By George Matlock
(The following article is reproduced from George’s archives. It is a rare insight into George’s previous work with the Hercules club. We seldom refer to Hercules – since they pretend we don’t exist – but George is pleased to share his fan experiences and his numerous achievements for Elton fans with fellow fans.)
It should never have been like this. Elton beating everyone, everything, to become the song master with the knock-out single of all time. As one fan wrote to me: “What an Elt-fest we’re having.” Sure, but you didn’t choose it this way, Elton. Albeit you paid the price of jealous others who were quick to remind the world you weren’t the only musical superstar.
As a flood of fans wrote to point out to me: it was such a pity that Elton’s genius was being fully recognised only after such a tragedy. I can only say in Elton’s defence – but would welcome his own incomparable words – that Elton IS the supreme artist we’ve loved and some others have ignored. We should celebrate that – unlike other classical musicians and artists – he has achieved distinction within his lifetime, and ours.
The dark event of the year – some say of the century – was the unnatural and purposeless death of Diana, Princess of Wales. She ended her life in a hospital in the world’s most chic and romantic city, Paris. It was said that Diana had the advertising pulling-power to quadruple sales of a magazine just by appearing on the front cover. We unashamedly put the ad man’s icon on the front page of HERCULES. Not because we’re trying to score on circulation. (We’re non profit-making anyway). Not because we want to appear ‘hip’. But because this is the first HERCULES has had a chance to pay tribute to Diana, someone who was Elton’s friend, and someone who put Elton centre-stage, and made us proud of him again.
What Elton did deserves a knighthood, but what he did was not stage-managed. Elton broke early his engagement as a presenter of the MTV Video Music Awards in New York on September 4, to fly back to London for his historic appearance at Westminster Abbey.
Here we had a well-honed performer who has played at numerous funeral services or memorial concerts, such as Ryan White in 1990, and Freddie Mercury in 1992. He was the obvious candidate to represent the sombre mood of the British nation and of the world. Elton, the master of pathos ballads, was the right choice. He didn’t win the role in some kind of lottery. It wasn’t by chance. So other artists should show more decorum – at least in public. Instead, they have shown the lack of mercy for which we blame the media paparazzi for having caused this mess in the first place.
As a professional journalist myself, I was horrified that my ‘colleagues’ had hounded Diana and Dodi Fayed in this irresponsible way. The British press, one of the most liberal in the world, learnt from mistakes too late. They set up a new code of conduct to protect Diana’s two sons from further press intrusion, although a wider rule for everyone else would have to wait. Suffice to say, HERCULES would never contemplate signing such a code, since we would never be possessed to hound Elton and Bernie the way the French press hounded Diana.
I myself remember waking up and telephoning someone on that sadly unforgettable Sunday morning, August 31, and the telephone receiver shouting back: “aren’t you watching the television? Diana’s dead.” What? No. Surely another joke at her expense, I thought.
Diana was, after all, notorious for manipulating the press to her ends. She could make the Royal Family look like black sheep, she could win sympathy, she could even get the world to agree (posthumously it’s true) to ban land mines. But while it is wholly wrong to say the ends justify the means, whatever Diana’s MOTIVE for fighting for good causes, it matters more what she actually achieved for all her trials. Whether because she was insecure, distancing herself from an unhappy childhood and marriage, or just out to contrast her style with that of the Royals in competition, matters less, far less, than what she endowed to the benefit of the world.
My telephone friend is an honest sort. So I did switch on the telly. Martyn Lewis, the veteran broadcaster read: “This is the news from the BBC. Diana, Princess of Wales, died in the early hours today, following a car crash in Paris.” To his right was a large portrait of Diana, with the words below it: “Diana 1961-97”. It was an emotional time, but you knew it was true. A hesitant and almost guilty-looking Lewis, one of Britain’s most-respected journalists, had to repeat his bulletin at regular intervals as scheduled programming was cancelled all day, starting with the reassuring words: “This is the news from the BBC in London”. Anything less, and the populace would have suspected it a cruel hoax.
Of course, the news had already unfolded elsewhere in the world. As Peter Rowe wrote to me from the early time zone of Queensland, Australia: “When I first heard she was ‘ill’ and Dodi had been killed I’ll be honest, I couldn’t believe the laws would allow such a thing to happen.”
Indeed, nothing prepared anyone for the terrible news. Who would have thought the woman seen comforting a truly shaken and despairing Elton at Gianni Versace’s funeral five weeks earlier would herself be the cause of so much grief. It being a Sunday meant that the story had maximum coverage and maximum audience – just the way Diana would have done it had she planned her own passing.
But here was a mother of two, a 36-year-old, full of life, with plenty to do for charitable causes including AIDS and land mine victims, and really in love for the first time in many years. Disbelief overtook even grief at this time.
