In his new memoir, Me, Elton John explains his decision to rework ‘Candle in the Wind’, his 1973 hit song about Marilyn, which he performed at Westminster Abbey for the state funeral of his friend Princess Diana in 1997.
“A couple of days after Diana’s death, Richard Branson called me. He told me when people signed the book of condolence at St James’s Palace, a lot of them were writing down quotations from the lyrics of ‘Candle In The Wind’. Apparently, it was being played a lot on the radio as well.
He asked if I’d be prepared to rewrite the lyrics and sing it at the funeral. I think he’d been contacted by the Spencer family, because they felt the funeral should be something that people would really connect to.
So I called Bernie [Taupin], who’d written the original lyrics. He was fantastic: he acted as if writing a song that the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to check through first was all in a day’s work and faxed the altered lyrics over the next morning.
I insisted on having a teleprompter by the piano, with Bernie’s new lyrics on it. Up until then, I’d been against their use … But this time, I relaxed the rules. It was a unique experience. There was a sense in which it was the biggest gig of my life — for four minutes, I was literally going to be the centre of the world’s attention — but equally, it wasn’t an Elton John moment, it wasn’t about me at all … I wasn’t suffering from stage fright, more a very specific fear: What if I went into autopilot and sang the wrong version?
I’d performed ‘Candle In The Wind’ hundreds of times. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might lose myself in the performance, forget about the teleprompter and start singing the original lyrics. How bad would it be if I did that? Appalling. Huge chunks of the lyrics were completely inappropriate for the occasion. You’d have a hard time bluffing your way out of singing about Marilyn Monroe being found dead in the nude, or how your feelings were something more than sexual, at a state funeral.
After the funeral, I went straight to a studio in Shepherd’s Bush, where George Martin was waiting: they were going to release the new version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ as a single to raise money for a charity set up in Diana’s name. I sang it twice and went home.
That was when I finally broke down. I hadn’t felt able to show emotion all day. I’d had a job to do, and how I felt about Diana’s death might have interfered with my ability to do it.
The funeral version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ became the biggest-selling single since the charts began. There was part of me that couldn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it. Under what circumstances would you play it? I never did. I listened back to it once at the studio to OK the mix and that was it: never again.
In the end, I started feeling really uncomfortable with the single’s longevity … The Diana version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ has never been included on any Greatest Hits album I’ve put out, and it’s never been re-released. I’ve always tried to avoid the topic with journalists. It wasn’t that I wanted to forget it — or her. I just wanted life to get back to some semblance of normality.”Daily Mail