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Fabulous Flip Sides – Elton John – Davey Johnstone Interview plus Kenny Passarelli

Elton John Band guitarist Davey Johnstone discusses his new album “Deeper Than My Roots” on Cherry Red Records and a classic Elton John single along with bassist Kenny Passarelli
Davey main

GOLDMINE: Before we get to Deeper Than My Roots let’s go back to when I saw you in concert in the mid-1970s. “Island Girl” was the current hit with “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” being the next single from Elton John’s Rock of the Westies album, which you co-wrote.

DAVEY JOHNSTONE: It was written in 1975 at the Caribou Ranch recording studio. Elton and I both generally write very quickly. I record quickly, too. I like to get things done while it’s hot. We wrote one song called “Cage the Songbird,” which was going to be on a future album, which ended up on Blue Moves. It was a great time, and we had some drinks that night to celebrate that song. The next morning Elton said, “Great song that we wrote last night, and the rocker was great, too.” I asked, “What rocker? I don’t remember a rocker.” He said, “You remember, don’t you?” I actually didn’t remember until he prompted me. It came from a guitar part that I had, and a chorus, and that tends to be what happens. I play something casually, and he’d go, “What’s that? I love it,” and we’ll go through the pile of lyrics from Bernie Taupin’s wonderful collection and usually pick out the right one. We began recording it at Caribou Ranch the following day and it was just screaming from start to finish. We went on to use it as the opening song for that tour in 1976.

GM: The flip side, also from the album, is something slower, “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)” with a unique guitar solo.

DJ: That was a tough song and a good song, too. I thought it should have a very lyrical solo with a melodic theme. It sounds like a slide guitar, but it is actually me using my volume pedal. I’ve always used a volume pedal, like on “Rocket Man” plus “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” and “Roy Rogers,” both on the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, using a pedal for great effect. The solo on this flip side was done by using the volume pedal swells and playing the regular notes on top of it. It is a long solo, which is quite challenging. It is not one that is over in six bars, this is more like a sixteen bar solo. You picked two fun songs.

GM: I know that Cid Bullens agrees on the fun aspect, as part of the backing vocal trio on stage. Cid told me, “It was so much fun performing ‘Grow Some Funk of Your Own’ live with the band every night and ‘I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)’ is beautifully written.” Kenny, you made your Elton John Band debut with this album, in your home state of Colorado. What can you add about these two songs, Elton’s only official double-sided hit until his Princess Diana tribute, “Candle in the Wind 1997” / “Something About the Way You Look Tonight.”

KENNY PASSARELLI: I have very fond memories of both “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” and “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford).” To get the call to work with Elton John was quite a surprise, that he decided to move forward with some new musicians, because Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums were so instrumental in his early days and were such a unit. I really admire artists who say, “This is what I need to do next.” When we got to Caribou Ranch, Elton had not yet completed all the material. We rehearsed for about a week or so in the studio. Elton wanted to go with more of a rock sound with “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” which we recorded after our week of rehearsing. It is a guitar driven track with Davey plus Caleb Quaye, and I love it. I was fortunate to be on the track, recorded live in the studio, separated in the normal way when you are recording more than one person. Roger Pope was in the corner drum booth with impeccable timing. Ray Cooper was in another corner with all the percussion instruments that he played, and Elton was just getting down on the Steinway. Jim Guercio, who owned Caribou, a destination studio, said that “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)” was his favorite song on the Rock of the Westies album. He felt, as a producer, that it should have been reversed with that song on the A side.

DJ: We have some great memories of those times in the studio and on tour. Even Billie Jean King would come on stage sometimes and join the backing vocal team. She became a good friend of ours. Her tennis team was the Philadelphia Freedoms and our song “Philadelphia Freedom” was written to honor them.

Davey funk

Elton John

Flip side: I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)

A side: Grow Some Funk of Your Own (E. John, B. Taupin and D. Johnstone)

Billboard Top 100 debut: January 24, 1976

Peak position: No. 14

MCA 40505

Davey Johnstone and Kenny Passarelli, Elton John’s “Rock of the Westies” album liner, 1975

Davey Johnstone and Kenny Passarelli, Elton John’s “Rock of the Westies” album liner, 1975

GM: Now let’s talk about the new album. Your son Elliot’s vocal on “Go Easy on My Heart,” which is my favorite song, sounds like Roy Orbison and I am also reminded of J.D. Souther’s hit “You’re Only Lonely.” This is a great opener, and it is also fun to watch the video.

DJ: Thank you so much. I really like this one as well. It is the new single from the album. My friend Denny Seiwell, who used to be in Wings, played drums on the song and did a great job. I wanted a nostalgic pop sound. Elton would agree with you that my boy Elliot’s voice sounds like Roy. He has an incredible voice, and it has been so great to do this record with him featured on many of the live vocals, plus my sons Charlie on keyboards and background vocals, Jesse on drums, and Tam mixing a couple of the tracks. It has been wonderful to have all these talented boys and my daughter Juliet did an amazing job designing the colorful album cover.

GM: Speaking about your children, Charlie’s keyboards on “One Look in Your Eyes” has a great mellotron sound. The song has a wonderful balance of beauty and power.

