ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

7 FOR LP FANS ONLY 

   Released in the USA January 23 1959

Someone said the 1960s arrived after The Beatles released their Please Please Me album in 1963.  The movie Hiroshima Mon Amour, like the Elvis album For LP Fans Only, was released in 1959.   The movie by director Alan Resnais has various elements but what persists in the brain is the post coital conversation between the couple and their intermittent memories.  Perhaps those moments of alienation persuaded my generation that it was entitled to preach self-righteous decadence.  Pessimism, idealism and despair were all important to the incoherent cries for freedom of the 1960s.  

Hiroshima Mon Amour had a final scene that included an often missed reference to the ending of Casablanca.   In both films the lovers part.  But in Hiroshima Mon Amour the two people have witnessed the horror of an exploding atom bomb and they will be obliged to remain remote from each other.  Each will reshape their lives in different ways.  Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca were different.  Those two lovers saw the world in the same way, recognised good and evil and were both able to believe in their own noble destinies.   The romance, illusion and inspiration that had inspired a generation to both heroism and savagery were rejected in Hiroshima Mon Amour.  Even when they were not being dropped nuclear bombs made a difference.

Elvis was in the Army in 1959 but restricted to rifles and tanks.  Back home in American suburbia a bogus Colonel was working on how to rebrand his meal ticket as a virtuous patriot loyal to the establishment.  The big record companies had also recovered from the intrusion of the small and independent record labels.  If rock and roll remained popular in 1959, something more slick but less authentic had replaced the original creation.  The hit record Personality by African American singer Lloyd Price was the third best selling single of 1959 and is an example of rock and roll designed to have wide appeal.  The beat remains but the song has a novelty element.  Lloyd Price had recorded the original version of Lawdy Miss Clawdy in 1952 and four years before it was covered by Elvis in 1956.  In the Billboard Hot 100 of 1959 the three singles from Lloyd Price were all placed above the highest selling record by Elvis Presley.  The record A Big Hunk Of Love by Elvis was a number one hit but in the Billboard Hot 100 of 1959 it only reached number thirty.  The big hits of Lloyd Price have been described as ‘refined rock and roll’ although one of his hits revamped the folk blues Stagger Lee

Above Lloyd Price in the Billboard Hot 100 of 1959 were The Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton and Mack The Knife by Bobby Darin.  The Horton hit celebrated a past victory over the British and had obvious patriotic meaning for Americans.  The hooks in the chorus added appeal, enough for it to be a hit in the UK.  In the real world Elvis was in the Army, an ex-General was president of the USA and Fidel Castro had succeeded in leading a socialist revolution on an island close to Florida.  In those circumstances Hiroshima Mon Amour was best ignored by Americans.  Perhaps if Colonel Parker had seen the movie, he might have thought again about re-branding Elvis into something rebellion free.  Parker was more alert to the success of Mack The Knife by Bobby Darin.  This admittedly accomplished impression of Frank Sinatra was the second most successful single of 1959.  No one was anticipating anything like The Beatles.

In 1958 Elvis had recorded his final records before entering the Army.   He was still the most talked about rock and roll star but two singles by Elvis that year had failed to reach number one.  These were Wear My Ring Around Your Neck and A Fool Such As I.  Even Elvis must have wondered whether the retro steps of Darin were the way forward. For two years, though, there would be no new recordings.  Attempts to try different styles had to be postponed.  Two singles previously recorded in 1958 would be released in 1959.  The single that followed those two was recorded and released in 1960 when Elvis had left the Army and returned to the USA.

 The three albums that were fed to restless fans while Elvis was a soldier were all compilations.  Because they consisted of previous recordings, all waved the flag for rock and roll.   The album For LP Fans Only, like the other two compilations, contained tracks that had either existed on singles or extended plays.   Side one begins with That’s All Right, the first record that Elvis had created at Sun Records in Memphis.  For a while people argued that the night at Sun Records in 1954 when That’s All Right was recorded was the beginning of rock and roll.  Later we heard more American music and understood that rock and roll was a wider movement than Elvis.  That’s All Right, though, does represent the arrival of an original blessed with exceptional talent.  Its presence as the first track on For LP Fans Only is a proclamation that ensures the album is special.

