Sweet Dreams & Flying Machines

Sweet Dreams & Flying Machines

The year was 1973, and from memory, the smuggling onboard the legendary 'Starship' of Stevie Wonder was to celebrate Elton John's 26th birthday on November 12th (in fact the concert seems to have taken place on March 25th... but I guess every Queen deserves two birthdays).

Despite rock and roll mythology, the scene onboard on the louche airliner may not quite have resembled the Roman orgy depicted in Wolf of Wall Street — but Linda Lovelace’s Deep Throat was certainly enjoying an extremely early pharyngal flexing on the in-flight cinema.

The stunt had been hatched by top industry PR — LA-based Sharon Lawrence, who was representing Elton at the time, and knew Stevie. Like the recent English weather, Sharon never dipped far beneath the high watermark, and two years earlier — anticipating that guitarist Jesse Ed Davis would need to be drafted in to understudy a seriously ailing Eric Clapton in The Concert For Bangladesh — she set up a typically impromptu Sunday brunch interview for me with Taj Mahal’s sideman, mitigating his nerves by choosing a location overlooking the ocean in Marina Del Rey. That’s the kind of person Sharon was.

Now she was looking at ways of surprising the Browndirt Cowboy on the short flight from New York to Boston (where EJ was due to play the TD Garden), but quite how she managed to get Wonder to smuggle his Hammond C3 organ or Fender Rhodes or whatever the hell it was on at the rear without anyone noticing seemed little short of miraculous. (In fact, Wikipedia records that an electronic organ had been built into the bar of Starship... so maybe he was simply using the house keys!)

The miracle was compounded by the fact that Wonder had not been seen in pub- lic since a car accident in North Carolina some weeks earlier, which had almost decapitated him.

At the Boston gig itself, Elton decided to spring Stevie Wonder on the surprised audience, and the two duetted — respectively on piano and electric keyboard — as they ripped through Honky-Tonk Woman and Superstition.

Explaining the stunt, Elton told The Boston Globe, “I was in the plane in New York this afternoon and one of the guys came up to me. ‘We’ve got a cocktail organist I want you to meet back here,’ he said. I wasn’t really interested in meeting him but I was finally persuaded. It was really a trip finding [Stevie] seated at the organ.”

Gruen records that he struck up the opening chords of Crocodile Rock before Elton realised ... but I’m not so sure.

Such was the churn in the industry at thetime that I now found myself being invited back, this time to LA, courtesy of Rocket Records’ London-based PR guru, Caroline Boucher, finding myself in the company of Bryan Forbes (and wife Nanette Newman), who was there to film the show.

Forbes had started work on the ITV documentary, Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye Norma Jean and Other Things, the year before, which chronicled the life of the young Elton John and Bernie Taupin — and footage of the Hollywood Bowl concert was to be included.

But more memorable was the fact that the gig was also carefully timed to coincide with the opening of the new Roxy Theatre by Lou Adler, co-founder of A&M Records, Elmer Valentine, and other members of LA’s rock royalty.

Adler greeted VIP guests with his girlfriend at the time, Britt Eklund, as Elton’s retinue (and a number of randoms) sashayed in after the show to help launch a venue that finally provided an LA alternative to Doug Weston’s Troubadour. A vanity project? Hardly, since it has stood the test of time to this day.

My trusty flaming Ferrari-red Olivetti bucket portable typewriter — the iPad of its day — was soon pressed into action. Arriving back in London with an overnight deadline, I remember peeling off the 2,500 words as a stream of consciousness project, in a fuel-injected pill-popping marathon... all I really had to do was guide the words onto the page, through the carbon ‘black’.

But shortly before crashing, I remembered that the editor of Sounds’ sister publication, Popswop — a Jackie-like poster-based mag aimed at a 9-13-year-old readership — had commissioned an 800-word report for them.

Should have been a walk in the park. But trying to buffer my maxed-out brain against the onset of narcosis — a brain addled by a cocktail of fatigue, Rebel Yell, and the in- flight bar — and morph it into a pre-teen demographic world, was nigh on impossible.

Sitting down in a United Airlines executive lounge at Newark Airport in January 2014 to reprise this story, it seemed fitting that this had been the very airline responsible for it all. Sadly, the drab Boeing 757 single-aisle jet that would shortly transport me back from Newark to Heathrow bore none of that same swagger.

And when I’m asked the inevitable question ...Concorde or Starship?... the answer is the same every time.