MUSIC, STUFF AND ELVIS

Explores USA Music, politics and the rest through the phenomenon of Elvis Presley

ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

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. 

ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

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.