Elton John – circa 1975
“And did you think / This fool could never win? / Well look at me / I’m a-comin’ back again” – ‘I’m Still Standing’ (Bernie Taupin, Elton John)
It’s preposterous. It’s common knowledge that rock stars have more money than sense. But usually, if they don’t waste all their ludicrously extravagant income on drugs and booze, they blow it on flashy cars or palatial mansions. They don’t buy soccer teams. Yet, in 1976, that is effectively what British rock star Elton John does. He becomes chairman and director of the Watford Football Club, whom he has supported since he was a boy. Elton is ‘unashamed of his wealth’ and ‘enjoys to the hilt the opportunities that fame brings him.’ Still, in addition to his lengthy history as a fan of the game, his cousin, Roy Dwight, was a professional player with Nottingham Forest Football Club. Under Elton’s stewardship, Watford rises three divisions to be a first division club. He sells Watford Football Club in 1987, only to repurchase it again in 1997, finally stepping down in 2002. Those aghast at this pop star’s indulgence just don’t understand Elton John. As a fourth division team, Watford are losers but, through his hard work and belief, Elton turns them into winners. That is his own life story – an apparent loser who remakes himself into a winner.
The man who will become known as Elton John is born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on 25 March 1947 in ‘the anonymous town’ of Pinner, Middlesex, England. He is the son of a former Royal Air Force trumpet player. Young Reg demonstrates an early aptitude for the piano. “I started playing by ear when I was about three,” recalls the pop star. He takes formal lessons at an early age. When he is 11, the boy wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Reg’s parents separate when he is 14, but his mother and new stepfather both encourage his interest in music and show business. When he is 16, Reg leaves school.
In 1964 Reg Dwight is simultaneously holding three jobs. In the day time, he is a messenger and tea-boy for a London music publishing company. At night, he alternates between two gigs. He belts out standards like ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ and ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ on the piano at the Northwood Hills Hotel for the pub’s patrons. More importantly, in 1964 he begins working with a group called Bluesology. “I was a very average organist in a very average band,” is how Elton describes it. Although Reg Dwight may have been acceptable enough as a singer for the semi-inebriated pub crowd, it is a different story in Bluesology. Stewart A. Brown is the vocalist and Reg is strictly the keyboards player. Part of the reason for this has to do with image. “I was quite an overweight young man,” admits Elton John, “and very shy.” Bluesology rehearses at the Northwood Hills Hotel, but once Reg Dwight saves enough money to buy a Hohner electric piano and an amplifier, he quits his pub gig (and presumably his day job) to devote himself full-time to Bluesology.
From 1965 to 1966 Bluesology mainly serve as a backing band for visiting American recording artists best known for soul music or rhythm and blues. Roy Tempest is the man who arranges these shows. The acts for whom Bluesology provide backing include Major Lance, Billy Stewart, Doris Troy, and Patti Labelle And The Bluebells – though Wilson Pickett rejects their services outright. It is not a financially lucrative business for the British lads. They can’t afford roadies so they have to carry their own gear. Since Reg is playing keyboards, it is particularly difficult for him. The band nicknames the bespectacled pianist Hercules as he manfully hefts his burdens.
Bluesology takes a stab at cutting a single of their own and this is Reg Dwight’s first time on record. It is a very obscure and long-forgotten release, but one of the numbers is out of Stewart A. Brown’s vocal range, so Reg gets to make his vocal debut on vinyl too.
Playing a gig at a club called The Cromwellian in 1966, Bluesology come to the attention of an aspiring British singer called Long John Baldry. He takes on their services and reorganises Bluesology as his backing group (by this stage Bluesology’s fluctuating line-up no longer includes vocalist Stewart A. Brown).
Although Reg Dwight gets on well with Long John Baldry on a personal level, he chafes at the control Baldry exercises over Bluesology. Accordingly, Reg begins to consider alternative options. He auditions for other bands – the embryonic groups of musicians who would later become King Crimson and Gentle Giant – but is rejected. In June 1967 a subsidiary of Liberty Records places an advertisement in the U.K. rock paper ‘New Musical Express’ looking for ‘new talent.’ Reg Dwight is one of those who respond.
In the meantime, Long John Baldry becomes impatient and launches a make-or-break campaign. He forsakes Bluesology in October 1967 for a shot at the pop charts with ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ (UK no. 1). Success is his, but it proves fleeting. The last line-up of Bluesology consists of Long John Baldry (vocals), Reg Dwight (keyboards), Neil Hubbard (guitar), Freddy Gand (bass), Pete Gavin (drums), Elton Dean (saxophone) and Marc Charig (trumpet).
With Baldry on the cabaret circuit and Bluesology disbanded, Reg Dwight applies for a job with Philips Records as a promoter of their product, a ‘record plugger.’ While waiting to hear about this opportunity, he gets an audition as a result of his response to Liberty Records advertisement. The audition takes place in a recording studio. Nervously, Reg Dwight finds the only things he can offer are the tunes he used to play at Northwood Hills Hotel (remember Reg was not the usual vocalist in Bluesology). A song by Jim Reeves, ‘I Love You Because’, is one of the numbers he performs ‘to the horror of watching executives.’ Unsurprisingly, even given the rather broad terms of their advertisement, the folks from Liberty are at a loss for what they can do with Mr Dwight. In the end, they give him a stack of lyrics submitted by another respondent to the ad, a young man from Lincolnshire named Bernie Taupin, and ask Reg to see if he can write some music to go with lyrics. This turns out to be perhaps the most fortuitous moment in the career of Elton John.
Reg Dwight begins corresponding with Bernie Taupin. Though they work together, the two do not meet face to face until months later in February 1968. By that time, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, Reg Dwight has changed into Elton Hercules John. The middle part of his new sobriquet is the nickname he earned hauling his keyboards with Bluesology. The other parts are borrowed from his former musical companions, saxophonist Elton Reid and vocalist Long John Baldry. Elton John is not just a stagename; the singer soon has his name officially changed via deed poll to Elton John. “When I became Elton John it was like a new lease of life,” remarks the artist formerly known as Reginald Kenneth Dwight.
While Elton John and Bernie Taupin work up twenty songs, Liberty Records loses interest in them. The duo becomes contracted as songwriters to Dick James Music. Elton John’s first single is ‘I’ve Been Loving You’, released in March 1968. This song and its flipside were actually written by Elton before he began collaborating with Bernie. The single is not a success. Dick James instructs his new charges to write ‘Top forty material’ that he can flog ‘to the easy listening top sellers of the day.’ This plan proves less than satisfactory. Eventually, Steve Brown, a younger man in the Dick James Music office, advises Elton and Bernie to concentrate on their own material instead. Elton John releases the single ‘Lady Samantha’ in 1969. Steve Brown produces Elton John’s debut album, ‘Empty Sky’ (1969), issued in June. This disc includes ‘Skyline Pigeon’ (and, in later reissues, ‘Lady Samantha’ is added as a bonus track). This album is ‘a promising but ineffectual debut’ that attracts ‘fair reviews, but no sales.’
In the late 1960s Elton John is engaged to a secretary named Linda Woodrow. The couple intend to marry but, for undisclosed reasons, the relationship instead falls apart.
The songwriting partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin is prodigiously productive. The work begins with Bernie Taupin. He often writes a song an hour. One album is written in a mere two weeks. Elton John then churns out the music, sometimes completing a song in less than thirty minutes. He rarely alters a word his partner has provided. Elton doesn’t even usually see Bernie. “Writing rock ‘n’ roll songs on a piano is very difficult,” comments Elton, reflecting on how the instrument is better suited to other styles like classical or jazz.
Elton John’s voice has a pleasant sound, with a tendency to dip lower when the vocalist is tired or hoarse. Mainly though, Elton’s voice is flexible enough to accommodate a number of different approaches so it frequently seems fresh and new.
At first, Elton John is marketed as a sensitive singer-songwriter (though, unlike other such artists, he works with a collaborator). The early 1970s sees the rise of gentle, reflective songsmiths like James Taylor or Cat Stevens, but Elton’s work is less autobiographical – which is probably a consequence of the person singing the song (Elton) not being the person writing the words (Bernie). Additionally, most of these singer-songwriters are plunking acoustic guitars. It is mainly female singer-songwriters like Carole King or Laura Nyro who sit at the piano, so this is another point distinguishing Elton John.
‘Elton John’ (1970) (UK no. 5, US no. 4, AUS no. 2), released in April on the DJM label (Dick James Music), introduces producer Gus Dudgeon and arranger of strings Paul Buckmaster. Their contributions make this a more professional sounding work. In ‘Your Song’ (UK no. 7, US no. 8, AUS no. 11), Elton John and Bernie Taupin compose their first classic: “So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do / You see I’ve forgotten, if they’re green or they’re blue / Anyway the thing is, what I really mean / Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen.” This is set to a simple, graceful piano accompaniment with violins and harps sweetening the end product. This album also contains the pseudo-gospel ‘Border Song’ (US no. 92).
On 25 August 1970 Elton John makes his U.S. debut playing a show at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, California. It is the beginning of a seventeen-day tour. He is hailed ‘as the first superstar of the Seventies.’
‘Tumbleweed Connection’ (1970) (UK no. 2, US no. 5, AUS no. 4) in October is almost a concept album. Bernie Taupin’s repeated use of Wild West imagery is given a thorough workout here. While a country and western backing would have been the easy and obvious match, instead Elton John opts for a rustic, down-home flavour more akin to the work of Canadian rockers The Band.
On 17 November 1970 an Elton John concert in New York City is broadcast live on WPLJ-FM. It is also recorded for the live album ‘11-17-70’ (1971) (UK no. 20, US no. 11, AUS no. 20) issued in the middle of 1971. This is the first appearance on record of Elton’s regular supporting musicians Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums). The duo were previously in The Spencer Davis Group, albeit one of its less celebrated incarnations (October 1968 – July 1969).
‘Friends’ (1971) (US no. 36, AUS no. 19) was composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin some time before their commercial fortunes improved, but this soundtrack to an ‘obscure’ movie is only issued in April 1971.
‘Madman Across The Water’ (1971) (UK no. 41, US no. 8, AUS no. 8) in November includes the song ‘Tiny Dancer’ (US no. 41, AUS no. 13) and is the only ‘real’ new Elton John album of the year. This album ‘initiates a period…during which the artist can virtually do no wrong.’
There is a shift in perceptions about Elton John before his next album. His sensitive singer-songwriter phase is over and he now becomes linked with the glam rock movement. This celebrates ‘glamour’ with outrageous costumes and Elton adopts these stylistic extravagances with gusto. The spectacles he wears to improve his flawed eyesight becomes spectacles in a different sense of the word; they are bizarre and flamboyant fashion statements. He remains the same pudgy schlub that was Reg Dwight, but as Elton John he tries to drown out his physical shortcomings in an explosion of glitz and colour. Beyond the visuals, glam rock also emphasises a thudding drum beat and huge, raw guitar riffs. Elton John’s music slowly begins to take on a more aggressively rock approach too. This is aided by the recruitment of guitarist Davey Johnstone who joins Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson in what is now called The Elton John Group. This trio are the best accompanists Elton will have in his career.
