A truly fascinating song, Ticking is a greatly overlooked near masterpiece. Frankly,
when the Caribou album was released, I mainly listened to The Bitch is Back
and Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me and pretty much ignored the rest of the
album. But Elton brought Ticking out of the closet on his 1999 solo tour and
I, like a lot of people, was completely blown away. How did I miss this song?
I can't tell you. I know some people are disturbed by the subject matter. If
you ask me, it's another one the great story-song from the pen of Bernie Taupin.
Because of its length and dramatic subject, Ticking is an
epic song. It is very different however from Elton's other
epic tunes. Songs like Tiny Dancer, Levon and Funeral for
a Friend for instance are divided into distinct sections,
usually 3 distinct sections. All of those songs have a full
band and/or orchestra to fill out their arrangements.
Ticking on the other hand is a very simple verse-chorus
song AND it relies almost entirely on Elton and his piano.
Elton's brilliance takes us on a 7 minute 48 second pianistic
journey that evolves from a simple beginning to dense and
complex flourishes at the end. We'll also find that Elton
borrows riffs from his Levon vocabulary in this tune.
Let's explore further, shall we?
GENERAL ACCOMPANIMENT STYLE
The basic accompaniment style that Elton uses in this song is one that he doesn't
use very often however it is one that is VERY VERY common in rock vocabulary.
In my other writeups I have described Elton's standard approaches to accompaniment:
his default style, his Mozart style and his funky style. What we have here
is simply a great basic rock style that can be used for any uptempo song.
If you are a budding rock and roll pianist, you must learn this pattern.
Harmonically the song is firmly rooted in the key of F - in fact hardly ever
moving off of it. The intro uses a pedal
point chord progression, similar
to other songs from Elton and scores of piano player /songwriters. And why
not! This kind of chord progression works better on the piano than just about
any other instrument. What we're talking about is holding the bass note constant,
in this case on F, while shifting through different chords in the right hand.
The intro uses a 2-bar pattern. The opening F chord moves to a C/F, then
to a Bb/F, resolving back to an F. Other songs using this device include
Your Song, Tiny Dancer, and Levon (which is also in the key of F).
The pedal point intro in F is understated and beautiful,
setting up a firm
harmonic base for the entire song
The verse uses an A-B format. The first 8 bars again utilize
the pedal point F approach, alternating between the I and
IV chords. This establishes a very cozy base that from a
harmonic standpoint projects sort of a droning or trance-like
calmness. This calmness starts to build some tension. As
a listener, you begin anticipating that time when we jump
off from that F base. Boy and when it happens in the B section,
it's dramatic and bold. The B-section unleashes all of that
tension as Elton jumps to the A-minor chord. A-minor is the
iii in the key of F and shares 2 notes in common with F,
making it a real nice place to jump to. The subsequent G-minor,
C and Bb resolve back to the F. Elton uses bass notes under
the C and Bb that keep the progression diatonic in sound.
That keeps us harmonically closer to the F than using their
roots in the bass.
The 4-bar A-minor and G-minor section (the iii-m and ii-m
above) are what really distinguish Ticking. Drawing from
classical influences, Elton rips through some incredibly
dramatic and technically advanced flourishes. I'll talk about
those more in a moment.
With the intro and verses keeping us so closely tied to F, we are in a perfect
position to go somewhere else in the chorus. Elton obliges by taking us on
a journey around the Circle
of Fifths. For those who don't know, the Circle
of Fifths is a circle with chords that are a fifth apart from each other
if you go one direction, and a fourth apart from each other if you go the
other direction. The circle covers every possible key. Western composers
for centuries have long known that there is a "naturalness" to
chord progressions that follow the circle. The chorus advances in fourths from D-minor to G-minor to C to F. The A-7 or III7 is the dominant of
the vi-minor or D-minor. Since it is the dominant for the key of F, its usage
here is referred to as a secondary
dominant. This chord is a device that
takes us out of the circle and back to where we started.
