With a career spanning nearly 35 years, Elton John has a simple explanation for his longevity: “I tend not to look back. I look forward.” That said, John doesn’t disagree with the overwhelmingly favorable reviews that refer to his new album, “Songs From the West Coast,” as a vintage work hearkening back to the early 1970s hits that established him as a leading pop music figure.
“I’m fine with that,” says John, 54, of comparisons to such early albums as “Tumbleweed Connection” and “Madman Across the Water.” “It’s the same kind of lineup as I had on the old albums, so it’s going to sound similar. And it’s recorded on analog tape, not digital… And we used (string arranger) Paul Buckmaster, so it’s gonna sound similar again.
“I think it’s very similar to ‘Madman,’ a ‘Tumbleweed’-ish album. But I think it’s better recorded, obviously.”
“Songs From the West Coast,” his 40th release and first of new material in four years, is yet another turn in John’s often successful, always dramatic tenure.
Emerging from Long John Baldry’s band in Britain in the late-’60s, the former Reginald Dwight became one of pop’s most flamboyantly attired and prolific performers, delivering scores of enduring hits – among them “Your Song,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Philadelphia Freedom.” “Candle in the Wind,” originally a tribute to screen legend Marliyn Monroe, became the biggest-selling single of all time a quarter-century later, with more than 35 million copies sold, when John and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin rewrote it in September 1997 to raise money for the Princess Diana memorial fund.
In all, John has sold more than 120 million records worldwide. There have been fallow periods, commercially as well as personally, but with time and rehabilitation John has gained control over his once voracious appetites for food, sex, alcohol and drugs. And he says sobriety has definitely benefited his music.
“I never had a mental block as far as writing goes, but obviously under the influence you think things are much better than they are,” he says. “I’m not one of these artists who drugs help to write great songs. I’m not Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. (Drugs) just didn’t go very well with my personality, I don’t think, or my talent.”
BACK TO BASICS
Settled into a comfortable, nearly eight-year relationship with filmmaker David Furnish, John has spent the past decade on a roll, winning an Oscar for his compositions in Disney’s animated feature “The Lion King” and Tony Awards for his pop adaptation of “Aida.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer also has become an activist in the battle against AIDS, with a successful foundation funded in part through proceeds from singles he releases in the United States. And this fall fans will find him appearing on the TV show “Ally McBeal” (Nov. 19) and reprising “Crocodile Rock” on an album for the popular children’s series “Bob the Builder.”
Laying the groundwork for what would become “Songs From the West Coast,” John met with Taupin in the south of France last year to discuss how they wanted the record to sound. It also gave John – who writes the music after seeing Taupin’s lyrics – a first look at what he’d be working with.
“Bernie and I decided we wanted to go back and make a simpler album and just get back to basics,” John explains. “Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, we made some good records. But I don’t think I played enough piano on the records…. I just wanted to go back and do an album that was 100 percent Elton.”
With that in mind, John chose stripped-down instrumentation – piano, guitar, bass and drums – and assembled a new group of musicians “just to keep it fresh and make me feel a little bit afraid again.” Stevie Wonder’s contributions to the “Dark Diamond” track were recorded separately.
Eventually veteran John band members such as guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson were brought in, and the entire album was made during a period of 27 days.
LOWERING HIS PROFILE
“Songs From the West Coast” also provided John with an impetus to change his video profile. Noting that “videos and me don’t really hit it off too well,” he tapped actor Robert Downey, Jr., to lip sync the first single, “I Want Love,” out of empathy for Downey’s own battle with drug addiction.
Pleased with the result, John says that he may never appear in a video again if he can help it.
“I want to get people to interpret for themselves what the songs mean,” he says, “and if I don’t have to be in them, it’s an added bonus. If I can do a Fatboy Slim and not appear in my videos, I’ll be very happy.”
John says he doesn’t have much else on his plate at the moment, though he plans another joint tour with fellow pop piano man Billy Joel next year.
The two appeared together on stage during the all-star “Concert For New York” at Madison Square Garden, benefiting victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. And John hopes to schedule some New York City concerts of his own in the near future, which also will have a charity component.
“I’ve got to do something,” he says. “I actually went down and spent some time (near the World Trade Center site) looking at the wall of photographs and pictures and messages. I wanted to see it. It was kind of stupefying, really. I think people in New York are still in shock and people in America are still in shock.
“I can understand it, but… I just want to shake people and say, ‘Come on!’ I think they now need to pull together. They need to get flying again,” John says. “The economy needs to keep going and people need to get back… otherwise, Bin Laden will achieve everything he set out to do by paralyzing America.”