Songwriting techniques of Taupin/John

The New York Times

September 27, 2013
Still Making Music Together, Far Apart

The partnership started with an ad in an English music magazine in 1967. Liberty Records was looking for songwriters, and Bernie Taupin, a farmworker and amateur poet from Lincolnshire, sent in a sheaf of lyrics, not expecting much. Around the same time a frustrated young blues pianist named Reg Dwight auditioned for the label. An executive didn’t like Mr. Dwight’s material but tossed him a stack of Mr. Taupin’s lyrics and said, “See what you can do with these.”

Since then Mr. Taupin and Mr. Dwight, who later became Elton John, have written dozens of hit songs and more than two dozen albums and have sold 250 million records. Their latest effort, “The Diving Board,” a stripped-down collection of dark piano-driven songs that look backward with the heartache of advancing years, came out on Capitol Records on Tuesday; critics have called it Mr. John’s best work in decades.

When one thinks of great songwriting teams, one imagines them lounging in a studio with guitars and empty beer bottles or sitting at a piano together, joking, fighting, becoming excited over a tune’s possibilities. But Mr. Taupin and Mr. John have always worked separately. Their songs start out as Mr. Taupin’s poetic meditations, inspired by some event in his life or something he has read.

He labors for weeks on his horse ranch in Southern California and delivers the lyrics fully formed to Mr. John, who goes into a studio, props the papers on the piano and churns out melodies and harmonies to fit the words at breakneck speed. “It’s kind of spooky,” Mr. John said in an interview. > “I get bored if it takes more than 40 minutes.”


The New York Times

September 27, 2013
Still Making Music Together, Far Apart


If Mr. John’s composing style is as quick and free as Japanese calligraphy, it is also effective. In the 1970s and 1980s, the pair were a hit machine: “Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” “Daniel,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Candle in the Wind.”

And though these songs have become identified with Elton John, they actually arise from the meshing of two distinctly different personalities — a rusticated, straight writer, who loves his solitude, the American West and raising horses, and an urbane, gay rock star who has a penchant for a crazy wardrobe and thrives in the spotlight.

“Had we been the same kind of characters I’m not sure it would have survived,” Mr. Taupin said in an interview from his home in the Santa Ynez Valley. “We live very, very, very different lifestyles, obviously. I’m very much a recluse, not a social person at all.”

Mr. Elton, speaking from Las Vegas, said he learned long ago he has zero talent for writing lyrics, but Mr. Taupin’s imagery has always had an uncanny way of unlocking melodies in his mind. “It is weird,” said Mr. John, 66. “It’s kind of twilight-zonish in a way.”

“Diving Board” is the first solo studio album Mr. John has made with Mr. Taupin as lyricist since 2006, though they did make a duet album, “The Union,” with the pianist Leon Russell in 2010. Both records were produced by T Bone Burnett, known for his old-school, back-to-basics aesthetic. On “Diving Board” Mr. Burnett persuaded Mr. John to return to a spare piano trio sound, letting the piano dominate the arrangements as he used to in his early live shows.

“It stripped the songs down,” Mr. John said. “It made me very relaxed.”

After a call from Mr. John, Mr. Taupin went to work on lyrics about six months before Mr. John went into the studio to write and record, in January 2012. Mr. Taupin, 63, a voracious reader, draws ideas from history and biographies: “Ballad of Blind Tom” is a stark portrait of Thomas Wiggins, the 19th-century black musical savant and composer who was born a slave; “A Town Called Jubilee” recreates a dust-bowl ballad; and “Oceans Away” is a tribute to World War II soldiers, dedicated to his father, Capt. Robert Taupin. The title track, a sad Nina Simone-style ballad, explores the fatal seduction of celebrity, comparing it to a high-dive act at the circus.

These are serious songs for adults, not radio-ready pop hits. “We are not having to write to cater to a certain trend,” Mr. Taupin said. “We’re past that.”

Mr. John said: “I like miserable songs. What can I tell you?”

Yet some radio hosts say the songs, though somber in tone and minimalist in production, have potential to become hits with older audiences. The first single, “Home Again,” a power ballad about exile, has been climbing the Adult Contemporary charts. “Lyrically it’s perfect,” said Delilah Rene Luke, a syndicated radio personality. “It goes with so many of the calls I take — that inner hunger to go home.”

Mr. Taupin sent the words for “Diving Board” via e-mail to Mr. John well in advance of the recording sessions, but Mr. John said he never reads the lyrics carefully before going into the studio to write.

