He and Bernie Taupin talk about the ups, downs and in-betweens
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.)
Elton: I used to think those were really high heels. I thought those boots were really hip because they had high heels. Shit!.
Bernie: I remember when you got those. They were so outrageous because they had stars on them and they were silver.
Now you say you won't wear anything except the heels you're wearing now.
Elton: I feel so short, I never wear really short shoes. I rarely wear tennis shoes. I'm 5' 8", I hate being short. I'm sure I will wear something that's flatter. I mean, in a couple of years' time I'll probably look at a picture for me in platforms and say, "What the hell was I doing?" Those are, again, disposable. Everything's becoming disposable. Disposable me, disposable . . . [makes shriveling up noise]
What have you got ready for the next American tour, or have you started thinking about that yet?
Elton: I've got a couple of ideas. I think a couple of dates on the next American tour are going to be very bizarre. Not bizarre weirdo, like the Cockettes or anything, but bizarre show biz. We got a nice idea for the Hollywood Bowl if we get the date.
Bernie: We're gonna blow the audience up.
Elton: Steinway has offered to build me a special piano; I would like to get a special piano made. I think visual are very important to me, not in the sense of an act like Alice Cooper who's got it down to a fine art, but in the sense of high camp and just very, very tongue-in-cheek. We did "Singing in the Rain" as a tongue-in-cheek thing on the last American tour, "Legs" Larry Smith and I, it was his suggestion, and I said, "You must be mad, they'll wonder what the fuck's going on," but they loved it! They'd sing along with it and I thought well, there you go.
The act is going to become a little more liberaceized, not in a clothes sense, or Busby Berkeleyized--I'd like to have nine pianos onstage, a cascade of pianos, and make my entrance like that. Just give the audience a really nice sort of show. I don't like to look at groups who come out standing looking like they've just been drowning at Big Sur for five years. I could never go onstage in denims.
Of the pianists, you've mentioned Liberace, and many people have said there's a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis influence in your jumping about, but you said in the car you're not really a big Lewis admirer.
Elton: Well, I used to be until I saw him, and then I went off him a bit. I still think his rock and roll records are amazing, but I'm more a Little Richard stylist than a Jerry Lee Lewis, I think. Jerry Lee is a very intricate piano player and very skillful, whereas I think Little Richard is more of a pounder. I think his rock and roll records are the best rock and roll records ever made, as far as just the genuine sound on them goes. Apart from "Hound Dog," which is amazing.
Bernie: The stuff Jerry Lee Lewis is into at the moment–
Elton: It's just taking the country road, which so many people do, and he treated his audience like shit, which I've never ever done.
Bernie: He treats everybody like that, smoking his big fucking cigars, and pretending he's such a heavy.
Elton: And calling himself "The Killer." I could kill more people with one fucking finger than he did when I saw him. I always find rock and roll acts like that now pathetic. I mean, I've seen them all, and I feel it's sad. Chuck Berry is god, but what the fuck has he written? I mean, people say he wrote all those great rock and roll songs and we never wrote any, but at least we're still writing things. He hasn't written anything decent for 15 years. It amazes me why everybody exults him. Why, Muddy Waters can grow old gracefully, you can still go see Muddy Waters and enjoy him. He'll still play "Got My Mojo Working," but he'll throw something new in. I think it's about time all this Chuck Berry idolizing came to a halt. I can dig the nostalgia trip, and I dig his old records, but I find that side of the business very irritating. I feel sorry for them. I wouldn't like in 15 years' time to still be playing "Crocodile Rock."
Bernie, you were going to say something about Jerry Lee's album.
Bernie: The Session album, I mean there's so much shit going on about that. It's such a nothing album. Who wants to hear Jerry Lee Lewis doing "Proud Mary" and saying, "The Killer's gonna get ya." There's this big fuss about all his heavy friends on the album, there's hardly anybody on that album.
Elton: Well, Peter Frampton and Al Lee. It's just that Mercury Records decided to have this great hype and invited everybody who was anybody. I mean, they invited me to play on it, which was ludicrous. What I am supposed to do, play piano for Jerry Lee Lewis? I mean the guy's technically brilliant enough to eat me for breakfast. It's just that he's so lazy he won't fucking do it. And Rod Stewart. What's Rod gonna do on it, sing for him? It should have been called "Jerry Lewis' Session, starring Rod Stewart, who sings for Jerry Lee, and Elton John, who plays for Jerry Lee. Jerry was in Nashville when this album was recorded, but, his spirit was there."
Bernie: Don't read this, Jerry. Don't read this!
Elton, basically your musical career started with Bluesology, didn't it?
