Transcript 169–Tiny Dancer

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.


Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, and today we’re going to get small with a Tiny Dancer. Let’s go, Jenna…


Hi there! I’m Claude Call, and I’m proud to be amongst you. And I’ve got some Bachman-Turner Overdrive trivia for ye. What song by that band, which made it to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, was not only never intended to be released as a single, but wasn’t even meant for an album? I’ll have that answer for you…oh…later on in the show.

This is only the second time I’ve talked about an Elton John song in this podcast, can you believe that? And “Tiny Dancer” is one of my personal favorites, but we’ll get into the “whys” of that in a little bit, to be sure.

Elton John’s fourth album, Madman Across the Water, was a departure from the first three in that it was more lushly produced than its predecessors. Elton and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, began work on this album shortly after spending some time in the United States. At that time they spent a lot of time together; in fact Taupin would accompany Elton on the tours and stand near the soundboard during shows.

At any rate, Taupin found himself inspired by the spirit of the women in California, who he viewed as being quite different from the women back in England. Specifically, Taupin has said that the way the women dressed in the shops up and down the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles gave him a sense of free spiritedness, with the hip-huggers and the lacy blouses, and he thought that they moved in an ethereal way. And, he said, they all wanted to sew patches on your jeans. Taupin described it as the perfect Oedipal Complex, because the women wanted to mother you, and then sleep with you.

Now, I know some of you are saying, Hey: isn’t the song really about someone named Maxine? After all, under the credits for the song there’s a picture of a woman and it says “With Love to Maxine” there. Well…yeah. There is, in fact, a little bit of dispute, there. Because although Taupin has said explicitly that the song is about the California girls, he also said in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone magazine that it’s about his wife at the time, Maxine Feibelman. Feibelman herself has said that she knew right away that the song was about her, for a couple of reasons. First, she was into ballet as a young girl, and second, because she used to sew the patches onto Elton John’s jackets and jeans, which would make her the “seamstress for the band.” Also, let’s face it, the line about marrying a music man.

And when Taupin was asked about the title “Tiny Dancer”? He said it was mostly poetic license, although many of those Sunset girls were on the petite side. Plus, it sounded better than “Small Dancer” or “Little Dancer.” Simple as that.

So. As I mentioned earlier, Madman Across the Water was much more produced than the first three albums. Paul Buckmaster was the person who arranged those strings. He’s done arrangements for artists as diverse as Train, the Rolling Stones and Leonard Cohen. In fact, Ron Cornelius, who has played guitar for Cohen, once said of Buckmaster that [quote] “he’s one of those guys who can make an orchestra talk. If the strings aren’t saying something, it ain’t on the record.” [unquote]

Also notable among the other musicians on the record is that pedal steel guitar, which gives it a little bit of a country feel. That guitar is played by British guitarist B.J. Cole, and I think his work also gives the early parts of the song a little bit of a melancholy feel. You also have Davey Johnstone on acoustic guitar and Caleb Quaye on electric guitar. Plus, there were ten backup singers, believe it or not, including bass player Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, neither of whom played on the record otherwise, although they were known for playing on plenty of Elton John’s songs.

“Tiny Dancer” was released in 1972 and entered the Hot 100 the first week of March that year at Number 85. In fact, that was the third of the four weeks that Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” which we talked about a couple of episodes ago, was at the top of the chart. It took six weeks to crawl up the charts, all the way to…Number 41. And that’s where it peaked. Why? You ask. There are a couple of reasons. First, Elton John still hadn’t really broken through as an artist, not in the US, anyway. The song did do better in Canada, where it peaked at #19 and in Australia at #13. It wasn’t even released as a single in the UK. Some stations banned the gong in the US because of the line “Jesus freaks out in the street,” thinking that the song was mocking Christianity. But here’s another pretty good reason: At six minutes and twelve seconds, it’s a pretty long record, and Top 40 radio just wasn’t having it still, especially given that the song is basically Verse 1, verse 2, lead-in to the chorus, chorus, bridge, verse 1 Again, lead-in and chorus again. So some stations would play a “radio edit” that was only 3:45, that basically faded after the first chorus, thinking that the rest of the record was more or less redundant. And here’s where I think they missed the boat on the song’s overall greatness.

You see, “Tiny Dancer” starts off quiet and a bit slow, and as I mentioned, that steel pedal guitar gives it a little bit of a sad feel, especially when you’ve got Elton singing about the girl just overlooking some of the seedier parts of the Strip, saying “The Boulevard is not that bad.” But little by little, it ramps up in its intensity until you get to that third iteration of the chorus. Elton is belting out the lyrics, and he’s practically pounding on the piano keys, and it’s a huge cathartic moment for him and for the listener. And when the radio stations took that away, they took away the thing that makes it great.

Now, I have to digress just a little bit to talk about diegetic music. When you’re watching a movie, there are two kinds of music: soundtrack music, and diegetic music. Soundtrack music is the stuff that’s going on in the background, that underlines the mood of the film, and the characters aren’t hearing it. Diegetic music, on the other hand, is something that they do hear, whether it’s a band in a club, or music coming out of the radio, or even someone singing in the next room. And that’s important because of the catharsis thing I just brought up.

