Revisit Elton John singing ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test
The Old Grey Whistle Test remains to this day as one of the most iconic music TV shows Britain has ever produced. As famed for its presenter, Whispering Bob Harris, as it was for its esteemed guests, during the 1970s, TOGWT was the only place to get your dose of rock and roll. Elton John may have been a pop star but the show made an exemption for his greatness in 1974 and his magnificent cover of The Beatles’ song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ proved exactly why he deserved to feature on Britain’s most prestigious music show.
The music played on the show was edgier than most television channels would pursue, a factor which made it essential watching for anyone who was questioning the world or indulging in their own rebellious streak. It was for the underbelly of society, not the establishment, it was a place for rock and roll to reach the masses and the leading lights of music to grace the stage for those at home. The guest list for the show is truly astounding. As well as some behemoths of the music business, the show also blooded new talent too. While Elton may not have ticked those boxes, being a figure that wholly operated in the mainstream, he changed the face of popular music and was a true maverick.
‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ is The Beatles in their full psychedelic phase which, it’s safe to say, is a sound that Elton never quite tried to capture with his cover. Instead, he opts to turn the words of Lennon into a euphoric piano ballad delivered in a fashion that only the Rocketman could. The title of the track is about all you would need to spark theories that this song was about acid. The fact that it came equipped with some of Lennon’s most visually inspiring and kaleidoscopic lyrical imagery only added to the misconception.
Lennon, however, was always resolute in his defence that he had no idea the song’s title spelt out LSD, “I had no idea it spelt LSD,” he once commented. “This is the truth: my son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange-looking woman flying around. I said, ‘What is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and I thought, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I immediately wrote a song about it.”
It’s a track that was largely written by Lennon but also sought advice and guidance from Paul McCartney who remembered writing the song for The Beatles Anthology, saying, “I showed up at John’s house and he had a drawing Julian had done at school with the title ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ above it. Then we went up to his music room and wrote the song, swapping psychedelic suggestions as we went.”
Around the time Elton covered the track, he had sparked up a friendship with Lennon after they met in 1973 and the duo got on famously. Elton reflected on their friendship, “We got on like a house on fire and we hung out for a couple of years; I found him very kind, very funny. I don’t know why we clicked, but we did and he clicked with my band and he clicked with the people around me. And we had so much fun. I was quite intimidated by him, because I knew he was razor-sharp and could be very abrasive. But that side never came out with me — only the kind side and the funny side.”
The two collaborated together on the wonderous ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ and, even though the music they made were largely from different sonic universes, they were kindred spirits who were connected by their art. Elton’s cover of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ doesn’t attempt to mimic The Beatles, which is what makes it such a classic cover. Instead, he guides it to a new place and it’s a testament to the strength of the song that he manages to reimagine it so beautifully.