Elton John, Paul McCartney: Writing a Killer Single Couldn’t Hurt

Elton John Paul McCartney

After all the hype, stories in every mainstream publication known to man and an appearance on the Emmys, Elton John sold a paltry 48,000 copies of “The Diving Board” last week. And you know it’s less than 20,000 next week, and then it’s over.

What happened?

Contrast this with Cher, who did do “Today” and “The Late Show With David Letterman,” but was also the beneficiary of a hit single, “Woman’s World,” which hit No. 1 on the Dance Club/Play songs chart in August. Hell, I didn’t even know she had an album coming out, and that’s the way it should be: Only the fans care.

And you simply don’t reach the fans via carpet-bombing.

McCartney just answered a bunch of questions on Twitter trying to promote his next album, “New.” You know you’re done when you employ a paradigm every hipster used two years ago. What next, an AOL real-time chat?

Don’t swoop down and try to get our attention when you’ve got something to sell, be in our face every day if you want to play the viral marketing game. Miley Cyrus posted video of herself twerking on YouTube long before the VMAs. It got the fan base energized; she showed she was an artist, not an entertainer.

Yup, today’s artists are creating all day long. And not in the same way they used to. Madonna wasn’t all about the music, and neither is Miley. But if you want to make it about the music, make good stuff.

I love Elton. But despite the sound being exquisite, I couldn’t find one decent track on the whole damn album, and I actually listened to the entire thing. Certainly no “Take Me to the Pilot” or “Sixty Years On.” Would I love to write about Elton? Of course! But now I can only say something negative.

Hey Elton! Go where the people are! Go on Twitter and post pics of your kids, talk about your frustrations, tell us what you’re listening to!

Or don’t do anything like that and release undeniable music; that’s how the Weeknd broke.

It’s creepy, all these oldsters with their faces lifted and hair dyed, trying to appear young while the audience either ignores them or makes fun of them. Baseball players don’t come out of retirement to hit home runs and pitch no-hitters. Why should it be any different in music?

If only McCartney put out a track every month. And supported it with an online presence. Maybe, one of them would hit.

Or if he’s truly that desperate, why not work with Dr. Luke. Or provide backups on a Cyrus record or drop into hits like the rapper du jour.

Anathema you say!

But if you don’t think Elton and McCartney are dying to sell their new records, you don’t know them.

And it’s very tough. Because their audience is ancient and hard to motivate. But if you do it the same damn way, why expect a different result?

Elton broke because of the undeniable “Your Song.” Half a listen was good enough. Write another one 90% as good, get Jeffrey Katzenberg to feature it in a new DreamWorks animated production, and whore it out as a theme song for Burger King thereafter.

Stop with the albums no one cares about. There’s not even any money in it anymore.

Play the YouTube awards. Sit in with your brethren. Don’t appear desperate, but HUNGRY!

Isn’t that the main appeal of Miley Cyrus, how much she WANTS IT?

Read more Bob Lefsetz columns at Lefsetz.com.

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    1. Anthony Duda says:

      I don’t think I’d want to see Elton “twerking” onstage, but I have to agree. I’ve been a huge fan all the way back to Madman Across the Water but, for all the publicity and hype, The Diving Board is a huge disappointment. T-Bone Burnett may be a fine producer, but he does not know how to produce Elton John. His style and production values are far too stark and sterile. 2001’s Songs from the West Coast saw Elton once again approach his potential. Why? Awesome production by Patrick Leonard, the only producer since the late Gus Dudgeon who knew how to produce Elton John in the studio. It’s not about trying to recapture the magic of 1970s, it’s about understanding a sound, a sound that is the essence of an Elton John record. The three-piece ‘stripped down’ Elton John band worked well for live shows very early in his career, but that formula never translated well in the studio. Even Tumbleweed Connection, the classic album many compare The Diving Board to, had more lavish production. Elton John is an artist who needs the soaring backing vocals. He needs the lush and unique Paul Buckmaster arrangements. But, most of all, he needs the right producer.

      Elton has said that he’s not the type of artist that will ever again be played on the radio and, compared to his popularity in the 1970s, he’s correct; that will never happen again. But the potential for a hit album and single is still there. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are as good as ever. Elton’s voice, while lowered by age and altered as a result of surgery to remove polyps on his vocal cords in the late 1980s, is still recognizable and a force to be reckoned with. If you listen to some of the his early (pre-Honky Chateau) albums, his voice is actually very similar to today; deeper and warmer. Whether that was the result of acoustics in the old Trident Studios or a conscious effort on his part, it’s comparable. And I think it is his natural voice; throughout his career he’s ‘reverted’ back to it. Think songs as chronologically diverse as Your Song, Candle in the Wind, Blue Eyes, Cold as Christmas (in the middle of the year) and Home Again. Yet, for some reason, and often on the same album, he has recorded songs in a much higher register, such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and The Bitch is Back.

