35 Years Ago: Elton John Reboots Himself With ‘Reg Strikes Back’
Elton John’s 21st studio album perhaps wasn’t his best ever, but it was a remarkable achievement compared with what came before.
His star had faded in the years running up to the release of Reg Strikes Back on June 24, 1988. Its predecessor, Leather Jackets, was by John’s own admission one of his worst records – if not the worst. “It was about as close to an unmitigated disaster than anything I’ve ever released,” John wrote in his 2019 memoir Me. “Leather Jackets had four legs, a tail, and barked if a postman came to the door.”
In the same period, John’s disastrous marriage to Renate Blauel ended before it had begun, and he regretted putting her in a miserable position rather than being honest about who he was. In an attempt to restart his life, he auctioned his entire art collection – and that’s where the jigsaw began to come together, albeit slowly.
As Reg Strikes Back developed, John demonstrated his speed and dexterity in songwriting, and the strength of his partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin. “One day, he put one of Bernie’s lyrics up on the piano. He could knock a song off in minutes,” bassist David Paton told David Buckley in 2007’s Elton: The Biography. “He called me over and he said, ‘What do you think of this?’ and he played me this fantastic song, ‘Heavy Traffic.’”
The only problem, Elton added, was that he needed another verse. “So he got on the phone to Bernie and the next minute he shouted out, ‘Pen, pen, pen!’” Paton remembered. “Bernie dictated another verse for the song to him over the phone, off the top of his head – and that was it. The song was written and recorded on the same day.”
Watch Elton John’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That’ Video
Other days weren’t easy. “We were recording ‘Town of Plenty,’” drummer Charlie Morgan recalled, and they “played the backing track to that and then we started another song, but Elton was having problems. He burst into tears because he couldn’t get it. He just shuffled out of the piano booth, walked straight out of the studio and on to Oxford Street, hailed a cab and went home. I think [producer] Chris Thomas gave chase in another cab. That was the whole of that day wiped out.”
Nevertheless, work continued on an album whose title referenced John’s birth name, Reginald Dwight. Images of John’s auction items would be used as cover art to represent the past he was dismissing.
“I wanted to do a kind of Sgt. Pepper of all of his clothes, all his personae, all on mannequins,” art director David Costa said. “As they were rolled out of the truck and stacked up in a studio designed for car photography in Portobello Road, the random scattering of them just seemed to take on a life of its own. [Photographer] Gered [Mankowitz] and I decided to keep it looser than we had previously planned.
“But more and more clothes kept coming and none of us could resist trying them on, which is why there’s a mad Minnie Mouse chasing Donald Duck across the inner liners,” Costa added. “Once we had the shots, I stripped together a visual and flew to L.A., met [John] at the Four Seasons an hour after landing, heart in mouth, visuals in hand – and he loved the whole thing.”
Listen to Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Marlon Brando’
As John’s focus returned, Reg Strikes Back became a stronger piece of work – aided by recent surgery that addressed issues with his throat, giving his voice an additional sonorous edge.
An album highlight emerged with “Goodbye Marlon Brando,” where he and Taupin expressed the anger and frustration of being misunderstood, mislabeled and mistreated by the world they were entertaining. It also touched on his libel case against the Sun U.K. tabloid, which was forced to pay damages after reports about John’s private life.
The classic-style lead single “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” reached No. 2 in the U.S., marking John’s highest-charting position of the ’80s. It referred to the amount of drugs he was using at the time, proving that he was facing his demons.
“I was so miserable I thought, ‘I’ll just go into the studio and start work now,’” he told DJ Scott Muni. “I didn’t go back in and write mournful songs. You don’t want your career just to be singing ‘Bennie and the Jets’ and ‘Crocodile Rock’ – you want to contribute something that’s fresh. … It’s a good, fresh album. The way I feel now, I’m very happy with my life, and it’ll probably be reflected in the next couple of albums.”
Reg Strikes Back reached a respectable No. 16 on the Billboard 200, beginning a turnaround that gave John a new lease on life. He hadn’t been back to his Woodside home in southeast England since preparing the auction, leaving it empty for two years while it was refurbished. “By the time I came back” he admitted, “my life would have changed even more than my home had.”
The Best Song From Every Elton John Album
Elton John's Terrifying First U.S. Concert