What are Elton John’s hits about?

What are Elton John’s hits about?

Over the past 49 years, he sold more than 300 million albums, performed over 4,000 shows, became close friends with the English royal family and recently, his lyrics were quoted by none other than Donald Trump: Sir Elton John.

The “living legend” is currently in the middle of a farewell tour, the biographical movie Rocketman premieres at the end of May and his autobiography is set to be released in October this year.

With his flamboyant presence, unique outfits and endless collection of glasses, you could almost forget to pay attention to his hits. That would be a shame, because there are some seriously interesting stories behind songs like Tiny Dancer, Nikita and Rocket Man.

Elton who?

Sir Elton Hercules John was born on March 25, 1947 in Pinner (Greater London), as Reginald Kenneth Dwight. At just 11 years old, he won a scholarship for the Royal Academy of Music. At the end of the sixties, he started collaborating with lyricist Bernie Taupin. A good move, as the string of hits the duo go on to produce together make Elton John one of the greatest artists of all time.

To give some figures, he scored 26 gold, 38 platinum or multiplatinum and 1 diamond album and set the record for best selling single of all time, with Candle In The Wind.

At the end of the 1980s, he became a prominent figure in the fight against AIDS. He now heads the Elton John AIDS Foundation where he has raised more than $ 300 million.

He also won a variety of awards, including 6 Grammies, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Tony Award. His star is on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame and, in 1997, Queen Elizabeth even knighted him.

Roller coaster

“My life has been one big roller coaster ride so far”, said the singer during the announcement of his autobiography that will appear in October.

In addition to the highs he experienced through his music, he is also known to have suffered from bulimia and, for a period, was addicted to drugs and alcohol. In 1990 he managed to overcome this completely.

It must have been tough to be one of the first artists in the 70s to come out of the closet. In the beginning he called himself bisexual and even had a German wife for a number of years. At the end of the 1980s he confirmed his homosexuality. In 2005 he married David Furnish, with whom he now has two children.

Elton’s lyrics

Most of the lyrics to his songs were written by Bernie Taupin, so don’t expect Elton John’s repertoire to be either autobiographical or personal. In fact, in an interview with The Wallstreet Journal Taupin even stated that Elton doesn’t understand everything he sings:

“He never asked about the meaning behind any of my lyrics. He might say I don’t understand this or I don’t know if I can work with it. But he never challenged my interpretation or the art of what I do.”

If even Sir Elton John himself wasn’t always able to understand his own lyrics, I’m not going to pretend to be able to give a worthy explanation or interpretation in this article. What I did manage to discover were some interesting stories behind his biggest hits. Enjoy!

5. Tiny Dancer (Madman Across the Water, 1971)

Ed Sheeran references the song in his hit Castle On The Hill, the song was used for an  iconic scene in the movie Almost Famous, in Friends Phoebe pays ode to Who’s The Boss actor Tony Danza in the song. There are even people who think that the song is about manhood. What do the lyrics to Tiny Dancer really mean?

[Verse 1]
Blue jean baby, L.A. lady
Seamstress for the band
Pretty-eyed, pirate smile
You’ll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must’ve seen her
Dancing in the sand
And now she’s in me, always with me
Tiny dancer in my hand

In an interview with Rolling stone from 1970, Elton John said that is about Bernie Taupin’s girlfriend, Maxine Feibelmann. This would also make sense as she traveled with the band at the time and sewed their outfits. In the album sleeve, this song is credited to her saying – ‘With love to Maxine’.

But online you can find references made to an interview in which Taupin apparently indicates that the song is not about one person in particular. I didn’t find an official source, but he apparently is meant to have said the following:

“We came to California in the fall of 1970, and sunshine radiated from the populace. I was trying to capture the spirit of that time, encapsulated by the women we met – especially at the clothes stores up and down the Strip in L.A.

 They were free spirits, sexy in hip-huggers and lacy blouses, and very ethereal, the way they moved. So different from what I’d been used to in England. And they all wanted to sew patches on your jeans. They’d mother you and sleep with you – it was the perfect Oedipal complex.”

