By the Editor@EltonJohn.com
Harmony, the closing song to Elton John’s epochal 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, has often been at the top of “fan favorite” lists over the past forty years. Now it takes on even more significance as a new video of the ballad has been compiled from a truly remarkable collection of film footage that has never before been made public.
The video is made up of silent Super 8mm film that was shot by two members of Elton’s road crew between 1970 and 1974 and edited by Tam Johnstone (son of Elton’s guitarist, Davey). It shows as never before Elton and the band, on stage and off, during the self-declared “Five Years Of Fun” that defined his first spectacular ascent.
Unboxed for the purposes of an intimate documentary of the Elton John Band (in early production), the montage also includes appearances by Stevie Wonder, Billie Jean King, Elton’s parents, his early managers Steve Brown and John Reid, producer Gus Dudgeon, and other members of Elton’s inner circle. It is an incredible glimpse into the life of one of music’s most remarkable careers during its heyday.
EltonJohn.com spoke with Tam about the footage and its associated documentary project, which you can read below the video.
EltonJohn.com: Where did this footage come from?
Tam Johnstone: Some time ago, Anett Murray [late bass player Dee Murray’s first wife] wanted to make a documentary about Dee. She got in touch with these two guys, John Babcock and Marvin Tabolsky, who were part of Elton’s original road crew in the 70s. They had all this amazing Super 8 footage, which they shot on the road. It’s fantastic. It’s from, as far as I can gather, 1971 through to 1974. At some point Davey got on board and brought Guy Babylon with him and they started editing stuff together. Gradually, it went through several people, including Bob Birch, and when it finally got to me, I said, “Why don’t we make this about the whole band?”
EJ.com: Did the footage come to you with any sort of cheat sheet explaining what you were looking at?
TJ: No. It’s a lot of detective work as I’m sure you’d imagine. I’ve been sort of building a timeline of that period and trying to match footage with the band’s calendar: when they were in the studio, when they were on the road, etc. There’s that great shot in the Harmony video of the woman trapeze artist on Elton’s shoulders. As soon as I saw that, obviously I remembered the photo from the Five Years of Fun book. So it’s things like that.
Because I’m not only close to the whole organization but I’ve just been so obsessive about the music and the whole story, a lot of it was a case of I’d see the footage and go, “Oh, I know what that is. I’ve seen a photograph or I read about it in one of the biographies.” It’s fascinating to me. And it’s great because it’s not just them on the road and gigs and stuff, but there’s film of them on vacation as well…all sorts of things.
EJ.com: Did you have to repair the footage in any way?
TJ: Just a tiny bit really in terms of color. Some of it was quite dark so rather than treat it too much with exposure, it was more to do with using color to bring certain things out. I didn’t want to go too crazy on it because I didn’t want to mess the film too much. I think they used different types of Super 8 film and it was recorded at different periods. So some of it’s going to be darker and some of it’s going to be lighter.
JFH: How did you make the decisions as to which clips to include in Harmony?
TJ: There was no plan to have it in any chronological order or anything like that; I purely went on emotional feeling with the song. “What’s the bit that moves me the most here? Ok, that’s going there.” I went through everything and just was drawn to the things that really affected me.
EJ.com: There is some astounding stuff in the video: Stevie Wonder playing piano on Elton’s tour plane, the Starship. Elton has told that story a few times in interviews. He was napping and had to be dragged out for “a surprise.”
TJ: It’s stunning, isn’t it? Yeah, as soon as I saw those frames I was like, “I know exactly what this is!” It was wonderful seeing something come to life. I mean, I had the same feeling watching the Lennon at Madison Square Garden stuff that was discovered [recently discovered Super 8 footage of Elton and Lennon in 1974 is now being used in the Million Dollar Piano show]. It’s incredible seeing these things come to life that we’ve only heard of before.
EJ.com: This makes it real. You know Elton was popular and has been living this amazing life, but until you see it in action…
TJ: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s hard to kind of grasp it until you really see it. Even when it’s a grainy image like that, it still has a big effect, doesn’t it? And everyone looking very stylish, I have to say. Very ‘70s and in vogue and glamorous. And to see everyone from that time. I was very young back then, so I barely remember any of it. But my mother is in the Harmony video, and of course my father.
You pick any given year in that period and it’s like, they were doing two albums a year…tours…it was just non-stop for them. And they loved it. I mean, God. How could you not? Being that age and being thrust into that life.
EJ.com: Footage from Elton’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1973 has come out before, but you have different angles. Especially with the doves coming out from the pianos. That’s a great shot.
TJ: I think getting the perspective from the crowd is wonderful. It really shows you the scale of the thing. I love that. I think you can actually see Bernie scooping the doves out if you look very carefully. I remembered him talking about that on the Yellow Brick Road Classic Albums DVD.
EJ.com: Will the band documentary be similar to the Harmony video?
TJ: Well, it is very early days. I’ve basically just started editing scenes together. And in fact at this point not using as much of the footage as you would think because we’re really letting the interviews I have done with people like Anett and Davey, and others, guide the story. We’re trying to make it a fresh approach to a story that is very well known. And bring in elements that haven’t been seen or heard before.
The Harmony video was intended to be a jumping off point, if you will. It is the first thing I did on the project. And it was really an emotional thing to make, for me. Hopefully people will enjoy it as well.