Regimental Sgt Zippo, review: Elton John’s long-lost album is a psychedelic jumble

·3 min read
A detail from the cover of Elton John's aborted debut album, Regimental Sgt Zippo - Rocket
A detail from the cover of Elton John's aborted debut album, Regimental Sgt Zippo - Rocket

Imagine a portal in the space-time continuum ripping open, and through it tumbling an album that never was: the long-lost psychedelic opus of a piano-playing teenage prodigy from Pinner, arriving from an incense-filled studio in swinging London. The title may sound like a parody, but in 1968, Regimental Sgt Zippo was genuinely intended to introduce 19-year-old Elton John to the world, with songs about the reincarnation of a religious ruin in Lincolnshire (When I Was Tealby Abbey) and a love affair with a woman who looks like a kilt (Tartan Coloured Lady).

Representing the first flower of the writing partnership between Reg Dwight (music) and Bernie Taupin (lyrics), 12 songs were recorded in the studio of publisher Dick James between late 1967 and spring 1968. A track list was assembled, and a cover illustration commissioned, depicting the man who would become Sir Elton John with handlebar moustache and granny glasses. But wiser heads likely thought better of hitching this promising newcomer to an already-fading musical trend, and the album was shelved.

Now, for one day only, Sir Elton’s label Rocket are unleashing this long-abandoned debut, limited to 2,000 vinyl copies and only available to purchase tomorrow for Record Store Day, an annual celebration of independent record shops. Hardcore fans have been able to reconstruct a partial version of Regimental Sgt Zippo from demos on last year’s career-spanning 148-track album Jewel Box. But this is the first opportunity to hear full-band versions of eight songs, with a debut for the Merseybeat-meets-Motown belter You’ll Be Sorry to See Me Go.

What is striking, even on John’s earliest work, is his stylistic and melodic range. Although Regimental Sgt Zippo is full of the fads of the era – arbitrary sound-effects, echoing flanged guitars, irritatingly perky woodwind and horns – the songs span formulaic Sixties pop (Turn To Me; Sitting Doing Nothing) and the kind of lushly romantic epics favoured by Procul Harum and the Moody Blues (the dramatic Nina; the dreamy Watching The Planes Go By). Taupin’s florid lyrics have yet to locate a strong narrative line, but John’s already singing with complete conviction, able to make you believe in his ardour for that Tartan Coloured Lady.

To say the production leaves something to be desired is an understatement. Instruments are slapped on top of each other in arrangements simultaneously busy and flat, with John drowning out his own robust piano with too much Hammond organ. Producer Steve Brown would bring a bit more order to John’s actual debut, Empty Sky, in 1969, but it would take the more dynamic approach of Gus Dudgeon and luscious string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster to untap the songwriting duo’s potential on the 1970 breakthrough, Elton John.

Still, it’s a treat to finally hear this slice of alternative history. If you were crate-digging in a second-hand record store, you might think you had stumbled across a genuine lost gem from the psychedelic era: Sgt Elton’s Everything-and-the Kitchen-Sink Band. I wonder what became of them?

Available in a limited run tomorrow only, for Record Store Day

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