September 2, 2019

'Sleeping With The Past' turns 30

I think 'Sleeping With The Past' is the strongest record we’ve ever made. We went back to our roots and tried to do something special, and I feel we succeeded… Bernie and I came up with the idea of making an album that paid tribute to all the great old soul songs we’d grown up with, and I feel that gives it a real sense of continuity.
Elton John (1989)

The 1989 US leg of Elton John’s World Tour launched on July 28 at the Hartford (CT) Civic Center. During that concert, Elton played four songs from an album that the public would not be able to buy for another month, Sleeping With The Past.

Scattered throughout the 25-song set lists during that tour, songs like the title track, Healing Hands, Stone’s Throw From Hurtin’ and, solo at the Roland keyboard Elton used during the late 1980s, Sacrifice, gave the audiences a generous taste of what would quickly become a fan-favourite album.


Elton and Bernie during a promo shoot for 'Sleeping With The Past'. (Photo: Herb Ritts)


Elton’s 23rd studio album was recorded from November 12 to December 14 1988 and then January 9 to March 12 1989 at Puk Recording Studios in Gjerlev, Denmark; the same studio where George Michael had recorded Faith the previous year. Backing vocalist Kudisan Kai (Natalie Jackson at the time the album was recorded) remembers it in her book, Memoirs of a Back Up Diva, as "a beautiful, state-of-the-art recording facility with lovely living quarters with a spa/pool/jacuzzi, a pool room, a gourmet kitchen and dining room, all out in the middle of a pig farm. Yes, a pig farm that stunk to high heaven, but [the studio complex] was awesome."

The ten songs that comprise the album (all but two of them begin with drums – unique for an Elton LP) are tributes to the old soul and R&B records that Elton and Bernie listened to in their youth. As the lyricist explained to Steven P. Wheeler, "I said [to Elton] that we have to sit down and decide what we want to make, and make a cohesive album with a collection of songs that sound like they all fit together. So, we came up with the idea of going back and listening to the songs that inspired us when we first started writing songs, the time when R&B records were really great – the Chess days, the Stax records, and when Motown was at its peak. … So, I started dragging out all these old records and listening to them to get a feel, and we decided to basically make a white-soul album for the late ‘80s, and I think that’s what we’ve done."

Elton sees himself as an R&B singer. He’s as R&B as you can be. He’s doing his version of what he grew up listening to.
Kudisan Kai (2019)

Sleeping With The Past was released in the US on August 29, 1989, and spent 53 weeks on the Billboard Top 200, peaking at #23. It currently holds Platinum award status with the Recording Industry Association of America.

In the UK, the LP came out on September 1 and originally plateaued at #6 on the Album Chart before spending five weeks at the top of the chart after the re-release of Sacrifice gave Elton his first solo #1 single in his home country. The British Phonographic Industry has it at 3x Platinum status presently. The album also topped the charts in Switzerland and New Zealand and it reached #2 in Australia and France.

Recording the album was a special experience for all involved. As Kudisan explains, "We were completely taken care of. We would arrive at around 11 in the morning or so, and have a traditional English breakfast, and then afterwards we would have an opportunity to sit and listen to what Elton was doing. Bernie would send him the lyrics and then he would put the lyrics up on top of the piano and just read through them. And then he would just play block chords and find a melody. They’d be recording while he was playing and he’d say, 'Okay, this will be the verse,' and he’d play that. 'This will be the bridge… Okay, you got that? Next.' And he’d go on to the next song! He never really second-guessed his talent. He was sure of himself; he trusted his instincts. I learned a valuable lesson there. As time went on, especially when I started really heavily writing my own music, I realised what a gift that was.

"Davey [Johnstone, Guitarist and newly-appointed Musical Director] was there while he was doing that, and producer Chris Thomas. Then the band would work out the songs and lay the tracks down, Elton would have done a sample vocal, and in the evening we would record [the backing vocals]. It just went from song to song. It took a day or two per song, maybe.

"Davey played a major role in us working out our parts. He had already spoken with Elton and they had an idea as to what they wanted. Davey was really good at that – he would come up with the parts and make suggestions. We’d try them out and then we would suggest things from time to time, but for the most part, I think Davey really had a vision – or Elton had a vision and told Davey – as to what he wanted us to do. Elton was not there when we recorded our parts; once he got his stuff done, he was out of there."


★   Inspired by Lee Dorsey’s 1966 hit, written by one of Elton’s idols, Allen Toussaint, Working In The Coal Mine.
★   Gus Dudgeon included an alternate ending to the lead vocal on the 1999 PolyGram remaster CD.

★   Asutute fans can read the Four Tops’ Reach Out, I’ll Be There influence in the lyrics and hear the Impressions (famous for songs like It’s All Right and Woman’s Got Soul) in the music.
★   Released as the album’s first single in July 1989, backed with the non-LP B-side, Dancing In The End Zone. The single reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart in the US, peaking at #45 in UK.

★ One of the first songs completed on the album, the demo for this ballad gave Elton, "the old spine-tingling feeling."

