Mar 14

ELTON JOHN – “Candle In The Wind ’97” / “Something About The Way You Look Tonight”

Popular147 comments • 21,203 views

#774, 20th September 1997

citw Every Popular entry starts with the same question: why this record? This time it’s especially loud. “Candle In The Wind ‘97” is the highest-selling single of all time in the UK, almost 2 million clear of its nearest competitor. This is as big as pop gets. But “why?” might strike you as a silly question here, because its answer is so obvious: Diana, duh. So reframe it: why Diana?

The death of Princess Diana is recognisably a global news event, in the way we experience them now: the sudden in-rush of information into a new-made vacuum of speculation; the real-time grapple for meaning; and most of all the flood of public sentiment, deforming the story and becoming the story. It was also inescapable in a way nothing in my lifetime had been. But there are elements which feel very distant, and this single is one of them. It pushed the machineries of pop – literal ones, like CD presses and distribution fans, and metaphorical ones, like the charts – to their limits. HMV stores carried signs warning of a limit of 5 copies per person, and still sold out. There were reports of people buying 50 copies – for a shrine, perhaps, or just because CD singles had briefly become, like flowers and bears, part of a currency of devotion.

And still, because Diana so inconveniently died in the small hours of a Sunday, it felt to me like it arrived at No.1 late, a week after the funeral and two after the death. If its copies sold had been evenly distributed it could have managed months at No.1 – instead it racked up 5 weeks, fewer than Puffy. “Candle In The Wind ‘97” sets itself up to be a tribute that will last, but really it only made sense at the funeral, still in the heat of the story’s first phase: part of a fight about what Diana did or meant, and what her legacy might be.

Narratives overlapped, jostled for attention. Everyone had an agenda, everyone claimed her for it. Tony Blair, mesmerised by unifying figures and great causes, saw her as one – the “people’s princess”. TV news announcers, wrestling the story at its source, spat the word “paparazzi” with sudden, fearful distance. What they dreaded seemed to come true with Earl Spencer’s funeral speech, the ancien regime emerging to set the bloodline and duty of old England against its hateful, media-ridden, fallen reality. Murdoch’s Sun, meanwhile, had seen its opportunity. It raged at the family Diana had detested, damning their reticence. When others were a step behind, wringing their hands at the media for killing Diana, the Sun brazenly took that outrage and turned it into a lever to crack open the rest of Royal Family. The remainder of the Establishment retreated to their diaries, writing in despair of a Britain drowned in sentiment, left stained and sodden by this freak tide of petals, plushies and tears.

Legacy is part of what “Candle In The Wind” was always about – Bernie Taupin’s self-satisfied, sentimental recovery of the real girl beneath a superstar. “Candle In The Wind” is a song that’s angry about how men in Hollywood used and reshaped Norma Jean Baker, but then casually asserts the right of other men – Elton and Bernie – to revise the story and define an “authentic” version of the woman. Even the private life of Marilyn becomes a commodity, to be piously invoked by people who never met her. They all sexualised you, Nice Guy Bernie makes Elton simper – of course that’s not what I’m doing, way back in the obsessive dark of the cinema. Sometime in her teens, Diana Spencer sold her cassette of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to her friend and flatmate, for 50 pence. She signed it before she handed it over.

A song about a dead woman whose place in our memory gets fought over by a vast establishment on one hand and people who never met her on the other: Taupin’s job here isn’t so much to bring the lyrics of “Candle In The Wind” up to date as to urgently make them less pointedly about Diana. The original “Candle” inevitably haunts this one – not just because it’s too resonant to be smothered, but because it makes it obvious how rushed, overdone, and fatuous the new version is. Forgivably so, perhaps. Elton didn’t know Marilyn but he did know Diana – he might have been at the funeral by right of friendship even if it wasn’t a gig. And compared to the knowing, late-night regrets and ruminations of the original, on “Candle In The Wind ‘97” he sings like he’s in a black suit and tie and nervously fingering the collar. (Flip to the ‘double A-side’ – yeah right – for a useful comparison: that’s what a relaxed Elton sounds like). He sings key words – “GROW in our hearts…the GRACE that PLACED yourself…” – with an unctuous precision. Peak smarm is hit on “now you belong to Heaven”, where Elton sounds like a Sunday School teacher explaining to a 5-year old where Bunny has gone.

For the biggest televised funeral of all time, though, some hyperbole is expected. Taupin certainly doesn’t risk caution – “from a country lost without a soul” sobs the lyric. Behind all this rending of garments, more intriguing touches lurk.

There’s the William Blake reference, for instance – “Your footsteps will always fall here, round England’s greenest hills”, an obvious nod to the verse which has ended up known as “Jerusalem”: “And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?”. Blake was referring to the legend that the young Jesus visited Britain, making the reference the closest “Candle In The Wind ‘97” comes to tying up all its vague messianic imagery into an implication that really would be startling. But there’s something more here. “Jerusalem” in its most famous sung arrangement also has currency as an alternative national anthem: it’s what England might have if we finally got rid of the Royal Family. Referencing it in a song for a woman who had stepped outside that family is a very interesting choice.

