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EJ BT Interview 1990
To Be Continued ...

Growing Up

My father was away most of the time in the Royal Air Force, and I was really brought up in a fairly humble circumstances by my mother, grandmother and auntie. We always had music in the house. My auntie Win used to play the piano, and my grandmother and auntie used to put me on their knees, I’m told, when I was very young and I’d play. The radio was always on, my mother collected records, and I grew up really with a background of Nat “King” Cole, Kay Starr, Dean Martin, Guy Mitchell, Rosemary Clooney, all of those sort of people. It was a really good environment.

My parents are divorced, but my dad was a trumpet player, so I must have got my musical ability from his side. When I was about seven, my dad gave me a copy of Frank Sinatra’s Songs For Swinging Lovers, which isn’t the ideal present of a 7-year-old – I really wanted a bicycle. He brought me the Nat “King” Cole trio, with him playing piano not singing, and George Shearing … So I grew up with as wide a selection of music of the time as could be before rock ‘n’ roll.

I remember the start of rock ‘n’ roll perfectly, I went to have my hair cut, and while waiting I picked up a copy of Life Magazine. There was a picture of Elvis Presley in there; I’d never seen anything like it. I remember it vividly. That same weekend my mom came home with two 78’s – ABC Boogie by Bill Haley and Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis. She used to buy two records, 78s, a week, and someone told her these were wonderful. I said, ‘Oh, mom, I just saw this bloke in a magazine.’ It was just weird that it happened the same week. It changed my life.

I played piano by ear, and then when I was – I can’t remember the exact age – my parents said, ‘You should have lessons.’ I went to a woman called Mrs. Jones in my hometown Pinner. Then I passed the examination to go to the Royal Academy of Music and went from 11 to 15 years of age. I kind of resented going to the academy. I was one of those children who could just about get away without practicing and still pass, scrape through the grades. Sometimes when I didn’t do the practice, I used to go up to Baker Street, which was where the Academy is, sit on the Circle Line Train and go round and round on the Circle Line. Then go home and tell my mom that I’ve been to school. So I was not the perfect student.

Looking back now I’m really pleased that I had that training, even if I wasn’t willing to listen. But I must have taken quite a bit in, because you can see I’ve had classical training in the way I structure my songs melodically.

Bernie Taupin:
Contrary to Elton, I was raised in a very rural area in the north of England in Lincolnshire. My father was a farmer, and my mother had a very literary background because my grandfather was a college professor. She encouraged me to read, and I loved to read, especially narrative poetry. When I started listening to radio – which is where I first heard music – I listened to what we called the American Forces Network, and the first kind of music that I really loved was what we used to call skiffle. There was this guy Lonnie Donegan who used to cover all these great Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs. I always thought Donegan wrote them, these great narrative songs, like John Henry’s Hammer. Then I got turned onto people like Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash and their story songs. It was a combination of that and folk music, because folk had that narrative sort of thing, too.

When Elton and I got together, he turned me on to things that had grooves like soul music, Stax (Records), Chess (Records) and so on. In turn, I turned him onto folk music, narrative stuff like Bob Dylan. Then we got into people like Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins. So it think in many ways we complement each other, and I think we still do. we still enjoy music so much and play things for each other.

Elton John:
When I left school, I went to work at a music publisher called Mills Music for about a year as a tea boy, and I used to post the mail, and pack the parcels up. Then at 16, I was in a semi-professional band, Bluesology, and when we turned professional, it was to back all these wonderful people like Lee Dorsey, Patti LaBelle, and Billy Stewart when they toured England. My first gig was with Major Lance. I never really used to write songs, and the singer in our band was called Steward A. Brown. But when we went to my first audition, the head of Fontana Records, Jack Baverstock, didn’t like Stewart’s voice – he liked mine. So I had to write these couple of songs, Come Back Baby and Mr. Frantic. When you listen to Come Back Baby, you know why I got together with Bernie, because my lyrics just don’t make it.

I was very, very shy, very timid and overweight, never said boo to a goose, but I left Bluesology when we were working with Long John Baldry, because I wouldn’t play to people in cabarets, where people are eating and not into the music. I felt that was a dead end, the death of a musician. One of the misconceptions when we became successful was that various people said, ‘Elton John wears a costume because he wants to play Vegas,’ which is why I left Bluesology. I didn’t leave the band until….

Bernie Taupin: You were still in the band for about six months after we met. We met June, July of ’67, through the famous ad in the New Musical Express. The advert was for a company called Liberty Records, which was breaking away from E.M.I. they wanted writers, producers, new talent. I had gone through a series of jobs in the North of England, and, like Elton, had come to the end of my tether with what I was doing. When I saw this ad, I thought that since I had been writing poetry at the time, maybe I could write lyrics for songs. I had no concept that anything could come out of it.

