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).
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.
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.”
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.
Categories: Stories Behind Classic Songs