Album Profile: Sleeping With The Past (1989)

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October 25, 2015 by tworoomsejbt

Chart Position:

US Billboard Top 200 Album Chart Peak Position: #23
UK Album Charts Peak Position: #1

US & UK Singles:

Healing Hands (US #13/UK #45)
Sacrifice (UK #18/UK #55 (1989), (UK Reissue in 1990, #1)
Club At The End Of The Street (US #28/UK #47)

About Sleeping With The Past:

Sleeping with the Past is the twenty-second studio album by British singer-songwriter Elton John, released on 29 August 1989. It is his best-selling album in Denmark (where it was recorded) and is dedicated to his longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin. The album featured his first solo number-one single, “Sacrifice”, in his home country of the UK, which helped the album also hit number one there, his first since 1974’s Elton John’s Greatest Hits. John and Taupin meant for the songs to reflect the style of 1960s R&B icons such as Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, whom they admired. It also became his first platinum album in the UK since 1983.

In the US it was certified gold in October 1989 and platinum in April 1990 by the RIAA. Guy Babylon made his debut on this album and would continue to play keyboards with John for the next 20 years, while Fred Mandel left the band shortly after. John went into rehabilitation in 1990.

With renewed creativity after 1988’s Reg Strikes Back, Elton John and Bernie Taupin sought to create a cohesive album that had maintained a consistent theme. They decided to pay tribute to the R&B sound of the 1960s and ’70s that inspired them as youths.

Taupin would listen to ’60s soul songs and use those songs from the past to inspire new lyrics for their album. He would then write down which artists or songs influenced him. John would then use Taupin’s guide to write a soul song that sometimes ventured away from the original source of inspiration. Many of the songs have a somewhat clear influence while others contain a mixture of various soul influences.

In addition to “Sacrifice” and “Healing Hands”, which were singles in both the UK and US, the songs “Whispers” and “Blue Avenue” were released as singles in parts of Continental Europe. “Whispers” reached #11 in France, whilst “Blue Avenue” managed to reach the Top 75 in the Netherlands.

Like Reg Strikes Back the previous year, of note is the lowering of John’s vocal register. While he does hit higher, falsetto notes on songs such as “Stones Throw from Hurtin'” and “Blue Avenue”, after this album he would write in keys more suited to his new vocal range, and trips to the upper register would become few and far between.

Wynonna Judd recorded a contemporary country music cover version of “Stones Throw from Hurtin'” which was featured in the 1992 film Leap of Faith starring Steve Martin.

Sinéad O’Connor recorded a cover version of “Sacrifice” for the 1991 Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin tribute album.

This was John’s first album since Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy with John and Taupin writing every song on the album without additional writing credits from others.

Sleeping with the Past received lukewarm reviews when the album was released in 1989. However, longtime fans of Elton John loved the album and deem it to be one of his best from the 1980s, often vying with 1983’s Too Low for Zero as John’s strongest album of the decade.

After peaking at #6 in October 1989 on the UK Albums Chart, the re-release of “Sacrifice” as a double A-side with “Healing Hands” in June 1990, and that single’s rise to the #1 spot, Sleeping with the Past was propelled back up the #1 position on the UK Albums Chart shortly afterwards.

Despite the critical judgment of the album, it became his highest-selling studio album in the UK, being certified 3× Platinum and spawned his first solo #1 hit in his home country.

Track Listing On Original 1989 Release:

All music composed by Elton John and lyrics by Bernie Taupin. Click on the song title to read the lyrics.

