Remembering Elton John’s First Tour of Australia and New Zealand
As Elton plays his 150th 'Farewell Yellow Brick Road' show in Melbourne, we take a look back at his first tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1971.
By John F. Higgins
Elton’s initial journey to the “Far East”, as it was referred to at the time, was originally intended to be a single show in Sydney in the summer of 1971, shoved in between his two North American tours that year. But wiser heads prevailed, and it was expanded to include six shows over 14 days in the fall, after his third circuit of the US and before his Sounds For Saturday television taping in London on November 11. “I didn’t have too much time to ruminate on how much my life had changed,” Elton recalls of the time in his autobiography Me. “I was working too hard.”
Indeed! By the time the excursion began he had also managed to record his fourth studio album, regrettably referred to in the Australian press as Madam Across The Water. Misnaming aside, the LP would peak at #8 on the Australian album chart after its release in November, following the Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection albums, which had both reached #4 earlier in the year. The Aussies had also taken Elton’s Your Song to #10 in the singles chart in May.
Australia and New Zealand 1971
- October 17 – Subiaco Oval – Perth, WA
- October 22 – Memorial Drive Tennis Centre – Adelaide, SA
- October 24 – Kooyong Stadium – Kooyong (Melbourne), VIC
- October 26 – Festival Hall – Brisbane, QLD
- October 29 – Western Springs Stadium – Auckland, New Zealand
- October 31 – Randwick Racecourse Stadium – Sydney, NSW
Elton performing in Perth, 1971 (Photo: Ric Chan)
The Australasia tour had begun in Shibuya, Japan on October 5th and moved south on the 15th after a four-day break. Elton and his band, Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass, plus manager John Reid, Dee’s wife, Anett (the band’s seamstress), and others flew into Sydney from Japan and then on to Perth two days later for a press conference before the tour officially began on October 17th.
By far the furthest he had ever travelled in his 24 years, Elton was booked to play a football stadium, two tennis facilities, a rugby stadium, and a horse racecourse. By the end of the sojourn, he had managed to conquer the land down under, beginning a career-long bond and establishing a special relationship with a nation that took him under its collective wing.
But not without a few bumps at the start...
The Australian press initially seemed to be less focused on Elton’s talents than on a media-manufactured “snub” of the Dean of Perth, the Very Rev. John Hazlewood. Apparently, Elton was either unaware of a reception hosted by the head of the Anglican Church or too wiped out from travelling to attend so soon after arriving in the city. The non-issue was resolved when Mr. Hazlewood, who publicly stated that he took no offence, was invited to chat with Elton at his hotel. They discussed pollution, holidays, and Elton’s career, and the Dean was gifted Elton’s album catalogue to date.
More newspaper ink was wasted on the Commonwealth Police’s attention to Elton’s choice of badges on his denim jacket and jeans. The items, some of which the local authorities deemed to violate the country’s code of decency, had been hand-sewn all over Elton’s blue jean ensemble by Anett Murray. She ended up putting Elastoplast plasters on the offending bits and the musician was allowed to move on. Further, Elton was asked at the press conference if he took drugs (he didn’t) and Dee had to explain to a local promoter that he in fact did not have a day job back home. Even Elton’s hair, dyed orange with purple high lights, drew some unwanted attention. Elton’s then-manager was quoted as saying, “We never had the sensation-seeking in America, Japan or Europe. There [the media] wanted to know about his music.”
Elton during soundcheck at the Kooyong Tennis Centre in Melbourne (Photo: ©JANDS Pty Limited)
The entourage was driven to the gigs and taken sightseeing, visiting the Double Helix in Perth’s Kings Park, for example, in a Holden Special automobile and other sedans by their own drivers and local guides. The group had four days off in Adelaide, where they spent their free time going to the beach (sometimes wearing jackets and other cold-weather clothing) and a visit to see kangaroos and koalas. They stayed in hotels that made the Holiday Inns they had recently occupied in America look luxurious, which was somehow fitting as that song was included in the setlist along with Your Song, Country Comfort, The King Must Die, Friends, the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tony Women and others.
Using whatever Steinway grand piano was available at each venue, Elton performed a 90-minute, or longer, set, typically wearing white Bermuda shorts, a pink velvet long sleeve t-shirt, green and white Mr. Freedom shoes and, occasionally, knee-high red-and white striped socks. This last item could possibly have been an apparel pun of the nation’s nickname as they looked like what the Wicked Witch of the West wore in The Wizard of Oz.
The tour began on October 17 at Subiaco Oval in Perth, where 4,500 people welcomed Elton and the band to Western Australia and the continent at large. Elton, Dee, and Nigel took to the outdoor wooden stage – a sound shell hired from a local university – and, according to the Go-Set review, “By the end of the performance the crowd had risen to its feet screaming for more. Never before has there been such an ardent response in Perth.”
Elton performing in Perth, 1971 (Photo: Ric Chan)
“Perth has had its share of world-class performers including names like the Bee Gees, Deep Purple, Hollies, Free, Seekers and Cilla Black. But none has matched the intoxicating impact of Elton John!”
Of the six concerts on the tour, only one took place indoors (the Festival Hall in Brisbane) and all but two (Brisbane and Auckland) were afternoon performances. Crowd sizes grew as the tour went on, with reports of 10,000 or more people at some of the shows and ecstatic fans rushing to the front of the stage and filling the open areas whenever possible. As one fan put it, “What people wanted was to just get a closer look at an incredible showman, Elton John, and Elton obliged with handstands on the keyboard, dance steps and much leaping and jumping."
The final concert, at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney, had Elton playing a white grand piano. By the time the concert was in full swing, a blue tarp awning held up on poles by local crew members had to be installed over the band while they were playing. The winds had become so strong at times that the makeshift cover nearly fell over onto the instruments and performers. Talk about taking the country by storm! The Sydney crowd was, like the others before them, rapturous: pounding on the stage, dancing in the aisles, and hanging off the speaker towers. Elton responded by taking his shoes off and throwing them into the delirious crowd during the encore.
Elton performing at Kooyong Stadium in Melbourne on October 24, 1971 (Photo: ©JANDS Pty Limited)
“Elton John is Mind Blowing … in the last fifteen minutes of the show [the crowd] were stamping on their seats, swaying to the music and ROARING after each number. … This is a concert you must not miss.”
Elton was chauffered around Auckland in this purple Studebaker owned by local figure Bryan Jackson. (Photo courtesy of Ann Tait)
In addition to the performances, Elton found time to accept an award from Alan Healey of Festival Records and join Jeff Phillips in presenting awards for Best Bass Guitarist and Best Lead Guitarist on the TV Week King of Pop telecast. He was also feted at the Mandarin club in Sydney at the end of the visit, where he was given a patch for his jeans that read “Elton for Pope”.
At the end of a press conference, Elton was asked what he thought of Australia. His reply? “Well, I’m still smiling.” Since then, Elton has smiled a great deal, touring the country 18 times, for over 200 concerts in Australia and New Zealand, and enjoying a great many special personal moments and relationships there, a number of which are described in his new autobiography.
The 150th show of Elton's Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour recently took place in Melbourne - watch the highlights in the video below: