Saturday, July 27, 2013

From Pinner to LA - Elton's big breakthrough, 1970

As a depiction of how you can go from being a pop fan to being a pop idol in the blink of an eye, the story of how Elton John and Bernie Taupin went from sitting in the crowd at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival watching Bob Dylan, to being ushered into Dylan’s presence at an LA club a few months later, is hard to beat.

In 1970, Elton was living at his mother’s house in Pinner, a suburb west of London. with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. He was frustrated at their lack of success and had considered giving it all up and becoming a session player. His recent album Elton John, had failed to capture the British public’s imagination, but it had gained a measure of recognition in America, where Elton was considered a new talent to match the singer songwriters of LA’s Laurel Canyon.

Russ Regan, an LA-based A&R man, picked up on the airplay the Elton John album was getting and wanted to bring Elton, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray out to LA, where Troubadour club owner Doug Weston agreed to give them a six night residency. Having never been to America, but having worshipped its music from afar, Elton and Bernie went from the obscurity of a suburban living room in Pinner to the very centre of the music business in one move.
Elton and Bernie Taupin in 1970
Their opening night at the Troubadour, with Quincy Jones, Mike Love and Henry Mancini in the crowd, was the pivotal moment that changed Elton and Bernie’s lives forever.

The audience had come to hear the new British balladeer. Before the show Neil Diamond took the stage and introduced Elton: “Folks, I’ve never done this before, so please be kind to me. I’m like the rest of you; I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album. So I’m going to take my seat with you now and enjoy the show.”

Elton himself recalled: “It was very hot and smoky and a great vibe. We came on; I was in flying boots and hotpants and did (a heavy version of) Sixty Years On. They weren’t expecting it. They thought it was going to be a low-key thing, because the music on the Elton John album was very orchestral. But with a three-piece band, we went out and did the songs completely differently and just blew everyone away. We knew halfway through the show that we were on fire.”
I have discovered some rare footage from 1971 of the trio playing Sixty Years On, which shows perfectly how they took this song and beefed it up. Elton pounding the piano, Nigel using mallets with gusto on the drum kit while Dee uses his bass like a lead guitar.

On the second night at the Troubadour, Elton had looked up to see another hero, Leon Russell staring straight at him: “I nearly shat myself”. Then, one night at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Elton and Bernie were led to a booth for an audience with Dylan himself. Elton told Mojo magazine: “Bernie and I were just like, Fuck!” Dylan said he loved the song My Father’s Gun, from Tumbleweed Connection. “We were like (frozen and pertified) Uh-Huh. Dylan has an aura about him. It’s not frightening. It’s just - foo, blimey”.
Melody Maker Sept 5th 1970 notes Elton's success in LA
Having seen the Troubadour show, Robert Hilburn, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning. He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.” But much like the Stax artists who toured Britain in the 60s as major stars, only to return to the US as nobodies, back in Europe Elton's career moved slowly forward with more gigs and TV appearances. Record sales remained sluggish, but that all changed in February 1971, when his label DJM released Your Song from Elton John as a single. A whole different phenomenon was about to begin – the era of Elton as a hitmaker in the UK. With a run of hit singles in 1971 and 72 - Honky Cat, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Daniel etc, Elton found himself increasingly a part of the developing Glam Rock scene, along with T. Rex, David Bowie and Roxy Music. This played well with his natural flamboyance on stage, and the costumes became more outrageous.
Front page of Melody Maker 1973
His reputation in the US grew on the strength of his albums, particularly the ersatz Americana of Tumbleweed Connection and the Laurel Canyon songwriter vibe of Madman Across The Water.  In the UK, his albums from 1972’s Don’t’ Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player onwards sold well, but his earlier albums such as Tumbleweed and Madman, both full of great songs, did not get the attention they deserved at the time, nor probably even today from record buyers in the UK.
The elaborate lyric books that came with Elton's early 70s LPs

For more insight into how good those early shows were, the album 17-11-70 captures a live radio broadcast in New York that year. Also worth checking out, for the sheer power of their performance, is the Cleveland Music Hall show on 26th November 1970, available at the Concert Vault website - It's easy to see why he created such a buzz in America. He demanded your attention and rightly so - these are powerful performances.
Elton with his mother and stepfather at home in Pinner, 1971
Pinner happens to be my hometown too, though Elton is significantly older than me and our paths have never crossed. When he was making the journey to LA for his big breakthrough, I was about to enter my second year of high school. To conclude this piece, here's another example of how Elton's life changed so dramatically in 1970. Every year, Pinner has its May Fair, running up the two main streets in the centre of town. In his diary for May 1969, Elton wrote, “went to Pinner Fair with Mick and Pat. I won a coconut and two goldfish!" He called them John and Yoko. Wind forward five years and Elton played a key role in reuniting the real John and Yoko during the period of their collaboration on the song Whatever Gets You Through The Night.  “Fuck, my life has been incredible,” he says now.

An early performance of 'Amoreena' from the US tour in 1970

Elton talks about songwriting with Bernie and the breakthrough gigs at The Troubadour:

Elton rehearsing with Nigel and Dee, 1970

Full performance of Sixty Years On in 1971

Elton in the throes of writing 'Tiny Dancer', 1971

Performance of 'Levon' for BBC TV, 1971

Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, 1972

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