Candle In The Wind composed over breakfast. Telepathic playing. Immortal pop conjured up in the haunted Honky Chateau… The eyewitnesses on the making of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
In a creative dip, chased from his studio in Kingston JA, ELTON JOHN started 1973 on the run. By its end he had his most iconic album in the bag – not one but two discs of revitalised rockers and timeless weepies wrapped in a movie theme and dream-like sleeve art. “Everyone had a sense that we were involved in something very special,” hears DAVID BUCKLEY.
Elton John: Basically I’m a rock’n’roller at heart, but I had to fight off this ‘Elton John — strings’ image right from the word go. In Jamaica I wrote about 25 songs in three days.
Ken Scott [engineer]: We get in Dynamic Sounds [Kingston, Jamaica] the first day, and I’m trying to get a drum sound, and I couldn’t get any guts out of it, it was all very thin. So, we used a test record and found that the low end completely cut off. We were driven from the hotel to the studio in this van and there were hordes of people banging on the van as we went in. The studio was in the middle of a record plant and this American union was trying to get all the workers into the union and on strike. They were attacking us going in as, technically, we were trying to cross a picket line. It was pretty scary.
EJ: There wasn’t a positive vibe in the place. We decided to leave early. That didn’t go down too well, so they impounded our equipment and our rental cars. As we were being taken to the airport, I just thought: “They’re gonna kill us!”
KS: A couple of weeks later, I was told by the management at Trident Studios in London that [Elton’s manager] John Reid had booked time back at the Château [Château d’Hérouville, the studio near Paris Elton had used on his previous two studio albums], and had asked would I not charge for Jamaica? Now, I had no control over whether I charged for it or not; it was up to the management of Trident Studios – I was still on staff at that point. They said Jamaica was Gus [Dudgeon – Elton’s producer]’s fault. You just don’t go blind into a studio. So, I ended up not doing the album because John Reid said I was too expensive. At that stage I think I was on £100 a day. So that would have been £700 and that was too expensive. I never worked with Elton John again.
David Hentschel [engineer and musician]: After a few months, the decision was taken to return to the Château as it was known to work well and was a relaxed, creative environment. By then Ken Scott was no longer available and I was invited to take his place. When they first had gone to Jamaica, the intention was to record a single album. However, in the intervening time, Elton and Bernie [Taupin, lyricist] had written more songs, and added to the songs they then wrote once we were at the Château, there was more than enough material for a double album.
EJ: It wasn’t hard, it wasn’t an effort; it was a pleasure.
DH: During the recording of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, I had the pleasure of seeing him compose. Many of the songs were actually composed at breakfast before going to record them the same day. Candle In The Wind, I remember particularly. Bernie Taupin would give Elton the lyric, [who] then would write the music at a piano in the large dining area at the Château while everyone else was eating breakfast. Quite magical. The band – Davey [Johnstone, guitar], Dee [Murray, bass] and Nigel [Olsson, drums] would be listening as this happened, and then we all went over to the studio and laid the track down. Talk about fresh! Everyone involved had a sense that we were involved in something very special.
Bernie Taupin: I had always loved the phrase. Solzhenitsyn had written a book called Candle In The Wind. [Record industry mogul] Clive Davis had used it to describe Janis Joplin and, for some reason, I just kept hearing this term. I thought, “What a great way of describing someone’s life…” The song could have been about James Dean, it could have been about Montgomery Clift, it could have been about Jim Morrison. Anyone whose life is cut short at the prime point of their career, and how we glamorise death and how we immortalise people.
EJ: I can’t really remember writing it, I can’t remember much about it.
DH: The playing was almost telepathic. By this time, the band had been playing together live with Elton for quite a while and instinctively understood each other’s styles and strengths as well as being well used to accompanying Elton’s piano playing style. As they learned each song, their individual parts would develop spontaneously and organically. Gus and Elton would also put in new ideas, and maybe references would be made back to well-known records from other artists. It was a fast and certainly very democratic procedure. When it came to working out the backing vocal harmonies, Davey,
Dee and Nigel, Gus and I would all get together in the control room and figure out the parts together.
The working days were pretty full on, certainly for Gus and myself. Each day would start with a communal breakfast, during which Elton would often bang out a new tune. After that, we would all move to the studio where we would work for the rest of the day and evening, with shortish breaks for lunch and dinner. Anyone not involved in overdubs was free to relax by the pool or go shopping in Paris. We all had partners/wives there and consequently it never felt as claustrophobic as some residential studio stays can. Still, three weeks was probably enough by the end of it.
Rumours of the Château being haunted were rife and certainly discussed from time to time in idle moments. It was a very old building – and certainly rustic! – so believing that it could have been haunted was not difficult. There were for sure some odd sounds welling up stairways from time to time to stir the imagination. There was also an employee there who exuded a somewhat unusual fragrance – rather akin to a slightly off medical alcohol. He was known to wander the passages fairly aimlessly of an evening, and was once spotted carrying a large kitchen knife, so I understand. Disappointingly, no ghosts in flowing white robes sweeping across the lawns, though.
