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Elton John and his near fatal mistake
By Julie Webb
The day someone tagged the word “superstar” alongside Elton John`s name was the day they signed his death warrant. People expect “super” things from superstars. They don`t make allowances for a bum gig, because “superstars” don`t play bad gigs.
Subsequently the downfall of Elton John “superstar” began. It seemed that if there was any mud to be slung, Elton John was the nearest target.
Only now, therefore is John, singer-songwriter (no superstar tag), into his second wind.
Amazingly he seems unaffected by all his adverse publicity. Obviously some of the criticism hit home but he has remained remarkably unchanged and not bitter towards his critics. He did, however, retaliate in one small way by including a track on his “Madman” album entitled “All The Nasties” which was dedicated to the press.
“It`s a very tongue in cheek number,” he says. “I just said to Bernie let`s write a song about the press and call it `All The Nasties` because at that time we were really pissed off”.
Whilst John hasn`t exactly got the skin of a rhinoceros he has now reached a stage where criticism is absorbed and then forgotten.
“You do get hurt – but only for about five minutes. It`s no good moping about it. You have to take the good with the bad, otherwise you shouldn`t be in this business.
“Sure, I think I`ve had more than my fair share of criticism but that`s all right with me. I think now I`ve got over the bulk of the bad criticism – I hope so anyway. What you`ve got to realise is that no two people are alike and nobody likes exactly the same as you.
“Sometimes you get so involved in what you`re doing you think `this must be it` and perhaps it isn`t.
“You have to take people`s opinions, if people didn`t like `Madman` then there must have been something wrong with it. I don`t really think the public didn`t like it, so much as the public didn`t hear it. Probably they went out and bought a Cat Stevens album or a Carol King album instead.”
“Madman” was a disappointment for John as it didn`t make the album charts in Britain. One of the main criticisms levelled against it was that it sounded very samey – does he think this may have had some affect on the sales?
“I don`t know really – I was disappointed that it didn`t make the charts because I know the sales it did should have got it into the charts. I wouldn`t have worried if it didn`t sell at all but it did sell. Not as well as we hoped, of course, but I really think it`s because we stayed away and people do tend to forget.
“Jethro Tull did that – they did a year in America and they`d always had No. 1 albums, and when they released an album after they returned, it didn`t do as well. You`ve got to be very careful.”
Does that mean he will concentrate more on Britain this year?
“Yes, I hope to do more work here. We`ve got an incredibly loyal following at home. We did the tour before Christmas and more or less sold out and it was great – really restored my confidence.
“And our albums do sell well – `Madman` sold over 40,000 and is still selling and the other two have done nearly 100,000.
“I think the fatal mistake last year was concentrating on America and neglecting England. I don`t think you can neglect England because there`s always someone who can step into your shoes. Like this time a year ago we had two albums in the top five – well, now Cat Stevens is there.”
How does he propose to stop this happening in the future?
“I`m not sure – there`s nothing I can do except really sell the album and play a bit more and hope the next one really goes into the charts. I think you need a hit single – I`d really love a hit single and I think we`ve got one on the new album. It would be good to get a hit single as a trailer for the album.”
Originally John was going to use the Stones mobile to record the album – what made him change his mind?
“Yes, we were going to use it but it was so complicated – it would mean having to hire a house and hope that the house had good acoustics and that`s a bit of a risk. Then somebody told me there was a good studio outside Paris.
“Eventually we recorded it at a chateau where the Grateful Dead recorded last year – we chose it because we thought it would be a safer bet.
“It worked really well because everyone was able to live there, I`ve never done an album like this at all. Usually it`s done in the Studio with session musicians, this was the first time that Dee, Davey, Nigel and I have ever recorded together.
“We rehearsed for about seven days and Bernie and I wrote most of the songs over there. Only two numbers were written before we went – all the rest were written in three days.
“It was like a Motown hit factory. Literally, Bernie upstairs, me downstairs and the band playing. It was great and I really enjoyed it – I couldn`t believe how everything began to flow.
“We`d got to the point in writing where nothing flowed any more, and I was having a really hard job writing one song a week whereas on the Elton John album some of those songs, I was writing five a day.
“I think everyone gets to this point – even people like James Taylor. If you work on the road a lot your writing is always affected. I know I saw Cat Stevens the other night and he said `Yeah`, he felt exactly the same. He worked a lot last year and slowed down because of it.”
Is he happy now with the way his writing is progressing?
“Yes, after `Madman` we`d gone as far as we could with that particular style of writing. I don`t think there`s anything comparable to `Madman` material on the new album.”
Has he managed to counteract “sameyness” on the next album?
“Yes. For a start there`s no orchestra and there are rock`n`roll tracks which we`ve never done before on albums. I don`t want to say it`s the best thing I`ve ever done because that`s what I said and felt about `Madman` but people didn`t agree.
“It`s just with this album no one can turn around and say, `oh it`s Elton John with his bloody 100-piece orchestra again`.
“There`s one number on the album called `I Think I`m Going To Kill Myself` which I think is going to have tap dancing on it. A sort of vaudeville number. I guarantee the numbers on the album will get many covers because the songs are more or less light pop.
