Interview with Nigel Olsson
conducted by Dale Berryhill

Elton Expo 2000
Newark, New Jersey
September 2, 2000

© 2001 Dale A. Berryhill
All Rights Reserved

Take us back to the very beginning. You had played on some of Eltonís early demos, then your group Plastic Penny covered one of his and Bernieís early songs, "Turn to Me." By the time Elton started talking about forming a trio, you and Dee were with the Spencer Davis Group, so you clearly had other options. When did you personally decide that backing Elton was your best career move at that time?

Maybe eight bars into the first rehearsal. Thatís when I knew, this was it. And at that time I was with Uriah Heep. Iíd been with them for like, nine days or something, or nine dates. And before Uriah Heep—both of these jobs Elton had gotten for me, because I was around the studio all the time—I went away to rehearse for four weeks with this band that had a lot of money behind them. They were told, "Hereís a house in the country, go away and write songs, and then weíll put you in the studio." I didnít want to do that; I wanted to be on the road, because in those days I was a crazy rock and roller. And that group turned out to be Supertramp.

So you really did have other options.

Then I got the road gig with Uriah Heep, which was a little heavy metal for me. I did nine dates with them, and Elton had this gig at the Roundhouse, which was kind of a prestige gig. It was kind of like the Troubadour would be. And he basically just wanted to do a promo for his record, to get his and Bernieís songs out for the Eurovision song contest, which goes every year all over Europe, and every country in Europe submits a song. ABBA won about three of those. So Elton and Bernie were writing for this, and he had this gig to promote the songs and the first album, what we call "The Black Album." He said, "Would you be interested?" and I said, "Yeah," and he said he was going to ask Dee Murray, because he was involved in the studio, too. And he said, "Okay, well, letís rehearse at Dick James Studio next Thursday," and within the first eight bars of, I think it was "Your Song," I thought, "Man, this is it."

How did Uriah Heep take it?

At that time I was being managed by Lionel Conway, who now runs Madonnaís publishing company, and I went to him and said, "Lionel, what do I do? Iím earning all this money with Uriah Heep, but this is the kind of music I want to play." He said, "Nige, thatís a decision that only you can make. Itís like buying a house—itís your decision, because youíre the one whoís going to have to live in it." I think I made the right decision.

Both Plastic Penny and The Spencer Davis Group had been signed to Dick James Music, so I assume it was an easy transition. How was Dick James to work with?

In those early days, Dick James didnít have a clue about the United States and how the music industry ran over here. He was still in that Eurovision song contest mode. Bless his heart, I heard him one time say to Bill Graham—we were playing the Fillmore East and Bill was there and Dick had flown over for the gigs—and I heard him say to Bill Graham, "Yeah, next time out weíll have Bernie doing his poetry, opening for Elton." So, he didnít have a clue. But when he sent us over to do the Troubadour, he said, "This is a make-or-break. Hereís the money to go do this, but this is it, boys. Otherwise, when you come home, I can get you a nice job in the shoestore down on Oxford Circus."

It turned out that wasnít necessary. Any insights into why Elton was so instantly popular in America?

Thank God for Russ Regan and those guys. I still to this day see Russ Regan, and the first thing we say to each other is, "I love you guys," because that was his slogan. When we first got with Uni Records, it was, "I love you guys!" And he was the kind of guy, Russ was, who would pull off to the side of the road and break down in tears when he heard "Your Song" come on, when it was on KHJ, which is now a country station, but in those days it was mega AM radio. If you were on KHJ, this was it. And he would pull off the 101 Freeway and cry. And he would say, "I love you guys!" I saw him two weeks ago, and heís still exactly the same. He hasnít changed one bit. And heís been with everybody, you know, Sonny and Cher—I mean, he basically discovered those guys, as well. And Neil Diamond. He has such a history, but heís still the same Russ.

So thatís how he got Neil Diamond to introduce you guys at the Troubadour.

Yep.

One of the myths surrounding those early days is that Gus Dudgeon prevented you and Dee from playing on the early albums, but Gus has told us that he never even met you guys until after the Elton John album had been recorded.

No, he didnít.

And Tumbleweed Connection, on which you play on one track, was recorded immediately after your return from America, before you were solidified in peopleís minds as Eltonís band. So it wasnít really that you were excluded from those albums.

