"I'm not very good with words," Elton John said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. "I let all my expressions and my love and my pain and my anger come out with my melodies. I had someone to write my words for me. Without him, the journey would not have been possible. I kind of feel like cheating standing here accepting this. Without Bernie Taupin, there wouldn't have been any Elton John at all. And I would like him to come up and give this [award] to him."
Bernie Taupin came onto the stage and embraced his songwriting partner, whom he met in 1967 when they both responded to a "talent wanted" ad in the British music magazine NME placed by Liberty Records. Forty-six years later, they are still writing songs together. Their new album, The Diving Board, just hit shelves. We spoke to Taupin about the new album, his songwriting methods, how he wound up co-writing Jefferson Starship's 1985 hit "We Built This City" and why he blames narcotics for some of Elton John's lesser albums in the Eighties.
It's got to be great to see the album finally out. It's been a such a long buildup.
Oh, yeah. Today has been extraordinary. I just got bombarded by stuff from the public relations office, and thank God it's all been positive. I'm very relieved and happy about the whole thing.
It's pretty tough for veteran artists to get attention for their new albums.
I think we've actually experienced that in the past decade, even when we felt we did something relevant and satisfactory. I think a lot has to do with the people you have around you, the way it's marketed. We've been unlucky with a couple of our last releases. We had problems with marketing. With this one, I'm very confident with the product itself. I'm very, very proud of it. At the same time, the stars all got aligned as far as the people working on it. We had an incredibly diligent crew. I think they've done a remarkable job, but if you don't have the product it's not going to work. It's kudos all around for everybody.
It seems you guys realized that Top 40 radio just isn't going to happen, so why even try?
Exactly. Both Elton and myself – probably more Elton who has been more vocal on that, but I've said to several people that the beauty of recording now is that you don't have to sell your soul to the forces that aren't going to be interested in you anyway. People's memories are very short. Everything is very "here today and gone tomorrow." It's ridiculous to try and put yourself into the shoes you fitted in so neatly a couple of decades ago. It's a great relief to just sit back and go, "I don't have to think about making this a radio product." It's been so, so gratifying to just be able to write whatever I wanted and basically throw it at the wall and see what sticks.
I've heard Elton say that he was so dismayed by the lack of marketing for [2006's] The Captain and the Kid, that he felt he was done making records. Did you think you were done at that point?
I don't think so. I think that was Elton shooting from the hip. That's what I was talking about earlier. It was an absolute disaster. The record company just buried that record, for reasons that I'll never know, whether it was political or whatever. But that record was a really, really good record, I think. It deserved much better than what it received. Not by the public . . . I don't think much of the public even realized it was out. I think there was a section of our hardcore fans that were aware, but the record might as well not have even been released for how it was treated. That's a great shame.
When that happens, you get despondent. We were thoroughly despondent. I never stated that I never wanted to write songs or record again. I felt we would. Again, it's just Elton shooting from the hip. That's the nature of the beast with him. We both have different ways of dealing with things. This is a guy who wears his heart very large on his sleeve.
He said the label asked him make a Christmas album and a Motown covers album.
Yeah. That's all true. I'm aware of that. Basically, they wanted him to go the safe route. The thing is, that's absolutely ridiculous, and it's almost callous. If you actually think about where we come from, what we do is write songs. We started out in 1967 to write songs and achieve a certain sort of style in our music. To come full circle, 45 or so years later, and wind up being asked to do Christmas albums and cover songs of 1970s Motown hits, that's pretty despicable, when you think about it.
How do you operate? Are you always writing songs, or do you wait until an album project starts?
It's almost like songwriting is a sideline. I paint 80 percent of the time. Then 20 percent of it is writing songs. When Elton decided he wants to record, he will call me and give me some good leeway so I don't have to rush or anything like that. I get plenty of time to work on what I want to work on. No, I'm not continually writings songs, unless there's a project. I suppose I could, but there's not really an outlet for it.
The kind of things I'm writing with Elton now are not the kind of things that I could write for any artist here or there. It's just not the kind of material that is coverable by other people. It's very individual. It's very personal. It's very geared towards the style of which we write. There aren't many people out there . . . It's not that I'm against writing with other people. I just don't think there's a lot of people that can write like Elton and I do. I certainly don't like to write to melodies. It gives me more of a freedom to do it this way around. It's a style that we've perfected. There's a lot of telapathic sort of communication going on in the way we work, since we've been doing it for so long.
I'm not averse to writing with other people, and I do it occasionally, but it never achieves the level of pleasure I get from when we work together. It's something very special. I think doing it every once in a while makes it very unique. There are so many other things that take up my time. My art is preeminent over everything else.
How did The Diving Board begin? When he calls you up, does he give you any guidance, or does he just let you go?
Basically, the album came about because, obviously, we got a great sense of satisfaction from doing The Union with T Bone Burnett and Leon Russell. That had a very strong reaction and did very well. It just seemed a sensible thing to do to stay with T Bone. I'm not sure we expected to do it as soon as we did. I suppose in true terms it's been seven years since Elton and I made a full-on Elton John album.
It was just a natural progression to do something with T Bone again, and T Bone discussed with Elton the possibility of going back to basics, going back to the trio situation that we started out with when we started doing live gigs in the early Seventies. It's interesting, and I digress slightly here, that a lot of people are referring to this record by saying it's going back to the style of Tumbleweed Connection and the earlier albums. In essence, it's really not. We never really did studio recordings with the original trio. It was always much more a band situation. On things like Madman Across the Water, Tumbleweed and especially Elton John, which had a full-on orchestra on it, those records were more band-oriented records. This was much, much simpler. I don't think we've ever made a record that sounded like this. As everyone has picked up, Elton's piano has never been so much in the forefront as it is on this record.
We hand-picked a group of musicians with T Bone that we felt would make an interesting mix, which was Jay Bellerose, who is probably my favorite drummer, and Raphael Saadiq, who was Elton's idea, and it just worked. The recording was so intimate. It was such a pleasure and joy to work on that kind of earthy sound. When we did decide to go in and record, I would say I had at least a few months upfront to work on material. I wrote as much as I possibly could, which I shared with Elton. Then we went into the studio and I think wound up recording maybe 12 or 13 songs.
Then we basically sat on it for almost eight months, and then Elton called me in again and said he wanted to go back in and record some more songs. The thing is, there was no scheduled release date from the day we started recording. As we talked about before, nobody was in a hurry for a new Elton John and Bernie Taupin album. We could really wait and see when it was the best time to put it out. We went back in and recorded another five or six songs, and put everything together and re-listened to the whole thing. It was a great idea to go back. It really revitalized us and gave us a greater appreciation of things we did before. We realized that everything blended together so well. We reconfigured it, and this is what we ended up with.
Is there a theme to the album?
There's not a particular theme, but it is story-driven. My material has always been story driven. I like to think that I'm a relatively cinematic writer. Obviously, I collect ideas as I travel down life's highway. For example, something like the "The Ballad of Blind Tom." I read the book The Ballad of Blind Tom, and being a voracious reader I get so many ideas from reading. When I read that book, I thought to myself, "If this isn't a song, nothing is." It appealed to my method of writing. I had to literally make the Readers Digest version of the book, condense it into a song. I think it worked.
I can be anywhere or anyplace and an idea will strike me. I could walk past a bookcase and there's a book about Oscar Wilde on it. I'll think, "Here's a good idea. Put yourself in Oscar Wilde's mind after he's spent time in Reading Gaol. How did that change his perception of his life?" Also, I like the title, "Oscar Wilde Gets Out." That's all par for the course for me. I pick up things in what I read, what I think, how I feel. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it slips off and doesn't really work. As I've said many times, I see myself far more as a storyteller than anything else.
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