Forty-five years ago this week, Elton took “Bennie and the Jets” to Number One on the Hot 100. And all this time later, we still know precious little about the fictional rock band at the center of the song other than the fact that lead singer Bennie has electric boots and a mohair suit, and her “weird and wonderful” group the Jets seem like some sort of glam outfit. All of this is told from the perspective of a crazed fan talking to her friends Candy and Ronnie about the band.
Like the vast majority of Elton John songs, “Bennie and the Jets” began as a lyric by Bernie Taupin. “I saw Bennie and the Jets as a sort of proto-sci-fi punk band,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014, “fronted by an androgynous woman, who looks like something out of a Helmut Newton photograph.” Elton first saw the lyrics while writing songs for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in 1973. “I knew it had to be an off-the-wall type song,” he told Rolling Stone, “an R&B-ish kind of sound or a funky sound. The audience sounds were taken from a show we did at the Royal Festival Hall years earlier. The whole thing is very weird.”
Elton didn’t see it as a single and fought with MCA when they tried to release it. “The only reason I caved was because the song was the number one black record in Detroit,” John said. “And I went, ‘Oh, my God’ I mean, I’m a white boy from England. And I said, ‘Okay, you’ve got it.’ It just shows you that you can’t see the wood through the trees. To this day, I cannot see that song as a single.”
Within weeks of the single being released, it hit Number One on the Hot 100. Elton has performed it well over 2,000 times in concert and it’s the opening number from his ongoing Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, but it’s one of the few songs in his repertoire that’s always sounded better on record than onstage. The band hit upon a magical groove at the Château d’Hérouville in France where they recorded it and it was simply too weird and wonderful to replicate.