Matthew Restall knew he was taking a risk when he decided to write his most recent book, “Blue Moves.” Released on May 14 by Bloomsbury USA as part of its “33 1/3” series of books about popular music, “Blue Moves” studies Sir Elton John, as well as popular music and culture, following the 1976 release of the musician’s much-maligned double album by the same name.
“Blue Moves,” by Matthew Restall, is part of the “33 1/3” series of books about popular music.
“I admit the book seems to come right out of left field,” said Restall, author of some 60 articles and 20 books related to Mesoamerica (Yucatan and Maya), Africans in Spanish America, and the Spanish Conquest. He is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Colonial Latin American History, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies, and the director of Latin American studies in Penn State’s Department of History.
So why write a book about a pop icon and an album that was widely panned by critics and fans alike?
An admitted music lover – “playing music, listening to music, and writing about music” – Restall said he had always wanted to branch out and write about or even teach about music.
“I wanted a new challenge,” he said. “By moving into a completely different field, I’m kind of sticking my neck out, but that was part of the appeal of it.”
When he learned about the “33 1/3” series, Restall saw his chance. But deciding on which album to write about provided an additional challenge. While creating a mixtape for his father’s 80th birthday, though, Restall found his answer.
“I was going deep into my own collection of cassette tapes, which [my father] had made me or given me when I was a kid,” said Restall. “I came across ‘Blue Moves,’ which I had played literally to death. It’s actually falling apart at the seams, which prompted me to remember why I had that album.”
According to Restall, Elton John was the best-selling popular music artist in the world by 1975. Two percent of all 1975 record sales worldwide were Elton John albums, a level of sales that even the Beatles never achieved.
“So here he is, on top of the world,” Restall continued. “But by January of 1977, just a few months after ‘Blue Moves’ comes out, Elton John is widely perceived to have been a complete has-been. His other double album, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ was an enormous success. ‘Blue Moves’ was the complete opposite. I wondered: ‘How can an album be so bad that it kills his career?'”
That question became the motivation for the book, which Restall said he approached like every other history book he has written.
“My academic friends ask in a polite way if this is some sort of personal side project, as if I had written a novel or a memoir,” said Restall. “My response is ‘no.’ This is a history book. I have identified a problem or historical question or riddle to be solved. Then I have done research until I found answers to the question, and then I’ve constructed an argument that answers that question or solves the riddle. I’ve simply applied it to an Elton John album from the late 1970s, but it mimics a historical monograph.”
“I can’t say I always agree with Matthew’s musical tastes,” joked Michael Kulikowski, head of the Department of History and Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Classics, “but it’s lovely to see him putting his scholarly skills to use in a well-loved and respected music series.”
In the book’s roughly 30,000 words, Restall examines the cultural changes happening in the 1970s and beyond – the emergence of punk music and later disco music; perceptions of homosexuality; Elton John’s decision to stop performing publicly; differing attitudes about Elton John in the United Kingdom and the United States; and more – all of which contribute to the failure of “Blue Moves” and the musician’s fall from grace. He wouldn’t truly re-emerge as a superstar until some 15 years later.
“The more you dig, the more you end up learning about the world in the late 1970s,” said Restall. “It provides a window into the world in an interesting way. And the album is good. It’s an amazing collection of characters, musicians, and backing vocalists.
“People like music, and this is a book that is a fun read for anyone,” he said. “I’ve discovered that people bounce back and forth between reading the book and listening to the album, so while we’re stuck home trying to think of productive ways to pass the time, this is a slightly different way to do so.”
Less than a year ago, Restall won the Conference on Latin American History’s Howard F. Cline Memorial Prize for his book, “When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History” (Harper Collins, 2018).
Educated at Oxford University and UCLA, Restall has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, among other accolades. He is currently senior co-editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review and has been a visiting scholar at Tulane University since January.