Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is a 1975 album by Elton John. It is John’s ninth studio album.
The album is an autobiographical account of the early musical careers of Elton John (Captain Fantastic) and Bernie Taupin (the Brown Dirt Cowboy). It was released in May 1975 by MCA in America and DJM in the UK. It debuted at number 1 on the US Billboard 200, the first album to do so, and stayed in that position for seven weeks.
It was certified gold in May 1975 and was certified platinum and 3x platinum in March 1993 by the RIAA. In Canada, it also debuted at number 1 on the RPM national Top Albums chart and only broke a run of what would have been fifteen consecutive weeks at the top by falling one position to number 2 in the ninth week (31 May–6 September). On the UK Albums Chart, it peaked at number 2. In 2003, the album was ranked number 158 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. This was the last album until Too Low for Zero that Elton John and his classic band would play on together.
Written, according to lyricist Bernie Taupin, in chronological order, Captain Fantastic is a concept album that gives an autobiographical glimpse at the struggles John (Captain Fantastic) and Taupin (the Brown Dirt Cowboy) had in the early years of their musical careers in London (from 1967 to 1969), leading up to John’s eventual breakthrough in 1970. The lyrics and accompanying photo booklet are infused with a specific sense of place and time that would otherwise be rare in John’s music. John composed the music on a ship voyage from the UK to New York.
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, the only single released from the album (and a number 4 hit on the US Pop Singles chart), is a semi-autobiographical story about John’s disastrous engagement to Linda Woodrow, and his related 1968 suicide attempt. The “Someone” refers to Long John Baldry, who convinced him to break off the engagement rather than ruin his music career for an unhappy marriage. It was viewed by Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau as the best track on the album: “As long as Elton John can bring forth one performance per album on the order of ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’, the chance remains that he will become something more than the great entertainer he already is and go on to make a lasting contribution to rock.”
In a 2006 interview with Cameron Crowe, John said, “I’ve always thought that Captain Fantastic was probably my finest album because it wasn’t commercial in any way. We did have songs such as ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight,’ which is one of the best songs that Bernie and I have ever written together, but whether a song like that could be a single these days, since it’s [more than] six minutes long, is questionable. Captain Fantastic was written from start to finish in running order, as a kind of story about coming to terms with failure—or trying desperately not to be one. We lived that story.”
John, Taupin and the band laboured harder and longer on the album than perhaps any previous record they’d ever done to that point. As opposed to the rather quick, almost factory-like process of writing and recording an album in a matter of a few days or at most a couple of weeks (as with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), the team spent the better part of a month off the road at Caribou Ranch Studios working on the recordings. Producer Gus Dudgeon was apparently also very satisfied with the results. The album’s producer was quoted in Elizabeth Rosenthal’s “His Song”, an exhaustive detailed accounting of nearly all John’s recorded work, as saying he thought “Captain Fantastic” was the best the band and Elton had ever played, lauded their vocal work, and soundly praised Elton and Bernie’s songwriting. “There’s not one song on it that’s less than incredible,” Dudgeon said.
The 2006 album The Captain & the Kid is the sequel, and continues the autobiography where Captain Fantastic leaves off.
The intricate cover art was designed by pop artist Alan Aldridge, drawing fantastic imagery from the Medieval painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. The original LP package included a “Lyrics” booklet with an uncompleted lyric for “Dogs in the Kitchen” that was not on the album’s line-up, and another booklet called “Scraps,” which collected snippets of reviews, diary entries and other personal memorabilia of John and Taupin during the years chronicled on the album. It also contained a poster of the album’s cover. These were reproduced, in smaller versions, for the 2005 Deluxe Edition CD. Limited edition copies were pressed on brown vinyl.
In 1976, Bally released a Capt. Fantastic pinball machine with artwork by Dave Christensen of Elton John in his “pinball wizard” character from the movie Tommy. In 1977, Bally released a “home model” version with artwork by Alan Aldridge.
Elton John – lead vocals, acoustic and electric pianos, clavinet, mellotron, ARP String Ensemble synthesizer, harpsichord
Davey Johnstone – acoustic, electric and Leslie guitars; mandolin, piano on “Writing”, backing vocals
Dee Murray – bass, backing vocals
Nigel Olsson – drums, backing vocals
Ray Cooper – shaker, congas, gong, jawbone, tambourine, bells, bell tree, cymbals, triangle, bongos