11 G.I. BLUES
Released in the USA September 23 1960
Lovecraft and Kafka and others have done their best to ensure that Western culture has dark examples of metamorphosis. Compared to what has happened in horror fiction the treatment of Elvis in G.I. Blues could have been worse. In the Los Angeles Times, film critic John L Scott described the uniformed and clean cut Elvis as a metamorphosis and hoped that Elvis fans would welcome the change. The good news is that Parker and Hollywood did not transform Elvis Presley into a spider or give him two heads. When the real body horror for Elvis arrived it was after Hollywood and self-inflicted.
The movie and the album G.I.Blues are simple minded entertainments although not necessarily intended for the simple minded. Listen to the G.I Blues album once or after a long absence and the technique and talent of Elvis as he adapts to new material is impressive. His voice is in fine shape and although Elvis had misgivings about just everything related to G.I Blues he does make an effort with the songs. But apart from the magical and Ink Spots inspired Doin’ The Best I Can nothing on the album is transcendent. No surprise that the song was created by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, two writers that had rock and roll pedigree. Nothing sums up the unsuitability of Freddie Bienstock for identifying songs for Elvis than his enthusiasm for Shoppin’ Around, a less than heartfelt attempt at rock and roll.
The efforts of Elvis on the album are, though, transformative. Anyone who doubts this should listen to the initial attempts at the songs which are now available as outtakes. The lullaby Big Boots is a throwaway song that sounds as if it had been written after a too large breakfast but Elvis adds a spot of southern soul to the refrain. For a few bars the song moves to another level. This happens throughout G.I. Blues. The routine is sprinkled with touches of inspiration. Whether the album can be described as a success, though, is another matter. Listen to G.I. Blues loud on earphones and the accomplishments of Elvis can be acknowledged. But when heard on a decent hi-fi the Hollywood fluff sounds like it is being sung by someone humiliated and lost in the space between the speakers. On the album cover Elvis looks anything but confident, if not humiliated a little lost. The music of G.I. Blues, of course, has to be considered in the context of its time and compared to the efforts of Hollywood in other movies. Today few people other than hardcore Elvis fans will find anything of merit in G.I. Blues but the tracks compare well to more feted Hollywood soundtrack albums. If that sounds a grandiose claim then listen to Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Howard Keel and the other award winners.
Someone somewhere has written that on the first day of the recording sessions Elvis walked out in disgust when he heard the G.I Blues songs that he was obliged to record. This might be an instance of wishful thinking by a fan. There are no references to Elvis storming out of the studio in the authoritative biographical accounts that exist elsewhere. What is certain is that Elvis was dissatisfied with both the songs and the movie. After filming had finished a disconsolate Elvis phoned his eventual wife Priscilla to complain. He protested that ‘he was locked into this thing.’.
Initially the album was recorded over two difficult days at the RCA Studios in Hollywood. Elvis not only disliked the songs he was unhappy with how in the studio the microphones were positioned to accommodate the three track machines that were used to synchronise the records to the movie. The songs may sound light and inconsequential but Elvis and the band had to work through repeated takes. Even then repair work was needed, and Elvis moved to the more familiar Radio Recorders and re-recorded six of the tracks. Echo was added to lift the vocals, and the difference between the recordings from the two studios can be heard on the album. Songwriters Leiber and Stoller had previously established a productive partnership with Elvis on the soundtracks of King Creole and Jailhouse Rock. Tone deaf Parker decided that the songwriters were not needed. Leiber and Stoller would not be the only songwriters to refuse the reduced rate of royalties that Parker thought appropriate. Ageing journeymen of Hollywood stepped in to fill the gap. These people were not without ability but their skills were inappropriate for a man whose musical roots were in gospel, blues and country.
