Elton John was on a historic roll when he traveled to France in early 1973 to make what would become one of rock’s great double albums. He’d scored seven Top 40 singles in the previous two years, and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player had just topped the album charts. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road somehow managed to become even bigger than everything that came before, selling more than thirty million records and topping the album charts for an incredible eight weeks. Elton John has been a superstar for nearly forty-five years, but this was the peak.
On March 24th, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road will return to stores in a super deluxe edition featuring unheard demos, a live concert from 1973, and a bonus disc featuring covers of nine of the tracks by Fall Out Boy, Zac Brown Band and Ed Sheeran, who turned in a stripped-down version of “Candle in the Wind.” “It was actually Elton who suggested I do it,” Sheeran says. “I was apprehensive because it’s such an important song – to fans and to Great Britain after its [rerelease] around Princess Diana’s death.” John himself was thrilled with the covers. “Imelda May made ‘Your Sister Can’t Twist’ much more rockabilly than we ever did, and Emeli Sandé made ‘All the Girls Love Alice’ into a slow song,” says Elton John. “That really took me by surprise.”
In separate phone conversations, we spoke with Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin about the creation of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
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Elton John: “I didn’t even know what a joint was when I made Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. That all changed when I made the next record, but in 1973 I was very naïve. And the naiveté is the most pleasant thing about this record, probably.”
Bernie Taupin: “That’s very true. Drugs didn’t really come into play until right afterwards when we made Caribou and Rock of the Westies. The only thing I ever remember him doing was smoking a little dope back in the late 1960s in the studio with Dick James. But that’s about it.”
Elton: “On my first few albums, I didn’t get to use my touring band. When I came to America in 1970, we’d been playing live for about a year or so in England and really doing the opposite to what the Elton John album was about. We played the same songs, but we played them in a completely rock n’ roll style, piano, bass, and drums. When I did go to that momentous day at the Troubador in Los Angeles and I got the review from Robert Hilburn, it was a shock to people in the audience. They weren’t expecting it, but that was how we were. I do think the band was a little wounded since they weren’t on The Tumbleweed Connection or Madman Across The Water. It was important to me that they play on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
The Jamaica Sessions
Elton: “We went to Jamaica to write and record at Dynamic Studios in Kingston. That’s where the Rolling Stones had done Goats Head Soup and Cat Stevens had done Foreigner. And we thought we’d have a change of climate from the chateau where we’d done the last couple of albums.”
Bernie: “My memories of this are slightly fragmented. Obviously, we had grand intentions that came crashing to the ground once we got there and saw the studio, which was, to put it bluntly, abysmal.”
Elton: “I don’t know what happened. Both the albums I mentioned are really good. The studio workers were on strike, so we had to cross a picket line to get into the studio. That wasn’t very pleasant. Then some of the equipment broke down. They kept saying they’d fix it tomorrow, but in the Caribbean, tomorrow can mean three days.”
Bernie: “The climate was hospitable, but the natives weren’t. To use the terminology of the time, it was not a ‘good vibe.’ I remember a lot of barbed wire around the studio and armed guards. We spent a lot of time congregating around the pool area of the hotel, feeling there was safety in numbers. The Stones did manage to record there, but in retrospect I think they had a mobile unit with them. The only thing I remember trying to record was ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.’ It was an aborted attempted, just atrocious.”
Elton: “We just didn’t have time to wait around down there. So we thought, ‘We’re running out of money, we’ve got to cut our losses.'”
Bernie: “It really was an escape, more or less.”
Elton: “I have no memory of ever feeling like we were in danger down there. I found a centipede in my bed one night, but that’s about as frightened as I got. There was no fear factor. It was just purely monetary and budgetary. There were no hard feelings about Jamaica whatsoever.”
Bernie: “I remember everybody sort of jumping into whatever vehicles they could get in. It was a bit like the sort of Cuban revolution, trying to make it to the airport. I imagine it was like the scene from The Godfather Part II,where everybody is just racing for the airport. It was our mini version of that!”
