16 GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!
17 IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR
Released in the USA November 12 1962 and March 15 1963
John Lennon liked a quip as much as anyone and, when told about the death of Elvis Presley, he was unable to resist a smart wisecrack. ‘Elvis died when he joined the Army,’ said Lennon. The response from the Beatle was both inaccurate and crass. Marcel Proust never had the chance to meet Elvis but we know his attitude to death was more nuanced than that of Lennon. Proust argued that there were many small deaths to be endured in a life before the final death. John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and his death that day was both final and anything but small. After the assassination of Kennedy the mood of people changed. Disappointment and cynicism appeared in a restless population, and a rebellious mood gathered strength. The Beatles arrived and the bland optimism of the musical comedies of Elvis and the vision of Parker became unfashionable. The two movies, Girls! Girls! Girls! and It Happened At The World’s Fair, straddled the years 1962 and 1963. In 1960 and before the arrival of these films Elvis had changed his musical ambitions but he had also avoided the small deaths that had been identified by Proust. He had conquered as both a rock and roller and smooth pop idol. More than anyone Elvis had reshaped the pop music of the 1950s and the 1960s.
The albums Girls! Girls! Girls! and It Happened At The World’s Fair might or might not qualify as a small death. If not, they at least exist as evidence of a humbled conqueror. There is romance in military history but it consists of either individual valour or small armies capturing strongholds at the top of a tall and secure hill. Military heroes are folk that are obliged to fight themselves to discover courage and face impossible odds. Elvis Presley in 1962 was at the top of the hill. There was nothing left for him to conquer apart from being a serious actor. And rather than fight that battle Parker had surrendered to the priorities of Hollywood. With additional territories denied him all Elvis could do with his career and music was retain his military stronghold. The problem for Elvis was that Parker had decided that Elvis could be the next Bing Crosby. Even before the assassination of Kennedy and what followed that was a dubious strategy. For Elvis a life defending a military stronghold was not only less exciting but, thanks to Colonel Parker, he was on a hill that no one wanted to capture or even view.
There is a photograph taken on the movie set of Girls! Girls! Girls! that has the Colonel posing with the members of the Memphis Mafia. Everyone is smiling. The Colonel is making money, and the Elvis lackeys are living a life they thought not possible. What is surprising about the picture is the Colonel taking the time to pose with a bunch of useless adolescents. Today it makes sense. More than one modern company creates a nursery style environment to control its employees. Encouraging childish behaviour in a company is how rebellion is avoided. Making the managers goofy and treating the employees like children is a popular mantra. Parker was always willing to appear goofy. For each musical comedy in which Elvis appeared big boss Parker would find a strange costume and create a comic antic on the movie set. He played the clown. The final song on the It Happened At The World’s Fair album is something called Happy Ending. Of the 23 songs on the two albums it has the worst performance by Elvis. Happy Ending was an indication of the depths he would subsequently reach. Elvis sings Happy Ending as if he is envisaging anything but.
The Girls! Girls! Girls! album was recorded just seven days after the more serious effort of recording the ten songs that had been intended for the Pot Luck studio collection. It Happened At The World’s Fair was recorded when Elvis was recovering from a cold. The circumstances are important but there is also context. Elvis was becoming disheartened, bored and, thanks to his own flaws and the efforts of Parker, more infantile. The magic and inspiration that had helped him transcend the movie fluff of the previous two years had disappeared.
