Song Lyrics – Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Hello and welcome to Learn English Vocabulary. My name is Jack and I’m making this podcast for you to learn or revise English vocabulary. You can find a transcript of this podcast on LearnEnglishVocabulary.co.uk. There’s a page for this podcast with the transcript, an activity and a task for you to do in the comments section.
Today I want to look at the lyrics to a song that was requested by João a listener from Portugal. João actually requested three different songs but I’m going to start with an Elton John song called Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This song is a classic so I have heard the song, but I’ve never really looked at the lyrics and don’t know them, apart from the title so I have no idea what the song is about. The yellow brick road is a reference to the film the Wizard of Oz which is an old classic about an American girl who is sucked up by a tornado and transported to a fantasy world. She is sent along the yellow brick road to the city of Oz to meet the wizard who can send her home. Along the way she meets different characters who have hopes and desires that the wizard can fulfil for them so the yellow brick road might be a metaphor for the path to follow to achieve your goal or to get a reward of some kind. Or it could be related to the story of the Actress Judy Garland who was only 16 or 17 years old when the film was made. She and the other actors and crew were worked so hard and were so exhausted that they were given drugs to keep them awake and working. I think lots of performers are at risk of that sort of lifestyle and I think that Elton John had problems with drug. Perhaps the yellow brick road refers to that sort of lifestyle. I’m going to work through the lyrics and I’ll stop and talk about the interesting words and phrases and I’ll keep trying to work out what the song means.
The first verse is 8 lines. The first four are:
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
OK: to come down … you might use this literally, perhaps you are talking to someone who has climbed a tree. Please come down; you could fall. But it has another meaning and it’s related to drugs. When you take drugs and they are working, you are high. People who are feeling the effects of drugs are described as high on drugs. As the drugs wear off, they come down. The headache and depression or tiredness that people feel after taking drugs is sometimes called a come down. In the song, the first two lines are asking when are you going to stop taking drugs or stop partying. I think that in these lines, Elton John is quoting other people who are asking him when he is going to stop partying. He then sings: I should have stayed on the farm, I should have listened to my old man. In the film The Wizard of Oz, the heroine Dorothy lives on a farm. She complains that the farm is boring and she wishes for something more exciting and then when the tornado comes and sweeps her off to the land of Oz, she regrets her wishes.
My old man is an informal way of saying my father or my dad. One other slightly interesting thing, well interesting from a language teacher’s point of view is that there are two different forms of going to in the first two lines. When are you gonna come down and when are you going to land. This is done so that both lines have the same number of syllables. The two different forms really don’t bother anybody. Sometimes I’ve heard people say that ‘gonna’ is used more in American English, but here, the two forms are used side by side and I don’t think anyone, apart from an English teacher would notice.
You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign up with you
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing … The blues, ah, ah
The second part of the verse is a bit more difficult to understand. You know you can’t hold me forever. To hold someone can mean to embrace them, but here it means to imprison or jail someone. If you are arrested by the police in the UK, they can only hold you for a certain amount of time before they have to charge you or let you go. I’m not sure who it is that is holding Elton – someone is keeping him prisoner in some way. He says I didn’t sign up with you. Normally, you sign up to do something. This means you agree to become involved in an organisation, often by literally signing a contract or putting your name on a list. When I went to University, there was an exhibition you could go to where all the clubs and societies had stands so you could see what was happening. They had sheets of paper that you could write your name on. If you wanted to join one of the clubs, you could literally sign your name to join. You could say I’ve signed up for the rock climbing club and the chess society. I think it’s less common to say sign up with, but I can imagine saying it about banks. When you need to open a bank account you might say I wanted to sign up with HSBC but I didn’t have any id with me. In the song, Elton is complaining that he didn’t sign up with whoever is holding him.
I’m not a present for your friends to open.
OK, these words are not complicated. Elton feels like he is being exploited by the person who is holding him. As a popular young musician, I’m sure that lots of people wanted to take him to parties and show him off to their friends. Elton is worried that if he continues this lifestyle, something bad will happen. That’s why he says:
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues.
The blues refers to music from the southern United States that usually expresses pain and sorrow. Often blues songs are about lost love. You need to have some experience and usually to have experienced something sad before you can sing the blues with feeling. The Blues were invented by black musicians who endured slavery and then segregation and horrible mistreatment. I think that the expression ‘singing the blues’ is probably slightly insensitive when used in this way. Elton is a singer so he’s going to be singing something – he thinks he is too young to experience anything sad enough to turn him into a blues singer.