Life At The Honky Chateau
After the disastrous Jamaica sessions, Elton, Bernie, producer Gus Dudgeon, bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson and gutiarist Davey Johnstone headed back to Château d’Hérouville, a 18th century chateau in northern France where they’d recorded their previous two albums, Don’t Shoot me I’m Only The Piano Player and Honky Chateau.
Elton: “When we got there, we really had to make up for lost time. I think that probably accelerated the writing process and the recording process even more.”
Bernie: “There was definitely the comfort of retuning to a place that you really were familiar with. So we basically set up camp, and everything really went pretty swimmingly.”
Elton: “During a typical day the band would come down, there’d be instruments around the breakfast table, Bernie would be writing at the typewriter, I’d be sitting at the electric piano, and as the band came down for breakfast, I would write the song, they would pick up their instruments and play it.”
Bernie: “There was a piano in the corner of the dining room and there was a long communal table where all the guys used to sit and eat breakfast. Elton would come up with a tune during breakfast. I’d write my songs longhand. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have a typewriter. One of the few things I remember very clearly, and this is easy to visualize now, is sitting on the side of my bed with a notepad, just writing. I’d just write stream-of-conscious lyrics.”
Elton: “We’d record about three or four tracks a day. They were mostly made up on the day they were recorded. We were a very tight band with a lot of touring experience. We’d capture more songs in two or three takes. The whole record took about eighteen days.”
The Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tracklisting almost looks like a greatest hits collection. The album features “Bennie and the Jets,” “Candle In The Wind,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and fan favorites like “Harmony,” “Sweet Painted Lady” and “Roy Rogers.” Unlike previous albums, the tone shifts wildly from pop to reggae to hard rock and even prog. Also, many of the lyrical images come straight from movies and television shows that Taupin loved as a child.
Bernie: “I wrote ‘Candle In The Wind’ about Marilyn Monroe, but she is absolutely not someone I admired a lot as a kid or anything. She was just a metaphor for fame and dying young, and people sort of overdoing the indulgence, and those that do die young. The song could have easily have been about Montgomery Clift or James Dean or even Jim Morrison. But it seemed that she just had a more sympathetic bent to her, so I used her. And she was female, and that was more vulnerable. But it was really about the excesses of celebrity, the early demise of celebrities, and ‘live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.’ And that was really the crux of the song.”
Elton: “I was a huge Marilyn Monroe fan, as well as Elvis Presley. When you saw them, they looked like they came from another planet. In the Fifties when I had my hair cut and I first saw a picture of Elvis Presley in Life magazine, I thought, ‘My God, who is this guy?’ And with Marilyn Monroe, it’s like, ‘That’s the most glamorous woman that’s ever been.’ I mean, her and Elizabeth Taylor…There will never be two more glamorous people. And they kind of changed the world.”
Bernie: “I’m sure there are people out there that would be happy if they never heard ‘Candle In The Wind’ again. But the thing is, if a song gets into the lexicon that way, that means it’s probably a good song. I think it’s one of the best marriages of lyric and melody that Elton and I have ever put together. But it doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t particularly enamored by Marilyn Monroe.”
Elton: “When I saw the lyrics for ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ I knew it had to be an off-the-wall type song, 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.”
Bernie: “I saw Bennie and the Jets as a sort of proto-sci-fi punk band, fronted by an androgynous woman, who looks like something out of a Helmut Newton photograph.”
Elton: “I didn’t think ‘Bennie and the Jets’ should be a single. I had an argument with MCA and the only reason I caved was because the song was the number one black record in Detroit. 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.”
Elton: “I vividly remember recording “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.’ I couldn’t seem to get the piano part right, so when the band played bass, drums and guitar, I laid on the floor did the vocal live. And then I put on my piano part afterwards. It’s an odd way of doing it. But I remember doing that because it felt, for some reason, the four of us, me playing live, it just didn’t work. So I overdubbed my piano afterwards and sang the vocal live.”
