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Saturday, January 4, 2020

Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley

ELVIS PRESLEY: ELVIS PRESLEY (1956)

1) Blue Suede Shoes; 2) Iʼm Counting On You; 3) I Got A Woman; 4) One Sided Love Affair; 5) I Love You Because; 6) Just Because; 7) Tutti Frutti; 8) Tryinʼ To Get To You; 9) Iʼm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You); 10) Iʼll Never Let You Go (Little Darlinʼ); 11) Blue Moon; 12) Money Honey; 13*) Heartbreak Hotel; 14*) I Was The One; 15*) Lawdy Miss Clawdy; 16*) Shake, Rattle And Roll; 17*) My Baby Left Me; 18*) I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.

General verdict: This ainʼt just Elvis, really — this might be one of the most consistent non-compilation LPs of the entire rockabilly era.

If you want to do this chronology stuff 100% correctly, you should, of course, start with The Sun Sessions, a classic compilation that put together everything that Elvis recorded for his first label, but was not released until 1976 (as an unintentionally vicious last minute reminder for the failing King of what it used to be in the good old glory days) — or, better still, with the first disc of The Complete 1950s Masters, which simply arranges everything he did in rigorous chronological order and dispenses with the necessity of putting all the scrambled pieces of the puzzle together from his chaotic history of single / EP / LP releases. We shall, however, opt for this fairly messy path instead and proceed from the string of LPs, most of which still remain in print and, together with some accompanying singles as bonus tracks, still paint a fairly authentic picture of the way in which Elvisʼ original fans were learning of their idolʼs everyday routine.

Besides, if we just skip the LPʼs, we shall have no pretext to mention the iconic album cover of Elvisʼ self-titled debut — the same one, of course, that would later be symbolically imitated by The Clash for London Calling. The difference being that neither Elvis himself nor his overseers at RCA Victor probably attributed any revolutionary significance to the image, and yet there is hardly any question about whether the actual music here turned the musical world upside down or not, whereas with London Calling this would be fairly debatable. Even so, it is worth noticing that, for a long long while, this was the only Elvis LP to feature a typeface-covered hint at Elvisʼ golden hips, or actually capture him in a moment of ecstatic performance — on everything that followed, his posturing, facial expressions, and camera angles would hardly distinguish him from your average teen idol. Fortunately, enough damage would already be done with this photo so as not to let anybody worry about the inoffensiveness of any subsequent ones.

Another special feature of Elvis Presley is that it actually happens to mix material from his newer sessions for RCA with leftovers from Sun — with the market clearly demanding an Elvis Presley LP, it was discovered that there simply wasnʼt enough new material, so five out of twelve songs had to come from Sam Phillipsʼ stock. Most of those are ballads, with the exception of ʽJust Becauseʼ, but this is a good thing, because the minimalistic arrangements from the Sun Studios, focusing almost exclusively on Elvisʼ vocals, made the songs stand out from the generic doo-wop product of the day — when you listen to something like ʽIʼm Counting On Youʼ, you might seriously wonder about why you should be bothering with this stuff at all when you have The Platters or The Drifters, but that weirdly wobbly version of ʽBlue Moonʼ, all echo and popping bass and silence all around, actually makes it feel as if the singer is calling out to the girl in the tower while trying to cross a deep moat late at night.

This mix of Elvisʼ original Sun style — the lean, raw «power trio» synthesis of country-western and jump blues — and the early RCA style, in which the rawness was partially sacrificed in favor of updated production values and a bigger band, with actual drums and pianos, is delightful in that it shows the creative evolution and expansion of a great sound that has not yet begun to devolve into cuddliness and sentimentalism. Not all the 12 songs on the original LP are equally great, but not a single one is cringeworthy, a feat that would not be repeated on any subsequent record — and all this considering that Presleyʼs best material at the time was not even supposed to go on an LP in the first place.

From the very start, the «rockier» material that he did for RCA fell into two categories — «hard rock», usually inspired by or directly covering such masters of gritty R&B as Ray Charles and Little Richard, and «soft rock», typically driven by piano boogie lines and owing more to the tradition of saloon entertainment: your basic ʽShake, Rattle & Rollʼ vs. your typical ʽTeddy Bearʼ opposition. Naturally, the rebel in me will always fall for the first category before everything else, and these covers of ʽI Got A Womanʼ and ʽTutti Fruttiʼ will always remain the definitive ones. Of course, Elvis and his band whip the tunes into tight-focused action like the pistol-packinʼ white cowboys they are, rather than let them hang a little loose and sloppy and irreverent like their original black creators — which is a good thing, because each of these songs now got two lives instead of one. When I hear Little Richard go blop-bam-boom, my mind visualizes a crowded, tightly packed, smoky, sweaty ballroom; with Elvis, the song becomes a frenzied cowboy charge through the prairie — reach Point A from Point B in two minutes flat, lasso the bull, mission accomplished. (By the way, the absolutely insane instrumental break in the middle of ʽTutti Fruttiʼ might just be the single punkiest explosion of noise captured in the rockabilly era — what the heck are those drums even doing?).

