Classic Album covers : Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Elton John

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the seventh studio album by Elton John. It was released on 5 October 1973

The story behind the album cover comes courtesy of eltonjohn.com

The original ideas for the cover was to use a Bryan Organ painting of Elton (wearing a Marilyn Monroe jersey) was considered. However, album co-ordinator Steve Brown had been captivated by an album cover that illustrator Ian Beck had worked on and the decision was made to meet with the artist

Time was especially tight because the album’s release date had been set when the original recording sessions were scheduled for January 1973. With the subsequent cancelling of that attempt in Jamaica the album was not truly recorded until May, leaving far less time for post-production to happen in time for the predetermined October 5 release

The album’s co-Art Director, David Larkham, was working out of Los Angeles at the time and flew to London for four days to nail down the entire album packaging concept (including the inside-sleeve lyric spread). While David was traveling, Steve met with Ian to discuss the project and play him some of the songs. “When I arrived on the Friday,” David says, “Ian came back with his portfolio. And I checked that his schedule allowed for working over the weekend, which it did”

In exclusive interviews with EltonJohn.com, Ian and David continue to describe the process.

Jonathan Kelly

Ian Beck: The year prior, I had worked (with my studio mate John Kosh, who has done a great deal of graphic work on rock albums) on the cover for a Jonathan Kelly album called Wait Till They Change The Backdrop. They liked the cover at Rocket Records and called me into the office to see if I’d be willing sell them the artwork. I think they had this idea they could re-use it, which was a very strange thought. I said, “Well, maybe we could do something new.” The Jonathan Kelly record had only been out less than a year. It would be very confusing to use the same picture on a different artist’s album, it seemed to me

The basic idea of the Jonathan Kelly cover was that there were a group of young girls who had perhaps just been performing a ballet on a stage. And the stagehand was lifting or lowering a curtain from a countryside scene to and industrial scene. Rather like on Yellow Brick Road where you have the countryside and you have the town.


David Larkham: It was like an epiphany between Steve Brown and myself, which Ian was very much a part of as well. We were struck by an illustration that he had done of David Bowie for England’s Cream magazine in 1972. And I seem to recall seeing an advertising piece Ian had done with a guy staring longingly at a tropical location on a poster stuck on the wall. And when I heard that they had decided on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road as the title of the album, in my mind’s eye I could see Elton stepping on to a yellow brick road. So there was a meeting of minds: let’s have Elton stepping into a poster on a wall and on to a yellow brick road. That was the discussion between Steve, Ian and myself

IB: They had played me the songs in my first meeting, and as I listened (and read the lyrics) the Hollywood theme came up: the fact there was mention of Marilyn Monroe and Roy Rogers and so on. And at the time there was a big revival of interest in 1930s and 40s Hollywood films. There are a lot of references to them in graphic work in the early 1970s and the song lyrics seemed to fit in that whole mood. Obviously, references to the yellow brick road, The Wizard of Oz, and so forth

DL: I did a tracing paper layout for Ian, envisaging the album sleeve on the right-hand panel and had the street scene stretched around to accommodate other posters for the photos and all that kind of thing across the tri-fold. So that was on a Friday, and Ian’s task was to prepare his rough drafts of the outer cover by Monday morning (I had to fly back to Los Angeles Monday evening)

IB: They (the rough drawings) were done as sketches on detail paper, very thin paper. But they would’ve been coloured in with coloured crayons. They would’ve looked as much like the finished thing as I could get it to look to give the impression to the client. They weren’t particularly rough in that sense. When I was working on the drawings I was asked, could I possibly include a piano and a teddy bear somewhere on the cover? It was pointed out to me that Elton was very fond of teddy bears

How did the Wizard of Oz theme inspire you?

IB: The fact that Elton is wearing ruby platform boots, which is an echo of the ruby slippers in the movie. At that time Elton and ABBA and various people wore those kind of very exaggerated platform boots, so I said, “If he’s wearing those kind of shoes maybe they can be ruby, like the ruby slippers.”

On the front cover Elton is peeling back what looks like the album cover from Don’t Shoot Me….

IB: That’s right. That was suggested as part of it by the management team - the idea was, we’re moving on from that album: on to the next thing. For the front cover pose I was given some photographic reference: several publicity shots of his head. And it was pointed out to me at the time that he had a pink flash in his hair, which I included. And then I used a friend of mine who shared the studio space with me; I got him to pose in the pose I wanted. He was called Leslie Chapman. He was a fashion illustrator who is now a textile designer called Leslie McKinley Howell. He was quite tall…and he was wearing a baseball jacket, which he had just come back from New York with. So I used the baseball jacket he was wearing as part of the illustration. And I did the hand lettering of Elton’s name on the jacket

Did you literally have him standing with one leg up, stepping up…?

IB: …in our studio, yeah. Just as an aid for getting the pose right for the drawing. I took probably five or six Polaroid photographs of him in various poses, as was the custom in those days. Because you didn’t have to get Polaroids developed, it was the easiest way to draw from. Leslie recently sent me some of those photos, which I had lost track of over the years. In fact, this is the first time this photo has been seen by the public. You can see that the left arm is in a different position to that of the final pose

These days I do a lot of school visiting and library visiting, giving talks to children (and adults) about art and illustration. And sometimes there will be a person clutching a copy of the album for me to sign. It’s been one of those things that has followed me forever, having done that cover

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