‘Honky Chateau’ (1972) (UK no. 2, US no. 1, AUS no. 4) in May is the work of the new glam rock idol and The Elton John Group. ‘Honky Cat’ (UK no. 31, US no. 8, AUS no. 78) still has traces of Bernie Taupin’s rural obsessions (“Boppin’ in the country / Fishin’ in a stream”) and features some strong piano playing from Elton. The album’s most significant track is ‘Rocket Man’ (UK no. 2, US no. 6, AUS no. 13). It borrows thematically from fellow glam rocker David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ with its tale of a lonely astronaut: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids / In fact it’s cold as hell / And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.” A sprinkling of studio effects overlay the keyboard skeleton of the song. ‘Hercules’ is a bit of a jest based on the artist’s own self-appointed middle name. ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ is still gentle and reflective, but the imagery is more colourful and eccentric than in the previous era of Elton’s recordings.
“Success came very quickly. I didn’t have time to get big-headed,” claims Elton John. Certainly, the artist maintains a demanding schedule.
On 30 October 1972 Elton John appears in a Royal Command Performance before the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. He is the first rock star to appear in such a show since The Beatles in November 1963.
‘Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player’ (1973) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) is released in January. The album title may be inspired by Francois Truffaut’s film ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ (1962). The album sports a cover image like an old-fashioned movie theatre. This is appropriate since the album features the nostalgic ‘Crocodile Rock’ (UK no. 5, US no. 1, AUS no. 2). This tune hooks into a general pop-cultural wave of misty-eyed remembrances of the 1950s. “I remember when rock was young / Me and Susie had so much fun,” burbles Elton. Allegedly, ‘Crocodile Rock’ is inspired by Australian group Daddy Cool’s ‘Eagle Rock’. Also, its comical chorus evokes 1961 David Dante hit ‘Speedy Gonzales’, which became a bigger success for Pat Boone the following year (US no. 6). Perhaps most importantly, for the first time this is an Elton John song that is unmistakably a rock ‘n’ roll piece. Which is not to say he has entirely deserted gentler fare, as ‘Daniel’ (UK no. 4, US no. 2, AUS no. 7) ably demonstrates. An electric piano neatly frames this ode to the narrator’s brother which some interpret as ‘an unlikely anti-war song.’
In 1973 Elton John and his manager, John Reid, create their own label, Rocket Records. Elton himself, for the moment, remains contracted to the DJM label. Nonetheless, Rocket Records finds success reviving the career of Neil Sedaka, a piano-playing pop star of the late 1950s – early 1960s, whose style, to some degree, mirrors Elton’s. Kiki Dee, an overlooked female singer, also finds a more conducive atmosphere for her recordings at Rocket.
The double album ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (1973) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1), released in October, is Elton John’s best album. It is heralded by his best single, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ (UK no. 7, US no. 12, AUS no. 31). This is an atypically aggressive song that sounds almost like The Rolling Stones: “It’s getting’ late, have yer seen my mates / Ma, tell me when the boys get here.” It also emulates working class glam rockers Slade (“My sister looks cute in her braces and boots”) and conjures up the Droogs love for ‘a spot of the old ultra-violence’ in Stanley Kubrick’s motion picture ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971). Davey Johnstone’s guitar lives up to the demands of the scenario sketched out in the song. The title track, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ (UK no. 6, US no. 2, AUS no. 3) references the magical path followed by Kansas farm girl Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), the film based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s book ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900). The song itself weds ‘the fantastical imagery of glam to a Gershwin sweet melody’ [George and Ira Gershwin were very successful American songwriters during the 1930s and 1940s]. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics ask “When are you gonna come down? / When are you going to land? / I should have stayed on the farm / I should have listened to my old man.” Elton John is particularly pleased when ‘Bennie And The Jets’ (UK no. 37, US no. 1, AUS no. 5) is not only a pop hit, but a success on the rhythm and blues charts. A loving tribute to fans that’ve got “electric boots, a mohair suit”, the track features crowd sounds and an endearing stop-and-start arrangement. A fan of a different sort features in ‘Candle In The Wind’ (UK no. 11, AUS no. 5). “The young man in the twenty-second row” of the movie theatre bids “Goodbye Norma Jean” to movie-screen goddess Marilyn Monroe (who was born Norma Jean Mortensen a.k.a. Norma Jean Baker). Every Monroe-watcher is moved by the song’s spot-on identification of their idol’s underlying vulnerability. The album also encompasses the rocking ‘Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘N’ Roll)’ and the more reserved likes of ‘Funeral For A Friend’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’.
