Story & Meaning of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” By Elton John

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is one of Elton John’s most successful songs of all time, selling over 20 million copies en route to becoming a masterpiece of his catalog and being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. But many fans are left wondering what the real meaning of the track is and how John even conceptualized the song in the first place. In this article, we’ll dive into the story and meaning of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John. 

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: A History

May 17, 1900 – The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz book cover. Image source: W. W. Denslow, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the title track of John’s 1973 album, referencing L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard Of Oz book and film. The album helped turn John from a music star into a megastar. One of the coolest facts about the double album is that it was recorded in only two weeks in France. 

Bernie Taupin was the writer behind the song, just as he was the writer behind a lot of John’s earliest tracks. It took him around two weeks to finish writing the lyrics for the song, and John took a total of three days to put the music for it together while the two were working together in Kingston, Jamaica

Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) (Remastered 2014)

The song itself was released as the second single to come from the album in 1973. It quickly entered the top 20 of the charts in both the US and the UK, becoming one of John’s biggest hit tracks and surpassing Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) shortly after release in terms of both sales and popularity. 

It also reached the top spot of the Canadian RPM chart in 1973 and held the position for one week. That was his third number-one single in Canada in 1973 alone after Crocodile Rock and Daniel.

Charlie Rich - The Most Beautiful Girl (Audio)

In the US, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road peaked at number two on the US Billboard Hot 100, falling just behind The Most Beautiful Girl by Charlie Rich and Top Of The World by the Carpenters. It would spend 18 weeks on the US Easy Listening chart though, rising to number seven. In John’s home country of the UK, the song peaked at number four in Ireland and number six on the UK Singles Chart. 

Overall, it was a delicate and beautiful ballad that included a tear-jerking movement and was one of the best melodic and soft pop tracks to come out in history. The critical response to the song in 1973 was overwhelmingly positive. In 2018, The Guardian even ranked it at number six on their list of the 50 Greatest Elton John Songs, and Billboard placed it at number four on their list that came out in 2018. 

Looking At The Meaning Behind The Song

June 3, 1971 – Elton John and Bernie Taupin publicity photo. Image source: Uni/Universal City Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John might be the name you know when it comes to this track, but it was Bernie Taupin who wrote the song. He would include a lot of autobiographical elements in it, talking about his childhood memories when he lived on a farm in Lincolnshire. Most of the track is about returning to your roots, your place of belongings, and a common theme through a lot of Taupin’s earliest songs. 

In the context of the track—and the album as a whole—you have to understand Oz and why it’s such an important reference. Oz is a fantastical place, far away from everyday life and somewhere that anybody would be happy to go. It represents the ideal world, heaven almost, but in modern terms, it’s an alternate reality where things are different and wonderful. 

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Original Trailer - Judy Garland Movie

In the film The Wizard Of Oz, the lead character Dorothy is whisked away to Oz through magical means. She and her newfound friends follow the Yellow Brick Road in search of the titular Wizard of Oz, hoping to be granted their desires. The road turns out to be what makes them find the things they’re after, rather than the destination though. 

Taupin’s use of the trope of returning home is where the goodbye part of it comes in. He’s ready to leave Oz and get back to the farm. Much like Dorothy in the story, he just wishes to leave the fantastical behind and go home, back to normalcy. In 2014, he gave an interview about the song:

“It’s been said many times, but Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a cinematic album,” Taupin said of the album and title song lyrics in 2014. “The lyrics to the title track do say that I want to leave Oz and get back to the farm. I think that’s still my M.O. these days. I don’t mind getting out there and doing what everybody else was doing, but I always had to have an escape hatch.”

1900 – An illustration by W. W. Denslow from The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, also known as The Wizard Of Oz. Image source: William Wallace Denslow, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2020, Taupin again gave details about the track in an interview with the BBC:

“I don’t believe I was ever turning my back on success or saying I didn’t want it. I just don’t believe I was ever that naïve. I think I was just hoping that maybe there was a happy medium way to exist successfully in a more tranquil setting. My only naiveté, I guess, was believing I could do it so early on. I had to travel a long road and visit the school of hard knocks before I could come even close to achieving that goal.”

