Friday 15 December 2017

Elton John . . . how the Rocket Man was launched

Martin Chilton on an engaging biography that traces the singer's rise from office boy to pop star in Sixties London

Flamboyant: Elton John underwent a dramatic transformation from his previous incarnation as Reg Dwight the office boy in Tin Pan Alley.
Flamboyant: Elton John underwent a dramatic transformation from his previous incarnation as Reg Dwight the office boy in Tin Pan Alley.
John wearing a Watford FC kit; he later went on to become chairman and president of the club

Martin Chilton

In 1964, Cyril Gee, one of the stalwarts of Tin Pan Alley (home of British pop music) and managing director of Mills Music, came home and said to his wife Ruth: "You won't believe this, but even the office boy is writing songs."

The office boy was teenager Elton John (then Reginald Dwight) who had an "anorak-like" knowledge of music and had been "secretly building a songbook of his own". He sold the song, called 'Come Back Baby', for £500 and must have realised then (given that he was on £5-a-week) that pursuing a full-time career as a musician was the right option.

Keith Hayward's interesting book Tin Pan Alley: The Rise of Elton John concentrates both on the rise to success of "Reg" and the whole culture of London music – acerbic and humourous – in which he learned his trade.

You get a good sense of Reg the lad, a shy schoolboy wearing horn-rimmed glasses in tribute to one of his musical heroes, Buddy Holly. He comes across as a likeable teenager, a determined tennis player – he used to play against a young Steve Winwood, later of Spencer David Group and Traffic fame – a devoted Watford football supporter and someone adept at doing Goon imitations. He had won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (you can see the classical influence on his compositions) where he played piano mostly by ear, not reaching Grade 6 until he was 16.

In 1964, he landed a job working in the Trade Department of Mills Music. He was a "good packer of sheet music" and loved meeting his friend Davie Jones (David Bowie), at Soho's Giaconda Cafe, to talk about music. He also loved that Chelsea's star players used to come to the office Christmas parties.

At that time, Dwight was playing in a band with Long John Baldry called Bluesology and he was savvy enough to see that the Beatles were demonstrating that writing your own material was the way forward. He announced he was leaving Bluesology, and planned to take the name of Elton Dean, the band's saxophonist – before Dean told him to "f–- off". As the group's drummer Pete Gavin recalls, "Reg just said: 'OK, I'll use your name and John Baldry's then'. When he told us that he was going to call himself Elton John, we all fell about laughing and said: 'You must be mad'."

It wasn't until he left Mills and linked up with Liberty Records that he met Bernie Taupin, a farmer's son who had failed his 11-plus and left school without any qualifications. Taupin had been working on a chicken farm. There is an engrossing section in the book where a friend, Gary Osborne, talks about how the pair wrote together.

"Bernie would send him a sheaf of what were at that stage poems really," recalled Osborne. "Elton would start doodling around and be on the piano, editing until he had a song. He told me that he wrote every tune on the Yellow Brick Road album in one weekend."

John's private life is not the focus of the book although the occasional anecdotes are enlightening. John became smitten with Linda Woodrow, a girl who had gone to a private boarding school and they set a wedding date in 1968. "Looking back, maybe I was a little controlling," Woodrow says of a time when John was depressed and made an apparent suicide attempt using a gas oven.

He called off the marriage after a night of drinking with Long John Baldry, with Osborne recalling: "Long John suddenly says to him, 'My dear boy, why are you getting married when everyone knows you are a poove? [sic]"

If anything, the music anecdotes are the more enjoyable. When he was recording his self-titled second album, he went back to the Royal Academy to get Skaila Kanga to play harp (it is her improvisations you hear on 'Your Song') and she says: "After one session, this guy came down to me and said 'Do you remember me, Skaila? and I politely said 'yes' not really knowing who he was, and he said he had been in the harmony class at the Academy. He had changed his name and appearance."

It took John some time to be confident in his own signing voice and, in fact, he made his debut as a vocalist on a movie soundtrack for a Michael Winner film called The Games, about four marathon runners. But by the time the book ends, with John's breakthrough in America, he had discovered his self-belief.

Incidentally, it's a nice touch that the book jacket was designed by David Larkham, who was responsible for the classic Elton John covers such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic. We also learn about some of the characters of Tin Pan Alley, such as Eddie Rogers, who is credited with coining the slogan: "Art for art's sake, money for Christsake."

Elsewhere, the book also highlights the origins of the phrase 'The Old Grey Whistle Test'. Hayward says: "It was derived from an Old Tin Pan Alley phrase used when people would go to a music publisher and play some music, who in turn would play it to the people they called the old greys, doormen in grey suits, and if those guys could remember the song and whistle it, having heard it just once or twice, the publisher would buy the song, which meant you had passed the old grey whistle test."

With his legacy of memorable music, Reg, Elton, or "Rocket Man" – call him what you like – certainly passed the test with flying colours.

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