THOSE WAY COOL FLOURISHES
The A-minor and G-minor flourishes in this song are, to the best of my knowledge,
unique in Elton's lexicon of piano tricks and riffs. I don't believe I've
heard him use this particular device in any other song. What he's playing
can be explained in harmonic terms fairly easily, but you need to be an advanced
pianist to execute them with the precision and expression that Elton achieves.
THESE LICKS JUST ABSOLUTELY RIP!
The following example shows how these chords are constructed.
Personally I associate this type of chord structure with
Emerson and Rick
Wakeman of Emerson, Lake & Palmer
and Yes fame. In my youth I dabbled in the music of these
legendary prog rockers and they employed these chords frequently.
Since Wakeman sat in on some of Elton's recordings, I have
to believe Elton was influenced. To be specific, if you listen
very carefully, you can hear Wakeman using this exact same
chord in "Razor Face" from the Madman album.
The right hand chord is built off either the 5th or 7th
of the root chord. You can call it a suspended tritone or
a quartal chord (a chord based on 4ths - invert it and you
get perfect 4ths). Either way it uses upper partials of the
9th or 11th chord in A or G. The resultant chord is stunning
Here are a couple more examples
of how Elton uses them in Ticking.
CONNECTION TO LEVON
One of the things that has always attracted me to Elton's playing is his riffing
style. There are lots of other paino players out there in the rock and pop
genre, but by and large I find they mostly play their chords pretty straight.
When they play a C chord, they play a C chord PERIOD! Elton on the other
hand arpeggiates it, suspends it, plays passing tones, adds a temporary 9th
or other devices. It makes his playing rich and interesting. For me, it was
this aspect of his playing that elevated him above most other popular pianists.
Because of the physical shape of black and white notes on
the piano, Elton's voicing of riffs tends to be specific
to certain keys. A riff that works in F may be difficult
to execute in Ab. Now Ticking and Levon are both in the key
of F. But more than that, both songs use a pedal point F
throughout the verses, making them very similar harmonically.
Both songs hold the F bass constant while alternating through
F, Bb, and Eb chords. Given this, there is a whole lot of
similarity in the riffs he plays in both songs. Here are
a few examples of riffs that could have come straight out
USE OF THE LEFT HAND
I've been asked by people to discuss how Elton approaches his left hand work.
In general the left hand serves a rhythmic role in Elton's songs, defining
the beat of the song. Elton usually uses either the root of the chord or
the 5th. What that means is that when he plays a C-chord, he's either playing
a C in the left hand, an octave C, or a C and a G. Sometimes he will alternate,
play a low C then a high C, play a low C then a G.
How does he decide? Well that's partly a subjective decision,
partly an artistic decision. Don't expect him to play it
the same way every time. That's the sort of thing that he
can change on a whim. As a pianist, your left hand should
always be prepared to play the octave or the 5th.
There is a practical way to make these decisions. The following
example shows 3 different ways to handle the F-chord depending
on what the right hand does. If the right hand gets in the
way of playing an octave in the left hand, you can switch
to playing the 5th (the C) as in the 1st example. Of course
you could eliminate the right hand note that's in the way
as in the 2nd example. OR, as in the 3rd example, you can
drop the left down an entire octave. Each choice gives you
a little different sound. As the artist playing this little
ditty, you decide!
In Ticking , Elton does not use the lower octaves until
the very end of the song. He keeps the left hand in the middle
range of the keyboard. Its just one of those artistic decisions
that he made that contributes to the overall sound of the
This is just a simple overview of the way that the left
hand is used in the majority of his songs. Elton also incorporates
passing tones and other little devices in his left hand work.
When he gets funky, well then we start to get much more sophisticated
things going on.
What we have here in Ticking is many of the elements found in Elton's greatest
works. Melodically this song doesn't quite give the listener the soaring
payoff in the chorus that songs like Tiny Dancer and Levon do. But we do
have some incredible piano work, at times its pretty technically daunting.
One thing's for sure, I've really fallen in love with this
number. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.