Thursday, 31 December 2020

Poem: I WENT TO THE SEA, BUT THERE WERE NO GULLS

 



I WENT TO THE SEA, 
BUT THERE WERE NO GULLS/ 
FROM A LINE BY KEITH ROBERTS 



I will be the magic that has gone away, 
I will be the shapes that swim in oceans 
where all the fish have vanished, 
the shrub on the common land 
that is a charcoal sketch at dawning, 
the night bird that screeches when 
all owls are driven from their hollows, 
the leafy branch that scratches the window 
when they’ve cut down all the forests, 
I will be the whisper of the bees 
on the sunshine breeze, the eye of newt, 
the dream of ladybirds on sunflowers 
the fire of toxic particles to light the sky 
the ghost of wolves to howl at dark moons 
the lost voice of worms, beetles and spiders 
the echo of the fox in the phantom farmyard 
the long silence of a world 
where magic has gone away

 

Featured online at: 
‘IT: INTERNATIONAL TIMES’ (19 December 2020) 




Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Gerald Nicosia's 'MEMORY BABE: A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF JACK KEROUAC'



 

LONESOME TRAVELLER 

Book Review of: 
‘MEMORY BABE: A CRITICAL 
BIOGRAPHY OF JACK KEROUAC’ 
by GERALD NICOSIA 

($22.50, Grove Press, ISBN 0-394-52270-2, 
Grove Press, 196 W Houston St, New York NY 10014, USA)




 
On the road, accelerating into overdrive, destination board set to FURTHER, trailing necrophile clouds of glory from its stylishly-rusted exhaust, the Dead Beats industry has seldom been so hyperactive. It’s accumulated renewed momentum since the 1974 publication of Ann Charters’ tentative biography ‘Kerouac’ (Warner Paperback Library). That monumental tome carved out a four-hundred-plus-page archaeological-sleaze survey that succeeded in achieving energy levels sufficient to pass massive voltage through temporarily dormant hipster Beatnik memories, and shove them from subsurface into kitsch collectability. Novelist Jack Kerouac, who died 21 October 1969, was the thinking eye of the Beat Generation, slouching rootlessly into Frisco from New York, from Lowell to Mexico City, travelling cross-continent high on visionary jazz and Buddhist bohemia. His was the gift of complex simplicity. His roaring Bop prose illuminated his ragged milieu and embryo subculture in an adrenalin rush of emotionally-charged verbals. He was both technically innovative, and – through boozily emotive imprecision – relentlessly accessible to the non-schooled non-technical reader.


 
Everyone from Bob Dylan to Tom Waits theft their best affectations from ‘Old Angel Midnight’ Kerouac. Yet his appeal is not, strictly, rational – but intuitive. He lived his language too closely for detachment, while simultaneously his personal weirdnesses and unresolved ambiguities cut it loose from strict reportage. The contradictions in his work are the same contradictions that drove and destroyed him. Let me count the ways. As a human being he was a mess, primed to self-destruct, a wino, poet, bum, intellectual, an American doomed anti-hero of romantic melancholy darkness – and a slob. Personally charismatic, unkempt and moodily handsome, his ‘Beat’ was abbreviation for ‘beatific’, fiercely at odds with Normal Mailer’s ‘White Negro’ manifesto of existential hoodlum. Imprinted by early Catholic guilt he had a yen for Zen that he lacked the application to ever consummate. 



But there’s more. Too many cross-references attest to his shyness for it to be pose, to his edgy moral Puritanism and macho traditional values for them to have been insincere. But just as legion are the legends of his multi-sexual promiscuity. Gore Vidal brags of being recipient of a Kerouac blowjob, while claustrophobically close associations with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady – incestuously sharing women, narcotics, and intimacies – backs up such brags. And if, as Ginsberg claims, Kerouac was never able to resolve the conundrums of his own sexuality, there’s a nagging back-up diversity of support inconsistencies. Kerouac idolised jazz master Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker to the extent of attempting to breath the black musician’s Bop spontaneity into his writing. Yet there’s a tale Nicosia here relates of the late-period Kerouac burning a racist cross outside the Black ghetto of Orlando. If true the act would be obscene if it weren’t so pathetically inept. 



