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‘The Big Picture’: How Grief Led Elton John Towards A Work Of Art

Released just after the death of Princess Diana, ‘The Big Picture’ is a “dark” and “introspective” album that cemented Elton John as a national treasure.

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Elton John The Big Picture album cover 820

It could be a question in an Elton John pop trivia quiz: which track of his, a single in its own right from his 25th studio album, The Big Picture, was then part of the biggest-selling CD single ever, ‘Candle In The Wind 1997’? The song, nominally listed as a double-A-side on that release, was understandably overshadowed by the incredible success of Elton’s sad tribute to Princess Diana. But it will always be listed together with ‘Candle’ in the record books, and the answer, as all Elton devotees know, is the big ballad ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’.

That track, pressed into such tragic service the autumn of 1997, became part of The Big Picture, which hit record stores on 22 September that year. The album also contained Elton’s solo version of a song that had made the UK Top 10 with an appearance by Luciano Pavarotti, ‘Live Like Horses’, just before Christmas 1996. But when the album arrived, for all that he was in the public eye as never before, Elton was reeling from the deaths not only of Diana but of another close friend, Gianni Versace, just a few weeks earlier.

Listen to The Big Picture right now.

“The concerts went up to a whole new level”

On 6 September, one of the biggest worldwide television audiences in history saw the superstar perform the adapted ‘Candle In The Wind’ at Diana’s funeral at Westminster Abbey in London. He then went to Townhouse Studios to record the song with producer Sir George Martin, and watched it soar to global sales estimated at anything from 30 million upwards. It went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, but Elton has made a principle of never again performing the song with Bernie Taupin’s rewritten lyrics.

John, now 50, kept busy, performing at George Martin’s Music For Montserrat Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The all-star show raised money for the volcano-ravaged Caribbean island, beloved of the esteemed producer. ‘Live Like Horses’ was part of a short set in which Elton was joined by Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Mark Knopfler, Paul McCartney and Sting for a rendition of ‘Your Song’.

On release day for The Big Picture, Elton appeared on NBC’s The Tonight Show, following up with appearances on Oprah, where he played ‘Bennie And The Jets’, and Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The Rosie O’Donnell Show. On the latter two he gave The Big Picture some limelight by performing the aforementioned ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’.

Even as an inveterate chart-watcher, Elton could hardly have been less interested in his own sales statistics during these sad days. But there was an immediate upswing in sales of his Love Songs compilation, which returned to the UK Top 20 just ahead of his new album. Then on the chart dated 11 October – even as the Diana tribute entered the US at No.1, with dizzying first-week sales of 3.4 million – The Big Picture opened at No.3, mirroring the debut of its predecessor, 1995’s Made In England.

“It’s a dark album, introspective and ballad-oriented”

Recorded over a six-month period at Townhouse and at AIR Lyndhurst in London, The Big Picture was produced after a gap of five years by longtime associate Chris Thomas. His production credits with Elton went back to 1981’s The Fox, and their working relationship to much earlier days, but this would be his last time in the producer’s chair for Elton. The album’s cover art, meanwhile, was by noted Peruvian photographer Mario Testino.

As always with an artist of such prodigious output, there are lesser-known moments to enjoy on The Big Picture, not least the opening track ‘Long Way From Happiness’, which featured a striking piano figure and an appealing melody. Unusually, the song also had a prominent female vocal towards the end, by the fine British singer Carol Kenyon, perhaps best known for her superb performance on Heaven 17’s 1983 hit ‘Temptation’. Listen out, too, for the keyboard solo on ‘Love’s Got A Lot To Answer For’ and the driving arrangement of ‘January’.

Davey Johnstone was present, as almost always, on guitar, as were now-regulars Guy Babylon (keyboards) and Bob Birch (bass). Babylon also co-wrote The Big Picture’s orchestral scores with Anne Dudley, who soon afterwards was to win an Oscar for her soundtrack for the movie smash The Full Monty.

“What a treasure Elton was”

An insider’s view of the album came from west Londoner Charlie Morgan, who played drums and percussion. “It’s a dark album, introspective and ballad-oriented,” said Morgan in David Buckley’s Elton: The Biography. “But the chord progressions are innovative on some of the tracks. ‘If The River Can Bend’ was an inspirational gospel tune, while ‘Love’s Got A Lot To Answer For’ was really sarcastic.”

The Big Picture reached No.9 in the US, where it went platinum, as it did in the UK, Australia and other countries. After a tumultuous period around its release, Elton was undoubtedly happy to return to the road, as he did for The Big Picture Tour from early October. An extremely mixed year would end with the announcement that he would receive a knighthood in the New Year honours.

John Jorgenson, who also contributed guitar to the album, said in Buckley’s book: “The concerts after the death of Diana went up to a whole new level in terms of audience reaction. It had made audiences realise what a treasure Elton was and not take him for granted.”

The Big Picture can be bought here.

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