This one’s for you: The story behind Elton John’s hit ‘Your Song’

The legendary singer-songwriter's first hit is like an old friend – it means so many things on equally as many levels, Ed Power writes. It’s certainly proved its worth

Thursday 15 November 2018 12:17 GMT
Elton John performs 'Your Song' in the new John Lewis Christmas advert
Elton John performs 'Your Song' in the new John Lewis Christmas advert (Getty)

Elton John is enjoying one of the most dazzling victory laps in pop history. A big screen biopic starring Taron Egerton as the artist formerly known as Reginald Dwight (with Mr Bodyguard Richard Madden as his manager) is due next summer. His farewell tour, meanwhile, rumbles ever onwards with new dates extending his final hurrah into 2020.

And now comes the ultimate Christmas treat for Elton aficionados with his peerless 1970 ballad “Your Song” unveiled as the theme for his year’s John Lewis seasonal ad. Better yet, they’ve gone and asked Elton to sing it himself rather than taking the traditional John Lewis route of having some obscure-ish newcomer do the honours.

Actually they’ve done more than that. The £7m spot functions as a mini Elton biopic in itself, with the singer starting tinkling at his living room piano and then travelling back in time to his glory years as a Seventies rocker with oversized spectacles and, ultimately, to his formative days playing piano at school. By the end, you wonder what is being advertised: John Lewis or Elton John’s Greatest Hits.

The choice of “Your Song” to soundtrack the spot is entirely fitting. It was the first hit John would write with its lyricist partner Bernie Taupin. And it was largely responsible for catapulting him, at age 23, to success in America, where he gave such major industry figures as Quincy Jones, David Crosby and The Beach Boys goosebumps during his landmark 1970 residency at the LA Troubadour.

But the origins of the track are far from the glitz of Hollywood. John – then still going as plain old Reg Dwight – had first crossed paths with Taupin in 1967 when both answered the same ad by London music label Liberty Records seeking new talent. Neither received the much coveted record deal – but the moguls at Liberty, located in the British rock ’n roll nerve centre of Denmark Street, suggested they work together.

Taupin, a socially awkward Lincolnshire native who felt a bit of a bumpkin in happening London, was initially wary of John. But he was relieved to discover that his collaborator was as shy as he and they were united in their shared sense of being outsiders. Yet, for all their seeming timidity, they were united in a steely ambition and had soon blagged their way into a gig as staff songwriters at legendary music publisher Dick James’s DJM Records.

They were friends as well as colleagues – even co-dependents in a way (though they have denied there was ever a romantic spark). Stuck for somewhere to stay, Taupin duly moved in with John and his mother at their house at Pinner Hill Road in northwest London. And when John left home to live with his first girlfriend, Taupin packed his bags too and bunked down in the spare room.

It was back in Mrs Dwight’s home that he had dashed out “Your Song” one morning in 1967, between eggs and coffee. Steve Brown, a music producer who would later become Elton’s manager, had been supportive of John and Taupin’s work. But he felt they could do better and had urged that they write “with their hearts”.

Here Taupin took that message on board. Just 17 and stunningly unexperienced in romantic matters, he wrote “Your Song” as a deeply idealistic valentine to an imagined girlfriend. Its simplicity flowed from Taupin’s lack of experience in such worldly matters.

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“The original lyric was written very rapidly on the kitchen table of Elton’s mother’s [house] in Northwood Hills in the suburbs of London, if I recall, on a particularly grubby piece of exercise paper,” he would remember. “It’s the voice of someone who hasn’t experienced love in any way. It’s a very virginal song.”

John and Taupin were never conventional collaborators and “Your Song” established the pattern they would follow, with Taupin working on the lyrics alone and John then retreating to write the melody.

Much like in the John Lewis ad, he took the lyrics sheet, with its coffee stains and egg spatters, into the living room and sat at the family’s “bird cage” piano (which we see him receiving as a gift in the commercial – a fiction of John Lewis’s invention). Within 20 minutes, he had put the fundamentals of the track together.

Now all they had to do was persuade someone to let them record it. Here, serendipity played its part. John and Taupin were practising at night at night at the DJM studios. One night, the security guard working in the bank in the ground floor heard voices upstairs and sounded the alarm.

Dick James was furious to hear his employees had been sneaking in after dark, but became mollified when his in-house guitarist, Caleb Quaye, played for him some of the material John and Taupin were working on. Floored by the quality of the compositions, James signed them to a record deal proper, which is how, in January 1970, the pair found themselves in Trident Studios at St Anne’s Court in Soho (where The Beatles had recorded much of the White Album and Bowie would later set down The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars).

Elton John features in John Lewis Christmas advert for 2018

Waiting there behind the biggest mixing desk was producer Gus Dudgeon, who’d worked with Bowie on “Space Oddity”. Also in situ was a string-section, to be arranged by Paul Buckmaster (responsible for the orchestration on “Space Oddity”).

John was a bag of nerves –“if I f**ed up ... the element of fear was great” – as he sat at the piano to lead the band through “Your Song”. The session was satisfactory but not intended as the definitive recording of the tune. The plan was to put together some high-quality demos of the duo’s best material to shop to established artists looking for songwriters (The Hollies were already eyeing ”Your Song” as a potential smash for them).

But Dick James was sufficiently impressed that he decided to release the record as it was., which is how the Elton John album came into the world on 10 April 1970. Six months later, and largely against his will, John was in Los Angles for his first US tour.

Where he had found it impossible to turn heads back in Britain, in LA he was the latest hip new artist from swinging London. He secured six introductory dates at Doug Weston’s legendary Troubadour venue in Santa Monica and on the first night was introduced by Neil Diamond. “I’m like the rest of you,” he said. “I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album.” By the end of the run he was a superstar in the making.

If America adored Elton, the love was quickly reciprocated. On his second night at the Troubadour, he arrived clutching a set Mickey Mouse ears purchased at Disneyland, which he donned while belting out “Your Song”. The audience swooned, and the Los Angeles Times declared: “Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning. Elton John is going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.”

Weston was so taken with John that he convinced his friend Andy Williams to have him on his variety show. Williams reluctantly obliged, which is how, on 11 December, 1970, John was to be found at a piano in a north Hollywood television studio performing “Your Song”. Among those to catch the recording was John Lennon. He proclaimed the young man was “the first new thing that’s happened since we [The Beatles] happened”. “Your Song” would later top the US charts.

As has been the case throughout his career, John performs “Your Song” on every night of his farewell tour. He has described it as “perfect” and is of the opinion that it’s the best in his repertoire. But he is as much in the dark regarding its true meaning as anyone else, beyond his hunch that Taupin wrote it about an early crush.

Taupin is understandably proud of it, too: “I think ‘Your Song’ is a gem. Our classic, I’m not sure. I’ll let others decide that. But it’s like an old friend, it means so many things on equally as many levels. It’s certainly proved its worth, and I’ve heard it sung a million times. It’s like a good dog, it’s always there.”

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