John Lennon joins Elton John onstage at Madison Square Garden, New York

John Lennon made a surprise appearance at Elton John’s concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on this evening.

Elton John was perhaps the world’s biggest pop star at the time, but a rare live appearance by Lennon was enough to steal the show. The former Beatle was visibly nervous about being onstage once again, with the deafening roar recalling the heights of Beatlemania a decade earlier.

During the recording of Lennon’s Walls And Bridges earlier in 1974, Elton John had contributed vocals and keyboards to two songs: Whatever Gets You Thru The Night and Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox).

The first of these songs was the subject of a wager between the two musicians. Lennon was the only former Beatle yet to have achieved a number one solo single, and he agreed to Elton’s suggestion that if Whatever Gets You Thru The Night made it to number one in the charts they would perform together at Elton’s Thanksgiving concert that year at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

In November 1974 the song knocked Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet from the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in America.

[Elton] sang on a single that turned out to be a cut from Walls And Bridges, Whatever Gets You Thru The Night. He sang harmony on it and he really did a damn good job. So I sort of halfheartedly promised that if Whatever Gets You Thru The Night became number one, which I had no reason to expect, I’d do Madison Square Garden with him. So one day Elton called and said, ‘Remember when you promised…’ It wasn’t like I promised some agent or something, so I was suddenly stuck. I had to go on stage in the middle of nothing.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

The concert took place on 28 November 1974. Lennon’s onstage appearance was unannounced prior to the event, and the crowd reaction was ecstatic.

Lennon looked resplendent and sober with long hair and a black suit, and played a black Fender Telecaster guitar. He performed three songs with Elton John’s band, opening with Whatever Gets You Thru The Night and following with versions of The Beatles’ Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and I Saw Her Standing There.

It was great. He was more nervous than I was, because he was nervous for me as well. Elton used to be in the Dick James office when The Beatles sent in their latest demos, so he had a real emotional feeling for The Beatles.

I went to see Elton at Boston and I was nervous just watching him. I was thinking ‘Thank God it isn’t me’, as he was getting dressed to go on. I went through my stage fright at Boston so by the time I got to Madison Square I had a good time, and when I walked on they were all screaming and shouting. It was like Beatlemania. I was thinking ‘What is this?’ ’cause I hadn’t heard it since The Beatles. I looked round and saw someone else playing the guitar. It brought the house down. It was déjà vu for me, not like The Beatles screaming bit, but the place was really rocking.

We’d had a rehearsal but we weren’t that together. By the time we got to I Saw Her Standing There Elton’s piano was jumping off the floor. It was his idea to do that song. We had to do Whatever Gets You Through The Night because of a bet we had… and naturally we did Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds because I did that with him at Caribou. That’s me out of tune in the background, doing the reggae bit. I got it wrong just like I did the original on Pepper.

John Lennon

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds had been recorded in the studio by Elton John in July 1974, and was released as a single 10 days before the concert. Lennon performed backing vocals and guitar on the recording, after being invited to the sessions at Caribou Studios near Nederland, Colorado.

I Saw Her Standing There, meanwhile, was suggested by Elton, and was introduced from the stage by Lennon.

I’d like to thank Elton and the boys for having me on tonight. We tried to think of a number to finish off with so I can get out of here and be sick, and we thought we’d do a number of an old, estranged fiancé of mine, called Paul. This is one I never sang, it’s an old Beatle number, and we just about know it.
John Lennon

The live recording of I Saw Her Standing There was issued in February 1975 as the b-side to Elton John’s single Philadelphia Freedom.

Elton wanted me to do Imagine, but I didn’t want to come on like Dean Martin doing my classic hits. I wanted to have some fun and play some rock and roll and I didn’t want to do more than three because it was Elton’s show after all. He suggested I Saw Her Standing There and I thought ‘great’, because I never sang the original of that. Paul [McCartney] sang it and I did the harmony. When I came off stage I said to the waiting journalists, ‘It was good fun, but I wouldn’t like to do it for a living.’ I’m not against live performances, but I haven’t got a group and I haven’t put a stage show together. I’m just not keen on it right now, but I may change my mind.
John Lennon

A silent video from the concert surfaced in 2011. In the clip Lennon appears at 3’42″.

Lennon’s estranged wife Yoko Ono was in the audience at Madison Square Garden. Although he later claimed that he wasn’t aware of her presence, Lennon had arranged for her to be given tickets to the show, and she had telephoned him to complain about the location of the seats. Ono had also sent orchids to Lennon and Elton, which both musicians wore onstage.

Lennon and Ono’s relationship resumed in February 1975, although a myth emerged that their reunion took place backstage after the concert.

The Elton John show was Lennon’s last appearance before a paying audience. Afterwards, he and May Pang attended a party at the Pierre Hotel in New York. At the time the pair were planning to buy a house in the New York suburbs, although it never happened.

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