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Mar 14

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

Popular146 comments • 19,577 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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Comments

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  1. 61
    Rory on 27 Mar 2014 #

    #55: For this kind of project I wouldn’t have thought your critical legitimacy was too much at risk by avoiding celebs’ own feeds. Fans might follow a pop star’s Twitter feed, but the masses driving any particular song to number one probably won’t be.

    I don’t follow many bands or musicians either, because their work isn’t about spouting snappy one-liners. But for comedians, Twitter is perfect.

    #59: Murdoch has made himself a palace out of them at the North Pole.

  2. 62
    fivelongdays on 27 Mar 2014 #

    So much stuff said, so much better than I ever could.

    All I can say is

    *Naff song made even naffer (although when anyone of vague import dies it’s worth a parody.

    *I am sure school started up again a couple of days after (and there was plenty of pisstaking about Di)

    *I watched the funeral because it seemed to be such a Big Thing, and it felt wrong to miss such a Big Thing (I suspect people in the Provinces were more likely to have watched it than people in The Cities/Suburbs – Urban cool vs semi-rural naffness, with me, sadly, on the wrong side as bloody always).

    *Still better than The Drugs Don’t Work.

    Two

  3. 63
    James BC on 27 Mar 2014 #

    I follow some bands and musicians on Twitter simply as a reliable way of finding out when they have a record out. I don’t like ones that tweet all the time, though, unless they’re actively funny or adorable.

  4. 64
    James BC on 27 Mar 2014 #

    And answering my own question at 59, a couple of dozen of them are on eBay right now. Someone wants £18 for the Brazilian edition.

  5. 65
    Tom on 27 Mar 2014 #

    I’d honestly not considered the idea that some people might be buying them as a collectible. Not that it ought to surprise a veteran of the early 90s comics boom.

    (Speaking of which: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3054310.stm – alas it was mostly scotched.)

  6. 66
    lonepilgrim on 27 Mar 2014 #

    @64 has the Brazilian version had a few minutes ‘shaved’ off?

  7. 67
    mapman132 on 27 Mar 2014 #

    For some reason that I never really understood, CITW97 was released about a week or two later in the US than the rest of the world. It was a midnight release which was common for big albums at the time, but unheard of for singles to my knowledge. I had no interest in purchasing the single myself, but being the chart geek I was even then, I was curious to see how big an event this was going to be exactly. So that evening I headed to my local Tower Records and tried to nonchalantly browse the books and records until midnight (its normal closing time), making sure as best I possibly could that no one actually thought I was there for THAT single. The store wasn’t crowded – a few people were milling about. I remember overhearing one girl trying to sweet talk a sales guy into selling her the single early. Around 11:45 an announcement said the store would soon be closing in 15 minutes except those wanting to buy the new Elton John single (no explicit mention of Diana).

    So at midnight I made my way out while inconspicuously noting who the diehards were who were lined up the way people would be for a new Harry Potter book a few years later. There were about 20-30 people, not as many as I had expected, but then not bad for what was technically only a single. I had expected the average buyer to be a white woman my mom’s age, but in fact no demographic group was dominant: there were teenage girls, middle-aged men, and a variety of racial and ethnic groups were present. After a couple minutes I left and that was that. So now the question was what would the chart impact be?

  8. 68
    lonepilgrim on 27 Mar 2014 #

    my wife and I had to attend a Church service that morning and we were running late so didn’t hear anything about events in Paris until the Vicar said “We begin our service with prayers for the Royal family…” so it came as a shock.
    We live in Northampton, so after watching the service on TV we ambled over to the junction where the road turns for Althorp House and watched the hearse pass by.
    The crowd were cracking jokes and making chit chat until the moment Diana’s body went past – there was a moment of quiet and then the conversation resumed and the crowd dispersed.
    Diana had begun to use the potential of social media – with the Panorama interviews and the photo of her alone in front of the Taj Mahal. One wonders what she would have done in the age of Twitter. Her story was like a fairy tale and the continuing success of Hello magazine and the like shows that there is an appetite for the ups and downs of celebrity life to reflect a belief that money couldn’t buy you happiness.
    The UK population has traditionally been portrayed (wrongly) as stiff upper-lipped emotionally reticent but we also have an appetite for drama. The arc of Diana’s life and death is like some dreadful pantomime that allowed people to cry, boo and hiss, buy their souvenir CDs and then return home to the daily grind.
    I’m not a huge fan of the original song and if I’m honest I don’t care for this version that much but it is a fascinating document of a brief time when the nation went a bit bonkers.

