Of course, one thing that had to do with the initial American success was "Your Song."
Elton: Yeah, well, I think when people think of Elton John they think of either "Your Song" or "Crocodile Rock." You know what I mean?
Bernie: I can't even remember writing that song.
Elton: I remember the girl you were going out with, the girl you wrote it about.
Bernie: I didn't write it about anybody, really.
Elton: I thought you wrote . . .
Bernie: Well, that wasn't . . .
Elton: Still, you were quite steep. When you did have your little affairs and things you got very steeped in them.
Bernie: Yes, but I've never aimed that song at anybody, really.
Elton: But "First Episode at Heinton" was . . .
Bernie: Oh, yes, that was. I forgot about that. See, I forget about songs, I have to be reminded.
Elton: Somebody says to me, play the songs off Tumbleweed, I can't even remember the songs on the album.
Bernie: The biggest confidence trick as far as a song is concerned to me is "Take Me to the Pilot." It's great that so many people have covered that and sort of put their all into it and that song means fuck-all, it doesn't mean anything.
Elton: We're doing a documentary, and I said it's probably the most unlikely song of all-time to be covered, because of the words.
Bernie: They don't mean anything.
Elton: It's had so many covers, Ben E. King . . .
Bernie: That song proves what you can get away with.
Has anybody ever asked you about any religious insights?
Elton: Oh, I was just going to say that.
Bernie: That was a great one.
Elton: People thought we were anti-Semitic; we were everything–
Bernie: Do you remember "I Need You to Turn To?" The guy who came in, that college guy, and thought it was about the Crucifixion? We said, "How on earth can you say it's about the Crucifixion?" and he proceeded to condense it and to change all the meanings. One line was great. He said about being "nailed to your love in many lonely nights" thinking that being "nailed to your love" was being nailed to the cross. That's amazing.
Elton says "Tiny Dancer" 'is' about Maxine. Is that true?
Bernie: That's true, yes.
Elton: What about "Daniel," who is obviously a homosexual? Somebody said it's obviously a homosexual song, Daniel, my brother, I love you–
Bernie: Who said that?
Elton: Some skinhead in Manchester. He said, "That 'Crocodile Rock' is rubbish, and 'Daniel' is a homosexual song."
Bernie: NO! Did he?
Elton: So many people have said they can't understand what "Daniel" means. It's because I left the last verse out. I still think it's quite self-explanatory. [Daniel is a one-eyed war veteran who can only find peace in Spain.]
Bernie: People got their knickers completely in a twist just because Levon called his son Jesus and he was a balloon salesman. Just because he didn't call his child "George," and he wasn't a mechanic or something. I don't know, the story's completely simple; it's just about a guy who wants to get away from his father's hold over him. Strange.
Elton: Then there was the whole Jewish thing.
Bernie: Oh, the anti-Semitic period, where everybody thought "Border Song" was anti-Semitic. Don't ask me why, I don't know. Most of my friends are Jewish. I married one. [Laughter]
Elton: It's never been disclosed, but lyrically I wrote the last verse of "Border Song," because it was only two verses long and we thought it really needed another verse. That's why the last verse is very mundane. That's never been disclosed before. . . .
Is that the only verse of a song you've written?
Elton: Oh, yes.
You were quoted recently as saying you'd one day like to do an album of your own stuff but inevitably it would turn out gloomy.
Elton: I think it would. I like writing songs like "First Episode at Heinton," which really doesn't have any shape or form, it just meandered with a general feel of wistfulness. I'd love to eventually, I feel I could write lyrics someday, I might want to, but I just can't see it happening imminently.
"Talking Old Soldiers" was rather unusual in being almost a narrative.
Elton: That was a very David Ackles-influenced song. If you notice Tumbleweed Connection is dedicated "with love to David." That's David Ackles. It is sort of a narrative.
There has been critical controversy concerning Paul Buckmaster's correct role in your recordings. In the suggestion of a little instrumental overkill on 'Madman,' for example.
Elton: That was an album of frustrations for everybody; we were all going through heavy stages. Paul was getting . . . well, he's very strange, Paul, he can't work under pressure. We were all under pressure, because we had to get that fucking album going. I don't know how that album ever got out. When we were doing the actual track "Madman Across the Water," for example, Paul arrived with no score! There were 60 string musicians sitting there and we had to scrap it. There were all those sort of disasters.
But overall I don't think Paul has gotten the credit he deserves. He's influenced so many string writers, especially the Elton John album; everybody pinches off Paul Buckmaster. Like Lennon on Imagine, I'm not saying he pinched it, but he used a lot of strings on "How Do You Sleep?" I think nobody really used strings until Buckmaster came along and showed them you can use strings without having them being sugary and awful. I think Jack Nitzsche's arrangement on the Neil Young is very Buckmasterish.
