26
May 11

GEORGE MICHAEL AND ELTON JOHN – “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”

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#671, 7th December 1991

There are fantastic number one records which are over and done with in two minutes thirty, which is how long “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” takes to hit its chorus. A streamroller chorus, to be sure, given a chest-thumping delivery, but it’s near impossible to care. George Michael at this point was a defensive, self-conscious sort of pop star. He was all-too aware he’d been a teen idol, desperate to be part of the pop establishment at the exact point – poor George! – when that establishment was going ironic or weird or getting cold feet about the half-decade of wholemeal soul-pop it had just served up. He’d catch up in the end, but meanwhile this is a grim trudge of a single: you can hardly hear the song through the sound of mutually slapped backs.

3

Comments

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  1. 1
    Pete on 26 May 2011 #

    Wasn’t this an EP? Did it go to No.1 because Freddie Mercury died and they hadn’t got round to a rerelease yet. Was
    a) Elton
    b) George
    publicly out by then.

    All these things seem related in a brain join the dots way, but possibly are post fact reconstructions.

  2. 2
    Tom on 26 May 2011 #

    SOME of the money went to AIDS charities, and yes it’s linked in my brain too. It definitely has the feel of a placeholder.

    George wasn’t out, I think Elton was?

    EP – some confusion with an upcoming 1993 No.1 I think (which may account for the bogus mental link too)

  3. 3
    pink champale on 26 May 2011 #

    “ladies and gentlemen…mr elton john!” the thing is, by 1991 george had already created more far more pop greatness than Elton ever had or would (or George ever would again, unfortunately) so he had no need to be so craven. let’s face it, bringing elton on is only going to make things worse. “ladies and gentleman…mr andrew ridgely” is what we really want.

  4. 4

    Wikipedia says EJ came out as bisexual in 1976, to Rolling Stone*; and by 1988 had publicly stated he was “comfortable being gay”. So very much yes.

    *So admittedly within the fashionable glam penumbra for “being” bi; but nonetheless…

  5. 5
    flahr on 26 May 2011 #

    Oh dear. 2

  6. 6
    Scott M on 26 May 2011 #

    Pete, I think the George Michael EP you might be thinking of comes a couple of years later, but I’ll say no more here. I’ll give this 4.

  7. 7
    JLucas on 26 May 2011 #

    I always assumed this was a cover of an older Elton song. It sounds so dated.

    MEH

  8. 8
    pink champale on 26 May 2011 #

    #2 i’m not sure if he was out before, but he certainly was after the sun’s bizarre and relentless crusade against him a couple of years before. best SHAME claim: that he had cut the tongues out of his guard dogs so they’re barking didn’t disturb him while he was committing ACTS OF SHAME.

  9. 9
    Mark G on 26 May 2011 #

    Ah, thanks, you at number 6.

    This was what it was, no more and no less.

  10. 10
    Cumbrian on 26 May 2011 #

    A re-tread of a performance from Live Aid, where Elton wheeled George out (whilst Andrew Ridgely gamely provided backing vocals with Kiki Dee), rather than the other way around. I can imagine it went over well at Live Aid, as a good celebrity cameo. For me, it doesn’t work here because the song is too long and, I would say, pretty over-wrought. Lyrically, it seems pretty obvious: “losing everything is like the sun going down on me”. Really? Losing everything – including your life – would indeed be like the metaphorical sun going down on you.

    3 seems reasonable – I might stretch to 4 as the chorus (musically at least) is pretty good. But the tempo and the length do give it the feel of a wade through treacle.

  11. 11
    Tom on 26 May 2011 #

    #7 it is! From Caribou, apparently. Those with more patience for Elton than I can tell you if his original was any cop.

  12. 12
    Cumbrian on 26 May 2011 #

    Re-reading my entry – must find new adjective/adverb. Clearly grammar not a strong suit.

  13. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 26 May 2011 #

    A harsh review, but a fair one.

    What a pity that several immeasurably superior George Michael singles from the period leading up to this time (and, ah, dare I say, much more recently too – I’m thinking of the Christmas number from the winter before last more than the New Order cover) were barely hits at all. GOing back to 88 even, “Kissing a Fool” was a bit of a flop, but either that, “Waiting For That Day”, “Freedom 90” or “Cowboys And Angels”, would have all been far more worthy big hits than this (though only “Kissing A Fool” really says “should’ve been a number 1” to me.)