Elton: Actually it all started when I became old enough to listen to records, because my mother and father collected records and the first records I ever heard were Kay Starr and Billy May and Tennessee Ernie Ford and Les Paul and Mary Ford and Guy Mitchell. I grew up in that era. I was three or four when I first started listening to records like that. I obviously took great interest in them, and then I went through the skiffle thing with Lonnie Donegan. The first records my mom brought home that I was really knocked out by were "Hound Dog" and Haley's "ABC Boogie."
They changed my life, I couldn't believe it. I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and that was it. I didn't ever want to be anything else. I just started banging away and semi-studied classical music at the Royal Academy of Music but sort of half-heartedly. I was never really interested in it.
Bluesology got together when I was about 14, playing in scout huts and youth club dances. Just one ten-watt amplifier with the piano unamplified. We started off by playing . . . we started off by playing . . . [annoyed] I can never remember what we started off by playing . . . gradually we got into playing Jimmy Witherspoon numbers. We were always playing the wrong stuff. Bluesology were always two months too late, or three years too early. Never playing the right thing at the right time. They were always appealing to minority tastes. We always thought we were hip because we were playing Jimmy Witherspoon songs. It sounds ludicrous, and Mose Allison numbers, but they were sort of the hip figures of that era. It was the time of Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. What was that classic Ray Charles thing [sings piano part] . . . "Let the Good Times Roll," things like that. Then we started to add brass, because brass was the thing.
Then we went for an audition at the State Cinema at Kilburn on a Saturday morning. There were thousands of groups and you had to play two or three numbers. The guy there from the agency, the Roy Tempest agency, I don't know where he ever disappeared to, asked if we would be interested in turning professional and backing all these American people. Backing Major Lance was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me. So we said yes, originally it was going to be Wilson Pickett but his guitarist didn't like the band. The first person I ever played for really as a professional was Major Lance although when we turned professional I was working at a music publisher's taking tea around and packing the parcels. While I was in school I was playing in a pub every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night for a year. This was all to earn money to buy electric pianos and mikes and amplifiers and things. I used to make a quid a night but then I'd take my box around and people would put donations in it. For my age, I was making a fortune, getting about 35 quid a week, I think.
But it was Major Lance who was the first person in our lives, and from then on it was a succession of people. Patti LaBelle twice. Looking back on it, it was the most miserable existence, but at the time it was quite happy. We backed . . . let's see . . . Patti LaBelle twice, the Original Drifters for two gigs, we did a whole tour with Doris Troy, and a whole tour with the Ink Spots [laughter], and Billy Stewart. In between not working, by that I mean not backing people, we did the traditional months in Hamburg. That was another thing that changed my life and made me grow up. Then we went to Sweden and then the south of France for a month. We just did mediocre things.
I used to make records, you know, those cheap cover versions. I did backup vocals for those: Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," a cover of "United We Stand," "My Baby Loves Loving." I used to do the "oooohs," and "ahhhhhs." The lead singer of Uriah Heep, David Byron, used to sing all the lead vocals. Musically, they were very, very good, but the songs were awful, "I'll be your Jack-in-the-Box," and I used to go, "whoop-doop-doop."Bernie: And Robin Gibb.
Elton: Oh, I did a cover for a Dutch record company of "Saved by the Bell," and I literally did it like that. [Sings his Robin Gibb imitation] They did five takes and by the end, my neck was really red, sort of hanging down there like a chicken.
Then when John Baldry came along and said would you like to join up I said, well, at least it's a step in the right direction. So we backed John for a year, starting off with a soul package, really. It was our singer, who was Stuart A. Brown, Marsha Hunt, another singer called Alan Walker, and Baldry. Baldry had just finished with the Brian Auger thing, and Julie Driscoll, the Steampacket, with Rod Stewart, and he wanted to start another similar thing. It really didn't ever get off the ground, we were never a success, so Baldry decided to make a commercial record and made a hit record with "Let the Heartaches Begin." That changed his life for two or three years and began to change mine, because it meant instead of playing in clubs you played in cabaret, which really drove me around the bend. I think that's the graveyard of musicians, playing cabaret. I think I'd rather be dead than work in cabaret. It's just so depressing.
So I was always getting depressed and it was in Newcastle that I saw the advert in the New Musical Express saying "Liberty leaving EMI, going independent, need singers and talent." I didn't know what I was going to do, I just knew I wanted to come off the road. So I went up for an appointment, I was still with the band. I said I can't write lyrics and I can't really sing well because I wasn't singing with Bluesology, But I think I can write songs. So they gave me this audition, it was in a recording studio; they said "sing us five songs." I didn't know five songs, all I knew were the songs Baldry was singing and the Jim Reeves records I used to sing with at home. So I sang five Jim Reeves songs and they turned me down flat. I don't really blame them. They put me in touch with Bernie, only through letter or by phone, because Liberty didn't want us.