In the busy London news agency, we had already prepared the obituaries of the great and good who might die. As long ago as 1994, in memoriam pieces were scripted for (former) U.S. President Ronald Reagan, The Pope in the Vatican, the British Queen Mother, and Mother Theresa of Calcutta. While elderly and sick Mother Theresa was also cruelly taken from us at nearly the same time in September, Diana’s passing was nevertheless a shock because no one expected it.
Yes, I cried. But not that day. The crying was to come on Saturday, September 6, at Diana’s funeral. I was scheduled to attend Polygram’s “The Big Picture Party” in Milan, and had to make frantic alterations to my schedule to ensure I was in Britain on the day of the funeral. I ended up travelling Sunday morning to Milan via Zurich, and returning Monday. As anyone who’s seen the (no longer available) HERCULES Television video “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” will tell you, the event was cancelled by Polygram at short notice, and we ended up having “The Big Pizza Party” instead! HERCULES Italia members spent much time quizzing me about Diana’s death, so it wasn’t all fun.
For Diana the nearest thing to a State funeral was planned. Not before some bickering over route choice, and whether or not the Royal Family was truly grieving Diana’s passing. Yet everyone has a right to mourn a death in whichever way they feel comfortable, however uncomfortable the process itself is. The Queen is a compassionate, if old-fashioned, soul. She displayed anguish privately, among her family, where it belongs. It would not have lightened the public’s load to have seen her cry publicly. The Queen’s role is always to stand as firm as the Royal Standard that flies from Buckingham Palace. The Queen must represent a calming influence on the nation, showing leadership. But her leadership was undermined by commentators in the press and in the streets who failed to understand the conventions of the Royal Household.
On a beautiful, sun-lit, Saturday morning, 20,000 police officers patrolled the procession route, and 6 million citizens turned out to say goodbye. London only has a population of 8 million – and that’s spread out over a much larger area. But it was nothing to the estimated 3 billion who watched the funeral service on televisions worldwide, beating estimates for the previous viewing record – Live Aid in 1985. The procession began around 9am British Summer Time and, with typical British organisation and punctuality in regal ceremonies, the procession reached Westminster Abbey at exactly 11am, on schedule.
In my humble view, the Queen observed her functions with style and decorum. Diana’s outspoken brother Earl Spencer, escorted Diana’s former husband Prince Charles and their sons Princes William and Harry, on foot behind the cortege. For me, and many others, the most emotional moment of the whole event wasn’t Earl Spencer’s blistering attack on the Royal Family and the media, but the sight of the white envelope tucked between white flowers from Prince Harry addressed modestly “Mummy”. Although I write this tribute two months after the funeral, and haven’t watched any video footage of the event to restore my memory, the thought of the envelope even now wells my eyes. Allow me a moment to recompose myself.
The horses carried the coffin on a gun carriage, and the only other sound to be heard was the quiet and dimmed bells of a dozen churches en route. London, labelled the hippest city in the world, had evolved into the saddest.
But however ugly and sad Diana’s departure was, it was only one of many tragedies consigned to the twentieth century. In World War Two, King George VI had to show courage and determination, not humiliation, when a campaign in countries far away went wrong. The same is true of the Queen today. She has learned that the people expect more of her. She will change, but she will also exercise the qualities fit for a Queen.
Diana’s death produced more coverage in the British press than even the end of World War Two, according to London-based clippings service Durrants. Monitoring the press since 1880, Durrants found an average 35% of news space devoted to Diana, compared with 27% for the outbreak of peace in Europe.
So, yes, it appears to have been the story of the century.
The dilemma of the Queen was later tested on Elton himself. Elton, a firm favourite of the Royal Family, himself fell into a trap after the funeral service. By mid-week following the service, he briefly turned into elder statesman. He expressed his rightful opinion that people should stop laying the sea of flowers outside St James’s Palace, Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace – whose aerial appearance began to look like a vast and rich white cross – and instead make a charitable donation. These were flowers and cuddly toys it would later take weeks to clear.
Without doubt, Elton’s opinion was practical and a rare example of a showman making a serious and useful contribution beyond his many poignant comments over the years about the subject of AIDS. But it back-fired, much like the Queen’s own handling of the funeral arrangements. People started berating Elton for having interfered with their right to mourn. One family said they were attending their daughter’s wedding on Saturday (the morning of the funeral) and the following Tuesday they had come down to London – it was their first chance to mourn.
