Total Pageviews

27 Mar 2011

An Interview With Elizabeth Rosenthal: author of "His Songs: The Musical Journey of Elton John" (Part Two)

Old Rabbit you're surprised! A source of knowledge. Not you, dear, I am referring to Liz Rosenthal. I loved that part when she explains about how "Honky Cat" lifted her spirits, and how she was totally blown away by “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That". Every Eltonite has his hooked day about Elton. It's nice to see how loyal we are since then. And amazing to read Liz became an Eltonite in 1989, and within a month, she had purchased Elton’s entire back catalog. And what about her recommendation? "I always look toward the sky. It’s especially nice that, wherever you are, there are also birds, so you’re never without them!". That's totally true, I had never noticed that. Rabbit, our host is ready again, don't wait any longer, and don't lose your notes!!! We're listening...

Thanks. Well, back again with the incredible Liz Rosenthal. We are continuing our Elton Journey to his life. The blue period and the recovering. Elton as A Single Man – he not only fired Dee and Nigel, but Gus Dudgeon, too, and Davey Johnstone and Bernie left the picture. It seems Elton was lost, as you could tell from his work with a soul producer like Thom Bell, and a disco producer like Pete Bellote on Victim of Love. Do you agree? What happened to Elton?

Elton used his break from the perpetual cycle of recording regular Elton John albums and touring to do some other things he was interested in. He had always wanted to do a genuine soul album. Hence, The Thom Bell Sessions. But when you work with Thom Bell, you allow him to dictate the sound and provide most of the songs. So it was more of a Thom Bell record on which Elton sang. Elton’s decision to record a disco album while ceding complete creative control to Bellotte was a much worse decision. Not only did Elton not even play on the record, but none of the songs except for the old classic “Johnny B. Goode” were any good, and I’m being charitable. On the plus side, you could look at Victim of Love as a simple vanity project. EJ wanted his own disco album, and he got one. It’s just a shame he had to share it with the rest of us! (Elton was perfectly capable of writing and recording his own sort of disco songs, of the type exemplified by “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows.” It’s unfortunate that he didn’t do something like that instead.)

Elton had a difficult business relationship with David Geffen, who rejected songs from The Fox album sessions, requiring Elton to write more songs. Was Elton comfortable with that situation? Could these circumstances have caused him to slip in the new decade? It seems that until Too Low For Zero he couldn’t find the right creative direction. Were the 80s Elton’s worst decade, except for the Sleeping with the Past sessions? On a personal level it was so for Elton: throat surgery, marital problems, never-ending lawsuits in the High Court against Dick James and The Sun, the end of his Geffen recording contract.

I agree that the 1980s started off poorly for Elton. David Geffen was a different sort of record company executive, the kind who meddled in the recording artist’s creative process. As you may know, Elton wasn’t the only one who had that experience with Geffen. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young did, too. And certainly the 80s were filled with bad news for Elton. The benign growths on his vocal cords, which were so painful and generally ruined his singing for about a year, were finally surgically removed, and even then it was uncertain for a while how his voice would heal. Elton’s short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel was another sad circumstance, but he has attributed the marriage to confusion over how to bring stability to a life that was increasingly drug-filled, alcohol-soaked and sexually promiscuous. Things really couldn’t get better for him until he entered rehab in 1990 – and thank goodness he did, for he not only saved himself, but prevented all of us from losing such a remarkable talent.


Regarding whether the 80s were Elton’s worst decade creatively, I suppose a case could be made for that, but so much fantastic work came out of the 80s that it’s hard to be dismissive of the entire decade. I agree that the albums Too Low for Zero and Sleeping with the Past were high points, but they would have been high points in any decade. Too Low for Zero yielded a couple of Elton’s most beloved songs – “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing” – as well as some interesting experimentation in the title track, one of his best rockers in “Kiss the Bride,” and one of his loveliest melodies in “Saint.” Sleeping with the Past yielded a major worldwide hit in “Sacrifice,” which led to Sleeping topping the charts in many countries. The album was also one of the most thematically consistent of his career in evoking the R & B of the 50s and early 60s, and contained some of his most beautiful melodies, in songs like “Blue Avenue” and “Whispers.” Ice on Fire was also thematically consistent, with a focus on tougher R & B, while giving us one of his best ballads, “Nikita,” and a couple of his funkiest songs, “This Town” and “Satellite.” But let’s not forget about Reg Strikes Back, which is actually one of my favorite EJ albums. It’s the opposite of Sleeping in being stylistically diverse, but it showcases many of Elton’s strengths, in memorable melodies, jazz-inflected toe-tappers, soul, and even a Beach Boys tribute. “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” is one of his best uptempo songs, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters Part 2” among his most adventurous, and “A Word in Spanish” something he really needs to dust off and play in concert again.

