Sunday, 8 January 2012

Happy birthday Elvis

Elvis would have been 77 today. As he only lived to be 42 we were spared that 1986 album, produced by Bob Clearmountain and wrecked by gated reverb; also his ill-advised cover of With Or Without You; and of course his late 90s Rick Rubin album, with Elvis sounding lethargic, barely awake, as he is cattle-prodded through All Apologies. Sadly we also missed his recording of Feels Like I'm In Love (written for him by Mungo Jerry's Ray Dorset, and later a no.1 for Kelly Marie. Sound unlikely? Imagine it in the style of Burning Love).

We are reduced to imagining what might have happened as his real life story has been combed over incessantly for the last 35 years. Elvis has been treasured and traduced in equal measure - the ever-expanding library now stretches from Peter Guralnick's two exhaustive volumes, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, to the film Schmelvis: In Search of the King's Jewish Roots and re-prints of his cookbook.

 Finding new material to celebrate rock's all-time golden boy is tough. A few years back the 1968 Comeback Special was given the triple DVD treatment - you want to see (or, at least, hear) Elvis split his pants doing a karate workout? You got it. Along with half a dozen takes of If I Can Dream (mesmerising) and Darlene Love shaking a tambourine for 20 minutes (less so). 

Astonishingly, however, it is still possible to find hidden nuggets in his back catalogue. Elvis's career of mighty peaks and dramatic troughs means a lot of fine recordings have been almost forgotten.

 Here are a bunch of songs which oldies stations tend to skip that capture his voice, humour, plentitude and pathos.

 Some of them you may well now, but if any of them aren't familiar you're in for a treat. Happy birthday Elvis.

Blue Moon (1954)
Recorded for Sun but unreleased for a couple of years, this is one of the eeriest recordings to ever reach the UK Top 10. A muted, clip-clop backing, rather like a Radiophonic Workshop evocation of sepia Americana, is a bed for echo-drenched Elvis to toy with Rodgers and Hart's classic. He sets the sad mood - "Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own" - and then repeats the line, abandoning the happy denouement and replacing it with a ghostly wordless falsetto. Right at the start of his career, he already sounds like a spectre returning to haunt America's pop culture party.

Lonesome Cowboy (1957)
The first of several Elvis recordings with "lonesome" in the title. From the film Loving You, here was a real indicator of how far he was willing to deviate from straight R&R. Who is this channeling? Mario Lanza? Hank Williams? Frankie Laine? Revisiting the ghostly atmosphere of Blue Moon, this oddity was dwarfed by the other songs on the Loving You soundtrack (the title track, Mean Woman Blues, Teddy Bear) but deserves a moment in the high noon sun.

Doin' the Best I Can (1961)
A commercial monster after the so-so success of Elvis is Back!, GI Blues is sometimes seen as the beginning of the end. Yet there are some excellent songs on the soundtrack: Pocketful of Rainbows' unfettered joy, the driving rocker Shoppin' Around, and this Pomus/Shuman ballad of infinite sadness, the cuckolded Elvis singing "You know I was the kind who'd run anytime you called/ I guess I was the only one who didn't mind at all." The Japanese had the good taste to extract it from the score as a 45 - we got Wooden Heart instead.

That's Someone You Never Forget (1962)
A rare co-write for Elvis on this spooked love song that sounds a lot like a eulogy - possibly to his mother. It was included on the Pot Luck album which had artwork that looked like a thrown-together hack-job but included the considerable Suspicion, the wedding-bell weepie Something Blue, and the only song the King wrote on his own, a Begin the Beguine knock-off called You'll Be Gone.

Tender Feeling (1964)
"I'd like to make one good film before I leave. I know this town's laughing at me." - Elvis to co-star Marilyn Mason on the set of The Trouble With Girls

By now the films were getting sillier, more slapdash and more frequent (three in '64 alone), and the music sounded flatter as if there was some essence missing from the recording process - like soul. Most of his soundtrack albums featured one exception to the rule. Tender Feeling (from Kissin' Cousins, with Elvis in a bloody awful blonde wig) is picture postcard pretty, with a lovely celeste motif; singing high, Elvis wrings all he can from this early sixties rock-a-ballad. Part of his greatness was that he always had the ability to make a song seem better than it was.

