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BACKSTAGE: In Chinese Hands
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Elton’s next conquest: China
12 May 2002 @ 0:40

By George Matlock

If the media are to be believed, or rather if the media believe too well what they reported earlier in the year, Elton John could be about to retire at the end of the year. After saying he was through with album recording, the media reckon Elton will hang up his Pinball Wizzard platform shoes.

We don’t subscribe to that point of view. However, if there is a place on the planet he should enquire, a place which is a bastion of ignorance about Elton, a place hungry for all things western civilization, a place representing one-sixth of the entire EltonJohnWorld’s population, it must be the good people of vast China.

In February, I was able to sample the work to be done to infuse an Elton fandom out there. On a fact-finding mission, I was amazed, when I asked a 28-year Beijing girl had she heard of Elton: “Elton who?”. I went on: “Er, the one who sang at Diana’s funeral.” The reply: “Ah yes, we know of her, it was terribly sad. Yes, someone played the piano but we didn’t get live coverage of the funeral, it was only highlights.”

Well, I quipped: “Some highlights!”

Could I be imagining it? People who have never heard of Elton nor his songs? I had met and befriended a lady whose name in English translates into Spring Crystal. My visit to communist China took place during their extended public holiday, a 12-day mammoth Spring Festival for the Chinese New Year.

Ok, she was not totally representative of the locals – a number of her contemporaries had heard of Elton. But this was still significant. Having been an Elton fan for decades, I was confronted for the first time in my life with a truly amazing discovery.

All told, Elton has neglected China. He may have been the first western pop star to perform in Moscow and Leningrad in May 1979, and that same month, about May 1 to be precise, Elton also became the first western rocker to perform in Israel.

But, apart from a brief appearance at the Great Wall of China with the Watford Football team in 1984, Elton has never performed on the mainland of China.

About 1.2 billion people have yet to hear the tones of fine classical piano, thumping rock and roll, and soothing ballads (which are a local staple of musical interest). Give them the Sad Songs and be sure the locals will lap it up!

BACKSTAGEInChineseHandsChina is a fascinating place. I asked for a silk Ming jacket to be made for me in a tailors. Well, when we went to find it, the place had been turned to rubble. A new tower block was to be hoisted into its space. I was told the tailors was here only three months ago. Well, that is typical of the pace with which the Peoples’ Republic of China is awakening from 50 years of socialism and embracing capitalism.

There is no shortage of people interested to fill auditorums, and some plush places for artists to perform a gig.

One of the more amusing events of my stay in China was this little find. It is Songs from the West Coast. And herein lies perhaps the main obstacle to Elton and other artists tied to major record labels like Universal from performing in China. The recording is easily a pirate copy. The packaging was unconventional, but check out the title of the album. If it said Coastal, at least that would be spelled right. But no, it says Coastl – simply not a word in the English dictionary!

But then, I made use of the Johns, I mean washroom, in the Beijing Summer Palace grounds, and there found a sign which read: “Disabled for the Disabled”. Does that mean it is trashed?

Many record labels refuse to let their artists perform in China because the authorities are believed not to take seriously the issue of bootlegs and pirate CDs. China’s black economy is believed to produce an illiegal stock worth upwards of £1 billion a year.

While it is uncertain what Elton’s view is about performing in China, he doubtless would not deny a hungry audience. After all, Elton is an artist and thrives on adulation from audiences.

So, assuming it is the record company holding him back, things may be about to change.

China became a member of the World Trade Organisation early in 2002, after a 15-year campaign to earn commercial respect as something more than an easy location for cheap labour production. And with WTO status, China must now prove itself adept at dealing with dark practices such as commercial piracy.

If China is able to thwart the pirate trade, countering organised crime rather than bedsit type operations, it will make the possibility of artists such as Elton performing to a massive market of the 21st century. Let’s hope the great people of China get to see Elton before he really does retire!

Talking of the album Songs from the West Coast, member and gem squirrel Cheryl Herman has just earned another Elton Gem for this contribution. Cheryl writes: “Oh, it’s carnival night. Original Sin begins with a carnival reference. But there is a real-life connection. Chippenham, an old Wiltshire market town between Bristol and Roman city of Bath in England, holds a carnival forever short of funds. In 1995, the organiser had a bright idea. Mr Savage wrote to as many big names as he could think of, asking them to contribute to an auction benefitting the festival.

“Few replied. But Elton did. With an autographed photograph from album The One and a short note. He and the HM Queen Mother were two who contributed to its success – it netted £20,000 for good causes.”

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