This reading of “Candle In The Wind ‘97” seems tenuous – but it’s backed up by the version of Diana the song chooses to emphasise. What we’re hearing about is Saint Diana, Our Lady Of The Landmines – placing herself in the grace where lives were torn apart. This was also the version of herself she most enjoyed. I don’t think she was cynical about her good works – while obviously living a life of astonishing privilege, she seems to have been a genuinely kind person, and on the right side of social history on some important issues – but she also knew the extent to which they threatened the monarchy.

One of the ways in which the monarchy managed to survive, retaining its power in an age where things might have gone badly for it, was turning Elizabeth II’s personal talent for rapid intimacy into a defining asset. The Queen, like Bill Clinton, has a famously good memory for faces, names, and small personal details – and this is turned by monarchists into an argument in favour of the whole institution. The Royals are valuable because they work so hard, and have such a bond with their subjects.

Since Divine Right won’t cut it, and the economic case is too grubby and unglamorous, this feels like the most solid defence of the Royals that monarchists have. But fixing a job description to monarchy is a secret attack on its legitimacy. If the job of monarchy simply amounts to empathising with people and remembering their names, then the monarch should be whoever does that job best. Diana’s challenge to the monarchy was that she took its nickname – The Firm – literally. She had been fired by the firm, and like a true entrepreneur she set up her own business as its competitor, disrupting it by doing exactly the same things – touring the world, visiting the poor or sick or industrious – with less protocol and more agility. The ultimate 80s icon was taking 80s politics to its unthinkable conclusion: privatise the monarchy. To do it, she used things the Royal Family could hardly touch – the media; youth; even pop.

This was why Diana’s modest assertion to Martin Bashir that perhaps she might be a princess “in people’s hearts” was such dynamite. What if, she was sweetly suggesting, simple popularity is a higher legitimacy than custom and tradition? This is a destabilising question. It’s the question implied by the NME when it modestly begins, in a paper full of critics, to list the records that sell the most every week. Which brings us back round to the original question: why is this record the biggest-selling single of all time?

Because they’re only based on sales, the British charts are a very crude cultural seismograph, able in their barefaced capitalist simplicity to pick up tremors other methods might smooth over. A colossal global news event should always show up on them, even overload them. But the unprecedented scale of this (really bad and hard to listen to) single’s success goes beyond that. Diana’s entire project – acting as a competitor to the Royal Family based on popularity and affection rather than iron tradition – means that a colossal show of genuine, bottom-up public mourning wasn’t just an inevitable reaction from her fans, it was the right one. And even if “Candle In The Wind ‘97” was a little late by our advanced standards, it was released in time to catch that wave.

Even so there’s a bigger question – why did this event manifest so strongly in pop, specifically? What sort of pop figure was Diana? It’s tempting and easy to look at her unearthly celebrity and simply pronounce her a pop star, but during her life that wasn’t how she figured into pop music. Instead, she was the archetypal fan. Though not for her taste, which was never going to wow critics – there’s a case for saying that “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” is the real tribute here, in that a bombastic bit of AOR with vaguely de Burghish themes is What She Would Have Wanted.

Diana’s most famous encounters with pop were fannish ones: being thrilled to meet Duran Duran backstage, dancing in front of a Kensington Palace mirror to “Girls On Film”. That second one, in particular, is iconic pop behaviour, but not star behaviour. It’s one of the classic images of fandom and the fan’s self-definition through pop: singing or dancing into the bedroom mirror. Diana’s performance of it in a palace calls back the original public idea of her, before the good deeds and the hugs. Diana was a symbol of pop – youth, energy, blah blah – at the heart of the establishment.

By 1997, that Diana was almost redundant. It still seemed like it might be important – and not just a trick of the demographic light – that the President played the sax and the Prime Minister had been some kind of rock band longhair. But the other possibility – that simply liking pop or rock music had no implications whatsoever – looked increasingly likely. A pop fan at the palace – or even thrown out of it – was no longer much of a story.

Dancing-in-the-mirror fandom has never been the only role for young women in mainstream pop, but it’s tended to serve as a default. It’s a coincidence that Diana dies just as the record industry starts to get its shit together about the Spice Girls and how to sell to their fans, but as we’ll see it makes “Candle In The Wind ‘97” a weirdly cathartic moment. The longer term trends in pop, as we close in on the modern day, are towards more women in the Top 10 and more solo artists, and mainstream pop in the last fifteen years is more defined than it ever was in Diana’s lifetime by the stories, presence, creativity and image of individual women.

The world these women are negotiating, resisting or conquering is similar to the one Diana faced. In adapting “Candle In The Wind” at her funeral, Elton John gave an account of Diana that stressed her enormous popularity and linked it with apparent sainthood. It was not the only version available – the intimate portrait by her brother, Earl Spencer, made the headlines by excoriating the press for hounding his sister. “Candle In The Wind ‘97” sounds awkward and overstated now, to say the least – Diana’s “legend” may not burn out any time soon, but it’s settled into a dull, emberish glow. But Spencer’s speech has fared worse: the era of the paparazzi, of the press hunting and being used by the famous, manifestly did not end.

