“Nothing’s changed .This won’t change anything.”
—Colonel Tom Parker, August 1977, two days after Elvis’s death.
Whilst filming in an amusement park for a 1977 episode of the legendary Six Million Dollar Man, set designers accidentally broke the arm of one of their ‘mannequins’. Turns out the spooky dummy was in fact the mummified corpse of one Elmer McCurdy. Research revealed the unlucky extra was a notoriously clumsy outlaw killed during a gunfight in 1911. For 66 years McCurdy’s bedraggled corpse had been mocked, poked, and dragged from pillar to post on a perpetual tour of wax museums, freakshows, horror houses, and carnivals.
I was reminded of Elmer’s tragi-comic voyage whilst listening to Viva Elvis, a “21st century celebration of Elvis Presley” placing the “voice of the king in a whole new context”. A “whole new context” brought to you by Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc, Las Vegas’s ARIA resort and casino, and Cirque du Soleil, the production team behind the Beatles’ Love. Together they’ve “re-imagined” the King’s legacy as a “multi-faceted audio extravaganza”. Now, I’ve not borne witness to the “extravaganza”, but I do know this: Viva Elvis is one of the single most heartbreaking records I have ever heard.
You see, I’m a fully paid-up disciple of the, admittedly occasionally ghoulish, audience which helps earn Elvis Presley Enterprises millions of dollars each year. I have the glasses, the t-shirts, the Blu-Rays, the fridge magnets, the car stickers. I crossed the globe to pay my respects at Elvis’s grave. I’m a firm believer that Elvis Aaron Presley was the greatest entertainer of the 20th century, and heartily encourage everybody and anybody to watch the concert footage and devour the music. BUT! Viva Elvis is possibly the most soulless, macabre, misguided ‘celebration’ of the King to date.
The big idea here is to take Elvis’s voice (sounds good so far, right?) and place it in the context of Planet Pop 2010 (err, m’kay). Tragically, things go wrong. Very wrong. Let’s lift Elvis’s vocal from “That’s All Right”. Now let’s pin it on a ridiculously unsubtle karaoke version of Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?”. This is what the kids are listening to, right? OK. Now let’s see how many random bits of commentary, Elvis related or not, we can find. TV bigwigs? Yup. Radio Announcers? Sure. Screaming girls? Bingo! Now chop up Elvis’s voice. Throw ‘em in the air and chuck ‘em back in the mix. Good. Now push some faders up and down. Honey, punch that red button which says ‘Silly Noise #3’. OK, is it lunchtime? Last one to the pub buys the drinks.
The team behind Viva Elvis seem to think “21st century context” means playing everything ‘ONE LOUDER’ with BIG-HAIR GUITARS and The Muppets’ Animal on DRUMS, VERY LOUD DRUMS. Because noise = excitement, okay? Oh, and special effects ‘cos this is Vegas, baby. Ironically, all the completely unnecessary studio hockum means this already sounds embarrassingly dated. Viva Elvis effectively reduces Elvis’s legacy to that of a mobile ringtone. “Crazy Frog” in particular. Take “Burning Love”, which becomes the Hives’ “Walk Idiot Walk” played by 50 musos all in separate rooms whilst random soundbites are triggered by a toddler belting a Bontempi with a toy hammer. Soundbites like “Elvis is quite clearly enjoying himself”. Not only does it not make any logical sense, but it’s incredibly painful to listen to. Ever heard the phrase “Less is more”?.
Nothing escapes the carnage. Everyone gets a prize! Step right up! “Heartbreak Hotel” now has Spinal Tap worthy campery, a bizarre and incomplete dialogue about “The South”, and all the vulgar, hollow exorbitance of Las Vegas. Thanks buddy. “Blue Suede Shoes” gets a scratch makeover from ‘DJ Pocket’ with the migraine-inducing looped harmonica sample it so desired. Oh, really, you shouldn’t have! “King Creole” is equally blessed. After its reassuringly tacky film trailer intro, we’re led into what is clearly the ‘hip-hop’ track. Cue vocalist Jennlee Shallow (hey, it’s her name) alternating between her toe-curling Missy Elliot / Jennifer Lopez impressions. No doubt it forms the backdrop for a showbiz face-off between ‘bad boyz’ bashing out beats on dustbin lids and ‘street gurlz’ spinning on their heads resplendent in pastel tracksuits. Hey let’s chuck in a guitar solo and some opera singers at the end. Hey, what the heck. “Bossa Nova Baby” meanwhile is bequeathed a Mariachi solo, a laughter track, and stage school posers hollering “OW! WOO!” to invoke that wild n’ wacky party atmosphere. Buried deep below, Elvis tellingly muses, “Wow, it’s hot in here”. That’s because WE’RE IN HELL Elvis.
The final circle of hell (‘treachery’, no less—I’m looking at you, Brendan O’Brien) is the most spine tingling. It’ll have you on your knees screaming “Noooooooo”. I’m seeing Elvis crying in Heaven, “What have they done to my song, Ma?” Yes, “Suspicious Minds”. One of the most inspiring, passionate, sexy ‘n’ timeless records ever made. Well adiós perfection. It’s been reborn as a bastardised, craptacular rawk hybrid of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”. Yes….it has been…[shudders] GIVEN THE GREY’S ANATOMY SEASON FINALE TREATMENT. [Dives headfirst into deadly pit of ill-tempered mutated Seabass with frickin’ laser beams on their heads]....
As a consummate professional, I must endeavour to find treasure amongst the ruins of our glorious temple. OK. It’s got Elvis’s glorious voice on it. Albeit hacked apart, randomly stitched back together, and dragged through megaphones, vocoders, etc. for that “21st century ooh-look-technology!” feel. There are traces of the original versions. Well, albeit hacked up, etc. and then drowned by MIGHTY MULLETED VEGAS GUITARS. With shoulder pads. The shuffling U2-style makeover of “Cant Help Falling in Love” isn’t wholly terrible—tender gospel choirs, and when Elvis pleads, “Please love me”, my heart did skip a beat ‘tis true. Tragically, Sherry St. Germain shows up, shoves Elvis aside, and launches an American Idol who-can-hit-the-most-notes? contest.
Thirty-three years after his death, the King of rock ‘n’ roll is still being held aloft by his ankles with the suits shakin’ that pelvis for every last dime, feverishly diluting every last drop of his immortal gift for that elusive buck. Put the King down and step away. If only Cirque du Soleil and the ARIA resort had used their own hyperactive jazz-handed goons to sing the lot. At least then it wouldn’t have entered my consciousness. 1977. 2010. Nothing’s changed, indeed. Unlike Elmer McCurdy, who has long since found peace, Elvis continues to be passed around like some endless parody of Weekend at Bernie’s. Ladies and gentlemen, roll up, roll up. Open 24/7! Taking care of business in a flash! Well, one thing’s for sure, Elvis is dead, ‘cos I pray he wouldn’t put up with this crap if he was alive.