- 25 Nov 21
When rock royalty sends out an invitation, top Hot Press showbiz reporter Pat Carty rarely say no.
It’s somewhat appropriate that I was drinking a fancy gin and tonic on a house boat floating gently on a Dutch river when I received the call. “Before I say anything else,” said the venerable editor, down the phone line from Dublin, “tell me this, what do you think of Elton John?”
Though I might not be completely enamoured with everything he’s been at lately – mind you, the album he made with Leon Russell from 2010, The Union, is worth hearing, and ‘Porch Swing In Tupelo’ from 2004’s Peachtree Road is a great song – Elton Hercules John made some undeniably great records in the 1970s when he was at one point, allegedly personally responsible for a staggering 2% of all record sales, worldwide. I’m no mathematician but that means one in every fifty albums sold, anywhere, had his mug on it. And fair dues, I’m partial to a bit of Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water myself. On top of that, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Elton’s 3Arena show back in 2019 and let me repeat myself by saying it was bloody marvellous. Back to that phone call.
“Universal have invited Hot Press to take part in a special Elton John event for the launch of his new album, The Lockdown Sessions, and I think you’re the man for the job.” I choked down a mouthful of gin, my head instantly awash with visions of a possibly bacchanalic sojourn on Elton’s private jet, or perhaps I’d have to go down the costume shop and get rigged out for one of his legendary garden parties. My time had surely come, years of hard graft at the coal face of rock n’ roll journalism had finally paid off. “Universal will be in touch.” I fixed another celebratory drink and gazed across the still water, quietly satisfied with my lot.
As has happened so many times since first being passed the once-sacred rock journo torch, I was reminded again, when the details were made clear, that the halcyon days of the seventies are far behind us and, thanks to the “miracle” of modern communication, the Hot Press Gulfstream G700 could stay idle in its hangar for another day. My audience with Sir Elton would be through the medium of Zoom.
Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player
Audience is the correct term too, as I was being invited to listen, quietly. Here’s how the day went. At about ten that morning, I, along with countless journalists around the globe, was sent a link to Elton’s new album with the express wish that I “enjoy the music”. To be honest with you, I didn’t particularly enjoy it, which is not to say others, and probably plenty of others at that, won’t. The Lockdown Sessions is an album of duets with everyone from Dua Lipa, Nicky Minaj, Lil Nas X and Charlie Puth to more mature heads like Gorillaz, Eddie Vedder, Stevies Wonder and Nicks, and the late Glen Campbell, and while it might not be particularly to my taste, I still admire Elton’s work rate in getting the thing together in the first place, under difficult global conditions. There’s also no questioning the man’s commitment to seeking out new music and new collaborators. I’d have to assume that Elton would be good for a score until payday so he’s obviously still driven by the same love of music he had when he first started banging on his grandmother’s Joanna.
We were invited to submit several questions before the audience commenced but once I saw submissions flying in thick and fast in the Zoom chat section, my hopes of Elton John addressing any inquiries I might have took a dent. Nevertheless I asked about the process of putting an album together during a pandemic, and if he really was determined to call a halt to touring after his current Farewell Yellow Brick Road jaunt finally comes to a close. I was also curious to know how the collaboration with Glen Campbell came about, on ‘I’m Not Going To Miss You’, a particularly heart-breaking track from late in the Rhinestone Cowboy’s career. Whatever about Elton’s contribution, it certainly proves his ear for a good record is still present and correct. For a laugh, I also threw in a facetious lob about Ed Sheeran, but more of that anon.
Bang on time, Sir Elton appeared on the screen in my kitchen, looking fit and well in London’s Metropolis Studios, sat beside BBC 6 presenter – and former Menswear drummer – Matt Everitt, who’d be handling the questions. Elton jumped straight in, and detailed how the recordings came together.
“I had no plans to make any music at all during lockdown, this really came together as an accident. It started in March 2020 when I met Charlie Puth at a restaurant in Los Angeles. He actually lived only four doors away from me in LA. He said, ‘I’ve got a studio if you feel like coming up and writing something’. So, I did and it’s the track that appears on the record, ‘After All’."
