SALUTING SGT. ZIPPO
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:23 July 2021
The years 1967 and 1968 were, by any standards, extraordinary ones for popular music. Swirling social change and exploding creativity contributed to this being a pinnacle for pop culture. So when Elton John’s diligent archive team put together an LP of songs recorded by the young pianist/songwriter across those two storied years, they revealed not only a new ‘first album’ for the legendary performer, but a candidate for inclusion in the Sixties Hall of Fame.
Regimental Sgt. Zippo was released for Record Store Day 2021, effortlessly evoking the design style of 1967 and even the sleeve construction common at the time. In terms of presentation, it’s superb. But how does this archeological revelation hold up against an entire landscape of memorable Sixties albums?
Overall, Sgt. Zippo could be described as an ice cream sundae of mid-60s sounds, infused with psychedelic flavours and demonstrating a pleasing, if naive, charm. The influences of other major acts of the day—particularly The Beatles and the Bee Gees—are obvious yet enjoyable. Opening song “When I was Tealby Abbey” is a slice of 1967 whimsy, with a touch of Manfred Mann in the melody and a spoonful of Magical Mystery Tour Beatles in the arrangement. Interestingly, “And the clock goes round”, the next song, very much evokes the Elton we came to know a few years later. The vocal mannerisms and slight American intonation are in place, while the song (written, like all but two on the LP, by Elton and long term collaborator Bernie Taupin) is a wonderful hybrid of the duo’s emerging singer-songwriter skills leavened with some lovely Sixties touches in the arrangement. It’s a great song for both later EJ fans and for those in thrall to the music of this period.
And so the album unfolds, all of it very pleasant and well presented while firing nothing at the listener that will have them rewriting history. “Turn to me” shows the writers were listening to the early Bee Gees hits (and who wouldn’t!) while the title track adds a polished pebble to that peculiar niche of songs about ex-servicemen, joining “Sgt Pepper”, Pink Floyd’s “Corporal Clegg” and the West Coast Consortium’s “Colour Sergeant Lillywhite”. “Regimental Sgt. Zippo” is far from shabby, with great guitar work and a very English psychedelic sound; strong enough, indeed, to be mentioned in dispatches (if not proposed for a Victoria Cross).
“You’ll be sorry to see me go”, one of the two songs written by John and guitarist Caleb Quaye, is a slice of generic Sixties pop, but before you have a chance to work out precisely who it sounds like (Herman’s Hermits? The Idle Race?) the dramatic ballad “Nina” rolls across the screen. It’s a huge production number with so many elements in the mono mix it really does come across as a dramatic cinematic climax worthy of Phil Spector. This makes the gossamer thin “Tartan Coloured Lady” almost a relief, with its George Martin harpsichord and strings. The LP finishes strongly with “Watching the planes go by”, a solid Sixties pop song boasting a big, well-written arrangement.
Regimental Sgt. Zippo is a return trip to the paisley summer of English pop. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, and you are assured of an entertaining sojourn in a bright summer land that faded long ago.
If you are an Elton John fan you might be surprised by this prequel unexpectedly popping up in his catalogue but may decide, despite the sound being so different from Empty Sky, this record is a worthwhile addition. In fact, it is likely you’ll spin Zippo more than the official 1969 debut. The archivists deserve a medal, I reckon. So do artists David Larkham and sleeve designer Darren Evans whose swirling cover image is devoid of type but does include a selection of moustachioed Eltons, a welcome image of Bernie Taupin, and, unaccountably, children’s book character Noddy. Whimsy indeed. Or perhaps a reminder to bring our big ears to this surprisingly pleasant album.
© Bruce Jenkins 2021