‘Caribou’ (1974) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) hosts ‘The Bitch Is Back’ (UK no. 15, US no. 4, AUS no. 53), a sister to ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’. A scratching, stuttering guitar introduces sentiments like “I don’t like those! / My God, what’s that?! / Oh, it’s full of nasty habits / When the bitch gets back.” Released in June, ‘Caribou’ is also home to ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (UK no. 16, US no. 2, AUS no. 13), a big production-number ballad. The whole album is recorded in three or four days, but Elton John is dissatisfied with the vocals, particularly on ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’. Ironically, the song goes on to win a Grammy Award for best vocal performance.
Elton John’s next single is a cover version of The Beatles’ song ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. Elton respectfully seeks the permission of the song’s author, ex-Beatle John Lennon. Agreement is offered but, in exchange, Lennon asks Elton John to provide backing vocals for his next single, ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’. Elton consents but raises the stakes by wagering that if Lennon’s single reaches no. 1, he has to perform on stage with Elton. The bet is accepted, and when Elton wins, John Lennon dutifully joins the piano player in Elton’s show at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 28 November 1974. Unknown to his guest, Elton has also arranged for Lennon’s estranged wife, Yoko Ono, to be in the audience. She comes backstage afterwards and the couple begin to reconcile. As fate has it, this show also turns out to be John Lennon’s final public performance.
A breezy one-off single, ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ (UK no. 12, US no. 1, AUS no. 4), in 1975 precedes Elton John’s next album. ‘Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy’ (1975) (UK no. 2, US no. 1, AUS no. 1), released in May, purports to be an autobiographical version of the story of the songwriting partnership of, respectively, Elton John and Bernie Taupin. ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ (UK no. 22, US no. 4, AUS no. 54) is about a suicide attempt Elton made years ago. The concept of the album may be a bit daunting for the duo because it is said that ‘Taupin lacks both the honesty and the intellectual discipline to bring it off.’
Although The Elton John Group plays on this album, it is their last work collectively. Guitarist Davey Johnstone stays on a little longer, working with other musicians.
‘Rock Of The Westies’ (1975) (UK no. 5, US no. 1, AUS no. 4) in October is best known for the tropical single ‘Island Girl’ (UK no. 14, US no. 1, AUS no. 12).
Ken Russell’s movie version of ‘Tommy’ (1975), the rock opera conceived by U.K. rock band The Who, features Elton John in the pivotal role of the Pinball Wizard. His version of the song, ‘Pinball Wizard’ (UK no. 7, AUS no. 88), is issued as a single. This is the last of Elton John’s works that might be considered glam rock. The glam era has about run its course. Elton John’s singer-songwriter phase (1969 -1971) was followed by his glam rock phase (1972 – 1975). From here on, Elton John’s music does not fit into any other movement; it is simply his own brand of avuncular pop. There are gestures to other styles or passing trends, but Elton is not readily acknowledged as part of any other genre.
On 7 March 1976 a likeness of Elton John is added to the famous Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London. He is the first personality from the rock ‘n’ roll business since The Beatles in 1964 to be given this honour.
In June 1976 Elton John and Kiki Dee, who records for Elton’s Rocket Records label, have a hit with a sprightly duet entitled ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1). Elton doesn’t write the song; it is co-credited to Ann Orson and Carte Blanche. ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ is actually Elton’s first no. 1 single in his homeland of England despite years of success.
