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Me, me, me

Elton John

Big disappointment, that Elton John. I’d been expecting his autobiography, Me, to contain a chapter gratefully acknowledging all the people who wrote about him with warmth and enthusiasm in the British music weeklies at a time when he couldn’t get arrested on Denmark Street. I’m thinking of Penny Valentine, Lon Goddard, Caroline Boucher. And, yes… me.

How soon, how completely, they forget.

For the benefit of readers who don’t get British irony: I’m joking. To an extent, anyway. But I interviewed him several times in 1970, his annus mirabilis; the first occasion, on April 7, seems notable in retrospect because he actually made his way by himself to the Melody Maker office on Fleet Street in order to be interviewed. He was that obscure. He was also a nice chap: quiet, seemingly modest and happy to talk about the music he loved, particularly the Band and Robbie Robertson. Later in the summer I bumped into him backstage at a rock festival — it might have been the one in early August at Plumpton racecourse — and after we’d said hello I asked him how things were going. I’ve never forgotten the substance of his reply.

Well, he said, he’d been giving it some thought and he’d decided to make his act more dramatic, more extrovert, more theatrical. More like the Jagger with the Stones, maybe. You know, get some costumes, leap about a bit more. He liked that kind of thing.

I was a bit flabbergasted. I looked at him. He was wearing his usual gear, something completely unobtrusive in that dressed-down environment, maybe jeans and some sort of brown jacket. I might even have said, “What on earth do you want to do that for?” But he was insistent. Heigh ho, I thought. Fair enough, if that’s really what he wants. But it seemed a bit of a shame. It wasn’t really the way the world was going.

Two years later he was at the Hollywood Bowl in an outfit covered in white marabou feathers, taking a stage occupied by five grand pianos whose lids flew open to release dozens of white doves, with an audience going wild. So there we are.

I never saw any of the tours where his love of flamboyance was on full display. In fact the two best Elton John gigs I ever attended were memorable for everything except his own performance. The first of them is something else that doesn’t get a mention in Me.

It was on October 30, 1970 at the Revolution Club in Bruton Place, just off Berkeley Square — a Mayfair alternative to the Speakeasy as a late-night hangout for rock musicians on the way up, and also sometimes a place where record companies put on showcase gigs. This night was a double showcase. Elton and his band — Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums — had just returned from their breakthrough in the US, where every star in Hollywood had turned up to see them at the Troubadour. (“Dylan Digs Elton!” was the front-page headline in the Melody Maker — a Ray Coleman special.) They were about to go back the next day, but their record label wanted the British media to see them in their new, confident flowering.

The evening was shared with Randy Newman, brought over by Warner Brothers to promote his second album, the great 12 Songs. By that time I was a lot more interested in Randy Newman than Elton John, so I turned up in a mood of great anticipation. By the time Randy came on the drinks had been flowing for a while and the assembled company — all embroidered denim, satin loon pants and Anello & Davide snakeskin boots — had been tucking into the free canapés. The waitresses were dashing round filling glasses and taking orders. Seated at ringside tables, the audience chattered away.

Randy sidled on to the stage and sat down. He gave no sign of being impressed by the significance of the occasion. He had his owlish glasses on, and his pursed expression, and he seemed to be in the clothes he’d worn on the flight over from LA. He started into his first song without ceremony, and then did another one. I’m pretty sure they were “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Lover’s Prayer”. They were wonderful. He hadn’t said a word. But the conversations were still going on, and the waitresses were still circulating busily.

Still without a word, he changed the mood, going back to his first album for “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, a song of despair for the human condition. First verse: quiet, intense, spellbinding if you happened to be listening. Still the ringside noise went on. Second verse: “Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles / With frozen smiles chase love away…” And he lifted his hands from the keyboard, paused for a couple of seconds, very quietly said, “That’s all, folks,” and got up and walked off. Most of the audience barely noticed his departure.

I’ve never admired Randy Newman as much as I did that night. For me, it was a perfectly judged reaction to the environment in which he found himself. Extraordinarily brave, too, in the circumstances. That’s not how a new artist with a major record company behind him is expected to behave when they’ve been flown 5,000 miles for a showcase gig. A little while later Elton and his band were rocking out, getting an ovation from people keen not to be missing out on what looked like being the latest sensation.

Elton owns up to the second memorable gig, at Wembley Stadium on June 21, 1975, a night when he topped the bill but might as well not have turned up at all. On that glorious midsummer’s afternoon the Beach Boys grabbed the sunshine and simply wiped out the headliner. It became a music-business legend how, after their exhilarating surf-ride from one hit to another, Elton’s attempt to present the unfamiliar songs from the brand-new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy turned into a catastrophe. Almost from the start the audience were making for the exits like thousands of iron filings drawn by powerful magnets.

