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“Rock of the Westies Tour”: Peak or Downfall of Elton John? 

In his album review “Rock of the Westies,” Rolling Stone writer Stephen Holden claims that Elton John’s album Rock of the Westies is artistically inconsequential and that at the time the album came out Elton John’s peak was either behind or ahead of him. In our blog, we will argue that the “West of the Rockies Tour,” headlined by back-to-back sellout concerts at Dodger Stadium, was the peak of John’s career and that Holden and other critics’ misdiagnoses of John’s music stems from a misunderstanding of glam rock traditions, caused in part by John’s varied musical styles and narrative voice, which confused rock critics moored to traditional rock values of authenticity and consistency. To support this, we will use chart rankings and ticket sales for Rock of the Westies, John’s own words, musical analysis to show how John deviated from traditional rock norms, and scholarship about glam rock as a genre. To add even more support, we will share the success behind John’s iconic Dodger Stadium performance and discuss the recently released Rocketman musical depicting Elton John’s life.

In Holden’s piece, he writes that Elton John’s records are about commerciality and not artistically consequential. “Though this stuff may be great live, it doesn’t hold up on record,” he writes. This statement misses the mark of what Elton John and his team were aiming at and does not provide a substantive critique of the album. For glam rockers, “holding up on record” is not the aim. An important part of their appeal comes from the theatricality of a concert and the electricity of a live performance. Philip Auslander writes in the Grove Dictionary of American Music that glam rock is more defined by its theatrical visuals than its musical characteristics.

Holden claims that the new songs on the album barely accomplish their objective but, given that it debuted on the charts at number one, and the associated “West of the Rockies Tour” consistently sold-out venues shows that the album accomplished objectives, just ones that may have been obscure to Holden. Holden’s misunderstood article reveals how glam rock ran against existing assumptions in rock circles about what a good album was. Holden, in believing he was making a substantive critique of Elton John’s music, was operating inside existing rock assumptions, namely that the music had to stand on its own and show off the talents of the musicians and singers, and that a good album had to “hold up on record.” Glam rockers rejected these assumptions, leading to a disconnect between them and the rock establishment.

Photographer: Terry O’Neill