Instead of the world rejecting the paparazzi, it caught up to them. Diana was, through circumstance, a post-privacy pioneer. The conditions of her adult life – forever observed, forever performing, always improvising to use that to her advantage – are replicated today not just for the stars who have to master those skills, but for all the billions living part of their life in public, . Her question, the pop question – who is popular, and what does that mean? – is the architecture of the social media world, its algorithmic cement. The iconography of Lady Di is frozen in the 1980s – scrape it away and you find an uncomfortably modern, uncomfortably pop figure.



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  1. 121
    thefatgit on 29 Mar 2014 #

    September 1997 sees the release of Kylie’s comeback single, “Some Kind Of Bliss”. The parent album was famously renamed “Kylie Minogue” in the UK. Elsewhere, the title was “Impossible Princess”. The Diana effect in action already.

  2. 122

    “Queen Queen Caroline washed her hair in turpentine”

    I don’t at all buy that strong emotional response to the death of someone you didn’t personally know is *necessarily* fake or silly. To jump sideways into it, here’s something I wrote on another website when the mass social-media lament for the death of Steve Jobs was being discussed, similarly scornfully:

    “My mum wept when Willie Rushton died. She never remotely knew him, except as a face on telly or a voice on radio she enjoyed; he was a few years younger than her, a celebrity of a fairly niche type — and his death hit home.

    “I was puzzled at the time, as I found him vaguely annoying, but afterwards it seemed pretty obvious she was weeping — as much as anything — for her own youth; for the bright cast of a particular hoped-for world she’d envisioned when young, and this was as much as anything a lament for the way things hadn’t turned out the way she imagined, for her and for the world. Rushton — in some small, almost private way — was bound up in this (memories of she and my dad when first married, bright semi-innocent young things reading Private Eye in its very early day and caught up in the early 60s notion that things were moving on away from the dreary stifling past, opening up, changing… something like this).

    “Seems to me the Apple story can easily be fitted into a similar narrative, on a larger scale: a widely shared naive utopianism that felt like the air you were breathing at a particular time — and now, with the death of someone apparently central to it, you suddenly face not only your own mortality (that happens with any death), but also the sense of the foolishness of the optimism with which you set out on your current journey long ago; the degree to which, yes, you’ve wised up since (you’ve had to) and you recognise how much more flawed and perhaps even empty were the things you once invested so much in than you saw at the time; and above all you see the contrast with where you’ve ended up; where — if you have this kind of empathy — we’ve all ended up, given how abrupt the recent economic pull-up will have been, for many. Obviously there’s a lot more actually being mourned than simply this guy; it’s a public outlet for endless private griefs — hence its inchoate, oversimplified intensity — but also I think for a kind of vague youthful solidarity of outlook and temperament and hope; a recognition that it’s gone, and that it was maybe never worth as much as you hoped, and that nevertheless you preferred yourself when caught up in its fevers and deliriums than yourself today.”

    I was awake and watching the story of Diana’s death unfold in real time on TV in the early hours of that sunday: a friend had called to let me know, and we stayed on the phone as we watched, wrapped in blankets and talking it through. She had been awakened by an acquaintance who slept with the telly blaring (an acquaintance who had something of an annoying and obsessive crush on my friend; rather than stay talking to her, or sitting through it alone, she’d thought “Mark is a journalist, he needs to know…”). This meant I knew very early, and then missed most of the daylight sunday you’ve all described (I went back to bed and slept in). It also meant that the news was marked with dreamstate oddity and even unreality for me — and nothing about it afterwards surprised me. I was in Amsterdam on holidaythe rest of the week, away from even Dutch TV; Dutch newspaper billboards were the closest I came to enduring blanket coverage, and actually it was far from blanket, just a few screamer posts on kiosks, and headlines on magazine covers on shop counters.

    Two people I knew well were really upset — I was already in the process of terminally falling out with one (for unrelated reasons) and never got to quiz her on it. The other is someone who’s unusually self-aware and self-critical: when I interrogated her, she was straightforward: “It’s not really about Diana, Mark, really I think I’m mourning myself.” (Actually this is probably where the insight for the Rushton quote comes from, if insight it is.) I’m hesitant to generalise about the two of them — quite apart from anything else, they disliked each other intensely — but I suspect a complicated and fraught sense of who they were in relationship to their own families and backgrounds is part of the story; there was a lot of anger there. If Di’s luck in the early 80s had been the very opposite of meritocracy, this too might have its attractions: after all, happiness of all things shouldn’t actually be something you have to EARN, via superior mind or talent. Everyone deserves it; this I take to be a root for some of the vague shared idealism apparently torrented onto her, however contorted the connection seems. It surely can’t be very surprising that a family relentlessly presented to us as a social and political symbol of cohesion and continuity gets a fvckton of private symbol projected onto it — and that apparent rifts in that unity and continuity take on intensely personal meaning.

    Nor are such vast events at all a new thing. I’m old enough to remember my dad travelling to London in 1965 to be part of the (vast) crowd for Winston Churchill’s funeral. I watched it on (black and white) TV and painted a picture of it — all dark brown smeary colours as I recall (I was five). Typically — this very much fit in with family lore — Dad had arrived in London only to realise he had flu; so he spent the day itself feeling sorry for himself in bed at my grandparents’ house. Thirty-odd years before that they had taken him out to view the parades for the coronation of Edward VIII — oddly enough, since I’m pretty sure they were both still in the communist party at that point — and he had spent the entire time squatted on the ground putting gravel into his cap, and missed the horse and the carriages and everything (he was five).

    But more to the point, two centuries ago, another Prince of Wales set aside a wife, Caroline of Brunswick — and relentlessly smeared and scorned her in order to force a divorce. At his coronation, in 1820 (he became George IV), she arrived on the steps to claim her crown. Security barred her from entering the ceremony; she died three weeks later (of grief or exhaustion or disappointment or possibly just ordinary pre-modernity illness). During all this time enormous public sympathy, among the middle and artisanal classes, swelled and swelled — to the point that she was functioning as a symbolic rallying point for radical anti-establishment voices like Cobbett. Absurdly enough, no doubt — I doubt she much admired the Jacobins, though the prince’s pet press often laid this charge. Her woeful tale — or lurid versions thereof — was excitedly taken up the nascent yellow press based round Seven Dials…

    A little while after Diana’s funeral, the writer Christopher Hitchens made a TV polemic mocking Dianamania. It wasn’t a good programme: for a start, TV never really suited him, he always seemed stiff and anxious and sweaty, and his undeniable gift for a sentence on the page rarely translated — said out loud it could come across orotund and pompous. He didn’t really trust or respect the medium, and inevitably it turned this contempt back on him. I’d always liked him as a writer because he seemed strong on ambiguous subjects, in particular the subtle complexities of the reliably middlebrow — on Larkin’s private politics for example, or on the former leftist and intellectual turncoat Conor Cruise O’Brien. He was never great on popular culture (my personal theory here was that Hitchens always relied on his pal Martin Amis for insight into UK popular culture; Amis being a man whose entire body is made of tin ear). But this — to me, as someone who had admired him — was worse; scornfully simplistic and hectoring and smug in its mockery of the phenomenon of public emotion: a shock and a foreshadowing. Of course, the “stiff upper lip” is a semi-modern invention itself, a device fashioned in dozens of efficiently ghastly schools up and down the land, to firm up the maintenance and management of a vast empire — to demonstrate “our” fitness to govern the world’s chaotic masses. Seriously, there was no stiff upper lip in 17th or 18th century Britain; quite the opposite. And sure enough, four years later, Hitch would accelerate his transition across the political spectrum and gleefully throw himself into the cheerleading for all-out war; a lurch back into empire-think, the self-regard of the idea of a heroically civilised “we” put here in the world to punish the barbarians; to violently force on them the gift of civilisation. This too was an atavism, whatever its more-rational-than-thou demeanour and complacent mansplainy privilege.

    All of which is perhaps a way of saying we live in a strange and ancient land — with several peoples and languages and all kinds of subterranean currents and blockages surging through its history and across its terrains. I’m prepared to accept that mass delusions and folk panics are a social fact, and sometimes a scary one, which we should try and sidestep — but I also believe that sat goblinish among them is the idea that we educated moderns at least have made our way out onto the calm cool uplands of reason and sensible ordered life. Of course we haven’t: quite apart from anything else we are all of us still battling family demons; and of course we respond to subterrean historical forces as we would to a book or film: we’re genuinely moved by things that aren’t at all present in our physical lives, which nevertheless have enormous force in our inner landscapes. In the 1930s, when the civilised European space as he saw it was threatened by the rise of fascism, T.H.White wrote The Sword in the Stone, a book about the soon-to-be King Arthur being trained in anachronistic democratic theory by Merlin, a wizard who lived backwards through time; White based much of his story on a romance written by one Thomas Malory, in the last ghastly decades of the Wars of the Roses. The fragile just and chivalrous space that Malory imagined Arthur creating was called Camelot; it would be shattered in later books by Arthur’s vengeful bastard son Mordred forcing a legalistic war with Arthur’s best friend, Lancelot. White doesn’t call this land England or Albion or Britain: he calls it Gramarye (as in “Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye”, from the last verse of Kipling’s poem “Puck’s Song”). Gramarye is a strange old english word which has given us the modern words grammar and grimoire (meaning a texbook of magic) and — of course, bringing it all back to Diana — GLAMOUR. White’s books would be gathered in 1958 into a single volume, called The Once and Future King; the fourth book, bleak and poetic and never published separately, in which Arthur dies and Camelot falls and Malory steps into view, is called The Candle in the Wind.

  3. 123
    Izzy on 30 Mar 2014 #

    That is terrific.

    It’s completely correct, aiui, that Britain’s stiff-upper-lip tradition is overlaid on a much older tradition of drunkenness, bawdiness and overwhelming emotion. There is supposed to be Spanish travel writing from the 16th century describing this strange northern island of lurching, manic crowds, terrifying to the civilised sophisticate. Shakespeare could hardly have written as he did were he not of that tradition himself.

