with at the very same bar. But now, they had all passed away. And so, old Joe now comes to the bar most nights, “staring at the wall and the lights,” with most patrons paying him little attention.

One interpretation, by old Joe himself, suggests he “maybe mad,” as the old veteran appears to be left with some kind of war-borne stress disorder. He says at one point he’s seen enough “to make a man go out his brains.” Now, he says, he knows how it feels to grow old, lashing out at those around him: “Well, do they know what it’s like to have a grave yard as a friend?,” he says to the young man, lamenting the loss of his friends. “Don’t seem likely that I’ll get friends like that again.”

Later, the younger man takes his leave, thanking Old Joe for the conversation and buying him another round. He advises old Joe to “just ignore all the others. You’ve got your memories.”

Various listeners online offered a variety of comment on the song. One at SongMeanings.com, who noted the song was one of his favorites, wrote: “…It has such rich, heart-wrenching lyrics and such a sad, dissonant chord progression that never quits, but just pounds the mood even further into your gut…”.

One YouTube comment on the song from a 2018 listener noted: “Amazing lyrics from Bernie Taupin. I think this song really captures what combat veterans go thru as they age and their brothers in arms pass away. Bernie was great at putting stories into lyrics.” A military veteran at another YouTube posting offered “R.I.P” sentiments to named fallen “brothers” lost in combat, borrowing a line from the song, “Don’t seem likely I’ll get friends like that again.”

Album art from “Tumbleweed Connection” depicting Bernie and Elton from the early 1970s, here in grayscale.
Album art from “Tumbleweed Connection” depicting Bernie and Elton from the early 1970s, here in grayscale.

The Elton John /Bernie Taupin team proved they could range over the human condition in many contexts with their song making, and the two songs described here are testament to that musical insight and talent – providing listeners with moving and thoughtful material.

See also at this website: “Candle in the Wind, 1973-1997,” a Elton John song first written about Marilyn Monroe and later adapted for Princess Diana at her passing; “Border Song,” a Taupin/John tune that was also a hit for Aretha Franklin; and “Elton John’s Decade: The 1970s (w/Bernie),” a longer story covering the Taupin/John musical success through the 1970s and beyond. In addition, the “Annals of Music” category page offers more stories profiling artists, songs, and other music industry history.

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research, writing, and continued publication of this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 5 January 2022
Last Update: 5 January 2022
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Poignant Elton: On Birth & Old Age,”
PopHistoryDig.com, January 5, 2022.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

2017 Elton John Greatest Hits Collection contains 2 CDs, 34 tracks and 10 pg booklet. Click for copy.
2017 Elton John Greatest Hits Collection contains 2 CDs, 34 tracks and 10 pg booklet. Click for copy.

“Elton John (album),” Wikipedia.org.

“#323 The Greatest Discovery- Elton John” / Top 500 Greatest Rock Songs of All-Time, TheGreatestSongs.com.

“Elton John – The Greatest Discovery (Elton John 8 of 13),” YouTube.com, posted by sydlivy, January 12, 2009.

“Elton John – The Greatest Discovery (1970) With Lyrics!,” YouTube.com, posted by Ronnie Fiend, January 22, 2014.

“Tumbleweed Connection,” Wikipedia.org.

“Talking Old Soldiers,” Wikipedia.org.

Nik Cohn, “Recordings,” New York Times, August 22, 1971.

“Elton John, Talking Old Soldiers,” Song Meanings.com.

“Talking Old Soldiers,” EltonsCafe.net.

“Talking Old Soldiers – Elton John (Tumble-weed Connection 9 of 10),” YouTube.com, posted by Nalencer, August 27, 2008.

Peter Herbst, The Rolling Stone Interviews: Talking With The Legends of Rock & Roll, 1967-1980, Paperback, 1989, St. Martin’s Griffin, 436 pp. Click for copy.