As my father used to say, ‘That’s a lot of potatoes.’
He was talking about the shilling and six pence he had to pay for my copy of Elvis Monthly. There has been a lot of inflation since then but even today in a world where commodity traders are hell bent on driving up the price of staple foods £52 is a lot of potatoes. Especially as modern neo-conservative economists now appear determined to squeeze demand out of the Western economies.
But, if £52, the price ‘Young Man With The Big Beat’ retails on Amazon, is a lot of potatoes imagine this. The Chief Executive of BMG is sitting in his palatial office overlooking New York and he asks his Mad Men marketing hustlers to leave. He tells his accounting manager to put away his marginal cost curve and unit cost calculations.
‘Today,’ says the Chief Exective of BMG to his remaining colleagues from the Sony Corporation, ‘I want to be like Richard Weize, the man who runs Bear Family Records. I want to issue a package that remembers an important talent. I want something that will document the ability of this talent and the impact in what was a significant year in the history of music. This is not about making money. We will even present it in the old 78 size.’
‘But people prefer the new envelope size.’
‘I want people to experience 1956.’
Okay, I can dream and those who who examine the box set carefully will no doubt spot compromises that clearly have had regard to unit costs. The package was delayed because presumably someone in BMG wanted the back of the box to be different from the back of the double sleeve that holds the CDs. This meant that the cover of the outer box has had a newsheet advertising the contents pasted on to the back of the outer box. I know this because the news sheet on my box set has started to peel away. This is a disappointment and if it had been the Bear Family and they had wanted a different back cover they would have pulped the box and started again. But, a Bear Family box set would have been more expensive.
The important challenge for ‘Young Man With The Big Beat’ is to capture the impact of what happened in 1956. The Bear Family would, I suspect, have included more material, for example, the audio recordings from the TV appearances and the return of Elvis to Sun at the end of the year when he made the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ recodings. The critics will also say that the box set is no more than two albums plus a few singles revamped with padding and fancy packaging. They would argue that this has already been done in the Follow That Dream series. These more modest packages reproduce the original albums plus some outtakes and usually include a glossy leaflet so the same critics will also ask why we are making a fuss. The answer has two parts. ‘Young Man With The Big Beat’ takes it to another level and it does succeed in giving a feel of what was in the air.
Most people would agree that 1956 is probably the best of the 3 years that occurred after Elvis joined RCA and before he joined the Army. 1957 is definitely the worst but 1958, which has the glorious ‘King Creole’ album and the fabulous, wild sessions when Elvis appeared in the studio in his army uniform, is a close contender. My early memories of Elvis have never faded. I remember going into NEMs in Liverpool and seeing a poster containing the image used on his first album and being simultaneously drawn and suspicious. The horror and the promise that he offered just like the Frankenstein Creature in the 1931 movie affected me as it did the child by the lake. The poster is actually included in the packaging of ‘Young Man With The Big Beat’ so it did not take too long for the box set to put a smile on my face. Not long after the encounter with the challenging image of Elvis I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in a transport cafe on what for a child seemed an interminable journey to Southport. We were on a day trip. The coach had broken down and my father without prompting played it on the jukebox.
‘Who’s that?’ said my mother.
‘It’s that Elvis Presley,’ said my father.
‘Well how about that. It’s better than I expected.’
‘It’s different,’ said my father.
The world had changed and we all knew it.
‘Young Man with the Big Beat’ is surprising because the first two CDs of the original masters do not set out his RCA recordings in chronological fashion. Instead, what happens is that the first CD starts with the debut album ‘Elvis Presley’ and is concluded with the first singles and the second CD begins with the second album, ‘Elvis’/ ‘Elvis Rock N Roll Number 2’ with the rest of the singles added as the final tracks. This means, of course, that the box set includes some Sun recordings. This surprising order has more impact than some might expected. To launch a box set with the ‘Elvis Presley’ album gives a sense of the explosion he created and it is also a reminder that Elvis in 1956 was not just about his RCA recordings. His backlog from Sun helped increase his impact. I am not so sure how much the box set needs the recordings from ‘Love Me Tender’ but it does not mar what is a brilliant concept, two CDs organised around the first two albums. The insistence of chronology has been ignored rightly to ensure we have a sense of what happened and how it must have felt.
This inspired concept is presumably the responsibility of Ernst Jorgenson and Roger Semon rather than the daydreaming Chief Exective I imagined before. Whoever claims the credit the concept justifies the purchase and the forfeited potatoes. Not only does it provide that fabulous thrill of hearing his debut album as an invitation to what follows but it also gives a much different sense of the significance of his singles. At the time this impact was magnified by his image, his presence and the controversy and this is caught in the elaborate packaging. The records focus on the talent – his power, reach and ability to master different styles. Separating the singles into two distinct groups works perfectly. The singles on the first CD reveal a practised rockabilly perfomer who will not be restrained and the hits, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘I Was The One’, remind us that the urgent rock and roller has an exceptional energy that will also require melodrama. On the second CD the singles are much more ambitious and his extravagant efforts ‘Anyway You Want Me’ and ‘Too Much’ reveal that his diversity is not merely about his talent but his imagination. If Elvis later became haunted by insecurity there is no evidence of it on ‘Anyway You Want Me’. Today, listeners may think it is no more than another Elvis ballad but at the time it put him firmly in a category by himself. Some it horrified. I am not a fan of the song ‘Love Me Tender’ but it also exists of evidence of the self-belief that Elvis had in 1956, a self-belief that is documented in the numerous photographs in the package of the confident young man. Elvis, of course, sings the song flat but, as the Jordanaires made clear many years later, he does this deliberately. He wanted to project dependancy and vulnerability. As one of the Jordanaires said, ‘It’s the bad notes that make it art.’
This is worth thinking about. Elvis was twenty one years old and, although his dreams were coming true, it was always possible the career could go into reverse. He acknowledges this in the first interview on the final CD. To deliberately sing flat required not only surprising confidence in a twenty one year old but a relationship to his music that has never been properly understood or credited to him.
So, the concept works and ‘Young Man with the Big Beat’ is essential in a way that many of the Follow That Dream collections are not.
This is before we look at the padding and the packaging.
First, though, something needs to be said about the sound.
I have said elsewhere (in my recently published Elvis book, Treat Me Nice, http://amzn.to/qWN6d9) what I think about the approach to taken by BMG to remastering the fifties records. The emphasis in remastering has been ensuring fidelity to what the peformers did in the studio. Fifties effects such as added reverberation and sharp treble have been removed. (The CD series ‘ELVIS AS HE WAS MEANT TO BE HEARD is taken from the original vinyl recordings and captures the sound we actually heard back then.) In my opinion, popular music has always exploited technology and if we ignore what was added we fail to appreciate how the revolution exploded. The records were meant to be noisy and bigger than the sound of humans. This was the transcendental promise they contained and why so many of us became addicted and committed to rock and roll. But if what you want is clarity, then this is the clearest sound we have had so far. Maybe the fifty two quid means I make more effort than previously but I can hear notes and voices that had previously been merged into an effect. Even if some of us lean to the original sound there are always benefits from an alternative approach. It is dangerous to be too categorical because sometimes it sounds better merely because it is new and different. But, to my ears these recordings sound like an improvement. For instance, certain songs are given a different hue. ‘I’m Counting On You’ has an edge on this recording I have not heard before and the patience that the song refers to is distinct and moving. The chorus on ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’ also benefits from the added clarity and gives us distinct voices which suit the rock and roll better than too smooth harmonies. The ultimate test, though, for any sound test of his fifties recordings is the ‘Oee Wee’ in the Arthur Crudup song, ‘So Glad You’re Mine’. This has always been a key moment for me and I need any recording to capture his unequivocal guttural cry. This recording passes the test.
If the improved clarity is a benefit on the masters it justifies itself completely on the live recordings that make the third CD. Those who think his early Las Vegas concert might reduce the impact of these live recordings will be surprised. Not because his performance sounds more successful. It does not although the voice is still impressive. No, its value is because the tamer and more guarded Elvis who played out his fortnight in ‘56 in Vegas is followed by two concerts at Little Rock and Louisiana. The corny jokes may be the same but suddenly we are listening to an unleashed Elvis. Anybody who thinks that fifties Elvis was always a tamer alternative for girls should listen to his versions of ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘I Got A Woman’. We also have a firm impression of a performer who will go further and take more risks than others. This can be his chorus on ‘I Was The One’ where his stuttered ‘I’ matches perfectly the percussion from the band or his burp before ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ that shocks even his unrestrained audience. Much of it today sounds anarchic and mad and, like the flat notes in Love Me Tender, is evidence of how willing he was to abandon technique in his pursuit of an effect on his audience. It should be no surprise that someone who was willing to combine rock and roll and sentiment mixed anarchy with show business. After Elvis the anarchists in rock and roll had a much more purist attitude and Elvis only made them angry. The concert in Louisiana is an extended version of his concert at Little Rock and not quite as wild but it is far from sedate. Here he is manipulating his audience as well as provoking them and perhaps beneath the triumph exists a dark warning of how later on stage in the ‘70s he would be sometimes too eager to rely on effect and calculation.
None of this material has been previously unavailable but like the first two CDs the improved sound and revised context make it worthwhile. His live version of ‘Love Me Tender’ is very different from the studio recording but it anticipates the version in the ‘TV Special’ and it is a reminder that there is continuity in the career of Elvis Presley. So is his reference to Moby Dick which he repeated in the ‘TV Special’ and his early recording of ‘I Got A Woman’, a song he performed until the very end. It is not the narrow continuity we witness in other performers because he was versatile and had the capacity to reinvent himself but it exists.
