Elton John has more hits than just about any other artist in the history of the recording industry. Enduring favorites like “Your Song,” “I’m Still Standing,” and “Tiny Dancer” have been in heavy rotation on rock radio for decades, and they’ve also served as the backbone of his live show and provided a soundtrack to his 2019 biopic Rocketman.
But they represent just a tiny fraction of the songs that John has written with lyricist Bernie Taupin since they met in 1967, and the new eight-disc collection Elton: Jewel Box — out November 13th — finally attempts to correct that imbalance. Curated by John and Taupin, the box set features obscure album cuts, B sides, tunes referenced by name in John’s 2019 memoir Me, and pre-fame songs written between 1967 and 1969 when the songwriting duo were desperately trying to make a name for themselves and finding little success. Jewel Box includes 148 songs, and 60 of them have never been released before. Each section has extensive track info with new commentary about the songs by John and Taupin.
“I collect box sets because I’m a nerd,” says John. “But often you don’t know where they start. They can be very confusing since there’s so much information that you don’t know where to go. But you open this one up and it reads like a book, so it’s not hard to follow. There’s also so much great stuff in there. I’m very proud of it.”
Taupin feels the same way, but he admits he was initially a little unsure about releasing so much of their early work. “I thought I might be embarrassed by their naiveté,” he says. “At that time, the whole idea of how to construct a song was foreign to me. The idea of verse/chorus/bridge was big-pants terminology to me. Back then, I was throwing it down on the page. It was brain-to-pencil sort of freeform. Finding my voice was a gradual process.”
“Come Down in Time” from 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection is not on the set, but to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Americana record, John is releasing a previously unheard jazz rendition of the song as a limited-edition 10-inch vinyl single. The B side is a demo of “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.” It’s out today along with a new vinyl edition of Tumbleweed Connection.
Elton called up Rolling Stone from his home in England to talk about the box set, “Come Down in Time,” his future plans, and much more.
There are so many songs on Jewel Box I’ve never heard before.
Me neither [laughs]. At least, I hadn’t heard some for years and years. Very rarely do I listen to old stuff, but when we did this I had to obviously listen to the stuff they wanted to put on the box set. There are things on it they suggested that I obviously did not remember. When I listened to them, I did slightly remember some of them. They took me back in time, a bit like a space capsule, to the very early days when I was writing with Bernie, and sometimes not with Bernie.
It was really sweet and touching. As I wrote in the notes, this is when we started to crawl. Then we started to walk and then we ran and then we flew. It shows very, very cohesively how our writing partnership developed. You can hear all [those] kind of naive and sweet and saccharine kind of things.
I didn’t want to put out outtakes from just the last couple of albums. This is a real historical album. I wanted it to be accurate. I had to go back and listen to stuff. It was sweet. It was a very pleasant reminder that Bernie and I saw together after 54 years, or whatever it is, how far we’ve come and how sweet the journey has been.
Tell me about this “Come Down in Time” outtake you’re releasing on vinyl. I’ve never heard this either.
It’s an outtake from the Trident [studio] sessions on Tumbleweed that I do not recall. When they sent me that track, I could not believe what I was hearing. I was like, “I do not remember this at all.”
It’s very jazzy.
I think that’s because I was playing with [guitarist] Caleb Quaye and [drummer] Roger Pope. I cannot remember who was on bass. I think Dave Glover. I just simply finished the song and then kept going. Caleb and Roger were very funky and Caleb was an incredible funky guitarist. We just went for it. I can see no other . We didn’t set out to do “Come Down in Time” with a jazz version at the end. That’s for certain. It was kind of an accident.
I’ve seen you say that “Come Down in Time” was a breakthrough for you chord-wise. Can you talk about what made that song so different for you?
It’s an unusual track from Tumbleweed because most of the other tracks were influenced from Music From Big Pink by the Band. We had just heard it and were so influenced by that, as were so many other people, and it did change the way we wrote. But “Come Down in Time” was much different. It wasn’t an Americana lyric. It wasn’t “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun,” “Son of Your Father,” or “Burn Down The Mission.”
It was a love song and a sad love song. I call it my pre-Sting song because it’s a song that Sting might have written when he started out. It’s an anomaly on that record, but I’m glad it’s on there because I still sing that song and I love it very much.
