37 LET’S BE FRIENDS
Released in the USA April 1970
39 ALMOST IN LOVE
Released in the USA October 1970
Two budget Elvis albums were released on the RCA Camden label in 1970 and either side of the second Elvis live album from Las Vegas. The live and full price Las Vegas album was called On Stage and will be discussed in the next blog. The two budget albums were called Let’s Be Friends and Almost In Love. The titles could have described subsequent stages in seduction and, who knows, perhaps that was the intention. In the previous year Elvis had emerged as an entertainer that had not just reclaimed a career but rediscovered his edge and spirit. Not all of the Dylan and Beatles generation were convinced but the impact on record sales was obvious. It is a mystery what Parker and RCA had hoped to achieve by gathering leftovers to create budget albums. Rather than support their protege they reminded record buyers that Elvis had for too long a period been anything but independent and rebellious.
And in 1970 defiance was fashionable. Solzhenitsyn may have written turgid novels but a spell in a Siberian gulag earned him a Nobel Prize for literature. In the same year the not quite as serious Mick Jagger was fined £200 for smoking marijuana. Despite their contempt for just about everything the boorish Chicago Seven were luckier. In 1970 the Seven were found not guilty of conspiring to incite a riot two years earlier at the Democratic Chicago Convention of 1968. There were also casualties. A 27 year-old Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 of a drug overdose. That year Paul McCartney announced that he had left The Beatles. While constructing a bomb intended for a military parade the violent radicals The Weathermen blew up three of their members. At Kent State University three students were shot dead by members of the Ohio National Guardsmen. The issue of Rolling Stone that followed the Kent State shootings was gloomy but memorable. I read it while sitting in a pub in London where at the time I was living. I shared the Rolling Stone magazine with a mate. Neither of us had faith in either the conservative or the progressive factions or options. The future felt as flat as the southern beer we drank.
Commerce, of course, continued. In the UK resale price maintenance had been abolished in 1964 but the price of records in 1970 was still uniform and had been for some years. Budget albums in 1970 were a recent innovation. At the end of 1969 on December 12th two people signed a commercial contract. One was definitely a white male and was called Colonel Parker. The other was a representative of the record company RCA and almost certainly a white male. What they agreed was this. RCA would release four Elvis budget albums on their RCA Camden label. Elvis would not record any new material for these albums. The tracks would consist of songs not featured on previous albums. Three of the albums would be released in 1970, and the fourth would appear in 1971. The fee agreed by Parker was $300,000. 50% of the ‘advance’ was paid to Parker. The remaining half was paid to Presley. The full payment of the ‘royalties’ would be paid no later than between January the first and January the tenth. These details invite comment.
The normal cut for Parker from the earnings of Elvis was 25%. But in this instance, and there were others, Parker claimed 50%. The greed of Parker played a part but it would not have been difficult for a conman to rationalise and justify such behaviour. Perhaps this was what the deadbeat Colonel would have thought in front of the mirror: Elvis had already been paid for recording these songs, and the extra money that was now being earned from these two albums was a consequence of the business acumen of his manager. Less obvious is the thinking of the RCA executive that signed the contract. Record companies can be as exploitative as managers of rock stars but RCA had a vested interest in being able to market Elvis as fashionable and having their customers associate the number one RCA meal ticket with quality product.
The advance payment of $300,000 would have reflected anticipated sales although neither of these budget albums can be described as hits. Almost In Love reached no higher than 65 in the Billboard album chart. Let’s Be Friends even failed to make the top 100 and reached 105. To their credit the fans were not fooled. One person, though, that was kidded on a regular basis was Elvis. The 50% sleight of hand was somehow missed by him. Nor did he object to songs that he had recorded under duress being used to define two albums that would mar the serious efforts made in the previous twelve months. Money was involved but it is difficult to imagine $150,000 as being persuasive for Elvis. In 1969 he earned $2,040,000 and paid without complaint income tax of $1,126,000. The likelihood is that Elvis was unaware that the albums had been released. In those circumstances tricky Parker paying Elvis 50% of the advance could be seen as generous.