You have to remember that this was 1967, the total height of hippies and flower power. The Beatles had done Sergeant Pepper and The Stones had done Satanic Majesties’ Request. So everything was ‘flowers of your mind and elephant’s gardens,” and being totally magnetic to anything going on at the time, I immediately penned about six lyrics that were absolutely God awful, pretentious, clichéd Swan Queen of the Laughing Lake, Year of the Teddy Bear, and things like that. I thought “This will do it,’ and sent them off to a guy named Ray Williams. I sent them not thinking a million years that I’d ever get a reply, but a couple of weeks later I got a letter back saying, ‘We find your material very interesting. We don’t know what we could do with just lyrics.’ Songwriters at the time basically wrote their own songs, the words coming after the melodies. So it was a kind of unusual situation, but they were obviously impressed.

God knows why!! The letter said, ‘If you ever happen to be in the area or if you happen to be in the area in the next couple of weeks, come by and see me.’ I was more impressed that somebody would think that me, this little guy from the sticks would just happen to be in Mayfair in the next couple of weeks. So I did my perfect Dick Whittington, packed my bag and went to London and stayed with an aunt for a few days.

Elton John:
I remember the suitcase. The original cardboard suitcase. It doesn’t even constitute hand luggage these days.

Bernie Taupin: I went to see Ray Williams, and he told me about this other guy who had failed miserably at his audition because he hadn’t any original material. So I went over to Dick James’ office. I remember sitting at the back of the studio – Elton was doing a session for a band – and I was almost thrown out several times because they didn’t know why this little hick was there. Finally, Elton said, ‘Is there a lyricist in the house?’ and we went for a cup of coffee. I think I gave him some lyrics or sent him some later on, but that was basically the beginning of it all.

Elton John: Liberty Records didn’t want me which was not surprising. When I was about 16, I used to sing in a local public house on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I’d sing and play Jim Reeves songs, Al Jolson songs. Fabulous! But it enabled me to buy my own equipment. So when I went to this audition at Liberty, they said to sing a song, and I sang Jim Reeves’ He’ll Have To Go. It was pretty horrendous. They were not jumping up and down with glee at this overweight, respectable thing that looked like a lump of porridge singing a Jim Reeves song.

But Ray Williams was friends with The Hollies, and originally we were signed to the Hollies music publishing company, which was GRALTO – Graham Nash, Allan Clarke, and Tony Hicks. That’s GR-AL-TO, administered through Dick James Music. we were going up to Dick James and making all of our demos, and one day it came to Dick’s attention. He said, ‘Who the hell is this person?’ But he took pity on us and liked us, you know, and we were really lucky. He was like a father figure.

The Name Elton John

Elton John: I was in Bluesology, and we were coming back from a Long John Baldry gig somewhere, and we got a bus from London airport to London and someone said, ‘We’ve made it now, so what are you going to call yourself?’ The saxophone player in the band was called Elton Dean, a very good jazz sax player, and the only other Elton I could think of was Elton Hayes, who recorded the song The Owl And The Pussycat. So I took Elton from Elton Dean and John from Long John Baldry. I wanted to choose a name that nobody had, and it was as quick as that.

I really became Elton John at the Troubadour Club (in Los Angeles) that first night. I was Elton John before that, but that was when I really launched into Elton John. After tha, there was no holding me back, in a lot of senses.

Elton John is the person that Reg Dwight always wanted to be, and there’s a lot of Reg Dwight that Elton wants to be as well. I was always uncomfortable with my name as a kid, Reg, Reginald. How can you call a baby Reg? A young person’s nightmare! I never like the name, and I’m only getting used to it now. I don’t find it so bad over here. I mean, Reggie Jackson sounds different. But in England, I couldn’t wait to change my name.

First Song

Bernie Taupin: The first song we wrote and demoed together was called Scarecrow. ‘See my eyes and see my face/The seagulls says you’ve gone.’ God, this is like Spinal Tap. It was one of the lyrics in the first batch I had given Elton. I remember because in those days, when you made demos, you made the old acetates, and I remember getting a copy of it and running home to my Aunt’s house and being so proud and playing it.

Elton John: It went around, it was a record, and it was our song! Growing up with records like he and I did, just to see a record going around on a turntable was a big buzz, and actually your first song going around on an acetate, Scarecrow, with E. John and B. Taupin, that’s amazing! So exciting!

Bernie Taupin: It’s a shame that one is not somewhere. It would be kind of special to have.


Bernie Taupin: The way we write songs is still unusual and probably always will be. It’s usually the melody that comes first and the lyrics afterwards or they come in tandem. We’ve always been the other way around. From day one, I gave Elton lyrics, and he would work on them. The whole process is separate and in that order. We’ve tried working the other way around, and occasionally it’s worked but it’s still always worked better…

Elton John:
He’s been amazingly tolerant. Bernie’s the birth of the song, all right. But there’s been times when I’ve written my part of the song, and he probably hasn’t heard it until we’ve finished the album. I know that there are times when he’s been disappointed or it’s not turned out how he likes it. Not so many times, but some, and we’ve never questioned that. We’ve never had an argument or questioned the way we’ve written. I think that’s one of the real secrets of how we’ve survived.

He’s much more involved in making the records now, because he’s a musician now and he’s made three albums on his own. And I want him to be more involved. But in the beginning, as Bernie said, he wrote in the narrative; he didn’t write songs. The early lyrics weren’t in verse and chorus form at all. He didn’t know about verses and choruses, he just wrote what he liked. Things like Madman Across The Water, Indian Sunset, Talking Old Soldiers were written in the narrative form. I used to be able to get 12 words in one line, because he had written 12 words in one line. It was magical thing. Yet I also used to do some things to his lyrics which were really heinous crimes, just cross out things and say, ‘Oh, sorry Bernie.’ That’s why the last verse of Daniel was never there, which explained the whole song. I said, ‘Too long, sorry.’ Somebody else would have gone nuts. But that’s part of our relationship – we give and take.

Bernie Taupin: Obviously, when you give somebody a lyric, you can say, ‘I see this as being a ballad or I can see it as being an uptempo rock ‘n’ roll song.’ Some of the things I’ve written are obvious Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me speaks for itself – it’s going to be a ballad. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting is not going to be a ballad. But, in general, what Elton has created from what I’ve created has been 95% of the time as I conceived it. He’s surprised me sometimes, and done something out of left field. And, maybe no, I didn’t like it. But there were other times where I haven’t seen it like that, but then thought, ‘No, this is better than what I thought.’

People say, ‘I like the early stuff because it was naïve, and out of that naivete came the classics.’ Sometimes you struggle to get back into that, but you can’t deny the fact that, yes, you grow older, get more professional. I like that fact that I’ve become more professional, and now when we write songs, we discuss them more. I think that it was very special that on Sleeping With The Past, which I’m very proud of, we had a new sort of collaboration, and I think we can go further on from there.

Elton John: You know, I don’t think that we have ever been in the same room when we’ve been writing a song. When I’ve been writing the melody to his lyrics. I don’t think we’ve ever sat there the whole time together, right?

Bernie Taupin: Right. When we first started writing songs, the first great songs that we wrote, we were both sharing a room at his mother’s apartment in Northwood Hills. I think that was when the great factory syndrome of our early stuff started. We had a bedroom at one end of the apartment and…

Elton John: Two bunk beds. His records and my records. His clothes and my clothes. Our first stereo. Someone asked me last night. ‘What does HP mean from Someone Saved My Life Tonight? We had bought that stereo system on the HP – you put an amount of money down, and we paid like six shillings a week to pay for this stereo. So he’d listen to his records, and I’d go in the lounge, which was about four feet away…We all co-existed in this little flat.

Bernie Taupin: I used to sit on the edge of the bunk bed writing lyrics. Then I’d walk down the corridor to the living room, and put them on his piano and go back and write some more.

Elton John: There were all these wonderful handwritten with many spelling mistakes.

Bernie Taupin: All the songs from the Elton John album, even Tumbleweed, and I think even stuff off Madman, all those early albums were written in that time on the upright piano. That was our little Brill Building.

Elton John: It was a wonderful time. We also used to buy so many records and listen to the sounds of the drums, the piano, bass sounds on the headphones.

Bernie Taupin: When we were first starting out, we used to go to a Musicland. At one point, Elton worked there on weekends, simply because he wanted to be around records. We used to hang out there like people hang out in a bar.

Elton John: I remember waiting till 8:30 at night for the new Led Zeppelin album to come in. When Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel came, we were so excited. We didn’t even know it was coming out…

Bernie Taupin: When the imports came in from the states, it was like Christmas … The funny thing was, we didn’t have the money to buy anything. He was making more than me because his retainer was more and he used to do sessions, too. He was getting 15 pounds a week, and I was getting 10, which is around 20 bucks. So I could only afford to buy two albums a week, if that. I always remember him saying, ‘Well, you don’t have to buy a copy, because I’ve got a copy, and you can always play mind’ – we were living in the same apartment. That was really sweet, but I’m saying to him, ‘You know, Elton, I’m not going to live here forever.’

Elton John: We managed to buy an incredible amount of albums. Looking back, we must have spent all our money on records. We knew every record that came out.

Bernie Taupin:
The record collecting must have been very influential on the early albums because you can see those influences in all the different styles we did back then – how different Elton John was from Tumbleweed. You’ve got this very righteous string album and then this funky down home sort of country album, which was obviously influenced by The Band.

Elton John: And Amoreena is Van Morrison; if you listen to Empty Sky, it’s the Rolling Stones; Valhalla is Leonard Cohen. It’s real easy to spot, and I think that’s great. We always were and still are fans, and I think that’s why everything was initially so exciting because I could not believe that I was on the same stage with someone like David Ackies, who opened for me at the Troubadour. David Ackies was one of my heroes.

Bernie Taupin: I ended up producing an album for Ackies, which is amazing. Back then, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that.

Elton John: The Beach Boys, they are a major influence on my work. Not Surfin’ U.S.A., but God Only Knows and Good Vibrations. Their sound, harmonies, the way they structured their songs. Some of their records sounded so amazing, like nothing I’d heard before. The most perfect sounding album ever was Surf’s Up by the Beach Boys. You can hear the Beach Boys’ influence on songs like Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Chameleon, God Invented Girls. The bass notes and the piano on Someone Saved My Life Tonight.

Bernie Taupin: To our credit, I don’t think that there’s anybody who came up at the same time as us who has been more diverse than us. We’ve tried everything, not always done it well, but at least it’s been interesting. We’ve done country songs like Dixie Lily. We’ve done blues songs. We’ve done pure pop. We’ve done reggae.