      The ’70s are history but, as Songs from the West Coast showed, the sound and magic doesn’t have to be. The key is in the production.

    2. Deb Stoops says:

      You bite your tongue. Miley Cyress are you kidding really?? Elton has more class in the rim of his glasses than Miley in her whole Body. Yes they are beyond the young fan base but they are still legends. They are still loved by millions and if not for the legends where would the sniffling brats today be..

    3. Shari says:

      Love that you think Miley twerking proves she’s an artist. Really? My what low standards you set. It would be great if she spent more of her energy and talent working on her performances being something other than awkward and immature ideas thrown at the wall to see if the shock factor sticks. She’s brilliantly playing the fame game, which is definitely tough – though she already had her fan base from her Hannah Montana days. Which she is literally giving the finger to. To bring her up as the ‘artist’ to aspire to just shows a complete lack of appreciation for musicianship. But hey, folks say anything to try and get eyeballs these days. Particularly if it requires very little actual intellect.

    4. Abby Greer says:

      I think that’s a fabulous idea

    5. Bob Smith, Smithville says:

      Gee, aren’t you a bottom feeder–a feeder on other people’s fame. You’re not talking about the quality of the records–both of which are pretty solid efforts by people who know what they’re doing and who still know their way around this lost thing called melody. I care that artists make worthy, decent material. That goes for all the arts. I don’t care about their age, how long they’ve been in the game any of it. There will always be low rent wage apes like Bob the writer to try to tear down while having no discernible talent of any sort–let alone music, let alone writing. The appeal of Miley Cyrus is that each year popular culture through concerted promotion barfs up someone like Miley. There will be another tremor in 6 months time and it’ll be someone else. That’s pop. Elton and Paul have written 100 songs each that people from 3 to 100 know by heart. That strikes me as not the easiest of tasks in this world. Paltry columns like yours could be written in the two minutes it takes for the barista to foam up your latte. Get a job; do something with your life.

    6. RBR says:

      So Elton sells 48k units, good enough to be the 4th best selling album of that particular week and that is somehow a failure to this Bob fellow. You failed to mention that Cher’s album sold something like 63k which is not that much of an improvement and came in at number 3. And by the way, he does have a successful single from the album. “Home Again” is in the top 15 of the AC chart where Elton has ruled over the last 25 years or so. Elton has repeatedly said he is making the kind of music he wants to make and the new album is exactly that. A piano, bass and drums driven album that is the best thing he’s done in 20 years. Sit back and enjoy it….

    7. New says:

      I usually agree with Lefsetz but he’s way off here. Really, you’re suggesting McCartney and Elton John should be more like Miley Cyrus and Cher?

      First of all, pop music nowadays is all dance music. People are just looking for a silly, stupid, derivative dance song that they can play in clubs. That’s what tops the charts. That’s not what Paul McCartney does. He’s a songwriter, a purist. He’s not going to debase himself, nor does he need to. He has nothing left to prove. He would like his album to be a big success, but it’s not the end of the world if it isn’t. The reason he is still writing music is because he loves doing it. Just like Walter White, he does it for him. He’d like other people to enjoy it, but it’s okay if they don’t.

      Secondly, even with a great song Paul would not top the charts. That’s because the charts are a popularity contest among teenagers, and after a certain age you don’t get to participate anymore no matter how great a song you write. If Paul gave all his new songs to a hot young artist, I guarantee you a bunch of them would be hits.

      I say to Paul, keep rocking. I say to everyone else, who are you to even think you could be in a position to criticize Paul McCartney on a musical level and know what he should be doing? It would be like giving tips to Einstein on how to be a physicist.

    8. seppie76 says:

      Who are you Bob, a professional troll. I sure hope you are not being payed for this inane “analysis”. And please don’t tell me you just compared Cher to two of popular musics greatest SONGWRITERS. Paul just got great reviews as has Elton. With these “old” veterans its about the art first and promotion is second. I’m sure, that may come as a bit of a surprise, to one who is such a keen observer of modern entertainment. But surprisingly in this narcissistic age of Kardashians, there are a few relics who are still true purveyors of art rather than acting purely from a need for self promotion.

    9. Rob H says:

      Elton drew a line in the sand with 2001’s Songs from the West Coast, and said he would not make any crappy records anymore. So his music has been very consistent since SFTWC, and I would say consistently very good, and that this past decade is only a half step behind his first decade, and a couple leaps beyond most of his 1980’s stuff.
      He is creating the music he likes, instead of trying to always write a hit single. He already has the record for most consecutive years with a top 40 single (1970-1999), and even a more impressive record of consecutive years with a top 30 single (1971-1998), so he doesn’t need to try to be commercial anymore.
      Yes, he can still write a catchy song, and sometimes he just gives it away– like “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” he gave to the Scissor Sisters. But that kind of song sounds better with someone like them than it would have with his older voice, anyway.
      Anyway, yes, The Diving Board is not for everyone. But for me (an ancient fan, as you say) it has only grown on me. His piano playing on that album is the best he’s ever recorded (and finally showcases the talent everyone can see in concert). His voice is older, even than what was on The Union, thanks to his constant touring. I do hope he can rest with his family for a while, and come back with a more rested voice on the next one.
      As far as his repertoire, I think somewhere in his lifespan he should have recorded an intimate, quiet album that really showcases his piano. Well, he’s now done that. Maybe next time, he’ll go back to loud guitars; I know Davey Johnstone would certainly appreciate that.

    10. Bill says:

      Please, no.

      If “artists” need to be in your face every moment of every day, they’re no longer about their work but rather about celebrity, pure and simple.

      I like my singers to sing wonderful songs beautifully recorded; I don’t care whether I can pull up nude photos of them.

    11. My Opinion says:

      First of all, I agree that these two aged pop/rock stars would like to sell their albums. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have upped their presence in the media. However, I will give them credit for not going to the extremes suggested in this article. Paul McCartney teamed up with Michael Jackson in the early 80s when he was hot, and I’m sure he (and his fans) regrets that in many respects. I think for these guys, they sometimes desperately hope to break through with a song that will somehow resonate with music buyers these days – young people.

      McCartney in particular, is now a victim of the music media he helped create: youth-oriented music with youthful performers and youthful energy. Like Elvis before them, the Beatles’ music appealed to young people, and so the trend began to tie popular music to youth. Just look at the median age of musical artists who have topped the carts each decade, and you’ll see the numbers drop with each passing decade (Louis Armstrong, who was in his sixties at the time, was the oldest person to have a number one single on the Billboard Charts – coincidentally enough in 1964, when the Beatles broke out in America). Every once in a while, someone who is dismissed as a “has-been” manages a “breakthrough” hit, like Cher did with “Believe” in 1999. Even so, Cher wasn’t in her 60s or 70s yet.

      I don’t agree with the analogy to baseball players. Musicians are artists, not athletes. Athletes will naturally peak after a certain age. And while musicians’ voices (like McCartney’s and John’s) will never be what they used to be, they are still capable of quality music. While I’m not familiar with John’s recent work, I would say McCartney has had some quality music that could have had potential. I always thought “See Your Sunshine” from 2007’s Memory Almost Full could have been covered by Maroon 5. And “Sing the Changes” from his 2008 Fireman project sounded contemporary enough to have been a hit.

      This is where I think the media has unfairly dismissed older artists. We could have a chicken or the egg kind of argument, but my view is that radio has become an ageist entity. McCartney and John have new pop/rock singles and albums out, but you will never hear them on mainstream radio. You’ll be lucky to catch them on a classic rock or oldies station. But if these artists are releasing brand new pop/rock singles, shouldn’t they at least deserve initial airplay? It might even benefit them in a sense that maybe, just maybe, someone listening to their music, and being too young to really know or care who they are, might actually like one of their songs and not automatically link it to an old face. Instead, mainstream radio is content with overplaying the same ten artists with their same half dozen songs ad nauseam throughout the day. You can argue that that’s what the public must want. But I’ll make the analogy to American Idol. Just because someone won American Idol, doesn’t mean they will be a bonafide hit maker. It’s very possible certain contestants just appealed strongly to a devoted enough fan base to prompt those fans to spend an insane amount of time casting multiple votes. Radio is catering to those die hard fans, although there may be other artists, young or old, of the same genre who aren’t even given a chance on the airwaves.

      So yes, while I think these aging artists “hope” to sell their new albums and re-enter the mainstream, I think they know it’s a long shot. Hence the flurry of media appearances. Hence the quick drop in the charts. They want it, but they don’t want it bad enough to “put a single out every month”. They’ve had that already. While it would be great for them to have a second go at it, they’re in retirement age. If it comes great, but I don’t think either of them want to, and definitely don’t need to, work that hard for it. I’m sure they’re perfectly content with very modest sales of their new material, continuously steady sales of their revered back catalogs, and mind-blowing sales of their endless concert dates.

    12. Joe Smart says:

      Elton John hasn’t written a catchy song since the 1980’s but that’s what generally happens when artists get older–they’ve used up all of their hooks and no longer write memorable tunes and we’re supposed to care more about the lyrics or arrangements or whatever. The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and many, many others have all suffered the same fate. Bob Dylan’s new albums get good reviews but I find them unspeakably tedious. The Rolling Stones last good album was Tattoo You, which was basically crap that wasn’t good enough for Some Girls. Nobody other than die hard fans listens to Neil Young or Elton John or Paul McCarthy anymore because listening to their music requires a level of devotion far beyond what the average fan can manage. All of these artists would write catchy songs again if they could but it’s not going to happen.

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