Side One

Durban Deep 5:32
Healing Hands 4:21
Whispers 5:30
Club At The End Of The Street 4:49
Sleeping with the Past 4:58

Side Two

Stones Throw from Hurtin’ 4:55
Sacrifice 5:04
I Never Knew Her Name 3:32
Amazes Me 4:39
Blue Avenue 4:21

Recording Personnel and Musicians:

Chris Thomas – Producer

Elton John: keyboards, lead and harmony vocals, backing vocals
Guy Babylon: keyboards
Davey Johnstone: guitar, backing vocals (tracks 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10)
Fred Mandel: keyboards, guitar on “Durban Deep”, organ on “Club at the End of the Street”
Romeo Williams: bass guitar
Jonathan Moffett: drums
Vince Denham: saxophone on “Club at the End of the Street”
Marlena Jeter: backing vocals (tracks 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9)
Natalie Jackson: backing vocals (tracks 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9)
Mortonette Jenkins: backing vocals (tracks 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9)
Peter Iversen: Fairlight and Audiofile programming

Recorded at Puk Studios, Denmark

Source: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For discography of related album issues, singles, reissues and more, visit David Bodoh’s site: Eltonography

Sheet Music Covers:

Promotional Ads:

Publicity Photos:

SWTP Photo

Official Press Kit From MCA Records:
(click on the page to read)

Page 1:


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Music Videos and TV Performances To Support The Album:

Official Music Videos:

Healing Hands


Club At The End Of The Street


TV Appearances:

UK ‘Our Common Future’ 1989: Daniel and Sad Songs (Say So Much)

France (?) Unknown Show 1990: Sacrifice

US ‘MTV Unplugged’ 1990: Sacrifice

UK ‘Terry Wogan Show 1990: Sacrifice

UK ‘Terry Wogan Show’ June 15, 1990: Whispers


US ‘Arsenio Hall Show’ 1990: Sacrifice and Sad Songs

US ‘CNN’ Headline News and Entertainment Tonight 1989

UK ‘Terry Wogan Show’ June 15, 1990

Album Reviews (4):

‘Sleeping With The Past’ **1/2 Stars (out of 5) (August 27, 1989)
By Mike Boehm

While they dedicate this album to soul music pioneers, Elton John and Bernie Taupin are still sleeping comfortably in the cushiony, well-constructed bed of their accustomed uptown-pop digs instead of flopping on some funky ol’ R&B mattress.

“Sleeping With the Past” is no juicy soul update, but it is a savvy piece of smooth pop craft resplendent with as consistently strong a sequence of tunes as John has put together since his mid-’70s days as the dominant force on the pop charts.

Last year, John shed his peacock feathers in favor of a more low-key persona. He follows through here with a vocal approach that emphasizes tasteful restraint rather than flamboyance. Taupin’s lyrics get John into some silly situations on numbers like the unconvincingly nostalgic “Club at the End of the Street,” the trite wedding-bell blues of “I Never Knew Her Name” and the doubly trite Dixie-isms of “Amazes Me.” But John is always ready with a melody that keeps things listenable.

The strongest song here is “Durban Deep,” a catchy, reggae-beat number that eschews the soapbox sloganeering of most songs about the plight of South African blacks, focusing instead on the apolitical but deeply felt blues of a hard-pressed miner.

Source: Los Angeles Times

People (November 6, 1989)

Whatever other faults John may have, deficiency of public ego isn’t one of them. Nor is there any surplus humility oozing out of his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin—who now prefers to be known only as “Taupin,” in apparent tribute to such other mononomic talents as Charo, Kreskin and Pluto.

These traits have not, of course, kept John and Taupin from creating some of the most popular—and best—pop music of the last 20 years. There’s a lot more of it on this album, but the self-centeredness probably kept it from being something more spectacular than it is.

John and Taupin have described the album as their tribute to the R&B classics of the ’60s—Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding and Co. It’s probably within the bounds of creative eccentricity that they chose to go to Denmark, never known as a hotbed of soulfulness, to record the album. But it does seem peculiar that such a tribute album as this doesn’t even include one or two cover versions of those R&B classics John is saluting.

Maybe Taupin was suggesting an answer to this criticism when he said about I Sleeping with the Past—”We’ve been maybe a little too versatile on a lot of our past albums. They’ve been so diverse musically, and we both felt it would be good to concentrate on just one style for this record. So if a song didn’t fit in with the rest of the album, we’d discard it, no matter how good it was—and believe me, there were some great songs that just didn’t make it onto the album.”

