Elton John’s 1973 LP, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, has sold more than 20 million copies, marking it as the British-born singer’s magnum opus, in many ways. A reference, of course, to the famed 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road includes the popular title track along with other big songs like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Candle in the Wind.” For further proof of its importance, in 2003, the 17-track album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
But what does the album’s title song mean? What was lyricist and longtime John collaborator Bernie Taupin trying to say with the song and what was John doing with the music behind the words?
When we think of Oz, we think of it as someplace fantastical and a place we want to go. By the time the album was released, Taupin and John had been working together for nearly a decade and they’d released half-a-dozen albums prior.
Taupin, who was successful with John and who had long worked in the music industry, often wrote about getting away from it all. Perhaps surprisingly, he often wrote about wanting to return to his roots. This song is no different, with references to the farm Taupin grew up on in Lincolnshire.
“It’s been said many times, but Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a cinematic album,” Taupin said of the album and title song lyrics in 2014. “The lyrics to the title track do say that I want to leave Oz and get back to the farm. I think that’s still my M.O. these days. I don’t mind getting out there and doing what everybody else was doing, but I always had to have an escape hatch.”
He further elaborated on the song in 2020. “I don’t believe I was ever turning my back on success or saying I didn’t want it,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “I just don’t believe I was ever that naïve. I think I was just hoping that maybe there was a happy medium way to exist successfully in a more tranquil setting. My only naiveté, I guess, was believing I could do it so early on. I had to travel a long road and visit the school of hard knocks before I could come even close to achieving that goal.”
With that in mind, listeners can hear and feel what Taupin meant within the lyrics below. In the song’s lyrics, he writes about having wasted time and energy. He shouldn’t have gone to Oz. He should have listened to his father. Sings John,
When are you gonna come down?
When are you going to land?
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man
And in the chorus, John adds,
So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough
Taupin warns, however, that there may be perils if one leaves the fantasy of the yellow brick road—that indelible image of a gold walkway from The Wizard of Oz movie. John sings,
What do you think you’ll do then?
I bet they’ll shoot down the plane
It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again
Maybe you’ll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain’t got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you
On the ground, ah, ah
Either way, the song ends, they’re gone. G’bye!
Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road