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Remastered 2014)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road focuses on the belief that the narrator shouldn’t have gone to Oz in the first place. For him, the Yellow Brick Road is a path to deceit rather than the road to follow your dreams. It’s entirely different from the simple—and happy—life he left home for. In it, he yearns to get away from the fast-paced life he now finds himself in, wishing to go back to the farm. 

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

February 17, 1971 – Elton John in the Netherlands. Image source: Bert Verhoeff for Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

John stated that he wanted to spend more time with his children and that he was finally ready for a quieter life. Maybe he was taking a page from Taupin in wanting to return home to simpler things. 

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m goin’ back to my plough

While Oz may seem like the place people dream of being, the central theme of both the film and the song is wanting to go home. The narrator wants to go back to a place where things are familiar, where they’re comfortable, and where life is a little bit quieter. But going home doesn’t mean safety for John and Taupin. 

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

March 1972 – Elton John performing in Hamburg, Germany. Image source: Heinrich Klaffs, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While it’s unlikely that this is meant to be taken literally, it does speak to the nervousness that comes with walking away from such an exciting life. If Taupin retired, would people be angry with him because of how good he was at his job? If John tried to leave, would people clamor for him to stay?

It can be tough making decisions like this in general, but it’s even more so if you happen to be so famous. The track addresses those feelings as well, adding another layer to the state of mind that both Taupin and John had to be in, though at different times. 

November 14, 1974 – Elton John publicity photo for ABC-TV special. Image source: ABC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, it’s likely that the meaning of the song had a bit more to do with John than it did with Taupin, despite it being about Taupin’s feelings in the first place. Looking back with some hindsight, it appears to have been initially about Taupin wanting to return to a simple life but shifting to be about what John wanted nearly 50 years later. 

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released in 1973, but the song served as the title track of John’s final tour in 2018. He announced that the tour would be the last one he ever did, effectively retiring at the end of it. Frankly, at 71 years of age, who can blame him? 

January 18, 2023 – Elton John on his Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney. Image source: Dicklyon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to some delays due to COVID and John’s medical problems, the tour lasted five years and only finished in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2023. The tour was intended to be made up of 330 live shows, with him performing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at the end of every single performance.

In total, the tour netted $939.1 million from 328 shows, setting the record for the highest-grossing tour of all time. Several concerts during the tour were recorded for documentaries, live albums, and even personalized fan experiences. 

The feelings in this track are something a lot of people can relate to, especially those who chase their dreams and end up somewhere that they aren’t sure about. There’s a comfort to being able to be at home and in a place you know, a joy to living a simple life without people always in your business or expecting something from you.

Taupin often wrote about getting back to one’s roots, and this song might have been about him when he wrote it, but in the end, John was the one embodying the meaning of the track. 

Interesting Facts About Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

July 17, 2011 – Vending machine of Ben & Jerry’s in the Pathé Arena in Amsterdam. Image source: Onderwijsgek at nl.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2008, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s created a flavor and named it after the song in honor of John to commemorate his first performance in the state of Vermont. It was made of chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cookie dough, butter brickle, and white chocolate chunks. 

There’s quite a bit of canine imagery in the track, with one of the best examples coming from the line about sniffing around on the ground. That was put in there by Taupin as a slight dig at one of John’s girlfriends, Linda, and her two small dogs. 

Screw You (Young Man's Blues)

The B-side to the track’s original release was titled Screw You. Unfortunately, we were robbed of a great song title as the US release of it was re-titled Young Man’s Blues to try to avoid offending American audiences. While they could likely get away with it today, it’s a shame they didn’t think so in 1973. 

1995 – Playing Piano Man at Madison Square Garden on Christmas. Image source: Drivera99, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Quite a lot of artists ended up covering Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, with Billy Joel being one of the most notable ones to do so. He would actually perform the track alongside as a duet during his One Night Only: The Greatest Hits Live at Madison Square Garden concert in 1994. Sara Bareilles, Queens Of The Stone Age, and The Shadows have all given the song solid cover versions as well. 

Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania | Official Trailer

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was used as the trailer song for Marvel’s Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania trailer in 2022. 

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