Sunday 19 August 2012

Elvis PRESLEY: Elvis' 40 Greatest

(#189: 10 September 1977, 1 week)

Track listing: My Baby Left Me/Heartbreak Hotel/Blue Suede Shoes/Hound Dog/Love Me Tender/Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do/(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear/Party/All Shook Up/Old Shep/Don’t/Hard Headed Woman/King Creole/Jailhouse Rock/A Big Hunk O’ Love/I Got Stung/One Night/(Now And Then There’s) A Fool Such As I/I Need Your Love Tonight/Stuck On You/Fever/It’s Now Or Never/Are You Lonesome Tonight?/Wooden Heart/Surrender/(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame/Wild In The Country/There's Always Me/Rock-A Hula Baby/Can’t Help Falling In Love With You/Good Luck Charm/She’s Not You/Return To Sender/You’re The Devil In Disguise/Crying In The Chapel/Guitar Man/In The Ghetto/Suspicious Minds/There Goes My Everything/Don’t Cry Daddy

(Author’s Note: The most pressing problem with this record was what to call it. Working from the original Arcade double LP, the spine says Elvis 40 Greatest Hits while all four of the yellow labels give it the ungrammatical title of “Elvis’s 40 Greatest”, but I’ve gone with the apostrophe-respecting title as featured on the sleeve itself. Perhaps the elusiveness of the title helps pinpoint Elvis as rock’s Rosebud.)

“As his third decade approaches, Presley faces the world secure in the knowledge that as far as its (sic) concerned he’ll be around for ever.”
(Mike Ledbitter (sic), from his sleevenote to Elvis’ 40 Greatest Hits)

How wrong Mike Ledbetter turned out to be, yet how right he ultimately was. You still can’t get away from him. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing just over thirty-five years ago, on Tuesday 16 August 1977, when I heard the news. I was, as was my custom of a Tuesday evening, in my bedroom, listening to Radio Luxembourg’s Top 30 countdown show, presented by Bob Stewart, who, despite his sonorous Midwest tones, actually came from Liverpool. We had already been told to stay tuned after the show for the eleven o’clock news for “some very important news.” It was about 10:15. “Way Down” had just entered the Luxembourg chart, I think at #29, and was played without comment. But I was listening to the record at, as I remember it, number five – so it may well have been after 10:30 – when my father rushed in to tell me what had happened. We adjourned to the front room, where the grave face of Reginald Bosanquet on News At Ten was reporting a “newsflash” with a recent Presley picture superimposed above him, to the left. He had died, rather ingloriously, on the toilet, of a massive heart attack, at the impossibly old-sounding age of forty-two.

Everybody knew it had been long coming, but to hear of it happening was still a shock. It shouldn’t have been; I recall at least two solemn double-page NME spreads in the preceding twelve months wondering when he was going to end, and whether he could still pull off an eleventh-hour escape. It is not as though he didn’t try – hear his extraordinary 1976 reading of “Hurt” or the first half of side two of his Moody Blue album and tell me he wasn’t making an effort – but…well, I’m convinced that right the way through to the end he would have given at least one limb to be Dean Martin in his old age, to have the ability to do nothing with regal splendour, to sit there watching old Westerns on his TV; but Martin had made, or found, his own kind of peace (out of arguably far more grievous circumstances than Presley). Colonel Parker may or may not have had anything to do with it, but I read somewhere that at the time of his death, Presley was close to broke and had to keep on performing, keep earning. That will have to remain, by necessity, speculative, but despite decades of supposed evidence to the contrary, Presley’s death was real, unavoidable.

People responded in different ways. Lester Bangs wrote that in his neighbourhood the news was met with near-total indifference. He said that if it had been Donna Summer who had died, the whole district would have gone into mourning (as things turned out, who, apart from those who lived through the times, was left to mourn for Summer when she actually did die, earlier this year?). John Lydon and Jerry Lee Lewis were scornful; Danny Baker and Tom Petty were respectful. Maybe how you, as an individual, responded to the death of Elvis marked out which side of the fence you stood behind. In the summer of 1977, that was certainly how it seemed.

After eleven o’clock, Tony Prince took over on Luxembourg; dazed, frequently in tears, just quietly playing Elvis records and reminiscing into the small hours, as long as it took him to negotiate his grief. The world stopped for a little while. Not long afterwards, it was time for me to return to school, for the start of my third year, when we were supposed to start taking this education thing seriously. There was some gentle mocking on the part of my classroom peers over Presley’s passing, and it struck me that, for nearly everyone my age (or so it seemed), Presley didn’t speak for them, or to them. It’s fair to say that the girls in my class tended to like Abba, Boney M, ELO and David Soul, whereas the boys went for Genesis, Queen, AC/DC and Rush. Elvis was somebody your parents liked. He was regarded as something of a square. I am not sure whether any of these artists came close to sniffing his shoes, never mind filling them, and in any case nor could they have done; only Presley could have unbolted the door, made the impact on life – not just on music – that he did. If the postwar generation wanted to burn, not just forget, “the war,” and not grow up as robotic replicas of their parents, Presley was the active agent who forced newness through to that society.

The record at number five that was playing when I heard the news? It was “Something Better Change” by the Stranglers, a coincidence which at the time I thought hugely apt. Lena and I watched the video again this week, filmed on a roof in a presumably now long-demolished part of old (west?) London, and we were struck by how charming the song was at root (despite “stick my fingers right up your nose” and Hugh Cornwell’s half-deranged guitar solo which now makes me think of Thurston Moore); Lena said structurally it could almost be an Abba song, a comparison helped by the uncanny resemblance of drummer Jet Black to Benny Andersson. But at the time it looked and sounded dirty, dangerous, rebellious – in other words, everything that the Elvis Presley of twenty-one years earlier had promised, and much of which is still evident throughout the first one-and-a-half sides of this collection.

Observant readers will have noticed that it took nearly a month after Presley’s death for his back catalogue to flood the album charts properly. Possibly “trickle” is a more fitting verb than “flood,” but it is true that bereaved punters rushed to the shops to buy anything that had Elvis’ name on it. In the week that 40 Greatest made number one – and it should be remembered that it was only at number one for one week – he is said to have had some twenty-seven different albums in the Top 100, a feat never bettered. This may well have been the case, but since the official published album chart at the time was only a Top 60, the deluge was not fully documented. It is salutary to note which of his back catalogue did re-enter that chart; the Moody Blue album, which was his current record, obviously did very well, but so did the easy listening collection Welcome To My World, the soundtracks from G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii and the second and third volumes of Elvis’ Golden Records (though not, significantly, Volume 1). The budget-priced The Elvis Presley Sun Collection appeared on the lists, as did Charly’s nearly identical compilation The Sun Years. Other compilations included Elvis In Demand, a fan club-inspired collection of rarities, Pictures Of Elvis, a budget-priced collection of his movie songs, and Hits Of The ‘70s.

But 40 Greatest - the third of this year’s mammoth forty-track double compilations to top the charts – did best. Possibly this was because of the legend “Including 18 No. 1 Hits” which is repeated, in varying formats and cases, thrice on the sleeve – but “Way Down” became only his seventeenth UK number one single, and the sixteenth – 1970’s “The Wonder Of You” – is not included at all. How, therefore, eighteen? The answer is: double A-sides (although curiously “His Latest Flame” is not partnered here by “Little Sister”) but both Ledbetter’s sleevenote and the strange sequencing of side four suggest that this compilation may have been in preparation for some time; of the forty tracks here, thirty-five come from before 1964 (“Crying In The Chapel,” though not released as a single until 1965, was actually recorded in 1960) and there is only one track from the seventies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this album did less than well at the time of its initial TV-advertised chart run. Charting in the summer of 1975, it pottered morosely around the lower end of the chart for several months before reluctantly peaking at #16 at the beginning of 1976. If Presley appeared less marketable in 1975 than Jim Reeves or Perry Como, then this may have been due to constantly changing chart rules (since on its original release in late 1974 it apparently sold well enough to top the charts but did not appear due to a "no TV-advertised albums" policy which was swiftly overturned), but then Presley's shares at that time were generally a listless market. The main Presley event that year was the long-awaited release of the Sun Collection; scholarly, thorough, opening a generation’s ears to where this music, this force, originally came from. The 1975 Elvis had little to offer in comparison; a good Chuck Berry cover (“Promised Land,” top ten in early spring), a forgettable rocker (“T.R.O.U.B.L.E.”) and a humdrum reading of “Green Green Grass Of Home” for Christmas. And at least two “new” Presley albums, seeping out with little art or reasoning; but it is noticeable how resistant Presley’s back catalogue has been to “good taste” – find the nearest bargain bin and wonder at how much ill-planned junk came out, frontloaded with oldies people already had five times over, with two new tracks for the gullible, and whole legions of records where the singer is plainly not really trying, or feels he needs to try. So, when he died, his fans just went out and snapped up whatever colourful postcards they could find, anything as long as it would act as both souvenir and talisman – a deity for the working classes (and do not overlook the ravine of middle class snobbery that supports the airy chimera of “good taste”).