I love Bernie’s lyrics on that one, like “a cluster of night jars.”
That’s one of my favorite lines in it. You’re absolutely right. Obviously I’ve been singing Bernie’s songs for years. But the more I sing them, the more I realize what a great lyricist he is. When he wrote that, he was probably 19 or on the cusp of being 20. Although he became obsessed with the Americana thing on Tumbleweed, that was an amazing thing. It’s kind of like “Your Song” on the Elton John album. It’s a very adult lyric and a very beautiful lyric that has stood the test of time. That’s why I never got fed up with singing it. It’s the type of song that people like Diana Krall can sing or Sting, or whatever. I think Sting has sung it. I’m proud of that song.
When we were making those records, we had a budget. Tumbleweed and Elton John were recorded very close together. The reason I can’t remember doing the jazz version is we didn’t really have much time. We didn’t do many takes. We probably weren’t spending too much money doing that version because we had to move on to the next track. We had to make an album in three or four days. That’s it.
I love thinking about you two guys, barely out of your teens, writing this whole album about an America you just knew from movies and old Westerns. You hadn’t actually been here yet.
Bernie has always loved country music. His hero is Marty Robbins as well as Bob Dylan. He did become the Brown Dirt Cowboy. It’s ironic actually that I did become Captain Fantastic and he did become the Brown Dirt Cowboy. He still lives there and he may come from Lincolnshire, but he was always an American cowboy at heart. I think that writing Tumbleweed gave him the chance to live his dream lyrically. You don’t get any of those lyrics on the Elton John album.
Moving back to the box set, are there any specific early songs that you forgot, but were impressed by?
I can remember things like “Regimental Sgt. Zippo” because how could you not with a title like that? I can’t remember certain things. Some of the songs I didn’t remember, especially the ones I didn’t write with Bernie. I didn’t remember the ones I wrote with Nicky James.
I hated “The Tide Will Turn for Rebecca” because that was a time when we were with Dick James that we had to write songs for other people. That was not a song I would have wanted to sing myself. They were songs we wrote for other people that were completely ignored because they were awful.
We tried to write songs for others. “I Can’t Go On Living Without You” was written for the Eurovision song contest and Lulu sang it. Looking back, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. But the songs we really wanted to write were like “Angel Tree” and “Scarecrow” and stuff like that. The lyrics were very esoteric and very of the time, the late Sixties.
From those songs we went into Empty Sky and those songs were a step up from there. And then you get the Elton John album, which is enormously forward from that. When I look back, I’m like, “How did we make that leap so quickly?”
You guys started in late 1967 during the aftermath of Sgt. Pepper when so many artists were trying to be psychedelic. You were clearly going in a very different direction.
Well, it was a time of Nick Drake as well. At that time, I did some cover versions for Island of Nick Drake songs to make them more commercial and see if people would record them. It was the last leg of proper songwriters before the singer-songwriters came in. We had a lot encouragement from people like [producers] Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, who were brilliant towards us. And when people like Nick Drake came along, the publishers wanted to earn their money by getting other people to record them.
But they were so Nick Drake–ish that nobody else could really touch them. I did cover versions and Island paid me to do them to try and make them more viable for other people to record. But once you hear Nick Drake record, you can’t do any better than that. That was a failed experiment even though I loved recording those songs because they are such brilliant songs.
Cat Stevens was just starting. He was in the studio and I wrote a song with him and recorded with him. It was the beginning where everybody had heard Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor. It was shifting from the old Brill Building songwriting thing to the new people that wrote and recorded their own songs.
I had never heard of your aborted 1968 Sgt. Zippo album before. Are you happy that didn’t come out?
It wouldn’t have come out anyway. We wrote those songs as part of what we wanted to do. They were the songs that we wanted to write. Things like “The Tide Will Turn for Rebecca” were things that we didn’t want to write but were forced to because we were getting paid 15 pounds a week as an advance on our publishing royalties.
When Steve Brown joined the organization and took over our career, he went in to Dick James Music and said, “Listen, you’re wasting your time here with these two boys. They need to write songs they believe in and they’re not suited to write commercial songs. They can’t do it.”
