The last time I visited the O2 Arena in London, for a long-delayed, post-pandemic New Order gig, the audience mostly consisted of ageing, many bald or balding, former neurotic boy outsiders whose formative cultural experiences were likely to have been the NME and the John Peel show. By contrast, Elton John pulled in an attractively diverse intergenerational, cross-class crowd, some wearing sparkly tiaras, for what he told us was his “last show in London”. “It’s an emotional night,” he added, soon after opening with “Bennie and the Jets”, its signature short, sharp, stabbed piano chords being greeted with cheers of immediate recognition. He can no longer hit the high notes and stayed mostly seated at the piano but, even at the age of 76, his voice is strong.
Elton John was at his most benign as he worked his way through the familiar back catalogue. He praised his band for their technical accomplishments; he thanked the audience for their loyalty and love through the years, and name-checked family and friends, including Dua Lipa. She was there dancing in the aisles but not on stage, alas, for when he encored with the Pnau remix of “Cold Heart” – “number one all over the world”, he reminded us just in case we’d forgotten.
Elton John is saying goodbye, for one more time, for one last time. Perhaps he even means it. It’s been a long, turbulent career. Working in close collaboration with Bernie Taupin, he had early commercial success, but it was followed by years of suffering – of alcoholism, drug addiction and tabloid scandals.
He was deeply unfashionable during the punk years, his extravagant costumes and high camp performance a relic from the reviled age of glam and hippyish excess. But he endured – not least because of his considerable talent as a singer-songwriter and pianist and gift for collaboration. You can plot the trajectory of his career through his duets: Kiki Dee, George Michael, Britney Spears, Dua Lipa, and the rest. He’s earned the right to say goodbye, in his own way, on his terms, as the final tour rolls on… and on.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine