45 – ELVIS SINGS THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CHRISTMAS
Released in the USA September 1971
46 – ELVIS NOW
Released in the USA February 20 1972
One person that must have had a good Christmas in 1971 was John Sinclair. He was released from prison that December. Previously he had been sentenced to confinement for ten years for selling two marijuana joints. The likelihood is that he avoided listening to the awful Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas. Ten years is a bit steep for a couple of joints, so we have to hope so. The man was entitled to a decent yuletide celebration. Northern Ireland is the country where everyone is willing to argue politics. In the same year that Sinclair was released the Reverend Ian Paisley founded the Irish political party Democratic Unionist Party. Talk of economic revolution was fading, and so was hope for a better world. The agitation of the 1960s had been reduced to nothing more than an insistence on having long hair and the freedom to be promiscuous and take drugs. But away from the cultural fuss, and not just in Northern Ireland, revised battle-lines were being drawn. People who said that the nation state should not be involved in the economy because long term plans invariably failed were, without any sense of irony, making their own plans. We all know what followed.
Parker and the executives at RCA belonged with those that were arguing against long term planning. Like the economic neoliberals, they took money very seriously and believed the future should be shaped by immediate demands and desires rather than long term objectives. The priority for Santa Claus Parker and RCA was what money Elvis could earn that year. Parker had learned working in carnival that there was always another town where the tills could be filled. But even life in the short term lane requires a plan. In six days in 1969 Elvis had recorded 33 songs in six days. In Nashville the next year he recorded 36 songs in five days. Ready to capitalise on a revitalised Elvis, another mammoth session was set up for 1971. This time the people opposed to planning had a plan, kind of.
The recording session that was set up in 1971 had distinct objectives. Elvis was to record a Christmas album and enough contemporary material for the pop market. Parker was convinced that Christmas, because it kept popping up in the calendar, had long term economic potential. The gospel album that came out of the sessions was a sop to Elvis. In the recording sessions of 1969 and 1970 the purpose had been simple. Elvis had an opportunity to record material that would allow him to rediscover and reveal his talent. The albums that emerged from the Nashville sessions of 1971 suggest something organised by a committee. Elvis appears to have had little say in the discussions. ‘Why can’t they just re-release the Christmas album I did in 1957?’ he said. So much for consultation.
The inexpensive songs of Geoff Morrow, David Martin and Chris Arnold had earlier attracted now British based song collector Freddy Bienstock. Morrow attended the 1971 recording session for one day and witnessed what most of us had heard too often in the previous fifteen years. A lifeless and alienated Elvis worked his way through the Christmas songs but the free spirit when released found solace in an animated and impressive jam session of the Dylan song, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.
Apart from the sessions being ill conceived there was another problem. The physical decline of Elvis had begun. His excessive use of uppers and downers were having an effect. No one can deny that Elvis used pills for the same reasons some of us drink alcohol and others like John Sinclair smoke marijuana. The pills taken by Elvis were, though, also an attempt at self-medication. They alleviated his depression that had been ever present from 1962. The pills also mitigated physical discomfort and pain. While John Sinclair was contemplating release from prison Elvis was enjoying a certain freedom with a lady called Joyce Bova. She recalls seeing Elvis have injections put into his eyes. These were to mitigate the pain he was experiencing from glaucoma. This was the reality behind celebrity and glamour. Bova has confirmed that Elvis had wide mood swings. Her view was that the drugs were the main cause. Bova worked as a congressional aide in Washington. She remembers that physical gratification, although it existed in their relationship, was neither the most important element nor the reason why he was betraying his wife Priscilla. Married or not Elvis yearned for more emotional intimacy and perhaps approval from authority.
In the years between 1971 and 1977 there are impressive moments from Elvis on record and often a soulful ache to his performances that is beyond the younger man. Elvis remained a great singer but only the cloth-eared can fail to hear the deterioration in his voice. Throughout the sessions of 1971, Elvis gulped ice to ease what was either a pain or a constriction in his throat. Another problem also emerged. The performances in Vegas had helped Elvis realise how audiences responded with enthusiasm to crude showbiz effects. If the lifeless and animated coexisted in Elvis then so did the artist and the ham. And when Elvis hammed it up he was neither restrained nor calculating. And just in case he missed opportunities, Parker and RCA were always on hand to remind him of his responsibilities.