But Kerouac is cult. And following Ann Charters came the deluge – Dennis McNally’s ‘Desolate Angel’ (1979, Random House), autobiographical data from daughter Jan Kerouac (‘Baby Driver’, 1981, St Martin’s Press), ex-lover Carolyn Cassady (‘Heart Beat’, 1976, Creative Arts Books – which became a 1980 Sissy Spacek-Nick Nolte movie!), and fan acquaintance Joyce Johnson (‘Minor Characters’, 1983, Houghton Mifflin), then there’s Beat archivist journal ‘Moody Street Irregulars’, the ‘Beat Brotherhood’ cassette-label from Birmingham, and an ongoing small-press multiverse of Xerox and offset typescripts intent on preserving each minutiae of the mythos. Nicosia’s massive and obsessively-researched book (ten years in the compiling) is the culmination of the tsunami – so far. Critical – but to a degree, it’s the definitive primer for potential Kerouac converts, a crash-course taster in Beat-ology, as well as an essential purchase for those already Beatphiles, documenting life, work, and the tangled inter-relationship between the several.


 
The problem with cults – whether dedicated to Duran Duran or James Dean, Elvis Presley or James Joyce – is that they invariably obscure with overkill the real value of the sacred object of their deification. Cults polarise opinion and create critical backlash by myopically overstating their case with unqualified fervour. Viewed objectively, the later Kerouac could be maudlin, over-sentimental and reactionary, but at his best he has few equals. ‘On The Road’ (written 1947-1951, published 1957), ‘Desolation Angels’ (written autumn 1956 to summer 1961, published 1965), ‘Dharma Bums’ (written November 1957, published 1958), ‘The Subterraneans’ (written 1953, published 1958), and ‘Big Sur’ (written October 1961, published 1962, which Nicosia inexplicably relegates to minor novel status) still speak in tongues. Written by feeding Telex-rolls into his typewriter, feeding his head on Speed and Bennies, and working furiously on solid red-eyed sleepless eight-ten jags, he wrote with the fluency and breath-punctuation of immaculately stoned rap, introducing the use of paragraph-long sentences studded with multiple adjectives to each noun. Technically such strategies unravel all wrong, but poetically and evocatively they come so right they’re stunning. He lifts prose from flat two-dimensional passivity and MAKES IT DANCE. For a new writer – that’s a method that can’t be ignored. For a new reader – that’s an addictive strategy that’ll terminally suck in the unwary. 

‘Memory Babe’ is contagious. It’s a milestone on the Beat Route. It should not be missed.




Saturday, 19 December 2020

The WHO & Pete Townshend

 



‘THE KIDS WERE ALRIGHT…’ 

DVD Review of: 
‘THE WHO’ 
(DVD, Bio. Go-Entertain goentertain.tv 44-minutes)
 

“Pictures Of Lily” is about masturbation. And in case you failed to pick up on that, Keith Moon decorated his drum-kit with saucy pin-ups. “Pinball Wizard” is about a deaf-dumb-&-blind kid who smell-tracks the ricochet-dance of the pinball with his nostrils. Right. But what the hell is “Happy Jack” about? A seaside donkey on the sands of the Isle of Man… and, kids drop things on his head… right, so far, and… what the hell was Pete Townshend on? Well, later he did all the usual Rock & Roll chemical stimulants, it’s part of the job description, but back then it was strictly purple hearts and maybe the occasional puff of dope. The mind-altering content of those lyrics was strictly his own. Apparently he had a serious grudge against the world, because he was self-conscious about his big nose. But Townshend was just one corner of the four-sided construct that was the Who. 



Seldom in Rock history have each member of a band been so integral. Roger Daltrey gives voice to the lyrics Townshend lacked the confidence, or the vocal range to sing. And as a front-man he’s got few equals. While it’s impossible to imagine, say, “My Generation” without John Entwistle’s muscle – he plays bass like it’s a lead instrument, or indeed, the Who without his sinister “Boris The Spider”. And Keith Moon? well – nuff said. He ensured the drum-riser was as much the focal point, and more, as any other element of the band. ‘A Destructive Tour De Force’ yells the DVD cover, ‘On Stage They Personified Rock & Roll’ it asserts. And just for once the hype is justified. Extracted from the History/Biography Channel, this painfully-abbreviated DVD hurtles you through the story at breakneck speed, crammed with shrapnels of explosive visuals, guided by the group’s biographers Richard Barnes (‘The Who: Maximum R&B’, 1999), Dave Marsh (‘Before I Get Old: The Story Of The Who’, 2003), Andrew Neill and Matthew Kent (‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: The Complete Chronicles Of The Who 1958-1978’, revised 2005), plus Keith’s personal assistant Pete Butler, John’s personal assistant Mike Bratby, and John’s wife and mother. Lenny Kaye too.


