Matthew Restall, author of Elton John’s Blue Moves, on the many contradictions of Elton John.
Contradictions are at the heart of rock and pop music. Its genres and its culture are laced with paradoxes. The personality, career, and music of Elton John are no exception. Here are a trio of such contradictions that particularly fascinate me and are reflected in my Blue Moves book.
1. Name changing is an experiment in alchemy. The intention is for the new persona to replace, even erase, the old. For Reginald Kenneth Dwight, it mostly worked. When he became Elton Hercules John, the awkward, physically unglamorous piano player forever destined to perform in the background became the world’s most extravagant rock star.
But Reg was never erased. At the height of his fame as a rock god, Elton would say things like “I’m a tubby little singer and I can’t understand why people scream at me.” The ugly duckling that he thought he was has forever remained inside the dazzling swan that he has also been for half a century. The tension of that paradox has proved fundamental to the energy and emotion with which his music is infused.
2. Is Elton John a rock star or a pop singer? Is he a piano-bound singer-songwriter of pop ballads, a keyboard-based variant on the singer-songwriter tradition that swept popular music precisely when he emerged as a rising star? Or is he the leader of a rock band, one that would once have been called a rock ‘n roll band (with the skills to rock out to R&B, glam, and prog rock), but which for decades has been called a classic rock band? For much of the 1970s, he was both, and one key to his success was his ability to do both very well—and to link them together with the rock ballad, which John and his collaborators arguably invented.
The fact that Blue Moves was unexpectedly too musically varied and adventurous to be either rock or pop, let alone another serving of John’s familiar pop/rock stew, is one reason why it broke his run of #1 albums. After Blue Moves, with that crucial contradiction shattered, John flourished primarily as a pop singer for the rest of the century. Only in his sixties and seventies—helped by the paradox of rock’s own advanced age—has he become the senior, stately version of the pop/rock star that he was in his twenties.
3. Sir Elton seems quintessentially British today. The more he has become a world figure, the starker his origins and roots have become—as a Brit, as an Englishman, as a suburban Londoner. Not only was he chosen to sing at Princess Diana’s funeral, but as a musician so English and yet so global, he was the perfect choice. (He sung an adaptation of “Candle in the Wind,” which soon became the best-selling single in history.)
Yet throughout the imperial phase of his career, from his rocket launch into stardom in 1970 through to the release of Blue Moves in 1976, John was more popular in the US than in the UK. He sold more tickets and records stateside. He racked up more #1s in America than anywhere else (not until 1991 did he have a solo #1 single in Britain). And because he seemed to sing in an American accent about American themes, drawing heavily on musical traditions ranging from country to R&B, many fans (on both sides of the Atlantic) thought he was American. That began to change in 1976, as the pendulum of popularity swung the other way. Why? The Blue Moves book explains.
Curious how Elton became the ultimate image of British pop music? Order your copy of Elton John’s Blue Moves today!