Leather Jackets was a disaster, with (mostly) bad songs, arrangements, and production; weird lyrics from several partners including Cher; and Elton suffering from a somewhat unpleasant singing voice due to the growths on his vocal cords that he hadn’t yet addressed. And, despite Bernie Taupin’s assertions to the contrary, Breaking Hearts was more disappointing than satisfying, featuring pedestrian lyrics and pedestrian music to match, even if some of the songs were memorable, like “Sad Songs” and “Who Wears These Shoes?”.

Was it true that Elton and Rod Stewart planned to do a movie comedy in the vein of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon? Why didn’t this come to fruition? Why didn’t they tour together? And what more can we say about the relationship of “Phyllis” and “Sharon”?

Yes, in 1983, there were discussions about filming a comedy starring EJ and Rod Stewart. It was cancelled, possibly due to the fact that Rod had backed out of doing a joint tour with Elton. It’s too bad that nothing came of their ideas for a film collaboration or joint tour, but in those days, Elton was able to fall back on the comfort of the album-tour-album-tour cycle, which didn’t end until after rehab.

The friendship of “Phyllis” (Rod) and “Sharon” (Elton) has certainly been one of Elton’s most enduring relationships. They seem to thrive on “taking the piss” out of each other, as they would say. Then again, Rod can be supportive of Elton, too (and, presumably, Elton can be supportive of Rod). After The Captain and the Kid came out and sold very little, I recall hearing of Rod commenting that he felt sorry for Elton, especially since Elton had told him that this could be the hit album he hoped to have again. (Meanwhile, Rod had been recording album after album of tin pan alley covers with Clive Davis at the helm, racking up some pretty healthy sales without much creative effort.)

Other things Elton hoped to do never happened: working with Tina Turner on a duet, recording sessions with Cher, a song for a James Bond movie, a musical about Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, a song with Billy Joel. What other non-released EJ projects do you know of?

In 2003, Elton had plans to make a country album involving a number of other country artists, but the project fell apart. One product of the aborted sessions was “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave,” which later appeared on Peachtree Road. Also, there should be a few extra Gnomeo and Juliet songs laying around – not just by EJ and BT, but EJ and Tim Rice, as Rice was the original lyricist for this project many moons ago.

Then there are all the songs from the failed EJ/BT Broadway musical Lestat, which I will discuss later.

By the way, did you know that Cher’s lyrics to “Don’t Trust That Woman,” which Elton put to music for Leather Jackets, were also put to music by Les Dudek, Cher’s one-time boyfriend, a guitarist who has played with the Allman Brothers and other acts? Well, it’s true. You can find it on Dudek’s Gypsy Ride album. And his version of the song is a lot better than Elton’s! (Even so, Cher’s lyrics are horrendous – “You can beat her but don’t mistreat her/…Don’t trust that woman boys/’Cause she’ll hurt you/And turn you into little toys.”)

Loads of demos and other unreleased recordings sit quietly in the vaults.

Precisely, apart from the music charts, I love the outtakes. Songs like “No Valentines,” “Sugar On The Floor,” “Into The Old Man’s Shoes,” “Here Comes Miss Hurt Again” and “Surviving Crash and Burn” are good enough to be on an album. I am not asking Elton to do a B-sides tour, but what could they do with all this material? And do you know of other remarkable outtakes?

You are correct that EJ outtakes abound and deserve attention. There is no way to list them all here. Someday, they could be featured on a deluxe box set, but that really depends on whether Elton would want that (and he might not). Then again, a number of outtakes have appeared in the last few years on the reissued, deluxe versions of the Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection albums, and many of the B-sides and other left-overs have appeared on reissued versions of most of his other albums, up through The One.

Following are some of my favorite outtakes:

•“Rock Me When He’s Gone”: A thumping piano rocker that Elton gave to Long John Baldry for the latter’s 1971 album, It Ain’t Easy.

•“Basque”: An early 80s piano instrumental officially recorded and released only by flutist James Galway on his 1991 CD, Wind Beneath My Wings.

•“Dreamboat”: One of oodles of outtakes from A Single Man. It’s got a debonair, big band sensibility. I would have loved this song as a 14-year-old when all I listened to was big band music!

•“Earn While You Learn”: Infectious, contemporary, instrumental jazz, also from the A Single Man sessions, which features Elton’s playing on a variety of keyboards.

•“Billy and the Kids”: A spunky, extremely catchy, midtempo tune which should never have been just a Leather Jackets B-side!

•“The Rumour”: Elton and Bernie wrote this number for Olivia Newton-John. It appeared on her 1988 album of the same name. You can hear EJ’s powerful backing vocals and rhythmic piano playing on the recording.

