How to Succeed at Musical Business

It’s not anything I have systematically planned, but I have been listening to mid-70s Elton John albums lately, most recently Rock of the Westies. It’s the one that came out in the fall of 1975, scant months after Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and which debuted on the Billboard 200 at #1 just like its predecessor did, back when that accomplishment meant something.

The 15-year-old me did not like Rock of the Westies as much as he liked Captain Fantastic. The over-50 me likes it just fine, thanks. It’s Elton’s hardest-rockin’ album start to finish, and a showcase for guitarist Davey Johnstone, who plays like somebody set him on fire, blazing on “Street Kids,” grumbling like a distant threat on the album-opening “Medley,” growling on “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” and wielding his axe like a whip on “Billy Bones and the White Bird.” Elton had sacked his entire band except for Davey right before going into the studio to make Rock of the Westies, which was cut in Colorado during a frantic two-month span during the summer of ’75. All things considered, it’s half a miracle that it turned out so well.

Captain Fantastic was a fabulously ornate record, busy with stuff, but Rock of the Westies manages to top it. Listen to “Island Girl.” It is not one of Elton and Bernie Taupin’s strongest songs, but it’s full of great musical business. It swirls around you like a blizzard, and it’s probably Gus Dudgeon’s greatest single accomplishment as a producer. But if Gus tiptoes up to the line separating just enough from too much on “Island Girl,” he blows right through it elsewhere. On “I Feel Like a Bullet,” one of Elton’s loveliest melodies redeems Bernie’s overwritten lyric, but the finished version gilds the lily with heaps of production. “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” (which was on the other side of the “I Feel Like a Bullet” 45, and both received airplay in the winter of 1976) has a similar problem—it rocks plenty, but would be more effective if it wasn’t slathered with quite so much Cheez-Whiz.

As it happens, we can hear what the album sounded like before the gloss was applied. There’s a bootleg called Another Rock of the Westies, which contains all nine of the original album’s songs, but with Elton’s piano and vocals only. There is quite literally nothing on the Interwebs about it beyond a bunch of links to YouTube videos. Its provenance is a mystery.

The bootleg makes it easy to hear how inconsequential “Island Girl” was before Dudgeon and the band went to work on it—and hard to be distracted from the mild racism of its lyric: “I see your teeth flash / Jamaican honey so sweet” and “Island girl, what you wanting with the white man’s world / Island girl, black boy wants you in his island world.” This problem reoccurs on “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” in which Elton slips into a cartoony Mexican accent. The album’s attitude toward women is not exactly PC, either. One part of “Medley” is called “Ugly,” about a woman who is just that: “Now hell, I don’t mind women of her kind / I’ll even pay sometimes for a woman that’s ugly.” In “Hard Luck Story,” the unhappily married singer thinks his wife might be to blame for the hard-labor life he hates and says, “Let me kiss you once with feeling / Just to kill this nagging doubt.” And there’s this: “You’re still the woman of a working man / You got the heart of a working girl.” Maybe I’m reading too much into it—it’s not the strongest lyric you’ll ever read, although it sounds great on the record—but I think he just called her a whore.

If you listen to Another Rock of the Westies in tandem with the released album, you get a fascinating glimpse of what can happen to a song between conception and completion at the hands of an artist wanting to work big, and a producer willing to help him get there. All of Another Rock of the Westies is here, and I strongly recommend it.

2 responses

  1. While I own it, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it. When my new stylus gets here I’ll have to take it out for a spin. I bought Island Girl as a 45 back in the day, so maybe there’s a chance I’ll like the album.

  2. Let’s face it, Bernie’s default stance towards women in general back then, especially the working girls, could be condescending at best and churlish at worst. Just about all of those classic EJ albums sported some dismaying lyrics in that regard. In Bernie’s defense, his marriage was floundering at about that time (it really came to a head in time for him to write the songs which ended up on Blue Moves), so I’m sure much of songs like “Hard Luck Story” (which, surprisingly, I thought were an improvement over some previous efforts in that vein) were thinly veiled shots at his significant other, which may or may not have been Elton himself in some cases…

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