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Mar 14

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

Popular146 comments • 19,896 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. 91
    Erithian on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Hi Wichita, it’s gratifying that you’re one of the people to whom this kind of story means something!! We played “home” games at six different grounds in the next few months, returned home at Christmas and played out of portakabins for 18 months in what were the bleakest surroundings in the Southern League, then began the groundshare with Welling in 1999, with our own stand opening in 2003. The old ground next to Belvedere station is now a B&Q.

  2. 92
    Phil Sandifer on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Around 3pm I started a quick comment about the Blake bit of the entry, and five hours later I had nearly 3000 words and realized it was probably best posted elsewhere.

    So, erm, here: http://philsandifer.tumblr.com/post/80925659600/elton-john-candle-in-the-wind-97-something

  3. 93
    Billy Hicks on 28 Mar 2014 #

    I had been aware of death from an early age thanks to a couple of distant relatives passing, but it was the loss of my Grandad in March 1994 that was the first to hit me hard. I was five years old and it seemed confusing and unfair, particularly as I’d made him a present which I was going to give him next time I see him. By the end of that same year my Great-Grandma and Grandma had also passed, meaning even to this day simply seeing that year written down gives me an odd, morbid feeling. The first celebrity death I remember, oddly, is Peter Cook’s, getting confused and thinking he was the one who hosted The Cook Report. Later that year my hamster died, and the following, just as I was getting into an old show called Doctor Who, I remember watching the 9 O’Clock News and finding out one of the Doctors, Jon Pertwee, had joined the list.

    When Mum woke me up on August 31st, 1997, and told me the news, I cared far less than any of those mentioned above. Death was a common occurence to eight year old me and I had no interest in any of the Royal Family. I have particular memories of the funeral as we still only had five channels (one of which very recently added) and I seem to remember only Channel 4 were showing something else, they decided to air cartoons instead for the kids like me too young to understand the significance. So I happily watched those for a while, until, as I remember vividly, they wimped out, faded a cartoon out mid-scene and announced that in a change to the schedule they would be showing the funeral after all. Extremely annoyed I had no other choice than to miserably watch it, with at least that man who sung the songs from ‘The Lion King’ doing a number in the middle. What it at least gave me is the earliest memory of truly a major news event, and by a year later (I remember seeing Diana-related newspaper headlines on and off for at least the next 12 months) I finally realised the historical nature of the events of that late summer.

    The song itself? A 1, for the same reasons as James Masterton. A few years back a now closed CD shop near Clapham Junction had dozens, if not hundreds of unsold copies of this song, sold off for 10p each in the dusty ground floor basement. It depresses me to think that there’s barely any situation I can think of this record ever being beaten as the biggest seller, unless something like ‘Chasing Cars’ or some major early-2010s bunnies trickle sell on downloads for the next several decades. Even if a major teen star were to pop his clogs tonight, the tribute song wouldn’t even be released on CD single, so the CITW situation of people buying dozens of copies each (I’ve seen the news footage of women in their 30s and 40s grabbing literally shelf fulls in HMV Oxford Street) wouldn’t happen.

    One final memory from a few months later. My brother is eighteen months younger than me so he would have been seven when Diana died. We were going home from school one afternoon and taking the Jubilee Line home, and god knows what my brother had read/heard that day, but out of nowhere he asks my mum, extremely loudly, “DID MI-5 KILL PRINCESS DIANA?”

    I have never known an entire tube carriage to dissipate into complete horrified silence so quickly.

  4. 94
    Garry on 28 Mar 2014 #

    It was Sunday in Australia, before lunch. I left college, went up to security to get the radio station keys. The TV was on – that TV was never on – with a sad looking old man talking and a BBC logo on the bottom corner . I ignored it – it was a Sunday in the AM and I had had a late night and I had a radio program to do.

    I did two hours of radio and went back to security to drop off the keys. The same old man was still on the TV, but again I ignored it. I wandered back to college, dropped off my CDs and went down stairs to the big common room. A lot of people were watching the TV and the pool table was unused. I spent 20 minutes sinking balls until I realised the same old man was on the TV as several hours earlier. It was then I tuned in and sure enough Diana was dead.

    My overriding memory was feeling sorry for the poor old BBC presenter. He had to continually repeat himself – with little or no new information. When he finally had something new to say – what Diana was wearing – my sympathy only increased. The vacuousness of the information was merely stalling for time until more concrete information was delivered, and all the time he had to say the same things over and over again as new viewers joined the broadcast.