DJ: Yes, it was mellotron flutes, stemming from my love of The Beatles like in “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Elton and I have used it many times over the years, like on “Daniel.” We have used mellotron strings and flutes on our records. I really wanted to get that late 1960s and early 1970s British rock sound. I think we pulled it off. It sounds like The Kinks in places, and I love that. The reason why the album is called Deeper Than My Roots is that it delves back to my early love of music and bands that I was listening to when I was learning to play, going back to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, plus Elvis Presley, Little Richard and others. I still adore listening to music. There are some great new artists, too. One of the artists on the record is Vanessa Bryan who sings lead on the finale, “All the Time in the World” and brings a “Gimme Shelter”-type backing vocal delivery to “Deeper.” She is a phenomenal singer, and I was very fortunate to meet her last year and get her involved in my project. She is a real up and coming star, too.

Vanessa Bryan, “All the Time in the World” video photo, 2020

Vanessa Bryan, “All the Time in the World” video photo, 2020

GM: The placement of “All the Time in the World” at the end is perfect as it is like a bonus track with a different vocal sound and gospel style. A single released ahead of the album was the mellow “Melting Song” with Charlie on organ and Nigel Olsson on drums.

DJ: That’s right. When I wrote the song, I knew straight away with it being an acoustic-type song that there is only guy to play drums on it, who can play this kind of style, and that’s my Elton John Band brother Nigel. I called him and said I know we are all isolating but in the small home studio that I am using, owned by a friend of mine Marlon Hoffman, there will only be the engineer Major Wynn, me and you, and we will all be masked and vaccinated so it will be as safe as we can be. Nigel came around, heard the song, loved it, played on the track, just two takes, and it was done. It was great and wonderful to have him on the album.

GM: We discussed the 1960s and 1970s sounds on the album, let’s go back even further to the 1950s 3/4 quarter time on “You Lied to Me,” like an early rock and roll composition with a piano backdrop.

DJ: I wanted to write the music like a torch song ballad about lost love. You can really hear the power of Elliot’s vocal register. I generally don’t get too political, but I wrote the title and lyrics about Donald Trump.

GM: Well, The Beatles mentioned political figures in “Taxman” on their Revolver album, which included “Here, There and Everywhere” which you cover so beautifully, with a great string keyboard arrangement from Charlie and I enjoy your mandolin.

DJ: Thank you so much. That was actually the first song that we cut. We were sitting around the house, all isolating, being safe as we can, and we were getting bored. I suggested that we lay down a couple of songs. Elliot was fifteen when we started this album and has always loved The Beatles and can’t not love them, because when he is in my car, their music is usually playing, or something close to it. I suggested that we do a version of the song and Elliot said, “Yes. I know and love that song.” We went up to Charlie’s bedroom, put a microphone up, I played acoustic guitar, Elliot sang it, and that was the basic track of the song. Then I added some other instruments, like mandolin, as you mentioned, bass, and electric guitar. Then I asked my friend Denny, due to his Beatles connection, to play drums on it, and he did a beautiful job on it also. Charlie added a shaker, and we did some background vocals together. It was really fun. When we did that track it became obvious to me that it was sounding really good and I had a method of players within my family and was lucky enough to get all my kids to play some part in it, because they are wonderful musicians, so why go anywhere else? I am waiting to get a reaction on it from one of my friends who you know as Ringo, and I know as Richard. I can’t wait to hear what he thinks of it. He’ll probably say, “It’s a lot of bloody rubbish,” or something like that.

GM: You had a Beatles connection with John Lennon, too. Did you get involved on his Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey 1980 recording sessions?

DJ: No, sadly. I knew I was going to be in New York City for a couple of days and I reached out to him on the telephone while he was recording and we had a lovely chat. Little did I know that it would be the last time that I would talk to him. What a tragedy all the way around. My memories are so strong and vivid on all the time we spent together from July 1974 through Thanksgiving of that year when he played with us at Madison Square Garden. We recorded several things together. We did “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the flip side “One Day at a Time,” which John also wrote, plus the songs we recorded live at Madison Square Garden, like the flip side “I Saw Her Standing There.” He came as our guest to quite a few of our shows. He loved checking out how bands were working at that point live, because The Beatles hadn’t played live for about a decade at that point. That was a long break for him. Things are a lot different now. The technology on the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour is remarkable, which will include a pair of dates back at Madison Square Garden later this month. Thank you so much for featuring my family’s new music in Goldmine and getting to talk about the old songs, too.

Davey Lennon

Elton John (flip sides with John Lennon)

Flip side: One Day at a Time (written by John Lennon)

A side: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Billboard Top 100 debut: November 30, 1974

Peak position: No. 1 (two weeks)

MCA 40344

Flip side: I Saw Her Standing There – Featuring John Lennon

A side: Philadelphia Freedom

Billboard Top 100 debut: March 8, 1975

Peak position: No. 1 (two weeks)

MCA 40364

Davey Johnstone, Facebook

Davey Johnstone, Facebook

Related Links:

"Go Easy on My Heart" - The Davey Johnstone Band video