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LIVE: Elton John revisited

Watching Elton John play out this year’s Glastonbury Festival on the Pyramid Stage from the relative comfort of my home armchair I was taken back to the occasion when I had seen him in concert for the first (and, in all likelihood, only) time. The date was the 21st of June 1975. The place was the old Wembley Stadium, best known for hosting the FA Cup final and important international football matches. The event was billed as Midsummer Music, being held, as it was, on the day of the summer solstice. Compered by the then Radio 1 DJ, Johnnie Walker, the day began late morning with the quintessentially English eccentricity of Stackridge (the first band signed to Elton’s Rocket Records label) who were then followed by the American funk stalwarts Rufus, featuring the exceptional vocals of Chaka Khan.

With the stage set up in the shadow of one of the stadium’s huge terraces and with (fairly inadequate) cork matting covering the pitch itself, some 72,000 of us were packed into the ground that balmy summer Saturday. Next up was Joe Walsh. Having left the American power trio James Gang three years earlier to form Barnstorm, he had also begun to branch out on his own and delivered a rousing set of which his solo hit ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ was an undoubted highlight. Walsh’s day was far from done, though, as he was to subsequently join The Eagles onstage for a concluding blast of Chuck Berry’s ‘Carol’ and, finally, ‘Best Of My Love.’ Before the year was out, Walsh was a fully-fledged member of The Eagles. Another notable guest appearance during The Eagles’ set came from Jackson Browne who, somewhat improbably, emerged from a box on the stage where he had been hidden during the opener, ‘Take It Easy’, a song he had co-written with the band.

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Into the early evening and enter The Beach Boys. Even by then they were already beginning to become something of a nostalgia act and what with Brian Wilson still back in California in the secure surroundings of his home sandpit, the heavy lifting of live performance had been left to the remaining original members, his brothers Carl and Dennis, Mike Love, Al Jardine plus Bruce Johnston and a couple of touring musicians. Expectations may have been low but they were incredible, rattling off hit-after-hit and getting the sell-out crowd up on its feet singing and dancing along to all of those fabulously familiar toe-tappers. They opened with ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ – and, believe me, it most certainly was – and ended up 22 songs later with ‘Fun, Fun, Fun.’ 

Such was the outpouring of comfort and joy then embracing the old stadium, you already felt that this was going to be a very tough act to follow. And so it proved to be. Elton opened, perhaps rather ominously, with ‘Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ and whilst he then followed up with a number of his recent chart-hits including‘Rocket Man’‘Candle In The Wind’, ‘The Bitch Is Back’, and ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ the man from Pinner was about to make a serious error in judgement, something which he was later to graciously acknowledge. He chose to then play his latest album Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy in its entirety, from chronological start to finish. Nothing wrong with that you may think, but the record had only been out for a couple of weeks and nobody was really that familiar with the songs from the album. For better or worse, these were the days long before the immediacy afforded us by the internet and music streaming. 

People started to leave Wembley in their droves, the majority not even bothering to hang around to hear the double encore of ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’. 48 years later, Elton John plays both of these songs at Glastonbury, actually opening this stellar performance with The Who classic ‘Pinball Wizard’ recreating, in part, the role he had taken in the film version of Tommy. It was astonishing – well for me, anyway – to quickly realise that Ray Cooper (percussion) and Davey Johnstone (guitar) were still with Elton, both having appeared with him on that Wembley stage some five decades earlier. It was also great to see ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ – taken from the Captain Fantastic album – receive the Glastonbury reception the song undoubtedly deserves. 

Elton was never going to make the same mistake twice and whilst he did introduce one or two deeper cuts – including a fabulous ‘Are You Ready For Love?’ where he is joined by the wonderful London Community Gospel Choir and Jacob Lusk from soul-pop band Gabriels – the set at Worthy Farm is almost entirely given over to wall-to-wall barnstormers. One after the other, the hits just keep on rolling off the EJ production line. It is a memorable, triumphant last-ever UK performance by Elton John, whatever you may think about him, and it is one that joyfully transports me back to another notable musical experience that had taken place nearly 50 years earlier.

Photo of my original concert ticket, complete with authentic Tartan Special beer stains from the day itself.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.