    I never felt particularly attached to Diana but rather William. As a kid I was aware when he was born on my birthday. The only other famous person I knew born on that day was Alexander the Great, which I thought was cool. To share a birthday with a Prince was also cool. (At the time I didn’t know the names Lionel Rose, Platini, Ian McEwan or Nils Lofgren)

    So Diana’s death and it’s legacy for me was more about William and Harry and how they had lost a parent. I’d lost a parent young as well. Cut through the money and privileged, I had a lot of sympathy for them. This may explain why I watched William’s wedding when watching such events is not my usual fare.

    As for Elton, I had always found his music agreeable since the Nikita single and film-clip and inevitably seeing his appearance on the Muppet Show. Between the mid-80s and 1997 my greatest awareness of his work was the Lion King soundtrack.

    I remember the station getting the CITW single but not playing it, but the film clip was everywhere. I wasn’t aware enough of the original to know of any changes – I just thought it was a re-recording.

    I do remember it was not only a public memorial but a charity record. I’m not sure how much that got into the public’s thinking on release but 38 million to charity would help continue to the legend.

  5. 95
    nixon on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Random memory which five seconds of Google hasn’t verified: the People (which my parents still subscribed to for some reason) went to press as the news broke, running with “Dodi dead and Diana hurt in accident” or something. Clearly a last minute front page change (maybe even last second), as the story only took up the left hand side of the front page – the right hand side was a picture of Noel Gallagher’s hairy arse (“Noel’s B side!”), mooning the paparazzi who were about to be vilified.

    I would have paid actual money to be in the newsroom as the story developed and the editor realised the sheer scale of their misjudgement.

  6. 96
    Ed on 28 Mar 2014 #

    @24, @27 I first realised there was something a little unusual about the Canadian charts when I saw that those two hands-in-the-air crowd-pleasers ‘Knives Out’ and ‘There There’ had made number one, ‘Knives Out’ for four weeks. That fact, plus the astonishing three-year Top 20 run of CITW’97, certainly suggests Canadians have a taste for the melancholic.

    That Wikipedia article is hilarious, though: it says that in 2006 most number one singles sold less than 200 copies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Singles_Chart

    That might be understandable in, say, Andorra or Vatican City. But in a country with – as Rory says – more than 30m inhabitants, it’s just bizarre.

    It seems digital download charts have enabled them to fix it now. It is a shame, though, because the idiosyncrasies and distinctive character of the chart have completely disappeared: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Hot_100

  7. 97
    swanstep on 28 Mar 2014 #

    It’s hard to square the claim that CITW97 spent 40+ weeks at the top of the Canadian charts with these two other links:
    List_of_number-one_singles_of_1997_Canada
    Top 100 year end 1997 Canadian singles

  8. 98
    wichitalineman on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Re 95: Use of the term ‘b-side’ is pretty unusual, apart from anything else.

    Re 97: That’s very odd. It was reported pretty heavily, so it can’t be an urban myth surely. Also seems odd that the single doesn’t feature anywhere on those lists!

  9. 99
    swanstep on 28 Mar 2014 #

    @wichita, 98. I know! It’s a conundrum, wrapped in an enigma at this point. Suspension of Canada from the G-7 may be called for…

  10. 100
    23 Daves on 28 Mar 2014 #

    My in-laws are Canadian, and I’m over there periodically. I picked up a newspaper in January 2005 and looked at the singles chart, and I swear that “Candle In The Wind” was still riding high, because I commented on the fact to my wife. “Oh yeah,” she replied, “you have to remember nobody really buys singles in this country”.

    I might collect my thoughts on Diana/ Candle In The Wind and post something here later. Sure you can’t wait.

  11. 101
    Steve Williams on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Later on, one of the people who claimed to be partly responsible for this being released was Kate Thornton, the former Smash Hits editor turned TV presenter. In the summer of 1997, she was presenting a rather dull ITV series called Straight Up which was a Sunday afternoon current affairs show for young people. Perhaps surprisingly, it still went out that day, they interrupted the rolling news for it, though inevitably it was 100% Diana, and I remember Kate’s colleague Nick Knowles reporting from The Mall in a morning suit. Like about 99.9% of the audience, it was the only time I ever saw any of this series.

    On a documentary a couple of years later, Thornton says they were trying to find an appropriate piece of music to close the show and she remembered she had an Elton tape in her car so they got it out and thought Candle In The Wind was appropriate. Thornton suggests Elton was watching and that set the ball rolling. If you believe that.

