In 1973, the pianist and the princess-to-be unwittingly bonded over a pop song that took maybe 30 minutes to compose.
The subject was old, and the song title wasn't original. At the time, the song wasn't even released as a single in this country. But in Great Britain, the ode to Marilyn Monroe struck a chord with British teen-agers. The tune peaked at No. 11 on the British charts before burning out.
Nearly 25 years later, "Candle in the Wind" is ablaze.
Elton John's reworked version of the song premiered during the funeral for his friend Princess Diana. The moment was indelible. John performed solo before mourners in and outside Westminster Abbey. Goodbye England's rose, may you ever grow in our hearts Who wasn't listening?
Who hasn't heard the replay? MTV and VH-1 have been broadcasting the video taken directly from the funeral. Top-40 radio can't play it enough. A studio version of "Candle in the Wind 1997" on CD and cassette will be in U.S. stores Sept. 23.
The Polygram record company says it has orders for 8 million copies already, and John believes its sales may raise more than $15 million for Diana's favorite charities. John's current concert tour stops are selling out within hours, although he intends never to perform the Diana tribute again.
The history of "Candle in the Wind" is a Cinderella story -- a fairy tale of modern music. Once upon a time, there was a prince, a pop singer and a song with nine lives...
Elton John was on the ceiling of popularity in the early 1970s. After a rash of hits -- "Your Song," "Rocket Man," "Daniel," "Crocodile Rock" -- John began recording his next album -- one destined for pop greatness. The album's prevailing theme would be that old devil fame. Sooner or later, fame equals despair. Public life is the toughest gig. Hello, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."
The double LP would be recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, in January 1973. That was the idea. But Elton John and his band couldn't find a hotel room. In Jamaica, George Foreman had just beaten Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight boxing championship, and the island was packed. Eventually, John did hunker down to write the music to the LP's 21 songs. Characteristically, he took only three days to do so.
"I think songs should be disposable," John said in a 1973 documentary about him. "To me, songs are like postage stamps. You lick them, put them on a letter, and never see them again."
A world away, 12-year-old Diana Frances Spencer was four years from meeting Prince Charles and beginning her climb to popularity. In 1973, Diana was living with her mother on a remote pTC island off the coast of Scotland. At boarding school that year, Diana made decent-enough grades at West Heath. Her love of music was noted in school records.
She must have heard "Daniel" or "Rocket Man" on the radio. Maybe she owned "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Who didn't?
On Side A, "Candle in the Wind" was sandwiched between "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" and "Bennie and the Jets." "Bennie," a song about a sci-fi rock goddess, went to No. 1 in the United States. "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" was another hit from the album.
Bernie Taupin, John's long-time lyricist, wrote "Candle" as a tribute to Monroe and as a commentary on the world's fascination with the late actress. Andy Warhol had already helped make her into an icon of pop culture.
"The theme could hardly be called new," Philip Norman wrote in his 1991 biography, "Elton John." "Even the title he chose was not original. It had earlier been said of the [late] rock star Janis Joplin that she was 'a candle in the wind.' "
But John and Taupin were drawn to Marilyn -- her glamour, her pain, her life, her death:
Even when you died
The press still hounded you
All the papers had to say
Was that Marilyn was found in the nude
"It's so unrelievedly embarrassing," critic Ken Tucker wrote of "Candle" in Rolling Stone, "that the song actually exerts a certain queer fascination that impels listening, which a lilting chorus encourages."
Goodbye Norma Jean
Though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled
By the end of 1973, Elton John had moved on and begun work on a disappointing follow-up album, "Caribou." "Candle in the Wind" -- all three minutes and 41 seconds of it -- would have to wait to be royally rediscovered.
Whatever your opinion of "Candle in the Wind," the world can be grateful that lyricist Taupin didn't rush to customize other old songs for Princess Diana's funeral. "Candle" was indeed the safest bet from "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."
That album included, for instance, songs about an unhygienic nymphet ("Dirty Little Girl"), a mariner's whore ("Sweet Painted Lady"), a teen-aged lesbian ("All the Girls Love Alice"), a song called "Social Disease," and a reggae ditty called "Jamaica Jerk-Off," which also didn't see a lot of radio play.
The raciest thing in "Candle" was the word "nude." Given its innocent nature, and its lament of a life gone too soon, the song lent itself to revival.
By the late 1980s, Princess Diana had been under the public's microscope for years. So many images of her by then. Remember Diana cutting loose at those AIDS benefit concerts? The charity balls were headlined by Phil Collins, Tina Turner and another of Princess Diana's favorite singers -- Elton John. They had become friends and partners in charity.
The 1980s weren't terribly kind to John's music. He still cranked out records like a madman, but he made more noise with his soccer team, his short-lived "conventional" marriage to Renate Blauel, and his legal fights with the British tabloids. Not to mention his battle with battered vocal cords.
You can hear the strain on a double live album he recorded in Australia in 1987 -- coincidentally the 25th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe. Decked and wigged out like a bawdy Beethoven, John sang a hearty rendition of "Candle in the Wind." The diamond in the rough mined from "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" soon became a huge hit. With MTV now a force, the video of the live version was a hit. Even Marilyn was a hit again.
"Candle in the Wind" even earned a morsel of affection from critics. The song was now "a hardy perennial," one wrote. In 1990, "Candle" was re-released on John's four-CD boxed set. And then again on John's 1996 "Love Songs" collection.
But we hadn't heard the end of it.
In an interview on music channel VH-1 before Princess Diana's funeral, Elton John explained how "Candle in the Wind" was so quickly transformed into a royal tribute. It wasn't brain surgery, but it was impressive just the same.
John called his trusty collaborator, Taupin, and asked him to rewrite the song. Obviously, "Goodbye Norma Jean" wouldn't work. About 90 minutes later, Taupin faxed the new version back to John. These guys always did work fast.
(A footnote: "Candle in the Wind" wasn't the first time John changed a song's words. During a private command performance in 1974, John sang "Your Song" for the Queen Mother. He changed the lyrics "I'd buy a big house" to "I'd buy Windsor Castle, Your Majesty.")
Some people have wondered why the original line "the press still hounded you" is so noticeably absent from "Candle '97." Given the circumstances of Princess Diana's death, the line seems cryptically poignant. Reportedly Taupin made the call to leave the line out (he has no comment, says his management company in Los Angeles). Presumably, it was a matter of taste.
So far, critics haven't tagged "Candle in the Wind 1997" as "unretrievedly embarrassing." On the contrary. Despite its hasty rebirth, the 24-year-old song with the 90-minute lyrics did justice to the grave occasion:
Goodbye England's rose,
from a country lost without your soul,
who'll miss the wings of your compassion more than you'll ever know
Pub Date: 9/13/97