If you say so, Taup. There are some terrific tunes: “The Club at the End of the Street,” for instance, or “Stone’s Throw from Hurtin’,” which is unaccountably described as a salute to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (its opening lines, “Help me, Information/Get emotion on the line,” sound a lot more like Chuck Berry).

There are also a number of songs that I do not make the word “great” come to mind however. “Durban Deep,” an apparently well-meant tribute to black coal miners of South Africa, juxtaposes a bouncy rhythm with painful verbal images; “Healing Hands” seems at best routine: “I never knew it could hurt so bad/When the power of love is dead.”

John and Taupin are still capable of strikingly compact lyrics, such as this from “Sacrifice”: “Cold, cold heart/Hard done by you/Some things look better, baby/Just passin’ through.” They are versatile and anything but complacent. To make deflation the sincerest form of flattery, however, they are not the only two guys on this block.

Contributors to Review Section of this issue of People record reviews: David Hiltbrand, Michael Small, Ralph Novak, Andrew Abrahams, Susan Toepfer.

Source: People

All Music Review
By William Ruhlmann

The past Elton John has in mind is the era of soul music of the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and although all the songs are new, he recreates it well here. The album’s most notable selection is the ballad “Sacrifice,” which amazingly became his first-ever number one hit in the U.K.

Source: All Music Review

26 Years Ago:
‘Sleeping With the Past’ Arrives Amid Turmoil (August 10, 2015)
By Jeff Giles

With 1988’s Reg Strikes Back LP, Elton John rebounded from a commercial lull that included a pair of the poorest-selling releases of his career (1985’s Ice on Fire and 1986’s Leather Jackets). After weathering a number of ups and downs during the previous decade, he looked like he was finally regaining some of the consistency that helped make him one of the biggest stars of the ’70s.

Behind the scenes, however, John’s life was beset with turmoil on several fronts. Before recording Reg Strikes Back, he’d weathered a health scare that ended with the surgical removal of several non-cancerous polyps from his vocal cords, and he spent several years embroiled in a public legal battle against the U.K. tabloid the Sun, suing the paper for libel after they published a series of ugly (and increasingly bizarre) falsehoods. And while the Reg hits “I Don’t Wanna Go On with You Like That” and “A Word in Spanish” were two of his stronger singles of the ’80s, he privately continued to battle substance abuse issues that would shortly send him to rehab.

In the midst of all these creative triumphs and personal struggles, John and his longtime creative partner, Bernie Taupin, reconvened in late 1988 to write and record what would become his 22nd studio LP, Sleeping With the Past. Released Aug. 29, 1989, the record found the duo trying to do something they really hadn’t done in awhile: assemble a collection of songs that truly held together as an album-length listening experience.

In the weeks after its release, Elton deemed it “the strongest record we’ve ever made,” which is pretty much the same thing every artist says after finishing a new project. But in this case, John explained, “We went back to our roots and tried to do something special. Bernie and I came up with the idea of making an album that paid tribute to all the great old soul songs we’d grown up with, and I feel that also gives it a real sense of continuity.”

Taupin agreed in an interview with Music Connection, “I said to Elton, “Listen, we can’t make another album where people are going to say, ‘it’s just another Elton John album.’ I mean, we’re up to like 30 albums now, and I said that we had to sit down and decide what we wanted to make, and make a cohesive album with a collection of songs that sound like they all fit together.”

As per the album’s title, the partners decided to move forward by looking back. “We came up with the idea of going back and listening to the songs that inspired us when we started writing songs — the time when R&B records were really great,” Taupin continued. “The Chess days, the Stax records, and when Motown was at its peak […] I started dragging out all these old records and listening to them to get a feel, and we decided to basically make a white-soul album for the late ’80s, and I think that’s what we’ve done.”

Of course, Sleeping With the Past was far from the first album to pay tribute to a bygone musical era. In fact, just a few years earlier, Billy Joel had scored one of the biggest hits of his career with An Innocent Man, an LP-length pastiche of pre-Beatles rock. But where Taupin saw that as a “direct emulation,” he pointed out that he and Elton took a less obvious approach with their homage.

“This is a songwriting salute. It’s all inspired and it says that on the album, and due to that it’s really given the album a cohesiveness. It’s not a concept album, but there’s a concept in the ideas,” he said. “More than any other record we’ve made, this sounds like an album. It sounds like it all belongs together, and I’m really, really proud of that. We worked really hard on this record, and we worked hand-in-hand on this one.”

“I know that people get trapped in nostalgia and will argue that the old songs are our best, but I think as songwriters we’re far better than we’ve ever been and I think this new album proves that,” Taupin argued. “I think we’ve been in the wasteland for a little while. A lot of our recent albums have been fairly inconsistent. I wasn’t particularly happy with the last album, although it had its moments. I just feel that over the last few years, our albums haven’t really had a cohesiveness; they’ve tended to confuse people because the musical styles and song structures have been so conflicting that they go up and down, up and down. I know that’s a salute to our diversity, but I also think it confuses people.”

Somewhat surprisingly, given how closely it followed the success of Reg Strikes Back, Sleeping With the Past got off to a bit of a slow start on both sides of the Atlantic. The first single, “Healing Hands,” went to radio around the album’s release, but didn’t peak until late in the fall, hitting No. 1 on Billboard‘s Adult Contemporary chart toward the end of October.

The follow-up, “Sacrifice,” was eventually a huge hit in the U.S. as well as the U.K., but it also took its time finding an audience. In fact, the song failed to catch on at all in England at first. It wasn’t until the label reissued it in the spring of 1990 that it took off, eventually becoming, surprisingly, John’s first British No. 1 single as a solo artist. He had previously only topped the chart in his native land with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” his duet with Kiki Dee.

With a third hit single, “The Club at the End of the Street,” following in the summer of 1990, Sleeping With the Past cemented its status as one of the more radio-friendly records of John’s post-’70s peak, and although it stalled out at a relatively disappointing No. 23 on Billboard‘s album sales chart, it eventually went platinum, helping John and Taupin close the turbulent ’80s on a decisively high note — both as co-writers and as friends.

In fact, as Elton later explained in David Buckley’s Elton: The Biography, the Sleeping With the Past sessions strengthened their personal bond. “We spent a lot of time together — not writing, but we spent a lot of time together. And I realized how valuable our relationship was and how much I really admired and respected him, and how much I really needed him as a part of my life.”

Friendship would be a recurring theme for John during this period, both with Taupin (to whom Sleeping With the Past is dedicated) and with Ryan White, the Indiana teen whose AIDS diagnosis made headlines and raised awareness of the disease and its causes during a time when HIV ignorance was widespread. White’s death in April 1990 helped spur John to seek help for his long-standing substance abuse problems, and he entered rehab later in the year — an experience he’d write about in his book Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS.

John would emerge from that experience a changed man in more ways than one, and although the ’90s were ultimately an even more successful decade for him — owing partly to the blockbuster success of his work on the Lion King soundtrack — he no longer pursued or expected hit records the way he once had. As the years wore on, he’d increasingly make music on his own terms, with little-to-no-thought of pop stardom.

“By this time, I had known for years that my little run was up. I studied the charts, I’m a fan, and I know that people have their little time in the sun when they can do no wrong. It maybe lasts for five albums, six albums, and then someone else comes in,” he later pointed out. “It was the last album before rehab, but it was a good album.”

