Few singer-songwriters have enjoyed a career as enduring as the former Reg Dwight's. Robert Greenfield caught Elton on the way up and filed this report from England. It appeared in Rolling Stone on November 12, 1970——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
LONDON — "If this is the revolution, why are the drinks so f---ing expensive," someone has written on the wall in the toilet of London's Revolution club.
Right next to that message, on the gleaming white toilet bowl itself, is a large round decal that says, "Your Elton John Dealer."
Upstairs, brocaded walls are covered with large square posters. Elton John peering forth sternly in western garb, looking like the son of a preacher man. Over his head the words, "Tumbleweed Connection".
"I'm sorry this has to be so showbizzy," Elton John's press agent explains, "but he's leaving tomorrow for six weeks in the States and we felt we just had to introduce the new album before he goes."
"Why are they only playing Elton's first album?" Snakeskin Vest asks Rings On Fingers.
"Goddamned if I know," Rings On Fingers says, reaching for some more scampi. "It's Stewart's idea."
Every last miniature honeydew melon and chicken wing in cream sauce on the table is in honour of Elton John, who today is wearing a long black shiny plastic maxicoat that just about hits the front tips of his red boots. There's a toy clown on one lapel that lights up when you pull the string. His hair is shorter than it was on his first American tour and his beard is gone. The man the Los Angeles Times called "the first big rock music star of the Seventies" is about to invade the New World again. People are grabbing at him and steering him into corners.
"Some circus, huh?" Bernie Taupin says, sitting down in a quiet corner where you can watch big-hipped record company chicks play no-bra competition games out of the corners of their eyes.
Bernie Taupin writes the words that Elton John sings. The two have worked together for three years, sharing a flat for two of those years, and whatever Elton John is about to become, Bernie Taupin is half.
Bernie's only 20. He speaks softly. "Reg is really being kept busy, isn't he?"
Elton John, born Reg Dwight some 23 years ago, in Pinner, Middlesex, England. "Reg," still the name all those close to him use. Began playing piano at the age of four. Enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in London when he was 11.
Then his mother brought home some records by Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and little Reg gave up classical forms for the aesthetics of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, how to continue playing piano while on your knees, etc.
He joined a succession of local bands and left school to work for a music publisher. At the age of 18 he began playing organ for Bluesology, a group that backed up touring soul acts like Long John Baldry.
After two years of that, Reg Dwight — Elton John — answered a record company ad in a trade paper for prospective songwriters.
"I saw that ad too," Bernie Taupin says. "It was back in '67 and I had been writing poetry. It was all psychedelic, canyons of your mind stuff. I couldn't play any instruments, and I still can't, but I can hear melodies in my head when I write. So I wrote a letter saying I needed someone to do the music for my words.
"I never mailed it, though... just threw it away. My mother found it in the wastebasket and posted it."
Elton John meets Bernie Taupin. The two collaborate on a song that Elton cuts as a demo. Liberty Records turns it down flat. "It was pretty awful," Bernie says, "but Dick James signed us to a songwriting contract."
Dick James being the gentleman who published the Beatles' songs when nobody else would and consequently became independently wealthy. "We started writing commercial songs like crazy," Taupin says, "until one day Steve Brown, a promotion man for Dick James, told us our stuff was terrible, that we weren't doing what we could.
"We were really down and depressed but I realized that he was right. We had to write for ourselves, so we went away and came back with 'Lady Samantha'."
The song did fairly well. Bernie wrote the lyrics for an album's worth of songs that Elton recorded. The album was released in England in 1969 and it did fairly well, too. They do another album, entitled Elton John, which UNI releases in America. It begins to get FM airplay. Elton goes over to tour.
That first night in the Troubadour in L.A., Dave Crosby and Graham Nash elbowed with one of the Everlys, the Quincy Jones entourage was down front. Sweetheart, the rest is history. Rave reviews from every publication that could get someone in to see him, packed houses in San Francisco and Philadelphia and... an album that had sold 10,000 copies in Great Britain taking off and selling a 100,000 in America.
"Say," Bernie Taupin asks, noticing for the first time, "why aren't they playing the new album?"
Dee Murray, Elton's bass player, says he doesn't know.
"Have you seen the music papers?" Bernie asks him. "You're on the cover of Music Now and there's an inside picture of the four of us in Disc. They're calling you 'Smiling Dee Murray'..."
Dee Murray smiles. He spreads his arms Christ-like and sighs, "I'm a star."
Along with Nigel Olson, Elton's drummer, Dee is a refugee from the Spencer Davis Group, with which he made four tours of America in 14 months. "Spencer has had a lot of people work with him," Dee says, "he's like a small Mayall."
Bernie is talking about the kind of music he likes, his influences. "The Band — Robbie Robertson is so unbelievable. There's a guitar figure in 'All La Glory' that's so simple but takes you every time. Jesse Winchester. Oooh, I can't listen to 'Brand New Tennessee Waltz' and 'Yankee Lady' without wishing I'd written them. Of course, Dylan for me is the highest."
Bernie gets up and goes off to circulate. Dee filters away. The line is six deep at the buffet table. It's all for free. Elton John is across the crowded room at a table of people, surrounded. His coat is off. He's wearing a blue denim shirt with a blue and silver sateen rainbow on his back. There are doves over the pockets in front.
The room suddenly goes very quiet. The clink of glasses is in the background for the first time all day, the chewing and swallowing noises mixed down.
Elton John's new album is being played. Oh Stewart. Two hundred people are sitting so still, stoned off sweetbreads in cracker cups and thick sweet cream puddings. They are actually listening, to every note. Elton has his head down, he's totally into his music, all the boogie-woogie piano pounding, the funny way he strangulates words and throws them away.