[Chorus]
Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today
Tiny Dancer – Elton John

What more can we add to that!

4. Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time) (Honky Château, 1972)

The next single that Elton released was Rocket Man. Contrary to popular belief, this song is not inspired by David Bowie’s Space Oddity, but rather by Rocket Man by the band Pearls Before Swine.

This band wrote the lyrics following a story in the book The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury from 1951. Taupin also read the story and says this in an interview with Billboard:

 “It’s about a guy who’s an airline pilot and he goes off every day and then one day he sort of burns up. And the kids are always looking up to see their dad come home.”

Taupin gives a more futuristic angle to his version of Rocket Man:

“I thought it was a great idea to sing a song about a guy in the future, where being an astronaut would be akin to being an airline pilot – which will probably happen.”

In an interview with Wall Street Journal, Taupin says that it is not the tragic fate or the incredible desire of the main character in the Bradbury story that appealed to him, but that he was particularly touched by the daily grind of the astronaut’s existence described in the story. He stated that:

 In ’71, the future of space flight was exhilarating. America was putting astronauts on the moon. Yet 20 years earlier, Bradbury had envisioned future astronauts as little more than intergalactic truck drivers, burning themselves out alone far from home.”

You can read that back in the lyrics:

[Verse 1]
She packed my bags last night, pre-flight
Zero hour: 9:00 a.m
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

[Chorus]
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
‘Til touchdown brings me ‘round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no, no, no
I’m a rocket man
Rocket man
Rocket man
Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time) – Elton John

Donald Trump himself appears to be a fan of Rocket Man, using the song (without permission!) during his presidential campaign and nicknaming Kim Jong Un after the song title. During his debut address to the UN  he said that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission”. Taupin was not happy with this however. In the The Wall Street Journal he said that:

“The context bothered me. The thought that World War III could start over the use of my song title was disturbing. I also was uncomfortable that something of mine that was culturally iconic could be used in such a way.

But what could I do? Sue him for cultural appropriation? As a songwriter, you’re powerless to stop something like that.

However, if the use of ‘Rocket Man’ results in peace, I will be very happy to take full credit for it.”

3. Nikita (Ice On Fire, 1985)

In October 1985, 4 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Elton John released the song Nikita. In this ballad, the western-dressed Elton is in love with Nikita from East Berlin, but because of the Cold War, their love is out of reach.

[Verse 1]
Hey Nikita is it cold
In your little corner of the world

You could roll around the globe
And never find a warmer soul to know
Oh I saw you by the wall
Ten of your tin soldiers in a row
With eyes that looked like ice on fire
The human heart a captive in the snow

The lovers do get together in the video clip, but in the lyrics they are not so lucky:

[Chorus]
Oh Nikita, you will never know
Anything about my home
I’ll never know how good it feels to hold you

Nikita, I need you so
Oh Nikita is the other side of any given line in time
Counting ten tin soldiers in a row
Oh no, Nikita you’ll never know
Nikita – Elton John

The song became a big hit in Western Europe and even made the name Nikita a popular baby name.

In 2012, John and Taupin were sued for plagiarism. A number of years prior, Photographer Guy Hobbs had submitted a song called Natasha to Elton John’s publisher. Natasha was also about an impossible love that takes place during the Cold War, but the court ultimately ruled in favor of John and Taupin.

 

2. Candle In the Wind (1973, 1997)

Perhaps Elton John’s most famous song is Candle In The Wind. In the early 1970s it wasn’t a huge success, but the re-release in 1997 following the death of Princess Diana became one of the greatest hits of all time, selling almost 40 million singles worldwide.

In an interview with  Rolling stone, Taupin explained that the original version was inspired by Marilyn Monroe, stating:

“I wrote ‘Candle In The Wind’ about Marilyn Monroe, but she is absolutely not someone I admired a lot as a kid or anything. She was just a metaphor for fame and dying young, and people sort of overdoing the indulgence, and those that do die young.

