Strings of Life – Elton John in Melbourne.

This concert, on 14th December 1986, before eleven thousand people in the Sydney Entertainment Centre, was the last in a series of twenty seven performances covering all of Australia… You are joining the concert after the interval, just as the eighty eight-piece Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is heard and seen for the first time on this, the last night of the tour…

There are absolutely no overdubs on this album.

Taken from the liner notes of the album, released in 1987.

Those words give this performance quite a build-up, don’t they? Twenty seven performances covering all of Australia, an eight eight-piece orchestra behind him, the last night of the tour. It was reportedly the first time anything like this had been attempted by a pop or rock artist and it took months and months of rehearsal, Elton himself paid a heavy price for this performance. During the tour, which began in in Brisbane on November 5th, specialists discovered nodules on his vocal cords, and he would go for surgery on them within a month of leaving this stage. Elton has since said that there was a very real fear that the last song he sang that night in December ’86, would be his last ever; Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me was then, a rather fitting choice.

The songs on the Australian performance, both DVD and album, capture a man both at the height of his showmanship and at the end of a chapter. He would sing differently after this, deeper and no less impressive than here. Ever the professional, to prolong his live career and give joy to millions and millions in the decades that followed, he would adapt.

Sixty Years On is a fantastic opener, and a stunning version, one that was possibly only equalled when Elton opened his birthday performance with it at MSG, when he was indeed “sixty years of age”. The symphony twists and turns from the elegant to the dramatic and Elton’s voice gives us everything he can.

James Newton Howard was asked to work on the string arrangements for the live show, building on the stellar blueprints Paul Buckmaster had created for the studio versions of the songs. They were beautiful and Newton Howard stays quite loyal but has a wider lusher palette with which to paint – eighty-eight orchestral colours to create with.

I Need You To Turn To is similar to the studio version, but richer. The harpsichord on the studio version of I Need You To Turn To is replaced live so it’s a gentler introduction, but the music will cover you like a tuneful duvet.

If Elton had the kind of recording budget to pull this kind of sound off when he recorded his Elton John album in 1970 then he probably would have. What he gave us on that album was brave and evocative enough but with the might of the symphony behind him here are the songs free from shackles, their potential realised.

Tonight is a saga you can get lost in, bold and confident, angry and tense then swift and elegant. James Newton Howard’s string arrangement says so much before Elton even sings a single world. The music tells a story, and the lyrics cradle that emotion. This was a Taupin lyric written as he was going through an unhappy time, and an eventual divorce. We feel all that. Appropriately, Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word follows, also about the unhappy relationship and from the same album, Blue Moves.

Deeper cuts like The King Must Die are majestic while Take Me To The Pilot has the band’s funk and soul with the orchestra there to add cinematic scope, and an ending that will have you standing to applaud. Tiny Dancer will captivate you. It starts much as studio version because perfection cannot be topped. When the song makes the climb to the first chorus it sounds impressive enough, but as the song goes on the strings start to become a presence so when the chorus comes around again rock band and orchestra are perfectly in sync with each other. The whole thing is a dance, the classical world and the rock world are dancing here, and no toes are stepped on.

A “revolutionary string arrangement” from Paul Buckmaster storms though next in full moody noir elegance. Have Mercy On The Criminal marries symphonic with the agony of the wail of Davey Johnstone’s guitar.  As story songs go this is Bernie Taupin at his cinematic best, the story of a criminal on the run sits perfectly next to the dark ramblings of an asylum caged character in Madman Across The Water. It is also nice to hear Candle In The Wind while it was just another weapon in Elton’s arsenal and didn’t have the weight of the world on its shoulders. That would come later. Burn Down The Mission struts and the ever present Your Song is there sparkling like a newly nuanced gem but Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me is truly majestic. While I acknowledged this song before, it was one I glossed over regularly. The live version here changed all that. There are no shackles on this performance, this one does not underwhelm, it changed everything for me. This version, the last on the album, is the definitive. The drums are glorious, the strings fly, and the last minute and a half is stunning.

Hearing these songs performed in this setting is hearing Shakespeare the way it was meant to be read. Elton chose songs that demanded this pomp and we are lucky someone thought to have it captured on tape.

This album is a man with an untouchable back catalogue and the confidence within that to stretch out creatively. It is a record of an artist demanding excellence of himself and the musicians he is surrounded with, in order to deliver something which really does take your breath away. All that is probably intentional, not knowing about your tomorrow can make you a bit braver in your today. Elton does indeed leave everything out there on that stage.

In the end the sun didn’t go down on his career as a live performer, but he plays this like it was about to.

Beethoven gave us nine symphonies; Elton gave us fourteen.

© 2020 Simon Andrew Moult / Moultymedia. Art for illustrative purposes only under fair use.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation funds frontline partners to prevent infections, fight stigma and provide treatment with love, compassion and dignity for the most vulnerable groups affected by HIV around the world. CLICK FOR DETAILS
December 1st is World AIDS Day, click the ribbon for info and to support the National AIDS Trust.

About The Editor

I write words about things I care about and hopefully you'll care about them too when I'm done. View all posts by The Editor

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