Sunday 28 September 2008

Elvis PRESLEY: Rock 'n' Roll

(#6: 10 November 1956, 1 week)

Track listing: Blue Suede Shoes/I Got A Sweetie (I Got A Woman)/I’m Counting On You/I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone/That’s All Right (Mama)/Money Honey/Mystery Train/I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry Over You/Tryin’ To Get To You/One-Sided Love Affair/Lawdy Miss Clawdy/Shake Rattle And Roll

Referred to by many as Rock ‘n’ Roll No 1, and although Bill Haley ensured that chronologically in this tale it was Rock ‘n’ Roll No 2 – to add to the confusion, the second UK Presley album release was entitled Rock ‘n’ Roll (No 2) and peaked at #3 in 1957 – I still think it one of the best album titles, as inspired as calling a single “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2” in 1972 (whatever your feelings about the co-creator of the latter, it was undeniably the big middle finger that “American Pie” deserved).

The real curiosity with the original 10-inch HMV issue – apart from the stark contrast between the Sunday morning pipe tobacco typography and layout of the back cover and the pink-green-monochrome-Astounding Tales-via-Mondrian-and-Weegee franticity of the front cover – lies in its sleevenote. Written by Bob Dawbarn, Melody Maker’s fifties equivalent of Simon Reynolds, it valiantly attempts to recast Presley as a “Jazz (with a capital J) phenomenon” and Dawbarn was clearly intent on not being Mr Grumpy It’s All Noise Jazz Journal Man. Still, he draws his well-meant lines – that Presley was “a little rhythm and blues, a little bit hillbilly” is, to be kind, one way of putting it – and is careful to paint him as a legitimate addition to the noble folk/blues tradition rather than as a trembling, adrenalined sex needle. Notoriously, he describes “Mystery Train” as the “kind of number popularised by British ‘skiffle’ singers,” presumably as a way of luring sceptical skiffle purists – even then oblivious of the oxymoron – into Elvis’ world; and it is a great personal regret that this tale won’t be addressing Lonnie Donegan’s Showcase album, a record whose influence on its generation of British musicians, as well as the following one, is incalculable; it sat at number two for six straight weeks over December 1956-January 1957, stuck behind the King And I behemoth.

While it shared a cover and chart-topping status with RCA’s Elvis Presley US album release, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s track listing is different, although it equally cherry picks from new tracks, mainly covers of recent rock and R&B hits, and selections from the Sun archive; as with Dawbarn’s notes, the idea was clearly to introduce Presley’s work to a wider and (it was presumed) less fickle audience in a way that wouldn’t put them off (i.e. by hinting at any notion of sexuality). We have to remember that for British audiences this would have been their first exposure to “That’s All Right” or “Mystery Train”; proof that the icy alien of “Heartbreak Hotel” didn’t just spring from nowhere, that there was a history, and rawer than anyone here might have suspected. Still, the HMV release may be its own well-meant equivalent of Steve Allen sticking Presley in a bowtie and tuxedo.

Ideas of formality are of course immediately blown out of the quiescent water by the opening fanfare of “Blue Suede Shoes.” Already we can see that Haley was only revealing, or able to reveal, part of the story; “Blue Suede Shoes” has the same double-drum shuffle beat but Presley is now taking it places Haley could never have hoped to have gone – “Let’s go, cats!” he roars prior to Scotty Moore’s first sat-on-a-wasps’-nest guitar solo; “Oh, WALK the dog!” he cries jubilantly. DJ Fontana’s snare drums are like Jud Fry with a machine gun, shooting down the polite past. “ROCK IT!” “YEAH!!” A “GO GO GO!!!” in tandem with Bill Black’s bicycling bass. Presley is his own Nietzsche, thankfully without even knowing it: “Well you can burn my house, steal my car” – what doesn’t kill him makes him stronger – though his key warning carries more amused bemusement than menace; why exactly do you want to step on my blue suede shoes? But the carefree rat-a-tat demolition ball of the track renders even this question irrelevant; he’ll go on, stepped or unstepped on.

In the UK singles chart the Elvis and Carl Perkins recordings of “Blue Suede Shoes” fought an honourable draw (Elvis’ peaked at #9, Carl’s at #10) but as perfect as Perkins’ version is, Presley takes the song’s intent and breath somewhere beyond perfect. Crucially – and this album proves it over and over – Presley had the ability to turn this raw material into pop. Consider his take on Ray Charles’ purposely blasphemous beginning of soul time “I Got A Woman” (and no, I’ve no idea where the “Sweetie” came from either since Presley doesn’t sing the word once – maybe someone was trying to attract mourning Al Jolson fans). Ray’s original was and is electric, and literally shook the temple, but Presley’s opening basso profundo “Wellll…” indicates a total confidence that is slightly scary as much as it is elevatingly liberating. Fontana is careful to step on and off the drumming gas, always simmering the song up to a climax then falling back, holding back until the final and only climax. After a fierce trading fours duel between voice and drums, and in the midst of a Sargasso sea of echo, Elvis achieves climax; his “Well, she’s my baby” is followed by a dub whirlpool of vowels which eventually stammer into formation of an “I” to reveal that “I’m her loving man” succeeded by a lion’s double purr of “She’s alright” and a “whatcha gonna do about it” abrupt declaration of “IGOTAWOMAN!” This was taking the punctum under Sinatra’s skin so deep that it might recolour the arteries of pop blood.

“I’m Counting On You” mutates the hymnbook in a subtler manner; a doo wop prayer adapted to address his Other, cyclical piano alternating with Platters staccato, intoned by a man clearly uncertain of his own faith; observe the octave-leaping small-to-capital-E gulp of “in e-Every way” and the 9.5 on the Richter scale “dawn” in “From the dawn of each day. He makes the spiritual connection explicit by twice rendering the subject of “if…knew” not quite comprehensible; is he singing “if you knew” or “if He knew”? In both cases he conceals the subject with a falsetto hiccup before coming down gently, if shakily, to land on an emphatic tremble of the title.

It has already been noted by others how keen young Elvis was for his records always to have a happy ending. So what if you step on my blue suede shoes; heck, I’m gonna live longer than you (though this turned out to be a not terribly accurate prescience; still, the symbol remained). Likewise, in “I’m Left,” which is proto-Tennessee Three boom-chicka-boom trying to cross the border into rock as politely as possible, he hiccups all over the rhythm’s cunning lope. But he’s not bothered at all by her desertion – “But now (WHOOP!) I just don’t care,” and a “She’s gone, I know not where!” rendered in the manner of a camper Keats as the rhythm continues to unwind on its self-built spindle; and then he bumps gladly down the hill with his “I’ve-a-fa-ha-ha-ha-allen (HICCUP!) for you,” snarling a terrifying, don’t-give-a-shit “FOR” in “FORgive me now” en route. Scotty, meanwhile, is busy inventing ska in the middle eight, and his main solo is so clean you could eat your dinner off his plectrum.

Then we get “That’s All Right,” the happy accident that began an avalanche, the horse not in need of a nail, a pop which Crudup could not have accessed; given the innumerable accounts on the part of British pop and rock stars of how their world was immediately altered by first exposure to “Heartbreak Hotel,” one can only guess at the additional impact this must have made to virgin ears, even if in a Lonnie-didn’t-come-from-nowhere-either sense. So light, so sure of its own destiny; she’s gone, he shrugs his shoulders and will carry on down the road regardless (“de de dee da da de de”), but note Scotty’s vibrato shaking the last virtuous apple out of the tree on Presley’s “no good” and his virtual hard-on under “hangin’ round your door.”

Side one concludes with a reading of “Money Honey,” a 1953 R&B hit for the Clyde McPhatter version of the Drifters, and while it may cause problems for those who persist in seeing things in stark black and white, Elvis’ seems to me the “blacker” version; looser, more capricious, less hangdog. The intro’s high staccato piano cleverly mimics the irritated landlord ringing Presley’s front doorbell, and in his second greatest moment of explicit personal crisis on this album Presley writhes and wriggles in a baffled you-lookin’-at-me? manner, like a prematurely skewed skate. By song’s end he’s lost his woman and looks like he might lose his roof too – underlined by Scotty’s aggressive bitonal guitar solo - but he dismisses all of this with three “huh”s and another whoop; what the hell, I’ll set up shop elsewhere, and young buttoned up Britain listened and absorbed.

Side two commences with “Mystery Train” and I’ll return to that at the end, since with the two Sun-derived exceptions this side is markedly weaker than the first; “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down” is another ballad, but Presley’s reading seems less than committed. Moore ’s solo seems to disappear logically into his own tunnel, the drums are mixed too far back at the expense of greater voice emphasis. Into the voice itself some mannerisms (as opposed to nature) are already creeping in, and the pianist appears poised to play Monk’s “Misterioso” at fadeout.