“I always look forward to getting a new bunch of lyrics from him because I have no idea what I’m going to get,” he said. “There are no conferences about what direction should I go with this record. It’s really down to happenstance and kismet.”

For this album, he said, he rifled through the papers and picked the first one that caught his eye, “Oscar Wilde Gets Out,” which imagines what the Irish writer might have thought on being released from Reading prison. The first line — “Freedom for a scapegoat” — was all he needed to imagine the tripping introduction and a minor melody. When Liberty Records introduced them in the 1960s, the two men roomed together, first at Mr. John’s parent’s house, then in an apartment in London. It was in those years that their friendship was forged. Both were lonely: Mr. Taupin was far from home and Mr. John had left his band Bluesology.

“He became the brother I never had,” Mr. John said. “I was in love with him, not in a physical way, but in a brotherly way.”

Mr. Taupin recalled: “It was really ‘You and me against the world.’ We were so incredibly close.”

Even then, however, they wrote in separate rooms. Mr. Taupin scrawled lyrics in a bedroom, and walked them into the living room, where Mr. John sat writing tunes at a piano. Then Mr. Taupin retreated to write some more.

They were hired by Dick James Music as songwriters to turn out hits for others, but writing to order turned out not to be their strong suit.

“If you see the old scraps of paper that I worked on when we first met, the songs had no form — they were all over the place,” Mr. Taupin recalled.

Mr. John said, “In the early days I had to prune a lot and make verses and choruses and middle eights out of things that weren’t written in that order.”

Then, at the urging of the producer Steve Brown, Mr. John started performing and recording their compositions himself. They racked up hit after hit, starting with “Your Song” in 1970.

Early in their partnership, Mr. John’s editing sometimes created tensions. The 1973 song “Daniel” was about a blind soldier returning from Vietnam, but Mr. John cut the last verse that explained the story. “It was too long,” he said. “And it gives the song more mystique.”

Over the years, Mr. Taupin learned to play guitar and studied the structure of pop songs. He likes to strum chords and block out a temporary rhythm and melody while writing. “It’s almost like Linus and his blanket,” he said. “I have to have some sort of musical tapestry behind me that gives me an idea of the melodic line of the lyric.”

But Mr. Taupin never shows those melodies to Mr. John. Instead he puts notes on the lyric sheet about his vision of the piece: “country rock,” “Ray Charles feel” or “Graham Parsons style.”

Because the songs begin with Mr. Taupin, there is a built-in curiosity about the pair’s collaboration. Very few of the songs flow from Mr. John’s own experiences, and yet he is the one interpreting them night after night, channeling scenes from Mr. Taupin’s life or imagination in front of thousands of fans.

“There is a kind of magic knowing that I’m not in the song,” Mr. John said. “It’s not about me.”

Mr. Taupin said: “I’m very conscious they ultimately will be sung by him so the content cannot be overtly selfish on my part. I’m conscious they are words that have to come out of his mouth.”

Mr. John added: “He’s learned to write very ambiguously. A lot of the songs don’t mention women’s names. They used to in the early days, but once I was out of the closet — Bernie’s always known I’m gay anyway — they could be about anything.”

For his part, Mr. Taupin said he’s rarely upset with the music Mr. John writes for his lyrics but he is often surprised. “It could turn out totally different than I imagined, and for the most part that’s a good thing,” he said.

In recent years, Mr. Taupin said the two have interacted more in the studio. He usually sits in the control room and listens over a speaker while Mr. John composes in another room. Sometimes if a line sounds wrong, he’ll suggest a change in wording to Mr. John. And when Mr. John has finished something, he usually plays it for Mr. Taupin and asks what he thinks.

“That is when we are the most creatively dynamic — that’s when we lock it in,” Mr. Taupin said. “We have been doing this for over 40 years, so you have a certain mental telepathy working there.”

No need for any silly programs there … :unamused: :laughing:

Aloha a,
and plus one for this thread.

From the ‘Tumble Weed Connection’ album I have always loved their work.
First time I heard it I actually thought they were a ‘country’ band. (‘Burn down the Mission’ etc).
(but I thought the same about ELP when I heard ‘Lucky Man’)

And as writers they could get social/political as well.
Now days it is quite common to hear about
some people using weapons to hurt/destroy other innocent people.

Check out the song ‘Tickin’ on the ‘Caribou’ album.
Talk about predicting the future.

On the lighter side:
From that same album there is also ‘Solar Prestige A Gammon’
Fun song but sup with those lyrics? :slight_smile: