Graded on a Curve:
Elton John,
Rock of the Westies

Sit back, kids, and I’ll tell you about the baddest punk of them all. No, I’m not talking about Johnny Rotten or Richard Hell or Sid Vicious even. No, I’m talking about Captain Fantastic, The Big E—that’s right, Elton John his tough mofo self. Sure, he’s better known for such anthemic softballs as “Your Song,” “Somebody Saved My Life Tonight,” and that awful piece of treacle “Candle in the Wind.” But John is the same rock’n’roll badass who gave us “The Bitch Is Back,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock’n’Roll),” “Midnight Creeper,” and “Street Kids,” the last of which is off Sir Surly’s punkest LP of them all, 1975’s Rock of the Westies.

In a deliberate effort to be misunderstood, because every good punk wants to be misunderstood, John larded his earlier LPs with love songs, broken heart songs and the like. He threw in lots of oddball tunes as well; the great “Solar Prestige a Gammon” is made up of nonsense words, “Social Disease” is a hillbilly ode to living life as a form of human syphilis, and “Teacher I Need You” is “Hot for Teacher” years in advance. As for the great “Bennie and the Jets,” who else could have conceived of such a thing? And who but Elton John would have thought to write a song called “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” and fit it up with a bona fide tap dance solo? That right there is a real punk move for sure.

But on Rock of the Westies Elton John is feeling scurvy and ready to put the boot in. “No more Mr. Tender Genitals,” I can hear him thinking. “I’m the bitch who gets high every evening sniffing pots of glue.” And so he went and he co-wrote a bunch of evil-ass tunes and he went and he set Davey Johnstone’s guitar on stun and then he went to business, kicking out the motherfucking jams.

Not every song on Rock of the Westies is a bitch slap. But John, who was evidently in a nasty and drunken funk at the time, only offers up two of his much-renowned slow dancers. “Feed Me” is a throwaway and makes me think Elton was listening to lots of Steely Dan at the time, while the wonderful “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)” is a breakup anthem for the ages, and provides solid forensic evidence that while Bernie Taupin is no John Keats (or even Rod Stewart), he has his moments.

On a tougher note, “Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future)” is some brazen honky tonkin’ music, while both “Island Girl” (she’s six foot three and black as coal!) and “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” (which features some switchblade guitar and one great piano) will rock you all the way to Jamaica, thanks to Ray Cooper of the castanets, conga, maracas, vibraphone and I could go on but won’t. Meanwhile, “Street Kids” is as feral a cut as any John has ever written, while “Billy Bones and the White Bird” is all drum crash and tough talk, with some funky synthesizer work by James Newton-Howard tossed in.

“Hard Luck Story” is mean and lean and benefits, as did “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” from the frantic percussion work of Cooper. A great chorus, one funky bass, and great backing vocals also help. As for “Medley (Yell Help/Wednesday Night/Ugly)” it comes at you like one of Marc Bolan’s funkier contributions to Western Culture before morphing into a glittering glam confection, and from there growing as ugly and mean as its title. John practically snarls his way back to the song’s beginning, from whence the tune takes off into hyperspace with Cooper earning double pay on the congas and LaBelle providing some glorious vocals.

So forget John Lydon. Were he and Elton John Elton to meet face to face, the latter would merely laugh before pushing Lydon into the closest gutter, tearing the safety-pin from his shirt in the process. Because Elton John is the nastiest piece of work you’ll ever run across. Don’t let the outrageous eyeglasses or that “I was best friendsies with Lady Di” bullshit fool you. Reginald Dwight is a regular droog and always up for a bit of ultraviolence. And if you’re smart, you’ll stay out of his way.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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