Wow In Music – Tiny Dancer
Kobus Cilliers | On 18, Mar 2020
In the 12 October edition of the Guardian newspaper there was a big section in which various celebrities had posed questions for Elton John to answer. I’m not sure how the newspaper’s editors managed it, but one of the questions came from the usually media-allergic, Bob Dylan. He asked, ‘in the song Tiny Dancer, did you work your way up to the cathartic chorus gradually, spontaneously, or did you have it thought out from the start?’ Elton’s answer ran as follows:
This is a very good question. Tiny Dancer has a really long lyric, a very cinematic, California-in-the-early-70s lyric, so it had two verses and a middle eight before it even gets to the chorus, and it lent itself to a long buildup. The middle eight sets it up well, then it slows down for a moment – “when I say softly, slowly…” That line suggested a big chorus. I don’t remember much about writing it, but I do remember trying to make it sound as Californian as possible. Writing a song like that’s a bit like having a wank, really. You want the climax to be good, but you don’t want it to be over too quickly – you want to work your way up to it. Bernie’s lyric took such a long time to get to the chorus, I thought, “Fuck, the chorus had better be something special when it finally arrives.” And it’s “here I come”, literally.
Due to the song’s lengthy run time (6 minutes, 15 seconds) and apparent lack of a hook (the first chorus doesn’t kick in for almost three minutes), “Tiny Dancer” was initially a non-starter as a single in the US, reaching only #41 on the U.S. pop chart. In the UK, the song wasn’t even released as a single. Even in Canada, where John had much of his early commercial breakthrough success, it only peaked at #19.
It probably wasn’t until the song featured in a key scene in the 2000 movie, Almost Famous, that it seemed to suddenly rise to the top of peoples’ consciousness. Since then, Tiny Dancer has become one of John’s most popular songs even in the territories that initially failed to embrace it. The full-length version is now a fixture on North American, UK and Australian adult contemporary and rock radio stations. By 2010, the song was ranked No. 397 on the list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In many ways, the brave compositional decision to delay and then delay some more the entry of the chorus has become an enduring aspect of the song’s appeal. There’s a short video (https://boingboing.net/2019/04/04/elton-john-explains-tiny-dance.html) in which John explains how he shifted lyricist Bernie Taupin’s original words from a traditional Verse-Chorus structure into the tension-building (Principle 12) Verse-Verse-Middle-Eight-Churus that we’ve come to know and love. It just took people a few years to come to terms with the fact that the long-delayed hook was the ultimate in musical-tension management.
There are, however, a number of other features that have helped make the song into such an enduring classic.
The song commences in the key of Cmajor, incorporating an anchoring C chord played on piano in the fourth bar. From here, after the first verse vocal kicks in, the song proceeds to follow an alternated progression of C/F (I, IV) throughout the first two lines of the first verse. Although the F chord is unstable, it contains the tonic of the key signature within the bass, which naturally wants to resolve back to the C major. This then allows for resolution each time the C chord returns, making for a very stable overall structure.
Contrast this, then, (Principle 37) with what happens in the third and fourth lines of the verse. The progression changes to Fmaj7, Em7, Am7, D7/F#, Dm7, Em7, Am7, G7 (IV, iii, vii, II, ii, iii, vii, VI). Now nearly all the chords are unstable. The compositional idea being to illustrate the relationship between the music and the lyrics. ‘Ballerina you must have seen her…’ implying that he’s lost her, matching the unstable chords which also create a sense of loss. John’s compositional instincts are shown at their very best here.
Then we come to what many consider to be the song’s secret weapons. For all the lyrics’ romanticism and that gorgeous melody, I think it is, firstly, (Principle 17) B.J. Cole’s pedal steel guitar, which adds a dose of wistful longing, and then later, as the tension continues to build into and through the chorus, Paul Buckmaster’s slow-building orchestral arrangement.
“How do you separate the strings of ‘Tiny Dancer’ from that original recording?” Ben Folds asked rhetorically in a Facebook eulogy upon Buckmaster’s death in 2017. “It’s the part of the composition that makes you feel the denim that was on the cover of the album.”
Folds, who worked with Buckmaster a few times, said he believed the arranger was more of a “composer, roaming alone, who parked his work inside ‘the folk music of the day,’ as he put it to me once. It’s an arranger’s job to ornament, accent and fill out, which is quite an intense gig in and of itself.
“Paul seemed to identify the genetic code of a song, and then add the thing that you didn’t know was there before – that explained it all – as the last touch, as rock arrangements are nearly always placed atop an otherwise finished recording. To have added the last word to so many songs, and have that part be the revelation, and often the hook, was an incredible feat that he just kept shaking out of his sleeve, for at least four decades.”
Speaking to The Guardian in 2010, Buckmaster gave a bit of insight into his role in the process. “One general rule is to hold back as much as possible, to give the listener the chance to let the song grow and unfold, introducing new sonic elements, such as new instruments or sectional groupings,” he explained. “If you use everything from the beginning, you have nowhere to go.”
Music, as Tiny Dancer amply demonstrates, is all about Principle 12.