‘Well, here we are in the outback.”
Sir Elton Hercules John kicked off his first-ever Australian concert at Subiaco Oval on October 17, 1971, with that observation.
But the then 24-year-old pop singer, who had already released four albums and his breakthrough single Your Song, was not sneering at us Antipodeans. Sir Elton was starting a love affair with Aussie audiences that has spanned nearly half a century, countless Australian tours and 23 shows in Perth.
The Rocket Man will finally cool his jets after his Herculean three-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road world tour, which began in September last year and wraps up in London at the end of 2020 — if he’s still standing.
As with his first visit, the Australasian leg kicks off in Perth. The two concerts at HBF Park each to about 20,000 fans promise to be paved with golden hits, such as Tiny Dancer, Crocodile Rock, Someone Saved My Life Tonight and, of course, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The gigs will be Sir Elton’s first in WA since he opened Perth Arena seven years ago.
Back on that first visit 48 years ago, Dennis Cometti was a radio disc jockey working the night shift at 6KY, which sponsored the Subi gig.
“My lasting recollection from that night was his powerful voice,” Cometti said. “As we know he returned many times but I doubt he ever sounded so good. His early stuff was outstanding and his voice that night was like a punch in the stomach.”
While Michael Chugg has looked after “nine or 10” Australian tours since Sir Elton fired manager John Reid in the late 90s, the promoter also witnessed the piano-pounding megastar on that first trip.
“I saw him at Randwick Racecourse (in Sydney) on that very first tour and it was a windy day — the roof on the stage and the drums blew away,” Chugg recalled. “It was just incredible because he kept going. Nothing has ever thrown Sir Elton.”
Chugg also caught two US dates of the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, which has already grossed more than $US100 million ($141 million).
“It’s a massive, massive show. In the initial announcement (of the tour) in New York last year, he was very clear that it was going to be the biggest thing he’s ever done. And it is, it’s incredible.
“He plays for three hours. When I went to see the shows in (Washington) D.C. and Philadelphia, the audience were giving him standing ovations every couple of songs and the shows were running for three hours, 10 minutes. Unbelievable.”
As for the production, which will require 26 trucks and hundreds of crew members to get around to all 31 dates, the promoter simply describes it as “a monster”.
The concert uses giant screens to beam bespoke footage Sir Elton personally compiled with top English lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe, whose resume includes shows for the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, and the London Olympics opening and closing ceremonies.
But take away the flashy production and Chugg reckons the Sir Elton could still hold a huge audience with just his music. “The songs are ageless and he performs for the people,” he says. “He gives 150 per cent every time. I’ve never seen him do a bad show. He lives for it.
“He is definitely one of the best entertainers in the world.”
Chugg says it’s typical of Sir Elton to go out with a bang; the farewell tour aims “to play to as many people as possible and put touring to bed”.
As to why the superstar is calling time on touring, Sir Elton himself says it’s about spending more time with his husband of 14 years David Furnish and their two sons.
“To be honest, it’s all about our boys,” he told Beats 1 DJ Zane Lowe during an interview to mark his 70th birthday two years ago.
The farewell jaunt coincides with a big year for all things Elton John. In May, the movie Rocketman will follow his career from the early days at the Royal Academy of Music (where he continues to fund several scholarships each year) to the fruitful songwriting partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin.
While biopics tend to lean towards broad brushstrokes and convenient plotting over accuracy, Sir Elton has promised to reveal all in what he described via Twitter this month as his “first and only official autobiography”. Due out in October, the memoir was written with Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis.
“My life has been one helluva rollercoaster ride and I’m now ready to tell you my story, in my own words,” the star tweeted.
The artist born Reginald Dwight describes meeting Taupin through an advertisement in music bible NME in 1967 as pure “kismet”.
Before meeting his creative foil, he was a pub pianist playing with Bluesology, which had evolved into Long John Baldry’s backing band. While they landed support slots for touring American soul and R&B bands, Sir Elton was heading towards being a footnote in music history before fate threw him together with Taupin. “I was very kind of chubby, I was very insecure,” he told Lowe, “but I was so fed up with doing what I did that anything’s better than this. So, I took a leap of faith.
“(Taupin) was like a friend I never had, a brother,” added Sir Elton, who always treated making music as “not a job, it’s a privilege”.
While Taupin has gone from sending handwritten lyrics to faxing and now emailing, Sir Elton turned his love of flamboyant piano-pounding rock’n’rollers Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis into an almost peerless live act. “I don’t like playing classical music because I don’t have very big hands,” he laughed. “But I loved Little Richard, so my mind was made up.”
And by becoming a concert drawcard — even if he admits himself that he overdid the costumes during his orchestral tours of Australia in the 80s — Sir Elton safeguarded his career against inevitable dips in popularity.
“I always followed the charts as a child,” he explained. “I could run a record label if you wanted me to because I know the business inside out — it fascinates me.
“I knew there would come a day when my records wouldn’t come in No. 1 and that saved me. I thought that even if they don’t come in No. 1, they’ll do OK, but my live performances will carry me through.
“I had enough hits for Christ’s sake.” he laughs. “I had a Top 40 record every year for 34 years.”
Once he hits the end of Farewell Yellow Brick Road, Sir Elton could perhaps start a record label.
Chugg says that the cricket and soccer-loving superstar is always drilling him on new Australian artists.
“As soon as he arrives in the country, he goes to his hotel, drops his bag and goes to the record stores,” he said.
Chugg recalled Sir Elton asking for 40 Gurrumul albums after hearing the late indigenous singer perform as the support act at his Darwin concert in 2008. Those albums were later distributed to UK music movers and shakers, leading to Gurrumul’s career launching in the UK and Europe.
Gurrumul is not the only Aussie artist to benefit from Sir Elton’s magic touch. The knight has collaborated with dance trio Pnau and championed singer-songwriter Alex the Astronaut, country star Catherine Britt and teenage singer Ruel.
“I am still at heart a fan,” Sir Elton said. “I still love going into the record store. I love what I do. I’m not coasting. I’m not just doing it because I need the money.
“I’m doing it because I absolutely love it as much as I did when I got my first 45rpm (records), which were At the Hop by Danny and the Juniors and Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson.
“It still has the same magic for me. A lot of people get burnt out by it but I don’t because I love it.
“I’m so lucky to be involved with music. It has given me everything in my life.”
Sir Elton John plays HBF Park on November 30 and December 1. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.