39 – THAT’S THE WAY IT IS
Released in the USA November 1970
Before alternative stand-up comedy arrived in the UK the comics in Liverpool could be divided into two camps. Some specialised in crude sex jokes littered with expletives while the rest peddled no swearing nostalgia about communal working class life. I knew for a short time a comic that belonged to the latter camp. This was before he earned his living as an entertainer. Before we actually met I had observed the man without him noticing me. This happened in the spring of 1971. Weeks later and without knowing one another we travelled 200 miles to begin work in the south of England and for the same company. After the jobs finished the next time I saw the man he was on stage and using a different name.
All this is mentioned because it is an interesting coincidence and when I first saw the comic, the time we did not meet, he was in a record store and sharing a booth with a friend. The two men were listening to the album That’s The Way It Is. Without the two men realising I observed the later to be revealed comedian share with his mate what he thought were fine moments. I watched both men shake their heads in admiration and astonishment. I had remembered the man from a single brief observation because he was from Liverpool, for some reason in Nottingham and an Elvis fan.
Before the album arrived in Britain there had appeared a review of That’s The Way It Is in the magazine Rolling Stone. The famous critic Lester Bangs offered his opinion and used the opportunity to challenge those that had welcomed the comeback of Elvis. Not without indignation Bangs stressed that the album contained no more than one rocker. Peter Guralnick also wrote for Rolling Stone. Although he did not review the album there was a subsequent and disparaging reference by Guralnick to material that he considered countrypolitan and inauthentic. The remark was aimed at the songs on the That’s The Way It Is album. Back in 1970 my reaction had been the same as that of Bangs and Guralnick. Despite what I saw one afternoon in a Nottingham record store and the revisionist analysis that appeared later that reaction in me prevailed for most of my life. I wanted Elvis to be the rock and roll conqueror. Well, rock and roll, like the nostalgic comedy of Scouse comics, has come and gone or at least what I think of as rock and roll. These days I listen to the album with different ears. I am nowhere near as ideological and, being older, probably a lot less vain.
Ideology weakens in various ways and for different reasons. Fundamental cracks appeared in mine the year I was in Nottingham. Weeks before the incident in the record store I had sat in a scruffy pub with a mate and watched two middle-aged women discuss a previous remark that one of the women had considered unfair. The discussion became an argument and developed into a fight. Two tin beer trays had been left on the bar by the barman, and each woman used a beer tray to batter the other. Halfway through the battle and after a significant amount of blood had stained the beer towels my mate turned to me and said, ‘I’ve had enough of this existential authentic stuff. We need to get proper jobs.’
And so we did except it took time. During that period and just before I left Nottingham I saw the film That’s The Way It Is, the documentary that is based on the third season of Elvis in Las Vegas. The movie is different from the album. In the movie Elvis is an obvious rock and roll conqueror and he does a lot more than placate an audience. The movie persuaded me that relying on an ego and vanity was not necessarily destructive and in an odd way it gave me a compass. There was something called harmless fun. Defeat and failure did not need to be relentless but without safe samples of ego and vanity it would be. I went to the barbers for a decent haircut, bought new clothes and headed south. A lot later I remain loyal to the music of the American South that I heard when I was young. My politics continue to be on the left, and I still read existential fiction. I do not, though, think of myself as ideological. And I am no longer intimidated by what used to be the hip writers of Rolling Stone. Today I am willing to acknowledge the short review of That’s The Way It Is that was published in Cashbox. That reviewer described the album as amazing.
If opinion today is not quite so divided as in 1970, the album remains, though, a line that separates. The older fans of Elvis lean towards his music of the 1950s and early 1960s. The younger recruits are more tolerant of what appeared in the 1970s and regard That’s The Way It Is as a supreme moment. In a review in Rolling Stone in 2003 the music critic Tom Nawrocki made amends for what Bangs had said thirty years before. Nawrocki described a subsequent and extended edition of the album as a ‘blueprint for an Elvis that we could have grown old with.’
Rather than a soundtrack from the documentary movie the album includes just four tracks that were recorded live on stage in Vegas. Another had audience applause dubbed to make it sound as if it had been. The track with the shenanigans was Bridge Over Troubled Water. Why this happened is a mystery because there are staggeringly good live Elvis versions of the song available and such trickery is not typical of the live recordings of Elvis, especially from a record company all too willing to push out any material once it had been committed to tape.
The four live tracks are all great, and none suffer from being taken to fast to placate a thrill hungry audience. Standing apart from desultory rock and roll medleys, Patch It Up is a solid four minute rocker. Compared to the studio version Elvis sounds a little mechanical but he is not short of energy and the band adds the necessary grit. The other three live tracks are also around the four minute mark. I’ve Lost You is an improvement on the studio version. What was first presented as English contemporary folk by the band Matthews Southern Comfort acquires from Elvis on stage a tough and at times violent edge. You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and I Just Can’t Help Believing had been hits prior to Elvis recording them but, as Nawrocki wrote in Rolling Stone, the versions by Elvis succeed because he is a better singer. More than that, though, Elvis leans on his complicated musical roots and makes his interpretations distinct. Throughout his version of I Just Can’t Help Believing there is a connection between Elvis and the Sweet Inspirations that lifts the song away from pop and into something fresh and soulful. His version of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling has a compelling gospel middle section that adds authority beyond the Phil Spector original.
Even the devotees of That’s The Way It Is acknowledge that not all the songs used for the tracks recorded in the studio are great. Freddie Bienstock worked for Carlin Music and he managed the process where songs were submitted for Elvis to sing. The comeback of Elvis coincided with Bienstock moving to Britain. Bienstock was always more interested in quantity than quality and he soon took advantage of cheap and second rate British material. Four of the songs on That’s The Way It Is are by British songwriters and none are great. I’ve Lost You is the best of the four and the rest are turgid or would have been if it was not Elvis singing them. Attention to the lyrics reveals their limitations but somehow Elvis manages to imply a realism and profundity beyond the British songsmiths. If Just Pretend is second rate Brit material, the gospel passion that Elvis adds soon redeems the record. The double encore is a fabulous climax. Twenty Days And Twenty Nights has one duff line but for the rest of the song Elvis imagines a relationship that through routine human limitations is never likely to be successful. How The Web Was Woven was first recorded by Jackie Lomax, the ex-leader of the Liverpool band The Undertakers. No one would describe the melody as catchy but Elvis drags the listener into unique mystery and drama.
Later albums by Elvis would focus on unrequited love and lapse into self-pity. The singing of Elvis on That’s The Way It Is captures the various aspects of romance and relationships. The critic that said the album should be compared to the music of Gram Parsons was perhaps not making the compliment that he intended but there are echoes in the album of the curiosity, bemusement and human isolation that define the country rock of Parsons. In not always sophisticated songs Elvis manages to reveal how relationships are shaped by trust, faith, hope, dependency, responsibility, disappointment and yearning. Not the compass needed by a certain 23 year old in 1971 but these days the album does indeed sound like music to grow old with. That’s The Way It Is will not be to the taste of everyone but it is an artistic triumph. The chap from Cashbox had it right. It is an amazing album.
For the third time in a row the photos on the album cover were in black and white. On the reverse of the cover a black and white photo illustrated each song title. The least impressive of all the photos is used to fill the front cover. The format on the back of the cover resembled more than one Elvis movie album and it suggested that a talented designer had been compromised by those with less lofty ambitions. Future album covers would be far more routine and shoddy, something used to patronise both Elvis and his fans. Somewhere in the background the vulgarian Parker was manipulating the promotion to keep the product crass, as if his own ego needed to confirm that he was capable of making money from mere pulp. The final destructive triumphs of Parker, though, would benefit from a weakened Elvis and they would appear 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.