“If I could write like Barry Mann I`d be instantly happy because they are, for me, the best kind of songs because they last for years. You`ve got to remember Bernie and I have only been writing together for three years, we`re still really novices.
“When someone says the tracks on `Madman` sound the same I always disagree – the only reason I might agree is that sometimes the piano starts and then the bass comes in and then the drums and in that way it follows a format. But if you listen to say a James Taylor album – you could say he sounded samey. Personally I thought `Madman` was one of the different songs.
“That album was wrenched out of us because we had to produce an album for our record company and we`d only had `Madman` done as far as songs were concerned.
“Usually, when we do an album we`ve got a stockpile of songs we can choose from. But because of touring so much we didn`t have a stockpile.
“That`s one reason why we are going to cut down a bit on touring because it does slow up writing. Even the days off you just want to die, collapse into bed and never get up.
“After `Honky Chateau` Bernie and I decided we`ve really got to get down to writing again. It was great writing for that album because it was as if an era had passed. It was like this album was my `Revolver`. The Beatles did six albums and they were great – and then they did `Revolver` and it was completely different from anything they`d ever done.”
But Elton had said his last album was completely different.
“I still maintain it was different – to me it was the best album I`d done and I was most satisfied with the recording and the songs on it. It`s incredible, people have the impression that there`s somebody behind me with a great big button saying `you must wear this and you must wear that` and I think it was Roy Carr who said they are pushing the destruct button. Well that`s me – if anyone, because there`s nobody behind me.”
How does Elton feel about being described as a latter day Liberace?
“People can compare me to who they like – I just think it`s a bit of fun. I couldn`t go out on stage in a pair of grotty denim jeans and a moustache and beard and sit there and be serious. I just don`t do it.”
So is he still very much into the show bizzy, glamour side of the business then?
“It is glamour, but I refuse to say it`s show bizzy.”
But surely the clothes he wears are nothing but show bizzy?
“No I`m just sending show business up – I hate show biz. I hate the `and now here is so and so with…`”
But doesn`t he think that by glamorising it he is making it more show bizzy?
“I don`t think people take it seriously. I mean Rod Stewart is exactly the same – he`s very flamboyant and wears pink satin suits and that`s show biz and yet it`s not. You can`t say I`m show bizzy – I`m so bloody clumsy and there`s nothing graceful about me with a pair of flying boots on.
“I think what Gilbert O`Sullivan wears is show bizzy – perhaps I come across in the same way but to me it`s all a bit of a giggle.”
If he regards that as a send up what does he take seriously?
“My music – I`m very into what I`m doing. But even that you can`t take too seriously – I`ve never regarded pop music as an art form – I think it is just entertainment, and I think that is why pop groups are coming back, because people are fed up with moodies and they`d rather go out and have a good time.
“I know I would, for example, I`d rather go and see a James Bond film than go and see a film that made me think. It`s got to the point where you go out and you`re made to think about everything.
“I don`t think people are entertained any more. That`s why the Faces score because that`s just what they do – entertain.
“I`m not a serious performer anyway – just somebody who is having a go on the piano. I do the best I can. I never wanted to be a performer, I just wanted to write. I don`t consider myself as a dedicated performer – I can`t see myself performing till I drop dead.”
So does he regard the thought of going out on stage with dread?
“No. I always go on stage looking forward to it. I dig playing to people. I do tend to get a bit nervous in this country now – certainly for the past four months. I really wonder what people think of me in this country. I go out and think `what are they expecting?`
“In the States I have no qualms at all. I just go out on stage and it all happens but I do tend to wonder what people think here. You either loathe me or you like me – there`s nothing in between.”
Does he find it a bit of a bring down playing in Britain after playing in America?
“No – in the States we don`t play to less than say 10,000 a night – over here it`s much less but I maintain that even if you play to fifty people you can get them screaming and shouting at you.”
What sort of reaction does he go after?
“I like them to sit down and listen to the songs we play seriously and bop at the end. I think English audiences have loosened up an awful lot recently. London audiences are very funny but in the provinces they are always wild. But even then they are nothing like the audiences in America. There are people there who are jumping up and down whilst they are knitting. It`s such a completely different thing.”
If John has finished his album, why wait till May before releasing it?
“Well, in the States `Madman` is doing well and we have to release everything simultaneously – and also we haven`t really done any gigs on `Madman` here. We did the tour before Christmas, of course, which was good, but I still think there`s a bit of life in `Madman` here even though it hasn`t done as well as the other albums.
“May is a good time I think because it hasn`t been mixed yet and we haven`t done the art work yet, so we`re able to take our time.”
The album that Elton released May 19th that year was called “Honky Château”, and it was his most successful to date. Honky Château became the first of a string of albums by Elton John to hit No. 1 in the Billboard Charts in the US. In the UK it went to No. 2 in the charts.
ELO on the road in Britain in the first half of 1972.
This number of the NME also contains articles/interviews with these people: Isaac Hayes, Stephen Stills, Incredible String Band, Marc Bolan, Traffic, Randy Newman, Gilbert O`Sullivan, Paul Williams.
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