  9. 69
    Tommy Mack on 27 Mar 2014 #

    A very astute piece, Tom. This may just be your masterpiece.

    As sixteen year old boys we were dutifully cynical about all the public grieving. Elton’s ‘cash-in’ single was just the icing on the cake. Since getting older, I dislike that ‘huh, everyone is stupid except me, I refuse to engage emotionally with anything, look at them crying, the idiots, they didn’t even know her’ attitude possibly even more than the hysterical over the top grieving.

  10. 70
    mapman132 on 27 Mar 2014 #

    After lags due to release date and chart tabulation, SATWYLT/CITW97 finally debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated October 11, 1997. After a single week of sale it was already America’s biggest selling single of the year. Its combined sales/airplay points made it the fourth biggest Hot 100 hit of 1997 in its first week. In its second week, it officially became the biggest hit of the year. After eight weeks, the Hot 100 chart year ended (end of Nov.), and CITW had enough points to make Elton John the biggest Hot 100 act of 1997 despite the fact he had not released anything else that year. It eventually lasted 14 weeks at #1 (6-way tie for second place) and would also be the tenth biggest hit of 1998.

    To my knowledge, CITW97 is the only single ever to be simultaneously #1 on every one of the national singles charts listed on Billboard’s Hits of the World page.

    One last thing and then I’ll shut up: the fourth edition of Fred Bronson’s Book of Number One Hits was delayed so that CITW97 could be included at the last minute. Since they had no idea how long it would be #1 and apparently didn’t want to delay any longer, the book was sent to press without a “weeks at #1” listed for CITW97’s entry. The book in fact reached shelves while CITW97 was still number one, so for a couple months, it literally included every Hot 100 number one in history.

  11. 71
    MikeMCSG on 27 Mar 2014 #

    Like a lot of previous news events (e.g. Lennon’s death ) I first heard about this from my Mum shouting it up the stairs while I was still in bed. I mumbled some response and she said “She’s been killed in a car crash (Pause) With that Dodi ! ” in a tone that suggested he was probably responsible.

    I’m fully with Cumbrian in dismay at these public mourning events ( see also the Soham girls a few years later ) ; I always wonder how often the “mourners” visit their aged, annoying parents . I was determined to avoid the funeral altogether and had the perfect excuse – painting the kitchen of my newly-acquired TV-less house. My wife is probably hoping for another royal death to get me to pick up a paintbrush for a second time.

  12. 72
    Tom on 27 Mar 2014 #

    (By the way, the artist circle on the header is not black as a mark of respect to the late Princess – Steve M hadn’t identified a picture he wanted to use.)

  13. 73
    Mark G on 27 Mar 2014 #

    Mine was a “Where you was”, as we were at that very underpass about 6 months previously, watching the final stages of the Tour-de-France, some lorries were doing a procession and one threw a t-shirt in my wife’s direction.

    I know, wow,eh?

  14. 74
    Tom Lawrence on 27 Mar 2014 #

    I was in the car on my way to a karate lesson when I heard, via the radio.

    I’ve lived in Northamptonshire for nearly all my life, and so got caught in one of the more protracted whorls of public mourning that centered on Althorp House. My mum went along once or twice to look at all the flowers and so on.

    My lasting memory of the whole thing, though, is this record, or rather the performance at the funeral, because of Elton John’s eyebrows. During the performance, he keeps hiking one eyebrow into the air for some reason. My dad and I became very distracted by this, eventually deciding that Tony Blair must have some fishing wire attached to it and was quietly pulling on it. Our giggles over this were disapproved of by my mum, who (sharing her name) felt some more affinity for the princess and for the dignity of the occasion. But my impulses for such things remain as they were in that moment: to make jokes.