Maybe it was a kind of widescreen karmic revenge for the time at the Albert Hall, five years earlier, when he’d done to Sandy Denny and Fotheringay what the Beach Boys did to him. That’s something else he owns up to in Me, which is so expertly ghostwritten by Alexis Petridis, the Guardian‘s chief rock critic, that the reader never pauses to consider that the vividly remembered anecdotes, so amusingly drenched in self-mockery, aren’t coming directly from the man whose name is on the cover.

You’ve probably read the extracts and the reviews, which concentrate — understandably enough — on the vast quantities of coke and sex and some of the dafter things that can happen to a chubby boy from Pinner, like dancing to “Rock Around the Clock” with the Queen of England and having an epic row with Tina Turner. It’s a cracking read on that level alone. But in the final chapters you’ll find a lot of very moving stuff about less exotic subjects: doing the school run, getting treated for cancer, that kind of thing.

I wanted more detail about what was discovered when he subjected his dealings with his longest-serving manager to an independent audit in 1998. I also think it would have been a graceful gesture to have identified the local-paper journalist who tipped him off in 1974 that Watford FC could do with his help, since it led to a period of great personal happiness. And I wish he’d said a bit more about the music, and the musicians who worked with him along the way and never became famous. But that’s just me.

* Me is published by Macmillan.

A Nordic Sunday

Hubro 1

Why, I asked Andreas Mæland today, did he call his record label Hubro? “It’s a North European eagle owl,” he said. “I thought we should name it after an endangered species, because this is endangered music.”

Mæland was in London to celebrate Hubro’s 10th anniversary, bringing with him from Norway three of the label’s groups. For members of an endangered species, they sounded in pretty good condition as they played short sets at the Spice of Life, a Soho pub whose basement is a regular venue for jazz.

Like his compatriot Rune Kristofferson, the founder of Rune Grammofon, Seth Rosner of Pi in New York and Patrik Landolt of Intakt in Zurich, Mæland has succeeded in demonstrating that record labels still have a significant role to play in documenting important music, building trust with listeners along the way through the taste of their producers. Kristoffersen and Mæland both served an apprenticeship working for Manfred Eicher’s ECM company: in fact Mæland succeeded Kristoffersen as ECM’s label manager in Norway, whose music Eicher has done much to promote. Eventually Mæland wanted to start his own label. “I released Christian Wallumrød’s first solo album,” he told me between sets. “And then it wasn’t possible to be ECM’s label manager any more.” Over the past decade he has released 120 albums by artists such as the percussionist Håkon Stene, the harmonium player Sigbjørn Apeland, the bassist Mats Eilertsen, the trio Moskus, the multi-instrumentalist Geir Sunstøl and the mixologist Erik Honoré.

The first of the three bands — all trios — to perform at the Spice of Life was led by Erland Apneseth, a specialist in the Hardanger fiddle, accompanied by the bass guitarist Stephan Meidell and the drummer Øyvind Hegg-Lunde. As is usual with this generation of Norwegian musicians, the music floated free of genre but was strongly rooted in the cadences and modes of folk music. It was delicate but adventurous: in one passage all three musicians were bowing something — a violin, a bell, the bass guitar — to create an texture that seemed somehow appropriately early-Novemberish The closing section of an absorbing set was underpinned by Meidell’s use of a handheld single-bladed electric propeller to strike the strings in rapid succession, controlling the rate and weight of the notes with precision.

Building Instrument featured Mari Kvien Brunvoll on voice, zither and sampler, Åsmund Weltzien on keyboards and Hegg-Lunde on drums. Brunvoll is an intriguing singer, the purity and flexibility of her voice particularly well suited suited to a long passage in which her zither and Weltzien’s ability to reproduce the sound of Mellotron flutes evoked the baroque-psychedelic phase of British pop circa 1968. At times the whole trio sounded appealingly like a melting Chinese musical box.

Last came Bushman’s Revenge, a sort of power trio fronted by the guitarist Even Helte Hermansen, with the noisest and most assertive music of the afternoon. Their regular bassist is recovering from a broken arm, so Meidell stepped into the breach; there were times when the music made me think of how I’d like Cream to have turned out, freed from the thumping repetition of witless blues clichés. The group’s most recent album, Et Hån Mot Overklassen, is more of an essay in resraint and texture: lots of heavily reverbed Stratocaster with rolling tom-toms, that kind of thing (and it includes a track titled “Ladies Night at the Jazz Fusion Disco”).

The little woodcut of a flying owl on the album jackets, the naïve hand-lettering and the snapshot photography of the covers give Hubro albums a visual signature as distinctive as, but quite distinct from, ECM and Rune Grammofon. What the signature says is that the contents are likely to be worth hearing, as today’s showcase amply demonstrated.

* The photograph shows (from left) Stephan Meidell, Øyvind Hegg-Lunde and Erland Apneseth.