The American version of the album has ten tracks.  The British edition has an extra four efforts that include powerful versions of Money Honey and Trying To Get To You.  Including extra tracks in the UK was possible because from the beginning the content of the British and American album releases had varied  As previously, the British alternative was superior to the American release.  It also had a different title.  In Britain the album was called Elvis.   Four years after the album was released The Beatles were conquering the USA.  While this was happening I left school and found employment in a firm of Liverpool stockbrokers.   An early wage packet enabled me to buy the album in NEMS, a fashionable record store in the centre of Liverpool.  The NEMS company was owned by Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles.  Buying an Elvis record in the nerve centre of the MerseyBeat revolution was inviting scorn but the girl who sold me the album was apologetic.  The cover for the album had either been stolen or mislaid.  All the album had to protect the vinyl was a factory brown sleeve with cellophane lining.  I told the girl that the cover was not important.  We swapped smiles.

Having just a brown cover for the record made it feel unique and, if anything, more of a prize. The album cover, which I discovered much later, is defined by two images.  The front photo features early Elvis.  His hair is not dyed black, and the smile is earnest and innocent.  On the back of the cover is soldier Elvis, serious in his military uniform but already adorned with showbiz gloss.  The young man in the front photo is handsome but ordinary.  In the reverse photograph Elvis is as pretty as a girl.  The colour of the photograph is tinted so it is impossible to know if he is wearing makeup although it looks as if he might be.  The younger man is sharing enthusiasm and ambition.  The pretty chap in the uniform poses like a fashion model and invites adoration.

With or without the cover the album is great.  It is the first record album that I ever bought and the 14 track version remains my favourite of any including those by other musicians and performers.  For LP Fans Only combines the heights of what happened at Sun Records and the early confident and daring attempts at RCA in 1956.  Inevitably the Hollywood grifter Colonel Parker sneaked a movie song in there but even Poor Boy from Love Me Tender is not without merit although the other tracks belong to a superior culture and experience.   Playing For Keeps is almost a ballad but not quite and mixes country, blues and doo wop.  I’m Counting On You is also a ballad but was omitted from the American release.  The track has an irresistible bluesy edge that songwriter Don Robertson admitted Elvis had added.  These earnest pleas for love and understanding offer a degree of balance to the driving RCA rock and roll and exquisite Sun rockabilly that fill the rest of the album.

Has any other record album begun with three tracks the equal of That’s All Right, Lawdy Miss Clawdy and Mystery Train?  One of those tracks, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, is magnificent but the other two are iconic and are not only exciting because they exist as evidence of originality.  They suggest a talent without limits.   On the playful You’re A Heartbreaker and I’m Left, You’re Right She’s Gone the touch is assured and both Elvis and the musicians are attentive to what the songs require.  The beat is maintained with a light touch, and the licks from guitarist Scotty Moore add fertility to what is already fresh.  The confident Elvis vocal dances over the lyrics.  Elvis shrugs off disappointment and even weighs its cost with delight.  For him there is the certainty that he has enough worth and strength for heartbreak to be extinguished by future promise.   I Was The One began life as a country song but it belongs to Elvis.  Perhaps the performance relies on kitsch for effect but excitement and inspiration occur in the frisson between the different elements.  Like blues and country connecting in rock and roll, kitsch meeting genuine creativity is a collision full of potential.  Elvis overdid the kitsch at times but he also exploited it to the full.  Marilyn Monroe posed naked for Playboy magazine in 1959.   Her mix of talent, sensitivity and vulgarity invited similar curiosity.

For LP Fans Only had modest sales.  It finished at 19 in the Billboard Album Chart.  The previous albums of Elvis had all reached the top three of the charts.  There were reasons for the lack of commercial success.  The songs existed on singles and extended plays and would have already been owned by fans.  Elvis was in the Army and a less potent alternative to the showbiz brand launched by Hollywood and Parker.   Still, the accounts of Parker were not as lopsided in favour of assets as he liked.   Parker, RCA and Hollywood all had plans for making additional entries in the ledgers.  None included Elvis meeting before the end of the year a young girl who would eventually become his wife.  Priscilla Presley and Colonel Parker would fight over the legacy of the dead Elvis later.  

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.