Elton John: ‘It’s vital that music venues stay open’

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Sir Elton says he plans to be “straight out there again” playing shows as soon as restrictions are lifted

Fifty years ago this week, Sir Elton John played his first American concert, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles.

At the time, he was largely unknown in the States. His debut album wasn’t selling, and booking a six-night residency was a last-ditch gamble.

His US record label, UNI, paid $10,000 (£7,600 in today’s money) to hire the venue, and cajoled some of music’s biggest names into attending.

On the opening night, Sir Elton was introduced by Neil Diamond, and watched by Quincy Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Don Henley, Randy Newman, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

But perhaps the most important guest was the LA Times’ pop critic Robert Hilburn. “Rejoice!” he wrote in an effusive review, “rock music has a new star.”

After praising the star’s “uninhibited” stage presence and “staggeringly original” music, he concluded: “Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning.”

The show changed Sir Elton’s career forever.

Within weeks, his self-titled album entered the US charts, eventually reaching number four. By January 1971, Your Song gave the star his first top 10 single.

But as Sir Elton celebrates the anniversary of that landmark gig, the Troubadour is in trouble.

One of Los Angeles’ last independently-owned venues, it has been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic since 11 March – and there are only five shows on the schedule for the rest of 2020.

‘Completely futile’

Earlier this year, the venue’s owner Christine Karayan said she couldn’t “foresee being able to ride this out” without significant help from donors.

Help came initially from a crowd-funding campaign, which raised more than $70,000 (£53,000) to support the venue’s staff during the lockdown – but even so, the Troubadour faces an uncertain future. Even when concerts resume, a cap on audience sizes could render the venue unprofitable.

Unlike bigger concert halls, social distancing poses genuine problems, said Karayan.

“The more I think about it, it’s just completely futile,” she told the LA Times. “At least a big seated venue has space where they can keep people apart. But I don’t know how that works for a general admission venue. Are you going to stop them from using the restroom?”

Asked about the situation on BBC 6 Music, Sir Elton said preserving venues like the Troubadour was essential.

“I’ve heard that it might be closing but I think it’s going to be OK,” he told music reporter Matt Everitt. “I made a few phone calls. There are a few irons in the fire.

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The Troubadour is one of hundreds of small, independent venues to struggle during the Covid-19 crisis

“If venues like that disappear then it’s really grim stuff because they are so important for new people to go [to] and I’ve seen so many new acts there that have come from Britain.

“I saw Cat Stevens there when he did his first show in America. It’s a great launch pad. It’s a great room, it has atmosphere, it has everything going for it. If you can’t play well at the Troubadour, you can’t play well anywhere.”

Of course, the Troubadour isn’t alone. Music venues across the world are facing hardship and closure, with no real certainty on when gigs might resume.

Although socially-distanced shows have been permitted in England since 14 August, the Music Venue Trust has warned that “only around 100 of the country’s 900 small music venues would be able to operate under the current restrictions”.

Even those venues will struggle, said the trust, with 96% of them saying the costs of re-opening would outweigh the revenue they would generate.

The government has stepped in to provide emergency funding of £3.36m to grassroots music venues, and Sir Elton said it was “vital” these venues survive.

“I know the lady who owns Ronnie Scott’s and I’m sure she’s going to put up a battle,” he told 6 Music. “You can’t lose places like that.

“Small venues are the life and soul of music and they have to be kept afloat some way or another.”

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“Small venues are the life and soul of music,” says the star

The Covid-19 crisis has also derailed Sir Elton’s farewell tour, with 43 dates postponed so far this year.

“We were half-way through the tour and then that was it and we’re on a hiatus,” said the star.

“But we’re no different to anybody else and, as hard as it is and as frustrating as it is for me and the band, it’s much more frustrating for the people who are in the crew, who depend on their livelihoods for working like that.

“And you know it just rolls, trickles down to people who do the catering – everybody’s affected by it and unfortunately we’re going to be the last people to go back to work because we play in large venues.”

He says he’ll be “straight out there” as soon as restrictions are lifted – but, in the meantime, the 73-year-old has been keeping busy at home.

“All I’ve been doing is finishing off a couple of musicals that I’ve written,” he said. “I did a [Lady] Gaga track. I have a few lyrics from Bernie which are wonderful, but I have no interest in being Elton at the minute.

“So I’ve been working with other people, which is fun, and staying away from me.”

You can hear the full interview with Sir Elton John on Mary Anne Hobbs’ BBC 6 Music show.

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