It wasn’t Elton John’s idea to create a “sequel” to Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, the chart-busting 1975 album inspired by his early days with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. It wasn’t Bernie’s, either. But when they put their mind to making a record based on their ensuing global adventures, what came out was one of their best pieces of work since that album, The Captain And The Kid, released on 18 September 2006.
Listen to The Captain And The Kid right now.
“It’s not something I would have thought about doing”
Elton’s 28th album, The Captain And The Kid was recorded in one of his adopted homes, Atlanta, in the spring of that year, with faithful studio and stage sidemen Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson in the fold, as usual. Guy Babylon, on keyboards, and Bob Birch, on bass, made return appearances after playing on the album’s predecessor, 2004’s Peachtree Road.
Fifty-nine at the time of the album’s release, John co-produced it himself with the Atlanta-based Matt Still, who had engineered and mixed the previous set. He was one of only two other names to appear in the tight-knit team that made The Captain And The Kid, along with percussionist John Mahon. (That’s if you don’t count Elton’s dog Arthur, who made a cameo appearance barking at the end of ‘Just Like Noah’s Ark’.)
As ever, the new album was only one of several projects on Elton’s plate that year. He and Bernie wrote what the superstar pianist described as their most complex songs ever, for the Lestat musical, which opened at the Palace Theatre on Broadway in April 2006. Based on Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles books, Lestat constituted John’s third time on Broadway as a composer, following The Lion King and Aida (Billy Elliot: The Musical would transfer to Broadway in 2008).
Weeks later, in late May, there was the opening of a new UK and Irish tour at The Point in Dublin. The schedule was intermingled with other European shows and included concerts at English cricket grounds, in such locations as Canterbury, Worcester, Taunton and Hove. In a recurring feature of the itineraries of a devout football fan, the tour also had connections with that sport, with a 4 June London concert at Charlton Athletic’s stadium.
Then there was his ever-enthusiastic championing of new acts, notably including English singer-songwriter James Blunt, who had been signed to Twenty First Artists, co-owned by John before it was sold in 2005 to the Sanctuary Group. By now, Blunt had turned into one of the bestselling artists in the world.
“Tell stories that are accessible to people”
But when it came to the concept of an autobiographical follow-up to Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy – famously, the first album ever to debut on the Billboard chart at No.1 – Taupin was happy to give credit where it was due. In an interview with this writer at the lyricist’s ranch home in California, he revealed: “It’s not something I would have thought about doing. I’d never even addressed the idea of doing a sequel. That credit has to go to Elton’s manager [of the time], Merck Mercuriadis, he was the one that came up with the idea.
“My initial response was not tremendously enthusiastic, because you’re dealing with a [huge] arc of time, so you can’t get tremendously detailed. The second thing that came to mind was that we’re living in a much more cynical age now, and how are people going to view it?
“I thought, if you’re going to tell stories, tell stories that are accessible to people. It’s got to be about love, life, death, excess, and those are things that everyone is open to, whether they’re a politician or a plumber.”
Once committed to the idea, the onus was on Taupin to create the narrative, and he knew it had to begin with the pair’s momentous first transatlantic crossing, which led to Elton’s famous American debut at The Troubadour. “Obviously the kick-off had to be our arrival in Los Angeles in the fall of 1970,” said Bernie. “The first thing that got me excited about it was I came up with the line ‘We heard Richard Nixon say, “Welcome to the USA”’.
“I thought, That’s good, because it gives people a sense of history, a time period. From then, I just took the issues that were larger than life to us, songs that dealt with the people we lost and continue to lose, our personal relationships and the pressures.”
“His defiance is still arresting”
Elton saw the album as “completing the cycle,” to use his phrase in the album booklet. The original package also contained a DVD featuring an interview with him and Taupin and a track-by-track commentary, plus a second booklet of “Scraps” featuring many unseen photos from their entire creative span.
The Captain And The Kid reached No.6 in the UK and No.18 in the US, and critics and fans alike were delighted with the album. Billboard wrote: “Thanks to organic, piano-driven production, stellar storytelling and Sir’s rededication to his vocal craft, this is a triumph.”
Paul Flynn in The Observer was similarly taken with the album’s candour and authenticity. “Bernie Taupin and Elton have a rare telepathy,” he wrote, “and if Captain Fantastic dealt with their failure to cope with failure, the new one is about struggling with success: ‘You couldn’t tell me I was wrong/You couldn’t tell me anything,’ sings Elton on ‘I Must Have Lost It On The Wind’. His defiance is still arresting.”
As The Captain And The Kid reached its conclusion with the title track, one particular lyric captured the essence of a unique relationship. As Bernie wrote, and as Elton sang: “But we stuck around for the battle, waiting for a plan to turn you into The Brown Dirt Cowboy and me into a Rocket Man.”
The Captain And The Kid can be bought here.