This Day in Music: Elton John’s “Rock of the Westies” reaches No.1; includes hit “Island Girl”

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On this day in 1975, Elton John’s tenth album, “Rock of the Westies” reached No.1 in the US. The album contained the song that some refer to as John’s “forgotten” hit, “Island Girl.”

It is difficult to believe that in 1975, John was releasing his tenth album. The film “Rocketman” does help some in following the performer’s discography and biography, but it would seem that he was releasing more than an album per year to reach that number of albums. Nonetheless, the 1970s were an exciting time for John. It seemed as though nearly everything he did was perfect as far as the listening public was concerned.

Perfection might not have been the goal for John’s recording and subsequent release of “Island Girl.” The song was written by John and his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin.

Narrative and style of “Island Girl” by Elton John

The popularity of “Island Girl” is proven by the song’s rise to No.1 on two different US charts, Billboard and Cashbox, and its presence in the Top 10 or Top 20 charts in other countries. “Island Girl” has been certified platinum. But the song’s success makes its lyrics even more interesting.

The lyrics tell the story of a young woman from Jamaica who is working as a prostitute. The lyrics describe the flash of her teeth in the night. Listeners are told that she is a “big girl,” tall, that is. She is more than six feet tall, six-three to be exact. John’s lyrics carefully unfold the details of the girl, her life and what the narrator wants from her with specific words that allow audiences to easily understand what the song is about. Phrases like “Where Lexington cross 47th Street,” and “turning tricks for the dudes in the big city” make it clear what kind of life the title character is leading.

But the narrator, if the accent created by the lyrics are to be believed, is also from Jamaica. He is in love with the girl, and wants to take her back to her native land. The narrator seems unable to understand why she would interact with white men the way she does.

In the song, the Island Girl never responds to the narrator. As the song continues, the narrator sounds more wistful, or exasperated, depending on a person’s perspective. At any rate, audiences can sense his longing for an answer.

The music for the song manages to create an island theme. With instruments like marimbas, conga, tambourine, several different types of guitars, drums and synthesizer, John and his ensemble craft a soundscape for the story of the Island Girl.

More than 40 years later, trying to explain why this song is considered a “forgotten” track is an exercise in speculation. The instrumentation is stellar, and full of a variety of sounds. The lyrics, though, might be considered a bit dark, and ultimately quite different from the songs that John is known for. It could also be that John does not perform the song live anymore. Or, at least not very much. Again, trying to figure out why the song bears this distinction involves speculation.

As for the other performers on the album, John contributes backing and lead vocals, and his duet partner, Kiki Dee also sings on the song. It is worth listening to “Island Girl” again to hear its depth of instrumentation and lyrical narrative/

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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