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This Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition is about a massacre in a New York restaurant, which results in summary justice by a hail of police bullets - "you danced in death like a marionette on the vengeance of the law." When "Ticking" was first recorded, the phenomenon of indiscriminate mass shootings was fairly rare in the United States, the worst being the University of Texas Clock Tower Massacre which was perpetrated by undergraduate and former marine Charles Whitman in August 1966. Thirty-three years later the outrage of Columbine High set a disturbing trend.
The song is practically all piano and vocal, and all the more impressive for that; the white Gospel type "choir" is a master stroke; Elton did all the vocals; Dave Hentschel played ARP synthesiser, the only other instrument on the track.
It may be that lyricist Bernie Taupin was inspired by the Whitman shooting, albeit indirectly. The film Targets (also known as Before I Die") was based loosely on the Clock Tower Massacre. It was released barely two years after the tragedy, having been made in almost indecent haste.
The unnamed gunman in the song murdered fourteen people in his killing spree before being shot dead by the police. Whitman killed fourteen people in similar fashion before he too was shot: prior to the massacre he stabbed his mother and his wife to death.
When he performed "Ticking" at the Christenhof Castle, Sweden, on his 2003 tour, Elton introduced the song saying it dealt with violence in America around 1973; when Bernie wrote the lyrics we thought things would get better not worse, things have got worse, so it's more relevant today than ever, and at the end, he said simply "No guns." The song though makes a statement not only about American society but about society worldwide, and about human nature. In spite of the problems Mankind faces in the 21st Century, most people, certainly in the West, in Japan, and other advanced nations, have never had it so good. Yet the problems of survival, and eking out a mere existence have been replaced by increasing psychological and social problems. Indiscriminate knifings, shootings and even mass murders by outwardly sane and rational people are often triggered by the most trivial of stimulae such as an angry glance or being "dissed" in some abstruse manner. No one knows who is ticking, and will explode suddenly and without notice.
A true masterpiece, running to 7 minutes, 28 seconds, this was and remains one of Elton's most under-rated as well as one of his most powerful songs. (thanks, Alexander Baron - London, England, for all above)
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