Stagecoach To Somewhere – Prince From Another Planet

We all know the famous stories about the insecurity and fragile ego of Elvis.  His last words before he walked out to perform live on the ‘68 TV special were  ‘What happens if they don’t like me?’ Before he appeared at Madison Square Garden, he

Elvis at Madison Sq Gdns

Elvis at Madison Sq Gdns

expressed similar doubts to Tom Jones.   Elvis was worried that a sophisticated New York crowd might prove hostile. Perhaps he imagined a crowd of 20,000 adversaries and maybe that is how fame works.  Once you reach a certain level you expect people to be interested no matter what their taste.  Hostility will manifest itself everywhere. Tom Jones was unsuccessful in calming Elvis.  They had different natures and at some point in the conversation Elvis may have decided that there was no point in revealing fears and expecting consolation from a more confident and less complicated Welshman.   And both men were right.  Jones understood that Madison Square Garden would have 20,000 Elvis fans desperate to see their hero.  But Elvis realised that there would also be present the most sophisticated media in the States and an audience dotted with hip celebrities.    This was the show that would attract John Lennon and David Bowie and the latter actually arrived and walked down the aisle after Elvis had begun the concert.  No, I do not forgive the Estuary ponce, either.   More was at stake than normal and, before his final self-destruction, Elvis was at his best but most tortured when he sensed when his credibility was at stake.   Elvis appeared in Madison Square Garden in the middle of 1972.    Five years later he was dead.  When he appeared in Honolulu for a satellite show 6 months later he was already calculating how to sidestep demands on his rapidly deteriorating strength and talent.

In 1972 he was already in decline.  He had neither the exceptional energy nor the fabulous voice that had been revealed in the early years of his return.  The singer who appeared at Madison Square Garden was not the equal of the maestro that delivered the fabulous concerts of 1969 and 1970.  The voice had weakened.   But he was the equal of anybody else and the new ‘Prince From Another Planet’ box set from BMG exists as fabulous proof.

The first vinyl recording of the concert was released within days of Elvis appearing at Madison Square Garden.  Days before, the New York press had been ecstatic.   ‘Like A Prince From Another Planet’ was the title given to a review by New York writer Chris Chase.   ‘Once in a while a special champion comes along…’  wrote Chase and he was merely expressing what the audience felt.  And, of course, this is what fans

Prince from Another Planet poster

Prince from Another Planet poster

feel when the see and hear their particular hero deliver.  They feel privileged and content.   Later, if their hero declines, their attitude can change quickly.  That which originally felt like privilege soon becomes a sense of unfulfilled entitlement.  For some Elvis fans, this happened when we saw the ‘Aloha From Hawaii’ special.  After being obliged to witness the decline, some became disillusioned with what had originally inspired them.    In such circumstances, when we were obliged to listen to an artist who is on the cusp of decline, it was easy to be critical of the original recordings of these 1972 New York concerts, especially as recording technology could never capture the live performance accurately.   Judgments are rarely impeccable and consistent.  They not only require objectivity but faith in our understanding.  The decline of Elvis had impact, we all waivered a little.  One fan, aware that Elvis was not quite at the peak of 1970, said that Elvis sounded as if he was singing like someone waiting for a taxi.  Nothing weakens like disillusionment.   I have had more than the odd doubt myself, have listened attentively to the earlier recordings of Madison Square Garden and identified unfulfilled potential.

I was wrong.   My faith is back.  The new box set, ‘Prince From Another Planet’, is marvellous.  The superior recording does not hide the weakening in the voice but in a strange way that makes the show even more impressive.   Elvis needed to conquer in New York and he had to do it with inferior powers.  This is what made him nervous before the show.   He succeeded, though, and one is persuaded again of the conceptual strength of Elvis.  What emerges with real force from the extra clarity is the vision and purpose Elvis had when he was determined to succeed.  He delivers a show full of energy and power.  True, he fakes some of the fifties hits in the medley but even these have real highlights such as his version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and, in the afternoon show, a surprisingly tough version of ‘All Shook Up’.