Around this time references to the consumption of Elvis of amphetamines also began to appear. Those who are sympathetic to Elvis claim his self-destructive drug consumption began in the Army. The hostile have argued that Elvis embraced hedonism from an early age and his use of stimulants began in Memphis while the rock and roll star was beginning his career with Sam Phillips at Sun. Both accounts are believable and neither, of course, deny the other. Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips was the first to play an Elvis record. Dewey Phillips was supposed to have been both a user and advocate of amphetamines. Elvis would not have been the only Memphis musician to have been offered the occasional and peculiar tablet. And if the American Army had supplied amphetamines to its soldiers to keep them awake, it would not have been alone. There is a military tradition. Drug taking in the German Army in the Second World War occurred at all levels and it is rumoured to have reached as far as Hitler. The sophisticated, indulgent or bohemian argue that the effect of amphetamine usage can be witnessed in the post-Army acting performances of Elvis. Watch closely, so they say, and it is possible to see an actor making an effort to slow his speech down from the accelerated delivery of the amphetamine user. There are worse things TV viewers can do late at night.
All of which seems to indicate that it is hard work making musical comedies and pretending that the world and its inhabitants are uncomplicated and joyous. Despite being the first of the many Elvis musical comedies and also the first attempt to abandon the rebellious image G.I. Blues attracted a degree of controversy. The Legion of Decency complained that the film was immoral. If there had not been a moral and saccharine ending to the film, The Legion might have had a point. The flimsy movie plot is about an innocent but handsome soldier that has to seduce a dancer in Berlin. If accomplished this will enable his troop to win a bet. No one in the other troop has managed the feat. Elvis stays overnight with dancer Juliet Prowse and his troop wins the wager but Elvis does not sleep with her. They are babysitting. The dancer, though, is not keen on the idea of being used in a wager. Although sensitive she soon realises that Elvis is a decent chap, and they hug and kiss at the end of the picture. There is a sense in the film, though, that boys should be allowed to be boys. Two of the soldiers are called Dynamite and Turk.
The critics were sniffy about the movie but not as harsh as they had been about the earlier rock and roll dramas. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was a fierce analyst of any film but even he went as far to say that the new Elvis was ‘now a fellow you can almost stand’. Not so respected cineaste Colonel Parker added his own critical contribution. In a 1960 interview with a reporter from the Hearst press Parker said this about the films of his protégé, ‘They’ll never win any Academy Awards. All they’re good for is making money.’ With friends like that who needs enemies. Elvis bought a monkey a couple of months later. Perhaps this was a coincidence or maybe Elvis was more in need of emotional support than was realised.
I was twelve years old when I saw the movie and heard the album. I was not critical. I had liked the rock and roll but underneath my own quiff there was a not so rebellious schoolboy. I liked the winning ways of the hero and the idea that Elvis was a decent young man. Virtue as it was understood back then was not without appeal. I did not think too critically about the songs and admired a singer that was developing new skills. I also liked the brushed back Army haircut Elvis had in G.I.Blues. It promised an alternative to Brylcreem and demanding grooming. I treated myself to a crew cut and fashioned my hair into something similar. I was pleased with the results. My tolerance of the album might have had something to do with it being the first Elvis album that I was able to listen to on a regular basis. I did not own the record but I would cycle to the aunt that disapproved of the blues based Santa Claus Is Back In Town. In her home I listened to the album and other Elvis records. What was odd was that none of her family were Elvis fans. The cousin that had helped me develop a rock and roll hairstyle lost interest in Elvis after G.I Blues. The Elvis records in the home of the aunt belonged to a friend of her family, a friend whose record player had stopped working. The fan thought that someone should at least listen to the records. Right from the beginning Elvis fans were evangelical.
Before he either retired from Hollywood or was considered redundant Elvis made 29 films. The four before he went into the Army were musical dramas. Of the movies made after his return almost all were song laden musical comedies. During the recording of the G.I. Blues album there had been both resistance by Elvis and an effort by him to add some quality to what he initially regarded as a hopeless task. The music on the album may offend rock and roll fans but Elvis deserves some credit for the resistance and subsequent effort. His bewildering capitulation would occur later.
Howard Jackson has had eleven 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.