Despite the terrible title the material on Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas is gloomy rather than heartwarming. Suicides increase around Christmas. Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees is pure yuletide despair and chills. Even the chirpy material sounds like a desperate plea. I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day has received praise. The song is superior, and Elvis recorded two versions. That he likes the song is obvious but his voice is poor on both occasions. Either the vocal strain is a consequence of his gift of precise timing deserting him or the timing is off because there is now vocal strain. Like much of the album, the track sounds like it was recorded in a garage. The backup vocalists are fine singers, and none of them are as flat as Elvis sometimes is, but they still sound like rookies in an audition. With their wails and thick strings the arrangements belong in the kind of Christmas movie that you watch on a wet December afternoon. In the 1960s the corny single If Every Day Was Like Christmas was regarded as a disappointment but the vocal performance on that song offers relief after listening to this album. There are interruptions to the assault on the ears. The two carols O Come All Ye Faithful and The First Noel are not perfect but they are accomplished. They have drama, pious devotion and medieval mystery. They evoke another world. The hip critics on Rolling Stone gravitated to the cover of the Charles Brown blues, Merry Christmas Baby. Ideological bias at Rolling Stone may have existed but Merry Christmas Baby is as great as the rest is poor. Elvis is relaxed and is no longer worrying about his throat. Or so it seems. Whatever the reason, there is a return of the marvellous timing that made so many of his records special. Stepping off the production line created by taskmaster Parker and RCA also helps.
The album Elvis Now appeared half a year after the release of Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas. I was engaged to be married and was home in Merseyside and doing a job that I had mistakenly thought might secure a future. I visited the NEMS record store where I had bought records in the past and where The Beatles had been heralded. A young lady let me listen to the album but when she turned over the record for the second side her female boss said enough was enough. I still wonder why the boss was so begrudging. I was the poor soul that had to listen to its failures. If the record had been great, I might have stood my ground. Instead I sloped out of the record store. The Liverpool Sound had passed, and the NEMs store, like a nightclub that had become unfashionable, was soon to follow. That day the future felt reduced.
The initial reaction to the poor performances by Elvis on the Christmas album was to assume that the efforts belonged to a man alienated by the material. The same thing had happened on the movie soundtracks in the 1960s. The lack of interest in such circumstances by Elvis was understandable. Hearing Elvis Now, though, was different. The opening track was Help Me Make It Through The Night. Whatever we think of the anything but inspirational Kris Kristofferson, the song is the type of country material Elvis should and could have made special. Elvis sounds like an amateur when compared to the fabulous efforts by soul singer Gladys Knight and country singer Sammy Smith. Again the Elvis Now album reveals vocal strain and awful timing. The songs Put Your Hand In The Hand, Until It’s Time For You To Go and Early Morning Rain had definite strengths that could have been exploited. These tracks by Elvis are not awful but all those songs are remembered for versions superior to those on Elvis Now. Elvis sounding inferior to other performers was novel.
The reaction at the time was that Elvis had either lost interest, sold out, forgotten his roots or that contemporary material was now exposing his limitations. There were also suspicions about the role of Parker. The cover for Elvis Now was cheap and cynical, advertisements for box sets substituting for design. The title Elvis Now was a lie. Hey Jude had been recorded by Elvis two years earlier in Memphis and abandoned. Few imagined that Elvis, the charismatic superman that appeared in Vegas a year before, was having to manage reduced powers. If, like Joyce Bova, we had witnessed a suffering Elvis having to endure needles being poked in his eyes, some of us might have been more sympathetic. In an odd way I expected recovery. It had happened before. Movie trash had been replaced by the glory of the TV Special and From Elvis In Memphis. Hearing Elvis make the same mistakes as before, though, was depressing. The changing times added to the disappointment. There were opportunities for Elvis to learn from the past mistakes. Whatever was happening in the world around him it appeared to make no difference. The real problems for Elvis were serious and internal. This discovery was made 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.