  15. 75
    thefatgit on 27 Mar 2014 #

    #51 Tom, the Paris theme continues some Popular years in the future, when Dubya unleashed Shock And Awe upon Baghdad, I was staying in Paris for a long weekend. I stayed at the hotel directly opposite Gare De Nord, with CNN in English on TV. Later in the evening, I was in a nearby cafe talking in my schoolboy French to some teenagers who were very down on Blair and Bush. I made it clear to them I did not support the war in Iraq any more than they did, but I did assert that Saddam was “un salaud”. Everyone burst out laughing.

  16. 76
    Mark M on 27 Mar 2014 #

    I’ve had a bad habit at various points in my life of sleeping with the radio on, which until the arrival of BBC Radio 7/4 Extra meant the risk of news messing with my dreams. Anyway, I must have drifted awake at some point early on that Sunday morning to hear the news of the crash, with deaths not yet confirmed. I didn’t leap out of bed or grab the phone…
    My memory of that week was a sense of two Londons – the one I was living in, and the one shown on the news. Only a couple of people I knew seemed strongly affected by the death, everyone else just carried on as normal. I remember having an interesting, edge-free chat about it with the (white, local) minicab driver the evening of that first Sunday*. At the places I was working, there was little reaction at all at PA Listings (again, like after the election, everyone seemed too busy with their own hip young lives), and unsurprisingly plenty of jokes at Neon magazine (most notorious coverline: Movie violence is good for you). There were no public outpourings of grief on the Victoria Line, the streets of central London, the streets of Crystal Palace… it all felt massively at odds with the mood that had supposedly swept the nation. And at PA on Vauxhall Bridge Road, we were only half a mile or so from Buckingham Palace…
    And that, I think, made me angry. I certainly didn’t watch the funeral – I’m pretty sure I was busy that day, but wouldn’t have done anyway.
    In retrospect, I can see that the media struggle with the difference between ‘an unexpectedly large segment of the population feels something’ and how they chose to convey it – ‘everyone feels the same way.’ It’s no dissimilar from more benign (in some ways) events like the Olympics or the World Cup. They’re striving for a consensus, but mistake that for unanimity.
    At least, when everything was taken into account, the actual outcome on media policy of those weeks in August 1997 was to have less blanket coverage of the death of a famous person, not more. Maybe the market had something to do with that – it would be interesting to know if there was a boost to the early multichannel providers, or indeed the video rental places. Certainly nowadays, it’s very easy to find refuge from the overbearing coverage of the death of the famous that so infuriates people who write in to Radio 4’s Feedback.

    *Minicab from Greenwich to Crystal Palace on an early Sunday evening? Such decadence in my twenties.

  17. 77
    AMZ1981 on 27 Mar 2014 #

    One fact that I don’t think anybody has yet picked up on is that CITW was not only a double A side but it was actually track 2 on the CD. I think this was mainly done for convenience; Elton John just so happened to have a new single ready to roll so attaching CITW to it solved the problem of having to find a B side.

    You can’t deny that SATWYLT did quite well out of it. From memory The Chart Show never even mentioned the other side, let alone played it (probably due to the absence of a proper video). Top The Pops played CITW for the first two weeks at the top, accompanied by clips of the floral displays before switching to the SATWYLT video. I thought this was wrong at the time – whatever its merits or lack of CITW captured the moment and was a snapshot of its time and yet the media shunned it for a record that would probably have struggled to go top ten on its own merits. In a way this was a foreshadowing – when was the last time anybody heard CITW97? Partly it’s out of deference to the two lads who had to trudge behind their mother’s coffin in front of billions but mainly those few weeks in 1997 are an embarrassing emotional outburst everybody would rather forget.

    A couple of endnotes. CITW97 also foreshadows Elton Jon’s subsequent career. We’ll meet him three more times; once as a featured artist on a cover of one of his own songs, once as a remix and once as a sample. You’d be forgiven for not realising that in 2001 – without fanfare – he stunned not only critics but even his own fans with an extraordinary artistic rebirth and yet the public only wants to see him to do Your Song for the 10,000th time.

    And finally; had Diana not left the Ritz Hotel that fateful night the number ones for those five weeks in 1997 would have looked like this;

    GEORGE MICHAEL – You Have Been Loved (to be fair this had the Diana affect going for it as well)
    DARIO G – Sunchyme (for two weeks split by …)
    OASIS – Stand By Me (which would have given them a string of five straight no 1s)
    SASH – Stay (Mr Unlucky again)

  18. 78
    Mark M on 27 Mar 2014 #

    ‘Internal BBC polling in the months following Diana’s death found 44 percent complained about too much coverage. An internal briefing conceded that: ‘We were not always precise enough in our use of language, especially when we started to use phrases such as “the mood of the nation”, “the grief of the public”.’ ‘There was no single public mood, rather there was ‘a variety of moods’ (Chancellor, 2006: 5).
    This was also demonstrated by a detailed examination of British attitudes to television coverage by the British Film Institute, in which 50 percent of its 275 respondents were personally unaffected by the tragedy.’
    From here.

    Which is to say that, if around half the population found the death of Diana Spencer an extraordinarily important and emotional event, that’s incredibly newsworthy and those people’s reactions should have been noted and respected. However, that’s an awful long from 100 per cent of the population feeling the same way, which was how it was treated.

  19. 79
    nixon on 27 Mar 2014 #

    I was threatened with physical violence in the Hanley, Staffs branch of HMV (strictly one copy per customer) because I didn’t want a copy and made the error of offering my Diana “ration” to a distraught and heavy set fellow who wanted armfuls.

    Arriving at uni in Cardiff a few weeks later, armed with saved-up birthday money, I waited in line at Spillers while a guy in front of me requested a copy of “the Diana single on tape” and then baulked at the £4 asking price.

    Im both cases, I remember thinking the same thing, that I was simply missing out on whatever was happening in the heads of the these people, that it simply wasn’t something that had anything to do with me. Other than being annoyed the Radio 1 chart rundown on the weekend of her death was cancelled, or certainly the album chart bit (I was delighted the Super Furry Animals had got into the top ten and felt cheated they didn’t get their shout out). Though I did get to hear the instrumental version of the Aloof’s One Night Stand on prime time radio 60 or 70 times.

    Tom’s point about the condensed glut of sales, and the comments about people buying it as a memento rather than a single, are borne out by the fact that despite the eye-boggling numbers of copies sold, this actually overstayed its welcome; by week 3 both TOTP and the chart rundown had switched to Something About The Way You Look Tonight, and both rigorously avoided mentioning Diana at all, as though we and they were participants in the fiction that it was about a hugely popular pop single after all.

  20. 80
    James Masterton on 27 Mar 2014 #

    Oh my word where to start. I must have written about Diana week from so many perspectives on countless times over the years. Many people have put it in the perspective of their own lives at the time but believe me, nothing but nothing can compare to the living hell of actually working in the broadcast media at the time and having to spoonfeed the grieving masses what was (to me) a tidal wave of utter bullshit. The lowest, most hellish point of my broadcasting career was having to go on air in pain of the sack and mouth rubbish about how sad everyone was when in actual fact I literally could not give a fuck about a clothes horse sloane who spent more on makeup in a week than I earned in a year and whose usefulness in life expired the moment she was no longer needed as a sperm receptacle for the royal line.

    So being able to shit all over it all in the guise of a music critic by pouring cold water on the record released to mark the occasion was a cathartic joy, even if it was still a bold writer who told the truth about it. Fact of the matter is CITW97 is a dirge, a horrid retread of what was originally a rather sweet and touching ode to a childhood idol. Sawing cellos, Elton’s growling and those famously nonsensical lyrics all made for a hideous package that had no business being anywhere near the top end of the singles chart.

    Yet there is was, and indeed there it remains, its status as the biggest selling single of all time something I to this day find deeply offensive. Call me puritannical, but I’ve always seen music as something you connect with emotionally. You listen to it and appreciate it and ultimately buy the recording of it because of the way it makes you feel as a person and the way it speaks to you about your life. Nobody bought the Diana record for that reason. It was a totem, a trinket, bought because of the iconography behind it, not the way it sounded. Tales have been told above of people buying 5, 10, 50 copies at once. How many of those were actually used for the purpose for which they were made and actually played and listened to? Even more than once? No, this record is a pimple on the flesh of the artistry of much better records, its status as the biggest ever a scar on what should be a record of genuine popularity.

    Never mind, to drag at least one positive out of it, the new version of Candle was produced by George Martin, his final piece of work before semi-retirement. Since his work on Pipes Of Peace in 1984 he’d been locked head to head with Norrie Paramour as the most successful producer of all time with both men having helmed 27 Number One singles. Candle was George Martin’s 28th, a record which he holds to this day.