I’d wager they were four fairly fancy doors. The winner from Pinner continued.
“I worked on the Surfaces track, the first thing I’d ever done via Zoom. They were in Texas and I played piano. Those were the first two things really. I came back to England and Damon Albarn asked me to play with Gorillaz, and Rina Sawayama asked me to do a duet and play piano on ‘Chosen Family’.”
“I did the Metallica Miley Cyrus track with Andrew Watt. I did ‘It’s a Sin’ with Olly Alexander – I did that at the Brits because It’s A Sin was a fantastic TV series about AIDS in the 1980s in Britain and it’s one of the Pet Shop Boys’ greatest songs - and then I went and did Glenn Campbell and Lis Nas X and I thought, ‘I’ve got the germ of an album here’. And then we got the Pnau track, which was just me singing, and I thought ‘I don’t want to sing the ‘Rocket Man’, we’ve got to get someone else to sing that’.”
“We took Dua Lipa to dinner in Los Angeles and my manager said, ‘listen to the track and see if you like it. Play it by the pool very loudly and then give us a call’. And she did play it by the pool, very loudly, and called us and said, ‘I’m in, I want to do it’.”
“So, gradually, I’ve got an album coming together. I went with Andrew Watt in the studio and did Brandi Carlisle, Eddie Vedder, Stevie Wonder, Young Thug and Nicki Minaj and Stevie Nicks. And then SG Lewis had finished the track that I’d written with him, so I had 16 tracks. And I did Jimmie Allen in LA as well, a bit of vocal on that track. So, voila, out of nothing… It’s all Charlie Puth’s fault, basically.”
John began to spot connections to the very earliest days of his storied career.
“I’m playing on other people’s records, you have to fit in with what they want and what they tell you to do, which was great because in the early days I was a session musician, before I became Elton. When I did the Lil Nas X track and Glen Campbell, I was in Studio 2 in Abbey Road. Fifty-four years prior to that I was in the same studio playing on The Hollies’ ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’. I thought, ‘I’ve come full circle and I’m really loving what I’m doing’.
That love of music mentioned earlier is obvious, and it continues to shine through when Elton moves on to talk about his Rocket Hour radio show on Apple Music.
“I’ve done a radio show for six years in a row now on Apple and I’ve created and cultivated friendships with young musicians, and that’s really spurred me on. It excites me when I hear something new by somebody new, a Billie Eilish or a Lorde. Billie Eilish has just astonished me, when I played that first record by her. And when I love a record by someone new, I interview them on the show, or I phone them up. Even if they’re in Australia or they’re in Europe, it doesn’t matter, because it’s important for me to offer a hand of friendship and offer a hand of authenticity to what they’re doing.”
“When I first came to America, Neil Diamond, the Beach Boys, Leon Russell, The Band, George Harrison all got in touch with me and Leon Russell took me on tour. They liked my music and it validated what I did so you must always try and pass those thoughts on to other young musicians, because it helps them. It’s important because someone like me can give artists a little bit of exposure but Billie Eilish cultivated her own exposure by making great records and becoming the star she is now.”
Hats off, there’s no arguing with those kind of putting your money where your mouth is manoeuvres. To be fair to both Everitt and Elton, they do take a few of the submitted questions from the music journalists sat in kitchens around the world. The first couple relate to ground Elton has already covered but when he’s asked which collaborator he felt was closest to him in spirit, he perks up.
“I think all of them, actually. Damon Albarn isn’t a young artist by any means, he’s been around for years, but I feel very close to him because he’s a free spirit and I’m a bit of a free spirit, I love what he does. I learn something from each artist that I work with that I wouldn’t normally have learned.”
“From Stevie Nicks, from Stevie Wonder, from Sam Lewis to Lil Nas X. I learnt something from each of them and if you’re at my age, I’m 74 now, and you can still be learning from other musicians, that’s the greatest gift of all. You can never stop learning as a musician. If you shut your mind off and say, ‘I’ve done it all now, I can do everything now, I don’t need to hear anything else’, then for me that’s the dead end. I’m more excited now about music than I’ve ever been.”
The thing is that you believe him, this isn’t just a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of The Elton Party. A good question comes from Conor Clark with Gay Times, who commends Elton for his championing of “queer talent” and asks what more the industry could be doing to support emerging artists.
“Well, there’s a lot of great queer talent around. They’re making records and I think Lil Nas X in particular is breaking barriers down amongst the Hip Hop community and the black community, which is really important, because that can be very homophobic sometimes. But you’ve got a lot of young gay artists making records. One of my friends, Oliver Sim, who is from the xx, is making a solo record, which I’ve heard. It’s fantastic.”
“Jake Wesley Rogers is going to be a huge star. There’s a lot of it… I don’t think people worry about that now. I mean, look at Perfume Genius. He’s brilliant. There’s Troye Sivan. And Arlo Parks. St. Vincent. Hello, there’s loads of us and we’re not going to do you any harm. There’s so many great creative gay people out there and they are getting their dues because you can’t keep great song writing and great artistry down.”
Rock Of The Westies
As he said himself, it’s all about new music for Elton, so he keeps going.
“You’re always hearing new things. There’s a woman called Fatma Said and I had no idea who she was. I googled her, she’s kind of semi-operatic but there’s North African music thrown in. It’s astonishing. Warner Brothers Classics very generously sent me the album and the CD, it’s music you’ve never heard before and it just made me so excited.”
This, as it turns out, is an exceptionally good steer. Said’s melding of Ravel, Lorca, Berlioz, and Egyptian folk song on her El Nour album is, as the man said, fairly astonishing. This fella knows what he’s talking about, but then he would, given – as Everitt points out – how he still buys an awful lot of records.
“I write the list of CDs that I want and I get the list that comes out on a Friday,” he explains. “I buy my CDs and I buy vinyl. I do my radio show every week, so Apple send me all the new releases that are coming out. There are 30,000 new songs every week on Spotify. So, you’ve got a lot to choose from. And there are some amazing things there. Tycho Jones is someone I love from Britain. Berwyn Morgen, from Santa Cruz. She’s 16. I played two records by her now. Astonishing. 16. It’s like when I was 16, I was still picking my nose, basically.”
“I’ve never lost it from when I bought 78 records, and that shows how old I am. The first 78 record I ever had was by Doris Day and it was called ‘The Deadwood Stage’ with ‘Secret Love’ on the other side, and I was so excited. My family always bought records. There was always music in the house. I’ve never lost that thing of going to a record store and buying something.”
“I must have bought so many duplicate records. Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche, every time I see it, I buy it. Wherever I am and wherever I go in the world, I go to a record store and I get as excited as I did when I was four or five years of age.”
The Brown Dirt Cowboy
He’s won me over but I was on his side anyway. Time is running short so it looks like the Elton John Hot Press interview will have to wait until another day. He does, however, pick a final question which was close to my own about Glen Campbell and ‘I’m Not Going To Miss You’. It turns out that John was asked to sing the song when Campbell’s family put together an album of posthumous duets.
“It’s an amazing song, the last song he ever wrote, and I was so honoured when they asked me specifically to do that song, because it is such a beautiful lyric about the heartbreak of dementia and Alzheimer’s. I jumped at the chance.”
“It was really one of the most difficult tracks I had to do on the album because I had to get it right. I had to have the same emotion in my voice that he had. I’ve always been a Glen Campbell fan from way back when he was a guitarist on the Wrecking Crew, one of the greatest guitarists ever, and all the beautiful Jimmy Webb songs.”
“He was a gentleman, a brilliant musician and a brilliant singer, a great voice. It was an honour to do that, but I had to do it justice.”
With that Everitt calls time and Elton John thanks us all for tuning in. I didn’t get to fly on his private jet, I didn’t get to dress up, and he sadly ignored my question about Ed Sheeran giving him a giant, marble penis for his birthday – a true story, apparently – but I’ll be sure to put it to him when our paths inevitably cross at some fabulous showbiz do. That may remain this ‘young’ rock journo’s dream but what is certainly true is that Elton John would appear to be a decent chap from whom the music is still the thing, the only thing. Good man.