A Fortnightly Review
Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide (Second Edition: Revised and Expanded)
by Shane Brown
By IAN SEED.
IT WAS NOT COOL to be an Elvis fan in 1971, especially if you were a 15-year-old boy. Elvis was for mums and dads, aunts and uncles. Classmates teased me about it mercilessly. They were into the much more respectable – from a teenager’s point of view – Rod Stewart, T Rex and David Bowie. My own parents had no time for Elvis (though oddly my grandfather, who had served as a stretcher-bearer in the First World War, said he liked Elvis’s voice when I played him The Wonder of You). My mother told me I would soon grow out of Elvis. I still haven’t. Even less cool was the fact that I liked Elvis’s late ’60s and early ’70s easy-listening and country music just as much as the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50s or the blues of the early ’60s. (At least I had the good sense not to bother with all those terrible ’60s movie soundtrack albums.)
I am trying to remember what it was that brought Elvis to my attention in the first place. It may have been Radio 1’s 1971 documentary series The Elvis Presley Story, which was aired on a late Sunday afternoon after the weekly chart show, Pick of the Pops. The idea of Elvis’s “comeback”’ in the late sixties really caught my imagination. It may also have been the 1971 re-release (in the UK) of Heartbreak Hotel. I had never heard anything quite like it, having of course missed it first time round in 1956.
But in fact, 1971 was a good time to discover Elvis. The market was not flooded with endless Elvis trivia as it is now, and of course there was no internet back then. To listen to Elvis, I would take the bus into Leicester on a Saturday morning, and go to Bree’s Record Shop on the High Street. There I could flick through Elvis’s LPs and choose one to listen to in a sweaty booth. Slowly, as my pocket money would allow, I bought the best of those LPs one by one, starting with the 1970 album That’s the Way It Is. I was mesmerised by the song, I Just Can’t Help Believin’, which was a top-ten hit back then. This was the first song that I actually saw Elvis sing on BBC’s Top of the Pops in a film clip from the That’s the Way It Is documentary.
Shane Brown, the author of Reconsider Baby: Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, was born in 1974 and came to Elvis’s music in the 1990s. This was an even better time to discover it. In this decade, three box sets of five CDs were released, showcasing Elvis’s work of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s respectively. The music was sequenced mainly according to session rather than original album release. This was important because, as Brown points out in his Introduction, Elvis’s focus was always on individual songs. The albums were ‘simply a way to distribute those songs in retail-friendly packages, but they also tended to do the singer a disservice and were akin to forcing a square peg into a round hole’. The box sets were the first time, nearly twenty years on from Elvis’s death, that Elvis’s music was presented in a way that would allow the listener to appreciate his work in its entirety.
The 1990s was also a time when some kind of proper critical perspective could start to be taken, as evidenced by Ernst Jorgensen’s 1998 book, Elvis Presley: A Life in Music: The Complete Recordings, which remains the most important critical landmark to this day. During Elvis’s lifetime, journalists and music critics rarely attempted to evaluate the music on its own terms, and indeed the criticism was not focused at all on the music, but on other factors. In the 1950s, most of the commentary was rock ‘n’ roll’s supposed corruption of the young, on Elvis’s (for the times) outlandish appearance and sexually-charged stage act, and on the wild reaction of the audience. The voice went unheard, not only at the concerts because of all the screaming, but also by the reviewers of his music. Those who did comment on his voice were in the main hostile, and had obviously not bothered to listen to it properly, dismissing Elvis as flash-in-the-pan. By contrast, in the 1970s, when rock criticism had become a respected form of journalism, Elvis was accused of betraying his supposed rock ‘n’ roll roots because of the fact that most of his new recordings tended more towards country, easy listening and semi-operatic ballads. In fact, Elvis had always loved many different kinds of music, from blues to opera, and was of course soaked in gospel. It just so happened that it was rock ‘n’ roll which made him famous.
Again, in the ’70s the commentary on his live performances was all too often on his appearance and audience reaction rather than on his voice or music. I still remember a New Musical Express headline of 1973, “Shake that Flab, Elvis!” At a cinema screening of Elvis on Tour, a documentary film centred around two of Elvis’s 1971 concerts, I remember someone next to me describing Elvis as a ‘fat tart’. This had an odd, if unpleasant, ring of truth to it because of the way Elvis was by this time sporting ostentatiously theatrical diamond-studded jumpsuits, replete with high heels and a batman-like cape – an image for which Elvis is perhaps most remembered today. Nevertheless, in the film Elvis on Tour there are some memorable performances of songs such as Never Been to Spain (which really should have been released as a single), An American Trilogy (a song which only Elvis could have got away with), Bridge Over Troubled Water and Lawdy Miss Clawdy.
I also remember when the 1974 album Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis was released, uniquely featuring no pictures of Elvis on the cover. It was later reported that this was because Elvis’s notorious, money-grabbing manager, the “Colonel” (he never was a colonel), thought that Elvis looked too fat in the photos that were taken of him at that time. The emphasis on Elvis’s appearance, combined with the one-sided agenda of many rock critics, meant that few seemed to notice that his voice in the late sixties and early seventies was in many respects at its peak. Elvis by that time could turn his voice to almost any sort of music, which he had not been capable of doing in the 1950s. Indeed it is Elvis’s music from the early ’70s that I most frequently return to.
A unique and fascinating aspect of Shane Brown’s book on Elvis (in this revised and expanded edition) is the way in which with academic rigour it investigates and exposes the hollowness and superficiality of much of the commentary made during Elvis’s lifetime. The text draws on over 500 contemporary articles and reviews, revealing for the first time how Elvis and his career played out in the printed media, and how this has continued to distort our perception of him to this day. Much of it was surprising to me. For example, I had no idea that Elvis’s innocently — and unimaginatively — titled Christmas Album (1957) caused such a stir at the time, with radio station CKXL claiming it was “one of the most degrading things we have heard in some time”. Elvis was also described as “panting” his ways through the songs. Many radio stations removed it from their playlists. As Brown points out, much of the music from the album has stood the test of time. For example, the raunchy blues song Santa Claus is Back in Town is still irresistible today – even if, apparently, it was not this song which caused all the controversy on release, but, bizarrely, Elvis’s version of White Christmas. He does not do anything particularly irreverent with the song, but perhaps the establishment was horrified that someone of his ilk should even dare dream of singing such a family classic. Also revealing was the fact that Elvis’s famous 1968 TV Comeback Special, now regarded as a landmark performance, was not particularly well-reviewed at the time. One example quoted by Brown is the review in Variety which declared that Elvis “still can’t sing” (which he obviously could – think of If I Can Dream, for example) and that the “words are still unintelligible” (one wonders if the Variety reviewer had at any point actually listened to the songs).
Brown uses opinions from the time as a springboard for his own balanced and insightful examination of all the recordings – there are over 700 of them – that Elvis made in his lifetime, taking us all the way from the first private recordings made in July 1953 to the June 1977 live Elvis in Concert, made just six weeks before his death, and which was used as a TV special, showing, in Brown’s words, “an overweight, struggling, often seemingly-disorientated Elvis” (noting however that the album release “used no pictures from the special, but images of a healthy looking Elvis from a few years before”).
Brown’s book does not attempt to tell us the story of Elvis Presley’s life. For that, Brown rightly points us towards Peter Guralnick’s two-volume (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) biography. Rather it is a genuine critical appraisal with all the advantages of looking back from a twenty-first-century perspective. What Brown offers us here is a detailed discussion of Elvis’s legacy, session by session. Of course, important biographical information is given in order to set the recordings in context. For example, Elvis’s attitude towards the music he was singing and performing could vary considerably according to the quality of the songs, or to what was happening in his life at any given time. His attitude in turn could affect the quality of his performances. One of the saddest aspects of listening to Elvis is the way in which at times he does not make full use of his voice because he is ill or simply bored. On the other hand, when he believed in the songs and in himself, his performances were unique and incomparable.
Turning the 445 pages of Brown’s Reconsider Baby is oddly gripping, and somewhat akin to reading a detective novel. I found myself at every turn wondering what he was going to reveal next about a particular song, and also how he was going to assess it. Brown states in his Introduction, “My aim is not to persuade anyone to agree with me. In fact, part of the fun of reading a book like this is vehemently not agreeing with the author.” For the most part, I found myself agreeing with him, but not always, especially when it came to his assessments of some of the 1970s songs. For example, Brown believes that Elvis’s 1970 version of You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a substantial hit for Dusty Springfield, “brings nothing new to the number other than bombast”. I would strongly disagree and would argue that Elvis’s version is less sing-song than Dusty’s, less melancholy, but instead much more intense, conveying more of an immediate sense of desperation. Brown asserts that Elvis “yells his way” through the song “Rags to Riches” with the “most bombastic of arrangements”. Untrue. He sings the song with power and conviction. On the other hand, I think that Brown overestimates some of the quieter ballads, such as Early Mornin’ Rain, which to my ear, at least, Elvis sings in a bored and uncommitted manner. Thankfully, we both agree on a very high rating of Elvis’s restrained and nuanced performance of I’m Leavin’. I remember hearing this song for the first time on Radio 1 in December of 1971, and both liking it very much and being struck by its unusual arrangements. I can see why it was not a commercial hit – too subtle and understated for the tastes of the time, which favoured grand dramatic gestures, whether this came in the form of the big voice, loud glam rock, or plaintive soul.
