Still going strong well into their 70s, Elton John and Keith Richards are two of the British music scene’s most enduring characters. But despite their similar career paths, there is little love lost between the Rocket Man and Rolling Stone. And their beef began where they both feel the most comfortable, on the stage.
Keith Richards shot to fame in the mid-1960s as the lead guitarist in rock icons The Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, Elton John’s career took off a few years later when he changed his name from Reg Dwight and joined forces with songwriter Bernie Taupin. The two musicians’ paths would continue to cross over the next half-century.
Richards’ infectious riff on the band’s iconic hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” in particular, helped The Rolling Stones achieve chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. But he also regularly made the headlines for his hellraising lifestyle. You see, in 1967 he was sentenced to a year in prison after amphetamines were discovered by police.
Thankfully for Richards, this decision was quickly reversed following an outcry from the British public. But the guitarist continued to embrace his decadent nature. And by the time The Rolling Stones dropped what many consider to be their essential LP, Exile on Main St., the guitarist was a full-blown heroin addict.
John and Taupin initially began penning material for other artists. But thanks to the success of “Your Song” in 1970, the former became a superstar himself. But just like Richards, his commercial heyday was defined just as much by his intake of various substances. Indeed, during the 1970s John developed an addiction to cocaine and alcohol that would continue well into the next decade.
Both John and Richards developed a reputation for being difficult, too. The former was seen regularly spitting his dummy out in a 1995 warts and all documentary that was titled, appropriately, Tantrums and Tiaras. Furthermore, he has taken potshots at a whole host of high profile celebrities over the years.
Janet Jackson is one such celebrity, with John claiming to Rolling Stone that he’d “rather go and see a drag queen” than her allegedly lip-synced live show. The star also told Sunday Night, a show on Australia’s Channel 7, that Madonna looked like a “f***ing fairground stripper.” You see, John isn’t a fan of contemporary pop in general, telling Radio Times, “Songwriters today are pretty awful.”
Meanwhile, Richards has been at war with his bandmate Mick Jagger several times during their enduring career. According to biographer Rich Cohen, the guitarist took particular umbrage with The Rolling Stones frontman accepting a knighthood in 2003. And in his own memoir Life, Richards wrote, “It was the beginning of the ’80s when Mick started to become unbearable.”
Furthermore, Richards hasn’t been afraid to shoot his mouth off about other artists, too. According to NME, the guitarist has described Prince as an “overrated midget” and Bob Dylan as a “nasty little b***er.” Even David Bowie wasn’t immune from Richards’ sharp tongue, with the hellraiser allegedly once claiming that the Thin White Duke was all about posing and “nothing to do with music.”
However, Richards and John have often saved their most scathing comments for each other. The former appeared to reignite their on/off feud in 1988 during an interview with Rolling Stone. Discussing the Rocket Man in the wake of his single “I Don’t Wanna Go On with You Like That,” Richards commented, “Lovely bloke,” before adding, “but posing.”
And Richards made sure he was kept off John’s Christmas card list again in 1997 with his reaction to another single. The guitarist was asked about the reworking of “Candle in the Wind” that his rival had famously performed at Princess Diana’s funeral. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the hellraiser didn’t exactly approve.
In his chat with Entertainment Weekly, Richards admitted he found the whole concept slightly jarring. Referencing the original’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe, he went on to add, “Songs for Dead Blondes. I’d find it difficult to ride on the back of something like that myself, but Reg [John’s birth name] is showbiz.”
As you would expect, John didn’t take this lying down. Later that month he told the Daily News, “I’m glad I’ve given up drugs and alcohol. It would be awful to be like Keith Richards. He’s a pathetic, poor thing. It’s like a monkey with arthritis, trying to go onstage and look young.”
John continued, “I have great respect for the Stones but they would have been better if they had thrown Keith out 15 years ago… I just think he’s an a**hole and I have for a long time.” The singer-songwriter further claimed that Richards was a hypocrite for once describing John as theatrical. He added, “Please, if the Rolling Stones aren’t show business, then what is?”
Things between the pair appeared to calm down. But in 2011 John proved that he still harbored a grudge toward the Rolling Stone while discussing Richards’ autobiography Life. The book contained some rather choice words about the size of Mick Jagger’s manhood, something that John felt was inappropriate.
And Rolling Stone reported that a bemused John wrote, “I was a bit put off by hearing about the bit about Mick Jagger’s penis. If I said that Bernie Taupin was a miserable t*** and had a small penis, he’d probably never talk to me again. It’s like, why do that?”
However, in 2015 the pair seemed to bury the hatchet thanks to some peace-making from one of Richards’ bandmates. Indeed, somehow bassist Ronnie Wood managed to get them to pose for the cameras together at the GQ Awards. Yet this apparent truce didn’t last that long.
You see, in a 2018 chat with the Daily Telegraph, Richards was asked about John’s three-year farewell tour. And he was far from sad to see one of his peers retire from the stage. In fact, the guitarist said that John’s departure would ultimately leave “more room” for The Rolling Stones on the live circuit.
If you hadn’t guessed, John had announced that he was retiring from the stage to spend more time with his family. However, Richards appeared to be more concerned with the farewell tour’s crew. He joked, “After three years on the road with Elton, you would want to retire, too. I’ll take his word for it.”
Nevertheless, Richards still found it in his heart to pay a compliment, if a somewhat backhanded one. “He’s a lovable old dear,” the guitarist, who is actually four years John’s senior, told the Daily Telegraph. Richards then went on to claim, “He’s softening with age.”