Source: Ultimate Classic Rock Website Review

Fan Site:

For more information on the album, the band, tour and more, be sure to visit Mark Schmidt’s site dedicated to Sleeping With The Past:

The Album – Sleeping With The Past

Tour Reviews (5):

Madison Square Garden – New York City, New York – October 10, 1989

Elton John, Still Colorful and Popular
by Stephen Holden

It seems like only yesterday, but it was actually 19 years ago that Elton John scored his first major hit with ”Your Song.” Every year since then, the singer and pianist has had at least one moderate hit and more often than not he has had two or three.

Mr. John’s remarkable longevity is no accident. He and his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin, are masters of a jolly assembly-line pop that streamlines rock, country and gospel idioms into a catchy personal style. And Mr. John, whose pianism and personal flamboyance join the worlds of Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace, remains a consummate pop entertainer.

Although Mr. John has sharply toned down his clownishness in recent years, he still cut a colorful figure on Friday evening at Madison Square Garden. In a bright green suit and sunglasses, with his hair dyed platinum under a feathered hat, he suggested Truman Capote as a silent-movie clown. And in the evening’s more exuberant musical moments, his piano became an acrobatic platform.

Musically, the concert was a machine-tooled procession of Mr. John’s hits, dotted with selections from his newest album, ”Sleeping With the Past,” in which he returns to the Southern gospel-influenced style of some of his best 1970’s music. Although Mr. John was supported by a strong pop-rock band and three soul backup singers, they were almost icing on the cake given his ability to deliver fully-fleshed renditions of his songs with just a single keyboard.

The high point of the show was a sequence of ballads that Mr. John performed solo and that included ”Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” ”Daniel,” ”Candle in the Wind” and ”Your Song.” ”Candle in the Wind,” his elegy to Marilyn Monroe, was especially poignant. Not only does the song contain one of Mr. John’s strongest melodies, but Mr. Taupin’s reflections on the distance between show-business glamour and personal reality stands as one of the most astute pop statements on the subject.

Source: New York Times, October 10, 1989

Capitol Centre – Landover, Maryland – October 17, 1989 (2 Reviews)

Elton John Sings Many Old Songs In A New Way, And It’s Way Off
by Nestor Aparicio

LANDOVER, MD – Now that Elton John has dropped the flair in his costumes, selling much of his collection of funny hats and gaudy clothing in a well-publicized auction last year, he apparently has decided to dress up his music instead.

Much of his 2 1/2 –hour, 23-song show last night at the Capital Centre featured grossly over arranged renditions of his more popular songs, murdering several classics.

Take “Island Girl,” a 1975 hit with a pop groove that pushed it straight up the charts. Led by backing keyboardist Fred Mandel’s over-amplified synthesizer, it took much of the crowd of nearly 20,000 a verse and a half before they even recognized the song.
Mandel’s synth sounds also buried John’s piano in “The Bitch Is Back,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” and “Benny And The Jets,” the opening song.

Later in the set, performing “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” it appeared John couldn’t make up his mind which way to go. He began the song with a bluesy, gospel intro with help from his three female accompanists, and ended an otherwise ballad-type tune with guitar riffs that bordered on heavy metal.

The imbalance ruled the show.

While the aforementioned were messy and quite frankly, better off listended to at home on the cd player, several of John’s ballads sang through with beautiful clarity.

“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” which John hasn’t performed on the last three tours, and “Daniel,” performed by just John and his electric piano, were sensational.
This is the second tour that John has abandoned his Steinway grand in favor of a center-stage trio of keyboards.

After the pair of beauties, he quickly rolled through three more ballads – “Candle In The Wind,” “Sacrifice” and a rather drab version of “Your Song.” But after 19 years he might be excused for getting a little bored with that one.

Actually, John seemed excited but a few times the entire evening.

The morbid march of “Funeral For A Friend” leading into “Love Lies Bleeding” was the highlight of the show while “Don’t Let The Sun Down On Me” brought Elton to his feet behind the riser, shouting the please that end the song.

Sparing the audience the bulk of his new material, John delivered just three songs from his latest release, “Sleeping With The Past,” – “Sacrifice,” “Healing Hands” (the current hit) and the title song.

