He may be rock's most unlikely star, but he's also the king craftsman of pop who's charted more singles than anyone except Elvis.
“This dumpy guy came into the office. He was a bit fat, a bit forlorn looking.” That was the reaction of one of the staffers who watched a boy named Reginald Dwight walk into a London song-publishing company in 1967. The interesting thing about Elton John — for it was he — is that the story of his career does not include an obligatory remaking. Pudgy he remained, somewhat forlorn he stayed, and in the nearly 35 years since then he has continued to be a slightly blurry and eager-to-please persona.
The entrancing wonderment of Elton John’s career is this utter ordinariness. At the beginning he made a name for himself being himself: He recorded albums full of courtly, pleasant songs far removed from the acid rock tropes of the day. He was polite and unassuming, and worked hard and persevered in a state of beatific (if sometime agitated) self-doubt. The outlandish costumes and ferocious stage shows that came later were merely a way to compensate for this humility, and not disappoint fans.
In the end, he accomplished, one could argue, three things. First, for a time, he recorded utterly distinctive, if unfailingly pop-based, albums and singles, a surprising number of the tracks of which are highly listenable and delightful to this day — albums like “Empty Sky,” “Elton John,” “Honky Chateau,” “Madman Across the Water,” “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” among them.
Second, he became popular on a level very few pop stars are allowed to. Paul McCartney, after being a part of the dominant commercial pop force of the 1960s, put his mind to it and sold more records than the Beatles did during the subsequent decade, creating a commercial juggernaut that obliterated everything before it — save for the career of that dumpy boy from Metroland, who handily out-sold and out-charted McCartney through the ’70s. And finally, even after a long period of irrelevance, John pushed himself again into the spotlight, using little else but his agreeable personality to become a sober sight at celebrity funerals and an adorable toupee-wearing teddy bear at benefits.
His latest album hit the top 10 — and a few years ago a remake of a 25-year-old song became one of the biggest-selling singles ever. He’s now been a most unlikely star for 30 years.
The arc of John’s career, artistically speaking, is not an unusual one — early works of irresistible charm and prodigious commercial appeal, followed by a decline that, as the decades pass, takes on a length that eclipses, many times over, the period of the good stuff.
But … his good stuff is so good. Fans forget that his first few albums — “Empty Sky,” “Elton John,” “Tumbleweed Connection” and the soundtrack to the 1971 movie “Friends” — are for the most part soft and moody exercises of slightly elevated singer-songwriting, chamber rock division. (His seminal ’70s albums, with the exception of “Friends” and “Blue Moves,” are available now in terrific remastered versions, complete with outtakes, non-album singles, live tracks and so forth.)
His record company liked his work but worried that, amid the furious psychedelia of the day, his music would get lost. This was not without reason; many of those who heard it simply loved John’s self-titled second album, yet so complex and overwrought were the dominant sounds of the day that the record languished as single after single was released. It was months before someone noticed that John had written a pop standard for the album — “Your Song.”
The hit that resulted suddenly made him a star. By this time, fortunately, he was poised to capitalize on it. A body of artistic support had cohered around him, including a songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin, who hailed from a town in eastern England called Owmby-by-Spital; arranger Paul Buckmaster, who would create the striking, sometimes shattering string backings in songs like “Madman Across the Water”; and the members of what came to be called the Elton John band, including Nigel Olson, Davey Johnston, Dee Murray and Ray Cooper.
Perhaps the most important of these was producer Gus Dudgeon, whose remarkable good taste virtually never erred, from the deceptively plain (“Daniel”) to the deceptively outré (the alluring “Rocket Man”). (If nothing else, consider how John has never delivered a persuasive live album, despite decades of trying; and for one small example, think about how the futuristic “Rocket Man’s” most telling touch is an anachronistic slide guitar. Dudgeon may be the most underappreciated producer of the era.)
From this point on John released a succession of lucid and accomplished constructions: “Madman Across the Water” remains one of the great albums of ’70s rock, including songs like “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon” and the ambitious title track. “Honky Chateau” contained “Honky Cat,” “Rocket Man” and the pretty “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” The next album, “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player,” had a fabulous retro hit, “Crocodile Rock,” and a luminous song about a man “leaving tonight on a plane”: “Daniel.”
Both became big hits in America and the U.K.; indeed, as Philip Norman notes in his well-reported biography, “Elton John,” John had unexpectedly become a teenage idol. Even as he retained the reluctant respect of the rock intelligentsia with his undeniable flair for melody and his partner’s enigmatic lyrics, he became a safely and lovably outlandish glitter boy, sexless in a cuddly way and artistically dependable like no other star of the day.