In 1976 Elton John tells the press he is bisexual. Latterly, he claims ‘that the confession was a compromise, since he was afraid to reveal he was homosexual.’
Also in 1976 Elton John becomes the chairman and director of Watford Football Club.
‘Blue Moves’ (1976) (UK no. 3, US no. 3, AUS no. 8), released in October, is a double album. It is the first of Elton John’s albums on his own Rocket Records label. The single released from this set, ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’ (UK no. 11, US no. 6, AUS no. 19), is a glum piano ballad. ‘Blue Moves’ also marks the end of Elton John’s songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin…at least for now.
‘Ego’ (UK no. 34, US no. 34, AUS no. 40) is an odd single issued in 1978.
For his next album, ‘A Single Man’ (1978) (UK no. 8, US no. 15, AUS no. 8), Elton John collaborates with lyricist Gary Osborne. The jaunty ‘Part-Time Love’ (UK no. 15, US no. 22, AUS no. 12) hails from this album. The set also includes the haunting instrumental ‘Song For Guy’ (UK no. 4, US no. 110, AUS no. 14), a tribute to an office-boy killed in a car accident. Hence, the only line in the ‘instrumental’ is “Life is a temporary thing.” Elton John co-produces ‘A Single Man’ with Clive Franks, making it the first Elton John album since ‘Empty Sky’ not to be produced by Gus Dudgeon.
‘The Thom Bell Sessions’ is an experimental EP from 1979. Thom Bell is best known for producing sweet soul material from the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia for artists like The Stylistics in the early 1970s. His work with Elton John yields ‘Mama Can’t Buy You Love’ (US no. 9, AUS no. 82). From here, it is but a small step to a full-blown disco album, ‘Victim Of Love’ (1979) (UK no. 41, US no. 35, AUS no. 20). Characterised as ‘a commercial disappointment’, this dance-oriented disc is represented on the singles chart by the title track, ‘Victim Of Love’ (US no. 31, AUS no. 38).
Heading into the 1980s, ’21 At 33’ (1980) (UK no. 12, US no. 13, AUS no. 7) is, again, co-produced with Clive Franks. The 33 year old Elton John is again working with Bernie Taupin, though it is no longer an exclusive arrangement. ‘Little Jeannie’ (UK no. 33, US no. 3, AUS no. 9), a sweet number featuring an electric piano, is the album’s calling card. ‘Sartorial Eloquence’ (UK no. 44, US no. 39, AUS no. 91) is also from this set.
John Lennon is murdered on 8 December 1980. ‘The Fox’ (1981) (UK no. 12, US no. 21, AUS no. 2) is most notable for beginning a long association with producer Chris Thomas who seems to get good results from his veteran charge. Elton John’s next album, ‘Jump Up’ (1982) (UK no. 13, US no. 17, AUS no. 3), offers a memorial to the slain Beatle, ‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)’ (UK no. 51, US no. 13, AUS no. 63). ‘Blue Eyes’ (UK no. 8, US no. 12, AUS no. 4) is one of Elton’s more successful ballads (and is co-written by Gary Osborne). The more aggressive ‘Dear John’ (not about Lennon) shows Elton still able to rock out when the mood takes him.
‘Too Low For Zero’ (1983) (UK no. 7, US no. 25, AUS no. 2) may be the best of Elton John’s 1980s albums. The resolute ‘I’m Still Standing’ (UK no. 47, US no. 12, AUS no. 3) sees the artist taking dominion over his craft and celebrating his longevity in stirring fashion. Equally satisfying is ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’ (UK no. 5, US no. 4, AUS no. 4), a rolling, heartfelt number co-written by Elton John, Bernie Taupin and the guitarist from Elton’s glory days, Davey Johnstone. But perhaps the biggest indicator of the future is ‘Kiss The Bride’ (UK no. 20, US no. 25, AUS no. 25). It’s a catchy tune certainly, but it is the implications it has for Elton’s private life that make it noteworthy. In the song, the narrator is not keen to surrender a former love to matrimony with a new man, but Elton has a different future awaiting him.
On 18 February 1984 Elton John marries Renate Blauel, a German recording engineer…a female German recording engineer. At this point, Elton is publicly known as bisexual, but he admits later that he knew he was homosexual before the marriage took place. This makes the whole business more mystifying. Perhaps the marriage is a last-ditch attempt at courting social acceptance, a goal that always seems to beckon to the ostracised Reg Dwight who still lurks beneath the shiny exterior of Elton John.
‘Breaking Hearts’ (1984) (UK no. 2, US no. 20, AUS no. 1) offers ‘Sad Songs (Say So Much)’ (UK no. 7, US no. 5, AUS no. 4), an ode to the healing power of music: “Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain…And it’s times like these when we all need to hear the radio.” ‘Passengers’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 9) is an oddball concoction of flutes and off-kilter rhythms composed by the quartet of Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Davey Johnstone and Phineas McHize.
‘Ice On Fire’ (1985) (UK no. 3, US no. 48, AUS no. 6) takes its title from the album’s first single, ‘Nikita’ (UK no. 3, US no. 7, AUS no. 3): “With eyes that looked like ice on fire / The human heart a captive in the snow.” The song serenades a Russian beauty whose love is unattainable since she is on the other side of the Iron Curtain separating communist Russian from democracy. “And if there comes a time,” counsels the lyric, “Guns and gates no longer hold you in / And if you’re free to make a choice / Just look towards the west and find a friend.” This is all very poignant, but lyricist Bernie Taupin seems a bit confused. Although it may sound pretty to Anglo ears, ‘Nikita’ is a man’s name in Russia, not a woman’s. Most famously, the Soviet premier from 1953 to 1964 was Nikita Khrushchev. Perhaps this is some subtle nod to Elton John’s unspoken homosexuality, but Nikita Khrushchev was hardly anyone’s idea of a handsome man. Backing vocals on ‘Nikita’ are supplied by George Michael, a younger famous British pop singer – who will also later be outed as homosexual. ‘Wrap Her Up’ (UK no. 12, US no. 20, AUS no. 20) features George Michael more prominently. It expresses thoroughly heterosexual sentiments and is also mildly amusing. Gus Dudgeon returns to production duties for ‘Ice On Fire’ and the follow-up, ‘Leather Jackets’ (1986) (UK no. 24, US no. 91, AUS no. 4).
Chris Thomas is back on deck for ‘Reg Strikes Back’ (1988) (UK no. 18, US no. 16, AUS no. 13). This showcases ‘I Don’t Want To Go On With You Like That’ (UK no. 30, US no. 2, AUS no. 16), a song that features a more modern electronic keyboard sound.
Elton John and Renate Blauel divorce in 1988 and Elton declares he is ‘comfortable’ being gay.
‘Sleeping With The Enemy’ (1989) (UK no. 1, US no. 23, AUS no. 2) retains the services of Chris Thomas. The album’s highlight is ‘Sacrifice’ (UK no. 55, US no. 18, AUS no. 7), a lovelorn song that mixes tenderness with a mechanical synthesiser and robotic rhythmic base. ‘Club At The End Of The Street’ (UK no. 47, US no. 28, AUS no. 19) is a more upbeat piece.
‘The One’ (1992) (UK no. 2, US no. 8, AUS no. 2) is followed by ‘Duets’ (1993) (UK no. 5, US no. 25, AUS no. 12). A double album, ‘Duets’ includes a co-starring role for George Michael as he and Elton John recreate ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 3).
Tim Rice, best known for his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (1971), acts as lyricist for Elton John on the soundtrack for ‘The Lion King’ (1994) (US no. 1), an animated film from the Disney Studio. The sumptuous ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ (UK no. 14, US no. 4, AUS no. 9) is the best known song from this project.
