50 ELVIS (FOOL)
Released in the USA July 16 1973
51 RAISED ON ROCK/FOR OL’ TIMES SAKE
Released in the USA October 1 1973
This is being written the day after I returned from a trip to see my daughter and grandson. The musical taste of my daughter includes modern genres that have no appeal for me. But when I arrived at her London flat the recently played album on the turntable was Elvis Is Back. This happens with Elvis and his music. Followers add followers, and seeds are planted within families. What is odd, though, about Elvis and his efforts is how little he and they appeared to impress his managers and the executives at his record company RCA. Considering the number of Elvis fans that do exist, it should have not been too difficult to find at least one or two working for self-adoring Parker and RCA management. Elvis had problems in 1973. The divorce from his wife, health issues, disastrous self-medication, the demands of the treadmill and a long standing susceptibility to insomnia and depression were all taking a toll. Rather than doing something to mitigate these problems with improved and patient presentation the problems of Elvis were compounded by the clumsy efforts of the manager and record company.
All the musicians that worked with Elvis had regard for his talent and sympathy for the man, even those that witnessed and recognised the deterioration in him during his final years. But in the Parker and RCA organisations someone must have put something in the coffee. Throughout his career Elvis complained about how the records released by RCA were inferior to the master tapes he submitted to the record company. Arguments about mixing and song selections are subjective yet the will by Parker to buy songs on the cheap did exist. The evidence of management indifference and even sabotage is apparent from the album covers chosen by RCA. The repetitive use of photographs of Elvis performing in his white suit and absence of any liner notes persuaded many that he was one-dimensional.
For these two albums the people at RCA even messed up the titles. For the album Elvis the alternative Fool might have emerged later but, if it did, why the name of a single that flopped was incorporated into the album title is a mystery. Raised On Rock is the title of the other album but only on one side of the cover. For Ol’ Times Sake is the title on the reverse side. Not only are the images on both sides of the cover bafflingly identical, no attempt was made to utilise the two sides of the album and divide the tracks into distinct genres that could have reflected the two album titles. What happens on the album Elvis is even worse. On that odd creature the song titles are not even in the right order.
But this is the part that hurts. At the beginning of 1959 and while Elvis was still in the US Army there appeared in Britain a classic rock and roll compilation album called Elvis. The USA title was For LP Fans Only. Using the title Elvis for an album in the UK in 1973 shows contempt for the earlier album and an inability to recognise an achievement that should have been cherished. If the single name Elvis is so good it has to be used more than once then it is odd it resurfaces on an album of leftovers that will only invite comparison with the previous superior release. For everyone else the name of a band, musician or vocalist is used as an album title as a way of introduction to the record buying public. In January 1973 when this album was released Elvis had been making records for 19 years. We all had a good idea who he was.
Elvis contains the leftovers from the troubled 1971 session when Elvis had been having problems with his vocal chords. To complete the album two songs were taken from a half-decent three day recording session in Hollywood in March 1972. A live performance of It’s Impossible was also added. More tracks were available from the session in Hollywood and if they had been used a superior album could have been released. Raised On Rock was a consequence of what had been recorded at Stax over four days in July in 1973. For different reasons these sessions were also difficult. Musicians present at Stax in July have described Elvis as unfocussed and irritable. Stax Record company was also suffering from internal disputes. It’s best days had passed. Nor did it help that the material submitted for Elvis was the antithesis of the gritty soul music that had made Stax famous. Ten songs were recorded by Elvis at Stax over four days. Two of the songs that were produced in July were held back for single release. These were replaced by two songs that were recorded in the home of Elvis at Palm Springs. Under pressure from RCA for more product Elvis dubbed vocals on two tracks.
