It’s only a walk-on, Elton John’s part in the forthcoming movie Tommy. But what a way to walk on! Under Ken Russell’s direction, crocodile rocker John cameos as “the Pinball Wizard” in the film version of the celebrated rock opera by The Who.
“I can’t stand heights; the experience was dizzying,” complained Elton, whose platforms lofted his balding pate from its usual elevation at 5’8½” to a basketballer’s dreamland over nine feet in the sky. Otherwise, Elton John has grown accustomed to the vertiginous heights of superstardom. Seven of his eight albums have gone “platinum” (sales of over one million units), including the current Caribou. His circus-like concert tours are inevitable sellouts. And though he owns his own label, Rocket Records in England, last month Elton John signed a contract for over $8 million—the largest in rock history—with MCA, his American distributors.
Things have not always been so rosy, despite the fourscore pair of tinted glasses which are Elton’s signature. Born Reginald Dwight 27 years ago, he was reared to follow his father into the Royal Air Force. “His condescension about what I was doing drove me on,” Reginald remembers of Dad’s reaction to his taste in music and fashion. A piano-pounder at 4, he later took lessons and attended the Royal Academy of Music, where he indulged a passion for Bach and Chopin.
Greened on three years of pub playing, Dwight moved on to the blues. In consort with one Elton Dean (on sax) and a lead singer, Long John Baldry, Reginald escaped his patronymic. But the real breakthrough was Elton’s encounter with Bernie Taupin, a lyricist. The team of Taupin and John took its material to the British record company D.J.M., which lent an admiring ear to Elton’s wistful ballads, though they had been previously rejected by other labels. Banzai!
Elton’s collaboration with Bernie Taupin survives to this day. Taupin pens a lyric; John, who claims he can’t read a note of music, rivets himself to a piano where he fiddles with chord sequences until they are seared into his memory. Seldom is more than 20 minutes expended on a song. “If I am half-an-hour on one, and it hasn’t come by then, I move on,” Elton says. “Bernie sometimes doesn’t hear the finished songs until after they’re recorded.”
With a rented home in Beverly Hills, Elton John spends half his time on this side of the Atlantic. Her Majesty’s increasingly ravenous tax bite is a factor, but the rock star confesses to a heartfelt infatuation with the Colonies. “I always defend America to the hilt when anybody has a go at it. I’m very Los Angeles. I’d love to have lived in the Hollywood of the ’30s.” The longing is presumably not out of admiration for the company he might have kept. “Most show-biz people are schmucks,” maintains John. “I’d rather talk about the Mets,”…or the Lakers, the Bruins, the Dolphins or, as it happens, Watford, a soccer team back home of which sports buff Elton John is a director.
England is not all tax bills and mealy potatoes. Behind the electric gates of “Hercules”—John’s sprawling split-level estate in Virginia Water, a chichi London suburb—he lives in sybaritic self-indulgence matched only by his generosity to family and friends: a house for Mom two doors away, a Rolls for his American agent, original Rembrandt etchings for his sidemen at Christmas, new threads for their wives when he throws a party.
Of his own sartorial resplendence, sometimes criticized as being more important to him than his concert performances, Elton carps: “It’s not so. My outfits are a comedy to give people a chuckle before they settle down to hear the music. I’m in the position now where they expect me to come out wearing the Eiffel Tower.” Gustave Eiffel, the engineer, is long dead. But for John’s next American tour, slated to begin in late September, he has commissioned Hollywood designer Bill Whitten to create a pair of wooden trousers from which toy snakes will spring, and another comprised entirely of fluorescent balls.