by Kevin Burton
On Thanksgiving night 1974, two of England’s best musical exports, John Lennon and Elton John appeared together in concert.
The appearance was Lennon paying off a bet of sorts.
His song “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” had just reached the top of the US Hot 100, something Lennon was certain would never happen. John played piano and organ and sang backing vocals on the record and was convinced, and told Lennon, that it would be a chart-topper.
“No, I’m out of favor here. It would be nice, but it’s not a number one,” Lennon told John, according to Ray Coleman’s biography “Lennon.”
“By 1974, Paul McCartney had scored three number one hits in the US, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had two apiece, but John Lennon was yet to top the tree,” wrote Tom Taylor in Far Out Magazine. “You’d love to say that such a vapid thing barely registered, but you know full well that egos were itching.”
The song did top the charts on Nov. 16, 1974
“When it did, Lennon made good on the wager by making a guest appearance at an Elton John concert on Thanksgiving night 1974 at Madison Square Garden,” according to SongFacts. “It turned out to be Lennon’s last live concert performance.”
“When Elton John entered the studio to assist John Lennon with ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ and wagered that they achieve that elusive number one spot, John Lennon was quick to shake hands on it,” Taylor wrote. “By the time the concert came around, Lennon walked onto the stage with a beaming smile on his face and prideful number one in his trousers.”
“This proved to be a seismic night in more ways than one for Lennon, as the Thanksgiving show also marked the end of his ‘Lost Weekend’ period whereby he endured an 18-month separation from Yoko Ono.
“During the highs and lows of this period, Lennon took to watching TV in an almost William S. Burroughs-like word cutting fashion as he flicked through the stations at a rapid pace extracting little segments,” Taylor wrote.
“His personal assistant, May Pang, told the Radio Times that this is how the track initially came about. “At night he [John Lennon] loved to channel-surf, and he would pick up phrases from all the shows,” she recalled. “One time, he was watching Reverend Ike, a famous black evangelist, who was saying, ‘Let me tell you guys, it doesn’t matter, it’s whatever gets you through the night.’ John loved it and said, ‘I’ve got to write it down or I’ll forget it.’ He always kept a pad and pen by the bed. That was the beginning of ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’.”
“With this, the song represents a befitting moment of reconciliation and a celebration of friendship,” Taylor wrote. “As Lennon would recall of Elton John’s involvement: “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,” Lennon said, adding: “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.”
During that Thanksgiving concert, the two music giants sang “Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds,” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” a song mostly written by McCartney that John called “one of the best songs ever written,” according to SongFacts, as well as Lennon’s new hit.
“This very upbeat John Lennon song has a simple message: do what works for you,” wrote SongFacts. “Structurally this is a rather unusual song: it’s really all chorus, separated by blasts of saxophone. Lennon alters the lines a bit in the various sections though. “
“Whatever gets you through the night.
“Whatever gets you through your life”
“Whatever gets you to the light.”
“Don’t need a sword to cut through flowers”
“Don’t need a watch to waste your time.”
“Don’t need a gun to blow your mind.”
“These little lyrical alterations keep the song from sounding repetitive even without verses,” SongFacts wrote.
Bobby Keys who appears on many rolling Stones recordings, played tenor saxophone on this track. Ken Archer played the clavinet.
“This sense of fun returning to performing is what made the song soar, and although it might not be as much of a zenith in terms of quality as it was commercially, it certainly offered up a depth of contentment for Lennon after a long lost weekend,” Taylor wrote.