•“Did Anybody Sleep with Joan of Arc?”: An arresting, moody number from the Songs from the West Coast sessions.

•“A Little Peace”: My favorite outtake of all time! This one’s from the Peachtree Road sessions. I would never have left this rollicking R & B number off the album! If necessary, I would have (grudgingly) dropped “Too Many Tears” or “I Can’t Keep This From You,” although I don’t know why EJ couldn’t have added just one more song to the official track list.

In the 1990s, at least during the first half, Elton is again in good form. The One, The Lion King, and Made In England were successful and critically acclaimed. But “Candle In The Wind 97” marked a turning point in Elton’s career. On the one hand, it gave him the bestselling single in history, but on the other, did it cause people to tire of Elton? Or did the single help his career? Was Songs from the West Coast, in 2001, the last chance for Elton to achieve both a masterpiece and worldwide success?

I wouldn’t ignore The Big Picture (1997), even though Elton has at least twice publicly denigrated it without explaining why. True, the drum machines and synths should have been left off, but Elton’s melody-making was in full force with songs like the title track, “I Can’t Steer My Heart Clear of You,” and the bopping, midtempo tune, “Recover Your Soul,” not to mention an exciting rocker, “If the River Can Bend.” The Big Picture’s release also marked a new height in Elton’s vocal development.

I also wouldn’t ignore Duets [1993]. I love it when Elton records with other artists. You hear him sing songs he might never sing otherwise.

Anyway, I do think that “Candle ‘97” helped his career enormously. That, plus his live performance of the rewritten “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Di’s almost universally-watched funeral brought him to a gigantic, new audience across the world. He became a bigger star than ever before. That was a good thing.

Songs from the West Coast did do well with the critics and was fairly successful commercially, but it marked the start of a decline not only in Elton’s record sales, but record sales in general. It doesn’t help that he isn’t getting any younger. You know how the music biz is – always in search of the next potential idol, who must be youthful, and definitely not over 50. Elton also received fairly consistent plaudits from music critics for Peachtree Road (2004) and The Captain and the Kid (2006), though they sold little. But at least they are part of his oeuvre and can be rediscovered at any time. As for Elton’s collaboration with Leon Russell, The Union (2010), not only was it widely embraced by critics, but it debuted at number 3 on the Billboard LPs chart, his best U.S. chart performance since 1976! That is nothing to complain about. At least here in the U.S., The Union has received huge acclaim and brought in classic rock enthusiasts and old Leon Russell fans that had lost track of Elton and/or Leon a long time ago. It’s important to gain the attention of the people who make up your natural constituency.

And what about Elton’s musicals – The Lion King, Aida, Billy Elliot, and Lestat? What do you think about the songs? And do you like the new songs on the Gnomeo And Juliet movie soundtrack?

I know that some fans have complained that Elton should just stick to making regular albums, but I’m thrilled that he has branched out into other media. Not only do musicals afford him a new challenge, but they introduce him to yet another audience that may not be all that aware of him. Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, which ran on Broadway from 2000 to 2004, and spawned traveling companies as well as countless American high school productions, probably contains my favorite collection of EJ’s theatrical songs. There is something so emotionally compelling about every number (except for “My Strongest Suit,” which is just fun) that you don’t care how miserable you feel listening to these songs. You have to keep on listening, anyway. It’s unfortunate that Lestat (2006) lasted on Broadway for only about 38 shows, not counting the previews, but it had two main problems. One was the watered-down book derived from Anne Rice’s vampire novels. In fact, the dialog, and most of the staging, was rather bloodless, and I’m not just saying that because it was about vampires. The second problem could be found in Taupin’s lyrics, which were mostly way, way overstuffed with information, especially during the first act. Musically, Elton met the challenge of both the subject matter and Bernie’s wordy lyrics and came up with some of the bleakest but most gorgeous, classically-influenced songs of his career. “Make Me As You Are,” in particular, is stunning. But, despite the fact that Lestat was about the undead, the musical only really came to life in the second act, when the universe of the main character, the French vampire Lestat, expanded to include New Orleans, and a new companion, Louis. Here, Bernie’s words were more economical. The portentous gospel of “Welcome to the New World,” which greeted Lestat upon his arrival, and “I Want More,” the humorous anthem of blood gluttony by Louis and Lestat’s cohort, child vampire Claudia, were special highlights that received the best audience response.

