I got this documentary about 13 years ago on an old VHS tape, but thanks to the 'Big Wonder Down Under; a far better quality version has now surfaced. It had been ages since I watched it, but since this new one was uploaded I've watched it countless times. It's fantastic, a real view de force...
Live In Australia was my first Elton album. Way back when. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me at the time was one of my favourite Elton songs, so the opportunity to have a live version with a full orchestral arrangement on it was too much to resist. The rest as they say is the continuing journey from the entry via that gateway drug...
The concept of Elton doing such a tour in the mid 80's was baffling in some ways, but a leap of faith (on both sides) that ultimately proved one of his groundbreaking moments. Trailblazing in fact. Nobody had done anything of that scale before. But since then most major acts have attempted something similar. But where Elton had the upper hand on them all, was that his welding of the two setups was not a compromise. The arrangements were part and parcel of the songs. No afterthought or attempt to jemmy them into fitting around the song. One and one certainly equalled the right answer.
On this post I'm going to even begin to attempt to go through the entire show. To do so would over load Google's memory banks and possibly create a Y2K type shutdown of it's servers. What I will do is give an overview as inspired by the documentary with some remarks about it. My suggestion after watching it would be to seek out the full show on YouTube. The full three hour show is available there. Unfortunately the entire show was never released officially. Either on disc or DVD. The Geffen effect again. He's not a favourite of this blog, his attempts to derail Elton's career in the mid 80's merely ended up with Geffen himself almost falling onto the rails. More is the pity he didn't perhaps...as he withheld all the songs performed on the night that recorded originally during his period in charge of Elton's studio output. A scandalous decision, one that didn't lessen the impact of the album but merely highlighted Geffen's own false sense of importance.
This documentary from ABC television in Australia offers a unique perspective. Having access to all the main players of the tour, from backstage to onstage, it gives a rare look at the embryosis of a tour to it's final climax. The creation of the 'spectacular soundwise event' was only something Elton could pull off. His own words in prophesying it in Los Angeles in October were correct. Australia over the years has seen some terrific Elton tours. Incredibly unique, a testament to Elton's faith in the country which was one of the first outside of the US to embrace him right from the start. So no surprise then he chose it to launch with force on of his greatest tours. But to do so he had to round up his trusty lieutenants, those that knew his music as well as he did, better than him in some ways. Not quite seven, but still magnifecent and just as critical and complimentary to each other.
James Newton Howard was the obvious choice as conductor. As he still is to this day, Elton's concert conductor of choice. His unique position, quite unique in the rock world in fact, of having played keyboards of every description in a couple of different lineups of Elton's band in the studio and on tour not to mention adding arrangements to several of Elton's songs was a tap of knowledge too good to ignore. So Elton let him flow. And what flowed was incredible. Not only did he treat Paul Buckmasters's arrangements with due care and diligence, but he added his own parts to them fill them out for the larger ensemble. As if they were always there. If Buckmatser joined the dots, James coloured them in. They worked on the tour with a grace and style that was everlasting. So everlasting in fact we still hear a great deal of them today in any live Elton show. Because for the tour after this one, Elton added an extra keyboard player just to recreate those scores. Guy Babylon took them to another level, made them part of the live Elton world. Kim Bullard has taken said atrrangements and continued the unbroken line. Over a quarter of a century later they still sound exciting and when they are removed a hollow gap is present. But not correct.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra took a serious step into the unknown on this one. Unknown in so far as to how the whole thing would work. From Elton's perspective, he and his people knew it would work. But from the MSO's stand point they had no idea of who, what or maybe even why was Elton. If the thought that maybe James Newton Howard was worse than Ozzy Osbourne, then Elton would have established new level of rock depravity as far they were concerned. But as you can see from the rehearsals, the perceived fences soon wilted and the road to the common goal was set out on. No quarter asked or given. The amplification of the orchestra seemed understandably a bone of contention with some members, but in the live arena with all the amps rocking out a flute solo or bassoon riff had to cut through the mix. Otherwise their hard work would not have been showcased. A compromise for the greater good, as the band themselves had to tone down just a tad. If the band has to up their game with the orchestra backing him, so did the MSO. It's one thing thing just reading the music, but sight reading came into play very quickly. James's ability to forsee Elton's tempo's change's or slight path deviations for example meant he could back off or draw in the orchestra as and when Elton decided to throw in one of his little shimmy's.
If you watch the rehearsals, you can see Elton there for the duration. Not a case of turning up and just starting up as he'd done it all before. He really threw himself into it, not slow to take cues or direction. The greater good of the music was to the forefront, Ego's etc were parked. They were all in for better and not the worst. As were the band. And what a band. As far I'm concerned, Nigel and Dee are the ultimate rhythm section. That's not open for discussion, try another blog if you want to see an alternative viewpoint. Any other combo with Nigel is not open for discussion either. And neither is this one, Charlie Morgan and David Paton. Because they are damn near are as good as it gets. Tight, powerful, rhythmic and with the taste and delicacy that Elton's music craves. Because it deserves a lot of attention. And these guys gave it. They tapped into it straight away, why didn't we see more from this combo is a crying shame. It may have been short, but it was so sweet a chocolate factory would be envious of their output. This blog is great fans of them. Fred Mandel on keyboards was incredible. He put down the familiar lines but had a great hand for that was flashy when needed and filled out with a full but lean sound. His guitar playing was tough with a rough line thrown in for good measure. The solo on The Bitch Is Back his grandstand moment. Jody Linscott on percussion tucked in nicely, again never over egging the pudding. The other two, Ray and Davey, well you know the rest.
Gus Dudgeon and Clive Franks, the two masters in the studio and onstage for Elton respectively were both needed to handle this tidal wave of sound. Because that's how big it was. Two strong men and all that. But what they did do was wrestle an incredible sound mix, balanced impeccably with no compromise. Much like Elton himself. Because he didn't compromise on any aspect of his performance. The stool went flying. In both halves of the show. The costumes were as full on as any that went before. More so perhaps, the sheer size and statement of them was as loud as the sound. If Elton had lived in Mozart's era, nobody would have second glanced him. Though if Mozart had turned up in Mohican, then I suspect he would have ended up as the 18th century equivalent of a busker. The costumes then were no surprise to any Elton fan, history has not dulled their impact. In fact, they time stamp the era. Just like the music...
Which is of course the most important part of the exercise. The music speaks for ebryone. To everyone. No borders to cross, both genres have a voice and they harmonise to together. When Davey cranks it up, the brass section can deliver a fanfare just as ear splitting. The robustness of the music shines through. Elton's voice as we all know wasn't A1 at this time. But I move pass that. Why? The fact is, at the time Elton had no idea of the ultimate outcome of the problem. The worse case scenario is too shocking to be relayed here. But everything did work out right in the end. But with that cloud hanging over his head, not to mention the fact he was undertaking a groundbreaking tour, he still was able to produce performances night after night of incredibly tenacity and style. Some in retrospect may not have been what we've come to expect, but the sheer determination of them carried the night. And ultimately delivered a hit single. They say the darkest hour is before the dawn and all that, but this is the opposite, Elton had his light before then the darkness of having his problem corrected. Which ultimately brought him back into the light. The set list in incredible, the entire back catalogue of albums is almost covered to that point. So it's a whirlwind through all points from the start to the present day. Ultimately the tour was a triumph. So much so Elton has never attempted anything like it since, except for the brief run of shows with the Royal Academy Of Music in 2004. The tour is frozen in a moment, frozen here in this documentary. A documentary that doesn't shirk from the more testy moments. But captures in all it's glory the verve, drama and ultimately the exceptional delivery by Elton. The Band. And the MSO.