In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
These days, we get a new album at #1 almost every single week. When a big-name artist releases an album and it doesn’t immediately go to #1, it’s generally regarded as an abject failure, a laughingstock. In the past year, both Nicki Minaj and DJ Khaled have gone publicly apoplectic when they failed to immediately shoot to #1, and it has probably taken every little bit of Chance The Rapper’s willpower to avoid doing the same after this past week. A few decades ago, though, nothing debuted at #1. Album release dates didn’t get the same levels of hype, and Billboard built its charts around the slow and inefficient data reports that the magazine got from independent stores. It simply wasn’t possible for an album to debut that high — at least until Elton John did it.
In May of 1975, Elton John’s autobiographical concept album Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy went straight to #1 on the album charts in its first week out. It was the first album ever to debut at #1. Five months later, Elton John pulled out that trick again, debuting at #1 with the far-inferior Rock Of The Westies. Elton John was the only person on the face of the Earth who’d had an album go straight to the top of the charts, and he’d done it twice.
That was 1975 for Elton John — the year when he basically conquered the world, when he held radio in an unbreakable death-grip. Elton began the year at #1 on the Hot 100, grabbing the top spot with a fatuous and thoroughly unnecessary cover of the Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” He ended it by playing two straight iconic shows to 110,000 people at Dodger Stadium in LA. (Dodger Stadium had banned concerts after the Beatles had played there; Elton was the first musician to play the venue in nearly a decade.) That same year, Elton singlehandedly revived the career of Neil Sedaka. And then Elton effectively replaced himself at the top of the Hot 100 — knocking off Sedaka’s “Bad Blood,” a song that featured Elton on uncredited backing vocals, with his own “Island Girl.” And he managed this feat even though “Island Girl” is a piece of shit.
Last year, when Elton John kicked off his big farewell tour, he worked “Island Girl” into the first show’s setlist. This became a news story. “Island Girl” might’ve been one of Elton’s biggest hits, but he hadn’t performed it since 1990, and for good reason. “Island Girl” is a bad song, and it’s a bad song that’s aged badly.
“Island Girl” is a song about a sex worker, a tall Jamaican woman who works a streetcorner near Times Square. Elton’s narrator is a john who wants to rescue her from her profession and maybe take her back to her homeland. She isn’t interested. Also: Elton’s narrator is presumably black? The chorus, in any case, is this: “Island girl, what you wanting with your white man’s world? / Island girl, black boy want you in his island world.”
A lot of of “Island Girl” consists of physical descriptions of this unnamed island girl: “Oh, she’s a big girl, she’s standing six foot three.” And a lot of it also describes what it’s like to have sex with this particular island girl: “Well, she’s black as coal, but she burn like a fire / And she wrap herself around you like a well-worn tire.” Look: 1975 was a different time. I know this. When you start judging old lyrics by current standards, you inevitably end up coming to the conclusion that everything has always been awful. But even by the standards of its day, this is some nasty, simplistic, absurd shit. It’s bad writing, too; the “well-worn tire” bit reminds me of Steve Carrell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, claiming that a boob feels “like a bag of sand.” (Elton John did not write those lyrics. Bernie Taupin did, and Bernie Taupin has reportedly had sex with many women. How on Earth did he end up with “well-worn tire”?)
“Island Girl” was not the only 1975 chart-topper about sex work. It came seven months after Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade.” That song also fetishized the woman of the title, right down to the tone of her skin. But “Lady Marmalade” merely presents its story as an economic transaction. “Island Girl” gets into the thorny business of a guy wanting to save the girl. And sure, that happens. “Island Girl” is fiction built on a trope. But it takes it nowhere, and both the island girl and the narrator guy end up coming off as one-dimensional nobodies. The song expresses nothing. It has no compelling reason to exist.
That wouldn’t matter too much if “Island Girl” had anything going on musically. It doesn’t. “Island Girl,” with its steel drums and its chunky beat, sounds a bit like a reggae song performed by someone who had never heard reggae. There’s a great story about the Talking Heads’ “The Overload”: The band wrote the song after reading an article about Joy Division. They’d never actually heard Joy Division; instead, they put the song together after imagining how Joy Division might sound. “Island Girl” is like that — it’s like Elton John tried to write a Bob Marley song after only having seen a picture of Bob Marley.
“Island Girl” could probably be worse than it is. Elton John songs, even at their worst, have a certain glammy drive to them, a cheesed-out cinematic grandeur. Even with its painful yelps, its ungainly rhythms, and its distracting quasi-soca flourishes, “Island Girl” has that. But that’s not enough — especially when you’re dealing with those lyrics. So maybe it’s best to ignore “Island Girl” as a song and to simply look at it as evidence of the hot streak that Elton John was on in 1975. Even on the worst kind of autopilot, Elton John could still will a deeply underwhelming single to #1. That’s power.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Action Bronson rapping about how his taste in Asics will lead your fucking spaceship to the Matrix over producer Party Supplies’ “Island Girl” sample on his 2013 mixtape track “Silverado”: