What are Elton John's hits about? - Rocketman explained | Nolala
Over the past 49 years, he sold more than 300 million albums, performed over 4,000 shows, became close friends with the English royal family and recently, his lyrics were quoted by none other than Donald Trump: Sir Elton John.
The “living legend” is currently in the middle of a farewell tour, the biographical movie Rocketman premieres at the end of May and his autobiography is set to be released in October this year.
With his flamboyant presence, unique outfits and endless collection of glasses, you could almost forget to pay attention to his hits. That would be a shame, because there are some seriously interesting stories behind songs like Tiny Dancer, Nikita and Rocket Man.
Sir Elton Hercules John was born on March 25, 1947 in Pinner (Greater London), as Reginald Kenneth Dwight. At just 11 years old, he won a scholarship for the Royal Academy of Music. At the end of the sixties, he started collaborating with lyricist Bernie Taupin. A good move, as the string of hits the duo go on to produce together make Elton John one of the greatest artists of all time.
To give some figures, he scored 26 gold, 38 platinum or multiplatinum and 1 diamond album and set the record for best selling single of all time, with Candle In The Wind.
At the end of the 1980s, he became a prominent figure in the fight against AIDS. He now heads the Elton John AIDS Foundation where he has raised more than $ 300 million.
He also won a variety of awards, including 6 Grammies, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Tony Award. His star is on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame and, in 1997, Queen Elizabeth even knighted him.
“My life has been one big roller coaster ride so far”, said the singer during the announcement of his autobiography that will appear in October.
In addition to the highs he experienced through his music, he is also known to have suffered from bulimia and, for a period, was addicted to drugs and alcohol. In 1990 he managed to overcome this completely.
It must have been tough to be one of the first artists in the 70s to come out of the closet. In the beginning he called himself bisexual and even had a German wife for a number of years. At the end of the 1980s he confirmed his homosexuality. In 2005 he married David Furnish, with whom he now has two children.
Most of the lyrics to his songs were written by Bernie Taupin, so don’t expect Elton John’s repertoire to be either autobiographical or personal. In fact, in an interview with The Wallstreet Journal Taupin even stated that Elton doesn’t understand everything he sings:
“He never asked about the meaning behind any of my lyrics. He might say I don’t understand this or I don’t know if I can work with it. But he never challenged my interpretation or the art of what I do.”
If even Sir Elton John himself wasn’t always able to understand his own lyrics, I’m not going to pretend to be able to give a worthy explanation or interpretation in this article. What I did manage to discover were some interesting stories behind his biggest hits. Enjoy!
5. Tiny Dancer (Madman Across the Water, 1971)
Ed Sheeran references the song in his hit Castle On The Hill, the song was used for aniconic scene in the movie Almost Famous, in Friends Phoebe pays ode to Who’s The Boss actor Tony Danza in the song. There are even people who think that the song is about manhood. What do the lyrics to Tiny Dancer really mean?
[Verse 1]Blue jean baby, L.A. ladySeamstress for the bandPretty-eyed, pirate smileYou’ll marry a music manBallerina, you must’ve seen herDancing in the sandAnd now she’s in me, always with meTiny dancer in my hand
In an interview with Rolling stone from 1970, Elton John said that is about Bernie Taupin’s girlfriend, Maxine Feibelmann. This would also make sense as she traveled with the band at the time and sewed their outfits. In the album sleeve, this song is credited to her saying – ‘With love to Maxine’.
But online you can find references made to an interview in which Taupin apparently indicates that the song is not about one person in particular. I didn’t find an official source, but he apparently is meant to have said the following:
“We came to California in the fall of 1970, and sunshine radiated from the populace. I was trying to capture the spirit of that time, encapsulated by the women we met – especially at the clothes stores up and down the Strip in L.A.
They were free spirits, sexy in hip-huggers and lacy blouses, and very ethereal, the way they moved. So different from what I’d been used to in England. And they all wanted to sew patches on your jeans. They’d mother you and sleep with you – it was the perfect Oedipal complex.”
[Chorus]Hold me closer, tiny dancerCount the headlights on the highwayLay me down in sheets of linenYou had a busy day todayTiny Dancer – Elton John
What more can we add to that!
4. Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time) (Honky Château, 1972)
The next single that Elton released was Rocket Man. Contrary to popular belief, this song is not inspired by David Bowie’s Space Oddity, but rather by Rocket Man by the band Pearls Before Swine.
This band wrote the lyrics following a story in the book The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury from 1951. Taupin also read the story and says this in an interview with Billboard:
“It’s about a guy who’s an airline pilot and he goes off every day and then one day he sort of burns up. And the kids are always looking up to see their dad come home.”
Taupin gives a more futuristic angle to his version of Rocket Man:
“I thought it was a great idea to sing a song about a guy in the future, where being an astronaut would be akin to being an airline pilot – which will probably happen.”
In an interview with Wall Street Journal, Taupin says that it is not the tragic fate or the incredible desire of the main character in the Bradbury story that appealed to him, but that he was particularly touched by the daily grind of the astronaut’s existence described in the story. He stated that:
“In ’71, the future of space flight was exhilarating. America was putting astronauts on the moon. Yet 20 years earlier, Bradbury had envisioned future astronauts as little more than intergalactic truck drivers, burning themselves out alone far from home.”
You can read that back in the lyrics:
[Verse 1]She packed my bags last night, pre-flightZero hour: 9:00 a.mAnd I’m gonna be high as a kite by thenI miss the Earth so much, I miss my wifeIt’s lonely out in spaceOn such a timeless flight
[Chorus]And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time‘Til touchdown brings me ‘round again to findI’m not the man they think I am at homeOh no, no, noI’m a rocket manRocket manRocket man Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time) – Elton John
Donald Trump himself appears to be a fan of Rocket Man, using the song (without permission!) during his presidential campaign and nicknaming Kim Jong Un after the song title. During his debut address to the UNhe said that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission”. Taupin was not happy with this however. In the The Wall Street Journal he said that:
“The context bothered me. The thought that World War III could start over the use of my song title was disturbing. I also was uncomfortable that something of mine that was culturally iconic could be used in such a way.
But what could I do? Sue him for cultural appropriation? As a songwriter, you’re powerless to stop something like that.
However, if the use of ‘Rocket Man’ results in peace, I will be very happy to take full credit for it.”
3. Nikita (Ice On Fire, 1985)
In October 1985, 4 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Elton John released the song Nikita. In this ballad, the western-dressed Elton is in love with Nikita from East Berlin, but because of the Cold War, their love is out of reach.
[Verse 1]Hey Nikita is it coldIn your little corner of the worldYou could roll around the globeAnd never find a warmer soul to knowOh I saw you by the wallTen of your tin soldiers in a rowWith eyes that looked like ice on fireThe human heart a captive in the snow
The lovers do get together in the video clip, but in the lyrics they are not so lucky:
[Chorus]Oh Nikita, you will never knowAnything about my homeI’ll never know how good it feels to hold youNikita, I need you soOh Nikita is the other side of any given line in timeCounting ten tin soldiers in a rowOh no, Nikita you’ll never knowNikita – Elton John
The song became a big hit in Western Europe and even made the name Nikita a popular baby name.
In 2012, John and Taupin were sued for plagiarism. A number of years prior, Photographer Guy Hobbs had submitted a song called Natasha to Elton John’s publisher. Natasha was also about an impossible love that takes place during the Cold War, but the court ultimately ruled in favor of John and Taupin.
2. Candle In the Wind (1973, 1997)
Perhaps Elton John’s most famous song is Candle In The Wind. In the early 1970s it wasn’t a huge success, but the re-release in 1997 following the death of Princess Diana became one of the greatest hits of all time, selling almost 40 million singles worldwide.
In an interview withRolling stone, Taupin explained that the original version was inspired by Marilyn Monroe, stating:
“I wrote ‘Candle In The Wind’ about Marilyn Monroe, but she is absolutely not someone I admired a lot as a kid or anything. She was just a metaphor for fame and dying young, and people sort of overdoing the indulgence, and those that do die young.
