NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m just doin’ my thing, only an hour earlier.
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This week’s trivia is kind of a tricky one for ye. I’d like you to tell me what these groups have in common. They are:
The Sir Douglas Quintet
And the Beau Brummels.
I’ll have that answer at the end of the show.
Elton John’s seventh studio album, 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, was an incredibly fast-paced project, especially considering that it’s an 18-track double album. The whole thing was written over just a few weeks while Elton John and Bernie Taupin were staying in Kingston, Jamaica. John wanted to record in Jamaica partly because the Rolling Stones had made Goat’s Head Soup there. Unfortunately, there was some civil unrest going on by then, so they had to move to France for the actual recording, which took only two weeks. The album was hugely popular, enough that the closing track, “Harmony,” was never released as a single because it was getting too close to the release of his NEXT album, Caribou. But “Harmony” still managed to get airplay as the B side of “Bennie and the Jets” and it did manage to make some local charts that way.
The album, taken as a whole, sets up a kind of broad metaphor for nostalgia from childhood into young adulthood. And while they weren’t specifically designed to be set up as a related trio of songs, you can pretty easily draw a conceptual line through all of the songs on Side 1, from the instrumental “Funeral For a Friend” through “Love Lies Bleeding” and finally into “Candle in the Wind”.
For what it’s worth, “Funeral For a Friend” and “Love Lies Bleeding” were paired up from the very beginning, largely because they were both in the same key and that made it easy to do so, even though they have very different sounds. “Funeral For a Friend” has a lot of layered synthesizers, and “Love Lies Bleeding” is a more straightforward rocker, which turns a romantic breakup into a death metaphor. So it’s not a huge stretch for the album side to cool down a little bit with “Candle In the Wind,” especially inasmuch as the song is mostly just Elton John and his piano, with very little of anything else. There’s some drumming, a little electric guitar providing counterpoint, and backup singers, and that’s pretty much it. Dee Murray is credited with playing the bass, but you can barely hear it.
So, on its surface, the song is a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. For those of you below a certain age, Marilyn Monroe was a famous actress and sex symbol who died in 1962, supposedly of a drug overdose. So what’s up with the opening line, “Good bye Norma Jeane”? Simple. Marilyn Monroe’s real name was Norma Jeane Mortenson, although she usually used her mother’s last name, which was Baker. And while I’m on this particular kick, if you’re a fan of New Wave music you may also recall a band called B Movie, which performed a song called “Marilyn Dreams,” which took a more direct approach to the whole topic of Marilyn Monroe, especially with its closing line…
But the big difference between B Movie and Elton John is that, while “Marilyn Dreams” is absolutely dedicated to Marilyn Monroe, lyricist Bernie Taupin has said that the song itself could have been about anybody famous who died before their time. In fact, he said, his inspiration for the title came from both a book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and a quotation from Clive Davis that he’d read about Janis Joplin. Taupin said (quote)
“It’s not that I didn’t have a respect for her. It’s just that the song could just as easily have been about James Dean or Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain. I mean, it could have been about Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. I mean, basically, anybody, any writer, actor, actress, or musician who died young and sort of became this iconic picture of Dorian Gray, that thing where they simply stopped aging. It’s a beauty frozen in time.
In a way, I’m fascinated with that concept. So it’s really about how fame affects the man or woman in the street, that whole adulation thing and the fanaticism of fandom. It’s pretty freaky how people really believe these people are somehow different from us.” (unquote)
So basically, he just thought that it was a great way to describe someone’s life. And to me, this makes a lot of sense, because we look at celebrities and we think we know what they’re about, but the fact is that we never really know what other people are about. We don’t often get that look deep, down into their hearts, not even with most of our family members. And Taupin gets straight to the heart of it—how she had to change her name, and be someone other than herself, and even in the end, where it seemed like the most important detail about her death was that she was nude at the time.
Elton John, for his part, has said that when he got the lyrics, he didn’t have any problem with writing the music for them. He’s said that he also understands the kinds of stress that come with constant attention from the media, and thought that Monroe was probably in some kind of pain throughout her life.
