The next few years saw Elton John emerge as the most popular solo pop phenomenon since Elvis Presley and, as such, the highlights of his career have become a well-documented part of rocklore.
And so to the present...
Though you're never out of the international press, two statements that you've made over the last couple of years have been of particular interest to rock fans: 1) When you announced your retirement from public performances; 2) When you received Capital Radio's Award for the Best Male Singer you publicly stated [the presentation was broadcast] that in your opinion, it should have gone to Elvis Costello.
With regard to the Capital Radio Awards presentation, I felt guilty afterwards, because those awards come from the fans, but really, I hadn't done anything during the year to warrant it. Hadn't put out any new product and therefore I honestly felt that of all the people who had emerged as a solo entity during that period, Elvis Costello was by far the most important artist... the best songwriter and recordmaker.
Whereas most established artists have either been extremely guarded or downright patronizing in their attitude towards such young bucks as Costello and the Pistols, you've been enthusiastic in your unsolicited support.
Well, because I think that what has happened over the last year-and-a-half has been one of the best things that has happened to the record industry in years. Very healthy. The first time I saw the Sex Pistols, I was sitting up in bed watching television and suddenly I felt old... fuckin' hell, I thought, what the hell is going on? I wasn't frightened by it, but I have to admit I was somewhat perturbed. Why? Because suddenly here was something very new and very exciting. Something new that the kids were creating for themselves, not something new that the record industry had created. See, I feel very strongly about the industry creating monsters. Dictating what people buy, and merchandising it in such a way — on television for instance — where you're bound to sell a certain quantity of any album even if it's no bloody good to begin with. After listening to Costello, the Stranglers and artists like that, I feel that the scene is extremely healthy. I also think that some aspects are very comical, because anyone who gets dressed up like so many bands do — tie both legs together and run for a bus — has got my full approval. They're just having a good time. However, as with every new movement, there have been a lotta bad things that have surfaced. Nevertheless, when you go to America, switch on the radio and still hear "Your Song" and "Stairway to Heaven" being regularly pumped out, you're thankful for what has happened in Britain because it has made its mark on the British charts and there's no getting away from it. Furthermore, the fact that the British charts bear absolutely no resemblance to the American ones is, again, one of the healthiest signs for the British record industry. At the moment, American radio doesn't want to take any chances and this is reflected in the kind of records being made. Nevertheless, I thought that the Sex Pistols would have made it Stateside on just curiosity value. I really thought they were on a winner! Here in Britain all the big new wave acts like Costello, the Pistols, the Jam, Sham 69, Buzzcocks, Clash, Boomtown Rats, the Banshees, Stranglers and Johnny Rotten's new band have all had big chart hits and yet it's strange how none of those records has sold in America. Indeed, I'm very surprised that the Costello and Stranglers records, in particular, haven't made more impact in the States than they have. As far as Costello is concerned, they chose a good single, "Alison," but nothing really happened to it. It's such a great song that, at one time, I seriously considered covering it myself. However, there is a certain amount of prejudice against new British acts at the moment. The industry particularly is highly suspicious of things that have proved successful outside of America first.
When did you realize that as far as your professional career was concerned, not only had things started to get out of control, but you were bereft of further ambition?
When I really became involved with the football club? I suddenly realized that I enjoyed going down to the club and, if you know what I mean, mixing with normal people who led normal lives. And, I thought, I really miss all this, because originally I came from this sort of background and I just couldn't stand the thought of constantly being surrounded by people any longer.
So what was the final nail in the proverbial coffin lid?
The thing that really did it was the very last concert I did at Empire Pool, Wembley. Previously, I'd enjoyed the solo concerts at the Rainbow Theatre and the one up in Scotland, because they were a challenge. They got the old adrenalin going — you're on your own and if you fuck up, everyone in the place notices. But, when I was rehearsing for that big charity show at Wembley — which I was more or less goaded into doing — I regretted it the minute I began rehearsing. I had absolutely no enthusiasm whatsoever. But I thought, hold on, maybe I'm being a bit unfair, I'll give it a chance, but as rehearsals progressed I grew even more unhappy with the situation and I thought, well fuck it, I'm going to say something tonight. And once I'd said it.. informed the audience that this was my last concert, it was such a relief. I know everyone secretly thought, oh yeah, he'll be back out on the road next year doing a tour, but I didn't go back on the road. Now, I'm not saying that I'll never tour again... I might get the hunger back one day, but on the other hand, I saw a recent TV show on Genesis and how they put together their lavish show, and I thought, thank God I'm not involved with that kind of circus anymore!
But realizing that you had burnt out your ambition and then going so far as to actually do something about it, must have been quite traumatic. I mean, you'd spent years trying to make it to the top.
OK, so my career went sour on me, but I didn't lose my passion for music. For the very first time in my life, I was free to do exactly what I wanted with my career. I wasn't on DJM any longer, I didn't have to record two albums a year, I didn't have to tour and that was an enormous relief because I desperately wanted to reassess myself. Also, from a physical point of view, I was burnt out. When you realize the danger signs, you've got to be strong enough to have sufficient presence of mind to say, that's it, I've gotta stop now, otherwise you become Elvis Presley.
Personally, I've often felt that a lot of people have been a little too eager to misconstrue the more extrovert nature of your image. Basically, you're Jack the Lad who's suddenly won a sweepstakes and embarked upon a pretty wild spending spree.
Everything I do is always very tongue-in-cheek and I enjoy it, and that is why I really enjoy the punk thing. It's wonderful. I look at 'em and think, what a fuckin' state they're in and then suddenly remember that when I first went to Watford I was originally six-foot three and had pink hair and now I'm five-foot eight and have hardly got any hair at all! Even used to dye my eyebrows pink, and those stupid shoes I used to wear, they were monstrosities, but then it was all fun and that's one of the reasons why I genuinely approve of what's gone down in the last couple of years. Everyone doing what they want while they're young — that's very important. Unfortunately, I really don't think too much genuine quality has come out of it. But, 1977 was a great year for singles... really off the wall things like the Pork Dukes and a few good new bands.
Whether or not there was an abundance of quality is almost besides the point. Everything had become so utterly predictable and homogenized and what happened was, that the new wave questioned established industry values, roused the music machine out of its lethargy and, on almost every level, demonstrated that they didn't hold the monopoly.
I wish it would do the same thing in America. It's still a very soft-core market over there which, and I have to say this, is great for artists like myself, but I still get extremely annoyed when the radio is still playing "Your Song" and "Stairway to Heaven" when you could have five minutes of the Stranglers instead. To be truthful, I've got nothing against "Stairway to Heaven," but we've been hearing it for almost 10 years. Unfortunately, America still insists on taking a much more MOR route.
Part of your initial success was your visual appeal. You represented the typical fans who went to all the gigs, knew all the words of the songs, the guitar solos and suddenly you were that kid on stage going well over the top. You were the first mega-star that made it acceptable not to be snake-hipped and emaciated.
Of all the people who made it in the last decade, I was the least expected, simply because I've never represented what a typical rock star is supposed to be. Furthermore, I got away with it and that made me all that more accessible because there were so many kids who could identify with me. Sure, they would have all loved to have looked like Keith Richards and more important, live the life he leads, but I gave them some kinda hope. But let's put one thing straight, I'm not as bankable in this country as I used to be. Over the last couple of years, I've had a one-off hit single with Kiki Dee — which, as it happens was my first chart-topper over here — released Blue Moves which wasn't a fantastic success and a flop single "Ego." Therefore, there's no getting away from it, my popularity has slumped record-wise, but I realize it. Surprisingly, the only place where it hasn't slumped is in France. So that's an incentive for me to fight back. Not to artistically get to No. 1 on the charts, but to artistically get off my backside and quit being lazy. Nowadays, you have acts who sell 10 million copies of one album, pull three hit singles from it and remain on the charts for ever and ever. But, as far as record companies are concerned, Elton John is no longer a certainty. I've reached the crossroad where I have to prove myself again. And, it's better for me that I have to compete. This is a fact, I haven't sold as many albums over the last couple of years as either the Stranglers or the Sex Pistols, so I'm a risk and that's why I'm not up for the kind of deals I could once command. But, I understand the reasons why...I haven't sold too many records recently, so why should a company put up a big figure for me? Perhaps, companies think of me (laughs) as a prestige signing rather than a hot saleable commodity.