Parker has been described by some critics as a man unable to think beyond the short term. What interested the carny hustler was ‘now-money’. After Parker retired he wasted his cash in the casinos of Las Vegas and died without anything remaining from his fortune. The final payment to Parker and Elvis against the four budget albums was due to be paid between the 1st and the 10th of January 1970, less than a month after the agreement. The normal accounting year in the USA is from October to the end of September. Firms in the USA, though, can choose which tax year they want their accounts to straddle. Possibly the payment was designed to be split between tax years or annual reports to shareholders but more likely was the need of Parker to have money up front. Rather than an advance the two payments were a waiver of royalties, Parker insisting that RCA could not wait too long for income from the records before paying what he had demanded. Such deals are made by people that have no sense of the future, the folk that believe all that matters is what happens on the roulette wheel that night and tomorrow can look after itself.
The venture capitalist James Goldsmith was always willing to defend his role as a destructive predator of companies that had previously made profits and provided remunerative work for its employees. Goldsmith said that in the animal kingdom predators were important to the survival of a species. No creature liked being hunted and eaten by the predator but it was the presence of external parasitic predators that kept species alert and vigorous. Without the need to defend against predators, species would lose their vigour and ultimately perish. The argument is obvious self-serving baloney that would collapse within minutes if scrutinised by a qualified anthropologist. But in the modern business world of humans the predators exist and they are adept at self-justification. The charitable believe that Parker was nothing more than a man out of his time and depth, someone obliged to be wrong headed. The less forgiving reckon that Parker was more sinister. The British journalist Ray Connolly met Parker and Elvis in Las Vegas in 1969. Connolly described Parker as a monster. Predators, of course, often hunt in packs. Parker had allies. He found them in Hollywood, Las Vegas and a record company that had little interest in popular American music. Pride at RCA was restricted to the classical music catalogue. Alert creatures can survive against predators. Elvis was not alert.
These two budget albums mix the embarrassing with the commendable. Almost In Love is the superior example but it is reduced by the throwaway movie efforts. Edge Of Reality is Hollywood nonsense but the tune has a good arrangement and Elvis adds a powerful vocal. Both albums have a song called Stay Away, Joe. Neither have merit but the aimless Greensleeves imitation that concludes the Almost In Love album is the one that makes the toes curl. Charro is the title song from a Western that Elvis made close to the end of his movie career. The track has an arrangement by Ennio Morricone but hearing Elvis sing this creation only reveals the limitations of an overpraised Italian composer. Two movie songs stand out from the rest. Rubberneckin’ is not much of a song but it was recorded at American Sound Studios. The commitment of Elvis and the production of Chips Moman transform the number into a powerful rocker. Clean Up Your Own Backyard might be from a movie called The Trouble with Girls but it is a great record with a fine rhythm and it pitches somewhere between bluegrass, Delta blues and modern rock. This is Elvis at his downhome best. Almost In Love is either a homage to Sinatra or evidence of sly scorn. Either way it exists as a fine example of crooning and confirms the unique range of Elvis. US Male is funny and has a rhythm that pulses with suppressed energy. Taste in humour, though, has changed since 1969. The rest of Almost In Love is okay without being exceptional.
There is little, though, on Let’s Be Friends that is even okay. Almost is a pleasant lounge style ballad but without the homage to Sinatra the record is nowhere near as interesting as Almost In Love. Two tracks on Let’s Be Friends are superior to the rest. Both were recorded at American Sound Studios. Neither were considered suitable for the two previous Memphis albums. If I’m A Fool For Loving You is familiar fare but has a country force. I’ll Be There was previously recorded by Bobby Darin. Supposedly Elvis was unhappy with his vocals on the country song. He felt his voice was tired but the record would have added bolster to the ten tracks of the previous From Vegas To Memphis. The original appeal of I’ll Be There to Elvis does not appear to have persuaded anyone to explore its potential. The arrangement is sparse and what is dubbed sounds like an afterthought. The performance by Elvis is, though, heartfelt. If Elvis was critical of these efforts, he was far more forgiving of the weaker material that he recorded 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.