35 Years Ago: Elton John Mounts Historic Russian Tour
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Elton John‘s recent trip to Moscow got a lot of attention when he criticized the government for supporting “vicious homophobia,” but it’s not the first time the singer has grabbed headlines in Russia. In fact, John’s initial trip there, 35 years ago in May of 1979, was notable for its historical significance: He was the first Western rock star to ever perform in Russia.
Surprising? Perhaps. But John insists that he was the first to make the journey behind the Iron Curtain for a simple reason: He asked first. “They want Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Nana Mouskouri and Pink Floyd [to come to Russia],” John told the Associated Press back then. “In fact, they told us the only reason more people have not played there is because they simply haven’t asked permission.” It wouldn’t be long, of course, before others did — everyone from James Taylor and Santana to the Doobie Brothers and Billy Joel journeyed there in the following decade — but only after Elton blazed that trail.
“We decided to try and play places that we had never sorta played before,” he told United Press International. “Usually, most rock ‘n’ roll people go to places where they can make money, but I’ve had enough of doing that. I want to see different people all over the world.”
Elton John arrived in Russia on May 20, 1979, with four concerts lined up at the Great October Hall in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on May 21-24, followed by four more (May 25-28) set for the exclusive Rossya Hotel in Moscow. They were billed as ‘A Single Man’ shows, with each night featuring a solo set from John on a single grand Steinway piano and an electric CP80 — followed by a second set with Ray Cooper accompanying on drums.
The trip wasn’t without its difficulties. Touching down during an unusually hot summer, John complained mightily about the accommodations. In “those days, even the word ‘air-conditioner’ was hardly known in the U.S.S.R.,” explained Denis Azarenkov, a member of the Elton John Fan Club who attended one of the gigs. A ruffled John ended up chiding journalists who asked him what he considered inane questions, and he was apparently shocked to learn few people there had actually heard his music. “It’s unbelievable! How can it be that my records don’t sell here?” John asked, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Western pop music at that point was only obtainable for large sums on the black market.
All of that negativity disappeared, however, when he took the stage on May 21 for a sold-out show at the 4,000-seat capacity Great October Hall — though it took some time to win over the crowd. Not surprisingly, most of the tickets had been set aside for “Communist party chiefs, members of KGB and Moscow criminal investigation department, artists, diplomats, etc.,” Azarenkov said. As such, John initially thought his performance wasn’t going over well: From his vantage point, the audience sat motionless with fingers in ears before filing out after few songs. It wasn’t until some brave fans — some of whom had paid upwards of $150 for tickets, a massive sum — excitedly took over the front sections that he realized the impact his music was having on the crowd.
All eight shows ran over two hours and featured essentially identical 29-song setlists, with tunes from John’s 1978 studio effort ‘A Single Man’ and most of his own classics. Covers included like the Who‘s ‘Pinball Wizard,’ Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ and the Beatles‘ ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.,’ which closed out each night.
Footage from the trip was later featured in the documentary ‘To Russia With Elton,’ most of which focused on his final show at Rossya Hall. Directed by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who later wrote the script for 2007’s ‘Across the Universe’), the video offers an interesting summary of John’s entire experience traveling to Russia in 1979, with behind-the-scenes and interview snippets giving us a glimpse into the wide-ranging political and social ramifications of the historic journey. The concert footage also offers a taste of an oft-underappreciated era of his music.
Following the success of these shows, ‘A Single Man’ would become John’s first officially released album in the U.S.S.R., with one slight change. The project was retitled ‘Elton John Sings’ in Russian.