Few artists can claim to be a national institution, a permanent fixture on the mantel of music’s greatest and a serial pop innovator, but Elton John can certainly do that and more. The glittering star has had his hand in rock and roll since the seventies, and his appeal across the musical spectrum has never really dwindled.
Another British institution of music is Desert Island Discs, a BBC Radio 4 show which has been asking musicians, actors, politicians and world leaders about their lives, their favourite books, and most importantly, their favourite songs for nearly eighty years. It’s a match-up that would always deliver a keen insight into whoever sits in the illustrious studio. It was no different for the majestic Elton John.
Desert Island Discs has been a cultural touchpoint since its inception in 1942 when it was created by Roy Plomley. From then on, it has welcomed guests with one simple premise; if they were trapped on a desert island which eight songs would they choose for company. It’s an idea which has captured the minds of the nation and has become a reliable treasure.
As well as their eight discs, a complimentary collection of Shakespeare’s complete works and a Bible, the star in question also gets to choose one luxury item and one book. It offers a crisp insight into the life and times of our most notable figures through some, often personal, choices. The legendary Elton John took his time in the hot seat, sitting across from equally iconic Michael Parkinson, back in 1986.
Elton’s luxury item was a smart one. The singer picked a telephone to allow him to call back home. For his favourite book, he picked up Anne Rice’s notorious read Interview with a Vampire, it makes for a solid basis from which his musical choices can spring. Of course, interspersed with stories of his life and times, it makes for a stellar playlist and a postcard from a time gone by.
For a man who has been involved with rock ‘n’ roll for the majority of his life, it’s no surprise his picks are steeped in their own revelry. His first selection is of Pink Floyd’s 1975 song for Syd Barrett, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. The story of the selection is a typically engaging tale.
It sees Elton explain how a crying mother approached him and his lyric-writing partner Bernie Taupin and asked if her son, who was dreadfully ill with cancer, could meet the pair. They duly obliged and spent their evenings with him. During those precious times, the group were listening to Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here, and one night, as the sun was setting, the group decided to pray for the boy’s health as ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ was playing.
“Three years later,” remembers Elton. “There was a knock on my hotel, and this guy said ‘Hi, it’s Steve’, and I said ‘Yes, can I help you?’. It was the same boy, all muscular like Sylvester Stallone, perfectly healthy.” For that reason, the song has special meaning for Elton. It shows the connection he affords music and how it can soundtrack the most sincere moments of one’s life.
Other tracks from the rock and roll royalty see picks for The Rolling Stones with their cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Let It Rock’ and John Lennon’s cover of ‘Stand By Me’, the latter of which held particular weight for Elton who shared a touching friendship with Lennon during his years in New York, claiming he “only saw his kindness” when discussing the Beatle.
Elton also picks out some slightly more different options, picking the great British composer Edward Elgar, the musician also found spots for Thelonious Monk and William Henry Monk picking ‘Misterioso’ and ‘Abide With Me’ respectively. There’s also a notable inclusion for Nina Simone, the acclaimed singer, who changed Elton’s life when he heard ‘I Put A Spell On You’.
That theme continues throughout the show and ends with another more curious inclusion of Wham! and their song ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. As Elton explains: “I tried to choose records for the people involved or because they had some special effect on my memory or my life. I’ve chosen a record by Wham! and people are going to say ‘Oh My God!'” Parkinson interjects, “Well, that’s my reaction first of all!”
“I just happen to love this record ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ because it sounds like an old Motown record,” says the singer. “I’ve been in the studio time and time again trying to recreate that Motown sound and it’s impossible,” finishing the introduction with a sad foreshadowing “George Michael will be around for a long, long time”. George Michael passed away in 2016.
It’s one of the most intense and in-depth episodes of Desert Island Discs we’ve ever heard and it offers a candid insight into one of Britain’s greatest musicians.
Below, listen to the entire episode and find a complete playlist too.
Elton John’s favourite songs:
- Pink Floyd – ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’
- Nina Simone – ‘I Put A Spell On You’
- Edward Elgar – ‘Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36: Variation IX “Nimrod”‘
- The Rolling Stones – ‘Let It Rock’
- William Henry Monk – ‘Abide With Me’
- Thelonious Monk – ‘Misterioso’
- John Lennon – ‘Stand By Me’
- Wham! – ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’