Part of the fun of reading this book for me was the way it brought back memories one by one, as if I were discovering the songs for the first time all over again. When Brown comes to his critique of Elvis’s 1973 albums, a distinctly physical sensation of disappointment returns when I remember listening to Raised on Rock and the greatly overhyped Aloha from Hawaii, and being struck by how weak and unsteady Elvis’s voice had suddenly become. Back then I wondered what had happened, and even worried about him as if he were a close friend. Then in 1974 came Elvis as Recorded Live in Memphis (the album with no pictures of Elvis because he was fat). Shane Brown is absolutely right when he says that it is “obvious from the outset that Elvis is in great form […] and perhaps even more importantly he is in great spirits […] and shows himself to be in his best form since 1970”. When Brown describes Elvis’s performance of “My Baby Left Me” as a “surprise”, my own sense of surprise on hearing this song for the first time in a record booth returns to me and makes my heart beat faster. It is a performance which is both serious and full of sheer joy at the same time. After reading Brown’s description, I had to immediately dig out the song – not from an LP this time around, but from my iPhone – and play it over and over again.
Things went downhill for Elvis with tragic momentum after 1974. I have to admit that for a few years I didn’t listen much to his music anymore. I couldn’t tie in my discovery of poets such as T.S. Eliot with my admiration for Elvis. It didn’t fit in with the self-image I had of myself in my late teens. I began listening instead to Bob Dylan, and went through a similar process of discovery as I had with Elvis. A few years on, towards the end of university, a friend educated me on the clear connections between the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50s and the songs of Bob Dylan and others. Slowly I came back to Elvis, although it has only been in the last few years that I have somehow managed to actually bring him into my own creative writing by making him a character in my prose poems and small fictions, as in ‘Loved’ from my 2018 collection New York Hotel:
I came across Priscilla’s young daughter wandering through the park on her own. She was half‑carrying, half‑dragging a large doll by one of its hands. The doll reminded me of her late father, with his stiff, dyed-black hair and dark eye shadow. I had seen him once in concert in 1970. I remembered him walking through the audience full of gratitude as if he himself could not believe that he was there, singing better than he ever had. How could we have known that he would soon no longer care whether he lived or died?
I found Priscilla weeping on a bench. She waved me away without even looking up. It was people like me who through our adoration had killed her loved one, she shouted after me.
Uniquely, Shane Brown caries out a short assessment of the posthumous releases of Elvis Presley’s music up until the present. He laments the fact that so much is available now, especially via the internet, and that anyone coming to it for the first time will have no idea where to start. It is partly as a result of all the much weaker work that is out there that Elvis’ popularity has declined considerably over the last decade or so. This can be measured not only by lack of chart success, but also by the plummeting price of Elvis records and memorabilia on the collector’s market. Of course, there are momentary exceptions, especially in the UK as opposed to the USA, with the release, for example, of some of Elvis’s hits dubbed over by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. To Brown and to this reviewer, the results of this kind of saccharine mix are pretty awful, and only bolster those who do not regard Elvis as a singer worthy of serious critical attention. “It all makes one yearn,” Brown says, “for the 1990s, and the time when three boxed sets appeared that were dedicated to the various decades of Elvis’s career.”
True. However, I wonder if Shane Brown, like me, does not sometimes envy those who came of age in the 1950s. How marvellously exciting and liberating it must have been to hear “Heartbreak Hotel” when it was first released in 1956, to have been young at the only time when Elvis’s music had the genuine power to change the lives of a generation.
Ian Seed’s books of prose poems and small fictions include New York Hotel (2018); Identity Papers 2016) and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014); and two other collections containing prose poems, Shifting Registers and Anonymous Intruder, all from Shearsman; and two chapbooks, Threadbare Fables (LikeThisPress, 2012) and Distances (Red Ceilings, 2018). The Thief of Talant (2016) (the first translation into English of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan) is published by Wakefield. Ian Seed’s work also appears in a number of anthologies including The Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books), The Forward Book of Poetry 2017 (Faber & Faber), The Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt), and the critical anthology, British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines, edited by Jane Monson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). His work has been featured on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, hosted by Ian McMillan. He lectures in the Department of English at the University of Chester.
An archive of his work appearing in the Fortnightly is here.