Greg Penny acts as co-producer with Elton John for ‘Made In England’ (1995) (UK no. 3, US no. 13, AUS no. 6), but Chris Thomas returns for ‘The Big Picture’ (1997) (UK no. 3, US no. 9, AUS no. 5). The latter album includes ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’ (AUS no. 32).
When England’s Princess Diana dies in a tragic car crash in 1997, Elton John reworks ‘Candle In The Wind’, changing it from a tribute to Marilyn Monroe to a tribute to Diana Spencer. The public grief over the death translates into significant sales for the revised version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1).
In 1998 a knighthood is bestowed on the singer making him Sir Elton John.
Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice work together on a stage musical and the accompanying album of ‘Aida’ (1999) (UK no. 29, US no. 41).
Patrick Leonard assumes production duties for ‘Songs From The West Coast’ (2001) (UK no. 2, US no. 15, AUS no. 7). This disc includes ‘This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore’ (UK no. 24). Elton John himself produces ‘Peachtree Road’ (2004) (UK no. 21, US no. 17, AUS no. 44).
On 21 December 2005 Elton John enters into a civil partnership with his male lover, David Furnish. With the aid of a surrogate mother, the couple have two sons: Zachary (born 25 December 2010) and Elijah (born 11 January 2013).
‘The Captain And The Kid’ (2006) (UK no. 6, US no. 18, AUS no. 37) is co-produced by Elton John and Matt Still. American roots music identity T-Bone Burnett produces ‘The Union’ (2010) (UK no. 12, US no. 3, AUS no. 28), an album co-credited to Elton John and Leon Russell. The latter is an American perhaps best known for his piano work with English rock singer Joe Cocker in the early 1970s. Australian duo P’Nau use their dance music and remix expertise to reinvent some of Elton John’s songs for ‘Good Morning To The Night’ (2012) (UK no. 1). The title is a line from 1972’s ‘Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters’. T-Bone Burnett continues to serve as producer on ‘The Diving Board’ (2013) (UK no. 3, US no. 4, AUS no. 26), keeping the instrumentation pared down and simple.
‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ (2016) (UK no. 6, US no. 8, AUS no. 11) is co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and Elton John. This set shows Elton ‘ready to have fun’ and displaying a ‘fair amount of joy and swagger.’ The general mood is exemplified by the ‘ebullient’ title track, ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’.
When Elton John assumed the post of chairman and director of Watford Football Club, he helped turn an unfancied sporting team into a bigger success than virtually anyone could have anticipated. When unprepossessing Reg Dwight became flamboyant Elton John he made a similar transition that defied the odds and conventional wisdom. Perhaps that ability to alchemically turn lead dross into treasured gold on a personal level is the most valuable lesson in the legend of Elton John. ‘In terms of sales and lasting popularity, Elton John was the biggest pop superstar of the early 1970s.’ Elton John was ‘a purveyor of glamour, spectacle and pretty tunes.’
- wikipedia.org as at 1 April 2013, 1 January 2014, 3 January 2017
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 122,123
- allmusic.com, ‘Elton John’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 20 December 2001
- ‘Best of Vox Pop – Raw and Uncut Interview’ – 1987 Elton John interview posted on You Tube
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 116, 117, 230
- shortlist.com – 2010 Elton John interview
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 74, 87, 93
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Elton John’ by Robert Christgau (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 528, 529
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 175, 178, 205, 227, 234, 254
- ‘L.A. Times’ (Los Angeles, U.S.A. newspaper) quoted in 9 (above) p. 183
- You Tube – David Frost interview with Elton John (1991? Posted 15 March 2001)
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.171
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 48
- allmusic.com – review of ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 3 January 2017
Song lyrics copyright PolyGram Music Publishing with the exceptions of ‘I’m Still Standing’, ‘The Bitch Is Back’, Song For Guy’ and ‘Nikita’ (all Warner Chappell Music)
Last revised 11 January 2017