48 ELVIS AS RECORDED AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
Released in the USA June 1972
The drummer Ronnie Tutt was involved from the Las Vegas comeback in 1969 to the death of Elvis in 1977. Tutt also went on tour with the virtual Elvis concerts that began to appear at the beginning of this century. The man has memories. In a filmed interview he remembered the release of the Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden album. ‘They speeded it up so they could fit on more songs. It was so fast it sounded ridiculous. That’s the Colonel, always thinking of ways to make more money.’ The original album release lasted for just over 46 minutes. The CD versions, there are more than one, have the recording played at the correct speed. All these subsequent versions last for around 54 minutes. The ambition of the Colonel and RCA was always to make more money but not through including additional songs on the Madison Square album as Tutt suggested. Extra tracks mean more royalties to be paid to songwriters and that means higher expenses. Any increase in publishing royalties from the Madison Square album that could have been earned by Parker would have been minimal. Many of the songs that Elvis performed on stage were outside the scope of the publishing companies owned by Parker.
The real objective of the conceptualist carny Parker was to have a complete concert on record. In a sense this was desirable, previous song selections had not quite captured the experience of a live show. The problem for Parker and RCA was how to fit it all into the limited playing time of a vinyl album. The solution was simple. The engineers cut out all the chatter in the show and speeded up the recording. To capitalise on the commemorative aspect of the recording the album was released just one week after the event. By all accounts the process of releasing the album within a week meant the folk on the RCA production line had to work to the limits. We have to hope they were paid overtime. The strategy devised by Parker succeeded. The album reached number eleven in the USA charts. The previous studio clinker Elvis Now had peaked at 73.
The appearance of Elvis on stage at Madison Square Garden occurred two months after his previous tour ended. The concert in New York began another tour that ended a fortnight before Elvis returned to Las Vegas for his normal month-long season in August. The tour prior to Madison Square Garden had been filmed for the documentary Elvis On Tour. The producers of that film were too involved in the editing process to film the New York concerts which was a pity because luminaries like Bob Dylan, David Bowie and George Harrison attended the evening show and movie audiences do like to spot celebrities. The producers, though, could not resist taking a day out from editing to visit and film the press conference that preceded the concerts.
The sequence in Elvis On Tour that shows the singer being interviewed by the New York press reveals a performer that is alert but wary. It is apparent from the wardrobe that the ego has been over-nourished but Elvis jokes and side steps probing questions. It is impossible to connect this charming and apparently sensible chap with the paranoia, odd politics and excess that shaped the final years of Elvis. All these aspects, though, existed simultaneously which is why some of us will always remain curious.
The producers of Elvis On Tour have admitted that when they filmed his concerts they had to use orange tints to disguise the pale and sickly complexion of Elvis. They also avoided those camera angles that would have exposed too much of his surplus weight. In between that tour and the Madison Square Garden press conference Elvis acquired a tan. The excess weight is still there but all that means is that he looks like a slightly overweight superman. In an interview at Houston that had occurred three years earlier an overdressed Elvis was asked why ‘the sartorial elegance?’ Elvis replied that if the interviewer saw the show it would make sense. Elvis spoke as if he considered even his casual dress to be a metaphor for his identity as a performer. A more mundane way of expressing this is to say that performers never stop performing.
Yet the behaviour and appearance of Elvis at the press conference do prepare us for what would follow in the Madison Square Garden concerts. Just as the excess weight did not prevent him from being handsome then the deterioration in the voice does not prevent Elvis in Madison Square Garden being marvellous, or as he was described in The New York Times, a ‘Prince From Another Planet’. There is just enough in Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden to remind us of what the best are capable, and that always puts a smile on our faces. Everyone went home from the show happy including even Dylan and his mates. It may have been begrudged but George Harrison had to admit that Elvis had ‘done some good numbers’.