Thus, if his passing were to be commemorated, how better than with a two-year-old TV-advertised album which was far from complete, but included most of the songs people recognised, from a time when they…felt better, about the world and about themselves? When the future was theirs to control as they wanted, before “life” crashed down on them and turned them into their parents. When Elvis stood (up) for…something. Or some thing that they’d never seen or felt before, to make them realise that “the future” was once possible.

It is easy to forget that initial impact, or simply not know it if you were too young to experience it. But the first fifteen or so tracks on 40 Greatest give a palpable idea of how it must have felt. “My Baby Left Me,” from 1956, is an unpredictable opener – but the compilers made a point of throwing in the odd curveball throughout the record – and is the record’s most immediate link to the singer’s Sun past, DJ Fontana kicking down the stable doors with his opening military tattoo, Bill Black hustling in with his jazz bass walk, Presley tackling the song at about twice the speed of Arthur Crudup, roaring “Play THIS blues, boy!” at Scotty Moore, Fontana hurling his snare like a lance at Presley’s two vocal re-entries. He is impatient, ready to kickstart the future.

“Heartbreak Hotel” is a torch song thrown on a pylon to the point of incineration and depicts a battle between respectable past and fuck-you future, Moore’s guitar fighting with Floyd Cramer’s Nat Cole piano tinkles for prominence, Presley smouldering inside like a Memphis terrorist, so torn apart by loss and anger that words become merely a hook for his glottal mumbling to hang suspended. Moore ends the song by inventing Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” and starts a whole lot of other ones.

“Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog” add to the demolishing of the past, forming perhaps the most powerful and enraged sequence of rock singles that side of the Pistols; the Jordanaires’ nice antique barbershop harmonies on “Hound Dog” get engulfed by Moore’s hysterical guitar and Fontana’s Gatling gun snare; that politesse won’t work anymore. Presley is spitting out the future; how many singers sound as furious and betrayed as he does on “Hound Dog”?

After that, his RCA work became more obviously “produced,” but the power is still vividly present. “Got A Lot O’ Livin’” demands tomorrow happen (and his “c’mon bayyyy-bee!”s already sound like Jerry Lee Lewis), and with “Teddy Bear” he fights any nascent imposed Fabian tendencies (the teen singer, not Sidney and Beatrice Webb) with nothing more than a priapic mumble (“Jussswwwoooooonnnnnabe…”). The tasteful Shearing block chords of “Party” are met by a hangdog refusal to let go of the song. Nobody can really argue with “All Shook Up” or “Jailhouse Rock” – the latter is so besotted with the notion of rebellious communal bonding that thoughts of sexuality or co-ed jails simply do not come to mind. Even the Dixieland horns which pop up briefly on “King Creole” or more fully on “Hard Headed Woman” cannot impede the sheer momentum of Presley’s force; he sings in the full knowledge that these are his times and he feels pretty good about it. “Big Hunk O’ Love,” released when he was already in the Army, more or less invents Led Zeppelin, with Presley’s eight “NO!”s answering the Jordanaires’ deep growls, askew piano and drums, a strobe-driven, near-electronic rhythm (a possible Eddie Cochran influence?) and the singer’s unmistakable Plant-inducing vocals: “But I ain’t greedy, baby/All I want is all you got!” before Fontana’s cataclysmic drums massacre the track.