 
There’s a sense in which, because the Who felt they’d arrived late at the sixties banquet, they had time to make up. Subsequently, everything about them was writ large, larger and largest. From Pete and John meeting at Acton County Grammar School, to Pete at Ealing Art College to their techno-destruction at ‘The Railway Hotel’ they were a seriously out-of-kilter proposition. They’d already cut a sharp Mod single as the High Numbers (“I’m The Face”) when producer Shel Talmy got them into the Brunswick studios. He saw them as a viable variant on his previous wards, the Kinks, but was so uncertain of their abilities he got Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and the Ivy League in to dub the more technically demanding bits onto the session. It could be argued their “My Generation” single is a more clumsily phrased spin on teen-anthem “The Young Ones”, and – although early stutter-free takes exist, Daltrey’s speed-damaged stammer gives its eloquent inarticulacy a kind of instant juve-speak relevance. While ‘why don’t they all f-f-f-f…’ invites an obvious missing word other than ‘fade away’ at a time when you couldn’t say ‘fuck’ on record, with or without ‘Parentally Advised’ sticker. Even on the sleeve-photo of their debut album – ‘My Generation’ (December 1965), they look malevolently deranged, not even in the Rolling Stones’ sense of stylish danger, more a damaged dysfunction that was nevertheless the alchemy that powered them, a spluttering popping Pop-Art dislocation of pure envinylised anger. The album is made up of direct Mod narratives, fattened out with some regulation Soul-covers. When Pete outraged the ‘Daily Mail’ demographic by claiming the only time he ever felt patriotism was watching Mods wrecking Margate, we knew exactly what he meant. This was extreme tribalism. Yet their subsequent albums surfed a precipitously steep learning-curve.


 
There were hits, and tours, but a financially-disastrous record-deal, complicated by their expensive instrument-trashing, ensured they were permanently bankrupt through groundbreaking LP’s ‘A Quick One’ (December 1966) and ‘The Who Sell Out’ (January 1968). The relative chart-failure – only no.10, of the magnificent “I Can See For Miles” provoked Pete, ever handy with a pertinent quote, to ‘spit in the eye of the British record-buyer’. Until ‘Tommy’ (May 1969) rescued them into the global Rock-aristocracy – magnified wide-screen through high-energy shock-appearances at the ‘Monterey’ and ‘Woodstock’ festivals, then through Ken Russell’s inspired intervention, into cinemas too. Yet behind the blue eyes their teenage wasteland left a trail of devastation. Keith inadvertently ran over and killed his chauffeur. Eleven audience-members at a Cincinnati stadium were trampled to death. Original drummer Pete Meaden committed suicide, and Keith overdosed to death within months of each other. ‘Keith couldn’t survive Keith’ observes David Wild of ‘Rolling Stone’. Then Entwistle, despite his ‘the Ox’ nickname, succumbed to a cocaine-induced heart-attack in a Las Vegas hotel. Although Daltrey and Pete Townshend continue – as they have the creative momentum, and every moral right to, with stand-in drummers Kenney Jones and then Zak Starkey, they are only two corners of what was essentially a four-sided construct. This DVD omits their ‘Live8’ vindication, but ends on a positive high with the release of ‘Endless Wire’ (October 2002), their first album of original material for twenty-four years. They’re now battered, heritage Rock. But still angry.
 