  21. 81
    swanstep on 27 Mar 2014 #

    @70, mapman1312. Incredible stats. I honestly don’t remember it being that big a musical (as opposed to a TV) event in the US, which perhaps just shows how little pop radio I listened to by 1997, and how little attention I paid to charts.

  22. 82
    Mark M on 27 Mar 2014 #

    Just saw two ads in succession targeted at Mother’s Day: the DVD/Blu-ray of the Diana movie, and the 40th anniversary package Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, now apparently including tribute album…

  23. 83
    Alfred on 27 Mar 2014 #

    In the States, it became massive at first because of Di, but once the label flipped the single “Something About the Way…” took off on its own. Which is to say: plenty of people loved the song who didn’t give a damn about the People’s Princess.

  24. 84
    enitharmon on 27 Mar 2014 #

    I never bought into the Diana myth. I think she was a charlatan; all that pretence of of being the shy and mistreated little girl when she loved the limelight. Not just that pass-the-sick-bag TV interview, artlessly looking at the camera from under her eyelashes, it was the whole manipulative grabbing of attention at every opportunity. The supposed fairy-tale marriage was always a sham. She, and her brother, believed that she married beneath her – she was real old English aristocracy, not like those upstart Schleswig-Holstein-Glucksburgs, but she wanted to be queen to put that right. Grrr!

    Anyway, I wasn’t interested in the funeral and managed to get myself invited up to Aberfeldy as guest at a conference (how I was raced to Edinburgh Airport on Sunday morning and caught my flight only because I breathlessly persuaded checkout to get the flight held is another story altogether). I know that a number of shops on the Gloucester Road in Bristol had been leaned on to close for the funeral. I managed to avoid watching it but it was a close shave as many of the conference delegates were more interested in that than in the conference.

    As for the song: I haven’t words for how I feel about somebody who appropriates a song he wrote about somebody who really was fragile and a victim of her own fame and transfers it to a coke-snorting socialite. A 1 from me.

  25. 85
    hardtogethits on 27 Mar 2014 #

    #38. It seems entirely appropriate that I should get to recite here what I’d already written, simply because I’d been invited to do so. I toyed with the idea of changing a few words, but cba. Everybody now, “Goodbye England’s rose…la la la la la la”

    … the Airplay charts for that week were indeed uniquely turbulent. It may be helpful to note that the Airplay chart, taking into account BBC and commercial radio, is intended to reflect the songs which are ‘most heard’, rather than ‘most played’. It by and large has the feel of a late 70s/early 80s singles chart. Records rise up the chart in stages, week by week, and then fall back down. That said, it’s slightly more common for records to hang around and make small climbs back up the charts than it was in those sales charts.

    In the week beginning 31 August, everyone stopped playing Tubthumping. Having built ‘support’ ‘at’ ‘radio’, climbing 23-14-5-2, the record held at 2 in the airplay chart to 30 August. It then fell to 84 the next week.

    Major stations started playing ‘You Have Been Loved’ by George Michael. It entered the airplay chart at no.2 – the highest entry since the means of calculating the chart had been established.

    After 3 months on the chart, ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ leapt back up the chart, from 7 to 1, completing a run 41-15-12-7-2-3-3-3-3-3-7-5-7-1.

    ‘Men In Black’ fell from 1 to 19.

    ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ by Notorious BIG fell from no.10 to out of the Top 100.

    Upbeat records such as ‘All I Wanna Do’ (Dannii), ‘Free’ (Ultra Nate), ‘I Wanna Be The Only One’, ‘Freed From Desire’ and even ‘Bitch’ by Meredith Brooks all took sudden dives.

    On the other hand, Shola Ama, Mary J Blige, M People, Mariah Carey and Conner Reeves and, yes, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ became very widely heard.

    The Airplay Top 100 showed sudden renewed support for (and just reading the first few may convince you that your call is important to us and we will be with you as soon as possible): You Might Need Somebody; Lifted; Kiss From A Rose; Seven Seconds; Search For The Hero; If You Ever; I Believe I Can Fly; You Do Something To Me; The Universal; Isn’t It A Wonder; Nobody Knows; Don’t Look Back In Anger; Don’t Dream It’s Over; I’ll Stand By You.