And yet it has to be recognised that the reason why millions loved, mourned and still love Presley is perhaps not because of Presley the Rock Rebel. Clues can be found early on, in “Love Me Tender” and “Old Shep” – their love may more readily be based on the notion that Presley was the greatest popular balladeer his side of Sinatra. If the history of twentieth-century popular singing represents a gradually increasing closeness between singer and listener, then with each phase, each major singer became closer and, therefore, more emotional. Via Crosby’s confidential whispers through Sinatra’s tangible emotionalism, Presley’s ballad style introduces a more naked emotion; when his voice trembles, so does the listener’s heart. In a world seemingly falling to pieces, the vulnerable listener may find concomitance with the possibility that Presley himself is falling to pieces. It gives them a weird but sensible feeling of security.

So on “Love Me Tender,” on RCA’s part not just his first movie song, but also part of a longer-term plan to widen his appeal – the “folksinger” aspect prevalent throughout Rock And Roll No 2 - Presley drops to reach the listener’s ear, and the listener gets something they might not quite catch from Sinatra. Something that reminds them of ancient winds. “Old Shep” is maybe the most startling of all these early songs. Always an Elvis favourite amongst his Scottish fans – see, the King can do “sentimental” too! – this is actually quite a bleak performance, accentuated by Fontana’s rhetorical cymbals, blowing in another wind; rarely has a major performer sounded so utterly alone as Presley does when he’s standing at the back of the barn, gun aimed at the sick old dog’s head, and intones, quietly, “I’ve nowhere to run/I wish they would shoot me instead,” and suddenly he is not singing a sentimental old tale about the bond between a boy and his dog but about himself.

“Don’t,” aside from being a possible jibe at Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me” – his 1957 attempt to “do” Elvis – is a profoundly disturbing record. Presley’s pleas, if pleas they be, sound more than vaguely threatening; nowhere in the song is there any indication that this is happening with the woman’s consent. “If you think this is just a game I’m playin’,” he hisses at one point, and at another, “I will never leave you…heaven knows I won’t.” Every time he tries to touch her, she says – or screams? – “Don’t.” At the other end of side two, this scenario is revisited; on “I Need Your Love Tonight” he sings, or sneers, “You better stay/POW-POW!/Don’t run away!” On “Stuck On You” – his artistically and commercially disappointing post-Army comeback record – he chortles “Hide in the kitchen! Hide in the hall!/Ain’t gonna do you no…GOOD at all!” before he rumbles “Becoooooozzzzziiiiiimmmm…” Nowhere on this side is he ever fulfilled, romantically. On “A Fool Such As I,” he is nearly overwhelmed by the contrabass of Felton Jarvis, and the similarities to “Way Down” – same tempo, same key – cannot be over-stated. On “I Got Stung” one is struck by the records’ exponentially increasing tempi. As for “One Night,” he sings the clean lyrics dirtier than he would ever have sung the dirty ones; that is, until he got the chance on the ’68 TV Special, when quite a lot of pent-up, held-in resentment was suddenly released.

Still, the rockers were getting formulaic, so Presley – or Parker – was probably right to concentrate on ballads this side of the Army. Side three begins with “Fever”; though a grievously overrated song, Presley can still give a convincing impression of a simmering pot on the point of boiling over. Then he got his chance to be Dean Martin, but somewhat outdid him; his “It’s Now Or Never” foregrounds the vulnerability that is essential if we are to listen to his impatient demands for sex. The spoken word setting for “Lonesome Tonight” would be beyond corny in anyone else’s hands – and the theatrical analogy is rather overdone – but again Presley sings it as though he were about to shoot his pet dog in the head, followed by himself. He turns camp into actual camp by never laughing (which is why the subsequent “corpsing” live version breaks the dream). He makes you believe in trash, and thus elevates it to high art.

“Wooden Heart” is dreadful Lawrence Welk stuff, but on “Surrender” Presley is positively febrile; unlike “It’s Now Or Never,” and despite also reaching number one, this Neapolitan song variant is almost never revived, and it still sounds unsettling, Presley going from screeching bellow to pleading whimper and back within the space of one bar, desperate to have it (“And your heart’s on-a-FYAH!” “Won’t you please (he pleads, before suddenly diving to the floor of the ocean) SURRENDER TO ME?” The song is hastily faded, presumably before any further damage can be done. “His Latest Flame” is virtually courtly in comparison, but already we feel a sense that things are now happening beyond the singer’s control; he sounds peeved rather than angry or hurt that his girl has run off with his best friend. “Rock-A Hula Baby” is chiefly notable for its Adam and the Ants percussion intro and some mildly unhinged, pinging guitar work.