But some guy at Liberty told me to go to Dick James Music and do some demos. I was receiving Bernie's lyrics and writing the songs and doing demos before I even met Bernie. One day I was doing a demo session and noticed him in the corner. I said, oh, are you the lyrics writer, and he said yeah, and we went around the corner for a cup of coffee and that was it, really.
We'd made millions and millions of songs up before anybody discovered we were making demos at Dick James. Dick James had a purge because he discovered that people were using his studios just to make endless demos. So he heard our stuff, liked it, and signed us up. As soon as he signed us up at ten quid a week advance royalties I left the group. That was the best day in my life, when I quit the group.
Was it then he suggested the name change?
Elton: Oh, no, I was coming back from Scotland, or somewhere, after doing a gig with John and Caleb Quayle, who was engineer at the Dick James Studio at the time, and had a lot to do with my early encouragement and played the guitar, for Baldry some of the time, with Bluesology, and I said, I've got to think of a name. I'm fed up with Reg Dwight I can't be Reg Dwight "if I'm going to be a singer, so I've got to think of a name. So Elton Dean's name I pinched [Elton Dean was in Bluesology and later the Soft Machine.] and John Baldry's name and I said, oh, Elton John, there you go.
One report in the national press awhile back said you'd once almost gotten married to a millionairess.
And called it off three weeks before?
Elton: Oh, that's true. I wouldn't say she was a millionairess, that's the national press boosting their headlines –"One-Armed Man Swims Channel" or something like that, you know what I mean. It was a girl I met when I was in Sheffield one miserable Christmas doing cabaret with John Baldry. She was six-foot tall and going out with a midget in Sheffield who drove around in a Mini with special pedals on. He used to beat her up! I felt so sorry for her and she followed me up the next week to South Shields – this gets even more romantic, folks – and I fell desperately in love and said come down to London and we'll find a flat. Eventually we got a nice flat in this dismal area. It was a very stormy six months, after which I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I attempted suicide and various other things, during which Bernie and I wrote nil, absolutely nothing.
Bernie: Don't forget the gas.
Elton: I tried to commit suicide one day. It was a very Woody Allen-type suicide. I turned on the gas and left all the windows open. [Laughter]
Bernie: I remember when I told Linda and said, "My God, he's tried to commit suicide," and she said, "Why, he's wasted all the gas!"
Elton: It was just like six months in hell. I got the flat, I bought all the furniture, the cake was made, it was three weeks away, Baldry was going to be best man, and in the end Baldry, we were out in the Speakeasy . . . no, it was the Bag of Nails . . . no . . .
Bernie: It was the Bag of Nails.
Elton: Baldry was there, and one of the Supremes – one of the Supremes used to go out with the singer of Bluesology, how about that for a piece of gossip – Cindy Birdsong used to go out with our singer. Anyway, we're there at the Bag of Nails and Baldry is saying, "You're mad, man, you're mad, you don't love her," and I was saying, "I do, I do," and he was saying, "She beats you up, she smashes you on the face," and we got more and more depressed sitting there until four in the morning setting off burglar alarms when we staggered out and I shouted, "It's over, it's finished!" and then came a couple of days of hell. In the end my Dad came with his Ford Cortina and how he managed to cram all that stuff in there I don't know and my mother said, "If you marry her I'll never speak to you again"– oh, it was just amazing. So she sued me for breach of promise and all that shit. She got away with quite a lot of money in shares.
Bernie: It was so outrageous . . .
Elton: It was outrageous because she was six-foot and she used to beat me up and she used to be beaten up by a midget, so how about that? It was so weird. You know, I have always expected her to show up one of these days.
Of course the worst thing in the papers about you was the Observer's comment about you and Liberace.
Elton: I didn't see that.
Do you want to hear it?
Elton: Yes, yes!
It said that at the Royal Variety Performance Liberace made you look like the musical dwarf you were.
Elton: Well, I think he did, I think he was the only decent thing on the Royal Variety show. I don't mind, I don't find that offensive at all.
I had two numbers to do, which was really great, everybody was saying do "Your Song." and "Rocket Man," you better be nice, Elton John, and do "Your Song." Boring! So we brought "Legs" Larry Smith to tap dance to "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself," and the whole effect was lost on television, but he released balloons that actually made farting noises. Of course the audience was full of the most dreadful people imaginable, and all these balloons were going pfft, pfft, pfft, all over the audience and they were all sitting there in their tiaras going "Ooooh! Oooooh!" [Bernie convulsed with laughter.]