    As with everyone I found it out when I woke up, I switched on the telly to check the headlines on Ceefax and had to read it about half a dozen times until I finally realised what it was saying. Then I switched on Radio 1 who were, as mentioned, playing The Last Stand by The Aloof, which I still think is an incredible piece of music. I remember Mark Goodier playing it again exactly a year later but after that I didn’t hear it again, certainly in instrumental form, until someone put it up on YouTube a few years ago, and it really took me back.

    I watched loads of the coverage that week, partly because I was about to go to university and I assumed I’d be too busy to watch any telly when I was there so I was devouring as much as I could. Course, when I got there I watched more telly than I’ve done before or since.

  12. 102
    Iain Mew on 28 Mar 2014 #

    The Canadian charts issue looks like a case of multiple charts and methodologies. The ones mentioned in 97 (post 97, not 1997) were compiled by RPM magazine and presumably based on some kind of airplay-including calculation. The ones previously mentioned were by compiled by Nielsen based on (almost nonexistent) sales, and it makes sense that this single could dominate the latter but not the former.

  13. 103
    James BC on 28 Mar 2014 #

    I remember the Mirror suggesting that Elton might do a re-recording of Your Song for the occasion, and printing the lyrics. Can’t remember whether they were the standard lyrics or suggested Diana-specific ones.

    Anyway, a few people seemed to have the idea for a tribute song. Personally I feel like a statue might have been more appropriate, or perhaps a commemorative potion?

  14. 104
    swanstep on 28 Mar 2014 #

    @Ian, 102. I think you’re right. The strange thing is that I can’t find any record on the web of Nielsen Soundscan charts before about 2007, i.e., when the RPM charts officially pack it in.

  15. 105
    AMZ1981 on 28 Mar 2014 #

    I’ve just revisited The Big Picture, the album Elton John released in the Autumn on 1997 and for which SATWYLT was the lead off single (it was pretty much ready to go when Diana died). Bernie Taupin has described it as his least favourite Elton album and its ironic that such a listless record (only two tracks exhibit anything resembling inspiration) should have given him what is nominally his biggest ever hit.

  16. 106
    Steve Williams on 28 Mar 2014 #

    It was indeed all ready to go because his original booking for Saturday 6th September was the lottery show. Turned out he did get to perform his new single on BBC1 that day, but in rather different circumstances. That LP did get rather heavy promotion because a few weeks later he also did An Audience With Elton John, which was recorded just after the funeral and they made reference to it, but obviously he didn’t perform Candle In The Wind on there.

  17. 107
    Kat but logged out innit on 28 Mar 2014 #

    I definitely bought the Dario G, as it was my LAST EVER CASSINGLE (as it was 79p in Woolies compared to £1.29 for the CD). CDs all the way from then on! I think that was a last hurrah for a certain subgenre of chart Europop – everything went a bit trancier after that (I blame Sash) (and an increase in computer processing power).

  18. 108
    MichaelH on 29 Mar 2014 #

    I was on holiday when the news broke. My wife and I were equally baffled by each others’ reactions: me by her upset, her by my lack of interest.

    But the moment I thought the world had gone definitively mad was at Wembley on 10 September. I was in the press box at the England v Moldova game, and an annoucement was made that we would hear the first play of Candle in the Wind 97. I carried on reading the programme, then realised the stadium had fallen silent, and every single person was standing. For an Elton John record.

  19. 109
    Semi Regular commenter posting anonymously on 29 Mar 2014 #

    I’ll always remember 1st Sept 97 as the day my dad had a stand up fight with my grandad. In truth it was a pushy little playground scrap but the fallout from it started some very dark times for my parents’ marriage from which they’ve never really recovered. At the time I was probably more excited about the start of sixth form (wear your jeans to school, imagine!) but I can’t imagine anyone was thinking much about Lady Di in our house.

  20. 110
    Tom on 29 Mar 2014 #

    I’m reading David Kynaston’s Family Britain at the moment, and last night was at the death of George VI – lots of quotes from diaries of the time, most of which were amusingly familiar: for gods sake, it’s been a week, can’t we have the funny stuff back on the radio, etc etc.

  21. 111
    Patrick Mexico on 29 Mar 2014 #

    I remember Sunday, August 31, 1997 vividly. It was a miserable, wet day, IIRC it was the aftermath of a colossal thunderstorm bringing down the curtain on the end of four successive wonderful, unusually red-hot British summers – and symbolically the Britpop era – and even the Nineties themselves; just as acutely as ’87 when (ahem) something changed – be it Black Wednesday, Pump Up the Volume, or Burnley somehow not being relegated to the Vauxhall Conference. (Apparently Torquay United also escaped on the same day with the help of a bloodthirsty police dog.)

    My family was packing up from our regular caravan holiday in Grassington, North Yorkshire. Our house was being decorated – i.e. completely rebuilt because the previous owners had godawful taste in everything. My Grandma Minnie rang my mum sometime in the morning and I’ve never heard someone so horrified, not least when they were speaking on one end of a phone line when I could only hear half the conversation. I.e. “Oh God, :deep breath:, that’s terrible” repeated at least ten times. I genuinely thought our house had collapsed, burying the builders in a dusty grave. When my Mum put the phone down and said “Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed have been killed in a car crash”, I had to do a double take. Apparently the conversation began with my gran asking “Have you heard about Diana?” which my mum believed was hinting that she was pregnant by Dodi.. this is opening up an old, oleaginous can of worms here, so let’s move on a bit..

    .. I can’t remember anything else about that day other than I was watching a Football Italia match on the TV and almost forcing myself to cry. It was a sense of absolute confusion more than anything else. I don’t like it when pretty much anyone dies in a car crash, regardless of personality or privileges, but soon I just got angry – as much as a hopelessly naïve boy of 12 could – that this death was forcing everybody to drop absolutely everything in a sense of total submission to the monarchy (who in the days before the funeral looked like they couldn’t be arsed anyway.) It was the first time I genuinely doubted the common sense of adults, and the British public. When the new school term started, and I started it like a house on fire, it was almost welcome black playground humour to hear the Diana/Mother Theresa hybrid of “And it seems to me you lived your life / Throw your sandals in the bin.” I can’t remember much about the funeral, either, apart from Elton, more rain and Earl Spencer trying to suppress anger that the press killed his sister. (I was kind of with him on this one.)

    Mark E Smith said we never recovered from that day as a country. It’s much more complicated than that. However, I did notice a shift in attitudes towards public grief and emotional openness, even among my own family – back in 1994 the reality TV “sob stories” would have been laughed out of town, at least by sarcastic, ironic, dry-humoured good old Lancashire folk we thought of ourselves as, in the sarcastic, ironic, dry-humoured Britpop era. Laughed out of town as fake, wet-lettuce, melodrama from some American shoulderpad soap that Matilda Wormwood’s parents would have watched. Nowadays I swear we’ve had a minute’s silence at the Turf every two weeks with often tenuous links to the locality; not saying there’s anything wrong at all with mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela, a 13-year-old fan, or Eddie Howe’s mother, but I don’t think this would have been marked publically twenty years ago. What does annoy me are such empty platitudes as all football matches on this year’s 25th anniversary of Hillsborough kicking off at 3:07. That’s not going to help the families who’ve waited a quarter of a century for justice, is it?!

    And as for the record? The original’s fine – it’s the quintessential tribute record and Elton does elegiac pop as well as anyone – but this was rushed out in three minutes and brings nothing to the table. The “destroy everything in its path” approach of any record is great when it’s something upbeat, contemporary and short-lived; poisonous when it’s dealing with grief, throwing old pop favourites out of context, and never off the bloody radio. It’s the Love is All Around of 1997. Good key change, though. TWO.

  22. 112
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Mar 2014 #

    Naturally this all seemed very odd from Ireland. We never entirely took to Diana, I think partly for bad reasons (Divorce was still a very odd/shameful thing) and partly for good (General “Oh do you still have a monarchy?”) but mostly of course because she was from across the way.

    #17: “Just what exactly would a President do that the Queen doesn’t do at the moment?” Be less of a drain (as per Johann Hari’s article) and at least nominally responsible – there would be no case of “Oh yes their spouse says appalling things but we can’t really make a fuss because ultimately there’s no recourse short of the tumbrel”

    #84 – Being killed in a motorcrash while fleeing paparazzi seems a fairly straightforward vision of being a victim of your own fame – a writer might well reject it as a little too on-the-nose.

    My one quibble with the article is that it’s probably pushing it to claim that a billion Facebook accounts are “forever observed, forever performing, always improvising to use that to her advantage”- apart from the suspicion that it’s the people with the loudest voices who naturally use social media that way, most people are pretty far from forever on Facebook.

