Graded on a Curve:
Elton John,
Here and There

An extraordinary live document, this. Recorded at London’s Royal Festival Hall and New York City’s Madison Square Garden (hence the LP’s title) in 1974, 1976’s Here and There captures Elton John at the height of his powers, and by design proffers a career retrospective of his work from his 1969 debut Empty Sky through 1974’s Caribou.

And what a career projectory it was–in only five years Elton had gone from the introspective and camera-shy nebbish on the cover of 1970’s Elton John to the glam fabulous cartoon figure on the splashy cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. His was a remarkable transformation from wallflower to glitter-bedecked showman, and along the way he became perhaps the premier (and certainly most entertaining) rock artist of the otherwise dour and colorless mid-seventies.

Here and There might have been your average live album. You know–artist performs mostly new material (in Elton’s case Caribou) but tosses in some familiar red meat to satisfy the crowd’s hankering for the hits. Instead Sir Elton chose to offer up an overview of his career–an odd but gutsy move on the part of an artist whose career spanned only five years–and by so doing introduced listeners familiar only with his hits to songs like “Burn Down the Mission,” “You’re So Static,” and “Grey Seal” that may have never crossed their radar.

But Elton’s strategy works, and it works spectacularly. The crowds sound as happy to hear “Take Me to the Pilot” as they are “Your Song” and “Crocodile Rock.” And tossing songs like “Take Me to the Pilot” into the mix wasn’t simply a matter of sheer guts on John’s part; it was a canny way of sending the folks in the seats in England and America straight to his back catalogue.

The original 1976 release of Here and There included only nine songs, which probably accounts for its lukewarm reception. There was too little there and what was there were the songs familiar to anyone who owned an FM radio. I may as well have been a member of a Captain Fantastic Death Cult at the time, and even I gave it a pass–why bother when I owned studio versions of every one of its songs?

Which is where Mercury’s 1995 reissue comes in. You get sixteen additional tracks, and in addition to the relative unknowns you get plenty of crowd faves overlooked in the original release, including “Candle in the Wind,” “Daniel,” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” And most importantly, you get three songs performed with “maybe you’ve heard of him” John Lennon, who was notoriously stage averse and only appeared with Elton on a lost bet.

Lennon’s presence on the stage at Madison Square Garden (it was the last time he’d appear on stage anywhere) isn’t just the icing on the cake–it makes Here and There a bona fide historical document. That said, you’ll probably find the absence of some songs downright inexplicable. Where are “Levon,” “Tiny Dancer,” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”? All three are essential signposts on Elton’s road to superstardom, and they’re definitely missed.

As for the music, it’s glamtastic. John projects a vocal power incongruous with his famously pudgy stature, and makes short work of such ballads as “Your Song,” “Daniel,” Border Song,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” And the rockers are incendiary–Elton’s classic band has always been underrated, and the muscle they put behind songs like “The Bitch Is Back,” “You’re So Static,” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” proves it.

And then there are the idiosyncratic numbers, some of which Captain Fantastic will best be remembered for. “Bennie and Jets” is its Glamrock, foot-stomping Mohair-suited self. “Honky Cat” boogies its way back to the country, while “Crocodile Rock” rockabillies you back to the days of dance crazes and Bill Haley and the Comets. All three are proof that, more than anyone else in his time, Elton John produced music in the spirit of fun. James Taylor wasn’t fun. Billy Joel wasn’t fun. Barry Manilow was most definitely not fun. At his seventies prime John pulled off a feat worthy of Oscar Wilde by creating serious art that was totally frivolous.

As for such pre-fame songs as “Bad Side of the Moon,” Burn Down the Mission,” and “Take Me to the Pilot,” they lack some of the immediacy they received on Elton’s 1970 live LP 17-11-70, but they still generate real kinetic energy. “Bad Side of the Moon” sounds like Southern rock to me, but everything sounds like Southern rock to me, “Burn Down the Mission” is a hard-edged and impassioned song about doomed-to-failure revolt. The jet-powered“Take Me to the Pilot” is Britboogie along the lines of “Honky Cat,” and one of my perennial favorites.

The three songs with Lennon are, taken together, a bit of a letdown. The first, Lennon’s 1974 lightweight single“Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” seems an odd choice until you take into account that Lennon was using (understandably enough) his appearance to garner some free advertising. But it’s an excellent choice for the stage–musically it’s pure live uplift, and the Memphis Horns are there to provide the song’s signature saxophone line.

Next up was “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which Elton pronounced “one of the best songs ever written.” Once again the Memphis Horns shine, while guitarist Davey Johnstone and the rest of the band perfectly capture the song’s lysergic mood. There’s only one problem–there’s virtually no Lennon there. Elton sings the verses with Lennon joining in the choruses, and even then he hides behind Elton’s voice. And during the one very brief moment Lennon has the microphone to himself he sounds rusty, which is hardly surprising given the impromptu circumstances but hardly the stuff of which legendary performances are made.

Lennon amuses before the third number, saying apropos of his stage fright, “We tried to think of a number to finish off with so I can get out of here and be sick.” But the choice of song is odd; why the duo chose to play a Beatles song sung by Paul McCartney is above my pay grade. That said, the duo’s harmony singing on “I Saw Her Standing There” wonderfully evokes memories of the Fab Four, even if Lennon crushes vain hopes of a reunion when he says the song was written by “an old estranged fiancé of mine named Paul.”

Some would argue that John reached his creative zenith with 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, but other than the brilliant “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” it offered up no immortal treasures. That same year’s Rock of the Westies offered more in the form of “Island Girl” and “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” but by 1976’s as-doleful-as-its-title Blue Moves John’s animating spark seemed to have gone out–the fun, it seemed, was over.

Which is why I’ll take this one over the rest of Elton’s live albums. 1970’s 17-11-70 offers up a remarkable but limited snapshot of the artist pre-”Your Song” and “Tiny Dancer,” while 1990’s One Night Only–The Greatest Hits includes a fair number of songs (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “Sacrifice,” “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” etc.) I’ve never liked. To cite the title of another Elton song I don’t much like, Here and There is “The One.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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