Featured on website: 
‘SOUNDCHECKS’ 
(UK – October 2010)



 


PETE TOWNSHEND: 
HE CAN SEE FOR MILES
 



DVD/ CD Review of: 
‘FACE THE FACE’ 
by PETE TOWNSHEND’S DEEP END 
(EAGLE VISION) www.eagle-rock.com 

Pete Townshend was a man with a grudge against the world. With his anger ventriloquised by Roger Daltrey and targeted by the Who it exploded into some of the most lyrically-distinctive high-energy singles of the 1960s. But for each Who album he took at least one lead vocal, and during the group’s gradual wind-down, issued a series of solo albums more critically respected than commercially successful, including ‘Empty Glass’ (1980) and ‘All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes’ (1982). But in this live set, the Ace Face is centre-stage with vocal authority and assurance, filmed in Cannes for German TVs ‘Rockpalast’ on 29 January 1986 – now issued in a CD/DVD pack. In white buttoned-up shirt and black jacket – with grimaces, gurning and trademark jump-kicks, it might be a more matured anger, but it’s still as spring-loaded. He does a bruising take on Daltrey’s album track “After The Fire”, makes the mistake of using wrong guitar for “The Sea Refuses No River”, and does what for anyone else would be considered Dad-dancing for the title-song. But beneath the tight dynamics, he retains that same ambition, as if there’s something yet to prove. The set is built around his concept album ‘White City: A Novel’ (1985), with all-star big-band back-up including a ‘very interesting guitar part’ on “Give Blood” by ‘special guest’ Dave Gilmour – who adds a long loose “Blue Light” from his own catalogue, plus Rabbit Bundrick from Free and Medicine Head’s Peter Hope-Evans on wailing harmonica. Pete’s spidery “I Put A Spell On You” is included on the DVD only, while naturally he throws in a fat-free solo “Pinball Wizard” and ‘another old Who song for you’ “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. He wrote them. He sings them.
 

Published in: 
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 Issue 62’ 
(March/April 2017)



Friday, 18 December 2020

ROGER DALTREY: SOLO CAREER

 




BEHIND BLUE EYES: 
ROGER DALTREY 


CD review of 
‘MOONLIGHTING: 
THE ANTHOLOGY’ 
 by ROGER DALTREY 
(Sanctuary Records Double-CD SMEDD013)



 
Mick Jagger’s done solo stuff. Including collaborations with Bowie and Dave Stewart. But – “Memo From Turner” excepted, outside the Stones’ canon, it loses meaning. Keef too. Pete Townshend’s done solo albums. Some of them pretty great. But outside the Who-context they lose, something. They’re career add-ons, footnotes to the authentic text. Daltrey more so. As an exact quarter of one of the previous century’s finest bands he’s up there forever. And there’s seldom a band in which all four corners were as equally vital. But cut loose from Townshend’s unique lyric-skills, particularly as his own writing is so slight, he’s at the mercy of other creative inputs. And considered apart, as a freelance singer, he has limitations.


 
Moonlighting from his Day-Job as a useful unemployed vocalist-for-hire, he has a powerful voice, sure – we all know that, and it’s integral to so much classic vinyl, yet he lacks both the Blues rawness or melodic range of – say, a Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, or a Stevie Winwood, to enable him to create new relevancies. So he picks up early on young Leo Sayer to chart with his “Giving It All Away” (from ‘Daltrey’, his 1973 debut solo album). Through to Elton’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down”, taking in stabs at Gerry Rafferty’s “Stuck In The Middle”, Springsteen’s “Born To Run” (blustering ‘what’s the bloody first line?’), and even “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (with what sounds suspiciously like the original Led Zep backing track). Elsewhere – as a ‘one-man band’, he drifts from liquid funk – using some of the best session players around, to the plaintively attractive acoustic “Say It Ain’t So Joe”, from Gospel choir, to the big-band orchestration of “Free Me”, plus original-cast show-songs (“Mack The Knife”). With no direction, cohesion, or unifying elements. Sure, “Get Your Love” is a vibrant shouter with girl-group back-up, there’s a massive voice-roar on “Proud” (both from his second solo, 1975’s ‘Ride A Rock Horse’), but there are also passages veering dangerously close to Meatloaf bombast. 



The title-track from his 1976 third LP, ‘One Of The Boys’, traces the evolution of a stammerer-on-the-dole into a Blues-player, and it’s tempting to pick over the lyrics for autobiographical references. Is ‘he knows his generation, like he knows his A-B-C’, or ‘the face in the mirror’ chock-full of clues? or what about ‘they were rebels in their day’ (“Martyrs And Madmen”)? and isn’t that the “Baba O’Reilly” synth-figure underpinning the Rock Operatic “Under a Raging Moon” (his tribute to Keith)? Predictably, the biggest cheers go to his live takes on Who songs, bringing on ‘one of my oldest friends John Entwistle – The Ox’, for “The Real Me”. Like his movies (“Without Your Love” comes from the 1980 ‘McVicar’ soundtrack), or his fish-farming, these are all entertaining distractions, away-days from the firm. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps the image-associations of the Who are so indelible they skew his separateness out of frame? But it’s inescapable, we all know that his real contribution has been made elsewhere. It doesn’t need more. Nothing here convinces you of a viable alternative career. 


Further Details from: 

Published in: 
‘SONGBOOK no.7: Summer 2005’ 
(UK – August 2005)



Thursday, 17 December 2020

Festive Horror Classic Movie: 'NIGHT OF THE DEMON'

 




‘RE-CASTING THE RUNES’ 


Review of: 
‘NIGHT OF THE DEMON’ 
Director: Jacques Tourneur. With Dana Andrews, 
Maurice Denham and Niall MacGinnis 
(Columbia Pictures, 1957, 2-DVD edition 2010)



 
The first time I visited Stonehenge there was no visitor’s centre, and no inhibiting wire. You could walk up to the stones and touch them. Indeed, you could climb on them, graffiti your initials, or even carve your name into the stones. Which is why the fence was inevitably necessary. Nevertheless, the way I saw them then, the way you see them here, has a strikingly stark austerity that the tourist paraphernalia reduces to theme-park spectacle. Stonehenge constitutes a real link to ancient mystical experience beyond our understanding. The perfect metaphor for what ‘Night Of The Demon’ does. This is no splatterfest. No gore-porn. Nothing like that. Yet this moody, edgy black-&-white curio has its own way of exerting its grip, while inflicting some genuinely unsettling sequences. It now seems quaintly old-fashioned, indeed – that’s one of its charms, yet it remains a pretty creepy film. Dana Andrews plays John Holden, a smugly confident American psychologist who arrives in England to deliver a symposium lecture debunking the paranormal. Defining the film’s central contradiction, he embodies the rational reductionist tendency to whom science and reason provide the only explanations. He’s set up against Dr Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), an Aleister Crowley-style adept who exploits mystical forces, but is also compromised by them. He understands the awesome power he uses, and fears it. Joanna (Peggy Cummins), is the catalyst between them. Her father, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) was shocked-to-death by Karswell’s runic curse in the opening sequence, establishing the premise on which the yarn hangs.


 
Holden taunts Devil Cults, explaining witchcraft phenomena away as the power of suggestion. At the conference, held at the Victoria Hall, link-man O’Brien presents Harrington’s experiment in which a comatose called Hobart is brought in an ambulance, his mind retreated into a womb of darkness. Holden uses hypnotism. Hobart wakes. Screams. Runs amok. It is revealed he was another disciple of Karswell – ‘The Order Of The True Believers’, who – like Professor Harrington, was also passed the parchment dealing death to whoever possesses it. To save himself, it is necessary to pass it back. He escapes, but leaps to his death from a window. After a series of strange experiences and an occult death or two Holden learns the hard way to respect the occult forces he’s previously ridiculed. There’s a séance sequence which is largely played as light mocking Elstree comedy. The gullible old ladies, the low-rent charlatan contriving front-room thrills for them with a repartee of cheap parlour tricks. Until the tone abruptly changes, and he becomes host to genuine voices from beyond. As shocking for him as it is for his audience.



Screenwriter Hal E Chester (visiting American director Harold Ribotsky) worked up the script from a short story – “Casting The Runes”, one of seven tales collected into ‘More Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary’ (London, 1911) by MR James. In his day the scholarly Montague Rhodes (MR) James (1 August 1862–12 June 1936), Provost of Eton College, constituted something of an occult moderniser. His ghost stories helped wrench supernatural spectres away from the antiquated Gothic trappings of medieval Transylvanian never-neverlands to transplant them directly into recognisably real then-contemporary settings. He’s aware that beneath the flimsy rationalist tegument of modernity lurks a yawning chasm of millions of years of limbic superstitious animal-fears terrified by the powers of the natural world, and he uses antiquarian relics or mystical runes as links to ‘Old Religion’ weirdness. As such he was reconfiguring the genre for the new – that is, mid-twentieth century. By working through implication and inference. So providing the ideal source material for French-born Jacques Tourneur to transfigure onto celluloid.

