I'm going to focus on Elton's performances in general terms, where he was at the time and how the tours compared. I'm going to focus very closely on the band lineups too. Very closely. Elton has had some great musicians over the years. And some not so great. In terms of ability or suitability. More about those as we progress.
I'm basing my views on the vast number of recordings that I've accumulated over the years. I know some people are going to say, ''oh you weren't there'' when it comes to the older shows, etc. Very true. But what I'm trying to guide everyone through is my assessment of Elton's live performances at the time merely based on those recordings. Being there is obviously a totally different world. I'm merely looking at them from an offstage position if you wish. It's only my opinion, not something hammered into stone. I'll add some recommended listening for those who aren't as familiar with the available live recordings that are out there.
I’m not going to go through the entire setlists of each tour as the blog would crumble under the pressure of such a vast amount of information trying to be crammed into a small space. Look on this as a gateway to a vast emporium of sound. I’ve dealt with some individual shows in the past and will do so in the future. I do think Elton’s live career has been woefully neglected over the years, both in terms of official releases and documentation. Setlists are sketchy to come by for instance. Hopefully someone in the future will catalogue all this information and give it the care and time it deserves. I don’t think we need another book about flowers in the house, do you?!
One way of defining a great actor is his ability to tread the boards. The live stage, at the mercy of the audience and at the mercy of his own abilities to carry him through his lines. It can be his pedestal of rock...or another type of rock. The one you perish on. Being able to get it right first time not only once but every night. Second takes are for hams. The same can be said for good live musicians. Getting up every night and getting your music across and sending the audience home having got their monies worth. I don't anyone can argue with the fact that Elton is a true master of that art. The stage is his hunting ground and he's had many kills over the years on that plain. For the first part of this series, I'm going to look at where it all started...the 70's.
Unfortunately we’re not blessed with that many great recordings from that era. What we do have is gold. I can say this without giving the game away at this time, everything from about 70-74 is absolutely amazing. Maybe not in terms of sound quality but most definitely in performance. As vital as the recorded material of the era. Let’s start where it all commenced…
Onve upon a time there was a big bang. So the theory goes. Whether it was Elton hitting the keyboard with both hands fully recoiled then released as hard as he could or Nigel kicking his bass drum with ferocious kick back or Dee slapping his bass with one great slam down is open to query by the boffins. One thing is for sure when the trio went to the US in 1970 it turned the whole world on its head. When you look at the 3 piece concept I can only think of one other major similar lineup from that time, ELP. But they kinda cheated. Greg Lake would switch from bass to lead in order to give a fuller rock sound. As for Keith Emerson, one keyboard was never enough. So the simplicity of our trio was one of its tricks. Apart from the fact they could recreate incredibly diverse productions on disc live in a raw environment. With credibility and power. This was where the classic rhythm section would perfect their art of supporting Elton, Playing every night with him gave them the opportunity to feel his music more and hone their talents. And in turn used that bonding with the music to great advantage on disc. Elton at this stage of his live career was in full impression mode. His voice was smooth and aggressive in quick successive mood swings. His piano playing was thunderous, the impact of it genuinely took the critics by surprise. As did the extended jams. Had anyone tried this before? I doubt it. Elton was certainly the first piano player in rock that took the instrument to the next level live. Off the cuff and flowinf with ease from his fingers. The jams were always rabble rousing and joyous. Burn Down The Mission from this period is pure barnstorming showmanship. Nigel and Dee caught his grooves and played off them with ease, right from the off. Elton was on song all the time. Looking back now, the setlists seem like a wish list, but being before the days of the big hits anything was fair game to play. Even new songs. All of the recordings from the time are essential listens. The full and complete version of 17-11-70 is a must. Madman Shakes Tokyo catches the 3 piece right at the very end of that phase of development. The setlist is a coming together of all the major pieces from the 69-71 era. Sounds For Saturday is a terrific companion piece to Madman on disc, On an earlier blog post I focused in on two other very early shows which caught both sides of that early period. The early phase can only last a short span. Once established it’s up to the artist to develop and ultimately consolidate. Elton was about to consolidate at the peak.
