Flashback: Elton John Plays His Forgotten Number One Hit ‘Island Girl’
Elton John kicked off his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour this week with a spectacular show packed with hits from his long career. Nearly every blockbuster song from his catalog was in the set, including “The Bitch Is Back,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Your Song” and “I’m Still Standing.” But there was one big song from his Seventies heyday that didn’t make the cut. It was all over the radio in 1975 and even hit Number One on the Hot 100, knocking Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood” (featuring Elton on background vocals) off the top spot. And not only is it not in the show, Elton hasn’t played it a single time since 1990 and many people forget it ever existed in the first place.
The song in question is “Island Girl,” a reggae-infused tune that hit just as Bob Marley started scoring hits and American pop audiences became curious about Jamaican culture. (The lyrics, about a Jamaican woman “turning tricks for the dudes in the big city,” are beyond problematic by 2018 standards, but the world was a very difference place in 1975. Elton and Bernie were also on a lot of drugs back then.) It hit right at the pinnacle of Elton’s fame, at a time when even his cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and his John Lennon collaboration “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” hit Number One. Above, you can see Elton performing “Island Girl” in 1977.
Much like “Island Girl,” that Lennon tune isn’t a Number One hit that you hear much today. There were a lot of those in 1974 and 1975, including Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently,” Billy Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing,” Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby,” Olivia Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow” and Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” (We have no doubt that a commenter named something like “seventies-forever1975” will say they hear these songs every day and that we’re insane. Also, if you listen to all these songs in a row, you’ll have a good understanding as to why punk happened when it did.)
Getting back to “Island Girl,” aside from the questionable lyrics, Elton’s decision to dump it probably has as much to do with the simple fact that it’s just not that great a song. It appeared on Rock of the Westies, Elton’s first disappointing album after a long string of masterpieces. It was a rough time for the singer where he struggled to adjust to his absurd level of fame and his punishing touring and recording schedule. His drug use also reached dangerous levels. None of this was good for the music, though sales didn’t dip until 1976 when he came out as bisexual in Rolling Stone. This was when almost no high-profile entertainer was out of the closet and much of the country saw homosexuality as a perversion.
Elton’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour will keep him on the road for the next three years and all sorts of old songs might enter the set list at one point or another. It’s a very safe bet, however, that “Island Girl” will not be one of them. Some songs are best left back in the 1970s.
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