In 1974, Elton John played a Christmas Eve show at Hammersmith Odeon in London. It was the last of a five-night stand at the Odeon, and it was broadcast live on BBC radio and TV. That Christmas was probably the moment at which Elton transcended mere popularity and established a new order of magnitude for stardom. Greatest Hits was appearing in Christmas stockings everywhere that Santa went, and 1975 would be the year of Eltonmania—two albums debuting on the Hot 100 at #1 at a time when that never happened, a high-risk outdoor gig in London, and by one accounting five of the year’s top 10 singles.
But according to Eltonography.com, the best Elton resource online since the incredibly comprehensive Cornflakes and Classics disappeared, Elton played other shows on or close to Christmas. He played a long series at the Odeon in December 1982, and a couple shows in 1985. And he may have played a Christmas show as early as 1971. Eltonography’s concert database refers to a show at City Hall in Sheffield, England, on December 24th, 1971, but notes that it may have taken place on December 14—and I’ll bet the earlier date is correct. It seems unlikely that after a week of shows in the north of England, he’d take eight days off and come back for one more on Christmas Eve.
One year before the legendary 1974 show, Elton played his first Christmas series at the Odeon, a three-nighter concluding on December 23. The December 22 show was broadcast on the BBC, and an excellent-quality bootleg was posted recently on ROIO. The performance came shortly after the release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in October, and the setlist is crammed with songs from the album, opening with “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” In all, eight of the 17 songs on the setlist would come from GBYBR: the three American singles, “Candle in the Wind,” and four album cuts, none of which could have been on Elton’s setlists for too terribly long: “This Song Has No Title,” “The Ballad of Danny Bailey,” “I’ve Seen That Movie Too, and “All the Girls Love Alice.” The setlist also contained a couple of older tunes that were displaced from Elton’s setlists as his hits multiplied: “Hercules,” a cut from Honky Chateau, and “Elderberry Wine” from Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, which is a now-forgotten classic as well as being one of the great lying-around-drunk songs of all time. (I grant you that’s a short list, but still.) Elton even offered a bit of Christmas flavor: a tossed-off version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It’s not quite the rollicking “White Christmas” that would conclude the 1974 show, but it’s fun to hear Elton sing it nevertheless.
How much fun Elton was having that night is unclear. He says early on that he’s got a terrible cold, which affects his voice occasionally. But his traditionally hammy stage persona is intact, making this 1973 Hammersmith Odeon Christmas show a fine document of a rising star not long away from conquering the world.