It’s amazing how some songs that seems so simple and straightforward can be so convoluted and misunderstood. This week it’s the story of Daniel, as recorded by Elton John seemingly about his brother. Many speculated back in 1972 when Elton recorded the song that it was about a gay friend. Not unreasonable because many realised Elton was gay long before he came out and was singing about someone called Daniel and even though he sings ‘Daniel my brother’ it’s not unreasonable to speculate that it was a sort of cover up, but what many people must have failed to realise was it was Bernie Taupin who writes all the lyrics and Elton composes the music, so, who was Daniel?
They say opposites attract and that is certainly true of Elton John and Bernie Taupin who, this year, celebrate a 50 year collaboration. The pair, Elton, born in Pinner Middx and Bernie in Sleaford, Lincs met when the latter answered an advert for talent which was submitted to the NME (New Musical Express) in 1967 by Ray Williams, the A & R man at Liberty records. Elton was 20 at the time and Bernie was just 17, but they hit off despite their quite different musical influences. Elton’s piano playing had been inspired by both gospel and classical whereas Bernie like to write about the rough and tumble of the American Wild West.
Elton and Bernie together have, to date, written 64 of Elton’s 88 UK hit singles. Daniel was Elton’s fifth UK hit coming exactly two years after his debut, Your Song. “Daniel is a grown-up ballad about a disillusioned Vietnam veteran and was inspired by an article Bernie had read in Newsweek magazine,” Elton explained. Bernie, on his own website, claimed the article was in Time Out, not that it really matters. “Daniel had been the most misinterpreted song that we’d ever written,” Bernie revealed in the 1991 film documentary Two Rooms, “The story was about a guy that went back to a small town in Texas, returning from the Vietnam war. They’d lauded him when he came home and treated him like a hero. But he just wanted to go home, go back to the farm, and try to get back to the life that he’d led before. The piece was about how many of the soldiers that were coming back from Vietnam were these simple sort of down home country guys who were generally embarrassed by both the adulation and, depending on what part of the country you came from, the animosity that they were greeted by. I just took it from there and wrote it from a younger brother’s perspective, made him disabled and wanting to get away. I just embellished that and like everything I write, I probably ended up being very esoteric, but it is a song that is important to me, because it was the one thing I said about the Vietnam War. I wanted to write something that was sympathetic to the people that came home. I didn’t have any set idea on who he is. Daniel isn’t just the singer’s older brother, like the known lyrics say,” Bernie continued, “he’s the singer’s blind brother; the line ‘Your eyes have died but you see more than I’ is supposed to be literal and he’s blind because he lost his sight fighting in Vietnam. I just started the song with a corny rhyme – I made it Spain, basically, because it rhymes with plane.”
Bernie’s original draft contained an extra verse, which when Elton came to composing the music, decided to jettison because he thought the song was already too long. The now-deleted verse had more of an explanation by pinpointing that Daniel was a Vietnam Veteran who returned home to the farm after the war, couldn’t find peace, and decided to leave America and flee to the anonymity of Spain. Without that verse the song’s was seen by many as a song about two brothers who go their own way. Bernie has often said that losing the verse wasn’t a big deal. “We had that whole thing about the missing verse that everybody seems to believe explained the true meaning of the song. I think that’s just an urban legend. It didn’t really explain anything. Sure, it was cut out. But that used to happen all the time with our songs. I would often overwrite, and Elton felt it necessary to edit somewhat. But believe me, it didn’t say anything that the rest of the song didn’t say.”
Elton had his usual musicians with him who were, Davey Johnstone on acoustic and electric guitars as well as banjo, sitar and mandolin, Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. Johnston has told his story about the missing verse, “Elton called me over to play me the song and said, ‘look at this last verse, I think Taupin’s on drugs. He must be taking acid or something’. We looked at this verse, and I can vaguely remember something about a ship’s dog named Paul. And I’m like ‘what the f**k is he talking about?’ Suddenly out of nowhere he starts talking about this dog. So Elton just kind of took the page and ripped that bottom part off very slowly and very definitely said ‘well, that’s the end of that’. And that’s why that verse was lost.”
Daniel, which Elton, at the time, referred to as ‘a calypso-type number with Everly Brothers-type harmonies’, was the opening track on the 1973 chart-topping album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, which, according to Elton John: The Definitive Biography, got its title after Elton was introduced to the Groucho Marx in Los Angeles. Groucho was always giving Elton a hard time about his name, insisting that he must have it backwards and really be John Elton. After Groucho refused to lay off the name thing at a party, Elton threw up his hands and said jokingly: “Don’t shoot me, I’m just the piano player.”
There was debate as to whether the track should be released as the first single released from the album. His publisher, Dick James, agreed with MCA, his American record label, that it would probably be a marketing disaster so they went with Crocodile Rock as the leading single. They were not even keen on releasing Daniel as the follow-up claiming it was too long and too sombre to appeal to the public, but Elton disagreed and dug his heels in and insisted it should be released even vowing to pay all the promotional costs if the song failed. You can tell the record company had the hump because they failed to put any effort into promoting it, but clearly Elton realised its appeal because the song peaked at number four in the UK, (one place higher than Crocodile Rock) and number two in the US.
It was quite possibly this experience that led Elton to launching his own Rocket record label and thus decide what he wants to do and when to do it. The first act to chart on the label was Kiki Dee with Amoureuse in November 1973, but it took a further two and a half years until he had a hit on his own label, but when he did it gave him his first UK number one when he teamed with Kiki on Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.