52 GOOD TIMES
Released in the USA March 20 1974
Anyone that has had to handle conflict in their workplace knows that tough messages are best saved for face to face conversations. Put them in written correspondence and the effect can be apocalyptic. In early 1973 a letter from someone in RCA to Elvis had insisted that there would be an Elvis recording session in the middle of the year. The RCA employee demanded that Elvis record enough songs for singles and a ‘religious’ album. Whoever wrote this letter had stressed how there was a need for more ‘merchandise’. Although Elvis had protested about recording a Christmas album in 1971 the Yuletide disaster was added to the catalogue. The subsequent request for a ‘religious album’, though, was ignored by Elvis. To conclude that Elvis had lost interest in gospel music is hasty. More likely is that he realised he no longer had the voice to create gospel music equal to the previous achievements that he valued.
During the visit to Stax in July 1973 ten tracks had been recorded by Elvis. The material and performances ranged from okay to awful. The executives at RCA were not satisfied with the results but their concern was quantity and not quality. For the RCA executives the weak performances of Elvis were irrelevant. The previous letter to Elvis gave no sense that its author had ever listened to an Elvis album. Before 1973 had ended no one at RCA was asking for religious albums anymore, just anything that to them was recognisable as merchandise. Elvis had to respond. Despite the problems at the Stax session in July he returned in December. This time, though, Elvis used musicians from his own band and familiar session men from Nashville. And to ensure there were fewer problems RCA loaned a recording truck and four engineers. The set up at Stax may not have appealed to Elvis but the Memphis studio was around the corner, almost like the ham fisted handyman in the joke we all know.
A two week hospital confinement for Elvis had already interrupted the month of December. The purpose was to break his addiction to Demerol. Elvis had been receiving daily acupuncture sessions. Someone had the bright idea that dipping the needles in Demerol would transform a tedious process into something pleasurable. No doubt it did, and no doubt there are some that do not believe Elvis had ulterior motives regarding his distinctive acupuncture treatment. I am not one of them. Ten days after the December recording sessions were completed there was a visit to a podiatrist to have an ingrown toenail removed.
All but two tracks on the album Good Times were recorded in the December 1973 sessions. The view is that Elvis was more focussed than he had been in the four day July sessions. The outtakes, though, reveal someone whose speech is slurred. The likelihood is that Elvis had soon found an alternative to Demerol but no one can blame him if he was unwilling to suffer the pain of an ingrown toenail during a recording session. Eleven backing singers were involved in the December recording sessions. Their presence must have made the recording studio feel claustrophobic but perhaps that helped Elvis concentrate. There was less scope and room for him to seek diversions. The number of backing singers had grown to allow the vocal group Voice to participate. The name Voice for the recently formed vocal group had been decided by Elvis. Like many men that feel their own strength fading, Elvis had compensated by becoming a mentor to the young.
Elvis no longer had relevance for those seeking the contemporary but in an odd way he was more a man of the decade than has been understood. The hope of the 1960s had faded, and what was left was a hangover that turned the previous enthusiasm and hope into embers. My own left wing politics had not prevented me from believing the 1960s idealism would not only fail but have unintended consequences. I should have been as hungover as anyone but I had in the workplace my own mentor, and he sold me a work ethic that transcended any residual 1970s cynicism. Although more economic progress was made than people now realise the decade in Britain was gloomy and grey. Good Times was released in the UK in 1974. In that year Britain had to endure a three day working week and a general election that failed to provide the government with authority. The bombing and violence that persisted in Northern Ireland were also occurring on the British mainland.
There was not only a split between generations but also within them. Communities and relationships fractured. Like many young married men, I met new people and even made some friends but people that in earlier years I would have accepted were filtered out of my existence. Knowing who to take seriously after a cultural revolution is not easy. We had all landed in different places. The fame and wealth of Elvis had always allowed him to create his protective huddle. His final years were in an era when such instincts were felt essential, if not for survival then to minimise bruising.
Apart from eleven backing singers being difficult to manage in a recording studio the extra numbers could have affected the dynamics between the performers. The songs Take Good Care Of Her and If That Isn’t Love do not have sufficient weight for a singer pitching against the choral performance on the other side of the microphone. In another context these two songs could have had innocent merit but Elvis pushes too hard on material that is not subtle. Yet despite his problems Elvis had settled down to work in December 1973 in a way that had been beyond him in March. The music, though, reflects a man that would rather be left alone to grapple with his demons. Those who believe that making records allowed Elvis to escape depression and anguish are contradicted by his reluctance to enter recording studios in the last years of his life. The young Elvis had been an auteur, someone who when working with musicians would take songs into a different spot. The music in Stax reveals an Elvis that is willing to tackle music that is new and different, and for that he should be given credit. He refused to settle for nostalgia. But in facing the challenges of the contemporary and dealing with his own deteriorating health, he was reduced to being what his critics had mistakenly assumed him always to be, not much more than a singer. Elvis at his best and most powerful was a singer and musician that made not just records but alternative music.
By December 1973, though, Elvis was at least understanding his acquired limitations. On Good Times there is no attempt to be the superior athlete, a desire that had marred what he had recorded in 1971. Elvis may have become nothing more than a singer copying demo records but the manner in which he responds to the material is impressive. The weaknesses in Good Times are confined to some dodgy song selections and horrible 1970s dubbing. And there are tracks when Elvis being nothing more than a singer is enough. His version of Loving Arms is distinguished by a classic and heartfelt performance. When the musicians bring everything to a soulful conclusion it is possible to imagine the musicians as witnesses filled with awe and satisfaction. The raucous I Got A Feelin’ In My Body is less than serious gospel and more like an excuse for old fashioned rock and roll. It is also blessed with an interesting contemporary arrangement. The weakened power of Elvis is apparent but he still manages an energy beyond most, and no one stays young forever. The performance and attempt entitle him to credit.
My Boy, Spanish Eyes and She Wears My Ring indicate not just a need to embrace diversity but the compulsion of a contrarian, as if Elvis is laying down a challenge to not just the younger critics but the fans that remember the glory of rock and roll. The fine vocals have not persuaded all to indulge this material but these tracks are all taken to another level by Elvis. As he had proved in the early days, the mix of kitsch and inspired invention can produce a tension that adds creative force. If My Boy has Elvis again returning to minds shaped by Drury Lane, it still impresses. Indeed there is something appealing about the idea of Elvis conquering the London stage and well dressed theatregoers. Elvis sings My Boy like a man that has stepped into a domestic nightmare, and his wary baritone emphasises the not so explicit romantic burden in the too sweet Spanish Eyes. When listened to without the eleven wailers and unnecessary strings the sentimental She Wears My Ring has the lyricism of borderland mariachi and ranchera music. The guitar solo from James Burton is also loaded with feeling. The versions of I Got A Thing About You Baby and Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues adhere to the original formats and that is disappointing but the songs are worthy. His superior performances add something.
At the time of its release the album Good Times was regarded as a disappointment. Critics and fans were still hoping for a renaissance and the return to former glory. Elvis no longer had the stamina that had helped make him an exceptional performer. If the return of the athlete was no longer possible and there were limitations that had to be disguised, he was still a capable and superior singer. The track selection on the album is eccentric, and a couple of the performances are overblown, but there is enough in Good Times to make it worthwhile. The cover had to conform to the ritual of having Elvis on stage but at least it is just a photograph of his head and neck. Perhaps a graphic designer at RCA realised that Good Times had a value beyond what was taken at the tills. For once the reverse cover had no tacky adverts for other Elvis albums. If that was a surprise, the next venture by Elvis would be a rare 1970s example of a successful combined effort between him, his record company and a ‘had to get something right sometime’ Parker. All this happened not later but before the end of the year.
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.