    It provokes rather unattractive derision nowadays when the older tradition reëmerges, both from the stoical tradition but also from aloof, ironic types. It’s not just something that is done to us – Diana, Maddie, the Krays, Jade, Friday nights on the town, they all bear to some degree manifestations of the instinct. To my eyes even Hillsborough periodically gets this treatment, apparently as an unseemly loss of control, when on one view it’s an older, honest Britain rising above the surface.

  4. 124
    hashtag tashlan on 30 Mar 2014 #

    […] at Popular, Tom’s reached 1997 and Elton and Lady Di — his essay is of course excellent, and so are many of the (currently) 120+responses, especially Phil […]

  5. 125
    Ed on 30 Mar 2014 #

    @122 That’s a wonderful piece. This is turning into a vintage thread.

    Not your main point, but this struck a chord with me:

    “If Di’s luck in the early 80s had been the very opposite of meritocracy, this too might have its attractions: after all, happiness of all things shouldn’t actually be something you have to EARN, via superior mind or talent. Everyone deserves it;”

    That’s always seemed to be the best argument in favour of the monarchy. Yes as Andrew Farrell says @112 it’s daft and anachronistic etc, but the royals are valuable because they are living and breathing refutation of the argument that people in positions of power and privilege in some sense deserve to be there. It’s all about accidents of birth, and the royals make that reality inescapably explicit.

    Compare that to the American model, where the rich and famous are at some level seen as better than everyone else, and if you are poor and powerless, you deserve it.

  6. 126

    Ed, that’s quite a shrewd reading! I’m not any kind of monarchist, or hunting for excuses for the institution to be justified — though I do think you need more than merely shallow impatience to shift ancient things much; they have a way of creeping back into the replacements even more immoveably. But you’re right, I am very suspicious indeed of the notion of meritocracy as a way to organise matters: and not just because a pernicious clown like Toby Young has entered public life, seemingly on the back of his father’s sadly Cassandroid mockery of the idea.

    More on our confusions about the good and bad of tradition and mobility, and who exactly we’re fighting:

    Oscar Wilde:
    “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. Who was your father? He was evidently a man of some wealth. Was he born in what the Radical papers call the purple of commerce, or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy?”

    G. K. Chesterton:
    “‘What happened was this. The old Duke really had a slight malformation of the ear, which really was more or less hereditary. He really was morbid about it; and it is likely enough that he did invoke it as a kind of curse in the violent scene (which undoubtedly happened) in which he struck Green with the decanter. But the contest ended very differently. Green pressed his claim and got the estates; the dispossessed nobleman shot himself and died without issue. After a decent interval the beautiful English Government revived the “extinct” peerage of Exmoor, and bestowed it, as is usual, on the most important person, the person who had got the property.’”

    (This passage is from a Father Brown story, The Purple Wig, and I suspect the idea for it actually has its roots in the Wilde quote, purple breeding purple, as it were; Chesterton and Wilde were very different politically, but not unrelated culturally).

  7. 127
    23 Daves on 30 Mar 2014 #

    #122 Absolutely fantastic, and it’s hard to know what to add to that.

    It’s wrong to say that over the years I’ve become very interested in Princess Diana, because if I were I would obviously have a full library of books about her and would never stop going on about her in conversation (I’ve met people who do this, and they’re worrying – slightly more troubling than extreme Michael Jackson fans, and that’s saying something). However, the woman was definitely an odd and conflicted character. I once met someone who managed to get a job archiving some of the correspondence she sent round the Palace, and she claimed that there was a period towards the end of her marriage when she began writing long, elaborate thank you letters to members of the staff. One letter she found appeared to be a three page epic rhapsodising about the quality of the chef’s main meal on a particular day. It appeared to be her attempt to bond with the staff and appear ‘normal’ and perhaps also reach out, but of course, the contradiction is that there’s nothing normal about writing long letters of praise for the people who work for you. Only a person in a position of huge power could do that and make it matter. The chef was probably delighted but also perplexed. There are other similar stories doing the rounds about Diana discussing her problems with recently bereaved parents who she met through charity work, the confused parents wondering what they were supposed to tell her or do about her issues, and probably too deep in trauma themselves to make even a shred of sense of it.

    But with Diana comes this absurd polarity. You’re supposed to either treat her as an angel and a victim of the Royal Family/ society/ the Paparazzi/ MI5 lizards, drawing her character with ridiculous rainbow coloured crayons, or you’re asked to disregard her and think about her privilege. Even now, this long after her death, it’s a hard topic to get a fair balance on. I once tried writing a piece of work from the perspective of someone obsessed with Diana, and nearly got laughed out of the writing workshop I was attending. True, it wasn’t a great piece of work, but the difficulties behind its creation also lay in the fact that it ran contrary to the ideas people who are inclined to want to become writers hold about her. It’s unfashionable. Despite the accusations that tend to fly forth about Diana’s wealth and lofty position, I get a sense that the mass mourning really was regarded as “pleb stuff”.

    So then, for my part, the day Diana died I was looking after a friend’s house for him while he was away on holiday. I clearly remember waking up to the news that Diana had died, and for some reason mishearing it and thinking “Hasn’t Diana Dors already died”? Then I realised.

    I wasn’t living in London at the time, and I did find the reaction from everyone else was unbelievable, and exactly as the media described. On my commute into work the next day (or was it even the day after?) women were openly weeping on the train platform. At work, when somebody asked what all the fuss was about anyway, he was shouted at by about four members of staff at once. I got shouted at because I was due to start Journalism College in a month’s time, so somehow I was complicit in her death. It was ridiculous. “Candle In The Wind” was no less ridiculous, with even Shaun Ryder pointing out the fact that the song had “donger lyrics”.

    I do know people who bought the CD – people in my family, mainly – and who also bought books about Diana, despite previously never seeming to show much interest. The last time I stayed over one family member’s house, I noted that the CD was no longer present in the racks and the book had disappeared, but I later caught a glimpse of it in another cupboard where Christmas booze was kept, not on public display on a shelf, but not discarded in a charity shop. Like I said, it would be nice to get some sort of balanced handle on everything that surrounds Diana, but what hope does anyone have?

  8. 128
    Will on 30 Mar 2014 #

    All I can say is that as someone who from the age of 11/12 has identified himself as being left wing and anti-royal family (the wall to wall media coverage of the Charles n’ Di wedding of 1981 played no small part in this) I was completely sickened by this record. But then I’m of the bit-too-late-for-punk generation that was brought up with the legend of the British establishment preventing God Save The Queen reaching Number One in ’77.

    And as a Watford fan Elton plummeted in my estimation after this.

  9. 129
    Mark M on 31 Mar 2014 #

    Re 122: Top stuff, Mark, just terrific. But just to be subby, it can’t have been Edward VIII’s coronation – he never got that far. George VI’s, presumably (I know there’s no way you’ll be able to check now).

  10. 130
    Nanaya on 31 Mar 2014 #

    @122 BRAVA! Superb, and thank you for drawing the White/Arthuriana connection.

    This all reminds me: has anyone read the David Baddiel novel ‘Whatever Love Means’? A sizeable sub-plot in the early part of the book is about feeling baffled by the extreme national response & confused by all the unexpected Diana mourners. An odd creation but I suppose it seemed controversial at the turn of the millennium.

  11. 131
    Mark M on 31 Mar 2014 #

    I think it’s worth separating out the two reactions experienced by the (non-monarchist or at least non-trad monarchist) people who weren’t plunged into deep mourning – a) pondering what the fuck was up with the people who were (something dealt with admirably by Sinker at 122) and b) why the fuck is the man on TV telling unequivocally that I’m feeling x when I’m feeling y. a) was confusing, although I have a better handle on it now, b) felt (in that moment) rather totalitarian, although again, I can see now how and why it happened (and, as I hinted above, the vast expansion of media outlets meant that even by the time of the death of the Queen Mother, it felt much easier to find a different conversation.

  12. 132
    Jimmy the Swede on 31 Mar 2014 #

    #122 – A wonderful piece, Mark. Lordy, this thread is really getting the writers out to play. Some fabulous stuff here.

    As Mark M points out, Edward VIII never had a coronation, although there was indeed a dry run on a mapped out route and Edward was suitably booted out for it. This is quite probably what your dad saw.

    Camilla Parker-Bowles (aka The Dutchess of Cornwall) came down to Eastbourne a few days ago to open a hospice. She was very pleasant. I thought I’d share that with you all.

  13. 133
    Rory on 31 Mar 2014 #

    #130: Yes! I was going to slip in a reference @48 after saying that Charles and Di in 1981 “were, presumably, in love”, but thought it would be a bit obscure. Should have gone with it… I remember thinking it was a reasonable novel, as was Baddiel’s debut, but I lost track of his novels after that. I think it suffered by being in with all the other 30-something semi-comic takes on relationships I was reading at the time – they all became a bit of a blur.

  14. 134
    lonepilgrim on 31 Mar 2014 #

    #130 another novel that touches upon the Diana funeral is Douglas Coupland’s ‘All families are psychotic’ – I have only vague memories of it but didn’t think it was his best

  15. 135
    Carsmilesteve on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Oh, just remembered as I read through the rest of the posts. The Sunday was also the day chosen, months in advance, to celebrate the re-unionisation of GCHQ (or rather the removal of the union ban), one of the first acts of the new government.

    There had been pro-union marches every year which, as a northern lad brought up on Durham Big Meeting, I’d loved, so I’d been looking forward to this day of celebration.

    There was still a march, but no bands playing, no slogans shouted and DEAR LORD, but it rained, to a Shakespearean level, all day…

  16. 136
    tm on 3 Apr 2014 #

    Re: Diana as pop fan, I think a lot of people were mourning her as One of Us: someone ‘normal’ and fun-loving compared to the mutant lizard people of the royal family. She was, after all doing what a lot of us would do in her situation: balancing the desire to do some good in the world with playing the game to her own advantage and kicking back at the people who’d wronged her.