John followed these estimable works with a gold-plated suces d’estime, the double album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which took his pop expositions to both fanciful and quite moving levels. It is at once bombastic and overwhelming and yet also dotted with unexpected twists and turns and melodic delights. It’s not as picaresque as the White Album — John and his collaborators are merely high pop artists, not geniuses — and it lacks the production vision of something like the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” That said, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” still swept the kids off their feet with track after track of surprising pop virtuosity.
Even after the lugubrious but powerful “Funeral For a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding),” the refreshingly unironic “Candle in the Wind,” the rocking “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” the giddily incomprehensible “Grey Seal,” and the surprisingly melodic title song, there is more — tacked on at the end is arguably Taupin and John’s simplest and prettiest song, the mournful “Harmony,” and bursting off the first side (after “Funeral for a Friend” and “Candle in the Wind” and yet trumping them both) is John’s greatest pop triumph, a sui generis masterpiece and a sonic marvel laden with falsetto, whistles and crowd rustle called “Bennie and the Jets,” which unaccountably became a massive pop and R&B hit and a platinum single, back when that meant something.
The follow-up, “Caribou,” is the least attractive work from this period, despite the powerful ballad “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me.” John finally capped this productive era with an odd album. “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” was a surprisingly sweet and confessional dual autobiography in which he and a suddenly straightforward Taupin recreated their first years together. “I wrote such childish words for you,” Taupin tells his partner and their audience; looking back, he is right (too many people praise Taupin for his unconventionality, which is different from being good), but that only underscores the fact that the more mature reminiscences here represent laudable growth. On this album, too, there are surprises, most particularly the overwhelming and emotional “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a bald confessional that told the story of a brush with marriage John had during his and Taupin’s early years together.
It is, as a whole, overly mannered but audacious nonetheless, and its shocking commercial success — “Captain Fantastic” debuted at No. 1 on the charts and stayed there, a feat unheard of in those days — solidified his stardom.
John then did what many stars like him have done — delivered a few more albums of fairly superior but relatively uninspired product. “Blue Moves,” is a stark and emotional but uninvolving double album and after that … well … Even if, like me, you find his latter career dotted with tracks that range from the enjoyable (“Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” “Empty Garden”) to the oddly likable (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “I’m Still Standing”), it’s hard to get really worked up about them.
As John’s artistic life unfolded in this way, he lived like a surprised but willing star. To compensate for his portly appearance and studio tendency toward the soft, his stage show had evolved into a multi-costume, well-lit rock extravaganza, and he became a media darling with his fondness for his mother and his wholesome splendor — a Liberace for the teen set.
Taupin’s muse seemed unconcerned with what society demanded — he could be cheerfully ribald, nasty, flippant — but his lyrics and the melodies John set them to came in both instances from good souls with unwavering artistic integrity. The pair would never deliberately say something to offend people, true, but if they ever did offend people one could be sure they would never back down.
In the meantime, John was living with his manager — a sometimes dictatorial martinet named John Reid. Let’s see, a guy who traveled with his mom and shared an apartment with a special male friend. Could he be gay? Nah! It wasn’t until a sensational Rolling Stone cover story in 1975 that he dropped the news, saying that he was “bisexual.” The word seemed a euphemism at the time, but John periodically had female relationships and abruptly married a woman named Renate Blauel in 1984.
Yet no one — aside from rival fans of the British soccer team he bought — paid much attention. Soon came “Captain Fantastic” and a greatest hits collection that would become one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, but behind the scenes, he was beginning to drift. The quality of his albums tanked, whether he was working with Taupin or other lyricists. I saw him in the early 1980s at a small theater; he was more than plump — bloated, really — and, clad in what looked like blue silk pajamas, he padded around the stage like a drugged bear.
The ’80s became a lost decade of pill and cocaine addiction, a fight against bulimia, and financial profligacy. The outside world intruded again and again — there was a debilitating court fight against his original song publisher, Dick James Music, spearheaded by the relentless Reid, by then his ex-lover. In the late-1980s, he was dragged into an extraordinary, unprecedented years-long range war with the Sun, Britain’s most merciless tabloid. His lawyers filed nearly two-dozen libel suits against the paper for its flame-throwing reports on everything from the star’s alleged orgies with young boys to charges that he’d abused his guard dogs. But he persevered, and eventually won 1 million pounds, court costs and a front-page apology from the paper, which admitted the charges were untrue.
By the 1990s things had settled down. He broke up his professional relationship with Reid, abruptly, in 1998. He then sued his former manager, saying Reid had mishandled his money. Reid went gleefully to court and demonstrated that John was capable of blowing tens of millions of dollars a year. (The most notorious expenditures: $200,000 a year on flowers.)
But John has a gift for minting money on a scale that perhaps no other pop performer ever has. In just the last 10 years — writing songs for hit Broadway musicals (including “The Lion King”), touring and collecting songwriting royalties — he has probably made more than $100 million. A star like Elton John doesn’t have to worry. He can set himself up for life again with just another short stadium tour with Billy Joel.
His commercial feats are impressive to this day; from 1972 to 1975 he had seven straight No. 1 albums; during this period he occupied the No. 1 spot on the Billboard album chart approximately one week out of four. In the meantime, he was by far the dominant singles artist of his era, and remains second only to Elvis Presley in terms of singles charted. Throw together singles, albums and tours, and he can safely be placed among a commercial pop elite of the 20th century that includes Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney and no one else I can think of.
He is of course the least of this pantheon, but so what? In some primal way, John tapped into something his audience of the day desired deeply — a star outlandish enough to tickle its fancy, yet ingratiating enough to like without hesitation, and safe enough to take home to mom. He was never a great artist, because he wasn’t supposed to be one; he’d make the necessary mumbled demurral when the idea came up. It made him and his audience feel a bit more elevated, and that, too, is one of the pleasures of pop John dispensed so unselfishly during his heyday.
In the 1990s, he evolved into a chuckling celebrity, someone whose agreeable persona and beloved back catalog reach such a critical mass that his star could continue to burn merrily for as long as he’d like. Accordingly, he acted the part in an unfortunate way; the documentary “Tantrums and Tiaras,” directed by his boyfriend of the time, filmmaker David Furnish, was accurately titled. In England he’s a knight, that meaningless honor that makes some people ooh and credulous journalists suddenly begin calling him Sir Elton.
He served us as lead mourner to a dead princess and a martyred designer; his grief seemed genuine in both cases, and it must seem sometimes to John that his venerable if useless species — the beautiful people — is endangered.
But he persevered — his retooling of “Candle in the Wind” for the dead Princess Diana, captured by a world awash in grief both real and nostalgic, may be the bestselling single of all time. He is still able, when he concentrates, to produce an album of some seriousness, if not actual quality; his latest, “Song From the West Coast,” with a single called “I Want Love,” is a good example of this. A video for the song has actor Robert Downey Jr. mouthing the words as he wanders through an empty apartment.
John is apparently one of those who think Downey is being unfairly prosecuted for victimless crimes that hurt no one; others, like me, resist a world in which celebrity lawbreakers are given Get Out of Jail Free cards while other anonymous ones are ground down by society’s indifference. Does John care about matters like this?
Perhaps he does. He is unquestionably the greatest charity force in rock. (His knighthood was specifically for his charitable work, notably for AIDS-relief organizations.) John’s support for Downey, however, comes from a slightly different strain of his psyche. It is tinged, perhaps, by his sadness over recent deaths in his life; but there are also overtones of the emotional commitment and personal philosophy that, recently, created the finest moment of his latter-day career.
That was a year-and-a-half ago, when he stepped out on stage at the Grammys, to pound an electric piano and sing the chorus of Dido’s “Thank You” in accompaniment to a young man named Eminem.
Eminem’s a difficult call — depraved on account of being deprived, true, but an unrepentant fag-basher, a guy who hits women, and something of a fuckhead generally. But he’s also merely a boy, one with real talent as a writer, a scintillating rapper, a manipulator of pop symbols of some accomplishment and a provocateur who seems to choose his targets, even the inappropriate ones, with giddy integrity.
Eminem’s appearance on the Grammys, heavily hyped, was no epochal moment — both he and the Grammys were using each other to bolster their credibility, after all. But it is important to note that John himself was getting nothing out of this. Yet he stood on stage to sing backup for a homophobe. And he did it because … why?
Because rock’s not always pretty, and art gets created in weird places. Because John was a chubby boy once whom no one took seriously. Because sometimes, when an artist is attacked, however justifiably, there’s a danger that Art is at risk as well.
John believes in all these things, but there was something more as well: Elton John knows that fuckheads need love too. In this manner he made a political point, and a human one too. Or rather, he made the point that the human sometimes must trump the political, which some in a fractious age will find confusing. But to rock’s kindest and most malleable star, it came naturally.