Counterbalance No. 106: ‘Elvis Presley’

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley

Klinger: So it turns out that there’s this guy, Elvis Presley, and apparently he had something to do with this whole rock and/or roll thing that we’ve been writing about for the past two-plus years. And yet, despite the fact that he’s somewhat well-regarded within this genre, this is the first time that any of his music has actually turned up on the Great List. Keep in mind, of course, that we’ve somehow managed to come across two Oasis records and an Eagles album in the time it’s taken us to get around to a fellow that some people have occasionally referred to as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No, of course it makes perfect sense that Elvis freakin’ Presley should have to stand in line behind the Strokes. Perfect. Stinking. Sense.

OK, that’s out of my system. Sorry about that. Of course you can make the argument that Elvis is best known as a singles artist, and that a lot of his music was recorded before the primacy of the LP took hold in the artistic and critical consciousness. And it is true that Elvis has seen his artistic stock rise and fall repeatedly over the years—topics I’m sure we’ll touch upon throughout this discussion—but still, you’ve got to admit that it’s odd that it’s taken us this long to get to Elvis Presley. So admit it, Mendelsohn—admit it!

Mendelsohn: You can stop shouting, Klinger. We are going to see eye to eye on this one. I am deeply offended that Elvis Presley, the conservative, pill-popping, peanut butter and bacon sandwich-eating, John Lennon-hating “artist” that he was, is continually disrespected despite to obvious gifts to the world of music and sandwich making. It is a travesty that this great American artist is looked down upon for being a dancing monkey on the leash of arguably one of the greatest con/business men of the 20th century, let alone not getting the proper accolades for recording all of those songs that he didn’t write himself. Biggest. Travesty. Ever.

I am actually upset that I had to listen to two Oasis albums before we even got to Mr. Presley, but I could probably say that about almost every record we encounter from here on out. On the one hand, this turn of events is rather shocking, for all the reasons you just mentioned. He is the King, after all, I can’t argue that. On the other hand, the Great List is one giant popularity contest and Elvis doesn’t exactly spike the needle on the Hipst-O-Matic 3800.

Klinger: OK, I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not. Obviously views this incendiary can’t be altogether serious. Regardless, the popularity contest that is the Great List compiles the opinions of music critics, people who I really think should take a broader view of things. But I suppose that even critics are prone to seeing things through the narrow windows of their own experience, and Presley’s career has been known to lapse into the occasional state of disrepair.

None of which should dampen the excitement for Elvis Presley, Elvis’ debut LP released in 1956. At that point, Presley was unencumbered by any of that baggage. He’s just a 21-year-old kid playing the music he loves, from R&B-flavored C&W to C&W-flavored R&B (not to mention the straight-up crooning that started to become outdated upon Presley’s arrival—I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he picked up “Blue Moon” from Mel Torme’s 1949 version, pulled the strings off and stripped it way down). And while no, he didn’t write any of the songs here, he does to a great deal to reinvent them in his own image. I’ll refer you to his cover of “Tutti Frutti”. I’m not saying it’s better or worse than Little Richard’s version, but it’s unmistakably Elvis.

Mendelsohn: Hey, Klinger, check out this mouse trap I just reinvented. It’s exactly like every other mouse trap except my mouse trap has a loud alarm on it to let you know that there is headless mouse waiting for you. Is that the type of reinvention we are talking about? Because that just seems annoying.

Look, I like this record. In fact, I enjoy the hell out of it. But I don’t have a problem with the ranking. If we didn’t hit an Elvis record until sometime in the 200s, I wouldn’t care. This is a place holder for the genre that is Elvis, a nod to the King in recognition for the work he did to “break” rock ‘n’ roll. The sad truth is, as great as he was at reinventing songs (and later reinventing himself), he still wasn’t much of an artist. By the middle of the next decade he had become an anachronism in the world of music. Falling behind the likes of the Beatles and the Beach Boys and every other group or musician who could write their own material.

Klinger: Oh Mendelsohn, you couldn’t be more wrong if you were actively trying to be wrong. (Are you actively trying to be wrong? Because you know that pushes my buttons.) Suggesting that Elvis Presley isn’t much of an artist is like saying Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra weren’t artists. No, none of these guys were known for their songwriting, but that doesn’t negate the fact—the fact—that all three changed popular music forever. (Come to think of it, it’s a little like saying that the Beach Boys can be dismissed because by the mid-1970s they were a second-rate nostalgia act.)

Mendelsohn: Louis Armstrong could play the trumpet. I have no idea how that is done and therefore, I have more respect for that man than I do for Elvis. Frank Sinatra was the previous decade’s version of Elvis Presley—more of an entertainer than a musician or an actor but he made better movies and somehow get himself named Chairman of the Board. Not nearly as high-falutin’ as the King, but in my mind, the Chairman of the Board demands more respect. I think that’s probably why Presley might not get his due—he was an entertainer—not a terrible musician but not a great actor.

Also, just to make things more complicated, “Blue Moon” is by far my favorite track on this record. Presley’s interpretation may have taken its cues from Torme, but the old crooner has nothing on the young buck. Presley’s version is subdued but it bristles with real sexual energy, something the junior Elvis seemed to exude with an unmatched ease.

Klinger: Well, all right then. I’d also like to point out that Elvis Presley is not only an impressive achievement from a performance standpoint—it’s also interesting technically. When RCA purchased Presley’s contract from Sam Phillips, they also acquired a handful of tracks that had already been recorded at Sun Studios. RCA staffers were initially concerned that they wouldn’t be able to replicate the Sun sound, mainly because their equipment was too good. Somehow they managed to recreate that sound pretty effectively, and today it’s hard to detect much difference between, say, “I Love You Because” and “Blue Suede Shoes”. It could kind of be seen as a tribute to RCA’s integrity, if one were given to praising major labels.

(And while I’m on my soapbox, I’d like to point out that Sam Phillips probably did the right thing in selling Presley’s contract. The $35,000 he got may generate chuckles today, but that’s more than a quarter of a million of today’s dollars. Trying to meet the Elvis demand might well have bankrupted Phillips. Record manufacturers want their money upfront, while distributors may not pay for 30 or 60 days—and still have the option to return product. If you don’t believe me, ask Vee Jay Records how the runaway success of Introducing the Beatles worked out for them.)

Mendelsohn: OK, Presley helped break rock ‘n’ roll, but then he went on to make a string of half-baked movies and half-baked soundtracks to those movies. The promise that the young man showed as he whipped through the world of C&W and R&B standards dissolved into the mediocrity of Hollywood celluloid.

In all fairness, he did spend a couple years in the military but after his service, he didn’t exactly beat it back to the studio continue his work at the forefront of a burgeoning genre. But for one, brief, shining moment, Presley was at the vanguard of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution and it shows in songs like “Blue Suede Shoes”, (love the guitar solo), “One-Sided Love Affair”, and “Tutti Frutti”.

Klinger: None of what you’ve said there matters at all. His work in the ’60s and ’70s may not match his early accomplishments (although someone here has clearly never watched the ’68 Comeback, where is version of “Tryin’ to Get to You” absolutely smokes this one), but what difference should that even make? If we were to only include artists whose work maintained its vitality over two or more decades, we would pretty much only be reviewing Miles Davis albums.

Look, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed this album in your fashion, even if you’ve had a difficult time seeing the rockabilly hepcat trees for the peanut-butter-and-sequined-jumpsuit forest. But I guess that all things considered I’m not terribly surprised. After his death, his many excesses and appetites became at first de facto amusements for a younger generation and then a full-fledged cultural touchstone. Entire generations have lost touch with what made him so exciting, and that may be the unkindest cut of all. If Elvis had been granted the same late-career shot at redemption of, say, Johnny Cash, we’d be having a very different discussion today. But whatever. I’m going to crank up “Just Because” and dig the groove that Elvis, D.J., Scotty, and Bill created—a groove that still resonates today.

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