20 KISSIN’ COUSINS
Released in the USA April 1964
Released in the USA October 19 1964
22 GIRL HAPPY
Released in the USA March 1965
The 1960s may have begun in 1963 but the cultural earthquake cracked open in 1964. The Beatles had their first number one hit in the States and within months The Beatles had singles in the top five positions on a Billboard chart. In Merseyside where I lived every street had at least one rock band. On the radio and TV the British were asserting, often in squeaky voices, their right to adopt American music as their own. To celebrate the latest arrogant imperial conquest the BBC launched the Top Of The Pops TV programme. ‘The British don’t half fancy themselves,’ said my blues and jazz fan mother.
The mystery for my family and me was why and how the Americans had been willing to surrender. The citizens of the USA, though, had been somewhat preoccupied. Now it is hard to credit but racial segregation was not outlawed in the States until 1964. In a protest against the Vietnam war twelve young Americans in New York City stepped on to the pavement and burnt their draft cards. I was a sixteen years old teenager that had just left school to work in the Liverpool Stock Exchange. If the experience confirmed my own working class left wing opinions, I resisted political activism. Neither did I welcome the new music. In the local record store, where as a child I had seen all the Elvis album covers, space was made for the new folk album by Bob Dylan. The cover presented rueful intelligence as an alternative to glamour. It felt like the beginning of the end.
Elvis responded to the British invasion with his own radical initiative. The day the musicians appeared to record the KIssin’ Cousins album, Elvis cried off sick with a cold. The musicians recorded the backing tracks, and later at home Elvis dubbed his vocals. Elvis prior to this, and unlike many other singers, had refused to accept dubbing on his records. What appeared on the singles and albums of Elvis had all been created in complete takes. That way Elvis had captured the emotional feel he wanted. The Beatles were conquering America, and Elvis was losing interest.
Two months before Kissin’ Cousins was filmed Elvis had completed Viva Las Vegas, the movie now regarded as the best musical comedy of his career. A record album would have capitalised on its cinematic success. But that would have meant Ann Margret being featured on four of the fourteen album tracks. Turf warrior Parker was not agreeable. He had also been annoyed by the budget that had helped to ensure Viva Las Vegas was watchable. On the missing Vegas album Elvis lacked the rock and roll authority he had demonstrated in the 1950s but he still did enough to survive. And the soundtrack also had the low key but astonishing bluesy jazz ballad I Need Somebody To Lean On. But, like the studio album that had been recorded earlier that year, the Vegas album was abandoned. Parker may have been able to promote product but he had no idea how to champion the creator. Because Elvis was reluctant to battle the British invaders, there was space for other American resistance. One dark winter evening and after finishing work in the Stock Exchange I remained in Liverpool. I walked around the city centre and saw crude adverts for the sale of advance copies of Oh Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison. In 1964 the feeling in the city was that Liverpool might be the centre of the planet. This feeling did not prevent the need for American heroes. For a short while Roy Orbison became hip.
While this was happening Elvis was being steered towards bargain basement rubbish. Not only averse to spending money but anyone that had dreams of critical acclaim Parker found a soulmate in film producer Sam Katzman. The subsequent Roustabout and Girl Happy, though, came from the major studios of Paramount and MGM. But the message from Parker and Katzman had been clear. There was no point in giving a damn. The albums Kissin’ Cousins, Roustabout and Girl Happy are all poor. Indeed the exploitation of the Elvis brand was so extreme by Parker and Hollywood it can be considered fraudulent. Because I was earning money, I bought the three albums. I felt cheated and reacted like many other Elvis fans. Girl Happy was the last soundtrack album I bought. Many years later, when they reappeared in collections that were not too expensive, I relented but not because I thought they had value.
