Long-time Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone says his band, amongst the biggest in the world during the 1970s, were “twice as hardcore” as bands more known for their heavy lifestyles – but they got away with it because of the type of music they played.
And the man behind classic rock performances like Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting says he’s amazed the classic four-piece act survived the era intact. Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, who died in 1992, and drummer Nigel Olsson were the mainstay members of John’s band during his first flush of success, when they experimented with a wide range of musical forms. But the guitarist reports they also experimented with a wide range of recreational drugs.
He tells Music Radar: “Believe me, there were many ‘never again’ nights. Many ‘never again’ three-nights – 72-hour stretches where you literally never went to sleep. Then you did it again, twice as hard: “We did as many drugs as you can imagine and drank as much alcohol as we could possibly pour down our throats. But because of the music we were never linked to the drug culture like, say, the Rolling Stones. People didn’t think we were decadent, even though we were. We were twice as hardcore as so many other bands, but we never got hassled. But there were some scary times, and periods none of us are particularly proud of. In recent years I’ve stopped everything and I’m very grateful that I have my health. We were very fortunate to have come through it all alive.”
He says John have him free reins with arranging the band’s songs from their very first session together, when the guitarist suggested large-scale changes and proved they could work. But his greatest moments have been on their rockier tracks like Saturday Night’s Alright – hailed by the Who as one of the best songs of all time, with Roger Daltrey having said it “should have been a Who song.”
Johnstone comments: “In those days, when a song came up I’d immediately start working on what I should do. Elton wrote so fast I had to be just as quick to keep up. As soon as I heard him writing Saturday Night I knew it was a total guitar-rocking track. So I wrote the intro and all the guitar parts. It was so much fun – at first Elton didn’t even want to play on it. He was just jumping around while the rest of us played. Eventually he put some piano parts on it. It was very exciting.
“What’s funny is, you listen to a track like Saturday Night and you think it’s fast, but it’s really not. It’s got the feel of a speeding train, and when you’re young you play everything fast because of the adrenaline. We play it properly now, but for years we played it way to fucking fast.”