A year later John once again touched upon the subject of his fiercest rock rivalry in his memoir, Me: Elton John. The hitmaker reflected on the summer of 1994 when his soundtrack for The Lion King ended up overshadowing The Rolling Stones’ comeback LP, Voodoo Lounge in the charts. According to John, Richards moaned, “Beaten by some f***ing cartoon.”
Interestingly, John also showed some signs of remorse for one of his most famous celebrity insults. The star wrote, “It probably was a bit cruel to say that Keith Richards looked like a monkey with arthritis. But in fairness, he’d been pretty foul about me: he got as good as he gave.”
To add to that, John appeared to concede that Richards may have been right regarding his derogatory remarks about “Candle in the Wind 1997.” He wrote, “There was a part of me that couldn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it. Under what circumstances would you play it? I never did.”
“It almost felt like wallowing in her death as if the mourning for her had got out of hand,” John recalled. “I really didn’t think that was what Diana would have wanted and I didn’t want to do anything to prolong it further.” The multiple chart-topper hasn’t included the tribute on any of his hits compilations since.
Aside from this, John used his autobiography as an opportunity to reveal how his long-time beef with Richards had actually started. And in a display of honesty, the star admitted that he was largely to blame. For the piano man had outstayed his welcome during a 1975 Rolling Stones gig in Colorado.
You see, the band had invited John to appear on stage with them to perform piano for just one track. However, the chart-topper was so high on his drug of choice, cocaine, that he ended up remaining on stage for the rest of the gig. John admitted that if he’d have been sober, “I might have just performed ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ waved to the crowd and made my exit.”
But John admitted that this wasn’t the wisest decision he’d made in his career. He continued, “I decided it was going so well, I’d stay on and jam along to the rest of their set, without first taking the precaution of asking the Stones if they wanted an auxiliary keyboard player.” And the singer-songwriter was so high at the time that he completely misread the band’s reactions to his spot of gate-crashing.
“For a while, I thought Keith Richards kept staring at me because he was awestruck by the brilliance of my improvised contributions to their oeuvre,” John revealed in his memoir. Thankfully, the star eventually realized how things were really going down. “After a few songs, it finally penetrated my brain that the expression on his face wasn’t really suggestive of profound musical appreciation.”
So what did John do once he discovered that his musical talents weren’t exactly being appreciated by the rock icons. Well, he “quickly scuttled off, noting as I went that Keith was still staring at me in a manner that suggested we’d be discussing this later.” The star also realized that “it might be best if I didn’t hang around for the after-show party.”
Interestingly, John went on to explain why his drug of choice at the time was so appealing. He said, “There was something more to cocaine than the way it made me feel. Cocaine had a certain cachet about it. It was fashionable and exclusive. Doing it was like becoming a member of an elite little clique that secretly indulged in something edgy, dangerous and illicit.”
“I’d become successful and popular, but I never felt cool,” John admitted. “Even back in my first band, Bluesology, I was the nerdy one. The one who didn’t look like a pop star, who never quite carried off the hip clothes, who spent all his time in record shops while the rest of the band were out getting laid and taking drugs.”
Unfortunately, John’s fondness for the white stuff soon got out of hand. He explained in the memoir, “As it turned out, doing a line of coke, then immediately going back for another one, was very me. I was never the kind of drug addict who couldn’t get out of bed without a line, or who needed to take it every day. But once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
John continued, “My appetite for the stuff was unbelievable – enough to attract comment in the circles I was moving in. Given that I was a rock star spending a lot of time in ’70s L.A., this was a not inconsiderable feat. Once again, you might think this would have given me pause for thought, but I’m afraid the next 16 years were full of incidents.”
Thankfully, after nearly two decades of subjecting his body to continued substance abuse, John decided to get clean. In 1990 he went into a rehab facility in Chicago where he received treatment not just for cocaine, but for food and alcohol, too. And sobriety opened up a whole new world for him.
“[I] got to the stage where I shaved and I wiped my a**, and paid other people to do everything else for me,” John explained. “I had no idea how to work a washing machine and had to ask another patient, Peggy, to show me. After she realized I wasn’t joking, she was helpful, but that didn’t change the fact that I was a 43-year-old man who didn’t know how to clean his own clothes.”
Mind you, John’s long-time rival Richards took a little bit longer to give up his various vices. In fact, the legendary guitarist waited until he was the grand old age of 74 before deciding to go sober. He told Rolling Stone in 2018, “I pulled the plug on it. I got fed up with it.”
Bandmate Ronnie Wood approved of this later-in-life decision, too. The musician told the same magazine, “He’s a pleasure to work with. Much more mellow. He’s open to more ideas, whereas before I’d kind of grit my teeth and go, ‘He’s gonna give me some (expletive) for saying this.’ Now, he’ll say, ‘That’s cool, man.’”
And unlike John, Richards and the rest of his band have no plans to retire from the live stage any time soon. He told the Daily Telegraph, “There’s never ever been a word about it muttered among ourselves. I guess the day’s obviously going to come. But not in the near future. We’re all looking forward to doing what we’re doing, especially back in Blighty (Britain).”
Richards and John’s commitment to performing live into their 70s has certainly reaped its financial rewards, too. In 2020 they both featured on Billboard’s ranking of the previous year’s biggest musical earners. Although much to John’s annoyance no doubt, he raked in a significantly lower amount than his on/off rival.
In fact, Richards and the rest of his Rolling Stones bandmates actually topped the list with a cool $65 million, all but $5 million of which came from touring. The group finished way ahead of their nearest challenger, Ariana Grande, who amassed $44.3 million. And John had to make do with third place, although his $43.3 million total was certainly nothing to be sniffed at.