M R James

 
The son of movie director Maurice Tourneur, he’d already worked with Val Lewton on RKO’s understated soft-horror ‘Cat People’ (1942) – part-reprised in the sequence where Holden and Joanna visit Karswell’s Lufford Hall (with Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire standing in), where he half-glimpses things that start eroding his certainty. The sorcerer’s demonic familiar in the house, and the smoking-hole in the night-forest beyond. Tourneur followed it with Lewton’s highly-regarded ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943), before freelancing ‘Night Of The Demon’. Afterwards, he went on to work for American International, directing not only Vincent Price but ‘Your Favourite Creeps Together Again’ – Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone in the Richard Matheson-scripted ‘The Comedy Of Terrors’ (1963). He was also responsible for uniting Vincent Price with sometime Pop Singer Tab Hunter and John LeMesurier in the downright strange ‘The City Under The Sea’ (aka ‘War-Gods Of The Deep’) (1965) supposedly based around an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Tourneur also directed episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’ before retiring home to France. But his experience of working on the British-made ‘Night Of The Demon’ was not entirely untroubled.


 
Producer Hal E Chester saw rushes of Tourneur’s vividly imaginative locomotive speeding through the night belching steam with its glowing furnace a ‘basket of light’, saw how it was used as a metaphor for the night-demon itself, and considered it way too subtle for its target audience. Despite Tourneur’s conviction, he knew it needed more explicit content, and so inserted animated images of the demon into the footage, against the objections of both the director, and writer Charles Bennett. But maybe his intervention actually works, the crude horned monster – ineptly transferred from Hieronymus Bosch, is the most frequently reproduced still, and was splashed across foyer-posters where subtlety and suggestion were not exactly what the punters were looking for. The late 1950s was not a great period for classic macabre – the Universal cycle had long since run its course, lapsing into slapstick sequels of sequels, and Hammer had yet to resurrect the genre from its gothic crypt. In its stead was the atomic-paranoia shock-angst of ‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’ (1953), ‘Creature From The Black Lagoon’ (1954), ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ (1956) and ‘The Blob’ (1958). In the meantime, there is Tourneur’s demon…


 
Events converge at Clapham Junction on the Southampton train where ‘all evil must end’. During an encounter in the British Museum Library Karswell slips a runic parchment into Holden’s research files. Holden is finally determined he must return the parchment, and races along the train-corridor to intercept Karswell. It is six minutes to ten. Karswell has Joanna in a hypnotic trance. And refuses to accept the envelope, then refuses a cigarette… just in case. Karswell is edgily afraid. He knows only too well what forces are involved. As cops intervene and Karswell makes to leave the corridor Holden passes him his coat, without thinking he takes it. Realising, at the last moment, that the runes have been passed. The parchment escapes and dances away, Karswell chases it down the corridor, then out along the train tracks. It incinerates to cinders moments before he’s able to retrieve it. And the demon roars towards him, an apparition part steam-engine, part rearing monster. It snatches him up and rakes him with its smoky claws. What’s going on? ‘Maybe it’s better not to know’ says Joanne. It is ten minutes past ten. Rail staff and cops speculate over the mangled corpse, surely it must have been the train that hit him? What other explanation can there be? ‘You’re right. Maybe it’s better not to know’ Holden agrees. They leave together as another dark demonic train hurtles past them into the night… 




‘NIGHT OF THE DEMON: 
WHO WILL BE THE NEXT IN 
LINE TO DEFY THE CURSE…?’


 
Columbia Pictures, 1957. ABPC Studios, Elstree. Producer: Hal E Chester (Harold Ribotsky). Director: Jacques Tourneur. Written by Chester Bennett & Hal E Chester based on the story “Casting The Runes” by MR James. With Dana Andrews (as John Holden), Maurice Denham (as Professor Henry Harrington), Peggy Cummins (as Joanna Harrington), Niall MacGinnis (as Dr Julian Karswell), Athene Seyler (as Mother Karswell), Liam Redmond (as Professor Mark O’Brien), Ewan Roberts (as Lloyd Williamson), Peter Elliott (as Professor KT Kumar), Reginald Beckwith (as Mr Meek), Rosamund Greenwood (as Mrs Meek), Brian Wilds (as Rand Hobart). Music by Clifton Parker. (Columbia Pictures 17 December 1957, US July 1958. Fully restored Mediumrare 2-DVD edition including US edit ‘Curse Of The Demon’, October 2010) 95-minutes



