49 ALOHA FROM HAWAII VIA SATELLITE
Released in the USA February 2 1973
Nothing beats television for product exposure. And when you need to sell merchandise nothing succeeds like exposure. Because big TV audiences were expected for the final episode of Breaking Bad, companies had to pay the AMC TV network £400,000 for each thirty second advertisement that was shown during the programme. Each of the thirty second adverts that TV audiences watched during the 2021 Super Bowl cost $5.6m. Tone deaf Parker may have had no interest in the music of Elvis but he spent a life thinking about the best ways to flog merchandise. The notion of Elvis performing a show that would be broadcast worldwide belonged to Parker. The purpose was simple, to sell product. No doubt it is coincidental but the particularly wide flares on the jumpsuit that Elvis wears in this Hawaii performance made him look very much like a puppet, one that belonged to the money men.
And here is a clue to how these particular money men operated and the way they thought about puppets and products. Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite was released four and a half years after the NBC TV Special album. Aloha From Hawaii was the sixth live album by Elvis released within that four and half year period and, a little like lumpy diesel in a car engine, it had immediately followed another live album, Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden. Aloha From Hawaii was a double album and it contained twenty four tracks. Effort was made to prevent purchasing the album a redundant exercise. Eight of the album tracks had songs that had never previously been recorded by Elvis, and there were four other Elvis songs that had not featured on previous live albums. The rest was duplication, usually of performances that were superior. Neither RCA nor Parker cared. The attitude of the money men to their product is revealed in the appalling album cover. It does, though, take a certain kind of intelligence to find a photograph that makes a handsome singer look ugly.
Live albums are often released when bands or singers are struggling to produce new material. This happened two years later in 1974 when Elvis was becoming reluctant to enter the recording studio but in the four and a half year period covered by these six live albums RCA had managed to release 16 Elvis albums. This does not include the two four vinyl album box sets that contained his single hits and B sides. No apologies are given for repeating others that have observed how RCA and the devil Parker were only ever interested in ‘now money.’ Neither should excuses be made for a too pliant Elvis but the partnership of RCA and Parker was a match made in hell. In the opening show of his third season in Vegas the song Polk Salad Annie was included by Elvis. When the song had finished Elvis shared an aside with the band. ‘I feel like an old stripper,’ he said. He had been working for pimps for too long.
At times during the Hawaii show Elvis sings as if that is how he feels, as if he is being pimped. The audience was impressed but it was there to admire and worship. Neither the album nor the TV show reveal a consistent connection between the audience and the performer. After the show had finished, Parker wrote an appreciative and emotional letter to Elvis. Parker had what he wanted, the prospect of cash tills filling and an event that was testimony to his entrepreneurial flair. What Parker was oblivious to was the decline in the performance on stage, the obvious loss of power and energy that had occurred since the NBC TV Special and the Vegas performances of 1969 and 1970. If the triumph of Parker is tarnished by his oversights, this is something that applies to all those who triumph. Aloha From Hawaii topped the USA album charts, the first Elvis album to do so in a decade. Some will say this is the power of television. They are wrong, of course. Television and what we see on various screens have much greater control of our lives than the shifting of a million albums by Elvis.
The Hawaii show had been postponed from the previous year because of the release of the cinema documentary Elvis On Tour. This movie was based on the shows that Elvis performed on the road in the Spring of 1972. That’s The Way It Is had captured the 1970 Vegas triumph. The deterioration in Elvis between 1970 and 1972 is obvious and disturbing. The rough edges in his voice did not detract too much from the pleasure of listening to the Madison Square Garden album. These rough edges, though, were amplified on a cinema screen.
The movie had a decent response from the critics. One benefit was that Elvis was not in Las Vegas. He may have been reduced in 1972 but there was a pleasure in seeing an original icon with what he described as ‘my crowd’. Elvis On Tour won the Golden Globe Award for best documentary of 1972 but was not included in the Oscar nominations. That prize was won by The Hellstrom Chronicle, a movie that outlined how insects and humans were obliged to live in conflict. The makers of The Hellstrom Chronicle argued that although insects were necessary for human existence they also threatened the survival of the human race. In an odd way both movies could be regarded as being prescient. Neither predicted happy endings.
