Venture into a record shop on Saturday and you could pick up a debut album by a promising 19-year-old singer-songwriter. His name is Elton John.
After half a century of hits, the star has issued a surprise release of his ‘lost’ first record, Regimental Sgt Zippo.
John has described it as “the album that never was”.
In 1968, the unknown teenager had just signed to Dick James Music publishing and begun writing songs with Bernie Taupin.
Regimental Sgt Zippo represented the first fruits of the deal: an album that gave an obvious nod to the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had been released a year earlier.
Read more: Regimental Sgt Zippo, review: A melange of 60s fads, but that voice shines through
The track listing includes songs called Tartan Coloured Lady and A Dandelion Dies In The Wind, in addition to the title track (below). It was recorded at Dick James Studios in central London from late 1967 to spring 1968.
But the publishing company was unimpressed and the album was shelved. John quickly produced more songs and within months was recording a new album, Empty Sky, to be released in 1969 as his official debut.
Regimental Sgt Zippo is being issued on vinyl in a strictly limited edition as part of Record Store Day, an annual event which sees special releases go on sale in some of the UK’s independent record shops.
However, perhaps only completists and diehard Elton John fans will relish its contents. John makes no reference to the Zippo album in his 2019 memoir, Me, except to say that a publishing company executive listened to songs he produced during this period and told him: “You need to stop this rubbish. You’re not very good at it. In fact, you’re hopeless.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, John admitted that he could not remember half of the songs he composed at that time although “I can remember things like Regimental Sgt Zippo because how could you not with a title like that?”
He also said: “I find it hard to comprehend just how prolific Bernie and I were during the early days. The songs just poured out of us.”
Elton John in his first photo shoot in 1968
At the time, John and Taupin were trying to forge their own sound while also writing songs for other artists, including Lulu’s 1969 Eurovision entry, I Can’t Go On Living Without You.
One of the songs on Regimental Sgt Zippo, called When I Was Tealby Abbey, began life as one such idea. John wrote in his autobiography: “Britain’s singers continued to prove implacably opposed to recording our songs.
“The rejections piled up. It’s a no from Cliff, I’m afraid. Sorry, Cilla doesn’t think it’s quite right for her. No, Octopus don’t want When I Was Tealby Abbey. Octopus? Who the hell were Octopus? Literally the only thing I knew about them was that they didn’t like our songs. We were being turned down by people we’d never even heard of.”
Elton John performing at the Oscars in 2020
When I Was Tealby Abbey features the lyrics: “In younger times, the children climb/Up and down your walls/And a curse on the day, the fates will say/When Tealby Abbey falls.”
Tartan Coloured Lady has the lines: “So if your crystal window isn’t broken/And they’ve taken all the dustbins from your door/Take yourself a tartan coloured lady/And smell the grass in Ashfield Park once more.”
John’s real debut, Empty Sky, was not a chart hit but it garnered some decent reviews and set John on the road to success.
His second album, titled Elton John, made the top 10 and contained his first hit, Your Song. It was also nominated for a Grammy in the US.
Eight of the 12 songs on the Zippo album were released last year on Jewel Box, an album collection of rarities from the star’s back catalogue, but this is the first time they will be released as originally intended.