In 1974, John Lennon would take to the main stage of a huge stadium for the very last time and leave the entire world wanting more. The singer would join Elton John on the glittering stage of Madison Square Garden to perform three wonderful tunes, including The Beatles’ trippy classic from Sgt. Pepper ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ — and it was all because of a bet.
Lennon had avoided the stage for a long while before joining Elton on the stage. Having decided with The Beatles to become a studio band some years ago and continued much of the same practices (bar a few special appearances) with his solo career, Lennon’s on-stage swagger could’ve been a touch rusty. In fact, he wouldn’t have joined the Rocketman if it wasn’t for him losing a bet and while there may well have been some pre-show nerves, Lennon’s presence on stage is undeniable and his command of the audience palpable in every second of the surviving footage.
The story goes that after John Lennon had asked Elton John to help him on his new track ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ the duo came to an agreement. Elton had been in the studio providing harmonies and piano on the tune during the summer of 1974. It was during these sessions that Elton made a wager with Lennon about how the track would do in the charts. It provided some joyful consequences, especially for one lucky audience.
Lennon opened up about the glorious moment in a BBC interview just a few short days before his untimely death, and we’ll leave it to the Beatle to pick up the story. “Elton was in town and I was doing it and needed the harmony. He did the harmony on that and a couple more, and played beautiful piano on it. And jokingly, he was telling me he was going to do this Madison Square Garden concert — he said, ‘Will you do it with me if the record’s Number One?’
“And I did not expect it to get to Number One at all. I didn’t think it had a chance in hell. I said, ‘Sure, sure, sure I will.’” Sometimes fate has other plans for you and it was clear that those fates wanted to see the bespectacled Beatle up on the stage giving it his all. ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ would be Lennon’s first solo number over the pond which meant Lennon would have to pay up, “‘OK, it’s time to pay your dues!’” joked Lennon, “It was the first Number One I had, actually. ‘Imagine’ wasn’t Number One, ‘Instant Karma’ wasn’t Number One — which I all think are better records than ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.’ (The) words are pretty good. But anyway, so what could we sing, that was the point.”
The pair had not been friends for a very long, having only met in 1973 despite sharing the same publisher, the duo got on famously. Elton reflected on their friendship, “We got on like a house on fire and we hung out for a couple of years; I found him very kind, very funny. I don’t know why we clicked, but we did and he clicked with my band and he clicked with the people around me. And we had so much fun.” Being a huge fan of The Beatles, naturally, Elton was a little scared: “I was quite intimidated by him, because I knew he was razor sharp and could be very abrasive. But that side never came out with me — only the kind side and the funny side.”
Lennon, ever a man of his word, dutifully agreed to the show and made his way to Madison Square Gardens to perform three songs with Elton. Taking on their co-created ‘Whatever Gets You thru The Night’, then playing ‘Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds’ a song that Elton and Lennon had re-recorded earlier that year, and Elton’s then-current single and The Beatles’ own song ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. The three songs complete a memorable evening for all those involved.
In a recent interview, Elton shared his further thoughts on Lennon when discussing the icon with his son, Sean: “When I met your dad I was a little bit, obviously, I was in awe, I was in awe of any of The Beatles and they all treated me so brilliantly,” remembers the singer. “But your dad had that edge that none of the other Beatles had, kind of because he wasn’t afraid to say what he saw. And I met him on a video shoot for Mind Games with my friend Tony King playing the queen.”
Elton remembered the meeting and his attire at the time, “I was wearing a bright green Saint Laurent satin suit and I thought ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ and your dad was as kind and as generous and sweet and we just hit it off immediately. He was so funny. That’s what I loved about him. And we talked about music, we talked about records we loved.”
Elton has lots of wonderful memories with Lennon and some bizarre ones. For example, the time he and Lennon were having a private Cocaine party in Elton's suite and there was a knock at the door at 2am - “I can remember being stoned out of our mind on coke at the Sherry-Netherland hotel,” said Elton. “And at two in the morning, there would be a knock on the door…It took me five minutes to get to get the door because I was so paranoid, but it was Andy fucking Warhol.”
Going into panic mode, Elton deferred to Lennon. “I said, ‘It’s Andy Warhol,’ "John began to shake his head frantically and made the gesture of cutting his neck." And [Lennon] said, ‘Don’t fucking let him in! He’ll have a fucking camera and everything!’ (Warhol was known to travel everywhere with his Polaroid camera) So, between whispers, they both looked at the mountain of cocaine."We slowly backed up to get back to what we had in hand, trying to ignore that the most famous pop artist on the planet was pounding the door without stopping."