The Aloha From Hawaii album was the first Elvis album I bought after being married. I was living in Glasgow and in a country where the promises made to me about returning to University had not been honoured. I responded by working as a freelance journalist. I had articles published but they did not earn me a living. I put the writing on hold and applied for a job in the Civil Service. In the job interview I sidestepped questions about my life as a student and the years that had followed. Around the time the album appeared I discovered that taking the job would mean I would have to return to Merseyside. I had been moving around England and Scotland for seven turbulent years but I was now going home.
Parker had announced the January 1973 Hawaii TV special as early as the 8th of July in the previous year. Eighteen days later Elvis and Priscilla were legally separated. Elvis met Linda Thompson, a beauty queen from Tennessee, two days before Parker announced his proposal for a worldwide TV show. The relationship between Elvis and Linda Thompson lasted for four years. Because of the delay caused by the release of Elvis On Tour, the press conference for the Aloha From Hawaii took place on the 4th of September, four months before the actual show. In the press conference Elvis looks drugged, enough to make the host of the event anxious. Although Elvis had the day before the show done a run through with a live audience it is obvious that he found the actual event intimidating. The power ballads My Way and What Now My Love are used as set pieces and in the opening verses to both these songs the fear in the eyes of Elvis can be discerned. The carefree and loose limbed confidence that gave his early Vegas performance infectious appeal is not present. In those Vegas shows a man had set out to connect with other people. The performer in Hawaii walked away from intimacy and left behind a remote icon.
The voice, though, is the main problem. There are admirers of Aloha From Hawaii and they even include rock and roll purists that abandoned him in the early 1960s. They were able to be impressed because they missed the dynamic comeback of the late 1960s. To be fair, when we have regard to what we now know about the physical condition of Elvis in 1972 it can be claimed he does rather well. The set list is demanding, and there are the occasional triumphs. Elvis scatters top As throughout the performances. Like all great singers, he knows how to use his diaphragm. American popular music, though, is not opera. The performance on the chorus of You Gave Me A Mountain is fabulous but as with My Way and What Now My Love, which also have great choruses and finales, the opening reveals a lack of timbre. When he has the chance to drag the notes up from his stomach Elvis is great. When he has to rely on natural power, energy, rhythm and timing he is not so good.
At the time many of us assumed it was Elvis being apathetic, as he had been when making the movies. For others it confirmed that Elvis was not as great as we had thought. He was no more than an American Tom Jones. Well, Elvis was more of a musician, more original and much better. The truth is that emotional and physical difficulties had in early 1973 left Elvis prematurely aged. He triumphed at Madison Square Garden because, although the decline was already taking effect, he was able to throw caution to the wind and respond to the challenge. The Elvis we see in Aloha From Hawaii is pacing himself, and that reduces him. The orchestra did not help. Hawaii attracts many visitors but no one should go there in search of an orchestral brass section.
In the 1972 autumn season in Vegas that preceded the Hawaii show Elvis had needed to cancel a number of shows. In one show he complained of having a ‘dose of the flu’. A more astute manager than Parker would have realised that the meal ticket was creaking. The Hawaii show was a gamble, and a weakened Elvis squeaked through. The sensible decision after the entrepreneurial triumph was to have organised a long break for the singer. Around the time when Elvis had talked about feeling like an old stripper he had ad-libbed on the Percy Mayfield song Stranger In My Own Home Town. Elvis had sung about wanting to go back to driving a truck but not being able to because the people around him needed their jobs. The fun of being Elvis and being on stage had disappeared. Now it was work and, like many of us during our working lives, Elvis yearned for retirement. Even later moments and diversions interrupted the burden but the fun for Elvis did not return.
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.