  17. 137
    weej on 3 Apr 2014 #

    It was the end of a disappointingly uneventful summer before the start of my A-level resits. Radio 1 in the evenings had never found a satisfactory replacement for Mark & Lard, and I was going through a brief phase of listening to Talk Radio in bed. Just drifting off to sleep, I heard the first reports of the crash from Ian Collins, and stayed awake to listen for developments. The last I heard she was in hospital, and in critical condition, then I woke up at 8 or 9 to find that she had died, a little less shocked than people who’d been asleep at 3am.

    I remember a TV montage using the original Candle In The Wind in the day or two after she died – it already seemed to be in the air as a tribute, and (this is from unreliable memory only I’m afraid) the choice to re-record it and release it may not have been entirely Elton’s. By the time of the funeral I’d pretty much lost interest, and I slept through it, but watching the video of Elton’s performance of the song I’m surprised at how little I’m annoyed by it. Sure, it’s a hagiography, but it’s a personal one, the kind of thing you would understand anyone making when their friend dies, and there’s no real use criticising poor lyrical choices when they sound so sincere. It’s not something I’d buy, but I can at least see why people bought it – it’s the equivalent of a royal wedding mug, ‘I was there’, and any other sort of souvenir would be regarded as tacky under the circumstances.

    There was a lot of talk about a shift in British culture at the time, most of it focussing on a supposed end to national reserve and a new-found ability to express emotions – or “be hysterical” as some would put it. Some writers seemed to get so carried away by the argument as to whether this was a good thing or a bad thing that they failed to notice that it wasn’t really true. Watching the funeral on youtube now, it’s merely sombre, there’s no great wailing and sobbing, and it all seems very standard, especially considering how big a deal it was. The real emotion in question here is sentimentality, a quality we seem to have had for quite a while, and which (for better or worse) doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

    As for Diana herself, it all seems to have been said upthread. With 17 years distance she seems clearly to have been just another flawed human being, who did some good and some bad. Not a particularly interesting view, but perhaps the reason “her legend” seems to be dissipating much more quickly than expected.

  18. 138
    hardtogethits on 4 Apr 2014 #

    Just to clarify what I said at #85, because others have asked if they remember correctly (and they do), the original Candle In The Wind was played a lot on the radio in the 7 days following Diana’s death.

    “An old Elton John track [Candle In The Wind] appeared at no.34 in the chart

    The week after that, there was the first instance of a new entry at no.1 on the Airplay Charts under the then-current compilation methods. [Candle In The Wind ’97]”

  19. 139
    mapman132 on 6 Apr 2014 #

    And now changing gears, my comments on the records that were held at #2 by CITW97. First, the UK: None of these were hits in the US, so they are pretty much new to me:

    “You Have Been Loved”: Sound to me like the sequel to “Jesus To A Child”. I can see why this got so much airplay at the time. Wonder how big a hit it would’ve been otherwise.

    “Sunchyme”: I love “Life In A Northern Town” so I really want to like this record, but for some reason I can’t get into it. I can’t remember if it was already mentioned, but this has the unfortunate distinction of the biggest losing margin of a #2 record – something like 83,000 vs. 1,500,000.

    “Stand By Me”: Much better than “D’You Know..” Actually sounds like a regular song rather than a ten minute egofest. Bypassed in the US in favor of “Don’t Go Away”.

    “Stay”: It figures Mr. Second would get one here. This is kind of ho-hum to me. “Ecuador” maintains its lead in my Sash! review.

    And in the US:

    [BUNNY]: #2 for seven weeks. Too bad for the 19 year old – who knows if he’ll ever get this close again….

    “How Do I Live”: Huge hit for LeAnn Rimes – on the Hot 100 for a then-record 69 weeks. And joined CITW97 as one of a very, very few records to be in the year-end top 10 two years in a row (#9 in 1997, #5 in 1998). Fortunately, the 15 year old will surely have lots of opportunities for #1 hits in the future, probably more so than the previous teenager (oh the irony, the irony…)

    And finally, “It’s All About The Benjamins”: Not sure if this record originated the slang Benjamin = $100 bill, but it certainly popularized it for a while. I actually don’t mind this as much as most other Puffy pieces, maybe because it was so memetastic. Among other things, inspired Weird Al’s “It’s All About The Pentiums.”

  20. 140
    Billy Hicks on 6 Apr 2014 #

    How Do I Live for years was the biggest seller in the UK to only peak as high as #7, selling over 700,000. As mentioned in my comment in the Perfect Day thread, sales over the next few post-CITW months are *huge*.

  21. 141
    Middlerabbit on 7 Apr 2014 #

    Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I think I remember the Martin Bashir interview and the overall media and public response to it.

    People didn’t seem very impressed by her at all. She was accused of cynically presenting herself with Bambi eyes, pre-prepared quotes designed to make her sound worthy of sympathy, etc.

    The press and people I knew who cared spoke about how conveniently things like her alleged pregnancy with Dodi was undignified, the carousing on yachts, all the rest of it.

