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Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters – Elton John

Editor’s note: This is the first posting from Matt Thurston, a long-time earworm sufferer. And you’re right, Elton John is the furthest thing from a one-hit wonder. In fact, he has nearly 60 top-40 hits.

Back before his voice dropped an octave or more from a rich tenor to, let’s face it, a hoarse baritone…

Back before he became known more for his sexual orientation and outlandish costumes than his seven consecutive #1 U.S. albums…

Back before he was knighted “Sir” by Queen Elizabeth for HIV/AIDS-related research, charity, and other services rendered to the United Kingdom and rest of the world…

Back before he numbered royal princesses, global fashion designers, and other high-society jet setters among his intimate friends…

…he was simply Elton John, an extraordinarily gifted singer-songwriter, who with lyric-writing partner Bernie Taupin, penned one sublime hit after another throughout the first half of the 1970s.

Honky Chateau My Favorite Record of Childhood

For better or worse, most of us trace our earliest musical tastes back to the music of our parents. Born in the late 1960s, I became musically conscious sometime during the early 1970s. Elton John was my Dad’s favorite artist at the time; and Barry Manilow was my Mom’s favorite. Like I said, “for better or worse.”

So, when I wasn’t belting out off-key versions of “Mandy” with Mom around the house, I was tooling around the Glendale suburbs with Dad in his tiny yellow Fiat, a consequence of the mid-70s gas crisis, listening to one Elton John cassette tape after another. My Dad would sometimes explain why Elton’s music was superior to Barry’s, or to other popular artists of the time: “Do you hear that chord progression? Hear that key change? You won’t hear anything that sophisticated on American Top 40.”

My seven-year-old self took him at his word.

My favorite cassette back then was John’s fifth album, Honky Chateauicon, (today, it’s Tumbleweed Connection) released in May 1972, and featuring 10 perfect songs, including the hits “Honky Cat” and “Rocket Man.” But my favorite track on the album – and possibly my all-time favorite Elton John song – was the fourth cut on Side B, “Mona Lisa and Mad Hattersicon.”

“Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” is a vintage Elton John ballad – rolling verses followed by lush, harmonized choruses, all of it backed by John’s understated piano and Davey Johnstone’s fluttering mandolin. Taupin’s perfect lyrics evoke the loneliness of living in a big city (New York City), with millions of faceless Mona Lisas, Mad Hatters, Bankers, and Lawyers, where on the streets “people run you through,” and on the subways “the hobo he can drown.”

Listen to “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters”

So, while ”Your Songicon” may be the more sentimental and ubiquitous John ballad, and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Meicon,” the more showy ballad, for my money neither tops “Mona Lisa and Mad Hattersicon.”


Something tells me “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” also played a formative part in Rolling-Stone-critic-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe’s life as well. “Mona Lisa” is one of two John songs (“Tiny Dancer” is the other) used during key moments in Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous. While Crowe uses “Tiny Dancer” as the lynch pin for a kind of cathartic “coming together” moment for the band on the bus during the dog days of touring, he uses “Mona Lisa” as the backdrop song during the emotional nadir of the film, when William Miller (the Cameron Crowe character) flees into the New York City night following his muse’s (Penny Lane) near overdose.

Enjoy these two cover versions:

1.) Indigo Girls’ perfect live version.
Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters – Indigo Girls

2.) Mandy Moore’s surprisingly decent, albeit overly-earnest cover.

Written by

I'm an obsessive music collector, cataloger, commenter and trivia nut. Sometimes I'm even a listener. One-hit wonders have always been a guilty pleasure.

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3 Responses to "Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters – Elton John"

  1. Matt's Dad says:

    Thanks, Matt. A brilliant song, elegantly memorialized. I listened to all five linked versions, but I most enjoyed watching the young, lean-faced Elton performing with naked piano, sans ear-shattering walls of backing sound. Makes me want to borrow a Fiat (like the one you dubbed the “Yellow Hat”) and drive around listening to “Honkey Chateau!”

  2. […] posting by regular contributor Matt Thurston. You can also read his reviews of Elton John’s “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” or “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen or his description of the curse of being Michael […]

  3. […] posting by regular contributor Matt Thurston. You can also read his reviews of Elton John’s “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” or “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen or his description of the curse of being Michael […]

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