Monday, August 31, 2009

Elvis Presley

The first LP in my house (brought home by an older brother) was "Something for Everybody" by Elvis Presley. I was 12 at the time and had just been given a record player - one of those old manual jobs that you plugged into the radio - for my birthday. The primitive nature of the equipment, by today's standards, did not diminish my enjoyment in any way. In fact I remember it as the most magical time of my life.

Though technology has moved on somewhat nothing can replace that personal feeling that came with the old vinyls. As the stylus needle slowly fell, winding its way through the record grooves the unique sound associated with each track unfolded momentarily transporting one to another world. Even the crackling from the scratches that inevitably appeared with repeated playing developed their own unique signatures. Compared to this early joy I find CDs somewhat cold and impersonal.

Though not one of Elvis' best known recordings, he was in superb form on that album displaying a supple vocal maturity that he never surpassed.

My favourite track was - and still is - Side 1, Track 1 "There's Always Me". It remains one of those hidden gems that somehow has escaped wider attention. A cover version by Dickie Rock was a huge hit in Ireland. However, the original version - though much superior - was rarely played on radio (despite the popularity of the artist). Strangely Elvis' version was released as an unpromoted single in the UK some six years later but made little or no impression on the charts.

Elvis is superbly backed on this track by Floyd Cramer and the Jordanaires. Rather than simply belting out the lyrics he gives a refined controlled performance (which is much more effective). It then builds to a glass shattering crescendo at the end greatly assisted by Cramer's keyboard skills. As an example of his ballad style this is truly superb.

Of course Elvis was a hero to a great many young lads growing up at that time. In contrast to the somewhat repressed environment then, he represented real glamour and excitement daring to flout convention (while beneath it all exuding an innate decency and even touching vulnerability).

And he really was the embodiment of how a pop star should look. When one now sees that fascinating footage of the early years (1955-56) one can readily understand what the excitement was all about. Though other stars of the time (and later) would now seem somewhat dated and square, one certainly cannot say this about Elvis. He still represents above all the personification of the true rock star serving as the inspiration for so many performers later e.g. Cliff Richard, who wanted to be "just like Elvis".

The best of Presley is largely confined to his earliest years. John Lennon has stated that Elvis died the day he went into the army. In terms of his rock contribution, I would tend to agree with this though I would qualify a little in maintaining that his ballad ability peaked in the early 60's (around the time that "Something for Everybody" was released). Though there was a brief resurgence in the late 60's, he was already well past his best. And unfortunately most of what happened in the 70's really represents a parody of what went before.

The decline of Presley the rock star largely coincided with his film career which has been largely panned. Though many of these movies (especially the later ones) are second rate doing Elvis few favours either as actor or singer there are some exceptions. For example Elvis is very good in "King Creole" (possibly because the lead character "Danny Fisher" so closely represented his own persona).

My own favourite however is "Follow that Dream" where Elvis is extremely funny and supported by good acting from the rest of the cast in a simple but very touching film.

Best Recording

I would have to choose "Heartbreak Hotel" which was his first big breakthrough single.

For me this is the definitive rock classic. It has a totally timeless quality. When I hear it it is still just like the first time where I have the urge to invite others "Listen to this"!

Indeed it is still so unique and original that no other rock number even comes close.

Why this is so is however hard to define.

What is so surprising about "Heartbreak Hotel" is that it is very dark in content. The lyrics were written in 1955 in response to a contemporary real life incident. A well dressed suicide victim was reported in Florida as having carefully removed all personal identification documents before dying, leaving the note "I walk a lonely street".

And far from playing down this dark element, the very manner of the recording acts to enhance it with the immediate vocal statement, the stark nature of the backing, the background echo and the funereal nature of the instrumental interlude. This all helps to create an appropriate tragic atmosphere with Elvis giving a raw searing vocal treatment (perhaps expressive of a hidden loneliness in his own life).

It is certainly interesting how he immediately identified strongly with this song and wanted to release it (against the inclinations of his musical bosses).

It is simultaneously rooted in both the blues and country music - giving it its true authenticity - and yet moulded by the genius of Presley into the new medium of rock music.

Because of its surprising depth it is not really suited for a live act where its content clashes with the customary extrovert mode of pop performance.

Sadly however it also serves as an epitaph to Elvis' own life. In a certain sense despite all the fame and achievement, it can be truthfully said that he actually died of loneliness.
In a strange way Elvis perhaps was already dimly aware of his ultimate fate when recording the song.