  23. 113
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Mar 2014 #

    A fabulous essay, Tom. Bravo!

    The Lineman’s link about Brenda’s mam up-thread confirmed what most of us already knew about the old soak. After the infamous 1956 Grand National when Dick Francis riding Devon Loch in her colours faltered and collapsed at the Elbow yards from the finishing line, the official line is that her comment to the jockey was a shrugging “That’s racing!” Privately, she was furious, thought Dick was a “bungling c**t”, and wanted to get him “bumped orf”. On reflection, that would have saved us from a lot of crap books.

    Indeed Diana’s sudden return to the pavilion was really more about The Firm than it was about the uncomlicated little sloane who married a man who never loved her. Never the brightest of sparks, Diana certainly got more savvy as she went along with plenty of wise shit-stirrers pitching up in her corner as her marriage fell apart. The claim that the press hounded her to her death was of course disingenuous to the extreme, as she was constantly in cohorts with them, particularly towards the end. When Brenda gave lip-service to a hysterical nation, Blair pitched in and pretty much dragged her out of hiding to speak to the nation. She reluctantly obeyed but the future war criminal then punished her further by nicking her wee yacht off her, thus causing she and Phil the Greek such distress that they sobbed openly on their seats the day Brittania was grabbed in the name of the workers.

    My own view on Diana is non-existent. I was pretty sure I met her once before she was officially linked with Charles. She was driving around in her little red Metro (I think it was) in Landor Road in Clapham and stopped to ask directions. In those days she was a nanny. My cousin and I gave her the directions and then both said “God, you don’t ‘alf look like Lady Diana!” She smiled, shyly said “Thank you” from under her fringe and drove off. Russell and I looked at each other for a second or two and then both said “Yeah, it was!” A nice moment but I can’t remember being too interested in her wedding in 1981 and whilst the news of her terrible, pointless death was upsetting, I simply could not understand the reaction of a large number of citizens, their outbursts of grief unseen outside North Korea.

    I have no opinion at all about the record.

  24. 114
    Alfred on 29 Mar 2014 #

    So this was one of the last times the general public bought a cassette or CD single en masse, right?

  25. 115
    Tom on 29 Mar 2014 #

    #114 – depends what you mean. There are enormous sellers after this, still during the physical-media era. If by the general public you mean “the people who don’t usually buy music” then there are still a few to go, but they are almost all either charity records or engineered by a bloke called Simon.

    (You can imagine Pop Idol as a response to this, in fact: what if you could manufacture a mass-audience news story that culminates in the release of a single?)

  26. 116
    Tom on 29 Mar 2014 #

    #112 – yes, I should have been clearer – the “part of their lives” bit is doing too much work. More on this whole line of argument about celebrity performance and everyday performance once we get to the 00s I dare say. “Forever observed” is surely just a statement of political fact these days though!

  27. 117
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Mar 2014 #

    # 115 – “You can imagine Pop Idol as a response to this, in fact: what if you could manufacture a mass-audience news story that culminates in the release of a single?)”

    I am pretty certain that when Brenda finally gloves one, all sections of the record industry will be in serious overdrive. Most of us have no difficulty in distinguishing between Brenda herself and the principle of monarchy and there is little doubt that when the old gal throws a seven, there will be widespread mourning for a woman who as Head of State has generally not put a foot wrong. I’m equally sure that the inevitable record will feature Macca, Reg, Cliff and all the rest of them, providing of course that they’re still with us when the vertical finger is at last waved in Queenie’s direction.

  28. 118
    Ed on 29 Mar 2014 #

    Macca’s tribute single: ‘Her Majesty’?

    Looking forward to Ian Brown and John Squire getting back together for ‘Elizabeth My Dear ’27′.

    And of course, the inevitable: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YS3UMjNUqFM

  29. 119
    Ed on 29 Mar 2014 #

    @112 etc: In John Jeremiah Sullivan’s brilliant Pulphead, he suggests the roughly contemporaneous MTV’s The Real World had a similar effect on American ideas about “everyday performance”. It bears out the idea that celebrity is what America has instead of royalty. As you say, much more of this to come.

    (Pulphead is highly recommended, BTW, with wonderful pop writing on Michael Jackson and Axl Rose, among other things.)

  30. 120
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Mar 2014 #

    #115 or (in at least one more case) from blockbuster film soundtracks [fantasises about drowning that particular bunny]

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