Now we have the chorus which also has 8 lines. The first four are:
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
I’ve already spoken about goodbye yellow brick road. We now learn more. The yellow brick road is a place where the dogs of society howl. Who are the dogs of society? Society really means all the people who live and work and communicate with each other in a city or place. However, it also has an old fashioned meaning which relates to the social lives of rich people. So society could mean the social lives of the very rich; these people would be the sorts that would go to fancy parties. Elton sings that the dogs of society howl. I think that this is a bit unfair because dogs are actually very nice animals. At least my dog is. However, if you refer to people as dogs, you mean they have bad manners and are well, not sophisticated.
You can’t plant me in your penthouse.
A penthouse is the biggest and most expensive flat in an apartment building. I think it’s always on the top floor.
I’m going back to my plough.
In the first verse, Elton sings: I should have stayed on the farm. This line basically means I’m going back to the farm. A plough is a large tool that is used on a farm to turn over soil which is important when planting crops. I’m not sure why – I am not a farmer, but ploughs are used in farms all over the world.
Next, Elton sings:
Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
These are imaginary country activities. The sort of thing Elton imagines happens on farms. Owls howl in the woods. Well, I don’t think that owls do howl. They hoot or call, they twit twoo. I wasn’t sure what the horny back toad referred to either, or what sort of weapon you might take if you go hunting them. It turns out that there is no such animal. In Texas and Mexico, there’s a type of lizard called a horny toad – it’s quite a sweet little animal, but I don’t think that people really hunt them. Perhaps children do.
The chorus ends with these lines:
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road
The only interesting vocabulary here is the use of the word lies. My future lies beyond the yellow brick road. Lies has several meanings, but in this instance, it relates to location. We normally use it to describe the location of something that’s on the ground, often a path or a river. The river lies to the south of the town. It’s not a very common use, but it sort of explains the collocation with future in the song. The future lies before you and the past is behind you. A fortune teller might promise to tell you what lies in your future. Elton has decided that his future lies beyond the yellow brick road.
In the first part of the second verse he 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
I don’t really know what he means when he says I bet they’ll shoot down the plane, but I think he means the rich people from society that have been exploiting him will try to ruin him if he tries to leave them.
A vodka and tonic is a strong alcoholic drink. When people say that something will take a couple of stiff or strong drinks, they mean that it’s something that is scary and the drinks will make you feel less afraid. Elton thinks that leaving the yellow brick road, the partying lifestyle of the rich and famous will be hard.
To set someone on their feet means to give someone the support and encouragement they need to succeed and be independent. It’s similar to the expression to get back on your feet.
So if someone has had a problem, perhaps their business has failed or they have been unwell, they might need some help getting back on their feet. If someone helps them, they are setting them on their feet again.
In the last part of the second verse Elton sings:
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
The first two lines are straight forward. He’s suggesting that the dogs of society can find a new singer or entertainer for their parties. He says that there are plenty of people like him. He then describes himself as a mongrel who doesn’t have a penny. A mongrel is a dog that is not a specific breed. So you can get pedigree dogs – these are dogs that have been bred with specific types of dogs so that they have the same characteristics. And then you can get mongrels which are the dogs with different breeds for parents. Mongrels were considered less desirable, more common dogs by rich people. Aristocrats in the UK, I think, used to be slightly obsessed with ideas about breeding and their ancestry. Mongrels, in this case, might be used to talk about people who don’t have royal titles or famous parents and grandparents.
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground.
Tidbits are small bits of food. I have two young boys and a young dog. At dinnertime, my dog sits under the table waiting for tidbits of foot to come raining down from my boys’ places. You can also use the word to talk about facts and interesting bits of knowledge. If you ever visit a city for the first time, get a taxi somewhere and ask for the driver’s advice. Taxi drivers are always a good source of interesting tidbits about a place. I’m not sure who the tidbit is. It sounds like the mongrel is sniffing the tidbit, but I’m not sure.
And then it goes back to the chorus: So goodbye yellow brick road.
This is a catchy song and I’ve listened and sung it a few times now, making this podcast. I’m pretty sure it will be stuck in my head for the next few weeks. I hope you have found my description of the vocabulary and interpretation of the meaning interesting and now I would recommend that you go and listen to the song and listen out for the words I’ve described.
To help you remember them, there is a practice activity on the Learn English Vocabulary website for this podcast where you’ll also find the transcript and some discussion questions to give you the chance to try to use some of these phrases as that will help you remember.
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Thanks for listening.