Sunday, 29 November 2020

Poem: THE LADY OF HAVENOT AND THE SEVEN WHISPERS

 




THE LADY OF HAVENOT 
AND THE SEVEN WHISPERS
 

the first whisper comes in off the estuary 
where she sits fretting in her high tower, 
it tells her of the call of wild geese 
on their migratory flight across the tides, 
the second whisper comes as the two moons set 
over the horizon leaving only a crown of scattered stars, 
it tells her of the desert stillness 
where nothing moves but sand-grains 
caught and thrown in the sirocco, 
the third whisper comes after she’s eaten a supper 
of pomegranate and clear heather-honey, 
and she’s brushed her hair at the mirror a hundred times 
and repaired to her bed chamber to sleep, 
it tells her of a lone galleon that sails beyond 
the edge of the world where the machineries 
of heaven can be heard in celestial murmur, 
the fourth whisper comes as she closes her eyes 
and sleep dances around the corners of her mind, 
it calls to her of freedom and desire, 
the merging of flesh in a sweet tenderness 
of poetry, wine and madness dressed only 
in a garment of kisses for she needs nothing more, 
the fifth and sixth whispers come in dream sendings 
on landscapes of sunflower blossoms drunk on pollen 
and trees are so tall they scrape patterns on the moons, 
the seventh whisper is a single word, 
but when she wakes it’s gone, and she aches at its loss, 
she wanders for a week and a day until 
she meets it again stooped at the village stile, 
she holds her breath for it to speak 
knowing the word will be either 
love, or death
 


Published in print and online at: 
‘UTOPIA SCIENCE FICTION Vol.1 Issue 2 (October)’ 
(USA – October 2020) 

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Classic Album: 'ELVIS IS BACK'

 



ELVIS PRESLEY: 
‘ELVIS IS BACK’ 


When was the King’s finest moment? 
When he was ‘The Memphis Flash’ at Sun Records? 
Or the acclaimed 1968 TV come-back concert? 
Or maybe it was this first post-Army album? 
ANDREW DARLINGTON considers the evidence




From a twenty-first century perspective, it seems absurd that this was only Elvis’ fourth studio album. To rationalise, when he was recording his first sides for ‘Sun’ records, they were issued as five singles, which were subsequently repackaged in various formats once acquired by RCA, along with a number of previously unissued songs and alternate takes that leaked onto vinyl across subsequent years. There were a couple of movie soundtracks, ‘Loving You’ (1957) which only yielded the awkward eight-song ten-inch album format which proved somewhat troublesome for future reissue projects. And the full ‘King Creole’ (1958) soundtrack LP, with Elvis as Danny, ‘a mixed-up kid who exchanges the trials of high school for the violence and thrills of the New Orleans underworld,’ as the sleeve-notes helpfully explain. His two other pre-Army movies – ‘Love Me Tender’ (1956) and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (1957) both only resulted in neat little extended-play mini-albums – EPs, of four and five tracks respectively. 



 Eager to capitalise on the stunning success of “Heartbreak Hotel”, and the nationwide TV exposure that followed, the first full-length twelve-inch vinyl LP was ‘Elvis Presley’ (March 1956, RCA LPM-1254). It was retitled ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (HMV CLP 1093) for its UK release, with an amended track-listing, but shares the same iconic black-&-white cover photograph of Elvis brandishing his big acoustic guitar, with the pink lettering ‘ELVIS’ descending from the left and the luminous green ‘PRESLEY’ horizontally along the lower edge. It’s a much-imitated and instantly-recognisable design that howls in no uncertain terms that this is different, this is raw, primal and tasteless. This is everything that good god-fearing parents, schoolteachers and local preachers condemn. It’s also the first-ever Rock ‘n’ Roll album to reach the US ‘Billboard’ no.1 position, and the first to sell a straight million copies. It announces, in no uncertain terms, that the rules have changed, from this moment on, things would be different. It was everything that the later Rolling Stones or Sex Pistols could ever hope to be. 



