Meaning of “Daniel” By Elton John And Bernie Taupin

Elton John and Bernie Taupin have to be one of the most legendary songwriting duos in all of music history. A long run of success together culminated with a 50-plus year partnership that gave us hit single after hit single. Some common themes always appear in the songs they wrote, but audiences don’t always easily understand the real meaning behind them.

Daniel is one of their most difficult works to interpret in spite of it being a major hit in the early 70s. In this article, we’ll dive into the meaning of Daniel by Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

Daniel Was A Hit

 November 14, 1974 – Publicity photo of Elton John from an ABC-TV special. Image source: ABC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Daniel ended up being a hit single for John in spite of the record companies producing it. The song is somber, which made his label reluctant to release it as a single because they believed a track in that tone wouldn’t perform very well.

The song ended up being the second single released from his 1973 album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player. The record label turned out to be wrong, as the track ended up reaching number four on the UK Singles Chart and number two on the US Hot 100.

Elton John - Crocodile Rock (Live At Madison Square Garden)

It even became his second number-one single in Canada, following up Crocodile Rock in his long run of success in that country.

Daniel was inspired by a news article Taupin read about a Vietnam veteran. Apparently, the article stated that the man had been wounded in the Vietnam War, and upon returning, wanted to get away from all the attention he received when he came back home.

The Real Meaning of Daniel by Elton John And Bernie Taupin

Daniel (Remastered)

Daniel is often quoted as one of John’s most misinterpreted songs, so it’s no surprise that a lot of people have trouble discerning the real meaning behind the track. “Who gave us that quote?” you might be asking. Taupin, the other writer of the song and John’s long-time songwriting partner. In his own words:

“‘Daniel’ had been the most misinterpreted song that we’d ever written. The story was about a guy that went back to a small town in Texas, returning from the Vietnam War. They’d lauded him when he came home and treated him like a hero. But he just wanted to go home, go back to the farm, and try to get back to the life that he’d led before. I wanted to write something that was sympathetic to the people that came home.”

Skyline Pigeon (Piano Version)

Daniel was released on John’s 1973 album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, near the end of the Vietnam War and right when American troops began coming home.

Some believed the track was about a man who was grieving the loss of his brother after the war. Maybe he hadn’t died, but he grieved because his brother came back a changed man. Other theories floated around about the song being a coded gay anthem to just a metaphor for a family dispute.

July 12, 1970 – US Army UH-1H Hueys insert ARVN troops at Khâm Đức, Vietnam. Image source: U.S. Air Force (Operation Holly 1970 (Folder 13 of 15), sheet 182), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One way to interpret the track is that it was meant to shed light on the mindset of those returning home from the war. The veteran in the song doesn’t want accolades or praise for his role over there as he knows what really happened. He knows what the reality of war is like, and it still plagues him to this day. It’s likely that it’s one of the reasons he can’t find peace; he can’t forget the things he’s seen.

And it’s very likely that this is a solid way to interpret the track as a whole. Even Taupin had stated that it was meant to reflect the guys from smaller communities coming home from the war and not knowing how to handle the love or hate they received from the public, depending on what part of the country they ended up returning to.

November 1965 – Combat operations at Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam. Image source: United States Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive events in American history. Many people were in favor of the war but just as many were totally against it. The entire thing was polarizing for people on both sides of the aisle, sparking protests across the nation and ending up being a 20-year debacle politically.

One of the biggest reasons for the hatred of the war was that the US Government drafted men into the military and shipped them off to the war without any say in the matter. Two million and two hundred thousand Americans were drafted into the war, sparking outrage across the country.

There were a ton of protest songs written during this period, advocating for peace and denouncing war as a whole. But very few tracks focused on the actual servicemen who had gone to fight the way Daniel seemed to.

March 16, 1972 – Elton John in der Musikhalle Hamburg, März. Image source: Heinrich Klaffs, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The biggest mystery about the song was that John chopped off one of the verses from the end, believing the track was too long. Many think that the final verses explained the real meaning of the song, though Taupin had stated that despite being cut out, it didn’t add much to the track at all.

It didn’t help that there was a final verse to the song that was deleted because, without those extra lines, the track became much more vague. The lost lyrics describe the veteran in the song as unable to find peace after returning home. He just wants a simple life, something that pops up quite often in Taupin’s work, but can’t actually get the life he wants.

December 9, 2019 – Gran Via from Riu Plaza de España Hotel. Image source: Jose A., CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, he decides to leave America and move to Spain. Why Spain? Because it rhymed with “plane.” So, no deep meaning in why they chose that for the location of the move.

Without the conclusion in the last verse, very little is actually lost from the track. I actually agree with Taupin, in that the lines of the final verse don’t say anything that the rest of the song forgets.

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