Larry had all these flowers, because he came on dressed as a wedding man, and I thought it was great – it sounds abysmal – we thought we had problems, the poor Jackson Five singing, trying to sing without much amplification in the Palladium – and they were trying to get me to take Larry out of the show, and I was in a panic because I had to fly back to Tulsa to do another show. Liberace was great, he just kept wheeling trunks of clothes in. I just sat there watching him, he kept calm through the whole thing. All these people were badgering him all the time for autographs, and he does the most ornate autographs, he draws a grand piano, and he was great.
You mentioned one of the reasons you did it was to plug "Crocodile Rock." A lot of the critics, especially in America, have had fun trying to identify the songs that influenced you for that song.
Elton: Oh, I've always wanted to write a song–
Bernie: We got sued by the people who wrote "Speedy Gonzales."
Elton: Yeah, but they dropped that. I mean, that's so stupid. But there are the obvious ones, "Oh, Carol"– we wrote one song, "Rock and Roll Madonna," I always wanted to write one song, a nostalgic song, a rock and roll song which captured the right sounds. "Crocodile Rock" is just a combination of so many songs, really. "Little Darling," "Oh, Carol," some Beach Boys influences, they're in there as well, I suppose. Eddie Cochran. I mean, it's just a combination of songs. People say it's like Freddie Cannon. We've written a new one, "Your Mama Can't Twist," and everyone's gonna go, "You've pinched it from Loggins and Messina!"
Bernie: Loggins and Messina? What?
Elton: "Your Mama Don't Dance." Oh, well. It all comes from the subconscious. And there's Del Shannon in there, that high stuff. And I love Bobby Vee.
How did you get involved with 'Friends,' the film?
Bernie: I don't remember how it started–
Elton: I remember. It was a time, it was the year we broke in the States, 1970. It was early on in the year and we were pretty cold everywhere, nothing really was happening, then John Gilbert, whose father was making the film, approached us after hearing the Elton John album. They approached us and we agreed to do it, we agreed to a sum of money they would pay us in advance.
Bernie: It was all done in a very straightforward fashion and in fact I was the first one to get the script–
Elton: You wrote one of the songs before you ever saw the script! "Michelle's Song."
Bernie: Yeah, well, I guess we thought it was quite neat to do a film score. I just read the script and halfway through the script I wrote one song and then by the time I'd finished the script the three songs that were actually written for the film were done and the other songs were things we'd just had hanging about, and they stuck them into the film.
Elton: Well, we didn't spend any time doing it. We'd gotten back from the States the first time and then, because we'd had success there, we had to go back to the States four weeks later for this sort of first major tour. All the Friends stuff had to be done in four weeks; it was such a panic session. They wanted to release a soundtrack album, and I didn't want them to release a soundtrack album with three songs on it and fill it out with garbage, motorists peeing by lakes and things like that, so we said, well, we got two spare songs, have those, "Honeyroll" and "Can I Put You On," which we'd been doing onstage anyway. So they put them on during transistor radio sequences. We put them on the album as a bonus, really. I really regret that because, fuck, I would have wanted to put them on our own album.
Bernie: Music people and film people really don't hit it off. Like when we first cut the original soundtrack at Olympic we had all these people coming in, film people whom we didn't know, trying to command the session, saying you should do this and you shouldn't do that. It was like working in a bank or working at a computer. You have to write 40 seconds of music and if you don't write 40 seconds it's a disaster. I'd never ever do it again.
Elton: Film people are so fucking arrogant. I hate them. I saw Sam Peckinpah. We went to the set of one of his films, and oh dear, oh dear, I would have liked to have smashed him right in the fucking mouth. He said, "Oh, I must lie down, you did that take wrong." I know it's artistic temperament, but, really. I wouldn't mind if he had ever made a decent movie.
Why did you do 'Born To Boogie'?
Elton: Well, I mean, why did I do my three minutes? Marc Bolan said, "Could you just come down and we're gonna just do 'Tutti Frutti' and a couple of things. It'll be fun." It was nice. I met Ringo. All we really did was play for four hours, we didn't pose or anything. They must have lots of stuff they didn't use. Like I've said before, in that I look like a fucking gorilla, so ugly.
At the same time you had 'Friends' and the two studio albums on the chart you had the live album. How did that come about?
Elton: We had this guy who worked for WABC and he is an Elton John freak, or at least was, probably not now; I didn't send him a Christmas card. He was always trying to badger us into doing this concert because he wanted to inaugurate live concerts on the air in New York, in the studio. The first time we said no and the second time they came back to us and said we'll put you into a recording studio instead of a WABC studio so we said yes, all right. So they got . . . what was the name of the place?
