Tantrums, tiaras and tunes: a lifetime of Elton John
It seems to us, he’s lived his life like a candle in the wind . . . As Elton John releases his 30th solo album and the first in seven years, we look back at his colourful career
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in 1947, Elton John (he changed his name by deed poll in the late 1960s) went from being a teenage bar piano-player at Northwood Hills Hotel in Middlesex to forming his own band, Bluesology.
In 1967, he responded to an advert, “songwriting talent required”, in the NME, and sent off his CV to Liberty Records’ A&R manager Ray Williams. Lyric-writer Bernie Taupin answered the same ad and so the two were paired up. Embarking on a career that continues to this day (and which still involves working separately and exclusively – Elton writes the music, Bernie the lyrics), John/Taupin joined DJM Records in 1968 as staff songwriters, banging out unmemorable pop tunes.
Their modus operandi was very much to the point: Taupin would write a batch of lyrics in about an hour and John would write music for them in about 40 minutes. Anything that took longer than that would be thrown away.
As the 1960s drew to a close, it dawned on the pair (nudged into realisation by a music publisher friend of theirs) that it might be a good idea to write songs for themselves. The result of this was John’s 1969 debut album, Empty Sky, which, as a show of nascent talent, did the job. As a display of songwriting skills that would blossom into a 40-year-plus career, however, it was something of a failure. But then the 1970s arrived.
From 1970-79, Elton John had 17 Top 20 UK singles and 12 Top 10 UK albums. In an era when record sales meant something, John’s success was neither slight nor insubstantial. Intuitively, the US was part of the plan, something that would be continually signposted in Taupin’s lyrics across many of John’s albums released in that decade, and by the fact that John’s vocals adopted a noticeably southern American
accent (a stylistic trait influenced by his parents’ record collection).
More than that, however, was the rate at which John released records. From 1970-76, he released 10 studio albums, a feat unmatched by any pop star of his commercial/creative status before or since. Fuelled by ambition, there seemed to be no stopping him.
This was John’s halcyon period – his albums enjoyed huge commercial success, particularly in the US, as well as critical acclaim – but as the money rolled in, an increasing interest in pharmaceutical drugs proved troublesome to say the least. Band members were fired/hired, quality control suffered and stage shows took on the proportions of a glam rock circus. While wearing $5,000 spectacles that spelled out his name in flashing lights, John would dress up as Donald Duck, Mozart and the Statue of Liberty.
“I wanted to be like David Bowie and Mick Jagger,” John told Q magazine in 1995, “and have a lean athletic body, so that was the way I compensated for it. Usually when I was very large, I thought it would hide it, but of course it accentuated it. Do I regret it? No. Looking back on it, did I look like a prat? Yes.”
Having declared himself bisexual via a 1976 interview he gave to Rolling Stone (he has since admitted that saying he was bisexual rather than homosexual was “a cop-out . . . because I was probably scared”), John surprised all and sundry by marrying a close friend, Renate Blauel, in 1984. The reasoning behind it, John has said, was an attempt to offset deep unhappiness and, ultimately, his inability to address the real issue, which was that he was a drug addict. Albums were released, but quality control remained an issue; personal problems continued, not least divorce, throat surgery (which altered the tone and timbre of his singing voice) and, in 1987, his famous, successful libel case against the Sun, which had published false allegations of John’s sex “romps” with rent boys.
Throughout the 1980s, though, it was John’s addiction to cocaine (as well as being rather partial to joints and Martinis) that set him on a hellish odyssey. It had to stop, but not just yet.
“I was a complete, f***ed-up mess,” he has said. “I destroyed a lot of relationships – the only thing I didn’t destroy was my career. I’d spend days in my room doing coke . . . You get up in the morning, surrounded by empty bottles, the mirror’s covered in smears of cocaine – and the first thing you do is lick the mirror.”
From the 1990s to the present day, John has settled into a life that would have been unthinkable a decade or two earlier. Drug and alcohol-free, he took on a proactive role of involvement in the fight against Aids, establishing the Elton John Aids Foundation in 1992 and – from 1993 – the hosting of an annual fundraising Academy Awards party, which to date has raised more than $200 million.
John became even more of a British national treasure in 1997, when a new version of Candle in the Wind was performed at the funeral of his close friend, Diana Princess of Wales, at Westminster Abbey; the revised single (known as Candle in the Wind 1997) went on to sell more than 33 million copies, making it the biggest-selling single of all time. John was knighted a year later.
There followed a sequence of largely forgettable albums, many more hit singles, music for animated movies and Broadway shows (The Lion King, Gnomeo & Juliet), West-End musicals (Billy Elliot), Las Vegas residencies; he and David Furnish became civil partners on December 21st, 2005 (the day that the Civil Partnership Act came into force), the births of two sons and the accumulation of wealth believed to be in excess of €200 million (and that’s a conservative estimate).
Latterly, John has returned to his musical roots with 2001’s Songs from the West Coast, 2004’s Peachtree Road, 2010’s The Union, and his new album, The Diving Board. An interesting point, however: John has never written lyrics for any of his songs, making him the most successful male solo artist of all time (according to Billboard) to have never sung directly about his own life experiences.