Elton John: That’s sometimes a downfall as well. On Sleeping With The Past, we made a conscious effort to try to get everything to have the same feel. That was because on Reg Strikes Back, which has come great things on it, we did so many different styles that there’s no continuity. Something like Tumbleweed had continuity, and so did Elton John. Then the more diverse we got, on things like Rock Of The Westies, which I love, but I don’t think diversity made for a great album. With Sleeping With The Past, I think we got back on track. It’s important for an album to have a good feel all the way through. Otherwise, it’s like writing a book and having every chapter have nothing to do with the last one. It’s very confusing.

Lyrics and Melodies

Elton John: I don’t really get into the lyrics until quite … I just think of the melody and how it’s going to fit the lyrics. When I perform on stage, that’s when I really get into the lyrics. Sometimes I’d like to go back and record some things because I could sing the lyrics so much better. Like Madman, which is the favorite album of some people, it’s not my favorite album. It’s got a lot of great stuff on it, but I sing (the songs) much better now than on that record.

Actually, I never realized how great a lyric writer Bernie was until I did the ’79 tour with just (percussionist) Ray Cooper, when I hadn’t done gigs for a long time. I wanted to come back and start again naked on stage. All I wanted to do is sing, play the piano, concentrate, and to interpret the songs better than I ever had. That’s when I realized that Bernie is one of the great lyric writers, because I suddenly got into those songs all over again. Some of the lyrics are timeless. One of the things that really bugs me about our relationship is, if we ever get bad reviews, they always have a go at him. I can’t think of many better lyric writers. Things like Country Comfort still don’t seem out of date to me.

Your Song

Bernie Taupin: I remember exactly when I wrote Your Song. Not the exact date, but I remember I wrote it when I was having breakfast. I remember because the original lyric of it still has egg stain on it. It has one of those set-the-coffee-down stains.

When I first hear the record, I thought it was a very good song, but I didn’t think it would become the ‘classic’ it seems to have become. Throughout the years, you fall in and out of love with songs. The more you hear one of those songs, the more you tend to negate it and find obscure songs that you think are much better. But, obviously, Your Song has something very special in there.

The “Elton John” Album

Elton John: The album was all done in a week, and then mixed. I played live with the orchestra. Everything was done live, including playing the harpsichord I Need You To Turn To. I was just an infant vocally at the time. Listening now I sound like a school boy with my balls cut off. My voice is much stronger now, because I know how to breathe properly.

The cover of the Elton John album was austere, but that’s, I think, part of the reason we got the rave reviews at The Troubadour (his first American show). I mean, I got this review from Bob Hilburn (in the Los Angeles Times) that made me a star in much of the country … Because of the cover, everybody expected me to come on like Randy Newman, and then I come out that first night jumping on the piano wearing hot pants! People went, “What the fuck is this?” I just think it was the perfect instance of luck, fate, being in the right place at the right time. The second night there was Leon Russell, who was my idol, sitting in the second row, and I’m in the middle of Burn Down The Mission and I spotted him. It was like, ‘Oh, My God!’ It happened so quickly. There was no hyping, no four week promotional tour. The record was getting groove time, and there was word of mouth, but my reputation was made as a live performer.

Some of the playing on 11-17-70 is quite incredible. I get depressed sometimes when I hear it because I don’t know if I can ever play as well as that again. That three piece band – Nigel (Nigel Olsson, drums) and Dee (Dee Murray, bass) and myself – we did different versions than the Elton John record, and the response … We could not believe it. We were like kids in heaven.

The Image Gets Wilder

Elton John: There was a shop in England called Mr. Freedom where we used to buy all our clothes. It was fashionable and very weird girl … I remember when John Lennon came to see me in Boston, to see whether he wanted to come on stage with me. I came out in a chocolate box outfit. It was just a heart with like a bikini, and John said, ‘So that’s what it’s all about,’ I loved it, but it got to the point where it did detract. I think Bernie got upset because it distracted people from the music, which it shouldn’t have done. We did some things then … We had ‘Legs’ Larry Smith touring with us. he would come on and tap dance to I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself, and he and I did a version of Singing In The Rain standing up in mackintoshes and hats. Very bizarre.

Bernie Taupin: I think the fact that he also tap danced in a wedding dress and crash helmet with the wedding cake couple stuck on the top of it…

Elton John:
Some of the things now I took back on and think I took it too far. For instance, we played the Santa Monica Civic Centre, and it was being filmed for someone’s show…

Bernie Taupin: The arranger Henry Mancini.

Elton John: Yeah, and Maxine, Bernie’s first wife, had given me this Fillmore West T-shirt, which was mauve, purple, and Maxine had given me a pair of mauve tights and I had these silver boots with stars…

Bernie Taupin: And you wonder why I got divorced…

Elton John: The Mancini show people were absolutely shocked … There’s this famous picture of me flying horizontal through the air taken that night. Maxine had dared me … I did some unbelievable things. It was the first time in my life that I could do anything I wanted, and boy, did I do it!


Elton John: We were contracted to do the Friends soundtrack before the success came. It was an interesting obligation we had to fulfill, because we were involved with Paul Buckmaster and we wanted to do a soundtrack. In those days, soundtrack albums were dreadful. For example, In The Heat Of The Night, I remember buying that album, and it was just Ray Charles, the cover, and the rest was a lot of old dross. So with Friends, we put three songs, Can I Put You On, Honeyroll, and the title songs. Honeyroll and Can I Put You On were going to be part of Madman Across The Water, and they come from that set of songs. We wanted Friends not to be just a lot of old filler. We had the first three track single in America, which was Saturday Night, different “B” sides, five-minute singles, and with Friends, we tried to make a soundtrack album that was value for money. We were so heartbroken with the sleeve, though. We’d always been in charge of our artwork, but Paramount (Records) said ‘Don’t worry about it. We will come up with a great sleeve…’ And they came up with this dross, I mean, it was hideous.

Bernie Taupin:
It was pink.

Elton John: It was also an exercise that I would never like to do again. I would never score a film again, too mathematical.

Tumbleweed Connection

Elton John: Lyrically and melodically, that’s probably one of our most perfect albums. I don’t thing there’s any song on there that didn’t melodically fit the lyric.

Bernie Taupin:
Everybody thinks that I was influenced by Americana and by coming here, seeing America first-hand, but we wrote and recorded the albums before we’d ever been to the States. It was totally influenced by The Band’s album, Music From The Big Pink, and Robbie Robertson’s songs. I always loved Americana, and I loved American westerns. I’ve always said that El Paso was the song that made me want to write songs. It was the perfect meshing of melody and storyline, and I thought that here was something that married rhythm and the written word perfectly.

Candle In The Wind

Elton John: I would think that Candle In The Wind has taken over from Your Song as our most popular song. It was weird having a hit twice with it in England. It wasn’t hit here (the first go-round) because when we did the Yellow Brick Road album, Candle was a single everywhere else in the world, but then Pat Pipolo and Rick Frio (MCA Records executives at the time) wanted Bennie And The Jets. To this day, I don’t see it as a hit record … We put Bennie out, and I threatened Pat Pipolo, ‘If it’s not a hit, it will be on your head,’ which was a real nice thing for me to do. We decided to put it out because it was the Number One black record in Detroit. Both of us being R&B lovers and big black music fans, that got to our ego; it was our first record that ever got in the R&B charts. In fact, it got to Number One.

Bernie Taupin:
The Candle In The Wind thing with Marilyn Monroe got blown out of proportion, because it turned everyone into thinking I was this Marilyn fanatic. But it wasn’t necessarily a homage to her. It was more about misunderstaning, ant I’ve said that song could have been about James Dean.

Elton John: We have so many people dissecting our songs in so many ways, thinking that we’re anti-religious, anti-semitic, and all this rubbish! So when we got to Caribou, whih was not the best of our albums, we were so fed up with it I said, ‘Bernie, go write any old meaningless rubbish,’ So he wrote Solar Prestige A Gammon, but little did I know, the swine, five fishes were mentioned in it. So we then had all these other religious maniacs coming and saying, ‘But there are five fishes…’

Bernie Taupin:
Some of the songs have had wonderful interpretations. My favorite one, I think, is Madman Across The Water. Because it was at the time of Watergate, everybody thought the ‘Madman’ was Nixon in the White House.

Elton John: Then we followed with Honky Chateau, and people said, “Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, yeah, White House!’ I mean, give us a break.

Bernie Taupin:
I’d like people to tell me what some of the early songs are about, because I don’t know. The best one of all is Take Me To The Pilot, I’ve not a clue what that one is about.

Elton John:
Gray Seal is another. Actually, it’s one of my favorite songs. Bernie hates that lyric, but I like it because of the mixture of music and lyric which is kind of Procal Harum-ish absurd, like a Dali painting.

Bernie Taupin: The lyrics certainly are.

Elton John:
Some of the Gary Brooker and Keith Reid (Procal Harum’s songwriters) stuff was like that, too. Wonderful stuff.

Bernie Taupin: It was interesting because they were the only duo prior to us that had done their songwriting like us. Whiter Shade Of Pale was originally a lyric and then the melody was added.

Rocket Man

Bernie Taupin: Everybody used to say that we ripped off David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and I’d say, ‘No, we ripped off Tom Rapp’ (singer-songwriter, former leader of the group Pearls Before Swine). ‘Tom Rap who!’ Well, he wrote a song called Rocket Man. Now, it wasn’t the same storyline, but I liked the idea of Rocket Man. It was a straight-to-the-point couple of words. You could build so much on it.

I was going back to my parents house when they were in the North of England, and I remember driving down the road and all of a sudden I just – BANG! – came into my head, the whole first verse. ‘She packed my bags last night pre-flight, zero hour, nine a.m./I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.’ It came out just like that, and I remember thinking, ‘God, I’ve got to remember that, I’ve got to remember that,’ then driving like 90 miles per hour around these country roads, rushing into the house. ‘Hi! Hi! Hi!’ And writing it down furiously before I forgot it. It’s one instance that remains vivid in my memory.

Elton John: There is a connection with Space Oddity, though. When we did the Elton John album, Steve Brown said, ‘Who would you like to produce it?’ We heard this recording by David Bowie, which Paul Buckmaster arranged and Gus Dudgeon produced. That was where we got our team. If you listen to Space Oddity today, it’s a wonderful record, great song. I said, ‘I want that producer and that arranger.’

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Album

Elton John: How it came out like that I’ll never know. We’d done Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me in France, and we thought, ‘Let’s go somewhere else to record. Where can we go?’ At that time, the choices were pretty limited. There weren’t that many good studios in the world. In fact, the Chateau (Strawberry Studios) in France, it’s a miracle what actually came out of there when you consider the studio. But I said, ‘The Rolling Stones have just done Goats Head Soup in Jamaica, let’s go there.’ So we arrived, I think, the day after the George Foreman – Joe Frazier fight – the place was swarming with people. We stayed at a hotel called the Pink Flamingo or something like that. I was afraid to go out of the room, because it was pretty funky in downtown Kingston, and most of those songs were written in two or three days in my hotel room on an electric piano. Les McCann (Jazz pianist) was playing in the hotel. That was the only thing good about it.

When we actually got into the studio, the only thing recorded was a really frantic version of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, which I’d love to hear. When we played it back in the studio, it sounded like it had been recorded on the worst transistor radio. We had so many problems with the studio, like no mikes and the equipment … God knows how The Stones got an album out of there. In fact, Cat Stevens’ Foreigner album was done just after we left.

Bernie Taupin: If I remember rightly, the studio was surrounded by barbed wire, and there were guys with machine guns.

Elton John: And some people were striking and picketing the studio, which was also a record plant, and when we’d go in, these picketers would blow crushed fibers through blowpipes at us. We would come out of there with rashes … After the playback, we panicked. We’d come all the way here at great expense, all the equipment’s here. What are we going to go? Go back to the Chateau. Then the nightmare started. They impounded our equipment, and when Bernie and I left the island, we had a taxi ride to the airport that took us through sugar cane fields. I thought I was going to be killed.

Bernie Taupin: It was pretty frightening.

Elton John:
The album itself was recorded in about 15 days. The Chateau wasn’t the most technically wonderful studio, but there was something magical about it. I’m not impressed with studios that look fantastic and then there’s no atmosphere about it. I’d rather have a shitty old desk … I mean, the first thing Bernie and I did when we went to Memphis was go pay homage to the Stax studio eight-track machine with the valve, because the valve made a difference on the Al Jackson snare drum.

I’ve never been technical in any respect, and we were lucky to have (producer) Gus Dudgeon guide us through those days. The amount of work we did … We used to record three, four, five tracks a day. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting was the weirdest one. That was so hard to record. The only way we could record it in the end was for the band to play it, and then I put the piano in and sang afterwards. The first time I’ve ever recorded standing up, singing and leaping around the studio, going crazy. It was hard because it’s not a typical piano number.

Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy

Bernie Taupin: I think that’s probably the finest album we’ve made. The interesting thing about that album is that it is the first album that went straight to Number one on the Billboard, Cash Box and the rest of the charts back then. But it’s probably one of the least commercial albums we’ve ever done, because we went out to make a concept album. I’d written the songs chronologically, so we had to put them in that order.

Elton John: That made it easy to write in a way, because you had a link. You could visualize what song was going to finish and when the next one was going to start. It was quite easy for me to write because it was the first album that was about me.

Bernie Taupin:
The story of the album takes place, autobiographically, from the time that we met to the time we recorded the Empty Sky album. So it’s about a really short period of time, but I think it was when we were really discovering our craft and discovering each other and how we got along. It deals with both of us separate from each other and the feeling we were going through – me possibly being homesick and Elton going through a relationship from which spawned the only single of the album, Someone Saved My Life Tonight. It was very interesting to write about real incidences, and it was a good lesion because, when I write I write very quickly, it rolls out. With this, I took much more time. I would write something, then I’d go to something else, then go back and work some more on what I’d done previously. It was a new exercise, and I think it really paid off.

Pinball Wizard

Elton John: The story of Tommy was that the role was originally offered to Rod Stewart, and he said to me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Oh, don’t do that! It’s not a good thing for you to do.’ Rod and I are friends and kind of rivals. Then they romanced me so much. In the end, I did it because Pete Townsend rang me up and said, ‘Please do this song.’ And Pete had always been a very big supporter. I remember Pete sitting out there when I first started, and I’m a great believer that if people have done you great favors or have been supportive, you should do things back for them. With a song like Pinball Wizard, I thought, ‘I can’t really go wrong,’ and it was great to work with Ken Russell. It was like doing Top Of The Pops with huge shoes.

So I told Rod not to do it, and I ended up doing it. He was really furious, and quite rightly so.

Blue Moves

Bernie Taupin: Blue Moves came on the heels of Rock Of The Westies, which like Captain Fantastic, came in at Number One. So I think that there was a lot of pressure, a feeling of ‘How many times can we keep doing this?’