Rolling Stone magazine designated Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden on release as its album of the month, a position that had even been denied the acclaimed Elvis Country. The magazine review was written by jazz and rock critic Robert Palmer. Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden was the seventh album to be released after Elvis Country. The previous six had all been tarnished in different ways but all had suffered because of a weakened Elvis and the commercial ambitions and exploitation of Parker. Listen to how Elvis conceived of himself on stage as late as 1972, and what happened in the studio from 1971 to his death becomes unfathomable. All those studio failures, and yet the show that was designed by Elvis in the early 1970s for the road and Vegas is a conceptual success. His commitment to the 1950s rock and roll medley may be half-hearted but there are impressive and unusual versions of Heartbreak Hotel, Love Me and Hound Dog. It all fits together in a package in which, as Robert Palmer explained, ‘everyone gets a bit of what they wanted’. Elvis on stage somehow mixes aggressive animalism, stirring melodrama and lyrical communal euphoria into a cohesive whole.
For the evening show that appeared on the album Elvis reduced the usual number of songs in the set list. One suspects that the engineers had warned him about the running time and the need to fit everything into a single album. Although the evening show had hipsters Dylan, Bowie and Harrison in attendance the blues classic Reconsider Baby was replaced by The Impossible Dream. In 1968 there had been resistance from Elvis to recording If I Can Dream. Elvis had felt the song was too Broadway. Producer Steve Binder told Elvis to ‘sing it bluesy’. Elvis recorded no other songs from a Broadway show apart from The Impossible Dream. Its appeal for Elvis makes sense. The Impossible Dream was popular with African American gospel singers, and Elvis liked to alternate the song with How Great Thou Art. The version by Elvis has a beautiful middle section that leads to a barnstorming finale that combines both gospel and rock and roll elements. Much has been said about how Elvis abandoned rock and roll for crooning. The structure of the set list for the shows at Madison Square Garden, though, follows a format that Elvis had devised for his performance in Hawaii in 1960, the last live show he performed before his live comeback in 1969.
It is not difficult for me to locate the album in a particular summer. That year I found myself in a Catholic church. I married a Catholic girl and it happened despite the car of the best man breaking down. Today such obstacles are easily overcome but not in 1972. The church was 28 miles away, and I almost missed the ceremony. The marriage ended sixteen years later, and, if the car had not suddenly and inexplicably started when it did, the wedding would never have happened. Whatever the problems in those 16 years they had the approval of fate.
I was also trying to fix a return to University that summer and on the 4th of August I was interviewed by a panel in Glasgow whose name and purpose I have long forgotten. The supposedly life changing interview did not prevent me from being at Wembley the following day to watch the London Rock And Roll Show. A mate that I had not seen for a year turned up in Bognor where I was working. Although I was returning from Glasgow when he called the two of us managed to meet up in London and see the concert. ‘How did you know I was going?’ I said. ‘I knew you wouldn’t miss this,’ he said. All these years later I am not sure if I should be proud or embarrassed by how others saw me. As for the show, Bo Diddley was great, Jerry Lee Lewis behaved like a petulant diva, Billy Haley was better than expected and a disturbingly insane Little Richard was knocked out by a bouncer and carried off the stage. Chuck Berry was predictable but okay.
All of which means that Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden was the last Elvis album I bought before I was married. And, like all single men, I expected and needed rock and roll triumph. The album delivers, especially when it is heard played at the normal speed. The best version available is on Prince From Another Planet, a deluxe CD box set with a title that takes advantage of the famous quote. The achievement of Elvis and his band in New York has to be acknowledged but neither can the decline in Elvis be ignored. If anything, the decline makes the achievement in Madison Square Garden even more impressive. Listen to his versions of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, I Can’t Stop Loving You and Proud Mary and you realise the extent of his ambition and competitive commitment, or as one New York journalist said, his genius and power. Elvis at his best had the ability to present and define communal rites that transcended the routine. Decline, though, cannot be defied forever. We all know the reasons why later Elvis had to resort to show business ham and become his first impersonator. Those reasons qualify for many, of course, as not just excuses but pardons.
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.