The Billy Elliot: The Musical songs are very stylistically diverse, and include everything from hymns to labor anthems to music hall to rock to classic Elton John balladry. Of course, Billy Elliot has been a crowd-pleaser for years in London, New York, and Sydney, and is opening in more cities all the time. It seems to encompass the perfect combination of a story offering humor and pathos, exhilarating dance numbers, ridiculously talented kids, versatile adult actors, and the right music for every scene. My one wish would be for the boys who play Billy and Michael to receive more vocal training to bring out the best in songs like “Electricity” and “Expressing Yourself.” However, I understand that the reason for the boys’ merely workmanlike vocals is that Elton wanted them (and many of the other characters) to sound “real,” to match the grit of their northeastern England mining town. Still, given all the other talent on display by everyone in Billy Elliot, they might as well have asked the audience to suspend disbelief to allow the kids great voices, too.

You didn’t mention The Road to El Dorado (2000), the Dreamworks animated musical that flopped. It didn’t flop because of the music. Here, too, some of EJ’s best melodies, set to Tim Rice’s clever lyrics, have gone unnoticed. One hopes they will surface again in another format at some point.

I understand that Elton is already at work with Lee Hall, who wrote the book and lyrics for Billy Elliot, on a musical adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, and can’t wait to see it!

Of the two new John-Taupin songs on the Gnomeo and Juliet soundtrack, I am most impressed with “Love Builds a Garden,” another classically-tinged ballad that seems like a cousin to “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” from the Captain Fantastic album.

Elton and David Furnish surprised the whole world when they became parents of a child named Zachary Jackson Levon. Few people knew about this ahead of time. It was highly surprising to hear Elton change his in-concert explanation of the meaning behind “The Greatest Discovery.” Before, he always explained that the song was about the birth of Bernie’s youngest brother, but now he said, “This is a beautiful song about the birth of a young child,” and nobody realized he was talking about his child. Furnish explained that they “want to be active parents.” Does that mean the end of Elton’s never-ending tours?

What a surprise it was to learn of Elton and David’s parenthood! Elton as Daddy – from our perspective as bystanders – is yet another dimension of his humanity that we will have to get accustomed to. And as EJ and David are the most famous openly gay male couple in the world, they are also trailblazers in the fight against anti-gay bigotry, for which they must be saluted. (By the way, Zachary is the spittin’ image of the former Reg Dwight!)

But will Elton ever retire? No. He even declared that he would never retire in one of the many interviews he’s given lately. And I believe him.

Hope so! Elton has touched pop, country, rock, folk, ballads, blues, disco. Looking back on Elton’s catalogue, which of his songs are arguably the greatest he has ever written? And the worst? Finally, could you tell me your five favourite EJ songs in running order, for my AllSongsList, in which I try to discover the best Elton songs ever?

EJ has also tackled R & B, gospel, jazz, and classical. I have a very hard time ranking Elton’s songs and generally don’t like to come up with lists of favorites. But I’ll give it a try. As I write this (meaning that, at some other time, I might feel differently), I think that Elton’s “greatest” are:

“Rocket Man”/“Your Song”/“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”/”Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”/”Tiny Dancer”/”Candle in the Wind”/”Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”/”Harmony”/”Funeral for a Friend-Love Lies Bleeding”/”Daniel”/”A Woman’s Needs”/“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”/“Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word”/“I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues”/“Empty Garden”/”Blue Eyes”/“The One”/”Philadelphia Freedom”/“Recover Your Soul”/“This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore”/”I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That”/”A Word in Spanish”/”Live Like Horses”/”Nikita”/”Blessed”/”Freaks in Love”/”All That I’m Allowed”/”Electricity”/“The Bridge”/“You’re Never Too Old”/“Mandalay Again”/”The Panic in Me”/”Blues Never Fade Away”/”Take Me to the Pilot”/”American Triangle”

At the moment, his “worst” are:

“Wednesday Night-Yell Help-Ugly”/”Billy Bones and the White Bird”/“Street Kids”/“Dear God”/“Memory of Love”/“You’re So Static”/“Slow Down Georgie”/”Don’t Trust That Woman”

My 5 “favorites” for now:

1)“Bennie and the Jets”
2)“Hey Ahab”
3)“Honky Cat”
4)“And the House Fell Down”
5)”Give Me the Love”

Thanks. What kind of place do you see for Elton John in the history of rock music?

A very high place! He is now regarded as a giant in music, among the top rock stars ever, after quite a long time of being disregarded. I hope that, eventually, he will be viewed as the greatest melodist of the rock era, the greatest piano player of the rock era, and the greatest all-around singer of contemporary songs. We’ll see!

Apart from music, what are your other interests? What do you like to do with your off time?

I like to watch and learn about birds, read about Abraham Lincoln, and talk politics and history with my husband.

Do you want to add any observations or suggestions, or is there something you want to say to other Eltonites?

Notice, appreciate, and care about your natural surroundings; keep enjoying Elton; and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Thanks so much Liz for sharin' your time with us. It was my pleasure to listen one of the most rellevant voices on Elton and I am sure eltonites loved it.

To Be Continued

No comments: