Interview: The day I met Elton John
Gary Steel celebrates 40 years of music journalism by disinterring and reanimating interviews from his big fat archive. In ‘The Day I Met Elton John’ Gary recounts his 1980 experience of getting an unexpected interview with Elton ‘Rocketman’ John.
Note: I was a very shy 21-year-old music journalist working for Wellington’s The Evening Post when Elton John’s tour promoter flew me to Auckland in November 1980 to attend a press conference designed to promote the star’s forthcoming live shows.
After the press had their way with EJ, I was unexpectedly summoned to do a one-on-one interview while he sat at a grand piano. I was totally unprepared. But I did get it on tape. Sadly, both that tape and transcript are long gone. But the original story lives on.
After the recollection piece below, you’ll be able to read my original report from the press conference that day.
It was made quite clear to the journalistic fraternity that Elton John would be holding one (and one only) New Zealand press conference; that it would be formal, and that no interviews would be granted whatsoever. This was, apparently, Elton’s directive.
So it came as some surprise when the nice lady at Polygram offered me a short, individual, post-press conference interview with the piano player himself.
EJ in the 1970s
On the precipice of the worst viral infection I’ve ever suffered, and not being a fan of the man personally – don’t take offence, I’ve nothing against the guy, just don’t like his music much – I must admit the prospect thrilled me not at all.
The tape playback of the day I met Elton John reveals a shaky voice on the verge of fade-out asking equally shaky questions of a tired-sounding musician co-operative but just a tad grumpy. The interview was his last for the day, having been at his most articulate during the formal press conference, and then subjected to the TV cameras.
I could write Elton talking about his football team, hair transplants, Rod Stewart and a host of other topics. But these have all been covered adequately by the daily press, so let’s read him saying different things.
EJ in the 1970s
I sit on a stool facing Elton, who is sitting at a piano. What’s your attitude to the modern phenomenon, new wave?
“Um… I didn’t mind being called a boring old fart although initially, I was rather shocked. Uh… but actually I thought I was a boring old fart and so the idea of what they were saying was in fact quite correct.
“It’s like the radio situation. In America, it’s totally middle of the road and all you get there is ‘Knights In White Satin’ and ‘Your Song’, or ‘Stairway To Heaven’, which is totally horrible. But in Europe, the situation is much healthier.
“In America, it’s totally middle of the road and all you get is… ‘Stairway To Heaven’, which is totally horrible.”
“I thought, ‘How dare they say that!’ but in fact, I was becoming very safe and very lethargic. And the energy created like, three years ago when things started was initially a shock but I totally enjoyed it because everything had a sense of humour about it.
“And every bloody group that had a go at me… When you meet them they go, ‘Ello’ (in falsetto). Y’know?
“I enjoyed all the groups coming up. The only thing that used to get on my tits was groups coming up and saying, ‘Well, y’know, we don’t want to sell any records’. It’s like The Clash, y’know. When they started off they [were like], ‘We don’t want a hit record’, and then when The Boomtown Rats got a number one single they were so pissed off. They wanted a number one. Everyone wants their records to sell. They don’t make them not to sell!”
“All the people that were doing it [punk] were quite old. They were the same age as me.”
“If they were younger I wouldn’t mind it but The Clash aren’t a young group. All the groups that started happening, if you analyse their ages, there weren’t actually many young groups.
“It was funny, the whole situation. I’d accepted the fact that I had to come to terms that it was about young people, but all the people that were doing it were quite old. They were the same age as me. Their ideals were right and they were very naïve and it was very lovely, but there’s actually not been that many young groups to come out of it except now with groups like The Specials.”
EJ in the 1980s
Then, just when you’re thinking, ‘Gee, EJ knows the score!’, it’s ‘k’thud!
“The Police to me are the best band that’s come out in five or six years. When I listen to their records they have something nobody else’s records has at the moment. I’ve got just about 20 albums in my hotel. People like Stevie Wonder and Neil Young. God! You need valium when you have Neil Young! Jesus! And you listen to them and you go, ‘There’s nothing exciting’, and you listen to The Police album and you go, ‘There’s something!’ They’ve got to be the biggest group out of the whole lot.”
How long will your renewed burst of activity last, Elton?
