Is Elton John now public property?

He's cited Lindsay Lohan as inspiration for one of his latest songs, and dedicated another to Tom Odell. As he brings his new album to The Roundhouse, Kate Mossman asks if he belongs to us all.

At the height of his cocaine habit in the 1980s, Elton John looked out of his hotel room window and called his manager: it was too windy – could he possibly change the weather?

Elton’s long commitment to the powder was, he says, one of the things that ought to have killed him, along with Aids, which he still can’t believe he didn’t get. Like many ex-addicts, he has a therapeutic need for transparency. This has alienated some of his best-known friends – George Michael and Billy Joel, both of whom he publicly declared were in need of rehab – while others to whom he gave the same advice (Rufus Wainwright and Eminem among them) pretty much credit him with saving their lives. Elton is a unique figure in British celebrity: our national mother hen.

Tonight, the upper decks of the Roundhouse in Camden are heaving with famous names – Rupert Everett, Stephen Fry, Harry Styles from One Direction. People come to see Elton the way they used to turn out for the royal family. Many in the audience are in their early twenties and unlikely to have much of his music on their phone, but in a sense there is no need; it is part of the public consciousness, coming to us on late-night radio or via the wedding disco.

At the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, the famous “dancing fountains” perform to “Your Song”, handling Bernie Taupin’s stuttering phrases – “Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean” – in a series of smaller spouts. At the Roundhouse, his story of a fictional 1970s band, “Bennie and the Jets”, raises the roof after one solitary strike of its strange opening chord. Frank Ocean sampled that chord on his debut album, Channel Orange, last year, the latest young person to make tasteful work of Elton’s early material. Everyone understands that he is a great songwriter but fewer realise that he still does 200 shows a year, orders new albums every Monday from the HMV website and has a record collection so vast it is stored on rollers, like how the British Library stores books. In short, he is still very much a “working musician” –which is what they seem to be trying to address with The Diving Board, his 30th studio album.

“Written in two days!” it says on this press release. “Elton reunited with Bernie Taupin!” The pair were put together by the Liberty Records A&R man Ray Williams in 1967 after they answered an ad for songwriters in the New Musical Express. Taupin’s lyrics would be delivered to Elton (then still Reg Dwight) on sheets of paper and he would set them to music quickly at the piano; sometimes songs would be written in half an hour.

In the 1980s the lyrics would arrive by fax machine. Elton still works the way he used to – rents a studio from 11 till six and turns up not knowing what he’s going to write. As we continue to excavate the rich ground of 20th-century pop, any musician who rose from a Tin Pan Alley background to lead a stadium career of his own seems particularly fascinating. He wrote songs for Lulu and Roger Cook; he once referred to his song “Sacrifice” as “my Percy Sledge number” . . .

T-Bone Burnett produced The Diving Board and he also worked on The Reunion, Elton’s 2010 collaboration album with his hero Leon Russell, another project that reminded people of his roots. While his early 1970s Americana records expressed their authenticity through sepia-tinged artwork, the new one shows a figure, shaped like Elton, stripped to jeans, socks and a T-shirt, standing at the end of a vast sea; kind of dark and so very different from the giant specs, jumpsuits and Regency wigs that are branded on the memory. Different, indeed, from the sparkly red ringmaster’s coat he’s wearing at the Roundhouse tonight.

He begins with “The Bitch Is Back”, dwarfed by footage of a blonde pole-dancer beamed on to the screens behind him. Over the course of the night the screens also show naked men playing with kittens and, for a new song called “Home Again”, a video in which a handsome, middle-aged chap walks thoughtfully over a moor. (Elton, like Woody Allen, chooses not to appear in his own films much any more, preferring to be represented by Robert Downey, Jr or Justin Timberlake.)

Having spent a lifetime contending with one of rock’s more cumbersome instruments, he stands up from the piano every few minutes and punches the air, then reseats himself with legs akimbo, like Little Richard. There are many high-wire displays of technique tonight. “Watch me go!” he says, before motoring away on the high notes.

