The Heights of ’75

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(Pictured: Elton John gets airborne, October 25, 1975.)

I’ve written here before about Elton John’s best year ever—from the release of his Greatest Hits album and bringing John Lennon back to the stage at the end of 1974 to playing the Pinball Wizard in the Tommy movie to a pair of #1-debuting albums at a time when nobody had ever done it. The summer of ’75 also featured the fabled Midsummer Music show in London, at which Elton and his new band played all of the new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

That’s not even a whole year. That’s six months.

It’s hard to fathom the pressure Elton was under during the summer of 1975. After making Captain Fantastic, he fired his longtime bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, who had been with him since he was living in his mother’s house. On June 21, the Midsummer Music show was his new band’s first live gig, and in Elton’s words to the crowd at the end of the show, “We were shit scared.” Back in the States a week later, Elton appeared onstage with the Doobie Brothers in Oakland. One night in July, as the band finished Rock of the Westies at Caribou Ranch in Colorado, he came on with the Rolling Stones at their show in Fort Collins, and, as he admitted in his autobiography, he overstayed his welcome onstage thanks to loads of cocaine.

Elton’s brief West of the Rockies Tour opened in San Diego on September 29, 1975. That show, at the San Diego Sports Arena, has been extensively bootlegged, and it recently turned up at the fabulous ROIO. On that night, the band played for nearly 3 1/2 hours (although the show would get shorter as the month-long tour went on). Elton opened with “Your Song,” and the setlist had all the classics Elton fans of ’75 would have expected. He played several cuts from Captain Fantastic and two from Rock of the Westies, including “Island Girl,” his new single, which Elton said from the stage had been released just that day. He played some deep cuts: “Dixie Lily” from Caribou, “Harmony” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and “Empty Sky,” the title song from his 1969 album, which had gotten its first American release earlier in 1975. The bootleg closes with “Pinball Wizard,” although some shows on the tour ended with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” (I have a bootleg of the October 14 Portland show, and it ends with “Pinball Wizard” too.)

It is not unusual for a band on the road to require a few dates to warm up, and at this show, the band sometimes comes off awkward and lumbering. Elton is strong and clear but he sometimes struggles to hit high notes, and he occasionally launches into a painful-sounding falsetto. But it’s by no means a bad show: the Captain Fantastic and Rock of the Westies songs are reinvented minus the Cheez Whiz slathered on them in the studio, and Elton alone at the piano, as he was at the beginning of the show, playing some of his earliest songs, is always worth the price of admission.

The bootleg contains a lot of Elton’s stage banter. At one point, a fan who sent him a gift is thanked by name and seat number: “She got my hat size wrong but I’m going to wear it anyway,” he says. He’s almost obsequious sometimes, as if he were begging the audience to like him, as if he were not already the most popular rock star on Earth.

The West of the Rockies tour consisted of single shows in San Diego, Tucson, Las Vegas, Tempe, Salt Lake City, and Portland, and two-night stands in Denver, Seattle, and Vancouver. The first 12 shows were at indoor arenas, but the last five were in baseball stadiums: three nights at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and two nights at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles shows, on October 25 and 26, 1975, featured opening acts Emmylou Harris and Joe Walsh, plus a gospel choir and a crowd in excess of 55,000 each night. If there’s a moment when Elton John went from #1 to whatever’s higher than that, the Dodger Stadium shows, and the end of the West of the Rockies tour, were that moment. But there’s only one direction you can go from the highest high. Elton would again play in America during the summer of 1976, score his biggest hit single to date (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) and release another album that fall, Blue Moves. But he’d never again scale the heights of ’75.

11 thoughts on “The Heights of ’75

  1. mikehagerty

    True. Radio was not only playing Elton’s hits, in ’75, they were putting the stiffs (“Friends” from ’71) and LP cuts “Love Lies Bleeding/Funeral For A Friend”, “Harmony”, “Salvation”) into the Gold libraries.

    He owned the world pretty much until the Rolling Stone interview. Today, that wouldn’t have caused a blip, but “Blue Moves” was a disappointing album and the hits just stopped a-comin. For a while.

  2. Wesley

    Let’s not forget Elton’s impressive statistics on the Hot 100 in 1975. He began the year with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the first song to reach #1 in only 6 weeks, the fastest of any song since Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” peaked at the top spot in its fifth week on Feb. 24, 1973. “Philadelphia Freedom” matched that quick run to the top in six weeks starting April 12, 1975, and it like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” held the top spot for two weeks – the first two singles of 1975 to stay more than one week, in fact.

    Then Elton’s backup voice during the chorus of Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood” led that record to beat Elton’s efforts to the top by a week, peaking at #1 in its fifth week on Oct. 11, 1975. Three weeks later, Elton ascended to the top of the throne by himself with “Island Girl,” which reached #1 in just four weeks, the fastest since Paul and Linda McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” took four weeks to reach the apex on Sept. 4, 1971. You’d have to go back to “Get Back” (sorry about that) to find a record that peaked quicker, as that Beatles tune topped the chart on May 24, 1969 in its third week.

    Yeah, I know, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” “only” went to #4. Even that’s significant too, because it gave Elton seven consecutive hits to make the top five from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” through “Island Girl.” Other than the usual suspects (Elvis, the Beatles, etc.), it’s hard to think of many other acts able to do this during the 20th century.

      1. Wesley

        Wow, impressive indeed. I should add that we wouldn’t see a record reach the top as quickly as “Island Girl” did until nearly a decade later, and that was from the all-star recording “We Are the World” matched it by topping the Hot 100 on its fourth week on April 13, 1985. The four-week mark would not be surpassed until Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” went 35-3-1 in late 1991.

  3. mikehagerty

    Question: Was Elton “big” or “just another artist with a few hits” prior to “Crocodile Rock”?

    In California, especially Southern California, he was treated like a superstar out of the box, with “Border Song (Holy Moses)”, “Burn Down The Mission” and “Take Me To The Pilot” getting significant radio play, the “11-17-70” live set being hyped for a good month on radio ads (and being played all the way through by the FM rockers.

    And beyond that, you would have sworn “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” were Top 5 hits (KHJ passed on “Tiny’ and “Levon” only made #20, but KRLA was in one of its periodic resurgences at that time and they pounded those two.

    Just curious how he was perceived outside L.A. and SoCal.

  4. mackdaddyg

    Great post. That really was a magical time for ol’ Reg.

    1. I never understood why Elton fired Dee and Nigel. Was he looking to shake his sound up a bit or was there a deeper problem? It looks like they came back later so I guess the bad blood didn’t run too deep.

    2. The ROIO site you mentioned has provided a lot of live material to download, which is nice. Unfortunately, the comments section has been taken over by racist trolls and downright evil sounding people and for some reason the guy running the site won’t do anything about it. One can try to avoid comments, but the recent ones show up at the top of every page, so you’re bound to see the n-word quite a bit whether you try to avoid it or not.

    1. I don’t think I ever heard why he shook up the band. (Maybe he talks about it in his autobiography, which I haven’t read.) “Rock of the Westies” certainly sounds different from “Captain Fantastic” and “Caribou,” although it’s not because he’s got a different drummer and bass player.

      1. TN

        In his memoir, Elton said he felt like he needed to keep moving forward, and to find a funkier sound for his band. The one thing I found disappointing about “Me” is that he doesn’t seem interested in talking about his music – the band’s sound, his composing, things like that.

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