No. Plus, the way that first record was set up was like the London Symphony. Everything was written out. Even the drum parts were written out. All those fills you hear in those early songs, like "Burn Down the Mission" and "Your Song," they were all written by Paul Buckmaster. To this day I canít read music. If you ask me to play "God Save the Queen," I couldnít do it. In those days, we kind of played on the demos and we were around the studio, but the key guys were Roger Pope, Caleb Quaye, Dave Glover. That was the group Elton used when he wasnít recording with Bluesology. Caleb and Roger and those guys, the Hookfoot guys—they later became Hookfoot—they were like Toto used to be. Toto used to be Boz Scaggsí band, Rita Coolidgeís band, Linda Ronstadtís band, whatever. They were the session guys. And then Gus and Paul, and especially Paul, working in the kind of string orchestral-oriented stuff, everything written out, so they would use the drummers that would play for the BBC and stuff like that, which would be Barry Morgan, Terry Cox, people who could read music, but who had a great feel, too. I mean, I ripped a lot of my stuff from Barry Morgan and Terry, but basically what that would go back to is that Iím ripping from Paul Buckmaster. In those days, my favorite drummer, other than Ringo, of course, was Bobby Elliott, who played with The Hollies. Thereís this massive fill that everybody loves me to play on songs like "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." That was based on a fill I heard Bobby do. So itís like John Lennon once said, "We ripped everything we could off everybody else, and we made it."

Well, like The Beatles, you didnít just make it, you made it into something original.

We did, yes. And thatís what music is all about, I think. You take the influences around you and mold them and elongate them and make them new. But, yes, there was a little bit of tension there that he wasnít using Dee and I, but it was basically because we didnít read, and Gus obviously didnít have a clue as to how we were. I mean, how would he know what Plastic Penny or Deeís band, The Mirage, were like?

Did that tension begin as early as Tumbleweed Connection and Friends, or did it begin the following spring with Madman?

I think Tumbleweed, because by the time we had kinda done a little bit of roadwork in England like at little festivals and college gigs, and, yeah, there was a little bit of tension there, especially when we came back here to the States. We felt we were ready to go in, and especially to go in with the orchestra. To be in the same room with that 40-piece string orchestra, I mean, that would have been unbelievable. We did do that later on, which was great, and I got to work with George Martin and Jim Webb, unbelievable stuff, but that was later on in my life.

Letís take "Your Song" as an example. If you had played on that song instead of Barry Morgan, how would it have been different?

It would have been totally different. There would have been drum fills all over the place. Especially with the way Gus would have the control room set up, so that when you played a fill it would go across the speakers. In those days, stereo had just come out, and when I was in the studio working on the song, I would think, "Man, this is going to sound great,"so I would hit everything in sight, basically. I soon learned my lesson when Gus said, "Calm down." It would have been so much different. I think it was so tastefully played. In fact, all those orchestral songs on the first albums that were written out, thereís such a lot of taste in there. And then I think Paul did a couple of things with Cat Stevens, and you can see his influence in those things, the intricacies and the little high hat fills. And he got me thinking about how I played the high hat. Itís not just whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. You can do little descriptive things. Thereís a song on Captain Fantastic, I think itís "We All Fall in Love Sometimes," where I do little things with my cymbals against the lyrics. I would play more to the lyrics, and this is what I had learned years ago on the orchestral albums, that you feel and donít overplay. And you know, Iíve often been told by people who say, "I love your drumming and the way you play, but itís what you leave out that is so exciting."

Speaking of the lyrics, letís talk about Bernie Taupin. You met him early on, and you played on some of his and Eltonís earliest demos, before they had a contract.

Because The Plastic Penny were handled by Dick James, there was us around the studio, there was Elton and Bernie around the studio, and John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] would come in and do their demos. You know, weíd hear all the demos before anybody heard The Beatlesí songs.

Did you get to see them when theyíd come in?

Well, they would kind of walk through and everybody would be like, "Wow!" And then weíd get to hear the original demo of, like, "I Am the Walrus," which was unbelievable. But, no, Iíd known Bernie because of just hanging in the studio, basically.

And what was he like?

He was very quiet, very subdued, and then youíd hear these songs and think, "How the hell does that come out of this little guy?" Amazing. I remember because I lived at Lionel and Tanyaís house—Lionel Conway, my manager, and his wife had taken me in to make sure I had proper food and stayed off the bloody streets—and I remember Lionel bringing the first album [Elton John] home one evening, and he said, "This is Reg and Bernieís new record." And it was just so unbelievable that there was somebody else other than The Beatles who you could listen to the lyrics and it meant something. And then the earlier ones, like "Lady Whatís Tomorrow" that I played on, there were some songs on there, like "Empty Sky" was a great song. It was so refreshing, because it was like, when The Beatles came up, there was nothing but them. I mean, I love Cliff Richards records, and Lonnie Donegan records, but this was so refreshing, because it was a little bit different than The Beatles. But Bernie himself was so subdued. He should have been a movie star, I think. Heís got that sort of James Dean thing about him. Some of the pictures on the early records, he looks like a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise or a James Dean. He should have been a movie star.