As a child, he attended the Royal Academy of Music every Saturday for lessons. He was famous for his Red Piano show at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas and is still the closest thing we have to Liberace. His voice has dropped considerably in the past 20 years, naturally, and this is particularly noticeable on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” when, instead of going for that great, arcing chorus, he opts for something a few storeys below the verse instead, which is funny.

Sometimes you feel he could do with subtitles, like for foreign opera, because his diction has become rather slurred and these words are so fascinating. For instance, it is great to hear “Levon” tonight, which was written at the height of Elton and Bernie’s love affair with America and represents Taupin at his obscure best. Named after the Band’s Levon Helm, it is an otherwise fictional account of a young man born on Christmas Day, with a father called Alvin Tostig who owns a family business blowing up balloons.

There were many other strangenesses in the 1970s: “Grey Seal”, about looking into the wise eyes of a grey seal, and “Rocket Man”, based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, about a lonely astronaut-drone working in space. Whether through books, or drugs, or just the imagination of youth, Taupin aimed cosmic in the early days.

As the mid-career point approached, and real life intruded and marriages collapsed, those imaginative first-person fantasies and American vistas retreated somewhat. So it’s strange to hear them coming back now, on The Diving Board, which seems to me to be packed with a young man’s visions – accounts of bohemian life in “My Quicksand”, the story of a dissipated poet, or the cowboyish romp “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” (which tonight is dedicated “to Rupert and Stephen” – yuck!) and tells the tale of Wilde’s days in Paris after Reading Gaol: “And looking back on the great indifference . . ./Thinking how beauty deceived you . . .” There’s Huck Finn-style Americana in “A Town Called Jubilee” and “The Ballad of Blind Tom” (“from Harlan County all the way to Tuscaloo”), and the old homesickness that Elton and Taupin did so well in old “touring songs” such as “Rotten Peaches” and “Holiday Inn” has come full circle in “Home Again”.

“The New Fever Waltz” is set in a kind of Anna Karenina world of ballroom dancing, white flags and ice skates. It’s probably complete nonsense but it is quite beautiful. I’m sure this album is not, as some people are saying, the best thing Elton John has ever done, but it has huge energy and more piano than you can shake a stick at, and “Mexican Vacation” is the best gospel he’s written since “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.

Strange how we expect the imagination to wane as people get older. When they lived together in Elton’s parents’ house in Pinner, Middlesex, he and Taupin would lie on the floor listening to American 45s with two sets of headphones plugged into the same machine. When he worked at One Stop Records on South Molton Street, alongside Danny Baker, even the paper sleeves of the American imports felt magical to him. Until recently a return to the style of his 1970s songwriting would have looked extremely self-conscious but now it seems appropriate: at this stage in a 50-year career, everyone wants the long view.

Still, the thoughtful interior lives of the new songs sound funny in a show full of celebrity shout-outs. The latest troubled starlet to be caught in Elton’s searchlight of concern is Lindsay Lohan, who, he told the Sun, inspired The Diving Board’s title track (he is rather too late, as she has already been to rehab).

And I can’t be the only person to feel a stab of jealousy when he dedicates “Tiny Dancer” to Tom Odell, the 22-year-old Brit Awardwinner whose career he has supported, who is also in attendance tonight. I mean, everyone in this room has a relationship with that song, even if, like me, they’d never heard it until Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous and that brilliant scene on the tour bus where the fictional bandmates start singing along to the radio. Elton can dedicate his songs to Marilyn, or Diana, or Oscar Wilde, or made-up people for that matter – but not Tom Odell! Hands off, Tom. Good songs, given long enough, start to feel like public property.

“The Diving Board” (Mercury) is released on 24 September

Retro-spective: Herb Ritts's 1989 portrait of Elton at the time of Sleeping With The Past

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.