Released October 24 1966
The excuse was repeated often. Most of the time the alibis or explanations were no more than snippets in the British music press. But a more detailed account came from the British TV producer Jack Good. He had been willing to share with journalists an experience from a Hollywood party. Elvis was present amongst the guests and gave, according to Good, an informal but inspirational performance of a couple of blues tunes. Later, when Elvis was relaxing or at least no longer warbling, Jack Good spoke to Elvis. Like the rest of us, Good wanted to know why Elvis would not return to the rock and roll music that he and his fans preferred. Elvis explained. Movie contracts had been signed in 1960 after he had left the army. Now the agreements had to be fulfilled even though the soundtrack albums were destroying both his record sales and reputation. ‘You’ll have to ask the Colonel,’ added Elvis. In this account Parker sounds like a chap whose not unreasonable long term plans had been compromised by unforeseen developments. Sympathy should be withheld from the deluded hustler.
In 1966, the year that the Spinout soundtrack album was released, Parker extended the movie contract that Elvis had with MGM to include an additional four movies. The Beatles and others had demonstrated that rock and roll had a lot more life left than the previous generation had imagined. Young people were not becoming old and listening to the music that their parents liked. The record sales of Elvis had collapsed, and rather than mature the star had become an anachronistic source of amusement. The degree to which Elvis understood how he was being undermined remains unclear. If there was protest from the singer, it lacked purpose and consisted of little more than indifferent vocal performances and a tendency to catch colds that put back production and recording schedules by the odd day. There were also other developments.
Brian Epstein was the manager of The Beatles. He also owned the NEMS record store in the centre of Liverpool. In 1966 rock and roll groups from Liverpool remained popular. For locals certain locations had become iconic. NEMS record store was one of them. In 1966 I left Merseyside for University. Before that happened, though, I was one Saturday afternoon in NEMS and browsing through the stacked record sleeves. None of the records from the local bands impressed me but I was also conscious that Liverpool was the centre of something. The really cool hogged the counter, flirted with the salesgirls and posed. They enjoyed these unanticipated moments of regional supremacy. One of the salesgirls played Ain’t Too Proud To Beg by the Temptations. The record had more impact on me than anything The Beatles and their peers had recorded. African Americans were making music that utilised the traditional strength of gospel and their own blessed vocal chords. The records from Tamla Motown in Detroit and Stax in Memphis were not quite shaping the identities of my white peers but it was clear that the two record companies were making musical and cultural breakthroughs. African Americans were anticipating a different future, one in which space in the spotlight would be more crowded than before.
At this point anyone should have realised that if Elvis were to survive as a force then serious change would be needed. Head in the sand Parker, though, had signed Elvis to more movies. Keeping the show on the road was what mattered to Parker. What the show consisted of was irrelevant to his entrepreneurial ambitions. More than anything the Colonel was reassured by the sight of extra yards of visible road where one could be positioned a safe distance away from threatening horizons. This was the routine and philosophy of the travelling carnival man, and Parker was always more carny than canny. Between 1957 and 1966 film producer Hal Wallis had rolled eight Elvis movies off the Paramount production line. The last of these was Paradise Hawaiian Style, the movie that preceded the MGM release, Spinout. Prior to the production of the earlier movie Roustabout there had been concerns expressed by Wallis about the flabby appearance of Elvis. Two years later in Paradise Hawaiian Style the singer was even heftier and more listless. Hal Wallis had an impressive record as a movie producer and understood what success required. He produced one more movie for Elvis, a desultory effort called Easy Come Easy Go. In 1966 only blinkered Parker believed that Elvis had a Hollywood future. In the middle of a record store in Liverpool and listening to Ain’t Too Proud To Beg it felt like Elvis had no future at all.
