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Based on rare one-on-one interviews with the flamboyant rock ’n’ roll icon, this is the first book to trace Elton John’s meteoric rise from obscurity to worldwide celebrity in the wildest, weirdest decade of the twentieth century.
In August 1970, Elton John achieved overnight fame with a rousing performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Over the next five years, the artist formerly known as Reginald Dwight went from unheard of to unstoppable, scoring seven consecutive #1 albums and sixteen Top Ten singles in America. By the middle of the decade, he was solely responsible for 2 percent of global record sales. One in fifty albums sold in the world bore his name. Elton John’s live shows became raucous theatrical extravaganzas, attended by all the glitterati of the era.
But beneath the spangled bodysuits and oversized eyeglasses, Elton was a desperately shy man, conflicted about his success, his sexuality, and his narcotic indulgences. In 1975, at the height of his fame, he attempted suicide. After coming out as bisexual in a controversial Rolling Stone interview that nearly wrecked his career, and announcing his retirement from live performance in 1977 at the age of thirty, he gradually found his way back to the thing he cared about most: the music.
Captain Fantastic gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the rise, fall, and return to glory of one of the world’s most mercurial performers. Rock journalist Tom Doyle’s insider account of the Rocket Man’s turbulent ascent is based on a series of one-pn-one interviews in which Elton laid bare many previously unrevealed details of his early career. Here is an intimate exploration of Elton’s working relationship with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, whose lyrics often chronicled the ups and downs of their life together in the spotlight. Through these pages pass a parade of legends whose paths crossed with Elton’s during the decade—including John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Groucho Marx, Katharine Hepburn, Princess Margaret, Elvis Presley, and an acid-damaged Brian Wilson.
A fascinating portrait of the artist at the apex of his celebrity, Captain Fantastic takes us on a rollicking fame-and-drug-fueled ride aboard Elton John’s rocket ship to superstardom.
Praise for Captain Fantastic
“Veteran rock journalist [Tom] Doyle continues his foray into the 1970s music scene with a compelling profile of an unlikely rock star. . . . In chronicling Elton John’s stratospheric rise to fame, replete with platinum records, increasingly outlandish stage shows, and mountains of cash, the author deftly manages to keep his subject in sharp focus. Based on hours of one-on-one interviews with Captain Fantastic himself, this breezy yet comprehensive biography demonstrates what it was like for the talented musician to churn out an impossible string of hit records. . . . A great way to better understand the man behind the garish glasses and platform boots.”—Kirkus Reviews
“In this adoring and candid set of fan’s notes, music journalist Doyle (Man on the Run) draws on interviews with John and his colleagues, especially his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, to capture the meteoric rise and fall of the man who released at least one album every year of the 1970s. . . . This energetic book . . . makes a convincing case that John reached his peak and made his best music in the ’70s.”—Publishers Weekly
“A breezy and surprisingly poignant romp through a decade, and a career, that effectively invented modern celebrity culture.”—Peter Doggett, author of You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Captain Fantastic
A Long, Long Time
To fly all this way to California, across the Atlantic from England in a jumbo jet, to the land of freedom, adventure, and rock’n’roll, only to end up on a red bloody London bus. He’d wanted to roar off in a Cadillac or something, instead of trundling toward Hollywood, taking “fucking forever” to get there. He was totally embarrassed, totally pissed off.
He hadn’t even wanted to come. It was his music publisher and record label boss, Dick James, who persuaded him to make the trip. Dick was fifty and an old-school music biz figure, with his bald head and business suits and thick-rimmed glasses. He’d made his fortune publishing the songs of the Beatles, so he knew a thing or two.
The problem was that Elton’s second album, recorded at great expense and titled simply Elton John, had been released in April in Britain and hadn’t fared much better than his first, Empty Sky, which had tanked. As the pages of the 1970 calendar began to blow away, he was running out of options.
He’d been sorely tempted to take up an offer from Jeff Beck, the swaggering star guitarist who had been kicked out of the Yardbirds in ’66 for his repeated no-shows and fizzing tantrums. Since then, the drably named Jeff Beck Group had made two albums that sold well in America, before falling apart in a cloud of petty arguments and ego huffs.
