Of all the jewels in Elton John’s crown, perhaps ‘Candle In The Wind’ is the one that has truly become his song for all seasons. How strange to think, then, that when it was first released, it wasn’t a Top 10 hit on either side of the Atlantic.
Elton set the timeless melody to an incisive and prescient Bernie Taupin lyric about the price of fame and our collective fascination for those who die too soon. Taupin’s musings on how we claim subconscious “ownership” of our idols was focused on Marilyn Monroe, who died at the age of 36, in 1962. Though Bernie was then, as he wrote, “just a kid” of 12, while Elton was 15, the effect of her passing inspired the creation of ‘Candle In The Wind’ more than a decade later.
“What a great way of describing someone’s life”
“I had always loved the phrase,” Taupin said of the title. “Solzhenitsyn had written a book called Candle In The Wind.” That volume, described as “a semi-autobiographical drama of ideas”, was published in 1973. Continued Bernie: “Clive Davis [then president of Columbia Records] had used it to describe Janis Joplin and, for some reason, I just kept hearing this term. I thought, What a great way of describing someone’s life.”
Elton’s voice and piano jointly led his reflective treatment, with Davey Johnstone’s plangent guitar adding the unforgettable riff. As so often, they teamed with bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson for the sweeping harmonies that added another dimension. “I’d sooner play on a tune like ‘Candle In The Wind’,” Olsson said in Melody Maker in 1975, “because rock’n’roll is just the same beat all the time and on a ballad there is greater scope.”
“I’m very private about the way I write”
The track was recorded in the spring of 1973 at Château D’Hérouville in France, during sessions for what became the epic double-album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, released that October. “I’m very private about the way I write and most times I won’t do it when there’s anyone around,” Elton told Mojo in 1997, “but for this I did it in front of the band. [They] set up in the breakfast room at the Château and I’d be in the far corner at the electric piano, and that’s how that album took shape.”
Such was the strength of the 17-song album that ‘Candle In The Wind’ wasn’t released as a single in America. It was supplanted by ‘Bennie And The Jets’, which went on to have a rich life of its own as the third single from the album. But in the UK and elsewhere, ‘Candle In The Wind’ was released by DJM on 4 February 1974, opening at No.28 and racing to No.11. Very surprisingly, it went no higher, kept out of the Top 10 by the likes of David Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ and Paul McCartney And Wings’ ‘Jet’.
Live and cover versions
‘Candle In The Wind’ was part of Elton’s live set as soon as the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour set forth. He’s played it many hundreds of times since, and it has retained its place in his Farewell Yellow Brick Road setlists. But the song didn’t become an American single until it was lifted from the 1987 album Live In Australia. This pared-down version proved hugely appealing to his fans, reaching No.6 on the Hot 100 and No.5 in the UK, Elton’s first Top 10 hit there since ‘Nikita’ in 1985.
The original song has been covered dozens of times, from which two versions were particularly noteworthy. Former Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny did a reading of it for her solo album Rendezvous, released on Island in May 1977. Then, in 1991, when Kate Bush recorded ‘Rocket Man’ for the tribute album Two Rooms: Celebrating The Songs Of Elton John And Bernie Taupin, she added a non-album version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ as the B-side.
‘Candle In The Wind 1997’: “Goodbye England’s rose”
The circumstances in which another reinvention of ‘Candle In The Wind’ became the bestselling single since charts began could not have been more tragic. After the death of Elton’s friend Diana, Princess Of Wales, on 31 August 1997, and as the world struggled to come to terms with the shocking news, John and Taupin stepped in to remake the song in her image.
Newly-written lyrics (“Goodbye England’s rose…”) adorned the recording, which was produced by Sir George Martin. Taped swiftly at Townhouse Studios, in London, it featured a string quartet and woodwind and was released as ‘Candle In The Wind 1997’ on 13 September 1997, just two weeks after Diana’s death. Elton performed it, for the first and only time with the new lyrics, at her funeral on 6 September.
“I’d much rather they remember me for ‘Candle In The Wind’”
“That was a very tragic time and it affected the whole world, but England more than most,” Martin told this writer the following year. “I was privileged that Elton asked me to work with him on that. It became my last No.1, and probably my last single. It’s not a bad one to go out on.”
The public response to the re-recorded ‘Candle In The Wind’ was overwhelming. It sold 3.5 million copies in the US alone in its first week, 1.5 million in the UK, and went on to be named the bestselling CD single in history. It remained at No.1 in Britain for five weeks, and in Canada for an extraordinary 45 weeks. Estimates place its sales at some 35 million, with all composer and record company royalties going to The Diana, Princess Of Wales Memorial Fund.
“I don’t want people to remember me for ‘Crocodile Rock’,” said Taupin in 1989. “I’d much rather they remember me for songs like ‘Candle In The Wind’ and ‘Empty Garden’, songs that convey a message. Well, they don’t really need to convey a message, as long as they can convey a feeling.”