It was once said the aspiration of a musician is to make himself better. Which is where we left Elton at the end of the 70's. As he said himself about the 1979 tour, it made him focus on his piano playing and his singing with even greater intent. Never again would he neglect both of talents, except where circumstances would start to get the better of him. How would these new found expressions of his art fit into the band context. Let's delve back in...
The 80's section is longer than the 70's. Firstly because he played more shows with a greater diversity of sounds. Secondly, there are more recordings available from the era than the 70's so the task is easier in terms of catching the mood and feel to a greater deal. It's impossible to look at each every song for example. Already on the blog I've looked certain shows and that will continue in the future.Like before, I'll try and focus on the parts of each tour that were standouts. The elements that are positively unmissable. As we'll now see, the mood was mostly good...
We find Elton at the turn of the decade with no band. Until that is, fate played a part. In the sessions for 21 At 33 Nigel and Dee returned from the cold to find love in a warmer climate. So for the first band tour of the decade, it was a no brainer that his best rhythm section would once again saddle up and ride in the shadows of the lead man. Their return as essential for Elton. The fact that Elton put aside two songs for Nigel tells us that. As fan favourites, they would help re-establish Elton both on disc and on stage through the first half of the decade. Davey at this time was in the middle of Meat Loaf...the singer, not his dinner… and couldn't return for the time being. So without him would the equilibrium of the band be disturbed?
Certainly not. Joining the fold were two axe men who could swing it hard and leave a sharp groove. Richie Zito brought that West Coast rock sound that was both angular and fluid whilst Tim Renwick with his British blues influences was a tremendous foil. Acoustic guitars were heard more frequently onstage again. James Newton Howard also returned. His presence was crucial now. The emergence of digital synths had meant the sounds and effects available to him were endless. He could now reproduce a 'truer' sound onstage when it came to the orchestral parts. Getting back to Nigel and Dee, they had lost none of the desire or feel for Elton's music. If anything the joy of the second coming had copper fastened their emotional connection.
Elton was now using the white Steinway, it's metallic sound ideal for cutting through the mix. His singing was now A1. His vocal emotions straddled all feelings, he conjured attitude and softly reminisced. His piano playing A1+1. The solos’ and improvs that he had so wonderfully developed on the last tour were now expanding and maturing like fine wines. And everyone was drinking them up. It was ferocious. Every night Bennie was different, the playful parts mixed in with the aggressive backdrop. Rocket Man was beginning to find it's psychedelic feet. James Newton Howard threw in some great synth lines on the jam.
One of the highlights of the tour were the duels between Elton and James. These would frequently happen during the jam sessions on Saturday Night's Alright and Bite Your Lip. Elton pounding the Yamaha electric piano whilst James would converse on the synth. Terrific. Elton could and would take both those songs into the realms of a workout, using that moment to hammer home his keyboard king moniker. But what was going on around him?
The band were well and truly reveling in all of this. On Bite Your Lip if you watch the Central Park clip, check out Nigel and Richie squaring up to each other near the end. And some people say Nigel couldn't rock...some people, eh? The jam on Saturday Night was a jamboree at times. But was always under control and was ready to be reined it any time by Elton. When his fun was over!! Guitar licks from both sides were traded. Dee's bassline on the solo of Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word gazumps the studio version. The bridge of invisible delight that formed between Elton's piano and James' synth and electric piano lines with Dee in the middle are almost visible to touch.
But what of our axe men? What indeed. This was a twin guitar assault that was greased up and ready to rock. The trade off’s on the outro to All The Girls Love Alice are like two warrior taking swings at each other. Some of the lines they threw in, especially the rhythm parts, were incredibly detailed. The solo's were colossal. Staggering at times. The best example was Someone Saved My Life Tonight. What Richie Zito did on each and every one was mind-blowing. He took it to the point where it was almost wrung out so much it positively popped. One of the best solo's of any tour of Elton's. Have Mercy On The Criminal had them both switching limelight positions, but if you listen to Dee on the second part of the solo, well, no wonder his colleagues in the business hold him up as a beacon of his art.
Elton always catches the big moments tightly like a winner, they don't come much bigger than Central Park. Not only did he clean up the lawn, but he cleaned up full stop. The recent emergence of the full show in soundboard quality was a highlight of the last few years. It's an essential must have. As are some of the other excellent recordings from the tour. A tour that didn't last long with that lineup. It was a tour without too much posturing and self indulgence. Elton's artistry on the piano had returned as the focal point. An underrated band that had a setlist well chosen for all their talents. Could this powerful opening to the decade be maintained...I think we all know the answer to that one...
When the stars align etc, something magical is supposes to happen. So when Nigel. Dee, and Davey aligned with the big star the magic circle went apoplectic. Because this was the moment. The moment when perfect balance was reinstated. The return of Davey may have been delayed, but a wait worth waiting for. Because when he came back he brought an even greater dynamism to the sound. It was aggressive, within touching distance of almost reaching out and hitting you such was the ferocity of its delivery. This was no place for the faint hearted. Elton's most rockiest tour was going to hit, not once but twice, but throughout the whole of 1982.
Starting down under in Australia, the returning trio joined Elton in a mini Captain Fantastic showcase denied to them in 1975.The title track dispensed with that faux country intro used on the 75/76 tour and instead had Dee's gorgeous dancing lines he played so beautifully. Meal Ticket was meaner and much leaner also. There were some great reworkings of older songs on the tour to fit the stripped down sound. Ticking stands out head and shoulder here. Elton's intense and often wonderfully embellishing piano playing was packed with equally strong rhythm guitar from Davy mirrored by Dee adding endless twists on bass. Their harmonies topped it off. Another essential part of the sound that returned in full audio glory. So good was one of those reinterpretations that Where Have All The Good Times Gone was re-recorded in September ‘82 using that live arrangement.
Elton showed great musical versatility again much like the '79 shows. His frequent struts over to the Yamaha and Fender Rhodes resulted in some terrific moments. Whether it be the highly personal Elton's Song sung with incredible emotive textures, or Where To Now St. Peter? sung with the high lines shimmering. Davey’s guitar solo on it was positively frightening. It was really was, just when you thought he couldn't reach a higher plain he'd up the ante.
Bennie and Rocket Man were now in full 80's controlled madness mode. Bennie was Elton putting down a marker each night that this was his forte. If Jarrett can improvise, then so can I. Except harder. Rocket Man with its soaring Flying V lines from Davey took it to levels that still weren't established. They were still to come. At the moment, they were finding their wings.
Much has been said about the speed of these shows, especially the UK leg of the tour at the end of '82. Yes, they are too fast. The Sydney show from March and the subsequent European and North American tour in the summer are a better balance. The up-tempo doesn’t detract though, check out Nigel on Saturday Night. As tight as any speed merchant on the drums can achieve. A relentless pace that leaves enough gaps between the beats to catch breath. Just barely though!!
My favourite show from the year is MSG in August. Again when Elton plays the big places, especially his favourite ones. he dials up another unheard of level and dishes it up. But all the shows that are available from that year are excellent. Kansas City in July is legendary at this stage. Expertly recorded by the broadcaster it catches Elton in an exceptional chatty mood. The Hammersmith Odeon shows are adrenaline flowing free flowing rock. The recording of the night when Nigel didn't show up, though not great, has a unique combo of the other three working overtime to complete the rhythm circle. Needles to say they squared it. He was always in the In The Mood on this tour.
The return of Davey gave Elton a great platform both live and in the studio for the rest of his career. The time he spent away had brought a new more expansive and vigorous side to his electric work on stage. Dee's introduction of the Steinberger gave him a tool to express himself even further. The sounds were dramatic and powerful. The absence of a keyboard player wasn't missed to any great deal as he (Dee) could replicate some of the sounds to great effect, the breaks on All The Girls Love Alice being a case in point. This tour is terrific, one of the best. No dud shows here. All is good. Can good get better? I think the answer is once again already known...
This is Elton on his most polished and accomplished tour of the era. The previous tours had him repositioning, consolidating and getting to ready to reclaim the crown, He chased it and now wore it.
Starting again down under, he launched into what was an extension of the '82 tour. Gone though was the mad pace and in its place were the songs at the right tempo. A perfect balance. The planets were aligning again. The tough edges had been ironed out slightly so we now had an incredible. amlost positively gleaming delivery from all concerned. Which now included Fred Mandel on keyboards and occasional guitars. Fred became a staple of the 80's band and his addition gave Elton's sound a contemporary feel whilst never losing its origins. His keyboard work was incredibly slick, his guitar work was incredibly risky. Some of the ways he worked that whammy bar was positively violent!!