Happily, though, the «soft rock» tunes this time around are also a lot of goofy fun: ʽOne-Sided Love Affairʼ features a beautiful rollickinʼ barrelhouse piano part from Floyd Cramer on top of a vocal that sounds like its owner has just run a marathon but still has to get it all out as if his life depended on it, and ʽIʼm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry Over Youʼ is another successful stab at turning generic country blues into rockabilly — and for now, it looks as though adding piano and drums to the mix might have been a definitive win over the sparseness of the Sun sound... well, hardly anybody in early ʼ56 could have guessed about the way things would ultimately turn out.

Now, the big question: was the difference between an Elvis LP and an Elvis hit single at the time really that crucial? Answer: by no means. Sure, ʽHeartbreak Hotelʼ is only here as a bonus track, and few things in 1956 could beat the stunning effect of ʽHeartbreak Hotelʼ. But all these other 14 tracks — yes, some are weaker than others, but there is no true filler here, because (a) Elvis had great taste in covers, whenever he got to choose them for himself and (b) RCA had the wisdom, at the time, to hook him up with some really talented songwriters who could hammer out distinct, interesting personalities for their songs. And if ʽHeartbreak Hotelʼ may be a one-of-a-kind knock­out track indeed (is there one single tune in the universe that actually sounds even remotely like it?), its follow-up single, ʽI Want You, I Need You, I Love Youʼ, is actually a fairly straight­forward prom night slow dance track that is far less exciting than most of the LP tracks.

My point being here that it would be deeply incorrect to regard pre-army Elvis as specifically a «singles artist» because all pop artists were «single» at the time. The high quality of his LPs was not necessarily a good sign: what it really meant was that the commercial machine had almost immediately latched on to him as its major cash cow, and was ready to spin its wheels overtime to ensure high quality product (normally, not a lot of people bought LPs, but with Elvis, sales were guaranteed all the way). But for a while, as long as the industry was still young and as long as Colonel Parker could be able to stimulate the interest of people who could get excited about something other than just money, it worked, and it gave the world approximately two great years during which Elvis Presley would be the most prolific and the most consistent of all the young white entertainers in the rockʼnʼroll business. 

12 comments:

  1. Very nice, George! I think it's an accurate review and very true, too. Although I might give a little more credit to the Clash than you do, "London Calling" was 'just' one great record at a time of many great records, while this was probably the most important non-jazz album of the fifties. Happy new year 2020!

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  2. I always found it a bit peculiar that fans are so obsessed with chronology regarding their favourite pop- and rockstars. For someone like Elvis the artistic unit was the single, not the LP; same for the early Kinks. So if chronology is the highest principle the result never can be optimally authentic.


    "it would be deeply incorrect to regard pre-army Elvis as specifically a «singles artist» because all pop artists were «single» at the time."
    They all were and hence so was Elvis. It doesn't follow that Elvis'songs can't be put on an album; that would be as silly as not buying Mozart CD's because they weren't invented in his time yet. My point is just that we need more artistic criteria than just chronology. Listening to Elvis' songs in chronological order doesn't make more sense than listening to Mozart's symphonies from nr.1 till nr. 41.

    "cover of ..... ʽTutti Fruttiʼ will always remain the definitive one"
    As a cover perhaps. I'll always prefer Little Richard. In the first place I associate sexuality with "hang a little loose and sloppy and irreverent" rather than with "pistol-packinʼ white cowboys"; In the second place I associate "a frenzied cowboy charge through the prairie" with Ennio Morricone's theme music for the Dollar Trilogy rather than with Elvis; in the third place I associate the American country and western where Elvis came from with John Wayne, whose machismo I thoroughly dislike; above all Little Richard and not Elvis was the biggest influence on the greatest rock'n'roll singer of all time, Ian Gillan in the 1970's.
    As for that guitar solo, only a few years later one Dutch-Indian guy named Andy Tielman shred it to pieces. His brothers were the superior backing band too. So the drums hardly impress me either. From 1959:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcFfBNesjBE

    The bottom line was that Elvis was relatively a tame guy too, despite his reputation. The first culprit of course was the commercial machine you mention; the second the prudish white culture of the 1950's. The teens of the 1950's abhorred the sexual revolution some ten years later, remember?