Bernie: What, on Harvest? I thought they were disgusting, those arrangements, they just crucified those songs. They were like, yeccch.
Which current artists do you like?
Elton: I like Stealers Wheel.
Bernie: I was just going to say that; I like that a lot. And Joni Mitchell, the longer she's been around the more she's grown on me. I was playing that album today again in the car, For The Roses. I just find myself playing that all the time. Fucking incredible album. She sees so brilliantly. She's a genius. There are a lot of different standards as far as lyricists are concerned; I wouldn't say I'm the same kind as Joni Mitchell is, but on her level there is nobody who can touch her. The more I listen to her the more phenomenal she gets. Some of the lines she writes. I could go on for hours just thinking of lines of hers.
Elton: I like Stevie Wonder. I usually wind up playing the same old tapes in the car.
Bernie: There are four things I can think of offhand that I play all the time. Joni Mitchell, Stealers Wheel, the Johnny Nash, which is my favorite album, and the Beach Boys album I play a lot. I still like Jesse Winchester. I wish somebody would do something for him. He's got a great voice.
Do you as a rule prefer the songs that become popular in Britain or in America?
Elton: You get so much drek in the English charts. How many records are drek? Let's see. [Gets copy of British chart and reads from the top down] Donny Osmond is drek; Slade I don't like; Dawn, Shirley Bassey, Kenny, Alice Cooper are all drek. "Nice One, Cyril" is double drek, New Seekers is drek, Dave Edmunds is drek compared to the Ronnettes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, why they ever released "The Look of Love" I'll never know, there's just so much drek. Then you come to the American charts, the new Gladys Knight, which is superb, Edward Bear, oh, that's drek, the Carpenters double, double drek, Vicki Lawrence treble drek, that's even worse, Dawn's there. Dr. Hook, Bernie likes. "Dead Skunk"– well, now, if Loudon Wainwright III can have a hit in America, there's hope! "Space Oddity," five years too late . . . David Bowie was on the radio in America and the interviewer said, "Everyone is saying Elton had a hit with 'Rocket Man' because you did 'Space Oddity,'" and he said, "Well, you said it." Now I say that David Bowie's having a hit with "Space Oddity" because I had "Rocket Man" and paved the way for him. "Cisco Kid," I mean, just so many better records on the American chart, of course I'm a soul freak . . . there's Stealers Wheel . . . "Walk on the Wild Side"! Now if that can be a hit in America! Jud Strunk, Donna Fargo, some good records there . . . "Crocodile Rock" steaming down the chart at the rate of 22 places a week . . . [Elton and Bernie debate who is worse, David Cassidy or Donny Osmond, for three minutes.]
Bernie: What was that letter you got?
Elton: Oh, I got a letter saying that compared to David Cassidy I looked like a hedgehog.
What about one person I know you like, Dusty Springfield?
Elton: She's another person who needs desperately to have someone get ahold of her and say, "Don't record that." She's made three albums in a row now which have been terrible, not musically, just that they're Muzak. She's so capable. Dusty In Memphis was one of the all-time good albums. She should be recording Stylistics-type material.
Bernie: Slagging time, folks!
Elton: No, it's true, it's very sad when someone who is that good, a very good singer of songs, dynamite onstage . . . She's capable of much better, and it really frustrates me, and it must frustrate her more. Her new album is disgusting, it has no balls to it, Dusty needs something with balls.
Bernie: [Bizarre animal noises]
Elton: No, it's true for a lot of people. Ray Charles hasn't made a decent record for about five years. Those album covers, I mean, because the poor guy's blind they give him the worst album covers. Have you seen that new one, the mauve thing with the black glasses? Horrible!
Bernie: I'd like to make a record with Gene Pitney. I think Gene Pitney has a great voice.
Do you think you, Elton, could ever work with Dusty?
Elton: I've certainly made enough hints. But she went and signed with ABC-Dunhill. I would produce her, but I don't want to produce for bloody ABC-Dunhill. I don't like them.
What about the Bryan Forbes documentary, how's that coming along?
Elton: Bryan has wanted to do something for a long time. It's going to be sort of a process, he shows Bernie writing a song, me writing the music, recording it, and playing it onstage. It's not going to be boring. I mean, it's very tongue-in-cheek; he's shot me in the bath.[Shows pictures]
Bernie: Hey, Elton, you got a hairy bun!