As the tour progressed, Elton was essentially promoting two albums at once. Similar in style to ten tears before. With the same core lineup. Except by now, the experience of playing with each so long had taken the live experience to such a level, it was impossible to see the joins between them. The knitting of their skills in tandem with their joy was incredible. How joyful? Watch Too Low For Zero from Wembley on Youtube. A song that had a contemporary feel (drum machine) but still retained some core values (the backing vocals). A performance that is poignant yet happy in equal statements.
But what were the show like? The setlists were essentially Elton going over his career to that point almost chronologically whilst throwing in the newer songs of the day in between. Highlight of the new songs? I'm Still Standing of course. The use of the longer intro a la the 12'' remix gave it that steady build up with the familiar riff always ready to boil over. The outro was incredible. The moment before Nigel kicks back in on the drums with Dee doing some incredible sweeps down the fret ultimately culminates with Davey’s screaming Les Paul with the added whammy bar almost ripped off before the final chorus brings everything to a head. Hercules on the European leg had Elton in full rock out mode too. Positively devouring the microphone. Davey's solo burned up the place with such heat, the amps melted at 11. Candle In The Wind probably achieved its ultimate live incarnation, certainly in the band form. Elton's vocal lift on the final chorus is the marker that places that version right up there. Not to mention Dee's dramatic changes he does on the lead up.
Wembley '84 is another of those perfectly choreographed Elton moments. Ten years or so earlier at the same venue it all ended kind of, awkwardly. This time he owned the stadium. Washed the crowd away with the music and in the sweat his energy draining performance eventually manifested into. One of the greatest Elton shows ever. A new peak had been attained and he was only half way through the year.
By the time he got to North America however, tiredness had now begun to set in. The 'retirement' speeches were occasionally trotted out. But the feeling of getting away from it all didn't impact on the shows. They were still perfect. Like the previous tours, there are no duds here. Elton was singing at the peak of his powers, the last time with his post '77 and pre '87 example of that vocal perfection. His piano playing continued to wow. The band had become essential and vital again as they had ten years earlier. So you can guess where all this was heading...just like ten years earlier. Except the outcome wasn't quite the same...mercifully.
The tour has quite a few soundboard recordings, the Sydney sow along with Wembley being standouts. Worcester in November (both shows) have Elton and the classic band lineup at almost the final curtain of their time together on stage. They went out at the top in unison, not once in the second period did the quality level even drop a micro of a percentage. It's no wonder many clips from this tour have turned up on official releases over the years. They showcase Elton, the band and the songs in perfect harmony. Truly a legacy of pride.
At the end of the tour Elton took time out. Touring seemed a long way off...but it was merely months as the bandwagon powered up again. This time it would have a different engine, but is till ran sweet and teak tough.
The changing of guard took place around this time. The dropping of Nigel and Dee for the second time was bizarre to say the least. But there's no doubt of their legacy they left behind as a pair and with Davey, just taking their live work into account on its own. Thankfully we got Nigel back, more on that when the time comes. Last time Elton did this new band thing he kind of didn't get it right. The new rhythm section only last less than 18 months. Never to be seen again. On this occasion we got slightly longer out of them, in terms of number of shows. Charlie Morgan on drums with his session work background was ideally suited to take up the sticks. His flavour for all kinds of music is crucial when dealing with Elton's own styles. It can vary within a song, never mind from song to song. Plus he was a fan so he knew the parts that Nigel created, how important it was the whole package of the musical message. The fact that he stayed so long is also a recognition of how good he was.
David Paton on bass was a star in own right with his own band, Pilot. His addition on bass was another lucky draft. Not only did he play some amazing basslines, strong and unwavering he could pull some great rhythm riffs out of the same instrument. Check out some of the epic jams of Bennie from the tour. His fingerprints are all over it for that input. And if you’re still in doubt, look at some of the work he did with Rick Wakeman in later years. The guy is choc full of taste. As a unit both David and Charlie were incredibly tight. Both moved together in tandem, the bass glued to the kick drum. The best rhythm section that Elton had didn't feature either Nigel or Dee.