Not only does Elvis sound ready for the challenge, so does everyone else.   Joe Guercio said he believed that Elvis was never totally relaxed on stage.  This contradicts the notion of Elvis as the great live rock and roll performer.  Yet, listen to this Elvis at Madison Square Gardenconcert and it makes sense.   Elvis is not a persuader or a charmer on stage.  He may tease occasionally, although in New York it was restricted to the introduction of ‘Hound Dog’, but his method is to attack and be defiant.   A view emerged, after the first recordings of the concert had been released, that the excitement at the concerts had been generated by the audience.  Elvis was not on form that night.  This is not the case.    The shows at Madison Square Garden represent not merely a cusp between the strong and weaker Elvis that followed but also a peak.  After he returned to live performances in 1969, Elvis refined his show significantly on two occasions, in 1970 in Vegas when he began to include contemporary material and in 1971 when he took the show on tour.  What is odd about the Madison shows is how they resemble the format he used in 1960 in Honolulu.  It is almost as if he has worked himself back to what he believes in, the mix of hard rock and roll with the odd ballad as a breather before the final triumphalism.   If the voice has the edge in 1960, the show in 1972 reveals awareness beyond that possessed by the young man who had just returned from the Army.  This performer has learnt to how to drill a band to perfection.   The more mature performer understands what is at stake.  It both terrifies and inspires him but it is essential to the success that he enjoyed but could not sustain.

There is no mystery about the talent.  Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith Group guitarist, describes Elvis in the liner notes as a magnificent instrument.  And listening to this re-mastered and revelatory recording it is impossible to dispute.  The only puzzle is how does a re-mastering make such a difference.  Well, it now sounds like a live concert and not an artifact confined to a machine in the room.  Elvis knew not only how to work an audience but a venue.   Like James Brown, he can fill a room with energy and emotion.  Nobody is allowed breath, neither the band nor the audience.  The new recording captures his ambition, his defiance and above all his conceptual skill.  Kaye is right, Elvis was a magnificent instrument but he was much more than that which was why even with reduced powers he was able to triumph that memorable night in New York.

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Elvis Presley Challenge 29 – Bobby Darin

More than one woman has explained to me why men never grow up.    They say it is something to do with privilege and power.   Men are indulged and respond like children.   Those men who are perpetually indulged remain children.  Some merely have Beyond the Seamoments and head without caution towards infancy for brief escapades.   If the movie ‘Beyond The Sea’, directed by Kevin Spacey, has not been quoted as evidence for this argument it should be.   Spacey was given the option to take control of the movie when the planned director Barry Levinson abandoned the project.   Spacey, a Darin fan, not only directed the movie, he sang the songs on the soundtrack as well.   He may have more brains than the average Elvis impersonator but the familiar adolescent fantasy was revealed to be as deep rooted.   Spacey was not an awful singer and most of the time he did a decent impersonation of the vocal performances by Darin.   There was an irony in the movie that somebody as bright as Spacey must have realised.   Spacey was impersonating the man who was perhaps the greatest mimic of them all.  Okay, the mimicry of Big Al Downing was important because of the way he straddled various genres and acted as a missing link but nobody is as versatile as Bobby Darin.   Well, there is one obvious example but regular readers of this challenge do not need me to mention his name just yet.   The versatility of Darin became obvious in the film.  Spacey is required to perform a version of the big Darin country tinged hit ‘Things’.   The song is used as backing material for a poignant scene.  The intention is that we do not listen to the performance too closely.   Spacey may be comfortable with the swing and folk music that Bobby Darin performed but country music and the subtle performance of Darin was beyond him.

Bobby DarinWhen Robert Matthew Walker broke ground from most critics and in the 70s analysed seriously the musical catalogue of Elvis he insisted that only one singer could match Elvis for versatility.  The singer he named was Bobby Darin.   These comments were made in the early 80s.   Both Darin and Presley were dead and nobody was especially interested.  The memory of Darin was on its way to being neglected and there were too many awful 70s Elvis albums still on the shelves of record stores.   Nobody was interested in Elvis as a barometer of anything.   Both men were underestimated and both remain that way although fans are persistent and people like Kevin Spacey for Darin and Peter Guralnick for Elvis have emerged to defend their heroes to those prepared to listen.

I was disappointed when Matthew Walker compared Elvis to Bobby Darin.   I suppose I wanted somebody cooler, someone who would be more impressive to people of my generation or, if I am being honest, my antagonistic friends.   Not long after the book by Matthew Walker was published, the songwriters Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber appeared in a radio show hosted by a DJ called Brian Matthew.    The format of the show was a steal from Desert Island Discs.  The guests had to pick their favourite twelve records.  The difference was that there was no desert island and the guests were music stars and not Radio 4 worthies.   Rice and Webber picked an Elvis song called ‘The Girl Next Door Went A Walking’ because one of the songwriters was called Rice.  As Tim Rice explained, how can you pick one Elvis song above all the others?   He also selected a Bobby Darin song.   This was  ‘18 Yellow Roses’.  Rice laughed about how often Darin impersonated others and asked the listeners to note how the performance was a copy of the cowboy style of Marty Robbins.

This is what is odd about versatility.  There comes a point when people stop taking you seriously.  There is a famous tale about the Roy CastleBritish entertainer Roy Castle who was obliged to appear at the Glasgow Empire, a theatre famous for its hostile and unforgiving audience.  Castle revealed his usual repertoire.  He sang songs, told jokes, performed magic tricks, danced, played a bewildering number of instruments and did impressions.   The audience was always restless and one member of the audience who was perhaps less patient than the rest admitted before the end of the act that he had endured enough.  ‘Jesus Christ,’ he shouted, ‘is there no end to the talent of the wee —-‘.

You can work the obscenity out for yourself.  Note that, like the Glasgow accent that uttered the heartfelt plea, it was harsh.    Roy Castle did not return to the Glasgow Empire.  Later, he was quite successful hosting a show about record breakers, the man who could eat the most boiled eggs and so on.  It suited him perfectly.   He could talk about people like himself, people whose talents were extreme but inconsequential.

Bobby Darin had hits in Britain but for most British rockers he was a rock and roll version of Roy Castle.  He lacked consequence and failed to offer the excitement of the real rebels.  Today, this view appears to be harsh.   We now realise that some of his records Beyond the Seaare exceptional.   ‘Mack The Knife’ is a great record but it is easily surpassed by ‘Beyond The Sea’ which is probably perfect.   It not only swings irresistibly but has relentless vocal invention.   Similarly, the career of Darin is underappreciated.   Not only did his music cover various genres he had a movie career that made real demands of a substantial acting talent.  Darin won the acting awards that Elvis could only dream about.   He wrote songs and played several instruments.  Amet Ertegun, the founder and President of Atlantic Records, worked with the great Ray Charles and other fabulous black talents but he was always prepared to single out Bobby Darin for praise.   Darin even managed a classic double A sided single, ‘Irresistible You’ and ‘Multiplication’.   The sides were actually reversed in Britain.    Like all great musicians he had exquisite timing and by sharing it with his audience he was able to add dynamism to his stage show.  On stage, he was not like Roy Castle.  Bobby Darin was not a dull performer.   He was great.

But as marvellous as some of his records were – the hilarious ‘Bullmoose’ is another fine example – he was not the equal of Elvis.  Inevitably, the versatile are obliged to produce moments that are not always compelling.   No doubt some people will look at the music of Elvis and say he suffered from the same limitations but they misunderstand his history.   Elvis was mismanaged and became self-destructive.   Listen to him at his best, on the four CDs that document his career in the fifties on the still available box set ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’.   Nobody has combined that degree of versatility with consequence and consistency.   This is why he appeals to the adolescent in us.   He made us feel privileged and indulged and without thinking our generation followed him into infancy and innocence.  We chose simple rock and roll and excitement.   Darin was talented enough to do everything but was always happier with sly sophistication.  Although he should not be dismissed, his reach was more limited.  The versatility had less consequence than that of Elvis.  It explains why his career took him to Vegas, well before Elvis was finally dumped there.

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Bobby Darin sings Beyond The Sea: