31 ELVIS’ GOLD RECORDS VOLUME 4
Released in the USA January 22 1968
In 1968 writers had status that today has long been lost or perhaps forfeited. If novelists were held in the highest regard back then, an appearance in print also added esteem to not just historians and philosophers but critics. The high status that clung to writers was still persistent in 1975 when Mystery Train: Images Of Rock And Roll In America was published. The book gave author Greil Marcus immediate fame. Marcus approached rock and roll with a voice that was serious and informed. He was the first author, but not the last, to reference the career of Elvis to the American vision of Herman Melville. Marcus may have been informed but he was also ideological. He relished rock and roll music that was subversive and radical. For him the rest was mere product, aural novocaine.
Marcus was harsh when he described the failures and stumbles in the career of Elvis. But the author also saw Elvis the man as someone that had at his best fulfilled the ambition of the poet Walt Whitman. Marcus wrote that the performances of Elvis contained the democratic proclamation that ‘No one is better than me and I am better than no one.’ The quote I prefer for Elvis is how Whitman described himself, ‘one of the roughs, a disorderly kosmos’. According to Marcus, the best of Elvis honoured Southern rockabilly and blues. Greil Marcus is now 75 years old. He has mellowed and these days he no doubt sneaks the occasional Elvis ballad into his playlists. Marcus mentions Elvis Gold Records Vol 4 in his book Mystery Train. He asserted that the track A Mess Of Blues had merit but the rest of the album was nothing more than uninspired product.
For the Christmas of 1967 I spent the whole four weeks vacation at the home of my parents. I was pleased to see my parents but there were also people at University I needed to avoid. The trouble that had begun at the end of my first year continued. Some people suffered more than me. Drugs had become popular amongst the students. My youthful excess was confined to alcohol and an aggressive spirit. For all my indulgent shenanigans I expected to grow old and settle at some point. Around me at University were people who, thanks to certain chemicals, were deteriorating fast. Christmas of 1967 was for me, though, memorable for something other than adolescent nonsense.
One night during that December or January my father came home from the pub early. Country and Western bands were then popular in Liverpool and almost all found their way to the village where I lived and the impressive music room of the local pub. One night, though, three jazz musicians from a nearby town brought their instruments and country music was forgotten. The jazz musicians had known my mother when they were all young. She had on occasions sang with them and the American musicians that in the second world war had been stationed locally. My mother was not fond of pubs but my father persuaded her to visit and say hello to old friends. I accompanied my mother and father. In the pub she greeted the musicians but resisted being persuaded to sing or at least she did until the jazz session was over. After much protest from the musicians my mother agreed to sing one song but only on condition that she did not go on to the stage. The microphone was dragged over to where she sat. The devotion of the jazz musicians to my mother surprised me. My mother sang Basin Street Blues. The people who were in the process of leaving the pub returned and sat down. Others that had been standing outside and chatting came back into the music room and they also sat and listened. I watched people be hypnotised by a voice from a small woman that sat in a corner and almost out of sight. The ecstatic applause from the crowd sent chills down my spine. My mother may have left me with a narrow musical taste but she knew what made a singer. All this is mentioned because the song It Hurts Me is her favourite recording by Elvis. It Hurts Me is the third track on side one of Elvis Gold Records Volume 4. So much for Greil Marcus and ideology.
Compared to the previous three volumes the fourth collection of Elvis’ gold records is weak. But although there is indeed some routine product little of the album can be described as fodder. Indescribably Blue is an over the top ballad, and Please Don’t Drag That String Around is light rock and roll that Elvis fails to rescue. The rest of the album is fine which is no small feat because the recording efforts of Elvis since Elvis Golden Records Volume 3 had been restricted to soundtrack albums, a great gospel album and a handful of studio tracks. The Hollywood studios insisted that the singles taken from the movies were included on the albums, and the Gold Record collections only included Elvis singles not included on an album elsewhere. Classics like Return To Sender and Bossa Nova Baby were not eligible for selection. Either Parker or someone at RCA believed that this policy maximised record sales. In the UK eight of the twelve songs on Elvis Gold Records Volume 4 were B sides to hit singles. These included two Hollywood tracks that had been unable to find their way on to a soundtrack album.