“Tryin’ To Get To You” – the other Sun track on this side - wipes it out immediately. The rhythm is far more involved and propulsive and Presley’s pronounced nobility in travelling night and day, running all the way is a significant contrast to the cheerful running away in which he has been indulging elsewhere. A decade and one ahead of Alex Chilton, he gets her letter, and his preserved nobility immediately erupts into screams: “WHEN I READ YA LOVIN’ LETTAH!” burns the song up; he squashes the “THING-I” conjunction into a dozen scrambled syllables, echoed by Scotty’s snakes and ladders guitar strikes and Fontana’s deadpan clip clop drumming. When he reaches the carnal-to-spiritual apotheosis of “TRUE – LORD ABOVE” he moves from sob to yelp to ecstasy; he compresses all his painful wandering into that “TRUE” and shifts into an R&B Frankie Laine prayer in thanks for spiritual guidance; having strayed so merrily and so far, he’s now taking it all back to the church, even if it’s the Church of Him.

That would have made a dynamic ending to the album, which otherwise peters out somewhat anticlimactically; “One-Sided Love Affair” begins like Winifred Atwell with its jolly pub piano and Presley quickly turns it into slapstick with one of his most bizarre vocal performances, resembling a distressed doo wop baritone having just eaten his lunch atop a beehive. This “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” doesn’t compare with Lloyd Price’s 1952 original or Presley’s own startling revisit in his ’68 Special but does have some good guitar/tom tom interface in the first instrumental break, and Presley’s final “Down the road I go” is accompanied by fierce snare accents as though he is being bodily kicked down that road. Still, things do pick up again for the closing “Shake Rattle And Roll” – derived from Joe Turner rather than Haley and kicking the latter’s good-natured backside down the road to cabaret nostalgia for good measure, despite a miscued intro; Presley and the group play it like prototype garage rock (it actually does sound as though recorded in a garage), but Scotty’s wildly oscillating guitar solos blast it into intractable orbit. Elvis’ own vocal lacks a certain lustre but he cringes appositely in the “over the hill, way down underneath, you make me roll my eyes and then you make me grit my teeth” sequence which Haley was too damned polite to retain.

As a proclamation of who might be the real Rock ‘n’ Roll No 1 there is a certain logic to the album concluding thusly, but predictably I am drawn back to “Mystery Train”; an astonishing record whose music consists of almost nothing save echo (the song is its own ghost). But the source of its astonishment is Presley, and the qualities which made him, at his best, surest and least afraid, beyond perfect. The song opens just as the Junior Parker original did; the train’s taking his baby away, seemingly for good (he’s on the same train but one half is sealed off from the other). In his reading Parker mournfully accepts this as generations of bluesmen had done before him; shit happens, this is reality, people die, disappear, vanish, vaporise.

The greatness of Presley’s reading – apart from the fact that he tears up the book – is that he refuses to accept reality; this by some distance is the worst crisis he has to face on Rock ‘n’ Roll, but just as he has turned from disappointment, betrayal and poverty elsewhere on the record, here he turns reality around. He doesn’t like reality so is determined to change it: “It took my baby (drop to snarl) but it never will again – no, not AGAIN…” Bridged by a Scotty solo which takes the equivocal middleground – it’s unsure whether it should be mourning or celebrating – Elvis comes back, triumphant, barely concealing his grin: “Well it’s bringing my baby, ‘cos she’s mine, all mine” with the proudest of sighs on “baby.” He has made it end happily, he’s brought life back from the dead and ends the song by streaking into the distance with his darkly exultant “Who-HOOOO-WHOOOH!!” and a dismissive laugh; he’s stared the train down and mocks its now non-existent power. On its own it would be pop Lazarus on a scale equalled only by New Order’s “Everything’s Gone Green” a quarter of a century later (and I note that both fall exactly one year on either side of Ian Curtis’ lifespan); in this company, in the midst of this music which continues to excite, exhilarate and provoke hard-ons – the record is cartoon sexy but its cartoon most assuredly beats real life forced post-war monasticism – music which can still cause me to get up and dance more than half a century after it was recorded, it assuredly pulls down the old order and rearranges pop into a far more interesting and ALIVE new order. After Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, this tale’s second real milestone.