In the best plays of Tennessee Williams a visitor disrupts a small and sometimes strange world. In the Graceland gothic castle the remote world of Elvis and his lackeys was disrupted when in 1964 Elvis changed his hairdresser. Larry Geller not only had a way with a quiff and the hair dye he fancied himself as something of a guru. Elvis responded to dubious intellectual stimulus, and the two men both under and outside the hair dryer compared religious texts. Biographer Peter Guralnick has suggested that Elvis lost interest in his career because in this period his main concern was following a search for religious understanding and the meaning of human spirituality. The opposite, of course might be true, Denied in his work not only emotional satisfaction but confirmation of his identity he sought spiritual compensation elsewhere. Elvis may have been searching for spiritual integrity but he appeared unconcerned by fans buying substandard record albums.
There have been defenders of the music Elvis recorded for his soundtracks. The argument is that Elvis made easy listening albums that were not meant to be taken too seriously, that his Hollywood soundtracks provided escapism for people who wanted to relax after a hard day in the workplace. This argument has merit when compared to the Hollywood efforts by Elvis in the early 1960s. These soundtracks of Elvis musicals were light but also accomplished and superior to normal Hollywood fare. From Kissin’ Cousins, though, it changed. The songs were only occasionally catchy, and Elvis became something we had thought impossible, ordinary,
Inevitably, there are moments, especially if the albums are approached with an open mind rather than rock and roll earnestness. But unlike the studio albums where the highlights had been sublime the better tracks on these later soundtrack albums are not much more than listenable. The moments on Kissin’ Cousins are sparse. The final song on the soundtrack is perhaps tame rock and roll but it has a beat and is interesting. Elvis plays two characters in the film, a backwoods Southerner and a smooth Army officer. He uses two voices in the song, and it is a measure of what was happening to his identity that none of it sounds authentic. He is neither middle class nor the working class Southerner he had been. Yet hearing an identity crisis captured in two minutes of rock and roll is compelling. Less harrowing is the opening track which coincidentally shares the same movie title. This is very light but it has a pleasant lilt that anticipates subsequent Californian pop. Nothing on the rest of the album compares to the two bonus songs taken from the abandoned studio album of 1963. Echoes Of Love is too sweet but it is performed with feeling. (It’s A) Long Lonely Highway is different. No song that has the line ‘Don’t tell me, buddy, I wouldn’t be better off dead’ can be described as sweet. It has a bounce that exposes the limp performances of Elvis elsewhere on Kissin’ Cousins.
Despite the success of Blue Hawaii its producer Hal Wallis was already having doubts about cheerful musical comedies. Roustabout kind of returned to the musical dramas that Elvis had made before he went into the army. Somewhere along the way, though, people either lost their nerve or Parker interfered. The compromised movie may not be great but it hints at Nicholas Ray type angst and is one of the better efforts. And this time Elvis managed to find his way to the recording studio. The carnival setting provided an opportunity for Elvis to sing the Leiber and stoller hit Little Egypt. Its rock and roll pedigree provided a temporary antidote to the rest of the album. One Track Heart perhaps lacks emotional impact but it is complex and unusual. The jazzy tone and structure makes it just about worthwhile. The other songs sound as if they have been written by someone in bed recovering from a Hollywood hangover.
By the time Girl Happy appeared a new celluloid image had been established. In his early films Elvis had been the adolescent rebel. Later the image was refined to represent ordinary, humble and self-effacing Americans. In 1964, though, Elvis was almost 30 years old. The hairstyle had changed to incorporate an unattractive kiss curl. Even without the libidinal concerns of Girl Happy there was something sleazy about this new Hollywood Elvis.
The rockers on Girl Happy sound like the equivalent of overcooked and tasteless soup. The verse of the ballad Do Not Disturb has a decent melody but the chorus is lifeless. Cross My Heart And Hope To Die has a light jazz feel and although slight and contrived it is half decent. Another verse perhaps and some effort from Elvis and I’ve Got To Find My Baby might have been a decent finale. Never likely to be strong the album Girl Happy also suffered because of how the sound was mixed. The musicians were confined to the left speaker, the backing singers to the right and Elvis was left to warble alone in the middle. Disastrous engineering and commercial opportunism that lined up targets and then missed them combined to produce what can only be described as an embarrassment. A recovery in the career of Elvis would occur but not until much 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.