The song could have easily have been about Montgomery Clift or James Dean or even Jim Morrison. But it seemed that she just had a more sympathetic bent to her, so I used her. And she was female, and that was more vulnerable.
But it was really about the excesses of celebrity, the early demise of celebrities, and ‘live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.’ And that was really the crux of the song.”
[Verse 1]Goodbye Norma JeaneThough I never knew you at allYou had the grace to hold yourselfWhile those around you crawledThey crawled out of the woodworkAnd they whispered into your brainThey set you on the treadmillAnd they made you change your name
[Chorus]And it seems to me you lived your lifeLike a candle in the windNever knowing who to cling toWhen the rain set inAnd I would have liked to have known youBut I was just a kidYour candle burned out long beforeYour legend ever didCandle In The Wind – Elton John
Elton John has been friends with the English royal family since the 1970s. In 1981 he met Princess Diana at Prince Andrew’s birthday party. They danced the Charleston together for a good 20 minutes that evening. The friendship cooled for a while at the start of 1997 and just 6 weeks before Diana’s death, they settled whatever had come between them. During her funeral Elton played a slightly adapted version of Candle In The Wind (Goodbye England’s Rose):
Goodbye England’s roseMay you ever grow in our heartsYou were the grace that placed itselfWhere lives were torn apartYou called out to our countryAnd you whispered to those in painNow you belong to heavenAnd the stars spell out your name
And it seems to me you lived your lifeLike a candle in the windNever fading with the sunsetWhen the rain set inAnd your footsteps will always fall hereAmong England’s greenest hillsYour candle’s burned out long beforeYour legend ever willCandle In The Wind ’97 – Elton John
In a BBC documentary, Prince Harry said that the moment the song was played left a huge impression on him:
“Elton John’s song was incredibly emotional. That was part of this whole trigger system, which nearly brought me to the point of crying in public, which I didn’t do.”
Elton won one Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for the song and the proceeds from the single went to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. His bond with the royals remained good. He even would have played Your song at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.
1. Circle Of Life – 1994
Elton John is probably best known by the younger generation(s) by the music he wrote for Disney. In 1994, he made a major contribution to the blockbuster soundtrack for The Lion King. This time he did not work with Taupin, but with lyricist Tim Rice.
Circle Of Life, Hakuna Matata and Can You Feel The Love Tonight all received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song and for the latter song, he took home a coveted golden statue. The story goes however that Elton John thought Circle Of Life was a much better song.
Who doesn’t remember the iconic moment when Rafiki presents the newborn Simba to the animal kingdom?
From the day we arrive on the planetAnd blinking, step into the SunThere’s more to be seen than can ever be seenMore to do than can ever be done
There is far too much to take in hereMore to find than can ever be foundBut the sun rolling highThrough the sapphire skyKeeps great and small on the endless round
It’s the Circle of LifeAnd it moves us allThrough despair and hopeThrough faith and love‘Til we find our placeOn the path unwindingIn the circleThe Circle of LifeCircle Of Life – Elton John
In July, the live action remake of The Lion King will be released and it will contain Circle Of Life once again. The singer says in an interview with The sun that he is working on a new song together with none other than Beyonce. She will be the voice actor behind Simba’s lover, Nala, in the film. We can’t wait!
Are you attending one of his last concerts?
Did you manage to get a ticket for one of the very last Elton John shows ever? Have fun, make it an unforgettable evening!
Curious for ROCKETMAN – the movie?
The feature film ROCKETMAN is a musical fantasy based on the first years of Elton John’s musical carreer. From 22nd May in cinemas, check out the trailer here:
Curious to find out more about what other (living) legends were singing about? Previously we also delved into the repertoire of Queenand The Beatles. Enjoy!
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Follow us on Instagram or Facebook and subscribe to our monthly newsletter (no worries, no spam! )– Tiny Dancer is written by Bernie Taupin / Elton John © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1971.– Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time) is written by Elton John / Bernie Taupin © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1971.– Nikita is written by Bernard J.P. Taupin / Bernie Taupin / Elton John © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1985.– Candle in the Wind ’97 is written by Elton John / Bernie Taupin © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1997.– Circle of Life is written by Elton John / Tim Rice © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, 1994.
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