So in the early demo days, he was just sort of hanging around the studio.

He was part of the band. When we first came over here [to the States], we were The Elton John Band, by the way, then the management stepped in and said, "You guys are earning too much money." But, anyhow, thatís another story. But the band was Dee, Elton, myself, and Bernie.

So you felt like he was an important part of the team?

Oh, absolutely, yeah. Because we knew that Elton didnít write any words. God forbid he should write any words; it would be like, "I love you , baby, yeah." Not that I can write great lyrics, but his were very suspect.

As time went on and you guys got bigger and bigger, I understand that Bernie hung around less and less.

In the early days, he was there all the time, on tour and in the studio. Then, after he married Maxine, he got into this ultrasubdued mode, and we never saw him. He would kind of nip in and listen to a couple of tracks and say, "Oh, yeah, thatís great," and then whish, he was gone. When they got married, we saw them a lot in the studio, and then suddenly just now and again.

Getting back to the music, letís move on to the Friends album. You only played on two tracks, "Honey Roll" and "Can I Put You On," and I believe it was you, Dee, and Caleb Quaye. As I understand it, you recorded the full songs for the album in one session, but then you had to re-record the portions that are used in the movie.

We had to work to the movie. We had to watch the time code coming over, and we had to do it right in time with the code. When we saw that line come across at the end, we had to be finished by then. It was pretty amazing. And I hate playing to click tracks. But it was so exciting because, man, we were making a movie!

So what did you think of the movie when it came out?

I thought it was adorable. I liked it.

Well, I really like it, too, but a lot of people make fun of it. I think maybe you had to be around back then to understand it, because it reflected the sentiment of the times.

Exactly. It was part of its time.

Thereís been a suggestion that "Honey Roll" and "Can I Put You On" were outtakes from the Tumbleweed Connection sessions. Is that true?

No. No, I never knew that.

So those two songs were originally presented to you as songs you were doing for the movie?

Yes. In fact, I donít think we even rehearsed them until we got to the studio. We got there maybe four hours before the Gilberts [the movieís producer and his son] got there.

So the full versions for the album were recorded later?

They were recorded at Trident Studios, where all the other albums were recorded. The movie versions were recorded at Olympic Studios, because Trident wasnít big enough for the screen and everything.

Tell us about Caleb Quaye.

Calebís a nutcase, a total nutcase. The funny thing is, my girlfriend way back then, Jozy, who toured with us back then, is now a preacher, too. In fact, she goes into jail and counsels people. She counselled Tommy Lee when he was in there. Tommy found out that she was my ex and said, "What the hell are you doing in here?" So, she went the same way as Caleb, and they talk quite often. But for him to go into the ministry from those early sessions is unbelievable. I mean, he was slugging hashish, too.

Hookfoot opened for you guys several times here in the States during the very early days. But once Elton got really big and Hookfoot got busy with its own tours, did you and Caleb see each other much?

Well, he worked on my stuff. He worked on the Nigel Olsson Drum Orchestra deal, and that was great working with him because we could go into the studio and say, "Letís write." And Clive Franks, who was the engineer on the project, would basically just roll tape. Weíd just basically leave the tape rolling and Caleb would come up with a riff, then Mick Grabham would come up with something, then Iíd do something, and it was pretty amazing stuff that we came up with.

Caleb was also on Madman Across the Water, because Gus Dudgeon was still using session musicians, with you and Dee playing on only one track and doing some background vocals. Those sessions were probably booked by the time you guys had done the second American tour and solidified as The Elton John Band, but Iím betting that you were beginning to feel left out.

Dee and I still didnít feel comfortable, because we werenít made to feel comfortable by the hierarchy. We were made to feel like, "Well, youíre just not good enough yet." Nobody came up and said that, but Dee and I felt it. But then when we went away to do Honky Chateau, that was it. We were the band.

And by that time Davey had become a permanent member of the band, as well. How did you and Dee get along with him at the beginning?

We were looking for a guitar player, and I wanted Mick Grabham in there, because he was my buddy from school. Iíd worked with him in various bands and he was on the session circuit—in fact, he worked a lot for [producer] Chris Thomas in the early days—but we found that he was just the wrong type of player. Davey fit that niche because of his folk background.

So you and Dee felt that Davey was the right choice?

Yes.

What were your financial arrangements like in those early days?

We were The Elton John Band, and then management came in said that we were earning too much money on tour...Twice that happened. But eventually, I think it was on the Honky Chateau album, Elton came to Dee and me and Davey and said, "Man, this is such a great album. You guys are going to get royalties from now on." So we were on royalties. That was unheard of. Still to this day Iím making money from it.

Youíre still on royalties?

Oh, yeah. Everything I played on—before the first firing—I still get royalties. Thank God when new music formats come out! And, you know, I take care of Deeís estate, and make sure that whatever I get, the same is getting pumped into the kids, because I still talk to Maria and the kids all the time.

Madman got a lot of flak from the critics for its heavy orchestration, and Honky Chateau appears to have been a conscious effort to go for a more stripped-down, pop-oriented sound. Was that ever actually discussed in the studio?

When we went into the studio together, nobody ever sat down and said, "Okay, you have to play it this way, and you have to play it that way." We were all in those days on this wavelength that was just unbelievable. It just happened that way.

In the classic Elton albums of the seventies that you played on, the one thing that really comes across is the amount of experimentation you guys did in the studio to come up with new and unique sounds.

The studio for us was just amazing, because we could basically do whatever we wanted. The beauty of it was that Elton would do his stuff, and then weíd kick him out, and then weíd be able to create our own stuff behind that. So it was amazing, and especially with Gus, you know, we experimented with all sorts of things. On "Bennie and the Jets," for instance, in the chorus of that, "electric boots and mohair suits," you hear stomping in the background. It took us about three or four hours to get that sound. What Gus wanted was for it to sound like people stomping on the floor, but to get a floor sound took us about four hours. We all had to go put our Sunday best shoes on, and we got this board from the construction site just outside, because that was recorded at the Chateau, and the Chateau was always under construction.

And I guess the Chateau had stone floors?

And carpet. Everyone was going for the carpet look at that time. And then we went to Caribou and everything was wood and rock.

So if youíd been at Caribou, you could have gotten that stomping sound with no problem.

Absolutely, yeah, easier. That would have been a five-minute job.

Speaking of wooden floors, on "I Think Iím Going to Kill Myself," "Legs" Larry Smith tap dances, and weíve been told that he brought his own fold-out floor to do that. Now, itís been said that the original idea was for Eltonís stepfather to play the spoons, but I get the impression that that idea was just brought up and quickly dismissed.

It was lurking, yeah, and then it suddenly went out the window. Gus had worked with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with "Legs" Larry Smith, so suddenly he was in there. So we were doing the Royal Command Performance, and he was on the same bill, and it was so embarrassing it was frightening. We were performing for Her Majesty, and this bloody twit comes on with a crash helmet with the bride-and-groom wedding thing glued on the top. I looked at Dee and said, "I hope this is a dream."

Well, of course, Elton just got more flamboyant from there. Did it bother you the way it reportedly bothered Bernie Taupin?

Well, it embarrassed me. I was embarrassed for him. But it was going so great. I mean, the first time that happened was at the Troubadour, when he went to Disneyland and came back with the Mickey Mouse ears and said, "Iím going to wear these on stage." And we said, "Please donít go there." And he did, and that was it. And he could get away with it because of his talent; I mean, he could pull it off.

Of course, we all think of him that way now, but I guess we donít realize how it must have seemed to you guys back at the beginning, when that kind of thing was brand new in rock and roll.

It was so embarrassing. It was unbelievable. I mean, I think there was one tour where I went as far as wearing the big high-heeled shoes, but that was as far as I would go.

So you join Bernie in his belief that the music would have stood alone, and even been better, without all that.

Yes. Then again, you canít think back and wonder, would it have happened any different if he hadnít been that flamboyant? Basically that was just his rebelling against what happened when he was a kid. You know, he wasnít allowed to do anything like that; it was a strict no-no with his Air Force dad.

Well, he certainly made up for it.

Shit, yeah. [laughing]

You mentioned Ringo and some of your other influences earlier, but none of those guys would have dropped in little fills all the way through a ballad like "Daniel." Itís been stated before that some of your fills would sound like random banging from a lesser drummer, but are ingenious coming from you. Where did that part of your style come from?

When Elton and Bernie used to come over to Lionelís house, they would bring these off-the-wall records that theyíd got on import from the States. They brought this album by a band called Redbone, and this drummer [Peter De Poe] was just "out there." I would compare it to the early work of Stewart Copeland of the Police. Copeland was off the wall, but this guy was way, way, way out there. We used to listen to this stuff, and he was playing stuff that was unbelievable. Caleb got turned onto them, too. So thatís where I got my weirdly planned drum fills, putting them in different places than youíd expect. And the holding back, my almost playing behind the beat, that came from Levon Helm, when I started listening to The Band. Thatís where my other influence came from.

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