In 1973 I was working as a civil servant and discovering that having even a modest career was a lot more pleasant than routine jobs. The work was also satisfying and more complicated than I had expected. In 1973 bomb scares in my place of work occurred on an almost a weekly basis. No one could describe my experience as a civil servant as dull. There was even more excitement because in August that year a friend from Glasgow visited Las Vegas and saw Elvis perform live on stage. The friend was critical of what he saw but, because the trip was a once in a lifetime event for a lifelong fan, he persisted and watched six separate performances. That August season by Elvis in Vegas was also criticised in the Press. Critics had accused Elvis of being indifferent and sloppy. My friend thought the shows were lifeless and compared badly to the BB King show that he had seen in the same month. The uninspired performances of Elvis were not enough for the fan from Glasgow to abandon his faith but it was close. Out of loyalty more than anything he took in the final Elvis show of the season. On that night Elvis delivered commitment and confirmed everything that a lifelong fan had believed about a misunderstood and underestimated talent.
At some point and before one of the shows my friend met Elvis. I heard about a man whose handsome appearance was smoother than that present in the many photographs but who was not as tall as expected. In the conversation Elvis was ill at ease, to the extent that my friend suspected shyness within the famous extrovert. For most people the encounter would have been enough but some people need trophies. In the moments before the meeting a hotel employee passed by. He carried a silver platter that had the guitar plectrums for the musicians. The fan from Glasgow grabbed the plectrum that Elvis was supposed to have used to play the guitar that night. I have held the plectrum. The material is plastic but has an imitation marble sheen. In the middle of the plectrum is embossed the letter E. No one was giving a damn about the health and state of Elvis, how his album covers looked or the terrible songs that were available at the cut rates insisted upon by Parker. What they did worry about was guitar plectrums having a superior appearance. This is how people that work in profit hungry corporations think.
If the best of the two albums had been aggregated and released as a single album, there would have been something worthwhile for fans. Too much of popular music is nothing more than product, the aural equivalent of tasty fast food. These two albums fail to be even that. Elvis had avoided Broadway songs throughout his career. He had preferred country and bluesy material that had a degree of southern soul. Freddie Bienstock, working for Parker and music publishers Hill and Range, was lost amongst British songwriters. In a way that says much about the judgement of Elvis in 1973 he continued to avoid Broadway but only to land at Drury Lane. No doubt Elvis lifts the material on occasion. Girl Of Mine is throwaway pap but the vocal performance reveals what a gifted singer can do with the second rate. The songs Where Do I Go From Here and Love Me, Love The Life I Lead are prime examples of the limitations of 1970s factory fed country music. If Elvis had been more animated or at least in better condition, the four rock and roll tracks on Raised On Rock could have offered relief. They do not. A failure to energise If I Don’t Come Back and Just A Little Bit is serious. These were songs that, because of their simple hooks, were performed in Liverpool in the 1960s by bands that would be soon forgotten. Around this time Elvis had said to someone that he did not know why but he could no longer sing the old rock and roll. His taste may have become wayward, and there was also eccentric behaviour, but his judgement about some matters remained sound.
Elvis is at his weakest in this period when he relies on bravado and reveals vocal strain. This can occur not just on the rock and blues that was supposed to earn the Raised On Rock album its title but also the melodramatic country that ruins both albums. Padre, Where Do I Go From Here, Fool and Love Me, Love The Life I Lead are the painful examples. Elvis is at his best when he is being contemplative and curious. This occurs on the superior Tony Joe White song For Ol’ Times Sake. The brash ego has been stripped bare and instead there is an earnest admission of dependency. This contemplative strength also exists on the second rate songs Sweet Angeline and I Miss You. The lyrics may be routine but Elvis discovers a lyricism in the music that is beyond the songwriters.
The advantage of Elvis abandoning bravado is best revealed on the tracks where it is just Elvis singing and playing the piano. What made him do this is not known. Presumably it offered relief from what was becoming dispiriting. The Ivory Joe Hunter songs It’s Still Here and I Will Be True are given mystery and gravitas and have surprising depth, enough to make us wonder just what was beneath the glamorous performer. For many the highlight of the Elvis album is the off the cuff version of the Dylan song Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right. With an untroubled ego and heart and carrying a grin that will be equal to the future Elvis skips away from a relationship. Nothing, though, could have been further from the truth. Mother Earth was already calling.
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.