I always look on 1972 as the crossover point. I did an earlier post about the RFH '72 show being that stepping stone from the early establishing period to world dominance. Davey's arrival was pivotal. Right from the off he clicked with the rest of them. What he added in the studio goes without saying. Adding this versatility on stage was another masterstroke. Not just the obvious embellishments of electric and acoustic guitars, but with the roots instruments he gave Elton that fuller sound and diversity throughout the shows. Can I Put You On suddenly became an even more exciting affair. The transfer of the songs from disc to stage became a more slicker transfer. Elton could now play off Davey and further explore hidden areas. Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters at this time was in its purest form. The setlists were now beginning to display hits. But as with any new album release, there were some treats. Album tracks from Honky Chateau and latterly Don't Shoot Me appeared frequently. Susie and High Flying Bird from those albums are highlights for me. The band were beginning to gel in the studio and this was reflectd on stage. The four of them became incredibly tight, Elton being the apex whilst the others gave him the foundation to stay there. Seattle ’72 is probably the best band show from this period, sound quality wise. But as with any crossover, there has to be a destination. Where was Elton going...but to the top of course.
Charles Shaar Murray's famous review of the Edmonton Sundown show in London from early 1973 I suppose is where we can put another marker down. A marker as to where Elton landed on the next phase. In a nutshell the review declared that Elton had become a teenage sensation. With girls if you please. Innocent times indeed. The crowd makeup may have started to change but Elton hadn't changed. His piano playing was still as fast as ever and fulsome in it's presence. The '73 shows were now becoming a hits fest, giving the crowd what they wanted etc. Adding Ray Cooper at the end of that years shows at the Hammersmith as documented on the recent GYBR 40th adding another piece. A dimension that only through time became even more dynamic. When you look at an event like the Hollywood Bowl and the sheer scale of it, he still gives a kick ass performance. The sound quality of it isn’t spectacular but listening to it you can still gauge the fact that he hasn’t been overawed nor become complacent.
As we go into 1974 we hear Elton at the peak of his powers. Here And There show Elton both sides now. The ‘Here’ disc is terrific, the intro to Bad Side Of The Moon is an oratorio in it’s own right. Davey had by now found his voice. He could be at the forefront and step back without anyone noticing it happen. His fluid bluesy sound on lead was blossoming. Nigel and Dee and had their parts nailed down so tightly the parts themselves were so well trained they could nearly do them on their own. Nigel in particular had established ‘his sound’ and he left no part of behind in the studio. His slow drumming on the ride cymbal, the big tom fills were all present and correct. All of them showed why they were the best. Incredible genre defining parts they all created in the studio were dispatched with great ease on stage. In other words, everything they did was natural. Elton was still clear of head at this stage, not always the case as we'll see later on, the piano was still the focus of his intent. However the extended jams of the early years had begun to wane. Madman Across The Water being the only real genuine one during ’73. Madman with gentle trips to summits and sudden drops off them. All The Girls Love Alice during '74 was the ‘time out’ piece. Alice in fact became a psychedelic ‘trip out’. Sound effects with dreamy visions coming from everyone on stage. The addition of the Muscle Shoals Horns on the US leg of the tour added that funk and soul to expand the rock. At the end of '74 Elton and the band were at the summit and holding it. The performances at this time were vibrant and energetic. The ‘There’ disc is positively oozing those emotions. Putting the Lennon appearance to one side, on its own enough to fill a blog post, the performance is polish and rawness colliding off each other and ultimately coalescing. Christmas Eve at the Hammersmith Odeon being the final hurrah (temporarily) of the great band.
Elton was now giving the crowds the hits whilst at the same time not letting the moment overwhelm the music. He’d struck a taught line between the need for visuals and the desire for the music. During this period is when steady progression was achieved and where pre-empting and second guessing became a normal state of affairs. Elton and the band were at the height of their 70’s live incarnation. But the continuing journey would be halted when its momentum was reaching an unstoppable velocity. Elton had graduated from the eager artist to super artist in a few movements on the keyboard. He'd found the best band lineup ever. They were masters in the studio and on stage. They didn't just compliment Elton's music, they became it. But after the summer of 1975 it changed. But not for the good.
Much has been said about the changes to band around this time. Whatever spin you put on it, it was not for the best. Period. You've got one of the most envied band lineups of the day and you get rid of. I can only suspect Elton may have been under the, eh, influence at the time. One of the lines put forward is the new band would be harder driven. Which implies the previous band wasn't. Without giving endless examples, I’ll give two. One in the studio and one live. Pinball Wizard was the last track they recorded with Elton in the summer of 1974. Hardly not hard I would say. Listen also to Saturday Night’s Alright from Hammersmith Odeon, 24th December 1974. One listen confirms the same assertion. If the jam on that isn’t hard enough whilst still retaining plenty of melodic fervor then I don’t know what is. The old band could rock as hard as anyone.
Roger Pope was great in the studio, but very poor live. He seemed to play the same groove either fast or slow. And for some reason never tried to reach for those great trademark parts that Nigel created on disc and could replicate on stage. I could go on for ages on how he totally and utterly left huge chunks of the songs unfulfilled. But we must move on. Passarelli on bass...well, if anyone can tell me in 50 words or less how or why he was as good as Dee Murray, I'll show you a fairy story. His bass playing was so flat and clichéd it did nothing to enhance the songs. Overall the rhythm section was one dimensional in comparison to the previous one and to the others that went after it. It wasn’t all bad though. Caleb Quaye's addition certainly brought the best out of Davey in terms of venturing into previously unchatered waters on the fret board. The weaving onstage was exciting and almost dangerous at times. Empty Sky and Grow Some Funk were terrific showcases for those aspects. They were real standout moments from these years. But the jousting could be over egged at times too. More on that later on. The addition of James Newton Howard is critical here. His addition was vital as far as I’m concerned. More so in the long term. We’ll see in the next parts later on just how important he became to Elton on stage. His use of the Mellotron and the Moog meant Buckmaster’s arrangements for instance could be realised live. The big sound he introduced worked perfectly with the big venues. His terrific electric piano harmonizing with Elton again hasn’t been fully acknowledged over the years. If you listen to it, it’s incredible.
The familiar backing vocals disappeared. The proper arrangements went out the window when the baby and bath water were hurled out the hotel bedroom window. Metaphorically speaking of course. Better Off Dead for instance in ’75 had the vocals done on the hoof. Someone Saved My Life Tonight was let down by their ineffectual delivery. As the lifetime of the band progressed the endless guitar and drum solo’s continued to take the focus away from Elton. Meal Ticket and Hercules being prime examples. On and on till evryone dropped. The off the wall idea to speed up Curtains on the outro utterly killed the point of that the marvelous ending on disc stated. The very fact it of it fading out the way it did was the key it’s success. The culmination of what went before in terms of steady buildup that never gives way in terms of pacing. Turning it into jam destroyed the moment for quite a few minutes. Even the extended outros on Bennie and Rocket Man seemed directionless. These would be put in focus with later examples. A sharp focus in fact.
Elton’s own piano playing slowed during this time, it had none of the expressions of feelings of just a few years earlier. He was tired. In all senses of the word. I think it’s well known that at this time he was well under the ‘influence’ of the recreational indulgences of the rock and roll lifestyle. So no help from that quarter. The size of the shows in the stadiums meant it became an event rather than a performance. The first big performance at Wembley Stadium stuck to the plan but after that the whole thing went off in tangents. In fact Wembley isn’t too bad, the endless rehearsals had meant the band stuck fairly close to the album arrangements. After that they kind of fell apart. Seattle ’75 (second night) though does catch where Elton was at this stage. During Someone Saved My Life Tonight something amusing happens onstage and the songs plunges into farce and comedy. Not the sort of song when an invasion of humour is welcome. The early part of the two Seattle shows are fine but after the interval when ‘refreshments’ were served they mostly dived headlong deep into the valley of chaos. The MSG shows, whilst capturing Elton at the top of the fame tree, highlights in the same terminal velocity dive that the first and foremost tools as a live performer…his voice and piano…were merely playing to support to the circus going on around him. Elton is no fool, he must have come to the same conclusion by throwing in the towel after those shows in August ’76. There was no future in it. Back to basics, regroup and launch another offensive with your best weapons available seemed to be in order. And that’s what Elton just did.