Bernie: A&R Studios.
Elton: On Seventh Avenue. So we just did it one evening with a hundred people in there and it went out live on the air. I didn't know at the time that it was going on eight-track. As far as I was concerned it was just going out over the airwaves of New York.
Bernie: Oh, we had no intention at that time of recording it for an album.
Elton: I'm very anti-live album, as a matter of fact. Well, we recorded it and listened to it, on the eight-track. It was a time when people were coming to see me and people were buying my records and the two of them weren't getting together. Everybody thought I was going to be a very moody person onstage, fainting after every three songs. I thought the band wasn't getting any credit, Nigel and Dee, and that it would be nice to do the album as sort of a bootleg cover, and Nigel and Dee would be able to earn some money out of it.
I think it's a fucking good live album in that most live albums are the result of say, six days' recording. If you're gonna make a live recording you get a truck to come down to two or three performances and you choose the best ones so it really isn't a live album. It's like doing a session album –"Which take is the best over three nights?" Ours was just totally live; we didn't know anything about it.
It was on the chart simultaneously with the three others. Were you surprised 'Elton John' really broke first in America?
Elton: Well, it had come out in England and died. It had come out in May of 1970, got into the BBC chart at 45, and went straight out again. [The BBC LP chart contains 50 albums.] We thought it would get into the charts 'cause it was a special type album with orchestra and all kinds of things. We had a crisis meeting to say, "Why isn't it on the charts?" "Why isn't it selling?" and I didn't want to go on the road, I just didn't want to know. They said, you're just going to have to go out on the road and promote it. We went to the States primarily because the record company said, "You come over here, we'll break this." I didn't believe them, I really went to the States to have a look at some record stores. And also it was either join Jeff Beck or go to the States, or Jeff Beck was going to join us. But it turned out we would have had to join Jeff Beck, it was one of those ego things. So we went to the States and it broke. I wasn't surprised because there was so much hype going on I could have believed anything that was going on when I was over there.
Bernie: It was all just one night, that one night at the Troubadour.
Elton: It really was just that first night, like you said, like The Eddie Duchin Story or "dis boy is a genius." One of those old films, "Look, the boy is conducting the orchestra he's 14 years old and he's blind and he's got one leg and everybody's going 'hooray!'"
Bernie: The next morning, like, wham, bam, there on the front of all the papers . . . it's just . . . [sighs]
Elton: People were flocking to us. I couldn't believe it. Second night I played Leon Russell was in the front row but I didn't see him until the last number. Thank God I didn't, because at that time I slept and drank Leon Russell. I mean I still really like him," but at that time I regarded him as some kind of a god. And I saw him and I just stopped. He said, "Keep on," and he shouted something, and I said, oh fuck, and he said "Come up to the house tomorrow." I figured, this was it, he's going to tie me up in a chair and whip me and say "Listen here, you bastard, this is how "you play the piano," but he was really nice instead. It was like schoolboy's fantasies coming true. Really strange. Quincy Jones . . .
Bernie: All the pop stars . . .
Elton: Quincy Jones, he must have brought his whole family, he has 900 children, Quincy Jones, and I kept shaking hands coming through the door. The whole week at the Troubadour should have been called The Million Handshakes. David Ackles was on the bill. I mean, that was the first thing I couldn't believe that we were playing above David Ackles. In England he had much more prestige than he apparently had in America.
It was very, very weird. I loved it, though. I went to Disneyland and sang "Your Song" onstage in shorts and Mickey Mouse ears. Looking back on it I think it's horrific. I mean, when we went back the second time and I was big enough to play Santa Monica Civic on my own for one night and Ry Cooder was first on the bill and then Odetta and then us. I had four suits of clothing on.
I had this cape on, and this hat. I took that off and had a jumpsuit on. Took that off and I had another sort of jumpsuit on. Then I took that off and had a long Fillmore West sweater. Maxine had gone out and said [imitating Maxine], "Oooh, I've found these mauve tights, I bet you wouldn't wear them onstage," and I said I would, and this was all filmed, it was on the Henry Mancini show. [Bernie in hysterics.] Oh weird! And we had this big feller (he does the Sonny and Cher show now), better not call him a big mincing queen, who kept saying "Oh my God, oh my God, what's he doing, what's he doing?" He's one of those intolerable people who were going, "It's a disaster, it's a disaster, what's he doing?"
Bernie: Oh, so many of those people–
Elton: I mean, I look back and say, fuck me, did they actually happen, all those things?
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.