The fourth CD contains outtakes and nobody who has bought the Follow That Dream version of the Elvis Presley album could be criticised for approaching this CD with a lack of enthusiasm. Those outtakes demonstrated his limitless energy and consistency, a musicality that equated to althletic stamina. Indeed, Jerry Leiber once described Elvis as a musical equivalent of an Olympic athlete. Once confirmed, though, it is difficult to expect his 1956 outtakes to reveal anything more, other than a subtle process of refinement. The subtlety, though, is important as Take 2 of ‘I Was The One’ reveals and this early take is much lighter than the final master. The packaging reprints an early review of ‘I Was The One’ from Cashbox. ‘This is close to R and B as you can get without horns.’ Not everybody will think it qualifies as ‘R and B’ but merely drawing the comment indicates a real achievement on the part of Elvis. This is a simple country tune as the early version makes clear. Takes 5 – 16 are interesting because they concentrate on two songs – ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’. The tracks follow the process from take one to the final master. (Take 2 is actually missing from ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ but the route is still clear.) On Take 4 of ‘Lawdy’ the band and Elvis begin to feel the groove but it is this take that contains more mistakes than the previous takes. Fabulously, the mistakes, confidence and freedom all appear to be related. Take 7 suddenly hints that the end is in sight. ‘The best one we’ve done yet,’ says Elvis and he is right. Whilst it is easy to believe that all musicians have to do is play what is in front of them, the early takes do not hint that Take 7 could have been made. Like all creators, musicians have those initial bleak moments in the dark. On Take 10 Scotty Moore, who has experienced the most difficulties, has worked out everything and Elvis is ready to reproduce exactly what has gone before. This take was used and on later attempts it is clear that the song has been played out. The attempts by Elvis to develop the vocal are becoming too complicated so it is no surprise that Take 10 is finally selected. All this is interesting to hear. ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’ is different. Presumably, they are more familiar with the material because even on Take 1 the material is under control. But, despite the excellent start, the recording still required another 12 attempts and this is illuminating because Elvis needed no more time to bring ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ under control than he did to polish ‘Rattle And Roll’. We also have a bit of history when Elvis shouts ‘Same lyrics’ referring to the censored version being used. So the outtakes on CD 4 contain genuinely revealing moments. There are none in the class of the outtakes of ‘That’s All Right’ when we hear the recordings progress from a fine rockabilly recording to something beyond that, something quite special and history making. But what we hear is worthwhile, nevertheless.
The rest of the fourth CD and the final CD are devoted to interviews. I hate to admit it but the interview with Parker irritates me far less than expected and he is actually modest about his contribution. His accent is less obvious than we have been led to believe. Elvis is at his most interesting in The Complete TV Guide Presents Interview when he is a little angry about the criticism he has recently received and his defiance suggests a man more assertive than Parker. Who knows? In 1956 he may have been. Elvis is at his most eloquent when he delivers the monologue and he is most charming in the Truth About Me interview when he is very relaxed and open. He is less gracious when he reminds the interviewer he has sold five million records. What emerges is someone who has the ability to change himself to establish a rapport. There are plenty of worthwhile quotes but the most poignant remark concerns his belief that he will meet a woman who will stop him from feeling lonesome. Like the Creature in Frankenstein his belief that only a woman could make him whole is fundamental.
This leaves the packaging. We all have a right to be cynical. What looks good the first day can often be soon abandoned or ignored. Much of this will probably have the same destiny. The letter from Parker may only be a reproduction but I read it with the uneasy feeling I had something sinister in my hand. Semi-literate would flatter his style but Parker should not be criticised because it is badly written. What is disturbing is how it reveals a lack of awareness of his limitations. Another person who lacked an adequate command of their second language would have asked somebody else to draft the letter. The phrase ‘this set up here’ is indicative of his coldness and priorities. The banner advertising an appearance at the Mosque in Richmond, Virginia is terrific and I am having my copy framed tomorrow. The rest is mainly photographs and trivia. I am not sure about the calendar approach taken to the main booklet but in the many photographs we notice that Elvis is either smiling or absorbed in his work. There are a couple of exceptions but the mood of the man is obvious. He is happy because his dreams have come true. They insist that the Elvis of 1956 was authentic and challenge those who have argued that this Elvis was merely making music that he thought would be popular. Obviously, he proved later that he was more again than the Elvis of 1956 but the photographs insist that the rock and roll hero was a real part of him. Many will argue that 1956 was his very best year. If he had been no more than what is contained in ‘Young Man with the Big Beat’, Elvis would have been important and he would have stayed important. Nobody had the right to expect his talent to be any more than this. As a child I thought he was superhuman. He was not but he was more than I and others realised. He may have made mistakes later and wasted some opportunities. When he was finished he left behind various mysteries, ‘something for them to talk about’ as Elvis says in one of the interviews. But perhaps the biggest puzzle of all is the range and potency of a talent that embraced all the American popular music of his generation and more. That mystery remains as inexplicable as ever. In 1956 what we heard was impressive but back then what we were obliged to understand was simpler.