Edinburgh, September 1976. Not sure in science if you can have another big bang after one has exploded earlier. But this isn’t science but art, so anything is possible. I think it’s not hard to put into context the importance of this first solo show. It’s everything that went before turned on it’s head. Elton reconnected with the piano and the songs. Rather than endless engaging (in fact somebody else on stage actually doing the work outs whilst Elton spectating) in repeating the same riff over and over, he re introduced the audience to his back catalogue. But more importantly, to himself. From this moment on, no matter how bad things got in the future, he never let the songs suffer on stage except for a few occasions when the drain was appearing again at the end of the 80’s. This recording is essential, it’s no surprise clips are regularly taken from it on it official releases. The piano sound is brimming and it’s one of the last occasions we here the pre Thom Bell voice in its crystalline glory live. Because it is glorious. It had to be. It was one half of the other supports he had on the night so there was no hiding place for it. Elton showed after the madness of the last 18 months or so he could still pull it out and hold it steady. All it needed was the right environment and support.
In turn this lead another incredible creative live period. The most creative of the entire decade perhaps? Because for the next few years right up till the 80’s were almost upon him, himself and Ray Cooper invented the most unique combo in rock. The concept seems slightly leftfield on paper, but in practice it was anything but. Elton doing his thing on the piano and Ray adding some amazing scenes throughout his second half appearance. Rainbow Rock from May ’77 has the most amazing piano recording of the decade. The incredible stereo spectrum showcased Ray also to full extent. FFF/Tonight is just one of many moments on the disc that are truly incredible. The overall setlist is superb, Elton on his own on the piano can strike up amazing rhythms. This show is full of them.
But before full combat could be resumed, there were to be some retreats and phoney wars. The Empire Pool show from November ’77. The retirement show has Elton at about 50% power. A bit more than going through the motions but still nothing like he was capable of. We all know the background to the show. Historically it’s important but it still sounds like a fixture fulfillment. Which it was essentially. The couple of brief shows from 1978 to promote A Single Man are far more engaging performances. Both are solo but have Elton starting again with direction of purpose. The Paris show is almost like Elton busking in the way he rattles through everything such were his high spirits. The MCA promo show is conversational. The seeds were being sown for strong roots.
The roots had flourished. A Single Man In Moscow and the Back In The USSA tour shows from Boston and Washington are vital. Moscow being soundboard gets the nod over the other two but the others are still tip top shows. Elton was on top form, vocally and playing. His voice was now in its prime range pre 1987 operation. He could still achieve any high parts he desired but the added colour of the deeper attitude gave it the same broad dynamic his piano had. The great thing about Ray was he never overshadowed Elton. Everything was timed and placed like a well laid out table. Elton was now at his easel and he was going to paint. And masterworks appeared each time. Bennie and Rocket Man (as mentioned earlier) now became fully developed works of art. Both went off in lines at all angles. They kept the base of the songs as their reference points whilst discovering new pathways. Elton was ending the decade like he started it. Full of energy and hungry with desire on stage. He rocked even harder on the piano. Crazy Water being the clincher for that point. When you listen to his speed and the way he flourishes on the keyboard compared to a few years earlier it’s breathtaking. The introduction of the Yamaha and Fender Rhodes electric pianos added another dimension to the show.
I can safely say there is not one dud show during this period. He had rediscovered his craft and had taken it to another level. By putting the focus back on the instrument and the songs it left nobody in any doubt. From that he could feed off it with renewed confidence. One of the final shows of the tour from Sydney in November ’79 is another recommended listen. Even after a near year long worldwide tour he could still summon the energy to rock out on Your Song. Would the hunger pangs creep into the 80’s?! Tune in next time to find out…