★  The album’s third single came out in March of 1990, peaking at #28 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #2 on the US Adult Contemporary. It reached #47 in the UK and even topped the Denmark Singles Chart.
★  The song was a tip of the hat, lyrically and musically, to one of America’s premiere vocal groups of the 1960s. Elton told Rolling Stone magazine’s Cameron Crowe in 2013, "We wanted to write a song like the Drifters would record, one of those Goffin/King, Brill Building songs. It's the closest we ever got to one."

★  One of the first songs recorded for the album, the title track echoes something the Temptations (Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone) might have released.

★  Bernie was thinking of Sam & Dave in the lyric-writing while Elton evoked Marvin Gaye in the music, although he later described it as "JJ Cale meets Canned Heat" and identified it as one of his favourite tracks on the album.
★  The unique lead vocal from Elton was what is called the guide, or scratch, vocal – where the artist whispers into the microphone during the take to guide the band through the song.
★  Kudisan: "I remember I had to do that vocal ad-lib [in the final 'hurtinnnn's] over and over. They wanted it a certain way – it couldn’t be too long or too short. They’d say, 'Just go in there and sing' and then it would be like, 'Okay, try again, that’s too long…' or too short or whatever [laughs]."

★ Bernie’s lyrics ("A very sexual song about a 40-year-old who's gone through the pain of failed marriage and failed sexual conquests.") were inspired by Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. He has called it, "one of the best songs we’ve written" and a "bookend to Your Song" (note that both lyrics begin with "It’s a…").
★ Elton agrees, saying it was "one of the best songs I did for a long time" and "It's the one song off the album that I’m very, very, very fond of."
★ The second and fourth single from the album. Originally released, backed with Love Is A Cannibal, in October 1989, it reached #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the AC charts. In the UK it peaked at #55 but was paired with Healing Hands for a re-issue in May 1990. British DJs began playing this "flip side" and the song became Elton’s first solo #1 in the UK.

★ Elton said in 1989 that, "The piano on that is kinda very Aretha Franklin, like Don’t Play that Song. That’s the kind of style the piano playing is on that.”

★ Inspired by Ray Charles, this is one of Bernie’s favourite songs on the album. “It has a southern swampy feel that I feel was really captured in the recording.”
★ Kudisan: “I did those vocal ad libs later on in a studio in London. We were on tour with Elton and when we were in London, they brought me into the studio to do some sweetening.”

★ A bit of an odd-song-out, Elton cited the music as Joni Mitchell-esque. "Blue Avenue isn’t exactly an R&B-type song," he said in 1989. "It’s a very ‘Elton John’-type song, but it kind of fits in with the rest."

Three other songs were recorded during the sessions. Dancing In The End Zone and Love Is A Cannibal, both with Davey Johnstone as a co-writer, were released as B-sides to two of the album’s singles. Love Is Worth Waiting For, had been demo’d during the Reg Strikes Back sessions the year before and was further worked on at Puk but has never been released. This song, however, was performed live at an Athletes and Entertainers for Kids event in Los Angeles in July 1988, making one of only two Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs to be performed live but never officially issued. A song called Sugar And Fire also did not make it past the demo stage.

Live in Miami in at the start of the 1988-89 'World Tour'. (Photo: Philip Ollerenshaw)

Live in Miami in at the start of the 1988-89 'World Tour'. (Photo: Philip Ollerenshaw)


Elton and the band toured the album in North American throughout the summer and fall of 1989, for a total of 49 concerts. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts attended the Cincinnati show on September 13 and Eric Clapton joined Elton on stage during Rocket Man at Madison Square Garden on October 7.

For the first time in years, Bernie traveled with the tour. The bond between the songwriting pair was as strong as ever, with Elton dedicating the album to his lyricist and with Bernie doing publicity whenever the opportunity arose, including an appearance on the US syndicated radio call-in show, Rockline.

Kudisan fondly recalls, "That tour, and the 1992-93 tour, they were so fun. Elton really let us shine. I felt like he was making it a 'show'. You know, like when you have a revue? We were kind of like The Raelettes [laughing]."

This is probably the strongest album we’ve ever made; I think it’s a 'classic' Elton John album… it’s incredibly accessible but maintains great integrity and I’m very proud of that. I wanted to do one more tour before I hang up my road shoes. I couldn’t imagine not being close to Elton while this album is out.
Bernie Taupin (1989)


★  Keyboards (Fender Rhodes electric piano, Roland digital keyboard, and a Bösendorfer acoustic piano) & Vocals – Elton John
★  Bass – Romeo Williams
★  Drums – Jonathan Moffett
★  Guitars, Backing Vocals – Davey Johnstone
★  Keyboards, Guitar, Organ – Fred Mandel
★  Keyboards – Guy Babylon
★  Saxophone – Vince Denham
★  Fairlight (percussion and guitar samples) & Audiofile Programming – Peter Iversen
★  Backing Vocals– Mortonette Jenkins, Marlena Jeter, and Natalie Jackson

★  Producer – Chris Thomas
★  Engineer – David Nicholas

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