Elton John and John Lennon forged an inseparable friendship in the 1970s. Likened by John to a “whirlwind romance”, Lennon asked Elton to be the godfather to his son Sean, and the two would collaborate on Lennon’s only solo number one in the US, ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’. Although the two saw less of each other as the ’70s wore on, the bond that the two had made them as close as friends could be.
While recording ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’, Lennon was pessimistic at the song’s chances of success. It was less serious than some of his more acclaimed solo work, and he believed it would represent yet another chart miss. Elton disagreed, proclaiming the song a guaranteed chart-topper. The highest Lennon had reached up to this point was number three (with both ‘Instant Karma!’ and ‘Imagine’), and was so sure of its future run that he made a bet with John: if it reached number one, Lennon would appear on stage with Elton.
Elton, of course, was right, and when ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974, it was only two weeks before Elton was set to appear at Madison Square Garden in Lennon’s new home town, New York City. Lennon was a man of his word and appeared at The Garden to sing with Elton John, but due to his absence from the stage for a number of years, Lennon was understandably nervous.
“I don’t think he’d played since the Peace Concert in Toronto, to be honest with you, and certainly not in New York, I don’t think, since the Beatles,” Elton John explains in the BBC Radio documentary John Lennon at 80. “He was terrified. I can tell you that he was physically sick before the show – absolutely physically sick.”
“When he came onstage he was fine, because [of] the recaption that he got. I’ve never heard a noise, a roar like it. We all get goosebumps thinking about it. A lot of us cried and there were tears running down our faces, because here was one of the four people that were the biggest band ever.”
A few years after, Lennon recalled it more stoically since he prepared by seeing John play a concert in Boston. “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.”
Still, there’s evidence that Lennon was feeling ill, and that evidence comes from Lennon himself. During the actual show, right before Lennon’s final performance of ‘Saw Her Standing There’, Lennon told the audience, “We tried to think of a number to finish off with so I can get out of here and be sick.”