That Time Elton John Tapered His Ambitions on ‘Rock of the Westies’
Rock of the Westies is not Elton John's best album of the '70s; it’s not even the best album he released in 1975. It’s not a concept album or a sprawling double-disc release, like that same year's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
And maybe that’s where its charm lies. After record sleeves featuring elaborate illustrations of the John in full superhero garb and stepping away into Oz, Rock of the Westies offers only Elton, smiling, in a baseball cap. A cover like that seems to say, “Time to get back to garden-variety rock records, world. Let’s do this.”
Rock of the Westies is an album devoid of ambition, closer to the feel of a Honky Chateau, but without that album’s backflips through various stylistic exercises. There’s almost a roots-rock feel to some of the tracks, reflecting the studio where the record was primarily recorded, Caribou Ranch in the Rocky Mountains. (That's also where the Caribou album was recorded, and got its name.)
After years of increasingly elaborate pop productions that emulated his idols even as they charted new ground, John entered Caribou Ranch in 1975 with new players in the mix, including keyboardist James Newton Howard and bassist Kenny Passarelli, alongside stalwarts such as guitarist Davey Johnstone and percussionist Ray Cooper.
The goal seemed to be a fresh approach, and if the results don’t reach the lofty heights of Elton John’s amazing run in the first half of the '70s, the record still delivers a few gems.
Lyricist Bernie Taupin returns to the old west setting of Tumbleweed Connection for “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford),” which John interpreted as a yearning ballad. The opening track, “Medley (Yell Help/Wednesday Night/Ugly),” weaves together three disparate tunes in the style of side two on the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Overall, it’s more of a guitar-driven effort than a piano one, with John’s keys providing accent and flourish while Johnstone’s axe takes the lead, as on “Street Kids” and “Billy Bones and the White Bird.”
Rock of the Westies delivered a hit single for Elton John in the U.S., “Island Girl,” and the double-A side of “Bullet” and “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” hit No. 14. Prior to the record’s release, John had lobbied for the album cut “Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future)” as the debut single, but was overruled. Elton would be back in the studio again within six months, beginning work on his next double album, Blue Moves.
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