The Failure

Between the fall of 1974 and the end of 1975, it was Elton John’s world. Regular readers of this pondwater can recite the tale, which I’ve told many a time: greatest hits album, John Lennon guest appearance, Hammersmith Odeon on Christmas Eve, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” Captain Fantastic, Tommy, Rock of the Westies, etc. Everything he touched turned to gold, in other words. Except for one thing—which happened 38 years ago today.

Many successful people will tell you that to maintain success, you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing indefinitely. You must continue to take the kind of risks you did on your way up. And so in April 1975, just as Elton was about to release Captain Fantastic, he broke up his band. When he fired bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, he was sacking two musicians who had been with him since he was still living in his mother’s house.

Elton kept lead guitarist Davey Johnstone and formed a new band around him. Then, after a limited amount of rehearsal, the band headlined a daylong concert at Wembley Stadium in London on June 21, 1975. The starpower onstage at the concert, billed as Midsummer Music, is enough to make anybody wish he’d been there. The show opened with a British band called Stackridge, which had played a lot around the UK in the early ’70s and was on Elton’s record label, and then made way for acts of ever-increasing fame—Rufus, Joe Walsh, the Eagles, and the Beach Boys—before Elton closed the show.

On that day, Chaka Khan wore an enormous headdress, and the Eagles did what they usually did, which is to sound almost exactly like their records. By all accounts, the Beach Boys burned the place down, playing hit after sun-kissed hit on a hot summer day, and it’s possible that only Elton John in his prime could have followed them. But Elton had made a fateful decision: to play the entire Captain Fantastic album start to finish, most of which would have been unfamiliar to most of the crowd. At the end of the set, the band played “Pinball Wizard” (then a hit around the world) and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” but by then, many in the crowd, sunburned, sated, and bored by Elton’s new music, had already left.

Elton John had laid it on the line and lost it. The risks were multiple: a new band on its first live gig, a high-profile show, with no way to know how his new music would go over. It’s pretty clear that the band understood the risks. At the end of the show, Elton told the crowd, “We’d like to thank you for being so appreciative, because we were shit-scared.”

Here’s “Writing” as performed on that day, with Elton’s thanks to the crowd at the end. It is, for some reason, accompanied by a photo of Elton with Cher, so enjoy.

(From a post in my archives, featuring stuff I wrote for them between 2008 and 2012.)

4 thoughts on “The Failure

  1. I am curious as to whether Elton failed because his band performed poorly; because he chose unfamiliar songs to play; or because there were one too many opening acts and people were just tired by the time he came on.

    1. jb

      The band sounds great, despite its relative dearth of rehearsal—the show makes up the second disc of the deluxe “Captain Fantastic” package that came out a few years ago. However, I can easily imagine casual Elton fans thirsting to hear the hits and being disappointed by song after song they didn’t know. A Facebook friend related his story of seeing Cheap Trick do the same thing a few years ago, and how he and his date left early for the same reason.

  2. porky

    Cheap Trick doing it in the 2000’s had much, much less to lose. Saw a Steve Miller interview and he said every time he announced “here’s something from my new album” the crowd went for beer and/or potty breaks. So now he plays what he knows they came to hear.

    I followed Elton until “Caribou,” which even at my age then I could tell was tired and forced (and bitter). Just lost interest and never heard “Captain Fantastic.”

    1. jb

      Steely Dan has told the story of playing new material on their first reunion tour in the early 90, and eventually nicknaming that part of the show “the procession to the concession stand.”

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