Listening to the Girls! Girls! Girls! album today, it does not sound as awful as when I heard it as a fourteen year old but back then I had to cycle five miles to the home of my aunt to hear the damned thing. Now I can listen to the album on a decent music system, relax in a comfortable study and not have to worry about a five mile cycle trip home. Today and in crystal clear stereo it is possible to discern professionalism and craft. Most of the songs have moments but none of them, apart from the brilliant Return To Sender, are successful from beginning to end. The disdain Elvis has for the pastiche rocker I Don’t Wanna Be Tied is obvious in the verse but he cracks into life on the chorus. The title track is sexist and silly but it has an extended saxophone solo and is cheerful comic rock and roll. The novelty songs may be trite but at least Elvis remembers that he can be charming. The Walls Have Ears is a catchy flamenco with odd brief moments that are, believe it or not, shaded with traces of Little Willie John rhythm and blues. The track I Don’t Want To begins well but meanders into something soppy and creepy. On most of the ballads Elvis sounds like a calculating lounge lizard. The notion that fifty years ago some women would find this attractive is disturbing. In March 1962 it had been agreed between Elvis and the father of Priscilla Presley that the 17 year old daughter would be allowed to live at Graceland. Elvis promised that Priscilla would be educated at a catholic school in the neighbourhood. Listen to the version of Because Of Love by Elvis, and what happened between him and the father of Priscilla feels like a villainous detail in a sinister plot by Shakespeare.
If the Girls! Girls! Girls! album was a disappointment then its successor It Happened At The World’s Fair was only interesting because it demonstrated how mediocre Elvis could be when he tried or rather did not. Before he died, Elvis talked about the demands of recording musical soundtracks. He said something like them having one decent song with which he could make an effort but the rest were just songs that had to be worked through quickly. One gem amongst the remaining dross on an album was the best that Elvis achieved throughout the rest of his movie career. This phenomenon almost began with the Girls! Girls! Girls! album but was consolidated with the soundtrack of It Happened At The World’s Fair. The gem on Girls! Girls! Girls! is Return To Sender, and the standout track on It Happened At The World’s Fair is They Remind Me Too Much Of You. Jackie Wilson was present on the movie set of Girls! Girls! Girls! when Return To Sender was being performed. The presence of Wilson inspired Elvis to imitate Wilson, pay homage and create a classic. They Remind Me Too Much Of You is not just the highlight of It Happened At The World’s Fair but also a bleak, realistic and mature achievement. The songwriter Don Robertson had not just the knack of writing distinct ballads but the ability to inspire Elvis to improve the material. The track is marred by slight hum from feedback, and whilst that might indicate sloppiness it also suggests a realisation that the poetry captured by Elvis had to be retained. One Broken Heart For Sale is tame and uninspired rock and roll but not unpleasant. The other Don Robertson song on the album is I’m Falling In Love Tonight. This is a weak effort and reveals Robertson at his sweetest. The other seven songs have nothing to distinguish them. Relax is an imitation of Fever and might have had some potential but Elvis was not interested. It all felt like a waste. It Happened At The World’s Fair is a ten track album that lasted a mere twenty two minutes. Elvis recorded the album in just twelve hours.
Oddly the deterioration in the music of Elvis began around the time I was obliged to take him seriously. In 1962 the local authority where I lived erected a library. The building had four wooden walls and a sloping roof but was no bigger than a Nissen hut. It had sufficient books, though, to permit me to borrow four a fortnight. This I did. My library cards felt like a badge of honour. One of the books I borrowed was by the American author Borden Deal. The book was called The Desolate Breed. The story was located in the American Deep South and it focussed on the conflict between a country musician and a local preacher. Using this rivalry it explored the split in southern society between free thinking hedonism and communal puritanism. Towards the end of the book the grandson of the original country musician meets a band of African American musicians and develops his own music by combining the two musical traditions. The similarity to Elvis was stressed rather than disguised. As a fourteen year old, I was amazed that the cultural importance of Elvis had been not only recognised but asserted by someone who was capable of writing a novel. That alone was enough to interest me but I also liked the notion of grace that the author ascribed to ordinary people. Borden Deal was a romantic and a social conservative. What I was at fourteen years of age I hate to think but the reactionary romance of Deal appealed to me. I liked the acceptance by his characters of capricious fate and their self-effacing polite resignation which I could relate to my own family. It seemed to me that the other side of the coin to ignorance was innocence and in certain circumstances that yielded what was best about people. While Elvis was making movie soundtracks and singing trite production line songs I was consuming books and learning how to be curious. What that would mean for my future relationship with Elvis and his music I would discover 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.