One night in July at the Speakeasy club in London, the rock star hangout just north of Oxford Street, Beck had caught a show by Elton’s new three-piece band. Impressed by what he saw, Beck came up with a proposal: Back me and we’ll tour the States. Then Elton heard the terms of the deal—for every booking, Beck would take 90 percent of the $10,000 fee. Elton and the band would share just 10 percent.
Nevertheless, he thought, Wow, a thousand dollars a night. Still sounds like a lot of money.
Dick James talked him out of it.
“You’ll be a bigger star in America than Jeff Beck in a year’s time,” he insisted.
“I thought, Oh, Dick, you’re so stupid,” Elton remembers.
Now it was August and he’d touched down in Los Angeles, thrilled to his fingertips to actually be in America. Exiting the airport, he’d been greeted by the sight of the double-decker parked outside. His face fell and it quickly had to be explained to him by Norman Winter, his new U.S. publicist, that the bus was a surprise stunt he’d planned for him. It would carry Elton and the band into L.A. and fanfare his arrival in style.
A screaming message in huge white letters on a black banner ran almost the entire length of it: elton john has arrived.
Dutifully, Elton had stepped onto the rear platform of the open-backed London bus. It really didn’t feel as though he’d “arrived.” But if he had, it had taken him a long, long time.
The very first thing Reg could remember was sitting at the piano.
In his blurry memory, his gran Ivy lifts him onto her knee and he immediately starts banging the keys. In the days that follow, no one can keep him away from the seemingly captivating instrument. One day his infantile pounding somehow gives way to his working out the chords and elegant top line of “The Skater’s Waltz.”
His mum, Sheila, is flabbergasted. Reg is only three but it quickly becomes apparent that he has quite a gift.
“I just sat down,” he remembers, “and I could pick out a tune very easily.”
By the time he was four, in 1951, Reg had a mass of bubbly hair, which made him look cherubic and a bit like Shirley Temple. A typical preschooler, he was prone to tantrums, though the piano seemed to be a reliable source of calm for him. If he was kicking and screaming, his father placing him on its stool always cooled his hysteria.
There was music all around the house: from the wireless, from the cabinet-sized, varnished-wood-encased radiogram (part radio, part gramophone) on which Sheila and his dad, Stanley, would play their records. Stanley, who’d performed as a trumpeter in a dancehall band called the Millermen, favored the cool piano jazz of George Shearing, the dreamy percussive melodies of Charlie Kunz. Sheila preferred the pop sounds of the early fifties: Johnnie Ray, Rosemary Clooney, Frankie Laine. Reg’s favorite musician quickly became Winifred Atwell, the Caribbean pianist who could play anything from classical to honky-tonk. He was fascinated by how Atwell wasn’t the least bit snooty when it came to her musical tastes. He’d excitedly listen to her finishing a piece on a concert grand and saying, “And now I’m going across to my other piano,” which turned out to be a battered old upright bought from a junk shop.
By age six, Reg had developed quite a repertoire and was fast becoming the center of the entertainment. If Stanley and Sheila had friends coming over in the evening, they would put him to bed during the day for an afternoon nap so that he could stay up later and play piano for them all. He’d transpose the proto rock’n’roll of the Super-Sonics’ “New Guitar Boogie Shuffle” and its B side, “The Sheik of Araby,” into jaunty piano tunes. Then he’d slow the tempo into “Butterflies” by Patti Page, or “Wish You Were Here” by Eddie Fisher, before maybe picking the pace back up with Jo Stafford’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
But apart from all of this fun and showing off, there was unease at home. Reg never felt real love from his father.
Stanley had been a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force in the latter years of World War II, promoted to squadron leader in 1953. As a result, he was away from home for extended periods of time. Reg would dread his returning for the weekends. His dad seemed snobbish and stiff. He’d tell the boy off for kicking a ball around the garden, fearing he’d damage the plants. He wouldn’t allow him to eat celery because the crunching irritated him. Reg grew up feeling suppressed by him and ultimately afraid of him.
