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Monday, January 13, 2020

Elvis Presley: Jailhouse Rock


1) Jailhouse Rock; 2) Treat Me Nice*; 3) I Want To Be Free; 4) Donʼt Leave Me Now; 5) Young And Beautiful; 6) (Youʼre So Square) Baby I Donʼt Care; 7) Poor Boy*; 8) Let Me*.

General verdict: Short, but essential — the culmination (or, at least, the beginning of the culmination) of the Elvis + Leiber/Stoller teamwork.

Although, for some reason, the soundtrack to Jailhouse Rock never got expanded to the status of a full-blown LP, it is still well worth making a brief stop for this short 5-song EP — if only because both the movie and the title track were such iconic landmarks in the Elvis legend. The movie, despite the clichéd plot, still remains as one of the few genuinely watchable Elvis films, and the title track... well, just one more great result of the Elvis + Leiber & Stoller collaboration. Unlike ʽHound Dogʼ, ʽJailhouse Rockʼ does not really bite: its main melody is a fairly harmless, comical piece of boogie, and the maniacal energy of its vocals is rowdy, but not aggressive — it is, after all, the manifesto of jailbirds who just want to have some fun, not beat up the warden or anything. But still, it is a call for fun from the other side of the bars — already the opening beat brings on associations with truncheons hitting against polished steel — and this definitely takes us at least one step further than, say, ripping it up on a Saturday night.

Recent assessments of ʽJailhouse Rockʼ often tend to dwell on the homoerotic connotations of the tune (and especially the movie sequence), of which there are plenty, but I think that the prison theme in general is more essential here — Leiber and Stoller always liked subtly playing around with issues of social justice, and if they could infuse the music of the countryʼs most popular rockʼnʼroll performer with such a subject, even in a purely comical manner, how could they have bypassed the chance? Up until then, the jail theme was largely the domain of old bluesmen and weathered country-western performers; ʽJailhouse Rockʼ introduces it to the prom-party-oriented genre of rockabilly, and in such a way that it would be impossible not to take notice — the production is right in your face, without the slightest traces of echo on the Kingʼs voice and Scottyʼs simple boogie rhythm guitar downtuned and distorted just enough to make the song join the long queue of pretenders for the «proto-metal» sound. Such a friendly atmosphere, but still enough to piss off your parents — and this right at the very moment when theyʼd nearly come to terms with the man for all his Christmas and gospel offerings.

This is not to demean the quality and importance of the other songs here — if anything, the short length of the EP guarantees its consistency. There is ʽTreat Me Niceʼ, which has easily the best combination of piano and quirky percussion on any Elvis record, and a hilarious blend of Elvisʼ bass mumble and The Jordanairesʼ backing vocals — always a touch of ecstasy when his "if you donʼt behave..." rockets out of this confusing vocal soup. There is ʽBaby I Donʼt Careʼ, on which Elvis himself plays bass — and although the bassline is as simple as you could predict, it still somehow ends up making the song. There is ʽI Want To Be Freeʼ, a song which does for Elvis pretty much the same thing as ʽHelp!ʼ would do for The Beatles — formulaic love song on the surface, subtle and painful cry for assistance at the bottom: the way he modulates that "I want to be FREE, FREE, FREE - EE - EE... I want to be free, like the bird in the tree" goes from aching to hysteria and back to yearning pain in an amazing emotional somersault. (Did he ever perform the song live? I donʼt think so — I donʼt think the Colonel would have approved). There are also two more ballads by Aaron Schroeder that are not as good as the Leiber/Stoller material, but there is still enough first-rate vocal acrobatics on ʽDonʼt Leave Me Nowʼ to pardon its rather generic doo-wop characteristics.

On a technical note, Jailhouse Rock did make it to CD on its own, expanded with a bunch of alternate takes (not essential — for instance, the movie version of ʽJailhouse Rockʼ with backing vocals from the «inmates» somewhat smoothes out the punch of the single version) and also throwing on the earlier EP Love Me Tender, with four songs from Elvisʼ first movie. It is a bit amusing to be reverted to that year-old sound and hear how different it was — though, allegedly, Love Me Tender was a cowboy movie, accounting for the generally C&W nature of the sound­track. ʽPoor Boyʼ, ʽLet Meʼ, ʽWeʼre Gonna Moveʼ — rowdy campfire material, all of them, and produced in such an intimate manner that you can almost feel yourself sharing a drink with the King after a hard day of rodeoing or whatever.


  1. "If you can recognize a cover version, it ain't worth shit"
    So written by George as part of his take on 'Angel Station' by Manfred Mann's Earth Band (old site, of course).
    And I agree.
    So, there:
    I can't listen to Elvis' version without having this little gem in mind. Recognizable - yes, but somehow real shit, too.
    Maybe it's OT, but I think it's worth it.

  2. Enjoying your thoughts on Elvis's records so far. I can't wait until you get to Elvis Is Back! which is my personal favorite. He showed he still had it and then some after coming back from the Army and is a perfect blend of his 50's stuff and a more mature, grounded look of things to come.