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    1. With all due respect, Andy Tielman was the Yngwie Malmsteen of his generation - a technical virtuoso who packaged his talent as part of a circus act. (To an extent, so was another of your favorites, Ritchie Blackmore, but at his best he did manage to transcend that). In a comparison between Elvis and the Tielmans, "tame" is certainly an adjective I'd rather apply to the latter, since their performances had none of the genuine aggression of early rock'n'roll - it was an (admittedly, very high-quality) comedy show.

      Of course, I like to play the "let's dismiss Elvis" game from time to time, too, if only to stress that he was just one of the many fathers of rock'n'roll. It's a very easy game to play. But if we haven't properly outgrown it, let's at least pretend we did and see what happens.

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    2. LOL! Elvis was "Singles guy". Spoken like someone who does not know the catalog.The Ian Gillian comment clinched it! Comedy gold! Thanks for the laugh!

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    3. Do you really think Ian Gillian is the best rock singer ever? I mean, he is really, really awesome, but the best in all of rock? Is that fanaticism or objectivity?

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  3. The vocal on Trying To Get To You merits special Mention. Besides being one of his finest ealy sides , Elvis's vocal control, esp in the vocal drops is an announcement to the world, this is a special talent.

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  4. Yes was going to mention his phrasing which seems just as breakthrough as anything else.

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  5. Nice review! I hadn’t listened to Elvis in a while (I normally prefer Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis from that era), but I whipped out this album again based on your review, and it was surprisingly good! Sure, it isn’t the best LP from the 50s, but it is certainly entertaining and has plenty of good material. Thanks George for writing this review, I am glad you’re back in business!

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  6. Good review. I have to wonder, though, why are you following the LP's for these Elvis' reviews? If the point is a chronological view of his artistic evolution, clearly this is ill-fitting (you won't get to "That's Alright, Mama" until, what, the fifth review?). If the point is to get a comprehensive view of everything Elvis did at the time, then isn't that the entire purpose of compilations? If the point is to experience his music the same way his fans at the time did, while LP's have a better argument here than in the previous two cases, clearly a chronological singles compilation would be even better.

    By any criteria I can think of, comprehensive compilations seem a better media for Elvis' reviews than these LP's. They'd even reduce the ammount of weeks you'd dedicate to reviewing him. In these times of streaming services, they wouldn't even be that hard to get.

    Anyway, this is a predictably great album, given it's a bunch of mostly great songs recorded by one of the greatest performers in rock'n'roll history at the top of his abilities, backed by an excellent band. You do an excellent job at describing the specifics of that greatness, though I'll have to disagree on "I Got A Woman" and "Tutti Frutti". They're not bad or anything close to it, but I'll take Ray Charles' and Little Richard's originals every single day of my life. That is not the case with "Blue Suede Shoes", though, which I personally consider the definitive version. I noticed you didn't mention it on your review, though.

    Great to have you back on full reviews. I needed my fix of anti-Scaruffian writing to get me through the week.

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    1. The use of comprehensive compilations is that they are easier to get; naturally, any serious lover of Elvis will simply go to "The Complete 50's Masters" which compile all the officially released stuff (plus a bunch of outtakes) in chronological order. This is the boxset that I actually own, and all these LPs can be cut out from its CDs.
      But reviewing big boxsets is impractical, because you can't really give a comprehensive review to hundreds of tracks at the same time - unless you omit all the important details, or unless you are writing a monograph instead of a review.
      At the same time, we are talking about the 1950s, not the 1930s or 1940s: the LP format was already invented and most of the good stuff found its way there one way or another, so these chronologically arranged LP releases actually represent a reality rather than being purely arbitrary. So it's a good enough compromise. Also, most of the LPs have been re-released with contemporary singles added as bonus tracks, which also helps bring things back in perspective.

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  7. Excellent review, George. I like the characterization of Elvis's early RCA sound as a "creative evolution and expansion" of the Sun sound, rather than a watering-down; and your pointing out the utter uniqueness of "Heartbreak Hotel" in the rock canon. Keep these coming.

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  8. Elvis Presley’s debut album is an ideal jukebox selection that shows the hungry, fledging star rising to life through his favorite musical styles. Long live the King!!

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