Already the most commercially successful solo rock act since Elvis, Elton John continues to grow in popularity and there’s no end in sight. Like the greatest show-business personalities, John displays phenomenal energy, shrewd professional judgment and a strong instinct for self-preservation — gifts that should ensure him his place as the quintessential Seventies pop star for as long as he desires.
But beside the fact that Elton John is a great live entertainer, his records, while commercially essential to his career strategy, have come to seem more and more artistically inconsequential. Rock of the Westies is mostly high-energy rock & roll produced by Gus Dudgeon with characteristic gloss. Though the personnel in John’s band have changed somewhat, Dudgeon and John have altered only superficially the basic Elton John sound, which is seamlessly mechanistic. Rock merely steps up the pace and accentuates the gaudy textures of electric keyboards and synthesizers at the expense of orchestration.
As for the album’s new songs, they barely accomplish their objective of providing the latest in synthetic boogie. Though this stuff may be great live, it doesn’t hold up on record. Of the nine cuts, the most vivacious are “Yell Help,” part of a three-song “Medley,” the Jamaican-flavored hit, “Island Girl,” “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” and “Hard Luck Story.” These numbers, which take off from the basic Stones sound, also parody the Stones’ preoccupation with sex and violence so nonchalantly that the themes are devoid of sensuality, menace or psychological nuance. If John’s singing approaches Jagger’s in technical polish, it is at the expense of subtlety. Unlike Jagger, whom he imitates time and time again, John sounds completely uninvolved with his material; he just belts nonstop.
Perhaps it’s just as well, since close listening uncovers songs that seem scarcely complete. With the exception of “Island Girl,” John’s tunes are minimal. And among Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, only “Feed Me,” a song about incipient insanity, seems more than a glib, slapdash effort. And whoever bothers to listen to the lyrics of “Island Girl” might well find them racist and sexist and without the redeeming eroticism of “Brown Sugar.”
Though Rock of the Westies gives no clue to the future direction of Elton John, I’m hoping that one of these days he, Bernie Taupin and Gus Dudgeon will make the great album I’m convinced they’re capable of. At present, their only work that is likely to last is Honky Chateau and a handful of singles, most of them collected on Greatest Hits.