LEAVING LAS VEGAS

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

ROCKET 56

ElvisSixty years ago the nascent British singles charts were dominated by middle-aged middle-of-the-road balladeers, young middle-of-the-road balladeers, a glut of novelty acts, and American stars who divided their careers between the recording studio and the cinema screen. Sound familiar? The new world of the seven-inch single was just another extension of the Tin Pan Alley franchise, the powerful cartel of record companies, music publishers, Svengalis and hit songwriters that completely controlled the listening habits of the western world; but in a soundscape consisting of Slim Whitman, Ronnie Hilton, Winifred Atwell, Frankie Laine, Jimmy Young (yes, that one), Alma Cogan and Doris Day, something was changing.

The early summer of 1956 saw the UK chart debut of a young American singer from the Deep South called Elvis Presley, singing an unsettling echo-laden song called ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That Elvis should emanate from a part of the States that the materialistic boomtown of Eisenhower’s America viewed as a shameful embarrassment is significant.

The South was very much the poor relation at the halfway point of the twentieth century, and only the South could have produced a musical form so alien to Hollywood or Broadway sensibilities. For all their cool credentials, both LA and New York were too rooted in showbiz economics to have produced something as dangerously unpredictable as Rock n Roll in the middle of the 1950s. Indeed, the minute they recognised its commercial potential and got their hands on it, they completely castrated it and turned into another inoffensive branch of the entertainment industry.

At the point when Rock n Roll erupted over-ground, the old Confederate States had been officially absorbed back into the Union for 90 years, yet the legacy and grievances of the Civil War had been passed down the generations, particularly that contentious aspect which the 50s American Dream turned a blind eye to, segregation. Segregation was effectively a substitute for the slavery the Southern States had reluctantly surrendered when the white flag was waved in 1865, but for all its undoubted evils, what the policy of segregation did was to create a unique set of circumstances that proved potent in cultural terms.

It’s no coincidence that Rosa Parks should refuse to give up her seat on the bus to a privileged white butt in 1956; the incident that served to set the whole civil rights ball rolling took place the same year as a raw hybrid of the Blues, Bluegrass Country, R&B, Doo-Wop and Gospel emerged into the national spotlight – both pointers to the end of a stagnant system of separating black and white that had reached the end of its unnatural life.

Segregation was based in part on fear; the realisation that white kids were adopting black music as their own sparked paranoia of a possible mixed race union that flew in the face of Southern traditions. As opponents to Rock n Roll declared publicly at the time, this was ‘nigger music’ and its race-crossing popularity was viewed by these same enlightened souls as a conspiracy designed to drag the white man down to the same lowly level as the Negro.

In a mainstream America suddenly obsessed with juvenile delinquency – the rebellion of children born during the War years – portrayals on the big screen by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean were bad enough; but the prospect of a form of music that dispensed with the smooth orchestrated sheen favoured by the crooners and stripped the sound down to an unrestrained sexualised core posed a threat to the status quo they were determined to silence. That this unwelcome development should crawl out of the No-Man’s Land of the South merely added insult to injury.

Technically, the Blues and R&B, the long-standing sounds of Black America that were too crude to enjoy the mass acceptance of Jazz, were not Rock n Roll; they were component parts. It was the blend of these genres with others already listed that constituted the new sound. And while the likes of Chuck Berry (from St Louis, Missouri) and Little Richard (from Macon, Georgia) were already pursuing a path that would formulate the Rock n Roll template, it took a white man, Bill Haley (a Michigan-born nomad shaped by a Great Depression-scarred childhood), to score the first recognised Rock n Roll hit in the national charts with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in 1955, four years after the first acknowledged Rock n Roll record, ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (a band led by Ike Turner). The sheer size of the USA as a landmass meant that Rock n Roll took time to make an impact beyond the Southern States, but what had been a regional sound slowly gathering pace through the early 50s now had countrywide notoriety.

Tuning-in to exclusively black radio stations was a clandestine obsession of more open-minded white teens in the South, but Elvis Presley’s experience of poverty was an undoubted leveller that made him colour blind when it came to music; the Blues spoke to him and his poor white ilk as much as it did to his black neighbours, so there was no opportunistic exploitation of a black sound where he was concerned. If that came at all, it came when he was signed up by the archetypal Southern showman and shyster ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker.

Elvis’s phenomenal success in 1956/57 may have enabled other white Southerners to gate-crash the musical establishment, such as Buddy Holly (from Texas), Gene Vincent (from Virginia) and Jerry Lee Lewis (from Louisiana); but it also enabled Colonel Parker to sell the product to Hollywood, serving to airbrush its animalistic heart and soul in the process. It’s so easy to overlook the sheer sonic shock of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sixty years on; but the record’s importance in acting as the opening missive of the cultural revolution that so illuminated the second half of the twentieth century should never be underestimated. When Radio Luxembourg transmitted a show presented by the white Southern DJ Alan Freed (widely credited with creating the term ‘Rock n Roll’) in the late 50s, it had a particular impact where the infamously-bad reception of the station was better than anywhere else in Britain – Liverpool.

© The Editor