From many of the things you've been saying, is it correct to assume that as an artist you're typecast?
And it's because of this, that you feel that the public might not accept the more serious side to your character?
Initially, they might not accept it, because they've tended to brush off the more serious things I've done in the past like "Ego." When you say "Elton John," people immediately think of "Your Song," "Rocket Man" and "Crocodile Rock," whereas there were things of a more serious nature on Blue Moves that I was quite proud of and except for France, it was my least successful album.
IF: Do you find it difficult to live with yourself?
I've been terribly lonely over the last couple of years. I used to share a house with my manager John Reid for some years and success is meant to be shared. As you know, my house isn't a mausoleum, I love having people around... love to have them feel at home and that's why I decorated it myself instead of calling in an interior decorator. This house is a reflection of my personality and I'd love to live with someone and share my success, but at the moment, I'm on my own. I think that what works against me is that I only let people get so close to me and then I clam up. And, I won't let them get beyond that barrier. I don't know why I do it, but I do it time and time again. I'm sure that if I visited a psychiatrist, he'd have a field day with me. However, I think I can sort out my own problems, but as soon as someone gets too affectionate [he claps his hands together], that's it.
Earlier, you admitted that you had contributed directly to the current overblown megastar monster?
Probably me more than any other individual. And, if someone wants to quote an artist who's made a lot of money they invariably pick on me. But, at least I realize that and have become disgusted with the syndrome which I probably helped to develop. But you've got to realize that at the time you're doing it, you don't consciously stop to think about those things. You're far too busy... you're riding on the crest of a wave and any social elements don't enter your head. But, like I said, one should enjoy their success and that's why I don't believe some groups when they say they don't want to sell records and that they're just one of the audience. What they're saying is, they don't want their fans to buy their records and therefore they don't want to be successful... they don't want to be famous. Rubbish. They all want success, because there's nothing better than seeing your record in the charts and realizing that people like what you're doing. Look, I've never ever had a sense of guilt about selling lots of records because I've never pretended to be anything other than what I am. I've been there to entertain and give value-for-money. And, if you live a lie, the kids will eventually find out and once they do, you're finished, they'll never forgive you. But I have values and that's why I quit the stage because I knew I didn't have 100 percent to give. I know, that I could have walked out on any stage and crapped and they'd have applauded, but that's not what it's all about. I know a lot of people are going to have a go at me for saying this, but it appears that the punk thing is becoming as much of a myth as the '60s' love and peace syndrome and the CND marches before them. Things really haven't changed for the benefit of the artists, they've only changed for the benefit of the big record companies. And, although artists still get better deals than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones got — and so they bloody-well should do — most artists still don't get a fair deal. The big rip-off still continues and that's why labels like Stiff and Chiswick have gone some way to try and change things.
Unfortunately, if those new bands who claim they're not interested in money don't watch out, in three years time the tax officer is going to turn up saying you owe so many thousands. And, it's a fact of life that you can't dismiss or ignore, because it will eventually catch up with you. If you're making records and if they sell in vast quantities around the world, if you're successful, if you do sell-out tours, then you're making money and therefore you have to keep tabs on it, otherwise, you'll end up with a massive tax bill, in debt and probably in the clink. From what I can see, the poor buggers are so into what they're doing that they're not stopping to think. And why? Because they're having a good time, but when everything turns sour... because it always does, they're gonna wonder where the hell it all went.
I'm the last person to begrudge anybody success, but I look at so many of these new bands like the Rezillos and I just know that they're not gonna be around in five years time. [Broke up last month — Ed.] OK, there's room for improvement, but still, they're not good enough and they're riding on a crest of a wave and good luck to 'em. I honestly and sincerely hope that bands like them are enjoying it while it lasts and don't get ripped-off, but having said that, I hope they're successful in five years time and that I'm wrong. But I think that in five years time, it'll be artists like Elvis Costello and, hopefully, Ian Dury and the Blockheads who will still be around.