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‘I was quite an overweight young man and very shy,’ confessed Elton John in a candid interview with ShortList Magazine in 2010. ‘That shyness carried along with me until the early nineties when I got sober. I was great onstage, but I wasn’t very good offstage. The stage was a haven. Because of my shyness and social ineptitude, I thought I needed to take drugs to join the gang. Cocaine meant I thought, ‘This is great, suddenly I can talk.’ I had no common sense. I didn’t know how to be off stage.’
Born Reginald Dwight in Pinner, Middlesex on 25 March 1947, John’s first venture into the world of music was as a member of Bluesology, a band he formed at the age of thirteen with a group of friends, performing locally around his hometown. His life would forever change when he first crossed paths with Bernie Taupin, a poet three years his junior. Together they formed a formidable writing partnership, John composing the music and Taupin portraying their lives through his lyrics.
‘The magic of the relationship is that it’s odd and otherworldly – the connection between two minds so in sync we’ve never had an argument about anything in forty-six years,’ John told the Telegraph last year. ‘Even though he’s probably been disgusted with some of my behaviour over the years, and rightfully so, it’s never crossed his mind to be anything other than kind to me. It’s incredibly moving, really.’ Commencing with John’s debut single I’ve Been Loving You in 1968, John and Taupin wrote a slew of Platinum-selling albums before temporarily parting ways in the late 1970s.
‘Let’s clear up this misconception,’ John explained in the liner notes of the re-release of Too Low for Zero, the 1983 hit album that marked Taupin’s return. ‘I was living in England, Bernie was in the US, but we never at any time in our lives fell out with each other or had arguments; it was never, ever a split, it was just a healthy time apart. If we hadn’t had that break, we might never have survived.’
After finally overcoming a nonstop touring schedule and drug intake that was slowly starting to kill him, John returned after a string of unsuccessful albums with 1989’s Sleeping with the Past and the hit single Sacrifice. While his output during the following decade would be inconsistent, John received an Academy Award for his work on the animated blockbuster The Lion King. While most of his albums over the last decade have failed to reach the commercial heights of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Too Low for Zero, many agree that recently he has produced some of his best music in decades.
IT’S ME THAT YOU NEED
When John entered the studio in April 1969 to record his third single It’s Me That You Need, his debut album had yet to be released. The twenty-two-year-old had succeded in attracting the attention of Three Dog Night, a rock group from California who had included a cover of John’s second single, Lady Samantha, on their album Suitable for Framing. Working once again with producer Steve Brown, It’s Me That You Need was John’s first release for the newly-formed DJM Records but failed to find an audience. It was later released on the 1992 compilation Rare Masters, along with the subsequent re-release of Empty Sky. ‘It didn’t trouble the charts, but Reg remained undaunted and carried on gigging with Hookfoot, writing with Berie and working with his new found mentor Steve Brown. The following year John would become an overnight sensation with the hit single Your Song.
John had set the bar so high during the early 1970s with the masterpieces Honky Château and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that eventually critics would find his later work underwhelming in comparison. 1974’s Caribou had felt uninspired to some fans but his next offering, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, had once again captured the perfect balance between commercial appeal and artistic freedom. Life on the road and in the spotlight were starting to take their toll, and while Island Girl, the lead single from Rock of the Westies, performed well in the charts, the album is often overlooked by fans in favour of his earlier output. Street Kids, the first track of side two, was the record’s standout moment, infusing a Lynyrd Skynyrd-style country vibe with a memorable guitar solo from Davey Johnstone. Referred to in a 1975 Billboard review as a ‘wild rocker,’ Street Kids was one of his most raw and rock-fused songs in years.
JIMMIE RODGERS’ DREAM
Four years had passed since The Captain and the Kid when John released The Union, an album recorded in collaboration with Leon Russell, an early influence on John. ‘He said he’d been listening to some of my records and he’d just started crying, ’cause I’d meant so much to him and hadn’t never done enough for me,’ Russell told the Telegraph. ‘I said, ‘Well, you’ve been busy.’ He said, ‘Not that busy. Would you like to make a record?’ So that was it.’ Unanimously acclaimed and often hailed as John’s finest work in decades, the album featured contributions from Neil Young and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, but the highlight was Jimmie Rodgers Dream, a laid-back country ballad written by John and Taupin with guitarist T Bone Burnett. Following the passing of Russell on 13 November 2016 at the age of seventy-four Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream was featured as the Atlantic’s ‘Track of the Day.’
By 1975 John was one of the biggest stars in America, having climbed to the top of the Billboard charts with Crocodile Rock and Bennie and the Jets and while it may have been tempting to revel in his superstar status, he instead decided to return to his roots with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The concept behind the album was his humble beginnings, charting the early years of John and Taupin’s collaboration through their hustling on the local music scene to the release of his debut album Empty Sky. The record is perhaps most known for the haunting ballad Someone Saved My Life Tonight but its closing number, the beautiful Curtains, was later used by Australian duo Pnau as the basis for the track Sad, one of several dance tunes included on the 2012 album Good Morning to the Night. According to Jeff Buckley biographer Jeff Apter, the late singer would perform Curtain during his early years of learning guitar and would also include it in some of his initial live performances.
Bernie Taupin had served John well. Together over the course of a decade they had collaborated together on eleven studio albums, all but two of which had been certified Platinum in the United States. But for 1978’s A Single Man, John composed an album for the first time in his career without the help of Taupin who, around that time, was working with Alice Cooper on his semi-autobiographical concept album From the Inside. His second release under Rocket, the label he had founded with Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon, his new writing partner, A Single Man is perhaps most remembered for the mostly-instrumental tribute Song for Guy, but arguably the strongest track to emerge from the sessions was the country ballad Georgia. ‘The times are changing down in Georgia, though not always for the best,’ he crooned. ‘Give me thirty five good acres lord and let progress take the rest.’
John was on a creative roll after The Union and decided to follow up that successfully collaboration with a stripped-down album of ballads that were far-removed from the type of music he had been making a decade earlier. The Diving Board was hailed by many as a true return to form, but the first taster came in the form of 5th Avenue, a track released for free via Amazon. Eventually not included on the album, the song featured Taupin’s most poignant lyrics in years: ‘All my crimes come back to haunt me, every building seems to judge. Standing tall and looking down like fingers pointing from above.’ As revealed on the singer’s official site, 5th Avenue was one of eight songs – including two bonus tracks – from the album that would include tamborine by Jack Ashford of Motown’s Funk Brothers.
It would take two albums before the public began to take notice of Elton John, unfortunately resulting in his debut album Empty Sky being overlooked upon release. Incorporating a more psychedelic and less polished approach than his later offerings, the title track, which would open the album, remains an unsung classic. ‘The title track rocks so hard,’ John later admitted. ‘The guitar sound is unlike anything I’ve heard since. We got it by putting Caleb Quaye out on the fire escape at the top of the stood with a microphone at the bottom to get that incredible echo. That was how things are done then – a wing and a prayer and a lot of invention.’ Regarding its initial impact, authors Claude Bernardin and Tom Stanton said, ‘In the four months after the album’s release, Empty Sky sold about 2,500 copies…Six years passed before Empty Sky was officially distributed in America. Originally, UNI Records intended a U.S. release in the fall of 1971, presuming that this older LP would give the pair time to relax after promoting Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection on the road and before cutting the next album, Madman Across the Water.’
John had struggled through drug addiction and disco during the late 1970s, only occasionally working with his former writing partner Bernie Taupin, but in 1983 the two finally teamed up once again for their most successful album in years. Having finally regained his focus, Too Low for Zero marked both John’s critical and commercial comeback, spearheaded by the hit single I’m Still Standing. Among the tracks included on the album was Whipping Boy, a tongue-in-cheek song that explored his dominance at the hands of a younger person he describes as ‘sly’ and ‘dirty.’ The song was later re-released as the B-side to the 1988 single Town of Plenty which would reach number two on the Billboard Hot 100.
AND THE HOUSE FELL DOWN
A little over thirty years after the success of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, John and Taupin decided to return to the story for a sequel-of-sorts, 2006’s The Captain and the Kid. ‘I’ve always thought that Captain Fantastic was probably my finest album because it wasn’t commercial in any way,’ he told filmmaker Cameron Crowe soon after the release of The Captain and the Kid, in which he explained that the new album was about ‘coming to terms with success.’ Despite relatively poor sales the album was an artistic achievement, including such memorable tunes as the nostalgic title track and I Must Have Lost It on the Wind, but the most tongue-in-cheek moment was And the House Fell Down. ‘With a rolled up note I’m hovering on that line. Three days on a diet of cocaine and wine,’ he sang in reference to the evils of fame.
John had already released three studio albums in the span of fourteen months by the time that Tumbleweed Connection made its debut but instead of taking some much-deserved time away from the spotlight to recuperate, yet in between its release and the arrival of its successor, Madman Across the Water, John had already offered up two more delights; a live album called 17-11-70 and a soundtrack to Lewis Gilbert’s romantic drama Friends, which charted the love affair between two teenagers in France. While many critics may have disliked both the movie and the score (‘It has a soundtrack of slightly rotten syrup interrupted occasionally by banal songs by Elton John,’ declared Roger Ebert), Friends stands as one of John’s most overlooked albums and while tracks like Honey Roll were very typical of his style during that era it would be the love ballad Michelle’s Song that would prove to be its highlight. ‘We were made for one another in a time it takes to grow up. If only we were old enough then they might leave us both alone,’ he sang.