After encores of “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” and “Saturday Nights Alright For Fighting,” which still rocks with the best of them – John lowered the volume and dismissed the crowd with a solo version of “Rocket Man.”

It wasn’t a bad show. How could it be with the quantity and the quality of the original material?

But it seems that the new Elton is becoming the old Elton’s worst enemy.

Source: The Evening Sun, October 18, 1989

Elton John, Tuned To The ‘70s
By Mike Joyce

LANDOVER, MD – While it’s true that Elton John has auctioned off his outrageously flamboyant costumes and resigned himself, more or less, to middle age, no one would have mistaken him for his Uncle Buck at Capital Centre Tuesday night. Making a jaunty entrance before a rapturous sellout crowd, he arrived sporting a violet suit, sunglasses and a sequined fedora.

And even if the 42-year-old pop singer has toned down his wardrobe and stage antics considerably – instead of attempting handstands at the keyboard these days, he merely mounts his piano stool when the music really moves him – he hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for performing or his ability to revitalize the songs that made him a hit machine in the ‘70s.

In fact, he seemed as eager as ever to prove the point during the swiftly paced 2 1/2 – hour show. With help from a vibrant pop/rock quintet (sparked by his longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone) and three backup singers, John kicked off the concert with the crashing piano chords that signal “Bennie And The Jets.” A similarly emphatic, all-enveloping spirit and sound drove “Island Girl,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Saturday Nights Alright For Fighting” and an expanded gospel arrangement of “Sad Songs (Say So Much).

By contrast, a brief solo set at the midway point consisting of “Daniel,” “Candle In The Wind” and other ballads displayed the deeper, more resonant quality of John’s post-throat-operation voice. Tunes off the new “Sleeping With The Past” album seemed negligible in comparison and the medley of “Funeral For A Friend” and “When Love Lies Bleeding” was intensely melodramatic, but even these performances drew ecstatic cheers.

Source: The Washington Post, October 19, 1989

Poplar Creek – Hoffman Estates, Illinois – August 27, 1989

With Elton John, Only The Wardrobe Gets Toned Down
By David Silverman

There`s no room for a comeback in a career that has never stopped and, for two decades, Elton John has been one of the very few performers in pop music who never retreated in the face of popular uncertainty. From his self-titled debut and through the thousand costume changes since, John`s flamboyant and monumentally successful career has endured both grand excess and critical contempt in equal doses.

But during his nearly three-hour performance Saturday night at Poplar Creek, one of the final U.S. stops on the “Elton John, The World” tour, there was no hint that “Reg” had ever fallen from favor.

There wasn’t a spot left to sit or stand among the 20,000-plus who packed the outdoor theatre. And from the opening chords of “Bennie and the Jets” until the last of the four encores, it was nothing less than what you would expect when an adoring mass meets a stellar performance-pandemonium.

It wasn`t just that the music was a hit-laden timeline of John`s onstage career and offstage collaborations with lyricist Bernie Taupin: from the early days of “Tumbleweed Connection” up to his most recent LP, “Sleeping with the Past,” which arrives in stores Monday. There also was a renewed vigor and a keyboard-pounding impudence that was missing from last year’s “Reg Strikes Back” tour and on his last two LPs.

Indeed, the action belied John`s toned-down wardrobe (a bright red, but otherwise subdued Italian suit). Little more than halfway through “Bennie,” his pounding caused one of his fewer-than-usual rings to slice open his left hand. After a quick break to bandage the wound, the first part of the set continued with his hardest-rocking radio hits.

“Island Girl” was followed by “Harmony,” “Tiny Dancer” and a preview of the title cut from the new LP. “Sleeping with the Past,” John`s first collaboration with Taupin in more than three years, is a pounding R&B reminiscence of the duo`s work from the mid-`70s, punctuated by Taupin`s terse lyrics and John`s relentless back beat.