'Burn Down the Mission' ends. Everyone applauds without being told to. Dick James' brother, Steve, thanks everyone for coming, wrapping up the reception when, suddenly...
Elton is up and running across the club, red boots on a wooden floor, he slips, does a nice showbiz recovery and keeps moving till he's at the microphone.
"Thank you all for coming," he says into the mike, "beep, beep, little feedback. But if you listen to the album, if ya dig it, you should know its Steve Brown as much as me, Gus Dudgeon as much as me, Paul Buckmaster as much as me, it's a team effort, God knows, I'm so untogether, it has to be...so again thanks...really, so long."
All of it in one breath.
"Well, I think Elton's said it all," Steve James says, a little amazed. "See you soon."
"Look, I don't know if I'm coming or going," Elton John says when he finally gets to sit down, having said goodbye to "just four million people, that's all." At an empty table in a now-empty club. The reception's over.
"I moved into my new flat yesterday, they want me to live in town now. I ran three red lights then stopped at three green ones. This morning I saw Neil Cowan and his secretary Stephanie. I shook hands with her and kissed Neil."
Bernie Taupin is leaving. "Reg," he says, "I'll see you at the office. Jill and I are stopping at Mr. Freedom's first." Mr. Freedom being one of the current ultimate King's Road tailors.
"What for?" Elton says, "Mr. Freedom will be at the office at three-thirty. I mean, the Queen doesn't go to the toilet, the toilet comes to her..."
Bernie is gone.
Elton says, "UNI is f---ed up, so I've been told, but all right, they really worked for us in the States till it got to be too much and I told them to f--- off. When you say f--- off in the States they listen but hey, they're introducing you to Quincy Jones as the new British superstar and it takes three days for it to sink in, that was Quincy Jones."
"Got a light?" interrupts a waitress in a Revolution T-shirt.
Elton pulls the string at his lapel. POP. The clown lights up. The waitress looks, wide-eyed. Elton makes a what-can-you-do face and keeps on.
Someone is playing the new Neil Young album over the P.A. The sound is so strong and involving, Elton is having trouble talking. "Neil Young, whew. I had the tape of this album in the States before the album itself came out. Great. My eight-track stereo is in my car in Britain and I'm sitting in a hotel room looking at the cartridge.
"People like Neil Young, you know where their heads are by their music. You can see their roots too. My roots are... listening to records. All the time. I live, eat, sleep, breathe music. Neil Young, The Band, the Springfield, the Dead, the Airplane. I feel more American than British. Really.
"Over here the scene is all these people slaggin' Ten Years After week after week for makin' so much money and being no good. I don't like them myself but they must get pretty pissed off after a while.
"The States is a whole other feeling. Leon Russell is my idol — ever since the Delaney and Bonnie albums. He came to see us and I went to his house in L.A. He's got a whole recording studio there, and he told me he wanted to record 'Burn Down The Mission.' His house is called the mission and his record company won't grant him insurance on it because it's in a fire area. So I don't think he'll be recording it soon."
A stray executive sloshes over, lurches into a sitting position. "Reg, are you... the spot... Malcolm said... cut it for me." A nasal drawl strained through nine gins. Totally incomprehensible.
"We'll see," Elton answers, "when I get back...Probably been agreed to already."
The executive smiles gratefully and pumps Elton's hand. "Superb sounds," he mutters, struggling to his feet. "Absolutely."
Elton doesn't note his departure. "Jagger and Lennon," he says, "show you that living an ordinary life is only boring. Incredible... I love Jagger. Being outrageous on stage is part of it for me. I have to, because ordinarily I'm such a quiet person.
"On the last tour, we were getting $500 a week at the Troubadour in L.A. With eight people. In San Francisco, Doug Weston upped it to $750. Ungano's in New York still offered me seventy-five bucks a night. But the States... in Philadelphia the people were all clapping, I was up on the grand [piano] mashin' about with my feet, I just gave them a signal with my hand and the whole crowd was standing. You'd never see that here. Fantastic.
"Since coming back, we've done ten weeks' work in six. Cut the score for a film called The Friends, directed by Lewis Gilbert, who did The Adventurers. One song is a seven-minute rock track and we're gonna release all of it as an album.
"This album, Tumbleweed Connection, is the funky one. Wait till you see the clothes I'll be wearing this tour. I'm glad it's out of the way. They wanted me to do another one with an orchestra but I said no, the country one comes first. The next one is going to be more classical and orchestral."
"Have a good trip, Reg," a friend says. "Bring me back a Goofy button from Disneyland."
"Take care, man," Elton says. He hears himself and replays it immediately. "Meyann," he whines in perfect American teenybopper. "Whatever gets you off, meyann."
A small circle forms around him.
"Write Reg, remember now."
"Be good Reg, we'll have a proper drink when ya come back."
On the outskirts of the circle, one of his friends whispers reverently, "He's our Neil Young."
"Elton, the photographers," a manager calls.
"Yeah, let me finish up here. I'm doing an interview for Women's Own.
"I'm lucky," he says. "Like Bernie throwing away the letter and his mother taking it out of the garbage and mailing it in. They're trying to make me something now, all of a sudden everyone wants you.
"But it's all luck. Luck and hype. What else?" People pull him away.
And the last time I saw Elton John, a photographer had him backed into a corner of the alley outside of the Revolution. He was neatly defined, his black shiny maxi-coat against the white brick. He stood without flinching as the photographer snapped away, click-click-click, at all his edges.
© Robert Greenfield, 1970
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