Crocodile Rock – Elton John
Number one in New Zealand 13 April – 27 April, 1973
Yes, Dwight – I can see him now with his blazer buttoned across his chest and his bum sticking out. He had… an odd little walk, special to him. I remember him being far more grown-up, more civilised. He wasn’t a sychophant, he didn’t creep, but as a fourth-former he was someone a prefect or a sixth-former could talk to on equal terms.
from Elton – Philip Norman
This school yard reminscience about Elton John comes to us care of a woman called Gay Search. This woman’s name almost strains credulity to breaking point, but the Elton John story is sort of like that. If you were picking people out of a line-up in 1960 based on who you thought had a shot at becoming a rock’n’roll icon Dwight would not have been first cab off the rank.
When I first encountered Elton John’s music in the 1980s he was enjoying one of his many post-1970s flourishes of popularity. One of the first three records I ever bought was Elton John’s Too Low For Zero featuring the singles I’m Still Standing and I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues. Although I liked the album at the time I soon began to dislike Elton John and came to regard him as seriously uncool. I was only 12 or 13 when I bought this album, and I had no idea that Elton was a pop musician who had an impressive back catalogue, so I judged him purely on what he did from Too Low For Zero onwards. This meant that I spent my teens and twenties detesting Elton John. This dislike reached its nadir in 1994 care of the Lion King soundtrack and Can You Feel the Love Tonight? However, right at this horrible, sappy, barrel-scrapping low point Elton John began to intrigue me again. I happened to see him on TV performing some horrible Lion King-era song at an MTV awards show and the audience, who were all probably about twenty, quite clearly didn’t give a toss about the pudgy old guy banging away on the piano up on the stage. Elton got so annoyed with the audience he abruptly wrapped up the song, made a snippy comment and stomped off. Suddenly I rather liked him.
Crocodile Rock comes from the album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973). The second single off this album was Daniel. Don’t Shoot Me… was the second of three consecutive albums Elton John was to record at Chateau d’Herouville in France with a core group of musicians and his lyricist Taupin (a team he would put on hold in 1976, and then return to again for… Too Low For Zero). The first of this trilogy was Honky Chateau (1972), and the third Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973). Taken together they represent Elton John’s golden period when he turned into a completely improbable superstar. To prove the point, the singles off these three albums are: Honky Cat, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Daniel, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets, and Candle in the Wind. As an aside, this period also probably features the only Elton John album cover where he actually manages to look cool.
I wanted it to be a record about all the things I grew up with. Of course it’s a rip-off. It’s derivative in every sense of the word.
Elton John on Crocodile Rock
Reginald Kenneth Dwight growing up in 1950s England cuts an endearingly, chaste figure. He seems to have been a portly sort of fellow with a gentleman’s manners who kept to himself and excelled at the piano. He began accumulating records early, filing them in his room with great care and building up an impressive collection. His parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and they eventually divorced 1962 when Reginald was 15 years old. Happily, Reg and his new Dad got on very well, but he seems to have maintained a residual bitterness against his biological father, a man who appeared to view Reginald and Reginald’s mother with disdain.
The future Elton John was nine years old when rock’n’roll broke like a wave across the western world, and he developed two early heroes of the piano: Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richards.
He had all of Little Richard’s records… stentorian shrieks of joyous gibberish accompanied by manic pounding on innocent keys. As well as the madness, he loved the theatricality of the tiny dervish figure with its lounge-lizard moustache and wobbling drape suit. He managed to see it live just once…. As Little Richard jumped over his piano, the virtuous fat boy had a spellbinding thought: “I wish that was me.”
The rather nice thing about Reg is that he seems to have been so polite, and earnest, and middle class when he was growing up. It’s rather tiresome hearing how other rock stars were rebels at school, and told their parents to get stuffed. Generally this is probably a pack of lies. Just as a biography of a saint paints everything in his or her holiness’ life as leading towards a glorious apogee, so it is de rigueur to look for signs of wild, reckless youth in the arthritic rocker’s background. Reginald’s biographer is having none of this. Could there be a more prosaic scene for the future Elton John to make his performing debut than this:
The sprawling old bar, still more full of echoes than people, with its dingy panelled walls and faded lampshades, its brown lino worn by generations of feet and supine dogs…. A few incurious eyes turn to the piano, where a bespectacled boy in a ginger tweed sports jacket is setting up some kind of microphone and loudspeaker, helped by a man and a petite, vociferous woman, plainly his mother. Man and woman retire to a side table, leaving boy alone. Dogged bespecatcled face nerves itself for plunge into cold swimming bath.
from Elton – Philip Norman
This is the raw material Elton John and Taupin magic Crocodile Rock out of. The song sounds sexy, and American and nostalgic, so when Elton says he was thinking about all of the things he grew up with when he wrote this song I suppose he must have in mind all the places his records took him in his imagination when he was a kid rather than the creaky old British pubs that smelled of warm beer and stale cigarettes where he played, or the lonely bedroom of his teenage years filled with posters and LPs. Either that or Elton’s biographer has left a lot of Chevy’s, jeans and stone skipping out of his account of Reggie’s early years. Not to mention a girl called Suzie.
This post is part of a series about the number one songs of 1973 in New Zealand. The series can be found here.