“Candle in the Wind” was considered as the first single from the album, and it was released in the UK, where it reached Number 11 on the charts there, but it wasn’t released as a single in the United States. Instead, MCA Records released “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” as the leadoff single, with the title track as the second single and “Bennie and the Jets” as the third, with, as I mentioned earlier, “Harmony” as its B-side because of the impending release of the Caribou album. And that might have been the end of it, however…
In 1986 Elton John was on tour in Australia and New Zealand, and recorded a performance in Sydney, Australia that took place on December 14. And among the songs he performed was “Candle in the Wind,” with even more sparse instrumentation, being just John on the piano and some other keyboard sounds probably provided by Fred Mandel. The recording of that show was released in 1987 as the Live in Australia With the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra album. Three singles came off of that album: “Your Song,” “Candle in the Wind” and “Take Me to the Pilot,” but only “Candle in the Wind” managed to chart anywhere, making it to Number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number Five in the UK the following year. If you watch the video of this performance, it’s not immediately clear but Elton John is dressed as Mozart for that part of the show. This was also his last concert where he wore any of the crazy costumes that he’d been wearing since the early 1970s. He auctioned most of them off after using them for the cover photo of his next album, Reg Strikes Back. And that might have been the end of the story for this song, however…
The song had a minor resurgence in 1990 when Elton John performed it at the fourth edition of the Farm Aid benefit concert. During that show, John dedicated his performance of the song to a young man named Ryan White, who was one of the first high-profile AIDS patients. White became famous because he was a hemophiliac who’d been given contaminated blood and then wasn’t permitted to return to school following his diagnosis of the disease. Now that HIV is considered to be more or less manageable, it’s kind of tough to get across what a big deal HIV and AIDS was in the 1980s and even into the 1990s, but because of his age and the way he contracted the disease, he became a kind of national poster child for it. At any rate, Elton John dedicated the song to him at Farm Aid 4 on April 7, 1990, and Ryan died the next day. John appeared at Ryan’s funeral and played “Skyline Pigeon” on April 11. And that might have been the end of the story, however…
On August 31, 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in an automobile accident. Now, while Diana had divorced Prince Charles some time earlier, she was still very popular with people who followed the Royals and just a well-liked celebrity in general, largely because of her graciousness and her humanitarian efforts. Diana was friends with Elton John and had told him that she identified with some of the lyrics in the song. Consequently, the royal family asked Elton John if he would sing at Diana’s funeral, and John in turn asked Bernie Taupin if he could come up with a new set of lyrics that might draw some parallels between Diana and Marilyn Monroe. Taupin said in an interview that he wanted to make it sound like the country was singing the song to her, and that the whole thing fell into place for him pretty quickly once the first few lines were written. John performed the song during the funeral on September 6, later saying in an interview that he was concentrating very hard on playing it as straight as possible so as not to break down.
The funeral aired live for two and a half billion viewers, and donations for the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund poured in, to the tune of 34 million British Pounds. Producer George Martin, who had written the arrangements for the other instruments used at the funeral, took the recording and did some quick work with it, and a single called “Candle in the Wind ‘97” was released, dedicated to Princess Diana and with the proceeds, eventually reaching about 38 million pounds, going to the fund. That’s in the ballpark of 95 million American dollars to the fund in the span of maybe three months. The record made it to Number 1 in the UK and stayed there for five weeks, but in the US, it topped the chart even faster, making it to the Number One slot on October 11 and holding that position for 14 weeks, not quite the record for longevity in that position but pretty close. It was also Number One in Germany for seven weeks, in Australia for six weeks and it topped the chart in nearly every country in which it was released. It’s the only single in the Rock Era to achieve Diamond certification in the US for ten million sales. It’s currently listed as the highest-selling single since the charts began in the 1950s and the second-highest selling single of all time, behind Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas.” No wonder the Queen knighted him the next year.
And despite all that, Elton has never performed the song with those lyrics since the funeral, and even the radio stations appear to have retired it, with most of them playing the 1973 version. Elton John is probably okay with that, given that according to his autobiography he was a little uneasy about the 1997 version being on the charts for so long. He said once that it felt as though people were kind of wallowing in Diana’s death and they were refusing to move on. And that, my friend pretty much IS the end of the story for this song, although I’ll note that it did get a remix in 2003 as a bonus track for the 30th Anniversary edition of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, in which all of the instrumentation was stripped away except for Davey Johnstone’s acoustic guitar. So all you have is Johnstone’s guitar, plus the vocal tracks from Elton John backed by Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson. Even the double-tracking on Elton’s voice has been taken out.
There have been several covers of the song done, including this instrumental version you’re listening to now by The Shadows, from 1989. There are two versions by Ed Sheeran in 2014 on a 40th edition super deluxe version of the album, and again in 2018 as part of a tribute album to Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and if you’re curious, there’s a punk version by the band Leatherface from 1990, and a folk version by Sandy Denny which she did in 1977. Plus there are a few others out there, which I’ll leave for you to find, Hey, I can’t do everything for you.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what these artists have in common? They are:
The Sir Douglas Quintet
The Beau Brummels
The answer is that they’re all US bands which adopted British-sounding names. As a direct result of the British Invasion in the early 60s, some bands adopted a more British sound to their repertoire, such as The Byrds, while others took on a more anti-British stance in the way they dressed, like Paul Revere and the Raiders, or Gary Puckett. But these three bands took on names that would lead people to believe that they were from the UK. The Buckinghams were from the Chicago area, and took the name partly from a nearby park, but also because it sounded British. The Sir Douglas Quintet was based in San Antonio and has a definite Tex-Mex rock sound, but that name clearly has a British ring to it. And while the Beau Brummels were from San Francisco and had a sound to match, they got their name from the 19th century English dandy of the same name. They chose that name first, because it sounded English, and second, because alphabetically, they’d be very close to the Beatles in the record stores. Now, to be fair, the members of the band dispute that assertion, saying they weren’t even sure how to spell it at first; they just liked the way it sounded.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when she Knocks Three Times.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.