“Some things change, some stay the same,” sings Chrissie Hynde in ‘Hymn To Her’, a song on The Pretenders album Get Close that seems to me to be an invocation of women as supreme beings, the mothers of mankind, as they surely are. It certainly wasn’t meant to refer to ageing pop stars but it struck me as pretty apt on Sunday as I watched Yusuf/Cat Stevens and Elton John at Glastonbury from the comfort of our sofa. Yusuf had changed but Elton hadn’t, and it wasn’t just their choice of names.
Sunday at Glastonbury was always likely to send me back to a time when reviewing shows by Elton, Cat Stevens and Blondie was what I did for a living. Indeed, I saw both Steve – as Cat Stevens, now Yusuf, was known to his associates – and Elton for the first time at outdoor festivals in 1970, the former at Plumpton on August 8, and the latter at Krumlin, near Halifax, two weeks later, on August 15, and 50-odd years ago now I interviewed and wrote about both extensively for Melody Maker. Blondie, of course, came later, at CBGBs in New York, and their Sunday set – midway between Yusuf and Elton – was pretty much the same as when I saw them last year in Brighton, very professional, up-to-date, slick, even if Debbie’s voice doesn’t quite pack the punch it once did.
But it’s Yusuf and Elton that concern me here.
Yusuf looks much older, with thinning white hair, and he seemed slightly unsure of himself facing an audience that was surely far greater than he’d ever faced before in any of his multiple careers. He seemed genuinely surprised by the warmth with which he was received, and humble too, openly grateful that his songs still struck a chord with the crowd. Wisely, he ran through several of the earliest in a medley that included ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’ and he concluded his set an hour later with ‘Father And Son’, both songs that have been covered by many. Bravely, perhaps, he included a handful of more recent songs, but none slackened the momentum of his set, and I liked the animated, slightly quirky, understated graphics beamed behind him. His band, too, were low key.
Back in the early seventies he usually sat on a tall stool to perform and bobbed around a lot as he played, and he was invariably accompanied by the guitarist Alun Davies, but to my disappointment there was no sign of Alun on Sunday. Steve, his long black hair framing olive Mediterranean features, was a heartthrob in those days. Girls adored him. Now he’s a kindly old man. I could imagine him surrounded by children, telling fairy stories at bedtime.
In 1983 I wrote a book about Yusuf and met with him to discuss it. He was adamant that he’d put his guitar away for good, and would no longer perform or write songs, all which were proscribed by the Islamic faith he’d adopted in 1978 when he changed his name from Cat Stevens to Yusuf Islam. A change of heart occurred in 2006 when he released his first new album for 28 years and since then he’s performed intermittently around the world.
“Don't you feel a change a coming,” he sang in ‘Changes IV’ from Teaser And The Firecat in 1971, the first of two albums (the other was Tea For The Tillerman released earlier the same year) that defined his career. Yes, you have changed a lot I thought as he exited the stage, waving shyly at a vast crowd on an afternoon he’ll surely remember for the rest of his days.
An hour or three later, dinner with red wine consumed, I sat down to watch Elton. He hasn’t changed at all, I thought. The songs he sang were largely the same as those he sang when I saw him perform regularly, all bar five I specify below. He didn’t look that much different either, no less podgy but a tad stiff, ungainly in his movements, as if he’d risen from a long rest and needed to stretch, and he seemed to have considerably more hair than he did 50 years ago. His gold lamé suit, perhaps modelled on the one worn by Elvis, was a bit bulky and didn’t seem to fit him too well, but he was the same ebullient showman he always was, a curious mix of humility and effervescence, his sincerity and professionalism intact, just as they always have been. His voice was a bit deeper but, as ever, he played his grand piano superbly.
Elton delivered 21 songs, 16 of which were recorded during the first flourish of his career, up to 1976, a staggering proportion of old, safe and reliable material to my mind. (This was the year when he announced [to me] his impending retirement from live shows for the first time.) Of the rest, two were from 1983, one from 1984, one from 1991 and one, ‘Until I Found You’ by Stephen Sanchez, with whom he duetted, from 2021.
His audience, however, looked to me to be considerably less than half his age, which is 76, the same as me, with many even younger. The 16 early songs were first released around 50 years ago, yet the huge crowd of boys and girls born long after they were recorded seemed to know them all, singing along lustily as festival audiences are inclined to do. The obvious conclusion is that Elton’s hits compilations sell far more than his albums of new material, but it must be galling for him to have to base his show on so many old evergreens. Furthermore, his band included the same guitarist, Davey Johnstone, and drummer, Nigel Olsson, who’ve played with him for decades, as has percussionist Ray Cooper, which is not a criticism, just an observation.
So it was that I couldn’t help but think that little of Elton has changed since I last saw him perform in person, in America in August 1976. It was on this trip, on his private plane mid-air between Chicago and Cincinnati, that he told me he, “felt like stopping for a time. I’ve done it for six years and I’m fed up with it. I could change my mind. I’m not retiring. I just want to lay off for a bit.” I thought back to that conversation as I watched him.
The 1970 Krumlin Festival where I first saw Elton was a disaster, though this energetic newcomer on piano did his utmost to raise the spirits of a cold, damp audience. I was unacquainted with his songs but thought he was terrific, a fabulous showman, and afterwards went to the caravan backstage that was his dressing room, knocked on the door and was admitted by Sandy Denny who was inside, sharing a bottle of cognac with him. Elton was delighted that someone from Melody Maker was showing an interest in his work and happily supplied the titles with which I was unfamiliar. I went back to the office and wrote up a rave review, said he was the highlight of the festival, a star in the making, and this cemented a genial yet professional relationship that lasted for as long as I was a working music writer. In that time, no matter how big he became, I was welcomed into Elton’s entourage, granted interviews and on first-name terms.
The relationship was unlikely to withstand my departure from MM but it didn’t matter. I watched his life progress, read about his troubles and triumphs, his tantrums and tiaras. Throughout it all he remained the same, as he still is, quite remarkably in fact; little difference between the eager 23-year-old I saw at Krumlin in 1970 and the wise old 76-year-old I watched on Sunday. If he does retire, which I somehow doubt, I wish him the best.
(Pic of Yusuf: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock; Elton: Samir Hussein/Wire Image)