In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“What am I going to do on my next American tour? Play the Apollo for a week, open with ‘Bennie,’ and then say, ‘Thanks, you can all go home now.'”
That was Elton John (as quoted in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of #1 Hits) talking to Rolling Stone in 1974. He went on: “I’m such a black record fanatic that to think I’m actually in the R&B chart means that even if it doesn’t get any higher than #34, I’m going to stick it up and frame it.”
“Bennie And The Jets” wasn’t a huge R&B hit; it peaked at #15 on Billboard‘s R&B chart. But for Elton John, a #15 R&B record was probably a bigger deal than a Hot 100 #1. When Elton recorded “Bennie And The Jets,” MCA, his label, wanted to make the song a single. Elton disagreed vociferously. His pick was “Candle In The Wind,” the graceful and funereal ballad that, at some distant date, will appear in this column. And in the UK, Elton got his way; there, “Bennie And The Jets” was the B-side to “Candle In The Wind.”
But Elton was swayed when “Bennie And The Jets” started doing well on Detroit R&B radio. And Elton was so delighted by its R&B radio success that he became the first white superstar ever to perform on Soul Train. (Elton wasn’t the first white performer to have his music featured on Soul Train; he came after both Dennis Coffey and Gino Vanelli. But Elton was the first white performer to dress like a leprechaun on Soul Train, which is something, and he beat David Bowie onto the show.)
“To this day, I cannot see that song as a single,” Elton told Rolling Stone in 2014. I’m with him. “Bennie And The Jets” isn’t really a soul song; its beat is too clumsy and ungainly for that. And it’s not really a glam-rock song, either, even though it takes place in a strange and robotic alternate future. It’s too smooth to be rock ‘n’ roll and too discordant to be easy listening.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the late-1973 double album that yielded “Bennie And The Jets,” was an absolute blockbuster — a #1 album for months, and the biggest-selling album of 1973. But within the context of that album, “Bennie And The Jets” is a bugged-out outlier. I’ve always had trouble connecting to the song, but it remains one of the most ubiquitous and widely beloved tracks in a ubiquitous and widely beloved catalog.
In its own way, “Bennie And The Jets” is just as sci-fi as Elton’s previous hit “Rocketman.” Bernie Taupin, Elton’s lyricist, wrote “Bennie And The Jets” about a future where robotic musicians become youth-culture messiahs. It’s possible to hear “Bennie And The Jets” as a satire of the pop-music industry. The song’s narrator is a fan of Bennie And The Jets, this Spiders Of Mars-style fictional band, but he never mentions their music, only Bennie’s electric boots and mohair suit. He knows the Jets are “weird and wonderful” and “so spaced out,” and he’s at a distance from them, only knowing about them because he “read it in a magazine.” It’s idolatry.
The Jets are mythic figures, objects of pure conjecture. And yet they inspire a whole younger generation to “fight our parents out in the streets to find out who’s right and who’s wrong.” So maybe it’s a case of Elton John, someone who was always happy to come off larger than life, imagining his own ideal. Or maybe it’s a note of caution, a warning not to put pop musicians on pedestals. Taupin keeps it ambiguous.
Elton wrote the music, as he always does, turning Taupin’s futuristic musings into a blocky trudge, a sort of inversion of his own graceful ballads. The part everyone remembers is the piano line, which John absolutely hammers out. By the time the song ends, that piano is dueling with volcanic synth-bursts, and Elton is squeak-stuttering in a frantic parody of Frankie Valli’s falsetto. Producer Gus Dudgeon adds in crowd noise recorded at an Elton John show, even though the song itself was recorded in the studio. The whole track is a strange mess. It’s memorable, I’ve always found it pretty unpleasant, too.
Over the ensuing decades of his career, Elton John would only land on the R&B charts twice more, and neither of those songs, one of which will appear in this column, got anywhere near the “Bennie And The Jets” peak. It didn’t much matter. Elton John was well on his way to pop-icon status, and “Bennie And The Jets” had a ton to do with that. It’s an effective and memorable hook-monster of a song, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Elton John verbally sparring with Kermit and performing “Bennie And The Jets” on a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Beastie Boys and Biz Markie’s tone-deaf and near-unlistenable 1995 “Bennie And The Jets” cover, which the Beasties included as a flexidisc in the second issue of their Grand Royal magazine:
(The Beastie Boys’ highest-charting single is 1987’s “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” which peaked at #7. It’s an 8. Meanwhile, Biz Markie’s highest-charting single is 1989’s “Just A Friend,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 10. Bonus beats bonus beat: On that Grand Royal flexi-disc, there’s a track after the “Bennie And The Jets” cover. It’s a couple of seconds of Biz beatboxing, and it’s called “Bonus Beats,” which is where I got the name of this section.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Mary J. Blige, who will eventually show up in this column, sang over a “Bennie And The Jets” sample on her 1999 single “Deep Inside,” and Elton himself played piano on the song. Here’s her video for the track, which peaked at #63:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a Tribe Called Quest sampling “Bennie And The Jets” on the 2016 Busta Rhymes collab “Solid Walls Of Sound,” which features Jack White on guitar and Elton himself on piano:
(A Tribe Called Quest and Jack White have never had any top-10 singles, but Busta Rhymes has a bunch. As a lead artist, Busta Rhymes’ two highest-charting singles are the 1999 Janet Jackson collab “What’s It Gonna Be?!” and the 2003 Mariah Carey/Flipmode Squad collab “I Know What You Want.” Both of them peaked at #3. “What’s It Gonna Be?!” is a 6, and “I Know What You Want” is a 7. Busta also rapped on the Pussycat Doll’s “Don’t Cha,” which peaked at #2 in 2005. It’s a 4.)