Stanley and Sheila had met through the RAF, where she was working as an office clerk. But even when Reg was still very young, their marital bond was already beginning to fray. Worse, their disputes seemed to be having a destabilizing effect on him. His mother described him as a bag of nerves.
“A bag of nerves?” he echoes. “Yeah, I was on tenterhooks as a child. Maybe because when your parents don’t get on, you’re always worried there’s gonna be a row. So it drove me towards music even more. Sitting in your room listening to the radio. Looking at your records, studying them. Looking at the little numbers, writing them down, who wrote the B side. It was like having a university course in music. I was fascinated by watching records go round the turntable. I remember twelve-inch seventy-eights which classical music used to be on. You could break records in those days. It was a tragedy when you broke a record.”
Looking to develop her son’s natural talent, Sheila found a private piano tutor for Reg when he was seven. Mrs. Jones would teach him classical pieces and encourage him to practice for three hours each day. For the most part, he hated the passages he was forced to learn. He loathed the sad and dissonant night music of Bartók, though he found himself falling for the prettier melodies of Bach and Chopin.
That year, he gave his first public performance, of sorts, at the wedding of his soccer-player cousin Roy Dwight. The band booked to play at the reception turned up late, and to fill in, Reg sat at the piano and entertained the guests until the adult musicians arrived. There was a British law at the time forbidding anyone to play for a paying audience until the age of thirteen. It was a pity really, thought Sheila, because otherwise Reg would quite likely be hailed as a child prodigy.
All the while, his father remained a remote and forbidding figure. Still, it seems that in some ways, Stanley tried to connect with his music-obsessed only son. For Reg’s ninth birthday, his dad bought him a copy of Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! The boy wasn’t exactly won over by this gift, however, indicating that the difficulties in the father-son relationship now cut both ways. Later, the tough-to-please Reg would moan that what he’d really wanted was a bike.
Pop music had dramatically moved on by the mid-fifties, and replacing the jazz standards and crooning balladeers was the souped-up sound of rock’n’roll. Shifting with the trends, in 1956, a year after it had been number one in Britain, Sheila brought home “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Bill Haley and His Comets. As much as Reg loved it, he preferred its flip side, “A.B.C. Boogie,” and another disc his mother had bought, the stark and eerily mournful “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley. The same week he first heard these records, he was at a barbershop, waiting to have his hair cut and flicking through a copy of Life magazine, when he saw a photograph of the quiffed and impossibly cool Presley.
Now aged ten and beginning to buy records for himself, Reg was more compelled by the edgier, electrifying 45s of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, both wild-eyed and savage piano players with buzz-shocked hair. His mother found these sounds far too raucous and headache-inducing, and so Reg was forced to play the discs in his bedroom, miming in the mirror, a suburban preteen whose overfed reflection mock-singing back at him looked nothing like his skinny and snake-hipped idols.
Alone in his room, he’d stare at his records for hours. Most of the label designs were dark and dull, so he was drawn to the more colorful ones: the orange background and golden stars of Polydor, the yellows and blacks and bewildered-looking lion of MGM, the RCA Victor logo of a dog staring curiously into the horn of a gramophone as he whirled around the turntable.
But Sheila was worried that Reg seemed a self-absorbed and lonely child. Later, he’d admit that he’d longed for brothers and sisters and claim that his father was against the idea. To Sheila, the young Reg was a “terribly sad person. I used to sit there crying my eyes out when he was a child.”
It was music that rescued him. Turning eleven, Reg moved up to Pinner County Grammar School, a bustling high school facility housed in an Art Deco–style building where he had access to a proper Steinway piano and was invited by his music teacher to audition for a part-time scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, the esteemed London conservatory founded more than a century before. Almost effortlessly sailing through the test, he was assigned to classes at the Academy in Marylebone, near Regent’s Park, every Saturday morning.
