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