Veertig jaar geleden was Elton John zogezegd (*) de eerste westerse popster die mocht optreden in de Sovjetunie. The international coverage afforded John’s visit to the USSR ensured that it was a more significant event than all the previous tours there by Western artists. It was said to be “the single most important step forward in East–West relationships since Khruschev had visited Hollywood back in ’59”.
English rock singer Elton John played eight concerts in the Soviet Union – or formally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – between 21 and 28 May 1979. The two-city tour (first Leningrad, then Moscow) was a significant event amid Cold War tensions between the USSR and the West, and a sign of the Communist authorities’ emerging tolerance towards Western popular culture. The shows were among the first performed in the USSR by a pop act, following visits by Cliff Richard and Boney M.
As a result of the tour, in June 1979, the Soviet authorities permitted the state-owned Melodiya record company to issue John’s 1978 album “A Single Man”, making it the first Western pop album to be officially released in the USSR. [**]
Elton John’s stay in the country was the subject of the television documentary film “To Russia with Elton”. BBC Radio 1’s live broadcast of the 28 May show, held at Moscow’s Rossiya Concert Hall, marked the first stereo satellite link-up between the USSR and the West.
The concerts were part of Elton John’s “A Single Man” tour and were performed with accompaniment by percussionist Ray Cooper only. (***) John’s concept for the tour was to avoid the visual extravagance of his previous performances and ensure he focused on his singing and piano playing. As with his shows earlier in the tour, in Europe and Israel, the Russian concerts featured a set performed by John alone, followed by a set with Cooper, who played a range of percussion instruments. The shows were over two hours in length.
John believed that he was granted the opportunity to play in the USSR simply because he asked to. He said that the Soviet authorities were eager for other rock acts, including Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd, to visit but were unsure of the correct protocol when inviting Western artists. In addition, according to John, the Russians were distrustful of American promoters. After John’s manager, John Reid, had placed a request with the Soviet embassy in London, a cultural officer from the embassy attended his show in Oxford on 17 April. Impressed, the representative invited John to perform ten concerts in Leningrad (present-day Saint Petersburg) and ten in Moscow; instead, Reid agreed to four shows in each city. The concerts were promoted by Harvey Goldsmith and the Russian company Goskontsert. John’s payment of $1000 per show was the lowest he had received since playing at the Troubadour, a club in Los Angeles, in the early 1970s.
John’s image as a wealthy, flamboyant and openly bisexual entertainer was at odds with the austere image espoused by Community Party doctrine. He and his entourage flew into Moscow on 20 May. The group were rushed to a railway station and then travelled overnight by train to Leningrad. The music, sound and other stage equipment was transported by truck through Europe to Leningrad.
Demand for the eight concerts was high, with ticket prices set at 8 roubles, which was twice the average weekly wage in the Soviet Union. Over 90 per cent of the tickets were taken by senior Party members, diplomats and military officers. The remainder were changing hands on the black market for up to 25 times the official price. As with other Western artists, John’s music was only available in the USSR via illegal import. At the time, his records cost about $70 each on the black market.
The opening show was at the 3800-seat Bolshoi Oktyabrsky (Great October) Concert Hall, where the atmosphere was unusually formal and reserved for a rock concert. John’s first song of the night was “Your Song”. When the houselights went up after his last number, “Crazy Water”, but before he returned to the stage for his encore, many of the high-ranking officials left the hall; the genuine fans then began advancing towards the stage from their seats at the back of the venue. As John and Cooper performed several encores, these fans danced freely, singing along and giving peace signs to the security staff in what author David John DeCouto describes as “an extraordinary display of defiance”. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times attended the concert and described the scene: “I was watching the official guests’ faces. And there was that registering of, ‘Why is this all going on?’ And you see this dawning, and this expression and so forth, and it’s a dangerous thing, it’s a real powerful force. You saw what happened in the West in the ’50s and ’60s with this music.”
Newspapers around the world reported on the success of the concert. John considered it the greatest accomplishment of his career up to that point, particularly since most of the audience were unfamiliar with his recordings.
Following the opening concert, John was officially requested to tone down his performance. He was asked to desist from playing the piano so energetically and from kicking over his piano stool during “Bennie and the Jets”, and banned from playing his cover of the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” For the rest of the tour, John continued to close each performance with “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
He and Cooper were surprised at the audience’s apparent lack of enthusiasm during the second show at the Great October Hall; they subsequently learned that officials were forcing fans to sit down as soon as they attempted to stand up or dance. That night, John incorporated the Russian song “Midnight in Moscow” into “Bennie and the Jets”, while his set otherwise included a portion of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
John was asked to perform a private concert at his hotel that same night, supported by Cooper on drums and Clive Franks, his sound engineer, on bass (****). The following morning, due to a severe hangover, John abandoned his and Cooper’s officially sanctioned visit to the Winter Palace. An English tabloid reported the event under the headline “Elton Snubs Russians in Winter Palace Revolt”.
Following the last of his four shows at the Great October Hall, John departed by train for Moscow, net zoals ikzelf tien jaar later ook zou doen. Fans gathered at the railway station to send him off, throwing flowers and small gifts such as stuffed teddy bears. John was moved to tears at this gesture.
John’s four concerts at the Rossiya Concert Hall in Moscow were well received by the audiences. Among his cultural activities in the city, John visited a stadium that was being built in preparation for the USSR’s hosting of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games. Further to his interest in football as the owner of the English club Watford, he also watched a match between Dynamo Moscow and a Red Army team.
The final concert of the tour, held at the Rossiya Concert Hall on 28 May, was broadcast live throughout Europe by the BBC. It marked the first stereo satellite link-up between the USSR and the West. This recording of the 28 May show became available on several bootleg albums, including “A Single Man in Moscow” and “Elton John Live from Moscow 1979”, a limited double LP vinyl pressing issued for Record Store Day 2019. (Wikipedia)
Het voorbeeld van Elton John werd uiteraard nagevolgd door tal van andere artiesten en niet van de minsten, zoals Eddy Wally uit Ertvelde, die achteraf aan de telefoon tegenover mij beweerde dat hij in Moscou Elton John had ontmoet. Die zou hem gezegd hebben: “Mister Wally, I remember you! You are the entertainer of the world!” En hij voegde er nog aan toe: “Elton John gooide bloemen in het publiek, maar in mijn concerten gooiden de fans bloemen naar mij!”
(*) Zo werd (en wordt) het meestal aangekondigd, maar Cliff Richard en Boney M. zijn toch geen kleine namen. En je zou kunnen zeggen: dat is eerder pop dan rock, maar Elton John is nu ook niet meteen de wildste rocker en zeker in deze formule was het eigenlijk een zeer “braaf” concert.
(**) Elton John “bedankte” in 1985 de Sovjetunie met “Nikita”, een erg Koude Oorlog-nummer, vooral dan in de videoclip.
(***) Sla me nu dood, maar op bovenstaande foto staat er toch een gitarist (een basgitarist, als ik het goed zie). Toegegeven, de man lijkt wel erg op Ray Cooper. Zou hij ook eens bas gespeeld hebben?
(****) Dat zou natuurlijk ook een verklaring kunnen zijn voor bovenstaande foto, maar het mag duidelijk zijn dat dit toch een optreden in een concertzaal was en niet in de lobby van een hotel!