This is the “Day the Music Died”, the anniversary of the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens. Ironically then, it was also the day that a song essentially about ’50s music topped the chart in 1973. “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John hit #1 in the U.S. 50 years ago today.
Elton’s career had certainly been skyrocketing for the previous couple of years and he’d had a massive hit the year before with “Rocket Man”, which got into the top 10 almost everywhere. But this throwback rocker was his first #1 single. He’d have five more in the ’70s alone in the States. Another first for it, it was the first #1 hit on the MCA Records label. That gave them a pretty good batting average at the time, since it was the very first record released on “MCA”, after the company dissolved its various brands like Decca and merged them all into the one MCA. The Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, presumably was the first LP issued on MCA, with it following the single by a couple of weeks, and also going straight to #1.
Like almost all Elton’s songs of that era, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics while EJ himself came up with the music. His regular, top-flight band backed him on it, guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, while Elton played piano and the prominent Farfisa organ on it. Elton also did all the vocals, high-pitched falsetto backing ones included. Unlike most of his songs, this one was deliberately retro-feeling and “derivative.” To which he’s replied “of course it’s derivative!…I wanted it to be about all the things I grew up with.” Those included songs like “At the Hop”, “Little Darlin’” and “See You Later Alligator”, which likely inspired his choice of animal in the title. It also was a bit of a nod to “Eagle Rock”, an Australian hit by a band called Daddy Cool that both he and Taupin liked. Despite its incredibly chirpy, upbeat sound, Songfacts picked up on the fact that it was a “really catchy little song with very sad lyrics.” After all, in it Elton’s looking backwards pining for days of sockhops, old Chevys and his girl Susie that “went and left me for another guy.”
Happy or sad, the song caught on in a big way. It spent three weeks at #1 in the U.S., and four weeks to the north in Canada. It also went to the top in New Zealand and made the top 5 in his homeland and Australia. The same week it went to #1 it was certified gold in the U.S., and soon it was platinum, one of an impressive 14 singles of his to reach that summit.
For all that, you might think he’d love the tune. Turns out it’s not the case. Taupin says it was “something fun at the time” but “not something I would listen to” now. And Elton says he doesn’t like it and can’t stand playing it anymore, but will perform it on his lengthy current “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour because “fans enjoy it.” He sums it up as “a huge hit record (that) in the long run became a negative for me.” Fans might disagree.
If you want to see a Crocodile Rock, turns out you can… if you want to go to tropical Asia. There’s a large formation in the Philippines named the Crocodile Rock, because, well, it’s a rock that looks like a big croc!