There his music teacher, Helen Piena, was astonished when she performed a four-page Handel sonata for Reg and he played it back to her, note for note, having instantly memorized the piece. When it came to music, his mind was like a tape recorder. Yet soon it became clear that he really had no interest in sight-reading pages of musical notation. His talent was for playing by ear. He would learn the passages he was given to play, mentally dissecting their structures, before disobediently improvising his own embellishments to the melodies, already a songwriter in his soul.
At home, he played the piano for hours, until forced to stop by his parents or when the complaints from the neighbors became impossible to ignore. But as he grew older, a rebellious streak began to surface. Later he would boast that he’d regularly skip the classes at the Royal Academy and sit on a Circle Line subway train, looping around and around London, before coming back on the Metropolitan Line to the Northwood Hills station closest to home. In truth, if he had been a chronic truant, he’d have been thrown out of the Academy. Instead, lacking the discipline to learn the musical theory required to become a concert pianist, he remained just above average among the other precocious young musicians.
Rock’n’roll had dizzied his schoolboy head, and even as a tubby kid in short trousers and too-tight blazer, he would wow his fellow students at Pinner County Grammar by pumping out “Great Balls of Fire” on the Steinway. Having seen Buddy Holly perform in concert, he began wearing glasses in imitation of him in an effort to look hep. After eighteen months of wearing them constantly, he realized he couldn’t see without them.
Stanley Dwight, meanwhile, really wasn’t happy about the musical direction in which his son was heading. Reg was baffled by his vehement response—after all, Stanley had been a part-time musician himself; he should understand. Sent to an RAF post two hundred miles north of Pinner, where notably Reg and Sheila didn’t follow him, he would pen stern and angry missives back to his wife warning her to tame the apparently gone-feral youth. “Reggie must give up this idea of becoming a pop musician,” he wrote in one letter. “He’s turning into a wild boy.”
During Stanley’s protracted absence, Sheila fell for an amiable and laid-back local painter and decorator, Fred Farebrother, whose name Reg, with his absurdist sense of humor (inspired by BBC Radio’s surrealist comedy troupe the Goons), reversed, calling him Derf.
In the otherwise terrible winter of 1962 in England, remembered for years to come as the Big Freeze, Stanley and Sheila divorced, and at fifteen, Reg was free to be whoever he wanted to be.
If in 1963 you found yourself in Northwood, on the northwest edge of London, on a weekend evening and thirsty for some alcoholic refreshment, you may well have wandered into the large, detached Northwood Hills pub opposite the tube station. Inside, if you were brave enough to venture through the slightly more genteel saloon to the public bar, the domain of the more committed drinker, you would have discovered that it was packed. More so, a local could have told you, than it had been for a long time.
The reason would have become quickly apparent. At an upright piano positioned near the window, sporting a ginger-toned Harris Tweed sports jacket, his hair short and neat, you would see “Reggie,” the Northwood Hills’s resident piano player. He would be knocking out pretty standard pub song fare: rowdy wartime sing-along “Roll out the Barrel,” music hall throwbacks like “My Old Man (Said Follow the Van),” maybe “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” for the more boozily nostalgic or maudlin.
Then suddenly, amid the seething crowd, a pint accidentally spilled would lead to an angry word, which would lead to a punch thrown. “When there were fights, there were fights,” Elton recalls. “So when I was singing, if there was a fight that did break out, I was out the window. Even though I was shit-scared, I knew I could jump out the window, wait for it all to calm down, and then get back as soon as possible. ’Cause music helps to sort these situations. At sixteen years of age and being quite insecure, it gave me an inner steel.”
Tom Doyle is an acclaimed music journalist, author, and long-standing contributor to Mojo and Q. His work has also appeared in Billboard, The Guardian, The Times, and Sound on Sound. Over the years, he has been responsible for key magazine profiles of Paul McCartney, Elton John, Yoko Ono, Keith Richards, U2, Madonna, Kate Bush, and R.E.M., among many other artists. He is the author of The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie, which has attained the status of a classic rock biography since its original publication, and Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, which has been optioned by StudioCanal for a feature film. He lives in London, England.