John then crashed through “The Bitch Is Back,” the misogynist parody of Taupin`s hypermacho penning from “Caribou.” Then, slowing the tempo, John began a series of ballads, which included the epic combination of “Funeral for a Friend” and “Love Lies Bleeding” from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” There`s no doubt that throat surgery a few years ago has robbed the 42-year-old singer of his tenor`s upper range, but he moved around the rough edges, concentrating on throaty versions of “Daniel” and the much-preferred solo “Candle in the Wind.”

“Philadelphia Freedom,” the 1976 single that heralded John`s jump from star to worldbeater, brought the sound system back to life as guitarist Davey Johnstone recreated his original soaring solo. It was followed by “Burn Down the Mission” and “Levon” and continued until, more than 25 songs after it began, it ended with the same four-song encore that punctuated the “Reg” tour.

It was a flawless performance, as much a testament to the singer`s endurance as the music`s everlasting quality. And in a summer when many of rock`s fallen heroes are just getting back on the horse, it was a pleasure to see the return of a man who never got off, even during the roughest of rides.

Source: Chicago Tribune

The Forum – Los Angeles, California – August 17, 1989

Elton John at the Forum: A Man Without a Gimmick
By Paul Grein

From the thunderous audience response during Elton John’s show at the Forum on Tuesday, you’d think that the veteran pop star hadn’t performed in Los Angeles in a decade.

Actually, John sold out three shows at the Hollywood Bowl less than 11 months ago.

Then he must be riding a big comeback hit?

No. John’s coming album, “Sleeping With the Past,” won’t be released until the end of the month. And his last album, “Reg Strikes Back,” didn’t exactly set the pop world on fire.

Then, surely, he must have decided to reintroduce the outrageous costumes and flamboyant stage presence that he put in mothballs a couple of years ago.

Wrong again. John hardly moved from his electric piano, and he wore just two suits during the entire show–granted, one was lavender and the other was lime green.

So what accounted for the frequently tumultuous response?

The songs.

John’s 2 1/2-hour show drew its strength almost completely from the quality and diversity of his music.

For most acts, pacing a show means simply alternating ballads and up-tempo songs. But John’s remarkably diverse repertoire allowed him to move from the spacey funk of “Bennie and the Jets” to the classically shaded elegance of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”; from the feel-good pop of “Philadelphia Freedom” to the swaggering, rave-up rock of “The Bitch Is Back”–which was made even hotter Tuesday with the inclusion of several bars of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”

John also struck just the right balance between engaging but disposable ear candy like last year’s “I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That” and more challenging, ambitious works like the symphonic rock piece “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.”

The 42-year-old singer/songwriter focused on crowd-pleasing oldies in the first hour. Nine of the first 12 songs dated from 1976 or before. The night’s biggest ovation was for the graceful ballad “Candle in the Wind,” which John introduced 16 years ago. The mere mention, early in the show, of the 1973 album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” got a big hand.

But this was no idle stroll down memory lane. John and his five-man backup band pumped up the arrangements of several of the songs and thoroughly revamped two of them. His bluesy funk version of the 1972 pop hit “Rocket Man” bore little resemblance to the original. And John has turned his sing-songy 1984 hit “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” into a muscular, gospel-flavored rocker.

And the balance shifted to newer material in the second hour. There were no songs at all in the show from the years 1977-81, when John was in a commercial and artistic slump.

John told the audience that his coming album was inspired by R&B songs that he and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin enjoyed when they were growing up.

You’d never know it, however, from the four songs he previewed Tuesday. The album’s first single, “Healing Hands,” is a crafty mix of pop and rock elements, but the title song is far too pat and polite. John never came close to cutting loose, much less working up a sweat. What kind of R&B is that?

It once seemed that the secret to John’s success as a concert performer was his over-the-top showmanship, which made him the Liberace of rock.

There must have been times over the years when John worried that if he ever put aside the costumes and the props and the antics, fans would gradually lose interest. Perhaps, he must have feared, it was the outrageousness and the high jinks that intrigued them.

Source: Los Angeles Times


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