This might be the second post in a row to begin with a reference to Princess Diana, though that’s neither intentional nor some sort of preparation for a gushing post come the last day of August. For this particular post, I exhume our Queen of Hearts once again solely in relation to the media tsunami that accompanied the aftermath of her death; for one specific generation, this was the first moment when the demise of a ubiquitous household name was afforded such blanket coverage. For me, that first moment came precisely twenty years earlier with the death of Elvis Presley – forty years ago today.
As it was the middle of the school summer holidays, I got up in August 1977 when I felt like it rather than being dragged out of bed as I would be during term-time. Therefore, I was denied the playground reaction the day I heard, but I was informed about what had happened by my mum the moment I appeared for breakfast; she’d been watching ‘News at Ten’ the night before and they’d announced it on there. Up until Elvis died, I can only recall a small handful of famous people whose deaths I was made aware of at the time they happened. There was Roger Delgado, the actor who’d played The Master opposite Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who; there was racing driver Graham Hill; there was Chairman Mao; and there was ‘Record Breakers’ star Ross McWhirter. But none of those demises prepared me for the event of Elvis’s death.
Elvis mattered to people and meant something more to a greater number of them than any of the aforementioned names other than Mao. A mate of my dad’s wore all-black for a full week after Elvis died – an unusual gesture to make in the sartorially colourful 70s; a friend of mine once told me he remembered his father strolling out into the garden when he heard the news and standing in tearful silence out there on his own for a good ten minutes. At that age, I’d never witnessed the passing of a person nobody I knew had ever met having that kind of impact. But even in a pre-internet and 24/7 TV news age, it was impossible to avoid the worldwide outpouring of emotion that Elvis’s death provoked.
John Lennon’s oft-quoted opinion when a reporter shoved a microphone in his face that day in 1977 was ‘Elvis died when he joined the army’. This off-the-cuff statement may have had a grain of truth to it re the ‘pure’ undiluted Elvis as a relevant musical force, but Presley’s military sojourn in Germany had introduced him to the profoundly unhealthy diet that eventually killed him, so Lennon wasn’t far off the mark. At the same time, Elvis’s charisma and popularity seemed undimmed by his slow slide towards a premature end; his most devoted fans almost regarded him as immortal, which was why his death shook them so much. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll continued to exert a powerful influence over the generation who’d been around when he’d dropped like a pop atom bomb into the static music scene of twenty years earlier.
I had grown-up with fat Vegas Elvis in his white, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, and though it sounds sacrilege now, when I’d been roundabout five I used to get him mixed up with Gary Glitter! However, I gradually became aware Elvis had once been young, slim and sexy via the odd old movie of his on TV; and it’s strange to think now that the Elvis of my childhood was only in his late 30s/early 40s. He seemed so much older. After almost a decade squandered on the diminishing returns of Hollywood, Elvis had re-emerged as a live act at the end of the 60s and began making decent records again; it was a respectable renaissance, yet his self-destructive personality and isolation from anyone bar his yes-men mafia soon saw the Elvis roadshow become as damaging to his reputation as the movie conveyor belt had been.
Subsequently seeing his physical and mental deterioration via concert footage from the months leading up to his death, one comes away feeling both disgust that such a beautiful-looking human being could let himself degenerate into such rack and ruin at so young an age and sadness at the waste of talent. It’s as tragic to see the obscenely bloated Elvis drenched in sweat and mumbling his way through his set-list as it is to see the audience still whooping and cheering despite the blatant evidence before them that Elvis is virtually dead already. But by the mid-70s, Elvis had become little more than a barely animated tourist attraction. Not that this was initially reflected in the reaction to his death; the gruesome details seeped out in the years afterwards. In August 1977, even the NME – then the bible for the Punk scene that was at its height – put the young Elvis on its front cover and declared ‘Remember Him This Way’.
When I watched television images of the huge number of fans besieging the Graceland mansion in 1977, their collective mass reminded me of crowds en route to the Cup Final or hysterical girls chasing The Bay City Rollers; but the novel aspect of these images was that the fans – none of whom were children – were all crying. You didn’t see adults cry in public very often when I was a kid. The coverage of the reaction to Elvis’s death wasn’t just limited to the day after either; it seemed to go on all week. By the time ‘Top of the Pops’ came round again, his current single, ‘Way Down’, had zoomed up to No.1; even the Christmas schedules four months later bowed to the demand, and one of Elvis’s movies – of which there are perhaps three or four actually worth watching – was screened every morning on BBC1 over the holidays.
We’re used to all this now; but it was new to me then. Three years later, the same response greeted John Lennon’s death, though the nature of Lennon’s passing was far more shocking. Whenever a major pop culture figure dies today – and we’ve had quite a few in recent years – we tend to view it through the post-Diana prism, something enhanced and intensified by social media. But Elvis got there before her.
© The Editor