And I’ve never once set out consciously to write a commercial song. I’ve written pastiches like “Crocodile Rock” and it became a hit. I wrote “Philadelphia Freedom” as a tribute to the music of Gamble and Huff. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was written because Kiki [Dee] and I were on holiday in Barbados and I thought it would be fun to record a song with her. Other than that, if I knew how to write a hit song, I’d be a very rich man by now [laughs]. You know what I mean. We were never good at deliberately writing hit songs.
But you have so many hit songs that they almost overshadow everything else you’ve ever done.
That’s why we did the deep-cut stuff [on the box set]. I’ve been extremely lucky to have a career that has lasted so long and it’s still going very strong because of the amount of songs we’ve written together. There’s too many. And of course, if you play concerts, and Mick Jagger will back me up on this, if you don’t play those songs, people will get pissed off. You put a couple of new songs in and people will take a toilet break, usually.
I wanted to put two albums of deep cuts of songs I really love and want to perform. I’ve performed a couple of them, but only a couple of times. When I do finish this world tour, if I do do a concert again, it will similar to what Kate Bush did at the Hammersmith Apollo [in 2014]. She came on and played for three weeks to 4,000 people a night.
If I do that, I don’t want to sing “Crocodile Rock” again and I don’t really want to sing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” again. They are wonderful songs. They have done me very well. But there are other songs like “Original Sin” and “American Triangle” that I want to sing.
People tend to review albums and they say, “Well, he hasn’t written anything good since the Seventies anyway.” But there’s a lot of songs on this that I’ve included from Songs From the West Coast, The Diving Board, The Union and albums before that like Ice on Fire and Made in England. They tend to write you off, but there are songs on those albums that I really love. That’s why I’ve included them on these two albums [on the box set.] I wanted people to hear them.
I loved that you included “My Quicksand.” That song just guts me and it really deserves to be heard.
That album [The Diving Board] I did in about three or four days with Jay Bellerose on drums and Raphael Saadiq on bass. I went back to a trio, basically. We got a couple of other things on it later. But I wrote and recorded it in three days. When I went into the studio, I had nothing. It was so great to work with a trio again. All the piano interludes on that album were just off the cuff. They were one-off. I didn’t record them over and over. I couldn’t remember them anyway.
My piano style on “My Quicksand” is probably one of the things I like to listen to if I play the piano. It’s very unusual since normally I’m banging the shit out of it. On this one, I’m not. It’s a very beautiful song and a very different song for me to write. It’s in the genre of “Come Down in Time” and also “Idol” from Blue Moves.
I’ve always tried to write different sorts of songs from different types of music because I love different types of music. We’ve written “Crocodile Rock” and then “My Quicksand” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” I love soul music; I love blues music; I love gospel music, country music. That’s because I listened to so much music when I grew up, and so did Bernie. And there was so much good music in the Fifties and Sixties and early Seventies that you just pick and choose.
I love spending time with young artists. i just spent time with Sam Fender, who I really love. He’d never heard of Leon Russell. He thought that Donny Hathaway had written “Song for You.” That was the only version he’d ever heard. It’s lovely to educate people. I showed him videos of Joe Cocker and Mad Dogs and Englishmen with Leon. He went, “Fuck me!” As songwriters, we’ve been so fortunate because we’ve drawn from everybody, all sorts of stuff.
Are you working on any new songs now for your next record?
I’ve got the lyrics, but I’m not in the mood right now to do an Elton record. I don’t feel like writing Elton songs. What I’ve done this year is I’ve done Gaga. I’ve done a track with Surfaces. I’ve written a song with Charlie Puth that hasn’t come out yet. I’ve done an Ozzy Osbourne thing and a Gorillaz track. I just did a Teyana Taylor video, which I loved.
I’ve been keeping busy doing other things with other people. And I do my radio show every week. But I’m not in the mood. I’ve got the lyrics. I had them in Australia when I was there. I thought, “When I’m on the road in Australia, I’ll be there for a long time. I’ll write some songs.” But I was too tired doing shows.
This time, I’ve just been catching up with my family and spending the time with my two boys and David. To be honest with you, it was a little strange at first. But I’m really lapping it up. For 18 months, they were on the road with me. I’m doing the best of it, trying to make a silver lining out of a dark cloud.