One of the first shows was Live Aid in July ’85. To say it was rough would be an understatement. Not sure how close it came to being a shambles due to the myriad of technical problems, but Elton steered away from those rocks and into calmer warmers as the set progressed. And sailed back into the sunset.
Returning to the fold for the start of the European tour was Ray Cooper. His presence was missed, he subtle little moments to the threatening to overwhelm moments were always a highlight. None moreso on the opening suite of Tonight/One Horse Town. His tubular bells, cymbal ruffles all placed intricately and critically. Davey adding electric guitar on Tonight to fatten out the melody that was already carefully being played by Fred on the keyboards. Elton played it with precision. When One Horse Town rose up out of the quiet, the Onward International Horns sounded like something heralding the entrance of royalty. Not wrong there, some may say. The added brass gave an extra oomph to the setlist. They carefully caught the arrangements of the songs. The new backing vocalists were just as clued in. They got their parts spot on and gauged their positions well.
Elton's adding of Song For You gave him the chance to stretch his vocals. Quite a challenge as we'll see later. But he didn't shirk it, not even at the end. A terrific solo Blue Eyes segued straight from it had some amazing chunky chords from Elton. The outro on I’m Still Standing became a battle of wills between Elton and Davey. If you listen to later examples, Davey takes it to the limit and beyond as he waits for Elton kick the vocals back in. The wait is relentless and the tension is electric.
At this time the first hints of vocal problems would begin to creep in as the tour progressed. Did it impact on the tour? Not in my view. Sure, there were the odd moments when some performances were cancelled. And to a lesser extent some shows weren't as good, vocally, as others, But the entire package never once diminished. I've no problems with his voice at this time. It is what it was. Once you get past it there's such an amazing depth to these shows you end not being too aware of the bad aspects of it. His piano playing became even more outlandish. In a good way!! The solo's on Bennie were all consuming, wild and carefree. Rocket Man which had started the tour almost in its original running by the end of the tour had become an improv jam of colossal proportions. 13 people onstage all keyed into the Elton and going with him where and when he desired. Davey's Flying V essential as always.
Another of the older songs to be reworked was Song For Guy. On the European leg, Jody Linscott had replaced Ray on percussion. We now got added conga’s, tambourine and electric guitar on top of the familiar backing track. Incredible stuff!!! Love Song had Elton doing guitar again, but with so much strumming going on it was impossible to hear what he was doing. Not much maybe!! Candle In The Wind had become solo, the MIDI now fitted to the piano added colour to an already fulsome delivery.
The US tour just like it's earlier dates was pure rock with added splashes of brassy moods. Of course he still found time to be more introspective. Which came to greater fruition and the end of the year. The addition of a number of older songs to the set list was for that very reason. That reason reached its zenith down in Australia.
What a reason it was. I did an earlier blog post about the Tour De Force with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I urge you to read it, for me it's one of the pivotal points of Elton's career. Not just for what happened onstage, but what happened off it too. His voice may have creaked, but never cracked. Some truly amazing shows from this era. Wembley Arena from December ’85 catches them at the early stage of the tour. Munich from early ’86 has some neat setlist variations. When we get to the US tour, there are some great showcases of the work ethic that didn't relent on the tour. MSG from September and both LA shows in October mightn't have Elton firing on all vocal cylinders, but his honesty and passion carries him through. As for the Tour De Force in Australia, the full Sydney show on the 14th December is my top 10 of all time shows. I suspect it’s in a lot of peoples.
The whole thing was a showcase of Elton's music. But also a closing of an era. Like when any door swings back and forth with Elton, some good and some bad scuttles in. Characters fitting both descriptions are all present and correct in the next section.
After Elton’s (thankfully) successful throat operation in 1987, he took over 18 months off before getting back on the road. When he did, something wasn't quite right. Or to me more precise, Elton wasn't looking right anymore. He looked at us dead ahead. With some new faces in tow.
At this time Elton decided to ditch the white Steinway which had been a trademark part of his persona, visually and aurally through the decade. He decided to embrace the 80’s and get himself a digital piano, the Roland. Before I go any further, here are my thoughts on that piano. It sounds like a toy. Simple as. The treble is tinny, the bass is nonexistent and has absolutely no weight under it. No matter how much punch Elton tried to hammer into it. He has one of the heaviest left hands in rock yet it never came through on this unit. Sure, it had all the latest MIDI patches built in to it that could be conjured up like a genie. He also decided to ditch the latest band incarnation and go for something a bit more r’n’b. Fine on paper maybe, but a different tale in reality.
