Stories Behind Classic Songs, Part 7

Candle in the Wind was written about Marilyn Monroe

Elton John is a polarizing artist in that it really, really depends on what era of his you’re familiar with. If you grew up in the 80s or the 90s chances are you’ll see him as nothing more than dad-pop – safe, formulaic and totally uncool to like for anybody under 40. With a strong determination to follow every trend that’s popular and to give people exactly what they want. Would you believe it then that for the 70s people he meant the complete opposite? Sure, he was still ruling the charts; he was still a hit machine. But the hits were adventurous – he would always experiment with arrangements and had no problem with jumping from genre to genre. The melodies were memorable and the session musicians just the right fit for them. He was young and ambitious and got his fans used to an incredible pace of at least one album per year; all different from each other and pretty much all consistent until the falling out with his lyricist, the famous Bernie Taupin in 1978 (which he later reunited with, but it was just not the same).

Elton_John_Bernie_Taupin_1971

Elton and Bernie in 1971

My #1 pick from that succession of incredible albums wouldn’t be Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Tumbleweed Connection since you didn’t ask), but I can certainly understand it remaining in the public consciousness over the years as Elton’s most representative work. It’s his most diverse through the double format, to an almost encyclopedic degree and for some reason has always felt to me as his most universal as well. His most easy to connect to. The lyrics play a big role in that – Taupin’s words seem to be more accessible here, less cryptic just for the sake of being cryptic. Yet they never lose that poetic touch that inspires Elton to build such inventive melodies around them.

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Candle in the Wind is such an example, one of the album’s hits. As you know, the two would always work separately – Taupin would write the words and then send them over to Elton. Without meeting, the singer would compose the music after reading them. In this case, Marilyn Monroe seems to be the main subject of the song. She is mentioned by her real name as early as the first verse (“Goodbye Norma Jeane” – she’d died 11 years prior) and then for the rest of the song the actress acts like a metaphor for stars that died tragically. Taupin is quoted as explaining this: “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.” And if the gorgeous bitter-sweet melody is not enough of a proof that Elton resonated with the message, here’s what he has to say about Monroe: “That’s the most glamorous woman that’s ever been.”

Marilyn-Monroe-thumb

Flash forward 24 years later. The whole world is in shock and tears as the newspapers announce the tragic death of Princess Diana. It had been 6 years since Elton’s last number one, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, a 1991 collaboration with George Michael. As both a tribute and a eulogy to Princess Diana, Elton took the original Candle in the Wind and asked Taupin to change the lyrics accordingly. “Goodbye Nroma Jeane” became “Goodbye England’s rose”. Sir George Martin of the Beatles fame took on the production duties. In no time it became a bigger hit than the original ever was, staying on top of the charts for 12 consecutive weeks. Now I have no reasons to doubt the sincerity of the gesture itself, as Elton and Diana were actually close friends, but I do have my doubts about the whole idea of remaking a classic. Especially given the huge time frame between them and the fact that generally remakings have an even bigger chance to fail than sequels. It all just feels so uninspired – the vocals are not what they used to be and the arrangement sounds like a watered-down version of the original, with the soaring guitar line that elevated the chorus so much removed completely. It feels unnecessary on an artistic level; much like a lot of Elton’s post-prime stuff. But hey, that shouldn’t stop anybody from exploring those 70s treasures and learn all about them. Trust me, they’re worth it.

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Categories: Stories Behind Classic Songs

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30 replies

  1. Reblogged this on A Joyful Process and commented:
    A great post about “Candle In The Wind” – the story behind the original and the remake, and the author’s impressions about both.

    Like

  2. Candle in the Wind is a great song but for me it doesn’t compare with Come Down in Time, Where to Now St. Peter?, Love Song, by Lesley Duncan, and Burn Down the Mission, all from Tumbleweed Connection. I will listen to these songs anytime, anywhere and they always pack the same punch they did in 1970. Bernie Taupin wrote some great lyrics. Without him, Elton is just another lounge singer. Thanks for reminding me, Ovidiu.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice post, Ovidiu. Spot on about the differing view of Elton; having grown up hearing his 80s and 90s stuff I thought of him as one for the grannies. Then I heard his early stuff and thought “what’s this!?”

    I find some of it a bit too cryptic and maybe too ambitious, but there’s some splendid stuff in there. I still need to pick up Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water … then I’ll be happy with my Elton collection (I currently have the self-titled album, Captain Fantastic, and Yellow Brick Road).

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  4. Great album and song. In the movie “Almost Famous,” the bus scene where they all make amends singing “Tiny Dancer,” is a priceless movie moment. You are right about his earlier stuff having an edge – “Levon” remains a classic, especially with the descriptive Taupin lyrics.

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  5. Don’t know which album I’d pick as a favorite but it’d be among these four – Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me. All great stuff. You’re right in that anybody hearing Elton later on could think he was always a Vegas-style player. But all you have to do is hear his live album “11-17-70” and hear him tear up stuff like “Get Back” to know he was at least as much Jerry Lee Lewis. (I was living in NY at the time and heard this broadcast live on WPLJ.) As to a favorite song, I like Candle in the Wind but I love Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Come Down In Time, Amoreena – such great stuff!

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  6. Nice, I have a mixed appreciation for Elton. I still struggle with his image even in those early days.

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  7. Love the Tumbleweed Connection album, lost interest in him after that.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. First thank you for the love on my blog : )

    I would say Mad man across the water…… ; )

    Liked by 1 person

  9. As always, a heck of a good essay.
    Gracias.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. We were fortunate to see him in concert when Yellow Brick Road was released… and much later with Billy Joel. However, my favorite album was Madman Across the Water.

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  11. Hey man! Great blog…..some very interesting content! Fair play!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Good review. I must say that I was around when Elton John released his first American album, Elton John, in 1970. I had read about his performances at the Troubadour in LA and how astounding they were. I just had to hear this guy’s music. As soon as the album was released, I bought it. I was not disappointed. In fact, of the next seven albums he released, five others were just as great: Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Don’ Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Only Caribou disappointed. If any other artist had produced Caribou, I might have liked it more. But this was Elton John. Then he did Rock of the Westies and I quit paying attention.

    But in those early seven albums, there was no one else producing music. And I mean no one. In the history of rock and roll, only the Sinatra, Dylan and Beatles break that record. It was amazing the music we were getting from this artist, and in such a short time. In six years, he had given us some of the greatest music a popular artist ever gave us.

    One of the unsung heroes of this brilliant production is collaborator Bernie Taupin, his lyricist. And the music Elton composed for those lyrics were perfect. No other artist, other than Bob Dylan, has explored so many subjects. Everything from the history of the American Indian (Indian Sunset) to space exploration (Rocket Man) to The Greatest Discovery (the birth of a brother) to Border Song (alienation and racism) to the Outlaw in the West (Ballad of a Well-known Gun) to the afterlife (Where to Now St. Peter) to his tribute to New York City (Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, one of his loveliest songs) to growing old (Sixty Years On). And there was that superb love song that opens “Elton John”, “Your Song”. What a beautiful love song. Elton and Bernie were fearless with what they could do with music.

    Again and again Elton John gave us a treat for the ears. What an amazing contribution to music. And the songs are so timeless.

    Like

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