Elton John:
We had tried to change with every album up to that point, but Blue Moves was the most drastic. I was aware that we had been at the peak of our careers, and that that was going to level off. And we just did a blatantly uncommercial album. It wasn’t on purpose, but … it’s full of fine songs, and has a great band. I think Blue Moves is a very poignant album. We were all weary, feeling the pressure and needed a break. Out of those situations comes rawness, and some of the lyrics are real desperate, I just love the album.

Philadelphia Freedom

Elton John: It was written for Billie Jean King (tennis star). At the time, we were making so many albums, but we liked to make separate singles, too. I said to Bernie, ‘Will you write a song called Philadelphia Freedom for me? Thank you, Elton.’

Bernie Taupin:
Not exactly the easiest title to deal with, I might add.

Elton John: Billie Jean King, a friend of mine, she had the team The Philadelphia Freedom at the start of World Team Tennis. I said, ‘I shall write a song for you.’ ‘Here Bernie, good luck.’ But it was at the same time of all those great O’Jays, Billy Paul, the MSFB records were coming out of Philadelphia. I still get a kick out of the fact that Your Song was the B-side to Me And Mrs. Jones. Philadelphia Freedom was a tribute to that music, and from a one-off single point-of-view, I don’t think we’ve ever bettered it. It’s also one of the few things I did all the backing vocals to.

The Thom Bell Sessions

Elton John: Again, I’m a big soul fanatic, and that led me to Thom Bell, because I was a big fan of the Stylistics and The Spinners. I just love the way his records sounded. Very dry sounding records. He was the first person that ever taught me about my voice. He said, ‘Listen, you’re not using your voice correctly. You write too high for yourself.’ Which I actually do, he was right. I wasn’t very pleased with him telling me at the time. He said, ‘You don’t use your lower register enough, and you don’t breathe properly.’ I thought, ‘Oh, fabulous, we’re going to get on really well.’ Well, he was right. I used to make these records and would never stop to think about my singing. I don’t do Yellow Brick Road anymore basically because it’s fucking hard to get the soft notes.

John Lennon

Elton John: John was a part of our lives for about a year, a really wonderful year. The thing that impressed me most about John Lennon was that he would walk into a room full of people, and I’d be in there with my friends, and he’d be just as nice to everybody and make as much a fuss about all of them as he would of me. He was very genuine, and it was a very difficult period of his life. I had heard all these stories, ‘John can be so vicious.’ I’m sure I can be so vicious.

Bernie Taupin: He had a great humility about his songs, too. I remember him once on a plane going to Philadelphia from New York – it was just after he played with us at the Garden – and he was talking about writing songs, and he actually said to me, ‘Well, I wrote this song called Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. I don’t know if you’ve heard it.’ I mean, ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard of it!’ and it was said so genuinely. Like ‘No shit! Really?!’

Elton John: And he loved people recording his songs, even ripping off his songs … As a result of him coming onstage at the Garden with us and everything, I said, ‘Now, I really want to do one of your songs as a single. Which one song would you like me to do?’ He said, ‘No one ever recorded Lucy In The Sky,’ All of their songs were covered by millions, but no one did Lucy – it’s not a typical song. So he came up to Caribou (Studios) when we recorded it, and I did One Day At A Time as the B-side – I thought that was a beautiful song.

When John died, it really did affect me a lot. I still can’t believe sometimes that he’s actually not there. I was living in Paris at the time, and not going through a particularly good period of my life. I was very depressed, and I wrote an instrumental called The Man Who Never Died. I really like it a lot. And Taupin wrote Empty Garden. I was so impressed with mine, but when Bernie came up with the lyrics for Empty Garden, I didn’t think anyone would be able to say anything without being clumsy or cheesy.

Bernie Taupin:
Like Elton, I was completely devastated when John died. I think I was in a total blur for a week. You know, that total helplessness you feel about death, and I thought I’ve got to do the only thing I can do. I don’t remember writing it. It just fell on the pate. Later, so many people have said to me about Hey, Johnny, won’t you come out to play? They said, ‘Oh, you were taking lines from different Lennon songs, Dear Prudence / Won’t you come out to play’. I never thought about that when I was writing it.

Elton John: I don’t perform … I performed it once on a tour, and I won’t again. I find it very hard to sing. It upsets me to sing that song.

I’m Still Standing

Elton John: A great song to sing. At that point, I was struggling over here with my record company that I was with. And it was kind of like defiant. It was also the best video I’ve ever done. Also, Too Low For Zero is a fine, fine album.

Bernie Taupin:
I think Too Low For Zero was another turning point because it came on the heels of Elton and I writing very sporadically together over the two years prior. We had started working again together, but that was our first total commitment again, and it worked.

Elton John: I get asked this so many times. ‘Oh, I see on your new album, you’re writing with Bernie again?’ Let’s clear up this misconception. At the time I did the Single Man album, I was living in England, Bernie was living here (the U.S.). We never at any time in our lives fell out with each other or had arguments. It was just that he was here, and wrote an album with Alice Cooper. Both albums came out at the same time, so it was kind of a rivalry thing as well. But it was never, ever a split. It was just a healthy time apart. I think if we didn’t have that break, we would never have survived. I had fun going around writing with other people, and then after that there was Taupin songs on 21 at 33.

Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Elton John: It was an idea that my Australian promoter came up with. And he’d approached the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and they weren’t interested (at first). We’d already experienced doing it was Paul Buckmaster on the Here And There album, and that was a nightmare because the players we used weren’t part of the Symphony Orchestra. They were session players, and all they could basically care about was who won the four-thirty at Doncaster. I saw the Eagles at Wembley with a string section, and they might as well not have bothered. You couldn’t here the strings. I wanted the orchestra to sound as loud as the band. For a year, Gus Dudgeon (producer) investigated microphones. Every person in the orchestra is miked, and Clive Franks (engineer) and Gus put a lot of work into making sure that when we were onstage and playing Have Mercy On The Criminal you could hear the strings.

It was a very special album to me. it was me falling to bits, I couldn’t sing. I sang, but I don’t know how I sang. Most of that album was taken from the last night of the tour, and on things like Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, I was crying when I was doing that. My life was an utter disaster area, and one thing I love about the album is that you can feel the emotion. It really did work, and it was a really big orchestra that we went on tour with. I don’t think anyone else has done that. One time, yes, but not on tour.

Reg Strikes Back

Elton John:
The album was deliberately called that because I vowed after the Australian tour that I would never wear those costumes again. I must admit I did carry that on far too long. All the costume are on the cover because that’s the last time you are ever going to see me near those. It was a cutting-off period in my life.

When I went into the studio for Reg Strikes Back, I was having the most horrendous time with the newspapers in England. I was suing a newspaper who’d accused me of certain things, and it went on for a year and a half and I was so depressed. The only thing I could do to get myself out of this was to go back to work, so I went into the studio to do an album. It may not be the best album that we’ve ever done, but it got me in the studio and working again. Whenever Bernie or I have gone through periods of life when we were emotionally low, we’ve found that the best thing to do is go back to work. It gets you functioning again. I also found a band, a good band, and did a world tour and went straight back into the studio to do Sleeping With The Past with this band.

Producers Gus Dudgeon and Chris Thomas

Elton John: We’ve been very lucky. We’ve basically had two producers in our life, Gus and Chris, with a couple of other people thrown in. If you’ve got a producer, you usually let them run the show. I’m not technical at all, I’m not a big fan of technology, and I think you waste too much time in the studio. We used to make records really quickly, and they were some of the best things we did. Technology now goes too far. Sometimes producers spend too much time in the studio on what they want to hear. People buy records from an emotional point of view. If it’s got atmosphere, if it’s got a song they like. They’re not going to hear when there’s a fucking harmonic going on at the end of the song, which you can waste two days on.

Gus Dudgeon is still the same Gus that he ever was. His body of work speaks for itself. I never went to mixes and we were fortunate to have Gus, the engineers, Nigel, Dee, Davey (Davey Johnstone, guitarists), Bernie, me, and (manager) John Reid, it was a team and it worked. You go back and listen to those records, and he did them in two and three weeks. I can’t knock that.

Bernie Taupin: I think to Gus’ credit he did a lot of things that broke ground.

Elton John:
For example, the introduction for Funeral For A Friend Dave Hentschel did on a Moog synthesizer. That introduction must have taken him forever, one note at a time, one instrument at a time. I still think that sounds just as good as anything that comes out today.

Chris Thomas and I have known each other for 32 years. He was at the Royal Academy of Music with me, and Paul Buckmaster was there too. Chris only hears out of one ear, and I’ve never really worked out how he produces records. The thing I love about Chris … and Gus also … is that they were very good at structuring songs. If they didn’t like something in a song, they weren’t afraid to tell you. ‘You should put the verse there, the chorus there.’ Sometimes you write a song and you need that. You think, ‘No, No, how dare you! This is my baby I’ve just written! Don’t tell me it’s wrong!’ They’re usually right.

The ‘Now’ and the Future

Elton John: I’m always concentrating on what I’m doing at the moment. Whenever I say I’m going to do this or try that, I never bloody well do it. I’d like to take a few chances with the next album. But I think we need to take a year and a half break, do some one-off things. That’s great fun.

Bernie Taupin: I think the box set’s good because it’s sort of a milestone. That’s that, a piece of history; take a nice long break and start all over again with something new.

Elton John: I think the fact that we’re still together – and closer than ever and enjoying writing as much as we ever did – is quite extraordinary.

Bernie Taupin:
I think if we didn’t enjoy writing anymore, and we were tired of it, we’d admit it and give it up. I hate wallowing in nostalgia. I always say, you have to improve or die. If you don’t thin that what you are doing now is your very best, you shouldn’t be doing it. I think the songs that we’re writing now are some of the best songs we’ve written. Because we’ve gone through the various ups and downs, people tend to be obsessed with the old songs. But I think that if they took the time to listen to some of the songs that we’ve written in the past few years, on the last few albums, they’d find that these are some of the best songs we’ve ever written. We’ll keep doing it until we say to each other, ‘Hey, this is not happening. I’m not into it; this is boring.’ Then we’d quit.

Elton and Bernie interviewed by Andy McKaie in May 1990, Beverly Hills, California.

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