“I stopped for a long time. I didn’t think I would ever do anything again. The only way I could come back last year was the small way. Now, having this band together with Dee and Nigel, especially the rhythm section, I thought ‘I’m going to give it another shot for like three years. Three or four years.’ And then do odd shows here and there but not have a constant organisation thing going round me.
“God! You need valium when you have Neil Young! Jesus! And you listen and you go, ‘There’s nothing exciting’
“There’s a lot of things I want to do musically which you can’t really do when you’re tromping around all the time.”
Elton’s just beginning to explain how his involvement in the everyday workings of the football club helps him “feel part of the everyday process”, a great leveller, when the interview time is up.
EJ glides off in his limousine and I go home to bed for a week. I lost a stone (in weight) and missed his concert.
Below is my original article from way back in 1980…
ELTON WON’T BE GIGGING AT 40
An affable and unassuming Elton John cruised smoothly through his New Zealand press conference in Auckland yesterday, full of quips and talking willingly about the most sensitive of topics.
EJ in full regalia
Wearing a black suit and cowboy hat, Elton, who plays Athletic Park on Wednesday, grew suitably animated when discussing Watford FC, the soccer club of which he is chairman.
“It’s a terrible wrench being away from the football club because for the first two years, 1976 to ’78, I was involved with the football club and nothing else… the club accepts the fact that I do have to tour and have a career. But it is a terrible wrench because I’m just as involved in the football as I am in the music really.”
“I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 40.”
He sees the club as “something that’s there for my old age. I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 40.”
Does his show still have all the extravagance of old?
“I think it’s fair to say I don’t jump around as much, but I think that’s because as one gets older, one becomes a little more staid. Gone are the days where I came down preceded by Mae West and the Pope… He was on tour with me last year. He played to more people than me last year, but he didn’t sell an album… the Pope, I’m talking about.”
EJ in full regalia
One of the recent landmarks in pop history was Elton’s performances in Russia last year.
“I was not the first rock’n’roll person to go over there, but they were excited because it went pretty well and it was a pretty safe act to take over there. Of course, they invaded Afghanistan and it sort of closed the door. I couldn’t go back in those circumstances.”
“The first 20 or 30 rows were Politburo members with their wives and 20-foot hairstyles”
On playing to the Russians, he says: “I was terrified, to say the least. The first 20 or 30 rows were Politburo members with their wives and 20-foot hairstyles.”
He is amazed at what he terms “incredible knowledge of pop music in general” in Russia.
“The kids seemed to know more about me than I know about myself. They had… black-market records and things like that.”
He speaks of his much-publicised hair transplants with disarming frankness: “I’ve had three transplants in the space of three years, and I was literally practically bald. I’ve had two this year which probably won’t grow until March and then I’ll probably have another couple, so I’m really happy with the way things have gone.”
He seems annoyed at people’s attitudes to such things.
“It’s not confined to people like me. People are vain and I’m pretty vain and I didn’t want to be bald at 30 so… Rod Stewart’s got his nose and I’ve got my hair.”
Speaking of the devil, Elton was not so long ago talking of doing a film with Mr Stewart: “Yes, it was hideous. Both Rod and I gave up on it.”
“I’ve had three transplants in the space of three years, and I was literally practically bald”
He does, however, still hold an interest in a film career, but since his cameo in Ken Russell’s Tommy, nothing suitable has been offered.
“There’s a movie being made with Sylvester Stallone… It’s called Escape To Victory… in which I was offered a part. I turned it down because I had four nude scenes and three lines, and if you’ve seen me in the shower, you’ll know why I didn’t accept the role.”
EJ in the 1980s
Elton is facing the rock’n’roll circus with renewed energy after several years of semi-retirement. He feels like doing it all again at the moment, but reminds us that “after a while… you find out other things apart from rock ‘n’roll which are important: family lives and things like that.”
But, “when we played together earlier this year, it was perfectly obvious that we should form a band.”
The Day I Met Elton John – postscript
After it was all over, promoter Benny Levin insisted on driving me to the airport in his Rolls Royce. During the drive, he tried to get me to miss my flight and come over to his place to party. I think he mentioned that Elton might be there, but it may have been a ploy. I was so naive at the time.
What did I miss? A night of partying with EJ, or being completely out of my depth in the home of an old lech?
I’ll never know!