Elvis Presley Challenge 45 – The British Invasion
Well, as most of the developing world knows to its cost, there have been a few invasions. The acclaimed Olympic Opening Ceremony designed by Danny Boyle was watched by TV audiences outside the UK and in some of the countries we once invaded. Some were complimentary although the ceremony also had its critics. More than a few were aghast at the decline in quality of the Bond girls and there was a mixed reception in Africa. The tolerant thought it an interesting take on British history. Others missed the looting, plundering and subjugation of native peoples. The Irish were expecting genocide and mass immigration to emerge on top of the green fields. Not chimneys. But the average British citizen is ignorant of the enclosures in the 18th century so chimneys will do. The best moment was the explosion of multiculturalism from the mock detached homes. The argument was clear. The British have immigrants to thank for setting them free from TV and bland whiteness surrounded by red brick. The worst was the fake ET pushbike. Somebody should have remembered to illuminate the wheels.
Inevitably, Paul McCartney was there and Ringo stayed at home. Paul McCartrney once performed at a Royal Jubilee celebration. He led the sycophantic sing along at the end of the show. Brian Wilson was in the cast at the back of the stage and looked as if he might be tempted to relapse into a narcotic alternative. McCartney finished the show by saying, ‘Thank you, Ma’m.’ Aretha Franklin who had been invited had decided not to attend. Elvis was dead but it was possible to imagine him there and alive, singing with Aretha.
The political views of Elvis are not easily understood this far east of the USA. It may have been that he was actually a misunderstood Southern liberal or perhaps his views were consistent with an indolence that affected other areas of his life. But if he had performed at the show it would have been different and I doubt if McCartney would have made his bow. Elvis and Aretha would have reminded everyone of the democratic and Republican alternative. Last Saturday, Danny Boyle did his best but he was compromised by the event and the not unreasonable requirement of inclusiveness. Boyle is an entertainer like Elvis but he is also a subversive. He has sympathy for the common man. As Elvis understood, we like watching the efforts of a subversive who is tempted by our approval.
Neither should we forget Ringo Starr. There are plenty of Englishmen similar to stay at home Ringo. This is despite an establishment that has advocated grinning for the last thirty years and told us that we should all be like
Macca. Ringo was unimpressed with the UK. He soon escaped and made a country album in Nashville so awful it was memorable. It demonstrated how well Americans could sing. Some people think that the British invasion of the 60s when it dominated pop music was beneficial. They talk about the Beatles as if there were everything that Elvis failed to be. I would be lying if I said they never impressed me but I was lucky. If they were local and helped Merseyside to feel exciting, the temptation did not last. Somebody lent me a copy of the album, ‘Rock and Roll Number 2’ by Elvis and after hearing his raucous cries on ‘So Glad You’re Mine’ I abandoned any notion of being open minded. American music had soul and rhythm beyond the British and I have been loyal to its emotion baring elements all my life. Boyle may be right and the British really did explode out of their red brick houses into creative multicultural life. We have pianos and all kinds of musical instruments and even talented songwriters and musicians. But as Lillian Hellmann almost said in her play, ‘The Little Foxes’, the Americans have the voices. Those who protest at this heresy should try and imagine what the Olympic Opening Ceremony would have been like if it had been in the States and if they had honoured the talent that makes them unique, the people that Henry Pleasants described as the great American popular singers. A few have already been mentioned in other editions of this blog, people like Dion, Big Al Downing, Fats Domino, Larry Williams, Bobby Bland, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Womack and Peggy Lee. There are so many and right at the top are Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and, of course, Elvis.
The European loyalists argue that English music provided a consciousness not heard in American music. Country music may overload the sentimental manipulation but it was where they sang about the lonely part of town and in a way that convinced. Way before British pop, the genre understood that life produced winners and losers. It offered no explanation but it insisted that the misery happened. This was a truth not heard in the British music of my youth.
In the city centre of Liverpool it is easy to spot the visiting Beatle fans. They wander around the city wide eyed, believing their own romance, much like I did when I visited Memphis many years ago. The Beatles wrote catchy tunes and even when their lyrics were simple, they sounded different from others. It is not the perception but their recording career was actually quite short. Their last serious effort was the over-rated ‘Abbey Road’ which appeared six years after their debut on British TV. If we compare their total six years with the first six years of Elvis, their triumph is not the obvious eclipse of their predecessor that many believe.
Dan Penn, the famous songwriter and demo singer from Stax records in Memphis, once said, ‘I never did like The Beatles. All they ever did was release a whole load of damn guitar players.’ Penn admires singers because he understands that, as talented as the pickers are, they are not different enough from other mortals. As Elvis discovered with dismay, great singers become something other than human. They stumble into lonely territory, the lonely part of town that great singers demand we acknowledge. Jim Dickinson, a Memphis musician coined the term ‘primitive modernism’ to describe modern rock and roll and Greil Marcus in ‘The Basement Tapes’ accepts it as a rallying cry for the future of rock and roll. I am not convinced the two elements are compatible. Both undermine each other and the champions of the modern should listen to the records of Larry Williams which will never be matched for their energy and sweep and which benefitted from his immoral contempt for his betters. It is the contradictory traits of aspiration and sensation that undermine modern popular music. Whilst both need to exist, there is a question of balance and the rock stars of today with their verbose self-regard too often take the energy out of rock and roll. These are the cries of men and women who are desperate to overcome the traditionalist roots they are obliged to embrace. Would it all have happened without the British invasion? Probably but let us give the Americans the benefit of the doubt. They did create rock and roll but they never intended it to result in Rod Stewart and U2.
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