I Guess That’s Why They Call It True:
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Fifty Years of Elton John and Bernie Taupin
A week is a long time in politics…
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it was once said: fifty years is a fuc*ing long time in music! There are few today who will forge a fifty-year career – I don’t think anyone will, in fact! For every artist like Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger: there are endless parades of half-formed acts that are not really equipped for longevity and innovation. Times have changed and are not as conducive to the sort of epic careers that began in the 1950s/1960s. The Internet and near-bursting-point of modern music mean it is really difficult maintaining a career of such extreme years. That is not a bad thing but one thing made me look at another aspect of music: the songwriting partnership. You don’t really get them anymore, do you?! Paul McCartney and John Lennon; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; the theatrical greats and less-than-modern Pop writers like Paul Heaton and Dave Rotheray – it seems their days were a long time ago. Modern music, normally, is done by sole writers or groups: it is rare to find a solid and enduring partnership that remains over multiple albums and decades. Then again, they do not make them like Sir Elton John and Bernie Taupin anymore! A few days ago; the partnership celebrated fifty years of collaboration – Elton John marked seventy years on Earth, too. That milestone (the former) amazed me and compelled me to revisit the back-catalogue of one of music’s finest-ever duos. Even though Elton John’s debut album, Empty Sky, was released in 1969: the songwriting duo of John and Taupin started a couple of years previous. It is debatable when they started writing together – whether it was earlier in 1967 or November; later that month or earlier in the year. BBC Radio 2 put out a show (last week) that spoke with the men behind the music:
The interview is an illuminating and fascinating insight into that makes the friends tick and bond. Even though the duo has been writing together for fifty years; they were not exactly slow off the mark when it came to quality songs and albums. In fact; the second Elton John record, Elton John, was a big commercial success and favourite. Released in 1970; tracks like Your Song and Take Me to the Pilot showed Elton John’s gift for melody/music; Taupin’s unique lyrical style. Tumbleweed Connection (1970) and Madman Across the Water (1971) strengthened that bond and saw the songwriters hailed as modern innovators. If it was Elton John’s voice that was heard on the radio; few could ignore the impact Bernie Taupin made then – and still does to this very day. Madman Across the Water features Tiny Dancer: one of the first big hits for Elton John; one of the best songs from the early-1970s. Maybe the biggest early smash for the duo was 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. For that record; Taupin wrote the lyrics in under three weeks; John composing the music in three days as he stayed at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Jamaica – the reason for that location was because The Rolling Stones recorded Goats Head Soup there! It shows how easily and natural Taupin and John worked alongside one another – in any location, it seemed!
Whereas one envisages the early days of Lennon and McCartney being two chaps sitting around a piano swapping lines and choruses: I imagine the structure and dynamic of John and Taupin as a bit more distance and compartmentalised. It is clear they had an incredible respect and understanding from the start – how much of the complete process was recorded together, in the same room is unclear. With huge and eclectic hits like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Candle in the Wind and Bernie and the Jets – and Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting – making 1973 a sensational year – that was not the end of it! 1974’s Grammy-nominated Caribou contained The Bitch Is Back; 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy had Someone Saved My Life Tonight; Blue Moves was lucky enough to include Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word! I have included a playlist at the bottom of this feature: the authoritative and comprehensive list of Taupin/John hits. It shows how incredibly varied and inventive the music was. Whether you are a fan of John’s incredible instinct and musicianship or Taupin’s storytelling and standout lines – there wasn’t another duo like them around! If Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are the only songwriting duo who can match Taupin/John – they have been around longer but it is a close call! – they don’t, in my view, have the same width and consistency.
There was a period – between Blue Moves in 1976 and 1983’s Too Low for Zero – when the quality dipped. John worked with a couple of other songwriters and there was a slight loss of momentum. Too Low for Zero roared back with I’m Still Standing (an appropriate title if ever there was!) and, in my humble opinion, the duo’s defining moment: I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues (I know Davey Johnstone co-wrote the music but let’s not split hairs!). The partnership was reformed and John agreed to work full-time with Taupin again – the details of their separation and experimentation should not go into a feature that celebrates their unity. The fact of the matter remains: it is no coincident the poorer albums of that time (1976-1983) broke the solid and tested John/Taupin unit. It’s true some of the later albums of the 1980s were not the finest from the duo – 1986’s Leather Jackets is retched; Reg Strikes Back was not as solid and redemptive as its title suggested – but they were back on a more even keel come the 1990s. Many have argued the duo’s 2000s songwriting was as sharp and solid as their 1970s cannon. Although there were fewer big hits and radio smashes: the quality and depth explored by Taupin and John continued to stagger and confound critics. 2016’s Wonderful Crazy Night is the most recent offering from the songwriting geniuses. One knows they will continue to write together until they both run out of breath – let us hope that is not for another couple of decades!
Before I wrap up – and underline why Bernie Taupin and Elton John are invaluable and pioneering – I wanted to source from Elton John’s official website. This year, when talking about his partnership with Taupin - he explained why it worked and has remained to this very day:
“It’s the same excitement now as when we first started. That this year marks the 50th anniversary of my partnership with Bernie Taupin is mind boggling for me because it seems like only yesterday that I met him. It’s an amazing achievement to stay with one person for 50 years on a creative basis, in an industry where that doesn’t really happen very much.”
When it came to the, potentially prickly, subject of reaching his seventieth birthday; John had this to say:
“I’m interested in moving forward all the time, with what I create, my collaborations, and also with discovering the work of other people. I think age is immaterial, provided we keep our minds alive by being open to new things. I can be as excited by a new artist who plays me their demo as I am by a new record of one of my musical heroes. I can be excited by playing a new city I’ve never played before, or revisiting somewhere I know well and seeing how it’s changed. Life is a constant state of flux for us all, and I like to embrace that. I also feel very happy to use my position to bring attention to injustice in the world and to try to help where I can. At this time in my life, I’m the happiest I have ever been.”
PHOTO CREDIT: @eltonofficial
Bernie said of Elton:
“It’s been an unconventional partnership and while we pretty much patented the two-rooms technique I’d venture to say you’d be hard pressed to find a couple of songwriters more in sync with each other and their craft.”
As Taupin said himself: they mastered that two-room working environment but remained in-sync and completely connected from the very start. The fact they are friends and colleagues fifty years after their first song means they are doing something right! I worry modern songwriting is defined by isolation or too many cooks – the biggest stars of today having their music penned by an array of hired-guns and producers! Maybe things have changed to the extent we will never see a partnership quite like Elton John and Bernie Taupin. That is sad in itself but we are very lucky to have the epic and incredible legends in our midst – this country is masterful when it comes to those world-class songwriting duos! Let’s hope the partnership remains for another couple of decades (Elton will be kicking arse and causing havoc when he is in his nineties, for sure!). I will lend this by bringing in a recent interview - the duo conducted with Cameron Crowe – who has been a fan of the two for years.
The interview is illuminating and filled with affection – there were two questions that stood out. The first one drilled back to those first few days:
“Cameron Crowe: You two met in ’67, when Bernie answered an ad in the New Musical Express newspaper for a writing job at Liberty Records. Elton answered the same ad. Neither passed the audition, but you came together as collaborators, just about 50 years ago. Knowing what you now know about each other, would you go back and repeat this same relationship again?
Bernie Taupin: Undoubtedly. I think one of the things that kept us together for so long is the vast differences in our personalities; anybody who’s followed our careers would see that pretty easily. If we had been at all the same make-up in our characteristics, it probably wouldn’t have lasted.
Elton John: I love Bernie more than I’ve ever done and I think he feels the same way about me, because we’ve led separate lives. We don’t live in each other’s back pockets. We are totally different. He is the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and I am Captain Fantastic. That’s how it turned out and I wouldn’t have it any other way”.
The second question was a simpler one: how they went about writing a hit:
“BT I’ve always maintained that if you can play an instrument, you have the potential to write a song.
EJ Writing has changed so much these days. Eleven people wrote “Uptown Funk”. If you’re an artist, or if you want to be an artist, you go and play – you get a band together or you go and play live. Ed Sheeran, who is signed to our management company, started out playing in people’s living rooms and busking. You cannot buy experience. Go out if you’ve got a guitar or piano; play in a bar, in a hotel. If I’m in a hotel, I always go up to the piano player and say: “How are you doing?” Because there, but for the grace of God, go I.
BT It’s like Bruce Springsteen said: I learned more from a three-minute record than I ever learned in school”.
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If the early incarnation of Bernie Taupin and Elton John spawned those big hits – that continued into the 1970s – their modern work is not exactly shoddy and meagre. They have love and affection for one another; there is that determination to keep exploring and pushing. Fifty years down the line and the partnership shows no signs of breaking. Bernie Taupin and Elton John act as guidelines and mentors for modern duos who want to have the same legacy and respect as them. At a time when there are whores of committee-written songs and talented solo artists: what place for the classic songwriting duo?! Maybe they are a product of past decades but I’d like to think, somewhere in the world, there is a potential John and Taupin waiting to meet one another! What form they take – and what music they write – there is a desperate need for their bond and survival. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and not really writing together at the moment: it means John and Taupin are a rare and special force. As we crave and search for a duo that could replace Elton John and Bernie Taupin – the established and inimitable duo are not going anywhere soon! As the music world celebrates the icons and congratulates fifty superb years of memorable music; things are clear and obvious:
PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Mazur/WireImage
THE bitch is not going anywhere!