Such examples, on reflection, were the result of an outpouring of emotion, as was the choice of sometimes opportunist tourists and true mourners to stand in the cold and rain for eight hours to sign one of several Books of Condolence. And it was emotion that possessed some people to claim they saw Diana’s ghost peer from a painting in St. James’s Palace when they signed the Books. The emotion which saw people come out along the hearse’s route to Althorp Park in Northamptonshire, was still present many days later. One psychologist said different people need different periods of time to overcome grief. At one stage, it looked like the future of the monarchy was in doubt. That a futile revolution might begin. Or one as successful as the peaceful People’s Revolution in the Philippines in 1987, or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and in Germany in 1989.
But sanity prevailed, and people have begun to come to terms with what had happened. The sense of loss, however, will take longer to pass.
People have tried to ‘link’ with Diana through the historic hit single “Candle in the Wind ’97”, of that there’s no doubt. When I read the lyrics supplied to the media on September 4 before they were publicised, I made one of my legendary musical misjudgements. It was me who thought the concert version of “Live Like Horses” in 1994 and the 1997 Aschaffenburg concert version of “Something About The Way…” would never make it as singles, only to find myself over-powered by the quality of the studio versions.
I read the Bernie Taupin lines of “Goodbye England’s Rose” as it would initially become known. At first, I thought they were a little superficial until I realised that Bernie was trying hard to avoid provoking controversy about an individual whose life ended tragically, but also whose life had become tragic. But my second reaction to the lyrics was: “Elton can’t sing this. There are too many words. It won’t fit within the song!” But wrong again. Elton’s song deliberately slows and virtually halts in places to allow the words to catch up. Attempted with the original rhythm and beat, this song might well have been impossible to perform. I remained unstintingly angry, however, that the media said at the time: “Elton’s re-written Candle in the Wind”. How ignorant to forget the genius of Bernie! It took days for the media to recall there was a Mr. Taupin in Elton’s success too! So much for their researching skills.
The single, released on September 12, unusually a Saturday for a single release, was initially expected to raise £10 million for the Diana Memorial Fund, but soon it became an obvious under-estimate – a rare item in the shops. On the first day there were scenes of shoppers from Japan buying 50 copies in one transaction “for the folks back home” they insisted. Soon retailers got wise and restricted shoppers to two copies at a time only.
Within four hours of going on sale, shops in London and other main centres reported they had sold out. More would be supplied that weekend. Then came the supply-side problem after the high demand problem. Polygram experienced difficulties in producing enough CD singles to match demand. It became a crazy situation. See Ruth Carter’s letter to the editor on page XXX for how shoppers coped (of rather didn’t) on the small English island of the Isle of Wight which has only three record shops.
“Candle” enjoyed five weeks at the top of the U.K. charts, and when it was finally toppled on October 19 by the superficial “Spice Up Your Life” by you-know-who, it had sold 4.3 million copies in the U.K. alone. The Spice Girls said weeks earlier that they had delayed releasing their single by a week, pushing the date from October 6 to October 13, in order to give Elton a little extra time. Well their cheeky remark may have paid off…but revenge is sweet. Their song stayed number one for one week, before being toppled by another superficial and doubtful ‘hit’ from the better-looking Barbie Doll! Whatever next?
Elton’s back catalogue appears to have gained on the back of the “Candle” single release. In the week before Diana, Princess of Wales’ death, Elton’s 1996 “Love Songs” compilation album sold 4,600 copies in the U.S.. But in the week after the funeral, it sold 17,000 copies and re-entered the Billboard Top-100 Chart. During the same period, U.S. sales of the 1990 “Greatest Hits” compilation album went from 4,300 into overdrive at 15,600 units. Similar, if not as marked, increases in sales of back catalogue material in Europe also followed.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Tour kicked off in North Carolina with the fastest-ever sell-out of seats seen in any U.S. arena. A spokeswoman for Elton told Time Magazine the “inadvertent and unintentional” upheaval started within hours of the funeral service ending and “took on a life of its own.” Ticketmaster president Frank Rosen added: “People almost seem to want to touch her through him.”
On Sunday, September 7, 1997, Elton was at the Watford football match with Wycombe Wanderers at Vicarage Road. Watford beat Wycombe 2-1, pushing Watford to the top of division 2, and as-yet unreleased “Candle” was broadcast over the loudspeakers, resulting in a standing ovation for Elton from 12,000 Watford (and Wycombe) supporters. It was good to see both groups of spectators rally round in sporting tradition.
And on September 10, Elton gave permission for Wembley Stadium to broadcast his still as-yet unreleased “Candle” before England’s football match against Moldova. 75,000 ‘singers’ tried to pick through the still unfamiliar new lyrics, and hundreds lit up candles. The England team, which won the match, wore black ribbons, and after the national anthem a minute’s silence was observed.
But it wasn’t all dignified respect. First, Elton felt it necessary to take on the BBC and ITV television services in Britain by refusing to allow his Abbey version of “Candle” to be on the £12.99 videos they were producing of the funeral service, because he was unimpressed they could donate only £3 on each to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. It was seen as a smaller contribution than his own waiving of royalties and the record company’s waiving profits on the single. If nothing else, the comments made Elton’s song even more popular with the public, although very soon they could buy the Abbey version on the BBC CD release of the entire funeral service.
But then it got ugly.
Reg Struck Back against Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards’ remarks, while someone else we know at the fan club intervened against the bitter and twisted words of Oasis’ Noel Gallagher (‘bigger than Jesus Christ’ but less smart than the Beatles it appears). Richards said Elton had a dubious talent, while Gallagher showed his personal envy was greater than even his ego.
Ill-feeling followed the euphoria of nostalgia for Diana, Princess of Wales, as some artists thought they were gentle and sensitive enough to sing at Westminster Abbey. Hardly!
I said Gallagher’s comments didn’t go unanswered. Songster Dean Torkington heard Talk Radio U.K.’s presenter James Whale appear to side with Gallagher’s point of view that Elton was ‘cashing in’ and telephoned to complain on air. This led to Whale claiming that Dean, who sings Elton songs – and received John Reid Enterprises’ permission to sing “Candle in the Wind ’97” for charity – was also cashing in! It ended with Dean threatening to sue Whale!
We won’t take sides without knowing the full transcript of what was said. But it must count as the ugliest chapter of an otherwise very dignified, very British, if very sad, event.
Certainly we can vouch for Dean’s integrity. His performance raised over £500 in one afternoon in Preston town centre, northern England. The money was donated, rightly, to the Diana Memorial Fund. So where’s the cashing in?
I can only say, I have fonder memories of being interviewed in April 1997 by Talk Radio’s presenter Peter Deeley, an old friend from my radio days.
Talking of Talk Radio, Torkington, and all that…HERCULES is about to pay the ultimate tribute to Elton and to Diana. HERCULES has commissioned a selection of songs, performed separately by Otar Tatishvili and Dean, to be released on December 20 as a special CD. It will feature Otar’s legendary song “Happy Birthday, Dear Elton”, as well as a Diana tribute “Lady Diana”. The CD also features the Aschaffenburg interview with the Elton John Band, and the lively, but friendly, Talk Radio interview from April. As a limited edition promo, it isn’t being sold. It will be available FREE only to purchasers of the special “HERCULES – The First 10 Years” supplement released on the same date. We hope also to make a voluntary donation from this ultimate rarity to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund depending on sale proceeds. So don’t let us down!
I digress. Diana will be remembered in many other ways too. The Princess of Hearts, the Queen of Hearts, the People’s Princess. Children, victims of land mines, of drug abuse, of AIDS, of homelessness, will have a more tangible way to say ‘thank you’. Others, such as Elton, David Furnish, and EJAF directors Robert Key and Andrew Haydon, who were inside the Abbey for the service, will have vivid and lasting memories of the last moments anyone saw Diana’s coffin without the glass shielding her in the black hearse. Elton will also know he sang for his Princess, reputedly the subject of his 1982 song “Princess” which followed happier times of the 1981 Royal Wedding. And he will be content he made allies with her at Gianni Versace’s funeral after some frank exchanges between Elton and Diana months before.
HERCULES will also have reason to say ‘thank you, but why did it have to be this way?’ Most of us never knew her personally, although Diana’s tragedy has given Elton and his fan club a profile they didn’t possess. The line from Bernie Taupin’s original says it for us: “Though I never knew you at all, you had the grace to hold yourself, while those around you crawled.” Yes, admit it, we’ve all benefited from Diana. Which is why I feel we must give something back – a fitting donation from the CD I mentioned.
As you may know, the Spencer household has given permission for Althorp Park to be opened for two months in the summer of 1998, so that the public can pay its respect beside the island in a lake where Diana is buried. Access is by invitation only, and HERCULES U.K. will try to arrange a group pilgrimage. More details will follow in the March issue, or on our Hotlines next year.
The loss of Diana was a Greek tragedy, summed up one Welsh man for whom she was patron. As in Greek mythology, Diana, unhappy in marriage, had found hagppiness, but it was short-lived, as was she. Perhaps the defining comment of her passing was not in the apt Taupin lyrics of a reworded “Candle”, but the words of the son of Richard Dimbleby, the honoured late broadcaster who covered the virtually State funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.
Son David Dimbleby said, as he humbly watched Diana’s funeral procession go by: “Her funeral was her coronation.”
“THIS IS the most tragic and senseless death. The world has lost one of its most compassionate humanitarians and I have lost a special friend. My thoughts and deepest sympathies are sent out to her sons, family and friends.” – Elton John on Diana’s death.