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Songs of '74: Elton John Plays a Fictional Fanboy of an Equally Fictional Band in His Chart-Topping 'Bennie and the Jets'

Although the song found its way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, it only just barely made it into the UK top 40.

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Source: MEGA

Elton John performing in Watford in May of 1974.

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By 1974, Elton John had made his first ascent to the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100, having hit No. 1 the previous year with “Crocodile Rock,” the first single from his sixth studio album, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player. As such, it was perhaps not quite as momentous an occasion when he found his way to the top once again only a little over a year later, but in retrospect, it was certainly a moment that helped cement the superstar status that he still maintains to this day.

Co-written by John and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin and produced by Gus Dudgeon, “Bennie and the Jets” was released as a single from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and depending on which copy of the LP or the 45 you own, you may well find that “Bennie” is spelled with a “y” rather than an “ie.” This apparently depends on where the item in question was pressed, but make no mistake, the name in question is indeed supposed to be spelled “Bennie.”

As its narrator, the song finds John adopting the role of a major fanboy of what Taupin described to Rolling Stone as a fictional "proto-sci-fi punk band."

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Elton John in 1974, seeing the world through star-shaped sunglasses

“It’s a story about a girl band, Bennie being a female,” John revealed during an episode of The Cut, a recurring series on his official YouTube Channel, which he devoted to the song. “I don’t think a lot of people would know that...except if you saw the illustration, of course, inside of the sleeve, you would get it. But if you haven’t seen that, you might not know it. But the lyrics more or less say it.”

“It’s androgynous,” added Taupin.

“Exactly, yeah,” agreed John. “It preceded the Robert Palmer video for ‘Addicted to Love,’ which was kind of, I think, Bennie and the Jets come to life.”

“Outside of Robert Palmer,” clarified Taupin. “Robert Palmer wasn’t Bennie, but the girls behind him were definitely the Jets.”

“Yeah, they’re definitely the Jets,” John concurred.

“Because the whole idea was that the band all looked the same,” said Taupin. “And again, if you’re going to direct or make a YouTube video, I would suggest that you think sort of a cross between Fritz Lang and Helmut Newton. It’s like that Metropolis meets...”

“The Helmut Newton, the bunny girls in the stockings and the long legs,” interrupted John. “You could make a very, very sexy video, as the Robert Palmer one was. But it would probably be good to be in black and white as well.”

“Like Metropolis, exactly,” concluded Taupin. “It’s androgynous, sexy science-fiction.”

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Source: MCA

The original 45 for the initial 1973 single release of "Bennie and the Jets"

In May 2017, a music video for “Bennie and the Jets” was released to YouTube. Directed by Jack Whiteley and Laura Brownhill, it was done as part of a competition done in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the John/Taupin songwriting collaboration. Indie filmmakers were tasked with submitting treatments for music videos for one of three Elton John songs from the '70s, with each song designated within a particular category. "Bennie and the Jets" was part of the Choreography category. After Whiteley and Brownhill won, the video made its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and is now listed on John’s official channel as being the song's “Official Music Video." As you can see if you click right here, it certainly lives up to the futuristic aspects as described by Taupin.

That said, however, if there’s anything that really comes close to being viewed as a real official music video for the song, it’s almost certainly the performance that John did of the song during his 1980 Central Park performance, which was a staple on both VH-1 and MTV for many years.

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Speaking of live performances, if you’ve ever wondered why the studio version of the song sounds as if it was recorded live when, in fact, it wasn’t, Gudgeon explained it in an interview for John’s website.

“For some weird reason, Elton happened to have hit the opening piano chord of the song exactly one bar before the song actually started,” said Gudgeon. “So I was doing the mix and this chord kept coming on which you normally wouldn't expect to hear. I turned to engineer [David Hentschel] and I said, 'What does that remind you of? … It's the sort of thing that people do on stage just before they're going to start a song.' Just to kind of get everybody, 'Okay, here we go, ready?' For some reason that chord being there made me think, 'Maybe we should fake-live this.' "

And so they did. Clearly, listeners had no complaints: as noted, the song topped the US charts 50 years ago this week, and it was also a chart-topper in Canada and climbed to No. 5 in Australia. Surprisingly, however, it never got any higher than No. 37 on the UK Singles chart, but that hasn't stopped it from becoming one of John's most beloved hits and maintaining its popularity as such throughout the intervening five decades.

But, of course, this was only inevitable. After all, when a song's been sung by the Muppets, it's automatically destined for pop music immortality.

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