EJ: Bennie And The Jets is the strangest track on the whole album. It’s a send-up of the glitter rock thing, and I sound like Frankie Valli of The 4 Seasons.
DH: If I remember correctly, the album was originally going to be called Silent Movies And Talking Pictures. Gus had wanted to
“CANDLE IN THE WIND WAS COMPOSED AT BREAKFAST AND RECORDED THE SAME DAY. TALK ABOUT FRESH!” David Hentschel
use the MGM movie jingle to start the album, but there were licensing problems with that. When we got back to Trident Studios in London, he came up with the idea of recording a sort of overture to what was now clearly a double album and contained several movie-themed songs. He asked me to fashion a short piece which would call on the musical motifs of some of the songs on the album and arrange them in such a way that the finished piece could fill the ‘overture’ brief whilst becoming a part of, and segueing into, the piano section which we had previously recorded. The whole then became Funeral For A Friend.
Ian Beck [album cover artist]: We had discussions at the Rocket [Elton record label] offices in Soho. I had a studio in Garrick Street in Covent Garden, a short walk away, so it was easy to visit, I had more than one meeting there. [Art directors] David Larkham and Mike Ross had liked the cover painting I made for the Jonathan Kelly album
Wait Till They Change The Backdrop [RCA, 1973] and also the cover I had drawn for Cream magazine of David Bowie on the verge of superstardom. Elements from both appear in the final
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road cover.
The idea, I suppose, of city corruption versus country simplicity was very current at the time. I had been collecting illustrated children’s books since I was an art student in the 1960s and the tone and look of much of my work then had that pastel-coloured nursery feel. This was a good 10 years before I illustrated any real children’s books. I also admired the surrealists and it was inevitable that something of that might creep in to the work. The teddy bear was suggested during a meeting at Rocket because Elton liked bears. The ruby platforms were my idea because of the obvious link to The Wizard Of Oz. Mike Ross, I think, suggested that Elton might be tearing through part of a poster of the cover of the previous album. The idea of stepping into, or out of, a poster or picture was one I had admired in the work of the American illustrator Maxfield Parrish – an obsession of mine since art school. I made three or four rough workings for the front cover panel, all drawn to size. One idea had Elton standing looking out from the wall poster wearing a double-breasted suit, which must have been taken from a supplied publicity photograph from Rocket. I set up a friend and fellow illustrator, Leslie McKinley Howell, in the pose of walking in, or out, of the wall poster. He was wearing a vintage silk baseball blouson jacket – hence the jacket worn by Elton in the final image. I drew two other panels, the back cover with the teddy bear and the panel with the band photographs and the prow of a 1930s car and the shadow of a Los Angeles palm tree.
The artwork has indeed become iconic. It was never really cool at the time I made it but now it has, as it were, become itself. It keeps appearing on merchandise – things like T-shirts, phone cases, everything and anything it can be printed on, it seems, and for which sadly I get nothing. I have been signing an awful lot of album covers and programmes since Elton’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour [for which Beck also provided the artwork] began [in September 2018], which I am happy to do provided people are willing to pay the postage. I feel blessed for having been involved in it at all.
EJ (to Melody Maker’s Chris Welch, November 24, 1973): This time I’m very pleased with the result. I’ve never done an album before that I’ve been so totally pleased with as far as consistency. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. I know it’s boring when people say that, but as far as an achievement goes, I really dig it. It surprised a lot of people. After Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, which was a fairly weak album, we wanted to come up with something strong, and a double as well.
DH: If it’s not the classic, then it’s certainly one of the top few of his career. First, though this is always subjective, it is due to the songs, many of which I think are among his finest. Second, it is very hard for any artist to make a double album and even more so to make it hold up and keep the listener’s interest throughout. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road managed that, in my opinion, and I can only think of maybe three other albums in the history of contemporary music that achieved that.
Gary Osborne [later Elton songwriting partner]: I think it was on the Queen’s Jubilee he spent round our house – certainly I wasn’t working with him yet. And he’s going through my record collection – you know how people do that – in a manic way. He started casually and he went absolutely through the whole fucking collection and he turned to me and said, “Mrs Osborne,” and I said, “Yes?” And he said, “Excuse me dear, but I can’t help but noticing that you’ve only got one of my albums.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s the best one, It’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And he said, “But you’ve got four Bowie albums and you’ve only got one of mine!” And I said, “I told you I wasn’t a fan of yours. You’re a good mate and all that, but I’m not your biggest fan.” And he said, “Oh, OK.” And, like two days later, the 19 albums that he had made arrived by courier.
Elton John quotes from Classic Albums: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Eagle Rock, 2001) and Stephen Demorest interview, Circus, December 1973.