Elton John wanted to do The Rolling Stone Interview when we first suggested it to him in February. A grueling British tour kept him occupied for over a month. It was only when Bernie Taupin got enthusiastic for a joint interview that prospects really brightened. Three days after the tour ended and four days before an Italian jaunt began, the talk took place at Elton's home in the London suburb of Virginia Water.
Bernie drove down from his cottage in Lincolnshire, where he lives with his wife, Maxine. We met Elton in the London offices of Rocket Records, his new label for promising artists.
As we walked to the chauffeured Rolls outside Rocket, Elton gazed in the direction of Oxford Street. "You know," he remembered, "when we were doing 'Empty Sky' [the first UK LP] we would get out onto Oxford Street at four in the morning and we'd be so excited we couldn't sleep, so we'd just sit in the Wimpy Bar and talk about the album. There was so much excitement in those days. We'd keep track of what albums would be coming into the import shops; when and if they were a day late we'd be crushed, our day ruined. But then if we were the first to get the new Jefferson Airplane, we'd feel on top of the world. Now we just get the American trades, tick off the new releases we want, and get them shipped over. So much magic has been lost."
When we reached the homestead, 'Hercules,' Bernie had already been there for 50 minutes, talking to the photographer about growing cabbages and sowing seeds. They hadn't discussed the recent US and UK Number One album, 'Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player,' so it seemed logical to start there.
The general critical response to 'Don't Shoot Me' was that it represented the end of the three-year critical rise and fall and rise of Elton John. Do you think that's fair?
Elton: Everyone's got this myth about the fall. The fall is probably because of Madman Across the Water. It didn't get into the Top Ten or Top 20 in England but it still sold 65,000 albums, which isn't bad. I think because we didn't have a single out for a year and a half people thought we were dead, but the album still did very well everywhere else in the world. So that was the "fall," as it were.
Bernie: I think there's a lull in everybody's career. You can rise with tremendous popularity and then everybody sort of jumps on your back. They're writing everything about you and you get to a stage where people want to see if you can maintain that popularity and the press coverage goes down slightly during a phase when you're trying to change your system of doing things and you have to come back. It's like crossing a bridge. You either cross it or you fall off it. I think Bowie will go through the thing as well.
Elton: We got through spates where for six months you're acclaimed and then for six months you're not and we've learned to ride with it now. We're very, very popular at the moment; we've got the press on our side with Don't Shoot Me. I'm surprised, I thought Don't Shoot Me would get ripped apart–
Elton: Because I think it's a very happy album, very ultra-pop, if you look at any of our other albums it's very poppy, just very straight pop. I don't think there'll be another Don't Shoot Me album from me. The reason it came out like this was we'd done Honky Chateau and were really knocked out with it and everyone was so happy that the songs came out that way. It was just done with a tremendous amount of energy. Don't you agree it's a very sort of poppy album? I always think of it as Elton John's disposable album.
Bernie: Well, as you've said before, a lot of times it's good to write disposable songs anyway. You can write one or two "classics," that will last and be covered again in a few years' time, but I think a majority of good pop songs nowadays are disposable. They're songs for the time they're in the charts and three months later they're just completely forgotten and nobody bothers with them again. I think that's healthy in away. You should always have fresh material coming along.
The reason we've survived and will continue to survive for a good long time is a because we've got the upper hand on everybody else and can turn our ideas into anything, any sort of music. We can do things like just playing rock & roll, 12 bars, to country material, bules . . . I mean, we've done every type of music. You could compile an album taking tracks from all the things we've done and come across with the most amazing cross section of material.
Elton: We're influenced by so many things. You could say I'm the Ray Coniff of the pop world.
Bernie: But other people who are sort of on the same level of popularity tend to have the same feel on all their albums.
Elton: A Neil Young or a Carole King or a James Taylor album all have the same sort of thing. They do it for three or four albums getting away with having the same sound. We've never had an album that had the same sound.
Bernie: It's amazing that the Moody Blues can release an album every six months and bang, straight to Number One. It's like listening to the same album again. It amazed me a while ago when people said our things sounded the same and that we should get out of a rut. That's really strange. Why pick on us? Why not pick on somebody like Jethro Tull, where it's always the same sort of line-up, the same sort of construction of the song, the same feel – not that that's bad, I like Jethro Tull.
Elton: With all due respect to Carole King, Tapestry was a great album, but the other two albums after that sounded like they were recorded at the same sessions but that Tapestry was the first ten tracks done and the next 20 were done when everyone was getting increasingly more tired. She should worry, though, having written some of the world's great songs, but I couldn't work with that same line-up on every album.
Bernie: I think that's important to get across, because some people . . .
Elton: I get fucking pissed off at people saying, "Their songs always sound the same."How can you say "Have Mercy on the Criminal" sounds like "Daniel" or "Daniel" sounds like "High Flying Bird."
Bernie: Somebody once said that "Burn Down the Mission" sounded like "Friends."[Laughter]. That's true, that's an actual quote from a paper.
Elton: Someone said I sounded like Joe Cocker, which I thought was rather amusing. I can see Jose Feliciano, but not Joe Cocker.
Bernie: That Jose Feliciano thing has sort of leveled out now, it was just around . . .
Elton: Well, they were saying Elton John sounds like Jose Feliciano, now Jose Feliciano sounds like Elton John. I mean, isn't that stupid?
(During the conversation Elton has been examining the cover of Rolling Stone No.84, which showed him in boots. Finally he breaks out laughing.)
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