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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Elvis Presley: Elvis

ELVIS (1956)

1) Rip It Up; 2) Love Me; 3) When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again; 4) Long Tall Sally; 5) First In Line; 6) Paralyzed; 7) So Glad Youʼre Mine; 8) Old Shep; 9) Ready Teddy; 10) Anyplace Is Paradise; 11) Howʼs The World Treating You; 12) How Do You Think I Feel; 13*) Hound Dog; 14*) Donʼt Be Cruel; 15*) Any Way You Want Me*; 16*) Too Much; 17*) Playing For Keeps; 18*) Love Me Tender.

General verdict: A bit diluted with generic country and doo-wop, but still proudly carrying rock'n'roll flame to a new generation.

All of Elvisʼ second album, hard and soft stuff alike, pales in comparison with ʽHound Dogʼ, one of the hardest-hitting rockʼnʼroll numbers of its era and possibly the closest Elvis ever came to capturing that classic punk spirit — a short, tight, uncompromising, fully focused assault on the senses, a musical shotgun blast that sends you off flying in pieces. Of course, itʼs not just about Elvis: itʼs about Elvis and his entire backing band, particularly D. J. Fontanaʼs drumming, as loud and aggressive and precise as possible, with each fill between the verses cracking off in solid machine-gun style, and Scotty Mooreʼs guitar, which he not so much plays as spanks in full-on BDSM mode, culminating in the second solo which one can regard as a spiritual predecessor to all the garage-rock excesses of the mid-Sixties.

It is precisely this collective punch which makes casual accusations such as «oh, another case of white boy stealing black peopleʼs music» so ridiculous — never mind the fact that ʽHound Dogʼ was actually written for Big Mama Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two kids as Jewish-American as they come, but Elvis and his pals learned the song from Freddie Bell & The Bellboys without knowing anything about Big Mamaʼs slower, bluesier version in the first place. And even if they did, no other band at the time, black or white, would dare to put such a ferocious spin on the melody: I dare say that the intensity of ʽHound Dogʼ in mid-ʼ56 produced an impact well comparable with, say, the first appearances of hardcore punk around 1979. It is one of the few Elvis songs that instills that kind of reaction in me even today, whenever I put it on — most rockabilly classics from the Fifties inevitably sound tamer and cutesier to experienced ears, but not this one. Each time Scotty hits those power chords at 1:22 into the song, it makes me feel like a frickinʼ teenager, no matter how much time has elapsed.

It is somewhat strange that on this LP, most of which was recorded just a couple months after ʽHound Dogʼ, we do not find even a single attempt to properly recapture the same spirit. The closest they come is with a cover of Little Richardʼs ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ, but thereʼs a good reason why ʽHound Dogʼ remains a classic while hardly anybody remembers this inferior version — for one thing, the production is disappointingly muddy next to the sharp-as-a-knife sound of ʽHound Dogʼ, for another, the band plays in a fairly perfunctory manner, with Scotty in more of a playful jazzy mood than pissed-off punk, and, finally, Elvisʼ own delivery has a faint whiff of uncertainty about it, as if he were still pondering over what those lyrics really mean and how he should be approaching them as the tapes began rolling (a mistake that would not be repeated eight years later by Paul McCartney, who did not shy away from giving the song all the attention that it required and came out with a relative winner). This track really does sound a bit like white men trying to steal a black manʼs thunder, and not doing a very good job of it.

In general, as an LP, Elvis takes a predictable step back from the standards of Elvis Presley, though certainly not a big one — on the whole, production values, playing enthusiasm, and cover material remain strong, though the balance is slowly becoming to shift in favor of sentimental ballads and «soft rock». «Hard rock» is basically limited to three numbers, all of them Little Richard covers — and at the very least, Elvis does a much finer job with ʽReady Teddyʼ and ʽRip It Upʼ than he does with ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ, possibly because those two contain fewer sexual innuendos and are generally party tunes about having a wild time at the local joint, an activity certainly closer to Elvisʼ heart than the tabooed sexual practices of ʽSallyʼ. ʽReady Teddyʼ, in particular, brings Mooreʼs and Fontanaʼs energy levels almost back to the same heights as we heard them on ʽHound Dogʼ, though the production is still a little too muddied.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, we see the country boy returning to his whitebread roots with songs like ʽOld Shepʼ, a 4-minute Red Foley ballad whose intention it is to show us that, actually, there are hound dogs around that Elvis does care about. Like many, many, many other Elvis ballads, your reaction to it will largely depend on how convincing and hypnotizing you find the manʼs traditional crooning style; I must issue a warning in advance that if the accompanying melody or musical atmosphere isnʼt convincing enough, I am not easily swayed by Elvisʼ voice as the sole benefit — and with the corny, soapy lyrics of the song sinking it deep in the ground, ʽOld Shepʼ is certainly not the kind of material Iʼd ever like to play at the funeral of my own pet. But with the songʼs length and self-importance, this was clearly a sign — a sign that Mr. Presley was going to be just as respectful of the old folk tradition as he would be of the new rockʼnʼroll standards, and that he would be marketable to all segments of the audience.

In between those extremes there is a whole bunch of bouncier ballads and soft pop-rock nuggets of varying quality, few of them remembered all too well because there are much better examples of the same style: thus, ʽParalyzedʼ utilizes the same boppy chords as both ʽTeddy Bearʼ and ʽDonʼt Be Cruelʼ without being nearly as catchy as either, and the old Crudup blues ʽSo Glad Youʼre Mineʼ would later get a more melodic and energetic update, becoming ʽAinʼt That Loving You Babyʼ. Even Aaron Schroeder, who would later contribute several of the catchiest songs of Elvisʼ entire career, this time gives him a doo-wop toss-off (ʽFirst In Lineʼ, a song that nobody probably remembers unless you happened to dance to it during prom night, which, as of 2020, is somewhat chronologically unlikely).

But at least almost nothing here — with the possible exception of ʽOld Shepʼ — is particularly embarrassing; and if you take the album together with its surrounding singles, most of them available as bonus tracks, the collective weight of the classics (which would also include ʽDonʼt Be Cruelʼ and ʽToo Muchʼ) certainly outshines the lack of gloss on the average material. In any case, while Elvis does give us a few signs that maybe this Memphis kid isnʼt quite as rebelliously punkish as weʼd like him to remain in our hearts, it certainly gives no signs that the fire and passion on his earlier material was just a fluke. Simply put, the «Elvis Machine» hadnʼt yet been put in motion by the end of ʼ56, and there was still plenty of room for maneuvering, trying out different approaches, and generally fooling around. Perhaps, most importantly, Elvis was not yet completely sucked into the movie-making business — his first movie, Love Me Tender, was shot around the same time as the album was recorded, but he still only had a relatively small side part in it, and nobody could predict his big future on the silver screen.


  1. Love Me is the real masterpiece here, though. What a vocal.

  2. I love the full-throated appreciation of Hound Dog, and how you dismiss the hoary, lazy canard that Elvis was stealing black peoples' music.

    It's also great to see real Elvis fans in the comments - people who have looked past the cliche and learned to appreciate him as a brilliant artist (with ups and plenty of downs).

  3. I like “Old Shep.” Elvis plays piano on the tune and shows that he had some instrumetal chops after all.