But this side also boasts three of his greatest ballad performances; the arrangement of “Wild In The Country” doesn’t do him any favours, but his is an extraordinary sensitive vocal, at times androgynous (and sounding like Antony Hegarty). Similarly, “There’s Always Me” is nearly undermined by bombastic Sons of the Pioneers choirs and a preposterous orchestral climax, but nothing can obscure Presley’s remarkable vocal; the song could lope from the annals of doo-wop (as “Crying In The Chapel” was derived from the Orioles’ 1953 original) but now Presley is no longer hungrily demanding love, but plaintively requesting it, and then only if all else fails or falls through – it is a song of emotional patience and Presley renders it with a justice he perhaps could not have imagined even three years previously. And “Can’t Help Falling In Love” may yet be the key to Elvis’ kingdom, where all these elements coalesce and unify, and he turns the performance into a hymn.

All of which makes the final side extremely problematic. As though having exhausted his emotional reserves, the Elvis of 1962 decided to make like any everyday pre-Beatles teen idol; all of the first four tracks on this side made number one, but they are listless and really could have been done by any Bobby or Brian of the time. By trying to appeal to everybody, he lost sight of what originally made him appeal to everyone. “Devil In Disguise,” which was lucky to scrape a single week at number one at the outset of Beatlemania in 1963, was an example of shutting the stable doors after the horse had bolted; the attempts to “rock” now sound desperate, epileptic. The success of the five-year-old “Chapel” showed up the rest of his 1965 output rather embarrassingly, and so he became as irrelevant to the world as any Brian or Bobby of their time, turning out the hack movies, living if you could consider it living, or a living.

To have just five tracks to cover this “latest” stretch seems perverse and as rushed as the last verse of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (“Moonshot! Woodstock! Watergate! Punk! Rock!”). 1968’s “Guitar Man” was not a great record, but at least showed him trying to become relevant. Then the Resurrection, the TV Special, and finally back to Vegas; but the fact remains that trying to shoehorn his entire post-Beatles output into five songs renders him the equivalent of some bobbysox star who grew his hair in 1969 and tried to be “with it.” “In The Ghetto” was as solemn and, I think, heartfelt as “Love Me Tender” – but did he really believe it? Meanwhile, “Suspicious Minds” was less a major comeback, more a shattering apocalypse; now he has no power to make his Other go or stay, he is pleading with her to believe him with the gnawing realisation that this decade didn’t turn out to be his playground the way the fifties were; all he can see on the horizon is work, work and more work, more self-mockery, more shit to block out the deepest of pains, and quite apart from a “Hey Jude” let’s-all-pull-together scenario, “Minds” is a nightmare loop from which Presley knows he can never escape; the song makes to fade but then comes back in, like the phantom he can’t shake off, the feather weighing his shoulder down at three in the morning, dreaming of the virgin Evangeline but becoming lost in the darkest of forests (is the Cure’s “A Forest” an Elvis tribute? – “The girl was never there/It’s always the same/Running towards nothing/Again and again and again and…”) and which could theoretically repeat forever until he has the courage to switch it off, or alternatively if life switches him off.

Two inconclusive tracks to conclude. This “There Goes My Everything” is from 1971 – as mentioned above, the only track here that comes from the seventies - and his voice is audibly fragmenting “SlOOOOOOOOOOOOOOwly walkin’,” as if he doesn’t give a damn that his life is ebbing away from him. And rather than “The Wonder Of You,” which would have made a far more fitting ending, and maybe even a happier one, being cheered by his audience (“You touch my hand and I’m a KING!”), we have the most desultory of endings, 1969’s soppy “Don’t Cry Daddy,” where he can’t even cope with children overriding his grief. His baby left him at the beginning, and at the end he is left with a baby. It is annoying – you mean you’ve taken us this far, just to drop us off in the middle of nowhere? – but entirely in keeping with the semi-random nature of the record; it was enough for his fans to mourn for a week, that is to say, a lifetime, before the world moved on, even though for most of his fans, the world could never really move on, or be moved the way he moved it. He’ll be around for ever, all right; if you want a monument to Elvis, look around those places many people would be reluctant to look at in the first instance.