‘Bennie and the Jets': The Elton John Song That Made Axl Rose Want to Rock
In 1994, Elton John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Axl Rose.
Rose's induction may seem surprising to those who missed the parallels between Guns N’ Roses' “November Rain” and John’s "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the opening medley from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
John was always an inspiration for Rose; they even performed together at the MTV Video Music Awards and the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992. As Rose shared from the Rock Hall induction stage, it was actually another Goodbye Yellow Brick Road song that inspired him to pursue a career in music: “When I first heard ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ I knew I had to be a performer,” he told the audience.
Lyricist Bernie Taupin has called the 1973 double album “the karmic root” for John fans. It’s hard to disagree. Among its 17 tracks are some of john's greatest songs, including the title track, “Candle in the Wind” to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”
And then there’s “Bennie and the Jets,” an unlikely standout but a monster hit nonetheless ... and in an unexpected way. As Mark Bego chronicles in his John biography The Bitch Is Back, “Bennie” became a big single for John almost in spite of itself.
In 1974, two Detroit radio stations, one of them the historically black WJLB, put the tune in heavy rotation to amazing response. Other stations soon followed, and even though John was initially resistant to release the song as a single, it was issued as one in February 1974 and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 not much later. It also made it to No. 15 on the Hot Soul Singles chart, earning John a guest spot on Soul Train in May 1975.
Watch Elton John Perform 'Bennie and the Jets' on 'Soul Train'
When John and his band recorded the track in May 1973, they weren’t quite sure what they had. The group had retreated to France once again, working in the same studio that birthed the Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player albums. As guitarist Davey Johnstone recalled for a documentary on the making of the album, “Bennie and the Jets" was "one of the oddest songs we ever recorded. We just sat back and said, ‘This is really odd.’”
Producer Gus Dudgeon found a clever way to make “Bennie” stand out during the album’s mixing. Diving into the archives, he dug out audience applause and reaction clips from a John concert at Royal Festival Hall in London and from Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the Isle of Wight in 1970. He layered in these effects along with whistles and hand claps “doing the wrong beat, because English audiences always clap on the ‘on’ instead of the ‘off’ beat, which drives me crazy,” as Dudgeon told an interviewer in 2002, shortly before he died in a car accident.
“It’s a story about a girl band, basically, Bennie being a female,” John noted in 2016. “I don’t think a lot of people would know that, unless they’ve seen the illustration on the inside of the sleeve.”
John's music always attracted its share of covers, but “Bennie and the Jets” inspired some diverse takes over the years. Everyone from Lady Gaga, the Muppets and Pink to the Beastie Boys backing Biz Markie has given the song a try. Mary J. Blige even sampled the original song for her 1999 cut “Deep Inside” on which John guested. And in the 2008 movie 27 Dresses, James Marsden and Katherine Heigl spend some time in a bar making up comically awful lyrics to the song as they drunkenly sing together.
Watch Elton John and the Muppets Sing 'Bennie and the Jets'
"'Bennie and the Jets' was almost Orwellian -- it was supposed to be futuristic,” Taupin told Esquire in 2011. “They were supposed to be a prototypical female rock 'n' roll band out of science fiction. Automatons." Taupin also named comic books, German photographer Helmut Newton and watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on drugs as additional inspirations for “Bennie."
Even though Taupin’s lyrics are evocative, it’s the song's arrangement that catapults “Bennie and the Jets” to classic status: opening chords that echo through an imaginary concert hall, which lead into a sinewy melodic hook and an almost detached, sardonic vocal and then head straight into the unforgettable stuttering “Buh-buh-buh-Bennie.” Possibly drawing subconscious inspiration from Roger Daltrey’s similar technique on the Who's “My Generation,” that one small touch may be a big part of “Bennie and the Jets”' enduring appeal
"That's a little quirk of the song which I'm sad to say I had nothing to do with,” Taupin once said. “That and that wonderful big chord at the beginning. I think those two things are what probably made that song so popular. Neither of which I had anything to do with."
Watch the Video for 'Bennie and the Jets'