Elton John’s Glastonbury performance is set to be one of the highlights of this weekend’s festival, and emotions are bound to run high. This will be both his first appearance at Worthy Farm and the last UK date on his swansong Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, making it potentially his last show on British shores (though we’d bet against that being the case).
The man born Reg Dwight has an almost unrivalled back catalogue of songs to draw on for his Glastonbury set, but younger festival goers may actually know Elton best for Cold Heart, the Pnau-remixed track that he released in 2021. A duet with Dua Lipa - who’s tipped to make a guest appearance at Glastonbury - this hit number 1 in the UK and was a global hit.
Pnau are an Australian dance music trio comprising Nick Littlemore, Peter Mayes and Sam Littlemore, and earlier this year, Nick and Peter spoke to Music Week (Paywall) about how Cold Heart came about.
The origins of the song can be traced back more than a decade, as Pnau first collaborated with Elton on a whole album of remixes of his songs, Good Morning To The Night, which was released in 2012.
“Cold Heart started with Elton asking us to take on his catalogue again,” says Nick Littlemore. “And this time, he wanted a hit single. He didn’t want us to just make something artful, it was more about making something that was going to ignite the hearts, ears and minds of the global music community.”
This was in May 2020, right at the start of the Covid pandemic, meaning that getting everyone in a room together was impossible.
“We were in separate studios in Downtown LA and it was complete lockdown,” recalls Peter Mayes. “We didn’t know anything about Covid and everyone was bleaching their groceries, it was crazy times. No one was hanging out with anyone, but the music world was very much moving towards remote working anyway.”
Cold Heart is actually an amalgamation of four Elton songs: Sacrifice, Rocket Man, Kiss The Bride and Where’s The Shoorah? However, it took a while for these tracks to be decided on.
“We had the tapes from Elton’s whole career, so there was a lot to choose from,” says Peter Mayes. “We’d done a lot of the more obscure ’70s stuff on the previous album, but we wanted to do something bigger, focus more on vocals and have a radio moment. We hadn’t delved into Elton’s ’80s and ’90s catalogue much, but Nick was messing around with Sacrifice and sent it to me.
“I was like, ‘Okay, cool. Sacrifice is fair game then,’ so the verse is from Sacrifice and then the chorus is from Rocket Man. We didn’t want to use the bit where it says ‘Rocket man’ though, because then it would have become Rocket Man. We found that the pre-chorus from Kiss The Bride worked as a post-chorus in Cold Heart, and then there was the Where’s The Shoorah? section which was for the outro.”
In hindsight, the Rocket Man chorus seems like a natural fit, but it wasn’t always a shoo-in for inclusion.
“I had five or six other options for the chorus apart from Rocket Man,” Mayes confirms. “I would drive around with a list of songs and listen to the verse, and there’d be a big gap where the chorus was, so I’d just try and sing any other Elton song over it and see if it would work. Elton has done 50 albums or something, so there were a lot of options - a lot of hits, great melodies and lyrics.”
What other choruses could have made the cut, then?
“I probably have a list of notes somewhere on my phone of songs I tried, but I don’t remember which others were considered,” says Mayes. “Probably Tiny Dancer, but it would have had to have been close in key. It was long before the Dua Lipa vocal at this stage, it was all Elton and I had to pick things that were very close in key and tempo. In the case of Rocket Man, I slowed it down a bit to make it work.”
Today’s timestretching and pitchshifting features gave Pnau a certain amount of flexibility, then, but that didn’t mean that every Elton song was fair game. “There were good ideas we could have used but we’d have been moving it too far away from the original recording,” explains Nick Littlemore.
“That’s exactly right,” adds Peter Mayes. “Once you’ve picked the key and tempo, you don’t actually have that many options. You’d think, ‘Can I move this up or down three semitones?’ But Elton would sound weird if you did that, because you can’t really move a vocal that much. You can with other instruments, but with vocals it just sounds silly and I don’t think Elton would have been into a chipmunk version of himself!”
Dua Lipa’s vocal parts, of course, were newly recorded, but she wasn’t involved until pretty late in the day.
“Dua Lipa came in right at the end,” says Peter Mayes. “I prepared it for the mix and her people put the vocals on it. We were basically like, ‘Great, Dua Lipa’s on the record, she can do whatever she wants!’”
Nick Littlemore says that he immediately knew Cold Heart was a hit - “Our hearts were bursting out of our chests when we heard it” - and it could easily have led to another whole album of Pnau/Elton John collaborations.
“Elton’s people were asking for more songs like Cold Heart the whole time,” reveals Peter Mayes. “It was the first one we delivered to him with another song and I think the plan was to do an album, but he decided to make an album of collaborations because he’d worked with so many people during the pandemic. So it made sense that the track became the lead single.”
As well as giving Elton John yet another career resurgence, Cold Heart has taken Pnau to another level, too. “It’s opened so many doors for us,” says Nick Littlemore. “We ended up inking a deal with Sony Music out of Germany and we’re now working with some of the biggest pop stars in the world. I don’t know how many we can mention, but if we opened a bag right now, a lot of names would drop out!”