Reg is a ledge

Rediscovering an old Elton John album

There’s no denying that Elton John (born Reginald Kenneth Dwight) is one our greatest musical superstars. These days we may treat him as a groovy grandpa, mixing with the kids by making dance pop with Dua Lipa and latest track Hold Me Closer with Britney Spears. But Elton is a true soul man, who just happens to be white and originate from the less than hip surroundings of Pinner.

Like many of his musical peers, Elton John was a child at the time of rock ‘n’ roll. Neither us world-weary Gen Xers nor fully-connected Gen Zers have any comprehension of what it was like to be young at the time. There was NO pop music. Just safe “tea dance” tunes sung by Max Bygraves and other hoary old crooners. When Elvis Presley arrived, people’s minds were utterly blown – and none more so than little Reg Dwight’s. As he says in his autobiography ME: “Rock ‘n’ roll was like a bomb that wouldn’t stop going off.” It was also despised by the older generation, compounded for Reg by the toxic environment of his family home. His father who, when not absent, didn’t want to be there, and his mum’s ferocity and coldness swept across the house like an Arctic whiteout. Yet against this grim backdrop, young Reg found his talent – and perhaps a safe space – in playing the piano. And boy, could he play. As well as Elvis, his idols were Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. From them and other Black American musicians he learnt the blues, boogie-woogie and rock ‘n’ roll – but he already had the spirit within him. Listen to tracks like Take Me to the Pilot and Border Song, blending gospel and blues with ’70s piano rock. All written by a diminutive, specs-wearing, 23-year-old kid from a sleepy London suburb.

How did young Reg go from tinkling the front room’s ivories to become a global megastar? Clearly his aptitude was innate, which he puts down to having “a good ear”. Also, music was something his emotionally distant Dad could connect with, and gave his tacit approval when Reg played well. Maybe it was an antidote to what Elton calls “The Dwight Family Temper”, which he admits to inheriting and is well documented on Tantrums & Tiaras, a 1997 documentary made by his husband David Furnish. Being constantly told off by both parents must have contributed to his low self-esteem, hardly helped by not being blessed with the expected rock star looks.

The spark that changed everything came in his relationship with Bernie Taupin, which happened by total chance. And came out of rejection, as Elton had just failed an audition with Liberty Records and was given a parting gift of an envelope containing lyrics. They were written by a teenage Taupin, then working on a chicken farm in Lincolnshire. Elton admits his own lyrical attempts made him cringe, so had given up. But something about Bernie’s words just worked for him – and they clicked. Success didn’t come rushing for the duo, and they were forced to sell songs to Cilla Black, Engelbert Humperdinck and Edward Woodward, often being turned down. Their composition for Lulu’s 1969 Eurovision entry lost out to Boom Bang-A-Bang.

My introduction to Elton John’s music was in the late ’70s. I vividly remember his mournful instrumental Song for Guy sitting amongst latter-day chart disco and glove-puppet novelty songs. Obviously, 1980s Elton is my touchstone, and his album Too Low For Zero soundtracked many cringey love letters (written bubble-style in silver pen, natch).

I’ve never owned an Elton John record, but he’s been a staple in my life as I’m sure he has in yours. He even reduced me to tears once. Summer 1985, and Live Aid was blaring from a TV in the common room of my boarding-school house. I was a bit snottily teenage about the event at first, but, tuning back in that evening, I watched Elton and Kiki Dee sing the serotonin-boosting Don’t Go Breaking My Heart – and I was a goner.

Elton John is currently on his protracted Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, which began back in 2018 and is due to end in July 2023. In these times of the Rolling Stones filling Hyde Park and octogenarian Paul McCartney headlining Glastonbury, we don’t totally believe it when an artist calls it quits. But I think Elton has had enough. Really, he’d already created an extraordinary body of work by the mid 1970s, and everything thereafter was a bonus.

My deep dive into Elton’s back catalogue unearthed an album I’d never heard before. It’s a record considered by many hard-core fans to be his best: Tumbleweed Connection. Released in 1970, it is incredibly accomplished for such a young artist, full of soulful country rock influenced by his heroes The Band. Put on Son Of Your Father and let its funky mix of piano, guitar and harmonica transport you to the dusty trails of the Wild West. Rocket Man Elton is a sweet (suburban) soul brother.

Will Stubbs is a screenwriter and TV commercials writer. Music is his first love

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

Arts & Culture, Music, October 2022

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.