So the film has no similarity to 'Born To Boogie'?
Elton: Oh, no there's hardly any music at all. Some people still think you just walk into a recording studio, sit around a microphone, and that's it. This is just showing what happens, and tries to show a different side of me. The backside. Tata!
Bernie, you've said you generally start with a first line or two and grow from there. Do you do this mostly at home and do you use a musical instrument?
Bernie: It varies. I could never define to anybody the way I write a song, because it varies so much. Sometimes I'll just come up with a title and I'll try to write a song around that title. Other times I'll come up with a first line or a first two lines. With "Rocket Man" the first two lines came to me when I was driving along. I just thought . . . hmmm, can't remember what the first two lines are . . . hmmm . . . well, whatever they were, they came to me as I was driving along and by the time I'd gotten home I'd written the song in my head. I got inside and had to rush and write it all down before I'd forgotten it. Seldom do I think I'd like to write a song about a particular subject or person, and sit down from scratch. Usually it's either a first line, a line somewhere in it, or a title, then the song comes alive.
Basically it takes me very little time to write a song. If I find myself taking more than an hour to do it I usually forget it, and try something else. I like to work quickly; I never like to waste any time. I never write half a song and come back to it later at all. It all has to be done at once. I lose interest if it doesn't.
It took two weeks to write 20 songs, and I only have to write two albums' worth a year, so that's on the whole about 24 songs. It takes me a month to write 24 songs.
Is the new album going to be greatly different?
Elton: Well, to start with, it's going to be two albums released simultaneously, or a double album, whichever works out. We've got enough songs to put out. It's going to be far more musical, nothing like Don't Shoot Me. There will still be rock & roll songs.
Bernie: I've never been so excited about a bunch of songs before.
Elton: From Honky onwards Bernie's been saying things so much simpler, Especially the new one he's gotten into his stride. It's as if Madman was the last of that sort of song, and now the Honky era is finished and we're starting on a new thing. That's the way I see it. There's a song called "Sweet Painted Ladies," which is a song about ladies who satisfy seamen who come to port. "Forget us, we'll be gone very soon/Forget we ever slept in your room/And we'll leave the smell of the sea in your bed/Where love's just a job and nothing is said."That's great.
Bernie: It really has a Noel Coward type of treatment, which is a strange combination, a song about whores and a Noel Coward sound. [Sir Noel had died five days previously.]
Are you as fond of "Candle in the Wind" as Bernie is?
Elton: Yes. There's a whole set of songs we've already written, "Candle in the Wind" is one, then "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and one called "I've Seen That Movie, Too."With "Sweet Painted Ladies," we have four really classy songs. If we could ever record an album as good as Abbey Road, I'd want to retire. Even though it's not my favorite Beatles album, you hear "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" and you want to fall down. Usually somebody has one good song on an album, but the Beatles had five or six mindblowers. So this is the way I feel about our next one. It's strange, you can compare against the Beatles, Revolver lifted them onto a higher plane, and I think Honky did that for us, and then Sgt. Pepper was their most popular and Don't Shoot Me was ours, and then they had the white album, and now we'll have a double, too.
How did you start recording in France, at the Chateau?
Elton: My solicitor said, "You've got to start recording outside the country," and I said, "Why?" He said it would be much better financially if we recorded outside the country. I said, "You must be joking." He wasn't. So I said I'd go only if we could find someplace peaceful without any interruptions. We started getting a dossier on all European studios and this Chateau leaflet came through. It looked ideal, forty kilometers north of Paris in the middle of nowhere, swimming pool, food, lodging, tennis court--and it is, we went over and it has an atmosphere all its own. I love it. You can record in a room with a 13th century chandelier overlooking nothing but fields. You've got a room to rehearse in, you just take the band upstairs and you're in the studio.
Bernie: It's the ideal concept for recording. You're totally cut off, so there's no way people can ring you, there's nobody pestering you. You can just eat, sleep and record, at your own leisure.
Elton: It can become a bit of a routine, getting up the same time every day. After awhile it drives you mad.
What about your new label, Rocket. What exactly is your plan with it? When did you first think about it and whose idea was it?
Elton: It was conceived when we were doing Don't Shoot Me. right?
Bernie: In France, the idea came about, because Davey Johnstone [Elton's new guitarist] was going to make an album and he hadn't got a label to go out on.
Elton: We went to a lot of companies but nobody would give us a reasonable deal. So we were sitting around the table saying, what are we going to do, and I think it was me, actually, who said, "Start our own fucking label!" Because we'd all been drinking wine – the Chateau produces its own wine. We all said "Yeah!" Then we went to bed and we all got up the next morning and said, "Was everybody serious?" We all decided we were, so it all started as a result of Davey Johnstone and nothing else. After hearing Davey's album, which has taken a year to get together, not for lack of work but because he hasn't had much studio time, those people are really going to kick themselves, because it's a fucking masterful album. That's how it started.
I mean, I've always dreamed of having my own record company. As a kid I used to watch the 78s when the labels were beautiful to look at, I'd watch them go round. I'm fascinated by records. Anything on London was boring, or EMI, because of those plain labels. Now what used to have good labels? [Thinks for a few seconds.] Polydor was quite interesting. . . .
Bernie: There's a picture of James Brown now on his own records.
Elton: The five of us involved sat down–Bernie and I, Steve Brown, who handles the A&R side, John Reid and Gus Dudgeon, who does production, although Bernie and I will be doing production as well, Steve and John will basically handle the business side – and we just set out to cultivate new talent. MCA gave us a good advance, but that's more or less gone in finding offices, staff and decorating the offices. We can't go out and pay $50,000 in advance and therefore we can't sign any name acts. We didn't particularly want to, anyway. It's very odd, we're just trying to find people from scratch. We're going to give a fair deal and a better royalty rate than they could get from WEA. I know it's very idyllic and the Moody Blues have done it and the Beatles did it, but I really think Rocket will be something different. The good thing about it is I'm not on it. It would be hopeless from the start. It would dampen everybody else. It's like the Moody Blues are on Threshold, and so are Trapeze. It would be Elton John is on Rocket, and so are Longdancer and Davey Johnstone. Longdancer are not mind-shattering yet, but most of them are only 18. They've got a long way to go. It's hard to find mind-shattering talent
And Bernie and I are producing Kiki Dee, who's been around for a long time, living in the wake of Dusty Springfield, really, gradually fading into the background, and she could sing the balls off Rita Coolidge any day. We're trying to write a special song for her. We've never done that for anybody else, to try to get her off the ground, to try to get her publicity and everything. Bernie's task is really hard because he's got to write one as a girl. So he slips into Maxine's dresses every morning . . .
When we were in France, Jean-Luc Ponty [the French violinist] played on Honky Chateau, and we're desperately trying to get him because he's so fantastic.
In interviews over the past couple of years you've dwelled on retiring early. In one you predicted you'd retire in mid-'72.
Elton: And I'm still here! It's like Gracie Fields . . . no . . .
Bernie: Dorothy Squires.
Elton: Right. I couldn't stand the pace, if you've noticed I'm cutting down the live dates. I really do want to retire doing gigs eventually, that's what I meant.
Does Bernie follow radio play of singles as closely as Elton?
Bernie: No way. I'm always amused when he phones me up and such-and-such did a three-trillion advance or some such figure and I'll just say, "Is that good?"
Elton: "Daniel" came into one of the charts at 65 the first week and he said, "Oh, is that good?" He's really a dampener for the enthusiasm, Bernie is, because you'll say, "Fucking hell, the album went up to 91 from 176!" And he'll say, "Is that good?"
Bernie: He follows the playlists and who went how many places and who's got a bullet, that all confuses me. I look at the charts just to see if it's still on top.
Elton: I love the way the American trade magazines never give anybody a bad review because they're afraid the advertising will be taken out. It's so hysterical. They say albums will be hits, and they've got no fucking chance. "Noddy and the Jerk-Offs on the Shit label, this is a cross between Creedence Clearwater and"– and I believe them and order the record and I can't wait and the fucking thing turns out to be dreadful. I always get hooked by those ecstatic reviews.
Bernie: You're very gullible.
Elton: Totally. Adverts, too.
Bernie: I bought Bruce Springsteen just on the basis of the advert.
Elton: I quite like that. It grows on me like the Dory Previn.
Bernie: The worst thing about me is that I'll buy albums and put them away on the shelf and forget that I've got them.
Elton: That's why I keep those down on the floor [points to huge piles of LPs] so I can flick through them.
Bernie: The last three Jefferson Airplane albums suck, fucking horrible. I can't get into people like that anymore.
Anything you'd like to do you haven't done yet?
Bernie: I'd like to make it with Princess Anne.
Elton: Oh dear, oh dear, there go my connections with the Royal Family, up in flames. Actually I'd like to make a movie and show people there's more to me than meets the eye. It's got to be hilariously funny if I'm going to do it. But that's boring. Pop stars always want to make movies. What else would I like to do? I don't know. My ambitions go from day-to-day. All my childhood ambitions have been fulfilled.
This story is from the August 16, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.
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