The front cover of the Spinout album had the routine and uninspired head and shoulder shot of Elvis. The extra weight had expanded his jaw line. On the back cover there were twelve inset photographs, one for each song. All featured Elvis posing next to a racing car. Ten of these photos had him holding a blue crash helmet. In the other two he held a spanner. None had Elvis holding either a guitar or microphone. Those days were long gone. In the UK the movie was called California Holiday. Movie executives decided Americanisms like ‘spinout’ were beyond the comprehension of British fans. This assumption did not prevent the music track Spinout being released as the B side of the single All That I Am.
For all his bluster and stubbornness Parker must have had doubts because he asked that the songwriters produce for the Spinout soundtrack numbers that were ‘more peppy’. The use of the word peppy reveals well how Parker was unqualified to manage a rock and roll singer in the 1960s. Yet the songwriters did listen to Parker. On the Spinout album soundtrack there are just two ballads. The rest is the requested pep. None of it, though, qualifies as rock and roll. Listening to the rock numbers on Spinout is like reading a comic book after putting literature to one side. Rather than search for rhythm and freedom Elvis performs the tracks as a self-conscious celebrity and sacrifices the urgent spirit that had distinguished his rock and roll classics. Too often his performances are pitched between rock and roll and the casual style he used for novelty Hollywood tunes and calypsos. The instrumentation is also thin and taken too fast.
The request for ‘more peppy’ persuaded gifted songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman that they could claim another payday with a facsimile of their classic tune His Latest Flame. And their contribution Never Say Yes might have worked if Elvis had found a degree of the inspiration that he had on the previous hit. But the performance of Elvis demonstrates as well as anything the dilemma that faced him in Hollywood. Is he supposed to be singing rock and roll or adding charm to what will be presented as inoffensive fluff? The most successful efforts on Spinout are the ballads and the unashamed novelty tunes. Smorgasbord and Beach Shack have been ridiculed by critics and deserve to be but whatever their limitations they do have a successful light groove. They are what they are, finger tapping fluff where the charm sticks. The rock and roll elsewhere suffers from an identity crisis. The extra pep demanded by Parker had failed. Neither of the two ballads have significance but All That I Am and Am I Ready are both pleasant and melodic. The lush vocals by Elvis help.
If disappointing, the Spinout album did have welcome surprises. Two came from a recording session that had occurred three months after Elvis had recorded the nine Spinout songs. After two and a half years of churning out nothing but movie soundtracks Elvis had made the trip to Nashville and recorded a second gospel album. At these sessions Elvis was introduced to his new record producer Felton Jarvis. The gospel material and the fresh face of Jarvis persuaded Elvis to apply himself. He also recorded half a dozen songs that were not intended for the gospel album. A month later Elvis was scheduled to create more records but he made a vague excuse and settled for adding vocal tracks to three songs. The bonus items on Spinout are the Bob Dylan song Tomorrow Is a Long Time, the old Clovers’ rhythm and blues hit Down In The Alley and I’ll Remember You, a ballad from Hawaiian songwriter Kui Lee, an ex-doorman and knife dancer that would die from cancer before the end of 1966.
The Elvis version of Tomorrow Is A Long Time was cited by Dylan as his favourite cover of any of his songs. Elvis keeps it simple but although the song is over five minutes long his perfect phrasing ensures that what could be monotonous remains tense and interesting. Down In The Alley is full blooded and raunchy blues. Both of these were recorded amidst the gospel material that formed the album How Great Thou Art. I’ll Remember You was one of the three songs to which Elvis added his vocals to pre-recorded instrumental tracks. No one ever said that life and art were fair. What should have been compromised by a lack of industry and self-pity is a real achievement. A song about unrequited love is transformed into existential mystery by a vocal that suggests a dangerous and self-destructive martyr complex. These three bonus tracks on Spinout were not grasping the future in the same way The Temptations had with Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and subsequently their even better I Know I’m Losing You but Elvis was responding to something. Yet there were also parallels in these fine moments with the half-hearted vocals that had marred his movie albums since Girls! Girls! Girls! If the three bonus tracks were an attempt at protest, it all felt unfocussed, random and without purpose. What Elvis was up to we would not discover until 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.