Bernie: “Over the years you tend to invent your own myths about songs because you feel it’s necessary to come up with a reason why you wrote a certain song. It’s been said on so many occasions that ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ relates to my English past. People says, ‘Oh, Bernie wrote it about a pub he used to hang out and get into fights at.’ It’s quite possible there’s a germ of truth in that. Did I say to myself, ‘I’m going to sit down and write a song about my childhood watching the mods fight the rockers?’ No, I don’t think that I did. With so many of my songs, the lyrical content has been misconstrued, misinterpreted and you get to the point where you feel like you have to make something up in order to make somebody happy.”
Elton: “I didn’t intentionally write the songs on that album in different styles. I grew up loving all sorts of music, and then I’m classically trained as well. That’s where ‘Funeral for a Friend’ kind of comes in. And then ‘Love Lies Bleeding,’ the two of them weren’t written together, we just stuck them together, and it worked. Things like that sometimes are a great surprise in the studio, little things just happen like that. Things like ‘Sweet Painted Lady’ is a very traditional kind of song. And then you have things like ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ which is completely off the wall.”
Bernie: “I have no memory of writing ‘Love Lies Bleeding.’ I have no idea where that came from. The same goes for ‘Jamaica Jerk Off,’ but I would imagine it was inspired by our adventure in Jamaica. A lot of the songs began when I came across a great first line. The perfect example is ‘The Ballad of Danny Bailey.’ I don’t know if I’d seen a movie or read a book, but I came up with the first line, ‘Some punk with a shotgun killed Danny Bailey/In cold blood in the lobby of a downtown motel.’ And that was it. It would have gone a number of different ways, but it ended up being a tune about a bootlegger. Again, it was one of those cinematic stories.”
Elton: “I really don’t know where his lyrics come from. I was just the guy who wrote the melodies, that was my job. I just love writing to his lyrics. I really don’t analyze them much. He’s never told me what sort of song to write. He just gave me the lyrics. It’s nice when you’re creating something that comes together like a jigsaw puzzle very quickly.”
Bernie: “A lot of my lyrics did come from the TV and movies I saw when I was younger. Like any other child of my generation in England, I grew up on American music, American movies and American television. All of my cinematic ideas were things like ‘Roy Rogers,’ ‘Candle In The Wind’ and ‘Danny Bailey.’ It’s been said many times, but Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a cinematic album. The lyrics to the title track do say that I want to leave Oz and get back to the farm. I think that’s still my M.O. these days. I don’t mind getting out there and doing what everybody else was doing, but I always had to have an escape hatch.”
Elton: “I don’t think that Bernie ever really liked the fame. He was always the quiet one and the more thoughtful one. I was always the one that said, ‘Let’s go out!’ I used to go out with Divine and dance at clubs. We’d both burn the candle at both ends, but I did it far more than he did.”
The album was the biggest hit of their career, staying at #1 on the charts for two months and turning “Bennie and the Jets,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” into worldwide hits. There would almost certainly have been more had they released “Candle In The Wind” and “Harmony” as singles.
Elton: “It was a very exciting time in my life. It was a time that we had no fear, nothing was beyond us. It’s a wonderful thing the young have when they get on a roll. We were running on momentum and adrenaline. And then if you’re a talented enough artist, you find your place within the playing field. And this was our example of being at the height of our creative powers.”
Bernie: “I don’t know if we set out to make a double album. I think it was just the quality of the songs and the amount of them that we had in in the end…I think it was the pinnacle of our career at that point.”
Elton: “We could have put out other singles like ‘Harmony’ and sold even more records. In those days, a record was off the radio after eight or nine weeks. These days, you look at the Adult Contemporary charts and it’s like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? This record came out two and a half years ago!’ We could have kept going with singles, but we’d already finished Caribou by the time ‘Bennie and the Jets’ came out as a single. We were ready to move on.”