Why Does Crocodile Rock? Inside Elton’s John’s Hit

By Jim D’Ville

When I was growing up, I wanted to be on the radio. My first break came in high school when I was on the staff of Fort Bragg High’s Timberwolf Radio. We were allotted 15 minutes every Thursday evening at our local station, KDAC (1230 AM), and each of us could play one 45 RPM record during the show. The first record I played on the radio was “Oh, What A Night” by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.

After high school, I did a four-year stint in the Air Force as a radar operator. I told the recruiter I wanted to be in radio. He got the last two letters wrong. After the service, I enrolled in junior college and got a part-time job at a liquor store. To my great fortune, the alternative FM station was right around the corner. I made friends with a few of the evening and overnight disc jockeys that would frequent the liquor store. Soon I was visiting the station after work and hanging out in the FM studio listening to music. Before long I was interning at the station, and in a few short years was one of the weekend overnight jocks pulling the midnight to 6 a.m. shift.

Sitting in the announcer’s chair surrounded by three turntables and thousands of records to choose from I was in heaven! KTIM FM in San Rafael, California was one of the last great free-form stations and featured almost every genre of music from rock to reggae, country to blues. Every shift at KTIM was a voyage of musical discovery. But, not being a musician myself, I had no idea how the artists I played on the radio created their music. A typical Sunday at 4 a.m. would find me in the announcer’s chair watching an album spinning around on the turntable. I remember thinking to myself, “What do you have to know to write a song?” It would take me three decades to come up with the answer.

There is an emotional quality associated with each chord of the major scale and at the most basic level, musicians arrange the chords of the major scale into sequences designed to evoke a particular emotional response from the listener. It’s as simple as that. In 1972, Elton John arranged the chords of the major scale into a rocking homage to the pop songs of his youth and scored his first number 1 hit, “Crocodile Rock.” How did he do it?

The original recording of “Crocodile Rock” is in G. I’ll explain the chord progression using the number system. The diatonic chords in the key of G are: G major, A minor, B minor, C major, D major, E minor, and F# diminished. The introduction to the song ramps up quite quickly with John counting off the tune by pounding out the three major chords of the G scale starting on the two beat, 2–3–4 (G–C–D). Our ears love those three chords in order. The next eight instrumental measures are I–vi–IV–V (G–Em–C–D), also known as the doo-wop progression. The doo-wop chord changes immediately conjure up images of bobbysoxers at the malt shop bouncing spasmodically around a jukebox. The first change from I–iii (G–Bm) in the verses tells me that even though the music is upbeat and fun, the I–iii denotes future relationship trouble— I remember when rock was young, me and Suzie had so much fun…. I call the I–iii progression the “Heartbreak change.” You’ll see.


After the two verses of I–iii–IV–V, something very shocking happens. At the end of the second verse, the progression does not resolve back home to the I chord. It jumps right from the V (D) to the vi minor (Em) for the bridge—Crocodile rockin’ was something shocking…. That change is shocking to our ears due to the lack of resolution.What follows is your standard circle of 5ths progression of vi–II7–V–I (Em–A7–D–G). But oh, Lawdy Mama, the second time through the bridge things get crazy as a second non-major scale chord VI7 (E7) replaces the vi (E minor). Oh, Lawdy Mama, those Friday nights… You wouldn’t attempt that chord change on a song about a Wednesday afternoon. The VI7 then prances toward home in the same descending 5ths pattern, albeit with a softening stop at the IV before arriving home VI7–II7–V–IV–I (E7–A7–D–C–G). The happy-go-lucky la-la’s over the doo-wop progression again reinforce to the listener a time when the biggest worry one had was who to ask to the sock-hop.

My suggestions for understanding the changes to “Crocodile Rock” are to first listen to the song several times. Next, listen to the song and follow along with the changes using the chart below. It’s also important to pay attention to the lyrics and the words that fall on the changes. Analyzing song structure in this fashion will not only familiarize your ears with proven musical patterns but alert your ears when an exciting change occurs.

“Crocodile Rock” by Elton John/Bernie Taupin 

Key of G

Intro: I–IV–V–I–vi–IV–V–I

Verse: I–iii–IV–V–I–iii–IV–V

Chorus: vi–II7–V–I–VI7–II7–V–IV–I

Instrumental Bridge: I–vi–IV–V