    At least Elton’s other contemporary stuff was mostly at least as uninteresting as this.

  14. 14
    AJ on 26 May 2011 #

    If anything, the original is more turgid and pedestrian.

  15. 15
    Weej on 26 May 2011 #

    The first few notes sound like “Everything I do…”, then lots of showboating by George & Elton, banking on recognition of their voices to carry this nothingness of a song. Dull, dull, dull and long, long, looooooong. Even Sacrifice was better.

  16. 16
    Cumbrian on 26 May 2011 #

    On the subject of George coming out – wasn’t Outside the “coming out” record? So 1998.

  17. 17
    Andrew Hickey on 26 May 2011 #

    Cumbrian – while Michael only officially came out in 1998, I read a review in Q or Mojo of Older, which was I think in 1995, which described the dedication of a song to (IIRC) his dead boyfriend as (can’t remember the exact words but something like) “the most tasteful and understated coming out I can remember from a public figure”. I think the review was by Andrew Collins.

    So even if he wasn’t publicly out in 1995 (and it didn’t hit the headlines until 1998), he certainly wasn’t hiding anything at that point.

  18. 18
    punctum on 26 May 2011 #

    In 1991 it is probably fair to say that neither George Michael nor Elton John had a clear idea of who they were or what they wanted. Listen Without Prejudice Volume One painted a portrait of someone increasingly turning back into himself, as the young and insecure Yorgos would have turned away towards the window on the outside seat of his school bus. The famous Weegee beach crowd shot which supplied the album’s cover signified everything George wasn’t, or didn’t want to be; the very light which, as the words of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” have it, blinded him.

    The record did well enough, but only a fraction of the business that Faith had done, unsurprisingly in view of its heavily signposted message of wanting to be left alone. Unsure about where to go next, but also in part because of a long court battle with his record company (the second in his career – he was beginning to develop a reputation for being difficult in this respect), George would not release another album of new material for a further six years, and instead busied himself with cameo appearances, charity functions, helping out on Andrew Ridgeley’s ill-fated solo album Son Of Albert, and releasing the occasional, random single (“Too Funky”). Elton, meanwhile, had not quite yet become British pop’s officially-approved National Institution.

    George’s concert appearances at this time were pointedly and wholly comprised of sets of cover versions; perhaps out of a lack of confidence in his own work, possibly to stop Sony from making any more actual money out of him, but audiences were baffled and disappointed. While recognising the direct link between “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “Killer,” it still seemed like stadium karaoke. But it was from one of these concerts, at Wembley Stadium, that his reading of “Don’t Let The Sun,” with Elton guesting, stemmed; a repeat of their 1985 Live Aid duet.

    The single – another multifocal charity fundraiser – was an immediate transatlantic number one, as opposed to Elton’s 1974 original which, in Britain, peaked at a relatively modest #16 (though its parent album Caribou was a huge seller). While not wishing to exaggerate the parallels between Elton and Nick Drake, “Don’t Let The Sun,” even with (or because of?) its lush orchestration and Beach Boy backing vocals, seems to me Elton’s direct equivalent of “Black-Eyed Dog.” Some commentators persist with the what-if scenario of “Northern Sky” being the huge international hit instead of “Your Song” but this is naively wishful thinking; Elton and Nick were the same age and both began as troubled, sensitive singer/songwriters – the distance between Empty Sky and Bryter Layter really doesn’t exist – but Elton, though essentially an intensely shy person, strived to be more outgoing and was undeniably better at putting his name about and better at dealing with people in general, whereas Drake, a decade before Asperger’s syndrome was formally recognised as a legitimate medical condition, couldn’t cope with people at all and, in the end, not even with himself. Still, “Don’t Let The Sun” in its original form represents a desperate plea for rescue from drowning (“Frozen here on the ladder of my life/It’s much too late to save myself from falling”) and death; a would-be Other, frightened by his intensity, has shut him out (“But you misread my meaning”) and he doubles his anti-suicidal screams, demands that she – or he – recognise his pain. “Don’t discard me just because you think I mean you harm/But these cuts I have/They need love to help them heal.” But at the same time he recognises that his huge dependency may also create a prison for his Other (“I’d just allow a fragment of your life to wander free”).

    As it turned out, those suicidal ideations were real, as gruellingly demonstrated on 1975’s slow release catharsis of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (and the “someone” in real life was, of all people, Long John Baldry, who talked his mind out of the gas oven). So it is both puzzling and disturbing to hear George and Elton’s enthusiastic audience a generation later screaming their approval, as though “Don’t Let The Sun” were simply an upmarket “Puppy Love.”

    Nevertheless the idea of performing the song as a duet is intriguing, mainly because structurally it can now be read as the story seen from both perspectives, and that the Other’s mind is just as confused and messed up as the original singer’s. And George’s is the greater vocal performance here, and may even join some Donny Osmond dots; the range and truthfulness of his delivery – note the emphasis he puts on the final “to wander free” – far exceed that of Elton, who seems content to improvise melismatics around George rather than sing the actual song. An interesting concept, then, which doesn’t quite come off and certainly didn’t move either of its singers any further towards discovering what – or whom – they actually wanted; they dutifully searched themselves but still saw someone else.

  19. 19
    Cumbrian on 26 May 2011 #

    @ 17: Cool – good knowledge. Got to be honest, other than the bunnyable EP coming up, was not really into George’s music in my adolescence – so this is all news to me (probably because I wasn’t paying huge amounts of attention). I wouldn’t say I am a huge fan now but have come to appreciate him more as time goes by.

  20. 20
    Erithian on 26 May 2011 #

    Going to have to differ with most of you on this – I don’t join in with the game of giving marks out of 10, but this would be a lot higher than 3 with me. Only a UK number 16 hit in 1974 in the original version, and kept off the US number one by a combination of John Denver and Roberta Flack, this always struck me as a beautiful stately song that deserved to be taken at its own leisurely pace, with one of Bernie’s more poetic lyrics, although you rarely get such a combination of poetry and singalongability. I always thought 16 in the UK severely undervalued the merits of the record, and this felt like due payback.

    Elton had been the severely shocked-looking figure introducing the BBC’s Freddie Mercury tribute programme on the day of Mercury’s death, and this was the most opportune of times for an AIDS charity-related single to chart. As someone remarked, for several years the victims of AIDS were unknown to most of us, then in 1985 there was a victim known to millions in Rock Hudson, and now an even bigger star had gone and public perception was ripe for change.

    Agree with Chelovek that any of George Michael’s singles from “Listen Without Prejudice” would have been deserved big hits – my fiancée was a big fan of George’s since schooldays and we both thought every moment of the album was quality – but if he wasn’t going to get to the top with them, this one would do nicely. From the audience reception, it’s clearly an exercise in giving the people what they want. If LWP had performed better critically than commercially, this was a pretty good way of reinforcing his profile.

  21. 21
    swanstep on 26 May 2011 #

    Apart from its pretty ghastly piano sound (EJ’s piano on the original sounds great by comparison) I think this is a decent record (and the underlying song is a fine vocal showcaser). I don’t see what the problem is supposed to be with the occasional song taking its own sweet time to get the chorus (Tiny Dancer doesn’t hit its chorus proper until after 3 minutes or so from memory, and Station to Station goes for at least 3 minutes without vocals, and they’re some of the best things ever). My memory of DLTSGDOM (and its vid.) is that it stood out quite nicely at the time from everything else that was going on. It’s stately but not especially overblown (certainly compared to, say, Axl Rose’s of-the-time-ego-trips such as Don’t Cry and November Rain), and there’s something amazing about having a stadium-filling song that’s just a massive vocal line (this is to agree with Erithian, #20 from a slightly different direction). Anyhow, I like Mull of Kintyre and Sailing a lot and a hell of a lot respectively, too, so shoot me:
    6 or 7

  22. 22
    thefatgit on 26 May 2011 #

    I’m sure that no useful object has ever been made of wood and tin. Elton is woody and solid and George is by comparison, tinny and hollow. Put them together and all you have are two components of an object that serves no practical purpose. I’ll give credit to a knowledgable audience that recognises a dreary gospel-lite almost-hit from 1974 (and the audience’s reaction fools us into thinking the song was a major player in Elton’s squad, when it’s really just a b-teamer) George adds nothing of value to DLTSGDOM, indeed the two of them seem to be competing to wring every last drop of emotion from such a damp sponge of a song, into a wooden handled billy-can.

  23. 23
    pink champale on 26 May 2011 #

    @21 this, sir, is no ‘station to station’!

  24. 24
    Tom on 26 May 2011 #

    It’s no “November Rain” either – that’s a great record.

    But yes, there are brilliant songs which take their time to get to the chorus, I can think of a couple of big ballads yet to come on Popular which do the same. My problem with this one is that the chorus is the only thing I can ever remember about it, after a dozen listens – the chorus doesn’t feel like a payoff for me, it’s more like I’m checking my watch waiting for it (which is the case with Tiny Dancer too FWIW – hurrah for Girl Talk cutting that one to the chase)

  25. 25
    Wheedly on 26 May 2011 #

    As a long slow-builder, with lots of chances of improvise around the melody and hold big notes, this screams ‘singer’s song’ to me, and I hear Elton and George having a lot of fun with it. Elton’s studio recording from a decade and half earlier, on the other hand, is as turgid and unrewarding as others have indicated above.
    The piano sound, as Swanstep points out, is the horrific early-nineties digital piano sound (probably labelled ‘studio piano 1’ on the keyboard), much in evidence on piano-led records of the era (I seem to remember Beverley Craven’s output scarred by the same contagious production misstep).
    Not that bad a song, with the agile and nimble Michael singing rings around Elton, whose voice is evidently in decline (although whether you prefer early Elton’s thin squeaky tenor to later Elton’s flabby bellowing baritone is perhaps a matter of personal preference), Bernie Taupin as ever letting the side down with his lyrical input, strained, forced and never easy to believe in. Overall, a 5?

  26. 26
    Rory on 26 May 2011 #

    @21 ‘I’m sure that no useful object has ever been made of wood and tin’: Pshaw! And pshaw again!

    I’m with swanstep on the slow start; nothing wrong with that per se. And I don’t mind this; the chorus is pleasant without being particularly compelling, and the performances are neither’s worst. 5 from me.

    @3: I always thought Elton John was pretty huge in the late ’80s, but maybe some of that was the Aussie perspective: his tour and live recording with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra were a big deal locally a few years earlier.

  27. 27
    MikeMCSG on 26 May 2011 #

    # 20 George self-sabotaged “Listen Without Prejudice” by refusing to do interviews around its release or appear in its videos. An interesting exercise in seeing how much his music would sell without distraction perhaps but he shed a fair few fans in the process.

    Good review Tom but at what point are you saying he caught up ?

  28. 28
    Erithian on 26 May 2011 #

    #27 – Although he did feature in a South Bank Show profile on the eve of the album’s release, so he didn’t dodge interviews totally.

  29. 29
    23 Daves on 26 May 2011 #

    #18 – a brilliant interpretation of this single, which I like enough to pay attention on the very rare occasions I actually hear it these days, but not enough that I’d actually buy a copy of it. Elton’s original version did indeed sound rather tepid, as other posters have suggested, and it actually took this cover to open my ears to the better aspects of the song – the dramatic piano lines, the vocal harmonies, the nagging, melodramatic self-doubt in the lyrics. Sometimes subtlety works with songs of this nature and a considered mid-seventies production is the best thing for them, other times a rawer, live reading of the work allows you to appreciate the artist’s intended emotional impact a bit more. I think this is a fine example of the latter.

    Still though, Taupin as always frequently confuses with his lyrics which try too damn hard and dazzle rather than illuminate, the song really doesn’t need to be as long as it is – I’d agree with Tom that the lead-in to the chorus is excessive – and I’d probably rather this were a George Michael solo effort than a piece of Elt ‘n’ Yog chumminess. Something about the track just suggests solo introspection to me rather than a matey trading of vocal duties. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” it most surely isn’t, and whilst Punctum makes an interesting case for the duet, it never entirely succeeds in its objectives.

    It’s not bad, though, for all its flaws, and the concluding melodic lines to it tie the whole bundle up brilliantly for me. A 5 or a 6. I’m a bit surprised it’s getting so mightily panned.

  30. 30
    swanstep on 26 May 2011 #

    @pink champale, 23. Heh, well I guess I asked for that didn’t I! (I originally intended to use ‘Air that I breathe’ as a fairer/less hyperbolic-seeming comparison, but when I checked it, the big chorus you seem to wait and wait for nonetheless arrives before the 2 min mark…. so StS it was).

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