The lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin, Elton's writing partner. He explained the inspiration on his web site: "I'd seen this article in Time magazine on the Tet Offensive. And there was a sidebar next to it with a story about how many of the soldiers that were coming back from 'Nam were these simple sort of down home country guys who were generally embarrassed by both the adulation and, depending on what part of the country you came from, the animosity that they were greeted by. For the most part, they just wanted to get back to a normal life, but found it hard, what with all the looky loos and the monkeys of war that they carried on their backs.
I just took it from there and wrote it from a younger brother's perspective; made him disabled and wanting to get away. I made it Spain, basically, because it rhymes with plane."
When Elton wrote the music for this song, he chopped off the last verse because he thought the song was already too long. The deleted verse explained that "Daniel" was a Vietnam vet who returned home to the farm after the war, couldn't find peace, and decided to leave America and go to Spain. With the last verse chopped off, it became a fairly vague story of two brothers who part ways, although Bernie Taupin says that losing the verse wasn't a big deal.
Said Taupin: "We had that whole thing about the missing verse that everybody seems to believe explained the true meaning of the song. I think that's just an urban legend. It didn't really explain anything. Sure, it was cut out. But that used to happen all the time with our songs. I would often overwrite, and Elton felt it necessary to edit somewhat. But believe me, it didn't say anything that the rest of the song didn't say."
This was written and recorded the same day at the the Chateau d'Herouville in France (the "Honky Chateau"), where Elton and his team retreated to make the album. Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics one morning at the recording studio and brought them downstairs to Elton, who put music to it and recorded it with the band that day, doing just three takes.
Stowing away to France was Elton's way of entering a creative environment free from distractions - there was no entourage and no phones. The Chateau could even keep the Black Knight at bay, as it was surrounded by a moat.
The result was part a very productive songwriting period for Taupin and John, who composed 12 songs over a four-day period, including "Daniel."
Elton called this song "a calypso-type number with Everley Brothers-type harmonies."
The record company didn't want to release this as a single because they thought it was too long and somber to be a hit. Elton had other ideas, and insisted they release it as a single before the album came out. The record company did, but with very little promotion. It became a hit anyway.
According to Elton John: The Definitive Biography
, here's how the album got its title: While in Los Angeles, Elton was introduced to the legendary comedian Groucho Marx. They hit it off, but Groucho was always giving Elton a hard time about his name, insisting that he must have it backwards and really be John Elton. After Groucho refused to lay off the name thing at a party, Elton threw up his hands and said jokingly: "Don't shoot me, I'm just the piano player."
Bernie Taupin has told a different story, claiming that he found the phrase on a plaque at an American junk shop.
The engineer on the album, Ken Scott, played an ARP synthesizer on this track.
Bernie Taupin called this "the most misinterpreted song we've ever written," saying he's heard it called a gay anthem and a song about a family dispute.
This song got renewed interest in 2018 when Sam Smith recorded it for the tribute album Revamp: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and performed it on the CBS special Elton John: I'm Still Standing Grammy Salute. Before the performance, Smith said, "Elton, as a male singer-songwriter from England who is gay, you are a shining example who helped me see what was possible in this world. Your brilliant songwriting partner Bernie Taupin put it poetically in this exquisite song I'm so honored to sing for you tonight. Elton, you truly are and will always be a star in the face of the sky."