It Hurts Me (1964)
A lyric dripping with unrequited love, scorn and indignation gave Elvis something to get his teeth into, and he turned in a towering, angry performance that presaged his late-Sixties rebirth. Unsurprisingly, then, he revived It Hurts Me for the 1968 TV special - apart from hardcore fans, most had missed it first time around as the B-side of the daffy title song from Kissin' Cousins.

Animal Instinct (1966) 
Flirtatious flute, a bottomless bass riff, and the session drummer Ken Buttrey's fancy fills make this a potential club hit (Martin Green has been known to give it a whirl). Elvis is a panther in Valentino garb in this highlight from the Harem Scarem score. He often walked out of the Hollywood sessions, disgusted at the material chosen on his behalf (I like Do Not Disturb more than he did, but it's hard to question his commitment given real dreck like Yoga is as Yoga Does or Old Macdonald). With a cheeky number like Animal Instinct, Elvis at least sounded energised - I'd like to think he was even having fun.

Please Don't Stop Loving Me (1966)
The closest he got to a deep soul record, originally on the Frankie and Johnny soundtrack, this has all the hallmarks: funereal pace, subtle Steve Cropper like guitar inflections, the feeling it could burst out of its skin with emotion at any given moment. Like 1962's Suspicion, this is sensuous and paranoiac, and the vocal is a faultless exercise in restraint.

Down in the Alley (1966)
While recording the How Great Thou Art album, Elvis cut loose with this secular screamer, first recorded by the Clovers in the 1950s. Starting with a nutso "changity changity" vocal hook, Down in the Alley features metallic guitar, shrill organ, honking sax and wailing harp. Lascivious is the word. It's loud and rude enough to have been a substantial hit, but RCA sat on it for two years before tacking it on to the Clambake soundtrack.

Tomorrow is a Long Time (1966)
Recorded at the same session, this Dylan cover met a similar sad fate when it could have single-handedly changed the public's perception of mid-Sixties Presley.

 Sparse and lonesome ("I can't remember the sound of my own name"), it features a beautiful fade with the fugitive Elvis humming to himself as he walks off into the sunset. Dylan rated it the best adaptation of any of his songs.

Edge of Reality (1969)
From Live a Little, Love a Little, a film that was also home to A Little Less Conversation, Edge of Reality's claim to fame is that it soundtracked a psychedelic dream sequence, not an everyday happening in Elvis movies. Dark and wordy, black and brooding, the brass bruises the singer as he hears "strange voices echo, laughing with mockery".

I'm Leavin' (1971)
The 1970s were clogged with self-pitying ballads - blame Elvis and Priscilla's separation. This forgotten single, a UK no.23 in a year in which he scored five Top 10 hits, is something else: intense and wholly despairing, Elvis is perfectly balanced with the subtle orchestration as he breaks into the chorus ("tried so hard, so hard, and I just can't take it"), ending it with the title sung in a fragile falsetto.

If I Get Home on Christmas Day (1971)
Elvis's second Christmas album is usually dismissed, apart from lip service paid to the endless blues chugger Merry Christmas Baby. Much more in keeping with the magic of Yuletide is this bittersweet song written by the British hit machine Tony Macaulay (Build Me Up Buttercup, Don't Give Up On Us, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes). You can picture Elvis as the Wichita Lineman in deep December, presents in the back his truck as he ploughs home through snow storms. With the feeling he injects into it, and the choir of angels at the climax, you know he'll make it back by dawn.

Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues (1974)
"I'm not a kid at 33" - the retired playboy's admission of his own mortality. This wistful, country piece was as good as it got with late period Elvis, and it would have slotted neatly into Atlantic City, The Last Picture Show or Fat City; visions of a stumbling, lost America, mirrored by the pitiful decline of her greatest living icon. "Play around, you'll lose your wife," sings Elvis - on stage he'd grin and say, "I already did that." After the next line about losing your life, he'd add, "I almost did that already too."

Unchained Melody (1977)
His body was about to give out, and his between song patter on stage was rambling and sometimes embarrassing, but Elvis's voice rarely let him down. If he felt the song, he was as effective as ever. This is a man on the brink, fighting the odds (which include the song's ubiquity) - you will him on, pounding the piano, sweat rolling off him. And he wins. It's astonishing. A few weeks later, he was gone.


  1. always loved edge of reality....such a weird song, especially for elvis...was a b-side to a 45 i had as a kid (never saw the video/movie til yrs later)...interesting, his moves and look in the video a little similar to the 68 tv special.

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