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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Elvis Presley: Elvis (1968)

ELVIS PRESLEY: ELVIS (1968)

1) Trouble / Guitar Man; 2) Medley: Lawdy Miss Clawdy / Baby What You Want Me To Do / Heartbreak Hotel / Hound Dog / All Shook Up / Canʼt Help Falling In Love / Jailhouse Rock / Love Me Tender; 3) Where Could I Go But To The Lord? / Up Above My Head / Saved; 4) Blue Christmas / One Night; 5) Memories; 6) Medley: Nothingville / Big Boss Man / Guitar Man / Little Egypt / Trouble / Guitar Man; 7) If I Can Dream.

General verdict: The famous «out of the frying pan and into the fire» Comeback Special — like watching a paralyzed man trying to relearn to walk, with mixed success.


And here it is, folks — The Comeback Special in all its glory, though the original LP, faithfully reproducing most of the material from the broadcast of December 3, 1968, certainly pales in scope next to The Complete edition from 2008, with 4 CDs covering the entirety of the sessions for the special. Were I a big fan of The Special, I would have certainly looked that one up. Unfortunately, Iʼm not, and never have been, and here is why.

There are clearly no doubts as to the fact that the Elvis Special was the first Elvis-related project in years which the King actually enjoyed — or that it was a major turning point in his career, marking the transition from a life dominated by movies to a life once again dominated by live performances and regular studio recordings. One question, however, which I very rarely see thrown around, seems quite obvious to me: if this program, and whatever steps followed it, are regarded as a «comeback» for Elvis, then why the hell did this comeback last for just a few years? Why did it quickly evolve into a pompous Vegasy ritual for affluent middle-aged ladies? Why the drugs, the obesity, the deteriorating quality of both recorded material and live performances? Was there really a «comeback» in the first place, or?...

Upon first glance, what the enthralled audiences saw in that TV studio in mid-ʼ68 (and millions of people later witnessed during the broadcast) was a freshened up, rejuvenated, exhilarated Elvis, dressed in imposing black leather, surrounded by his trusty bandmates, thrusting his hips like there was no tomorrow, performing a smorgasbord of his classic hits, real rockʼnʼroll stuff, none of all that recent movie crap — just look at the track listing. A few gospel classics thrown in for good measure, a good old Christmas song, great ballads like ʽCanʼt Help Falling In Loveʼ and ʽLove Me Tenderʼ. Scottie Moore himself back in top form and soloing like crazy! Like itʼs 1957 all over again, or something like that.

Alas, it was all for naught in the long run. If you want to see a real comeback — well, maybe not a «comeback» per se, but a set of authentic, credible, exciting, relevant live performances from the rockʼnʼroll pioneers, look no further than the Toronto RockʼnʼRoll Revival festival from 1969, with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis performing next to younger and hipper artists (including some odd guy called John Lennon, among others) and proudly holding their own ground, just doing their old thang and submitting themselves to the all-powerful God of RockʼnʼRoll. Next to those fairly ferocious performances, the Elvis Comeback Special most certainly pales in comparison because it was, first and foremost, a SuperStar Show, a Celebration of Celebrity. Instead of being about rockʼnʼroll, it was all about King Elvis — although the greatest irony of it all was that King Elvis himself may have very well thought that it was really all about rockʼnʼroll after all.

The very setting of the show — a tiny lighted square grid, surrounded on all sides by adoring fans, within the space of which the King would be promenading his leather-clad hips — ironically resembles a locked cage, with a captive, if not fully tamed, tiger walking from one end to another and back again. The performances themselves are rowdy and spirited, but the format is rather ridiculous: most of the songs are actually snippets, bound together in lengthy medleys, as if the aim of the show was to remind the population of how many classic hits this wonderful man has had in his previous life, rather than just let everybody have a good time. Even the leather, truth be told, looks rather silly — remember that in the Fifties Elvis had no need whatsoever to borrow the rebellious Gene Vincent look in order to succeed, and it certainly has not become a natural look for him in the next decade, either; no wonder that «leather-clad Elvis» so quickly gave way to the «jumpsuit Elvis» once he returned to live performing fulltime.

To be clear: in the context of the time, the Comeback Special was a massive breakthrough for Elvis — and itʼs not like there isnʼt a lot of fun involved in listening to this performance. When the King breaks into ʽHeartbreak Hotelʼ or ʽHound Dogʼ, brief as those moments are, he must have felt as if he was punching through a wall with each of these verses — he delivers them with the grotesquely overworked abandon of a starved man who doesnʼt really care if he dies on the spot from overeating, he just gonna do it, come hell or high water. When he half-accidentally, half-intentionally butchers stuff like ʽLove Me Tenderʼ or ʽOne Nightʼ with unfunny improvised lyrics, it is, too, the act of a drunken man on the night of the lifting of Prohibition. But then he starts rambling on the current state of music ("I like a lot of the new groups, you know..."), or patting his bandmates on the back, or going all spasmodic on the surrounding fans, and this is where you are reminded that the Comeback Special is a show, first and foremost, and has much more to do with Elvisʼ personality cult than with the spirit of rockʼnʼroll.

No better reminder of that than the opening and closing sequences — a burlesque medley of ʽTroubleʼ and ʽGuitar Manʼ in the beginning, and a mini-musical about Elvis as a struggling artist at the end. The songs are all good, but the arrangements are predictably Vegas-ified (oh those stupid, stupid, stupid brass howls in the intro to ʽGuitar Manʼ!), and the emphasis is always on the King-Is-Back thing rather than the music. It is quite telling that they hired Steve Binder to direct it all — the man previously known for directing the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, way back when this glitzy stylistics was actually cutting edge and did not take the proper attention away from the artistry (like, your eyes were probably still glued to James Brown and the Rolling Stones rather than the vapid go-go girls shaking it in the background). But what may have worked for all sorts of audiences in 1964 could only work for very specific types of audiences in 1968, when the «cutting edge» format would rather be describing something like The Rolling Stones RockʼnʼRoll Circus than the Comeback Special.

Consequently, there are only three things I genuinely like about it all. First, I like to see people happy, and Elvis here was quite credibly happy, so I canʼt help but feel a little happy about him, too — happy-sad, of course, realising that in the long run this was the first step on the road that led him to even further humiliation and, ultimately, the grave; but thereʼs something to be said and enjoyed about the short run as well, after all. Second, being a big Scotty Moore fan, it is really great to see him in close-up action on the stage (given how little footage of Elvis we have from the Fifties and how it never ever focuses on his backing players), and, by the way, it is sad that the original album omitted what was possibly the most touching and thrilling moment inside their little boxing ring — the performance of ʽThatʼs Alright, Mamaʼ by Elvis and his original band (minus Bill Black, who passed away in 1965).

Third, the show and album conclude with ʽIf I Can Dreamʼ, the song that marks Elvisʼ transition into the gospel-soul business and whose quality and passion, in my opinion, trump just about every single moment on From Elvis In Memphis — perhaps because it was such a fresh take for the King at the moment: heʼd wrestled the right to sing the song from the Colonel, who did not think it suitable for his protegé (for a good reason — what would make the Colonel care about his artist singing MLK quotations instead of "old MacDonald had a farm"?), and he really gave it his all — there is an out-of-control tear in his voice here that you never heard before even on his gospel recordings, let alone all the cute pop songs. If there is one single moment of complete honesty and genuine emotion here, ʽIf I Can Dreamʼ is it, and upon hearing it, you can actually understand what he meant when he said "Iʼm never going to sing another song I donʼt believe in" (even if I am really not sure that he truly kept that promise).

In the end, it is absolutely no sin to enjoy Elvis ʼ68 and get caught up in the excitement; it is simply important to realise that, while this was certainly an important and glaringly obvious change in direction, the word «comeback» is not a very good one to describe the event — not coincidentally, the word itself made its first appearance in the Colonelʼs discourse when, soon after the show, heʼd announced a «comeback tour» for Elvis. Sadly, a «comeback» to the values that imbued and defined his classic years was really out of the question — like demanding the victim of a serious stroke to «come back» to his original state of health. The good thing about it is that it managed to give us Elvis, the credible soul singer, for a few years. The bad thing about it is that it really failed to give us back Elvis, the intoxicating rockʼnʼroller. 

11 comments:

  1. "the word «comeback» is not a very good one to describe the event"
    GS won't be surprised that I disagree, because of the four classic rock'n'rollers (indeed, the other three were Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry) Elvis was most showman and least rock'n'roller from the very beginning (really, compare the video of Jailhouse Rock). The percentage "intoxicating rockʼnʼroller" always was lower compared to the other three. As he also was the best "credible soul singer" of the bunch this show is a full-fledged comeback indeed.
    In other words - in my view "the values that imbued and defined his classic years" have largely remained the same. Fifties' Elvis in the end is the product of the first highly successful marketing campaign (and the Rolling Stones learned a few things as well; they were never as dangerous as the fans thought either).
    If you want to see those values implemented by a classic rock'n'roller watch the Hail hail! Rock'n'roll and especially the scene when Chuck Berry treats Keith Richards like a toddler. Such pissitude never suited Elvis.
    Disclaimer: nothing of this should be hold against Elvis as an artist. At this point I always remind people that Mozart, possibly the greatest composer of all time, never put one note on paper without getting paid. And Derek Shulman of Gentle Giant fame (according to the old site the least commercial band ever) explicitly stated in an interview that becoming big was a major goal of that band. And Bob Dylan's unpredictability is also a fine marketing strategy.
    The only exception I can think of is Mussorgsky and his fate is not to be recommended either.
    Elvis was just a singer. That's how he should be judged - just as a singer.

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    1. Even more pertinent in Derek Shulman's case is that he went on to be an executive at Polygram, where he signed Bon Jovi and a slew of other hair metal acts.

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  2. It’s nice to get a philosophy lesson on the definition of a comeback with an album review. Two for the price of one!

    If I may provide a differing viewpont to the whole “comeback” debate, I would contend that the special did change Elvis’s fortunes for a brief window in the late 60s and early 70s. His music was popular again in the late 60s, and this soundtrack and From Elvis in Memphis were at least warmly received in comparison to the dreck that he was wading in during the mid-60s. I’ll grant that he was putting out better material in ’67 before this soundtrack, but this special was the first instance in a long while where Elvis was putting out material that sold well without the overall negative critical impression. The fact that he blew his health, and perhaps even his reputation, into oblivion throughout the 70s speaks more to fact that the life of popular musician, or and celebrity in general, often doesn’t come with a happy ending as opposed to any long-term preplanned botching of a TV show from years before.

    On that cheerful note, I’m actually much more in agreement with how I view the album itself. Elvis’s soul pop direction isn’t quite as exciting as his rock heyday in the 50s, with the backing accompaniment veering from 60s go-go performances on the likes of Jailhouse Rock to an off-brand Muscle Shoals soundalike on tracks like the opening Trouble/Guitar Man. Sadly with most of the reworked older material, the arrangements rarely sounds as lively or inspired as the original recordings, though Elvis himself both looks and sounds like he is indeed having fun with these performances. I’d liken this to whenever an artist re-did their popular hits to fit with the current times, so I guess I’m glad that this was Elvis ’68 instead of Elvis ’76. I am thankful they kept in a couple of the performances with Scotty and what remained of his old backing band, even if their segment was unfortunately brief if lively. If I Can Dream is also a great showcase of what Elvis can do with soul when he’s feeling inspired. His vocals are often a bit more rough-hewn throughout, but the closer showcases an emotional swell to close out the show on a high note.

    I guess in the end, I’m not so sure if asking Elvis to bring back his heyday would have been the best route either. Elvis still enjoyed music beyond rock n roll, gospel in particular, and as much as I prefer the likes of King Creole to From Elvis in Memphis, I also acknowledge that Elvis was more than just his rock image. So I’m glad they were able to put out a performance that he could enjoy, if only briefly, and the audience overall enjoyed as well. While this may not be all too close to Elvis’s top material, it is a crucial part to his story and enjoyable compared to what came before it years prior, as well as what would come years later.

    A strong-ish 6/10, if maybe the spectacle of it all is what is driving this mildly positive rating.

    (Also off-topic, but since this is my first post, I've been a fan of your reviews for years, so thanks for the musical recommendations after all this time.)

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    1. While I enjoyed reading your interesting comment I'm left with two questions.

      1. In what respect exactly is your viewpoint different?
      2. What exactly was "Elvis ... more than just his rock image"?

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    2. I appreciate the feedback. In regards to your questions:

      1. My comment was aimed at the original review, in particular this quote:

      "One question, however, which I very rarely see thrown around, seems quite obvious to me: if this program, and whatever steps followed it, are regarded as a «comeback» for Elvis, then why the hell did this comeback last for just a few years?"

      It mostly struck me as a curious qualification of determining the validity of it being defined as a comeback, and wished to support the idea that it was indeed a comeback, regardless of what occurred years after it happened. Having read your earlier comment, I think my viewpoint may be a bit closer in line to what you were thinking.

      2. I could have been more precise in that regard. I mostly meant that Elvis was more than just a stereotypical image of a 50s rock n roller before this special happened. There are examples of gospel, pop ballads, and borderline country in terms of musical genres before even getting into the soundtracks themselves (for better or worse).

      I hope that cleared things up a bit!

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  3. This show was labelled as ''Singer presents...ELVIS in his first TV special''NOT ''comeback special'' at the time.
    However i like the record...and the tv show it rocks and had good songs and performances.in typical ole 60's TV show fashion is fun.The outstanding parts are the semi-unplugged set with their old musicians ,the gospel medley and ''If I Can Dream''.

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  4. Oh i see you reviewed the original release...I have the 1992 edition which have a LOT MORE of the Scotty Moore part!

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  5. Just thought I'd pop in to say I've enjoyed all the reviews! I'll be interested to see your opinion on from Elvis in Memphis. Hope you're doing well!

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