    An old Elton John track 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.

    The Drugs Don’t Work rose to no.2.

    George Michael’s ‘You Have Been Loved’ fell from 2 to 25.

    Hope this helps, assuming people really wanted to know.

  26. 86
    Chelovek na lune on 27 Mar 2014 #

    I think the kindest thing I can say about this is that it stands in a centuries-long tradition of British Establishment Bad Taste – or not even actively bad taste, just embracing of mediocrity, harking back to the days when England (or Britain? I’m not sure, actually) was described on the continent as “a land without music” – and in fact with little visual art of note, either. One could certainly posit some notions about the roots of that…while still observing that a certain suspicion of “the artistic temperament”, of unfiltered creativity, even anti-intellectualism (allied with a healthy conservatism that remained in the House of Lords and the evolving of the monarchy) , did, at least save Britain from the furors of 18th Century France, or, well, most of continental Europe in the 20th century. So the royal connection is quite apt, in fact. Of course it all ended (to abridge, and be over-terminal rather) with: Oscar Wilde in prison; and Elton John at number one.

    Of course one feels – and one feels for Elton, too, as Lady D’s dear friend – the tension between the public and the private in this version of the song : the verse about loneliness is as close to the bone as this gets, surprisingly so, in fact – is that masked criticism of the House of Windsor? and also the tension between the original, immeasurably superior lyrics and this, of necessity, quick rewrite. I’d like to think in private there may be a secret set of lyrics, to be unearthed only far into the future, which retains and develops, with crass specifics – which would indeed have been utterly out of place in Westminster Abbey, even if one accepts, as I do not, that eulogies are appropriate at funerals – on the “and even when you died, the press still hounded you” line of the original (this was, if nothing else: when the Daily Express lost any chance of ever again being regarded as a home of even half-serious journalism) – and that gets rid of the dreary, facile, theologically questionable, platitudinous lyrics that the English Public at Large are all too happy to go along with here.

    I have never been more glad to be out of the UK as I was for most of the week following these events. On the day I was my family in England: my dad informed me (in full seriousness) that “the Serbs have killed Princess Diana”; the final day of a summer job in a uni vacation in Romford, where most of my colleagues were as unmoved as I was by the whole situation; not that we were callous, just indifferent. And then I spent the rest of the week at an international gathering in rural Norway – inbetween dancing to the Macarena on the beach at sunset, and even with my very limited command of Norwegian, it was abundantly clear that the press of even sane, restrained, elegant, Norway, was head-over-heels with what even they described as “Englands Rose” (lack of apostrophe intentional), and I had to assure people from various other countries that, no, as a Brit, I was not in a deep state of trauma because of les evenements a Paris. And then, one day before the funeral, back in London (seeing pictures of the toys and flowers, and still feeling completely detached from this outpouring of emotion. Irish Glaswegian in exile side of me clearly to the fore), crossing from Gatwick to City Airport to change flights, and then to Finland, where the adulation of Diana, while more restrained than in London, was still evident. So I heard this version of this song for the first (and would it have been the last time) on Finnish TV in the flat of a friend – a historian specialising in the Queens of mediaeval Scotland – in Helsinki. And then on returning to Britain a week later, more precisely to Edinburgh, just after Scotland had voted in favour of devolution, and, from the perspective of someone both Scottish and English I felt that was the harbinger pf a far more significant change to our country than the strange shenanigans of Blair trying to out-monarch the monarch. The subsequent re-engagement of the House of Windsor with the media was surely their Clause Four moment, if we are looking for 1990s references….I suppose this can be discussed and brought up to date at a future Royalty-endorsed Not So Much Bad Taste as Mediocrity Gary Barlow-linked Bunny Moment, thankfully not quite so near in the future.

    Also: That Week. RIP Jeffrey Bernard.

    (1988 minor hit, and rather brilliant with it: “So In Love With You” by Spear of Destiny: was that not inspired by the death of Monroe too. In an alternate reality we could have had Kirk Brandon extemporizing in Westminster Abbey on Lady D, maybe. That would have been strange: and civilisationally challenging, and, not I think, in a healthy way)

    3 or 4. Pretty unbearable, in short, but the strength of the original song gives some semblance of backbone.

  27. 87
    Erithian on 28 Mar 2014 #

    First of all I have to say, that’s a magnificent essay Tom. Secondly, having spoken at the funerals of my father-in-law and my mother, I have to say, massive respect to Elton for holding it together given that he was genuinely close to Diana, it’s one of the hardest things in the world to do.

    Where I was – doing some weeding in the front garden when my wife came to the door and said “something’s happened with Diana and Dodi’s dead. It was 11.30 and for some reason we hadn’t had telly or radio on that morning, so I must have been among the last people in the country to find out. I’m no great royalist and the battle between the two “camps” bored me witless, but I did respect Diana for the Faustian pact she’d come to make with the press – OK, if you’re going to follow me anyway, I’m going to use that attention to focus your cameras on the things I care about, HIV, the landmine issue, etc. Credit to her for that at least.

    Working around the corner from Westminster Abbey, it was difficult to avoid the strange atmosphere of that week, especially when you went home on the Friday tripping over people already staking their places for the funeral. Very little apparent scope for dissent: remember that classic Private Eye cover with the crowds outside Buckingham Palace and the speech bubble “We are sick and tired of media intrusion – and we want to see the Royal Family crying NOW!” Many outlets refused to display that one. Apart from Elton’s performance, the funeral was one of our first chances to see the new PM as a total ham – a friend of ours had done that “faith, hope and love” reading at our wedding, with ten times as much feeling. For future generations Helen Mirren’s performance in “The Queen” will sum up the oddity of the week – Blair may have caught the mood, but who’s to say what right he had to cajole the Queen into joining in, or that her reserved reaction was wrong in retrospect?

    As for the song, it captured a mood all right, even if the revised lyrics struggled with the scale of what Taupin was trying to convey. The original, which I admired greatly, was a touching portrait of an individual’s reaction to an icon and the insight only he feels he has (I made the connection with Don McLean in the “Vincent” thread , my god, seven years ago this weekend!) – the revision, as others have said, tries to speak for the country, no doubt succeeds for some, but ends up sounding like a Hallmark card.

    But the most lasting impression any event made on me that week was on the Monday morning. Having launched my 75th anniversary club history of Erith & Belvedere FC a fortnight previously, I was passing the club’s ground on my way to the station as I did every morning, and just before passing a pillar in the underpass I registered out of the corner of my eye that the roof looked a different colour. In the next fraction of a second I thought “ohhh shit, I know what’s happened”. There had been an arson attack overnight, and the stand was wrecked, burnt metal was lying on the pitch, and the club’s future was to be in the balance for several months. I stayed off work for the day to see what I could do, and at one stage took some photographs of the ruined stand for the record – and straight away some local kids called me a paparazzo.

  28. 88
    wichitalineman on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Re 86: Kirk Brandon… or English psych outfit Kaleidoscope who recorded their swansong White Faced Lady, a tribute to MM, a couple of years before CITW.

    Re 87: I remember the Erith & Belvedere arson attack – didn’t you end up losing the ground as a result? This, and similar grim tales at century-old clubs like South Liverpool, are community deaths, and have tended to affect me a lot more over the years than celebrity deaths.

  29. 89
    mapman132 on 28 Mar 2014 #

    So considering it’s the biggest selling single in British history, and either the first or second biggest seller in world history, surely someone here must’ve bought it. Will anyone admit to it?* Or better yet, admit to still owning it?

    FWIW, my mother actually considered buying it although she never did. Considering the last single she bought was probably by Pat Boone, that’s saying something.

    *apologies if someone already did and I missed it

  30. 90
    ace inhibitor on 28 Mar 2014 #

    many different public moods… I remember vividly knowing that all my friends were startled by / disconnected from / hostile to the ‘mood of the nation’ as it was being presented to us, but never being quite sure how far that extended, and being more than usually careful around work colleagues, for example. later in the year I was at the wedding of people I didn’t know, someone my partner had been at school with, definitely not safe ‘friend’ territory, and we both froze when the DJ played this record half a dozen songs in; how weird was this and how were people going to respond? And then exhaled with relief when the DJ was forced to remove it after about 10 seconds by almost total derision, led by the bride and groom (more to do with it being a terrible song to play at a wedding, maybe, than anything else, but still. phew.)

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