The new faces first. The most important addition at this time was Guy Babylon. Like James Newton Howard over a decade before him, his arrival was to prove key to Elton’s future success both in the studio and live over the next two decades. Guy was a genius, still is in fact as all his arrangements and programming are still heard live today. So far so good. Now for the rhythm section. Jonathan Moffat and Romeo Williams joined ship. Now Williams wasn't too bad on bass, a bit too slappy for the ears now in the 21st Century. But as it was all the rage then it’s very much of its time. But Sugarfoot…as was his nickname…on drums was the most unsuitable drummer for Elton’s music than you could ever not wish for. Think of Bill Bruford joining Metallica. Another one who thought it was fine to leave out the Nigel parts. He broke the golden rule of any drummer...he played over the singer. It was like as if he was playing at another concert, FFF/LLB a prime example of that, plus the changes.or complete lack of... on the jam on Saturday Night was truly remarkable But he went one better. He played over everyone else. Some of his performances during his brief tenure rank as some of the worst drumming ever heard at an Elton show. But he wasn't alone in his faults. The rest of the new arrivals were made up by three backing singers who seemed to be under the impression on occasion people had turned up to see them.
This tour was a complete mess. Elton himself, by his own admission later on, was not on his best form mentally at this time. Missing notes, forgetting lyrics. Which was not Elton before or since. The supposed re-inventing of the songs was just a codeword for nobody seemingly in charge of what was happening. Rocket Man was a joke, the outro had nothing to do with it until Davey picked up the Flying V at the end and some familiar slide licks appeared and gave us a hint of the tremendous Rocket Man performances on the previous tours. Davey too seemed off kilter, he was playing anything that was being thrown to him. Mandolins and banjo's were a gaping absence. With little regard for how the songs should sound. Odd arrangements, like using synth for the electric slide guitar part on Island Girl.
I think if Mother Goose had turned up and joined the band during the tour, I doubt if Elton would have noticed. The only thing keeping him going was the touring. He was so focused on performing, he almost forgot how to perform his own material. When it stopped, he stopped. And thankfully got ship shape again. There's no doubting they were good musicians, but the bottom line is they didn't have the taste, style or feel for Elton's music. Which sorts out the wheat from the chaff in the business. It's not a case of just backing Elton and doing a job. You got to know where the music has come from and what it's all about. Davey's was now using the Steinberger lead guitar, or the one guitar fits all songs, which again was fine on some songs but I go back to LLB. You didn't get the bluesy sound the Les Paul has, either on lead or rhythm.
Does anything work on this tour? It started ok in late ’88. Elton’s new voice had an added hint of soul to it but sounded OK on the whole. Guy’s input at the outset consisted mainly of him recreating the orchestral arrangements as used on the Tour De Force with the MSO. Fred was still there but didn't seem to be as front as before, overshadowed perhaps. By the time the tour got to the US, Elton was in a bad way. I’m not going to go into great details but a watershed moment was arising. When they did the Sleeping With The Past songs they sounded fine live. The rest of the setlist was a poor relation to the original songs. Sad Songs with the long intro and the lung Olympics by the singers is a definite skipper.
Some excellent recordings exist of this tour if you want to check them out, Chicago in September ’88 is the best of the bunch maybe. Not too much going wrong there. The European shows from early ’89 and the US shows from later on that year are a right muddle in terms of overall performances. Overall, it’s my least favourite era and tour from Elton. At the time what he was doing was considered to be the way it was, but hindsight has revisited that period and taking the tours since then into account has given us a better perspective of things...Needless to say, the best recordings of the tour are more than adequate to show up any flaws. Or highlights as the case maybe...
So we’ve reached the end of the decade. As you can see above, everything from 80-86 is quintessentially Elton. He’s on top form throughout that period, everything is a dead cert. Unfortunately when we approached 1990 it was beginning to deteriorate. That would continue into the early months of the next decade. But would soon be put right once and for all. The 80’s were a time when Elton took the live circuit by the scruff and made it his manor. In the next part we’ll see how the recovery took hold in the 90’s.