The song could have easily have been about Montgomery Clift or James Dean or even Jim Morrison. But it seemed that she just had a more sympathetic bent to her, so I used her. And she was female, and that was more vulnerable.

But it was really about the excesses of celebrity, the early demise of celebrities, and ‘live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.’ And that was really the crux of the song.”

[Verse 1]
Goodbye Norma Jeane
Though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled
They crawled out of the woodwork
And they whispered into your brain
They set you on the treadmill
And they made you change your name

[Chorus]
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to

When the rain set in
And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did
Candle In The Wind – Elton John

Elton John has been friends with the English royal family since the 1970s. In 1981 he met Princess Diana at Prince Andrew’s birthday party. They danced the Charleston together for a good 20 minutes that evening. The friendship cooled for a while at the start of 1997 and just 6 weeks before Diana’s death, they settled whatever had come between them. During her funeral Elton played a slightly adapted version of Candle In The Wind (Goodbye England’s Rose):

Goodbye England’s rose
May you ever grow in our hearts
You were the grace that placed itself
Where lives were torn apart
You called out to our country
And you whispered to those in pain
Now you belong to heaven
And the stars spell out your name

And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in
And your footsteps will always fall here
Among England’s greenest hills
Your candle’s burned out long before
Your legend ever wil
l
Candle In The Wind ’97 – Elton John

In a BBC documentary, Prince Harry said that the moment the song was played left a huge impression on him:

“Elton John’s song was incredibly emotional. That was part of this whole trigger system, which nearly brought me to the point of crying in public, which I didn’t do.”

Elton won one Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for the song and the proceeds from the single went to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. His bond with the royals remained good. He even would have played Your song at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.

 

1. Circle Of Life – 1994

Elton John is probably best known by the younger generation(s) by the music he wrote for Disney. In 1994, he made a major contribution to the blockbuster soundtrack for The Lion King. This time he did not work with Taupin, but with lyricist Tim Rice.

Circle Of Life, Hakuna Matata and Can You Feel The Love Tonight all received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song and for the latter song, he took home a coveted golden statue. The story goes however that Elton John thought Circle Of Life was a much better song.

Who doesn’t remember the iconic moment when Rafiki presents the newborn Simba to the animal kingdom?

From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the Sun
There’s more to be seen than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done

There is far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round

It’s the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love

‘Til we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The Circle of Life
Circle Of Life – Elton John

In July, the live action remake of The Lion King will be released and it will contain Circle Of Life once again. The singer says in an interview with The sun that he is working on a new song together with none other than Beyonce. She will be the voice actor behind Simba’s lover, Nala, in the film. We can’t wait!

Are you attending one of his last concerts?

Did you manage to get a ticket for one of the very last Elton John shows ever? Have fun, make it an unforgettable evening!

For the true music lover ❤

Looking for a cool present? Or shouldn’t Elton Johns iconic repertoire be missing in your vinyl collection? Order it here:

Curious for ROCKETMAN – the movie?

The feature film ROCKETMAN is a musical fantasy based on the first years of Elton John’s musical carreer. From 22nd May in cinemas, check out the trailer here:

Read more

Curious to find out more about what other (living) legends were singing about? Previously we also delved into the repertoire of Queen  and The Beatles. Enjoy!

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– Tiny Dancer is written by Bernie Taupin / Elton John © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1971.
– Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time) is written by Elton John / Bernie Taupin © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1971.
– Nikita is written by Bernard J.P. Taupin / Bernie Taupin / Elton John © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1985.
– Candle in the Wind ’97 is written by Elton John / Bernie Taupin © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1997.
– Circle of Life is written by Elton John / Tim Rice © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, 1994.

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About The Author

Marjolijn Winten

"Ever since I can remember I have been waking up with music and going to bed with it. I am very happy to have followed my heart and started working in the music industry. In 2015 I established my own start-up to develop a music app, this is also where Nolala came to life. My music taste is very broad, but I prefer to listen to singer-songwriters; Ben, John, James & Ed are my men!”

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