The Radio One Hype
Elton John is speedy, little and formerly Reg Dwight of Pinner, Middlesex. With recently shorn hair he looks like a friendly bespectacled cocoanut. Anything one says or thinks about him as far as music is concerned has to include his other half Bernie Taupin, the cat who writes all the lyrics for the duo's songs. The music these two produce mostly speaks for itself, but two tracks heard last week from the new album are best described as mind-fuckers, the best of their type to be recorded in months. I mean it. What seems to hang some people up when they talk about Elton John's music is the amount of influences that are so easily apparent in all his work. He happily owns up to being influenced strongly by everybody. Really, everybody. He dedicates one track on each album he records to the Stones, "Because I really dig them and I suppose because I do quite a good cod Jagger voice." He does too. The rest of the similarities are far too numerous to name but if you listen with half an ear it's possible to hear Feliciano, James Taylor, Neilson, Randy Newman, Simon & Garf. and so many others that the list becomes not only improbable, it gets boring. Listen hard and there isn't anyone you don't hear at one time or another. Not that it matters too much, the music is obviously derivative but who's isn't? Mostly it's just fuckin' good music.
Dick James, as has no doubt been mentioned before, was the guy who first realised the staggering potential of Lennon & McCartney and became their publisher. Now that guy is no fool. He is now big daddy for Elton John, and John operates from DJ House in New Oxford Street outwardly unperturbed by the whole straight music publishing house atmosphere that pervades every walnut/contemporary desked office. He speaks with real love and respect of both the Guvnor D.J. and the other DJ Jeff Dexter; he plays, or has played Radio One gigs with serious enthusiasm but describes his ideal gig as "somewhere like the Roundhouse where people listen." He is not contradictory, simply open and honest. He emits waves of exuberant confidence when you talk about his future, and even more important, so does everyone involved with his records, his songs or his live performances. It's infectious.
I talked to him because I think that along with his lyricist he will possibly become the finest, and almost certainly the most popular songwriter in England, and eventually the world. America is already beginning to clamour in typical stateside fashion for his records, and the day after we talked he was leaving for a tour over there. Reg Dwight was very, very excited about it but Elton John was cool.
His beginnings are valid if less relevant than his present scene, so we began by tracing his frustration from the time he stopped being an organist and became part of a formidable writing team.
"When we first signed with Dick, Bernie and I had just met through an ad in a music paper and I'd just left Long John Baldry's backing group Bluesology. I was fed up and wasn't a very good organist; anyway they wouldn't let me sing.
We were put on a retainer of ten pounds a week and expected to write dozens of hits for people like Engelbert thingummy which for a time we tried to do. Yeah, we even had a song in the last six of the Eurovision song contest one year, we didn't even know it had been entered 'till we saw it on TV one night, very frightening it was. Luckily it came last. My mother was very annoyed though, she sent in reams of postcards.
Just about that time a guy joined DJ from EMI. Dee Brown, and he's just about revolutionised this place since he's been here. Well one day he says to us that we were writing crap, and we knew we were so we sulked for a while, I mean crap is crap. Eventually he told us to go away and do whatever we wanted and we did. Since then we have vowed never to write songs for anyone but ourselves and we haven't. Oxfam asked us to do a thing which we did, but apart from that it's been music for me to sing.
If anyone rings up and asks they can have the songs with pleasure but we refuse to write specifically for anyone but ourselves. No more hustling with demos and all that shit.
Most of the stuff that has been covered has been diabolical. "Brainchild" have done one of our songs, who are they anyway, and that's awful; Rod Stewart has done "Country Comfort" on his new album (Gasoline Alley, still worth getting anyway.) and we're really pissed off about it. He sounds like he made it up as they played. I mean they couldn't possibly have got farther away from the original if they'd sung "Campdown Races". It's so bloody sad because if anyone should sing that song it ought to be him, such a great voice, but now I can't even listen to the album I get so brought down. Every other word is wrong.
It's so frustrating man 'cos all anyone has to do is ring up the office and there are file copies of all our songs in the desk and they are welcome to have the lyrics. Silver Meter (Micky Waller's terrible band) have done about four of our songs on an album that's out in the states and they are all the bloody same, so wrong, so totally wrong. Dorothy Morrison has done "Border Song" as a single in the States but I still don't know of anyone that has done one of our numbers that has made me stop and say yeah, you know. You would think someone would be able to get it together and get our lyrics right. Spooky Tooth's "Son of Your Father" was an abortion, it makes me very upset when people just can't be bothered to do things right.
"Lady Samantha" was our first record and although it's been deleted now is still gets lots of plays and requests etc. The first album "Empty Sky" was low budget to say the least, we recorded it in the little four track studio downstairs. The stereo was a con, anyone who bought it as a stereo album was definitely conned. I still get asked to sing "Lady Samantha" at gigs and I wrote it over two years ago now, along with "Son of Your Father" and "Country Comfort". The newest stuff is getting much funkier, which is more like I want it to be. It's taken a long time to be able to write the sort of music we want to without starving.
The music papers in the States said some really nice things about us, and now that the album is released over there it's done 30,000 in the first week and gone to 72 in the charts which is very pleasing. I haven't had any real chart success in England, in fact I've really just been a Radio One hype. Radio One have just seemed to like all the stuff we've done which is OK in some ways but in others it's a drag. It's really held us back if people hear a new Elton John record they don't just say "Yeah a new Elton John record, nice" they seem to start raving about it you know, and the people who might buy the record don't dig that too much; I certainly don't. I'd rather like to be someone like Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchel who just disappear and occasionally produce beautiful records. I don't want anything to do with the big fame bit. I like doing gigs but basically I'm a very quiet guy and I'm just as happy listening to other people's music as playing our own. I'd like to keep writing and making records now and then, that's all.
Our influences change all the time, obviously, but right now I'd say I listen to a lot of James Taylor and Randy Newman and Bernie is flashed on Robbie Robertson of The Band. You can easily hear that by listening to his lyrics. He used to be heavily into Dylan.
I'm very happy with the new album, much more the way I want to come over, the last album was a little too soft and too orchestrated for me. Paul Buckmaster is arranging for us again and he is just totally amazing. He's doing the most incredible things with straight session musicians. Half the time I just don't believe it. He has them all hitting their violins for three bars and they all love it. He is really freaky and very good. I'm so pleased that he's doing our album.
Last week we recorded a TV show that is really just about singer/songwriters, people like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Tom Paxton are doing it too. I'm really flattered when we're asked to do a show with artists like that. It makes me think that maybe it really is worthwhile.
I'm just happy producing songs as we are, even with all the influences, 'cos I don't give a shit for anybody. We have a completely free hand with all our stuff and I couldn't work any other way now. I don't have to do anything that I don't like. You just have to refuse things and be firm. At the moment I'm still struggling to get rid of this image that media like Radio One has built up for me, you know, people think that I'm all cuddly and lovely and beautifully pop-starrish. I'm not, really I'm not."
Original text Copyright ©John Coleman.