Elvis would have been 75 years old today. He was not just a singer. He was a game-changer; a living, breathing icon of the 20th century. Guest writer Geoff Moore explores the two poles of Elvis Presley, that of the R&B and country aficionado who burned it up on vinyl and on TV, as well as the merchandising industry he has become,a brand as kitschy as you please. Of course, there are plenty of juicy gray areas in between …
Elvis has been dead, or wandering anonymously through small, middle American towns scarfing doughnuts or living in outer space with the assistance of NASA, since 1977. January 8, 2010 is the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth. If you did not know that, you will soon enough. The former Mrs. Presley, Priscilla, has her finger on the pulse of the marketing arm of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) and it will be flexing its meaty bicep shortly, perhaps while decanting a delightful Elvis 75 Merlot.
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is an industry now (Nasdaq ticker symbol CKXE), one based solely on the exploits and the existence of a single individual. An industry with a finite supply of decent, authentic product suffocating beneath an avalanche of kitsch and crapola. This is a business model that any sane banker would shred after reading, but there it is – pop culture’s first punch line is worth millions.
You can be sure that the minions of the recently deceased, self-dubbed, King of Pop, that delusional usurper, a spawn of MTV and a lamb to Internet slaughter, have taken notes. And you fear that similar cult of personality empires, Oprah’s and Martha Stewart’s for example, may best the Third Reich and actually exist for a thousand years.
But, you know what? A jukebox-shaped, lacquered, ’68 Comeback Special clock looks pretty cool hanging inside the garage by the door, provided you get the irony; provided you understand that all this junk, the commemorative album cover bathroom tiles, the McFarlane figurines, the wines, the shot glasses, the Pez dispensers, the tins of Valentine chocolates, the dashboard ornaments and the Christmas decorations comprise what might be pop culture’s first postmodern joke.
Lest we forget, beneath this heap of crud stickered with ‘official merchandise’ foil holograms there remains a strange, country cat with a cosmic voice: “I don’t sing like nobody.” He was prettier than most girls his age and he shook like a burlesque queen; television was in its infancy crying to be fed and the first wave of the baby boom was old enough to buy records. Circumstances colluded to forge the first of America’s 20th century pop culture avatars and their anointed sovereign.
RCA Victor’s Elvis Presley and Elvis both released in 1956 as long players may have established the music industry’s preferred format for selling rock ‘n’ roll to young people, a format which was to last some 30 years. Add From Elvis in Memphis (1969), recorded following the magical high of the ’68 Comeback Special, and there, arguably, is Elvis’s essential vinyl (don’t forget On Stage February 1970 as a classic post-60s live document – ed.) if you are comparing his album output to the must-haves in the catalogues of the greats who shadowed the pathfinder: Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen… Elvis distilled to just three LPs? A woefully inadequate measure, because the King cannot be held to the same johnny-come-lately standards as the jester, the princes and the prophet.
First, foremost and above all, there are the earthquaking Sun sides recorded in Sam Phillips’s Memphis studio by a blonde truck driver. Glorious and primitive (and revisited with such obvious affection during the black leather performance portion of the ’68 Comeback Special), these songs – ‘Mystery Train,’ ‘Baby, Let’s Play House,’ ‘That’s All Right,’ ‘Trying to Get to You’ et al – are the very essence of Elvis, his core of greatness: “Hold it, fellas, let’s get real, real gone.”
His years in the wilderness of the Hollywood studio system make you wish he was managed by a cannier con man than Colonel Tom Parker, someone like Andrew Loog Oldham, maybe? Alas, what is done is done. Two Leiber-Stoller songs stand out among the soundtrack fodder, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ naturally and ‘Trouble,’ their brilliant send up of boastful 12-bar blues from King Creole (‘If you’re looking for trouble, look right in my face!’).
There are many more movie gems to be mined and heard, but like the diminishing returns of his 70s live and half-hearted studio album output (with their grotesquely unhip and uniformly cheesy cover art), you need to work at it a little bit. There are worse things to dig through. And many, many worse things to dig.
Elvis: rocker, soul man, crooner, country singer and gospel shouter is best explored and experienced on a song by song basis. He was the ultimate singles artist, and as such, is uniquely poised to be rediscovered and appreciated once again in this ADD age of iPod shuffles and YouTube shorts. Perhaps the EPE generated hype surrounding the upcoming 75th anniversary of his birth will create a modest convergence of music and media, of old and new, of analog and digital, introducing the King to an entirely new generation of listeners; renewing the focus on his music and reminding all of us that the branded schlock available on the toy and home decor aisles in Wal-Mart was never ever what Elvis Presley was all about.
Geoff Moore is a writer who lives in Calgary, and who I’m sure has a collection white, sequined jumpsuits in his closet.