Although Elvis Gold Records Volume 4 has merit no one that looked at the album in 1968 was reassured. With few of the recent singles of Elvis eligible the compilers had to spread the selection over the years 1960 to 1966. Recent efforts were combined with earlier leftovers. Ain’t That LovingYou Baby had been released in 1964 but had been recorded in 1958. A Mess Of Blues, which Greil Marcus rightly recognised as being exceptional, was recorded in 1960. Elvis Golden Records Volume 4 has fine moments but it does not have the promise and historical focus that had distinguished the three previous collections. For Elvis fans in early 1968 progress was suggested by rumours rather than his records. There were hints in the weekly music papers that the next films from Elvis would have fewer songs and tougher scripts. Photographs from one of those films appeared in the pop press. Elvis was seen to be in bed with the attractive Michelle Carey albeit there was a wooden plank between the two tempted lovers. We were supposed to be shocked.
The singles Guitar Man and US Male provided some hope that Elvis was returning to rock and roll but emphatic evidence of change and rejuvenation was missing. The more than normal retrospective nature of Elvis Gold Records Volume 4 ensured that the album was, when it appeared, inadequate. It monitored a phase of a career that had been fitful. RCA were hoping for sales that would arrest the decline in earnings from their Elvis catalogue but Elvis Gold Records Volume 4 only reached number 33 in the Billboard pop chart. The much inferior Spinout album had in 1966 somehow crawled up to 18. People were wise to what had happened to Elvis and were weary of the oppressive vision of an out of date Parker.
Today we can listen to the album like art connoisseurs look at paintings from the great artists. Not everything is fabulous but all reveal a special talent, a master at work. Elvis Gold Records Volume 4 rewards attention. And not just A Mess Of Blues is sublime. Elvis may not have had a voice that was the equal of Aretha Franklin but if she ever had listened to It Hurts Me she would have, like my mother, been obliged to admire the performance. The Elvis version of Love Letters is also magical. David Briggs was a newcomer to Elvis recording sessions in 1966 but Elvis insisted that Briggs replaced Floyd Cramer on piano on Love Letters. Briggs is cautious and follows the instrumentation on the original by Ketty Lester. Elvis adds a country feel and ignores the jazz inflections Lester used. His performance is restrained and heartfelt but still loaded with surprise. Ask Me is a little sweet for my taste but is regarded as a classic and deserves to be. Again the vocal is inspired and sensitive. The two movie songs, What’d I Say and Lonely Man, made the B sides of singles for a reason. They were superior to the usual movie dross. The former has been dismissed as misguided and eccentric. Time, though, has been kind to the Elvis version of What’d I Say. Now it feels distinctive and bold. The latter is blessed with Elvis sharing his vulnerability and him valuing sympathy. Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello has irresistible pop hooks, and Elvis adds his special mix of charm and control. Neither of Witchcraft and You’re The Devil In Disguise would pass muster as a rock and roll anthem, and Elvis could have added more passion, but he does have a good rapport with the other musicians. Elvis in the mid-1960s was keen that his fans would feel his music rather than just listen to him sing. The year 1968 had begun with Elvis complaining to RCA that the contributions of the musicians were not as prominent on his Guitar Man single as they had been on the tape he submitted to the record company.
Changes did occur in 1968. Some of these affected Elvis and would not be noticed by the wider world. Elvis and Priscilla moved into a smaller four bedroomed house in California. The presence of the Memphis Mafia in that home was reduced to just Charlie Hodge and his girlfriend. To compensate for the absence of lackeys Elvis hired a butler. Elvis also became a father. His daughter Lisa Marie was born in February. The newspapers had other concerns. The Vietnam War had escalated and appeared to be out of control. The protests by the young on the streets had become battles. In France students and workers combined to occupy Paris. To prevent a revolution President De Gaulle was forced to make concessions. In the USA Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. The falling profits for RCA and Colonel Parker and these political changes would all have an impact on the career of Elvis. This would become apparent before the end of the year but the degree to which a changing political world reshaped Elvis in 1968 would not be understood 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.