[Review] Elton John: Rock of the Westies (1975)

A blast featuring some past members, new faces and his hardest-rocking set yet.

Kronomyth 12: Mountain John.

True to its title, Rock of the Westies rocks. I mean a lot. Like, some of these songs could have passed for Queen which, now that I think of it, well, nevermind. This is one of my favorite Elton John albums because of the material, the musical range (two guitarists + a second keyboard player!) and the boogaloo party atmosphere of the arrangements (think of the recent albums from John Lennon and Ringo Starr). Goodbye Yellow Brick Road had more stuff on it, Captain Fantastic told a story (sort of), but pound for pound this album is probably the weightiest rock Elton has ever dropped.

Elton had noticeably re-tooled the band before making this album. The rhythm section of Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson were out, replaced by Roger Pope (who had played with Elton during the Madman Across the Water sessions) and Kenny Passarelli (ex-Barnstorm), plus second guitarist Caleb Quaye (another Madman alumnus) and future film composer James Newton-Howard on electronic keyboards and synthesizers. The extra players have an immediate impact on the group’s sound. Music comes at you from every direction in a playful way that must have created a lot of extra work for the post-production team.

Rock of the Westies gets off to a remarkably strong start with the opening Medley (it’s silly but a ton of fun), Dan Dare (a funky update on “Take Me to the Pilot”), Island Girl and Grow Some Funk of Your Own. The last song in particular sounds like a lost Queen raver, and “Island Girl” is just one of the catchiest things he’s ever written (although he’d probably catch heat for it today). The rest of the record is at least up to the standards of his last album and head and shoulders above Caribou. Feed Me could pass for a Steely Dan song (high praise in these parts), I Feel Like a Bullet checks off the ballad box, Hard Luck Story taps into the Rolling Stones, Street Kids just flat-out rocks. The closing Billy Bones and the White Bird, with its nods to Bo Diddley and The Beatles, ends the voyage on an epic note.

While I might stop short of calling this my all-time favorite Elton John album, it is the last album from him that I truly enjoyed. Blue Moves bored me, A Single Man had a few good ideas but felt uninspired. After that, the deluge of disco and MOR pop music. Truly, the peak of Elton John was behind us. Then again, don’t mountains naturally create a valley?

Original elpee version

A1. Medley (Yell Help/Wednesday Night/Ugly) (Elton John/Bernie Taupin/Davey Johnstone) (6:30)
A2. Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future) (3:25)
A3. Island Girl (3:45)
A4. Grow Some Funk of Your Own (4:45)
A5. I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford) (5:30)
B1. Street Kids (6:30)
B2. Hard Luck Story (Ann Orson/Carte Blanche*) (5:05)
B3. Feed Me (4:00)
B4. Billy Bones and the White Bird (4:25)

All songs written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin unless noted. (*Pseudonyms for Elton and Bernie, respectively.)

CD reissue bonus tracks
10. Planes (4:31)
11. Sugar on the Floor (4:31)

Original 8-track version
A1. Medley (Yell Help, Wednesday Night, Ugly)
A2. Grow Some Funk of Your Own
B1. Hard Luck Story
B2. Feed Me
B3. Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future) (part 1)
C1. Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future) (conclusion)
C2. I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford)
C3. Island Girl
D1. Street Kids
D2. Billy Bones and the White Bird

The Players

Elton John (piano, vocal), Ray Cooper (tambourine, cowbell, jawbone, congas, marimba, castanets, bell-tree, vibes, shaker, windchimes, kettle drums, maraccas), Davey Johnstone (electric guitar, Ovation guitar, slide electric guitar, banjo, voice bag, backing vocals), James Newton-Howard (clavinets, Arp synthesizer, Elka synthesizer, harpsichord, mellotron, electric piano), Kenny Passarelli (bass, backing vocals), Roger Pope (drums), Caleb Quaye (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, backing vocals) with Kiki Dee (backing vocals), Clive Franks (backing vocals on B3), Labelle (backing vocals on A1), Ann Orson (backing vocals). Produced by Gus Dudgeon; engineered by Jeff Guercio; remixed by Phil Dunne, Gus Dudgeon and Nick Bradford.

The Pictures

Art direction by David Larkham. Photography by Terry O’Neill. Design by David Larkham & Friends.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, cassette and 8-track in October 1975 in the UK and the Netherlands (DJM, DJLPH 464), the US (MCA, MCA/MCAC/MCAT 2163), Australia (Festival, L-35,676), India (EMI, DJLPH.464) and Mexico (Musart, EDI-60216) with picture innersleeve and lyrics insert. Reached #5 on the UK charts and #1 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in the US (MCA, MCA/MCAC-621).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in 1987 in the US (MCA, MCAD-31001) [made in Japan].
  3. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc in 1996 in the US (Rocket, 532 432-2) with 2 bonus tracks.
  4. Re-released on remastered high-definition compact disc in 2012 in the US (Audio Fidelity, AFZ 149).

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