John Lennon’s solo career was stellar but, despite the greatness and artistic acclaim that came once he went solo, one achievement would elude him for a number of years. Despite the plethora of classic songs he had released since the split of The Beatles, Lennon still didn’t have a number one single to his name but with a little help from Elton John, their duet ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ would finally change that.
Every other member of The Beatles had enjoyed the thrill of having a solo effort at the top of the charts in America by 1974 but Lennon was still waiting for his shot at solo stardom. That said, commercial success was never the motivation for Lennon who had enjoyed more success than he ever dreamt of with The Beatles, getting a solo number one looked like it was never going to happen. Despite how Lennon has been immortalised in music today, when he was alive it was a somewhat different story and his career was going through a relatively dark period during the mid-1970s. It meant when the chance came to work with a shooting star like Elton John, he simply couldn’t refuse.
Elton John and Lennon were at completely different trajectories of their respective careers when they connected for this track. Everything that The Rocketman was turning his hand to around this period resulted in gold stars from reviewers and gold discs from record companies, unlike Lennon who couldn’t buy any luck. The collaboration came about in an organic fashion and wasn’t some cynical ploy with Lennon to align himself with one of the biggest pop stars ina bid for relevancy.
John Lennon later recalled about how ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ was born, stating: “I was fiddling about one night and Elton John walked in with Tony King of Apple — you know, we’re all good friends — and the next minute Elton said, ‘Say, can I put a bit of piano on that?’ I said, ‘Sure, love it!’ He zapped in. I was amazed at his ability: I knew him, but I’d never seen him play.
“A fine musician, great piano player. I was really pleasantly surprised at the way he could get in on such a loose track and add to it and keep up with the rhythm changes — obviously, ’cause it doesn’t keep the same rhythm… And then he sang with me. We had a great time.”
Lennon was initially hesitant to see the track released as a single from his Walls & Bridges album but, after Elton pushed and pushed, he finally gave in. Elton was confident that the track was destined to be a number one single and Lennon was convinced that it was destined to flop — so much so that he agreed to a wager with the Rocketman. He agreed that he would make his return to the live stage to join Elton at Madison Square Garden if the song somehow topped the charts.
When the track finally reached the top spot, it was a moment of both elation and anxiety for Lennon who may have had his first number-one single in America but now he had regrettably agreed to play live once more. On November 28th, 1974, Lennon would perform ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ to a packed out Madison Square Garden for the first and final time.
This would mark Lennon’s final ever public performance and saw the icon also perform renditions of Beatles hits ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Taking to the stage was a nerve-wracking experience at this point but he wasn’t prepared to let down his friend, even though he’d rather have been anywhere else in the world than on the MSG stage.
Lennon later noted: “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.”
Whether the track would have got to number one without Elton John’s presence on the track is questionable and although accolades were never something that Lennon chased, this was something that he had more than earned. It seems fitting then that his number one should come with some collaboration and see his only solo triumph have a glint of partnership to it. More importantly, it led to Lennon returning to the stage for one final time, which you can watch below.
It’s not the greatest of John Lennon’s contributions to music but it certainly is one of the most noteworthy. With it, we get a taste of the music and the man who made it — a man who revelled in friendship and found comfort in creativity.