In the 2000 film Almost Famous, there’s a scene where the fictional band Stillwater is in a very bad place as a group. There’s been a lot of fighting among group members, and the lead singer has absconded to a party being thrown by a bunch of high schoolers, during which he has himself an acid-induced freakout wherein he jumps off a garage into a backyard pool. The band’s tour bus shows up to get him, and as they get on the bus, everyone is sitting in a very tense, morose silence. And we begin to hear “Tiny Dancer” on the soundtrack as the bus pulls away and starts moving down the highway. But…

…in fact, it’s not on the soundtrack; it’s on a radio playing on the bus. And as the song progresses, one by one the band members and the groupies begin to bop along and then start singing along with it until finally, they’re just singing at absolutely the top of their lungs. It’s a moment where the band has remembered the reason they got together in the first place. And Cameron Crowe, the director, has faked us into thinking it was just another bit of soundtrack music, like so many of the other pop tracks we hear throughout the film. It’s a truly genius piece of storytelling and use of music in a film. To be fair, he’s cut the song down a little bit, but we still get the catharsis, and Kate Hudson’s line near the end of the scene really puts a good button on it. I will be linking a video on the website, but if you’re a fan of rock music, you owe it to yourself to see the entire film. Go! I’ll wait for you here.

Now, that may have all sounded like a weird diversion, but the fact is, Almost Famous brought “Tiny Dancer” back to the forefront of everyone’s mind. It didn’t chart again or anything like that, but it did rise in popularity, to the point where Elton John began performing it regularly in his shows, where it had been more of a sporadic thing. The fact is, it didn’t always get a great reaction when he performed it live, so he didn’t add it to his setlist very often. Having said that, it does appear on his 1987 album Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Why? Because it was a hit there, silly. Remember? Anyway: Elton was pleased to see that it was used in the film, and to such good effect. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2011, he recalled that Jeffrey Katzenberg had called him to say, “There’s a scene in this film which is going to make ‘Tiny Dancer’ a hit all over again.” So even Elton John credits Cameron Crowe to resurrecting the song, and it’s been in his setlist ever since then. And while, as I said, it didn’t chart again, it’s been certified at over 3 million downloads in the US and 1.2 million in the UK.

OK, let’s talk covers of the song, and there are a lot of them, but here are some of the more notable ones. I’m not going to play it here, but check out Florence and the Machine’s cover; it’s pretty good.

In 1990 the Red Hot Chili Peppers were performing at the Pinkpop music festival in the Netherlands, and John Frusciante sang an impromptu version of the chorus. He’s since performed the song many times during Chili Peppers shows.


In 2008, DJ Ironik interpolated the song in a version that features the rapper Chipmunk. In this clip you’ll hear the chords from the song being used, and then…well, yes, that is Elton John you hear. You can also see him in the video.


2012 saw the formation of an Irish supergroup involving over 300 musicians, who got together specifically to record the song for a charity function. They called themselves A Song for Lily-Mae. Now, Lily-Mae Morrison was a four-year-old girl who had Stage 4 Neuroblastoma. It’s a very aggressive form of cancer, and her best hope lay in a hospital located in Michigan. The recording was endorsed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, the fundraiser was a huge success, with the song going to Number One in Ireland, and the last article I’ve seen about her is from November of 2020. At that time Lily-Mae was 12 years old and declared to be in remission. What’s more, funds that didn’t go directly to Lily-Mae’s treatment went into Neuroblastoma research.


And finally for this list, Elton John himself teamed up with Britney Spears in 2022 for a remake of the song, titling it “Hold Me Closer.” The song was released on August 26 of that year, although it managed to leak online about a week earlier. It’s on Elton’s album The Lockdown Sessions, and it was Britney Spears’ first studio recording in six years. It was also her first recording since her release from her conservatorship. In addition to “Tiny Dancer,” there are bits of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” in it, and his song “The One”. It was a Top Ten song in nineteen countries, including the US, the UK, Russia, Canada, most of Europe and it went Number One in Australia.


And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit that was never meant to be released, either as a single or as an album cut.

“You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” was composed by Randy Bachman while they were putting together the Not Fragile album as a kind of working track. It was strictly instrumental at first, and over time he did this bit of stuttering his way through the track as a means of teasing his brother Gary. The band used the song in the studio as a means of warming up and ensuring that the amps and microphones were working correctly. They recorded it exactly once, intending to send that recording to Gary. But when the label thought that Not Fragile didn’t really have a track that would make a good single, Bachman reluctantly played “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” for him. The band agreed to put it on the album if he could re-record it without the stutter, but when they tried, the song just didn’t work. Finally, they agreed to leave it as-is. And that’s why Bachman is sharp in some places, flat in others, and laughing near the end. And despite all that weirdness, it’s BTO’s only #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100.


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