    It went down really, really badly.

    Until she died, at which point I think people were a bit surprised at their own reaction to it.

    Personally, I didn’t really give a toss. I viewed her as a former parasite who was now keen on pointing out how bad these other parasites were because all she wanted was to live a life of a fairy tale princess, in great privilege and with nothing bad ever happening to her.

    Then, when it turned out Charlie had no intention of dumping his girlfriend, she didn’t like that.

    I can dig it, poor Diana. Two timed with a horse faced member of the landed gentry. With only millions of pounds, massive houses and servants to compensate her grief.

    Yeah. Poor baby.

    It’s not a very charitable viewpoint, but it was a fairly popular one in between Bashir and her death. After her death, it felt to me as the world decided to say, “If I don’t mention how incharitable you were about her and you do the same for me, maybe we won’t look mean and nobody’ll bring it up again.”

    And, they didn’t, did they?

    Since her death, the world’s pretended that they were always sympathetic.

    Hence, I think, the ridiculous outpouring of public grief at her death. It was compensating for previous meanness and lack of charitable feeling.

    Personally, I think taking sides is wrong on this one. Diana was no saint, she didn’t deserve to live in luxury at the expense of the general public, but neither does anyone else.

    She was quite happy to benefit from her position and only criticised it once she was no longer welcome in royalty.

    A bit selfish, yes, but however nice she might have been, nobody misses her for her intellectual capabilities, do they? Of course she was selfish and mainly interested in what she could get – which was what came out of the Bashir interview – but we knew that already, really. And Charlie’s worse, isn’t he?

    This record allowed people to atone for their harsh judgement following that interview. That’s what I reckon. The more you bought, the more you quantifiably demonstrated that you were a sympathetic person, not some kind of judgemental, superior sounding churl.

    Hindsight, eh?


  22. 142
    Lee Saunders on 3 Dec 2018 #

    (even tho my mum swears it was actually The Drugs Don’t Work. But nope!)

    What’s the deal with Something About the Way You Look Tonight? My impression for the longest time was that it was like Elton was almost trying to soften the impact of CITW by plugging his new album by giving equal billing to SATWYLT. Or even top billing, if you see the sleeve. Rather than delay its intended separate release. Why was it a double A-side? And what impression did Something have… I’ve seen it suggested (in places besides here) that it was completely ignored in the UK and remains obscure, and yet I’ve also seen that (as here) it eventually replaced CITW on TOTP. And yet no public memory of it?? I know in the US it was a bona fide hit in its own right, and indeed the official video has 15m views on YouTube. But yeah it intrigues me

  23. 143
    benson_79 on 6 Feb 2021 #

    Coincidentally I’ve reached this (excellent) thread while near the end of The Crown’s Charles’n’Di-heavy season 4. Leaving aside Peter Morgan’s penchant for “artistic licence” (eg juxtaposing two events for dramatic effect that actually took place months or even years apart), s 4 has been exceedingly controversial for its portrayal of the royals, even prompting government ministers to demand Netflix add a disclaimer before each episode, for goodness’ sake.

    Charles in particular is written as astonishingly aloof, peevish and self-pitying, and it’s left up to the viewer to decide whether the events of the previous season, where he’s presented as a genuine victim of a Kafkaesque system, justify his monstrous treatment of his wife.

    We also recently had the Daily Mail resurrecting allegations of dishonest methods used by Martin Bashir and the BBC to land *that* interview which, if true, certainly upend the narrative I bought into of Diana as machiavellian arch-manipulator of the media.

    I guess my point after all of this is that simple dismissals of Diana, or anyone born into privilege, as undeserving of sympathy are wide of the mark, and it’s possible to feel that way and still find the enforced hysteria and posthumous attempts at deification unsettling.

  24. 144
    Colin Munroe on 9 Apr 2021 #

    RIP Prince Philip

  25. 145
    Gareth Parker on 2 May 2021 #

    I think SATWYLT is solid enough, probably a 5 from me.

  26. 146
    Gareth Parker on 20 May 2021 #

    I don’t like the ’97 version as much as the original, so I think I would go for a generous 5/10 here.

  27. 147
    Mr Tinkertrain on 4 Apr 2022 #

    My abiding memory of Diana’s death (I was aged 12 at the time) was getting up early to watch football highlights on Sky and instead being confronted with nothing but chat about Diana. My main feeling for the rest of the day was mostly of irritation that the day’s football was postponed.

    Maybe it’s because I grew up in Scotland, but I don’t remember experiencing much grief directly. It was obviously all over the news, but the widespread outpouring of grief probably didn’t extend as far north as this. I certainly had no interest in watching the funeral.

    As for the song(s), I just listened to CITW ’97 for the first time in ages and it sounds weaker than I remember. Understandable maybe, but not to its benefit. I don’t hate the song as many in here do though. As for SITWYLT, it’s perfectly fine and would be entirely forgotten by now if it wasn’t for its association with this (indeed, it’s pretty much forgotten anyway). 5/10 seems reasonable.

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