Writing the liner-notes, Bob Dawbarn (of ‘Melody Maker’) proclaims Elvis ‘the Jazz phenomenon to end all phenomena’ and ‘the record-breaker to end all record-breakers is a slim six-footer from Mississippi, USA,’ yet in fact, the album was something of an uneasy hybrid of recordings. Five of the tracks arrived at RCA complete, as part of the package acquired from ‘Sun Records’ – including the frenetic “Trying To Get To You” and his eerie echo-laden “Blue Moon”, which were then matched with seven new recordings from a session at the RCA Nashville studios (10 and 11 January 1956) and then in New York (30 and 31 January). The new tracks were a grab-bag of songs that Elvis was already familiar with through performing them live as part of his set – such as Clyde McPatter’s “Money Honey” and Ray Charles “I Got A Woman”. A third was “Tutti Frutti”. On TV Elvis introduced it as ‘a song by my friend Little Richard. I’ve never met him, but he’s my friend,’ and in truth even Elvis could not match the incandescent thermonuclear blast of the original, recorded in New Orleans September 1955. But the gesture, extended across segregated racially-divided 1950s America, was very much what the healing force of Rock ‘n’ Roll was all about. 



So, in a sense, it was the second album, issued later that same year – imaginatively titled ‘Elvis’ (October 1956, RCA LPM-1382), and usually known as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll no.2’ in the UK (HMV CLP1105), that was the first to be conceived and recorded as a complete package. Although Steve Sholes is listed as producer the song-selection and treatment was very much down to Elvis, recorded across the first three days of September at the Hollywood Radio Recorders studio – but for one track, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s “So Glad You’re Mine” which was remaindered from the January sessions. With the reliable team of Scotty Moore’s guitar, Bill Black on stand-up bass, DJ Fontana on drums, and the Jordanaires vocal back-up, there were no less than three songs from the Little Richard catalogue. Elvis himself plays piano on “Paralysed” from Otis Blackwell who’d already scored “Don’t Be Cruel”, alongside power-ballad “Love Me” – from the Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller team, which was spun-off as plug-track of the EP ‘Elvis Vol.1’ (RCA EPA-992) which reached an unprecedented ‘Billboard’ no.2 position as a non-single. And for those who lay claim to the superiority of Elvis’ pre-Army work, among the sprinkling of Country songs on that second full-length album there’s the appalling sentimental weepie “Old Shep”, included only because the surly young Elvis had won second prize at a Tupelo fair for performing the Red Foley song aged ten years old! 



Which means the third studio album, and third US no.1 LP, was the opportunistic festive cash-in ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ (October 1957, RAC LOC-1035). At Elvis’ invitation, there’s a gutsy Leiber-&-Stoller “Santa Claus Is Back In Town”, plus regular Elvis writer Aaron Schroeder contributing “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)” as well as future single “Blue Christmas” (a UK no.11 in December 1964). But the second side has a core of four religious tracks from the ‘Peace In The Valley’ EP (April 1957, RCA EPA-4054) drawing on Elvis’ deep gospel roots. The obvious sincerity of Elvis’ performance of “Peace In The Valley” on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ 6 January 1957 did much to placate the moral outrage of parental Middle America, while “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is moving enough to melt the soul of even this most implacable atheist. 



Which, for such an iconic artist at such a vital phase of his career, was effectively ‘it’ – until his return from the conscription years. Possibly his status as ‘entertainer’ could have provided grounds for exemption from the US Draft Board, or there was the soft option of enlisting in priority Special Services by performing concerts for the troops. Instead, Paramount Pictures obtain a two-month call-up deferment in order for Elvis to complete filming ‘King Creole’, until at 5pm, 24 March 1958 he opted to be sworn in as grunt Private 53310761. From induction at Fort Chaffee to basic training at Fort Hood in Texas, then to serving in Friedberg, West Germany, it was the last time in his life when Elvis could be considered just ‘one of the guys’. 



Of course, albums continued. The UK edition of ‘Elvis’ Golden Records’ (March 1958, RCA LPM-1717) was issued in a lavish full-colour book photo-sleeve, gathering “Hound Dog”, “All Shook Up” and “Heartbreak Hotel” as well as four tracks previously-unavailable in the UK. It was also the first album I ever bought. The American ‘For LP Fans Only’ was given an amended track-listing for UK release, and imaginatively retitled simply ‘Elvis’ (February 1959, RCA RD-27120) – no liner notes, simply a big grinning full-face front, and an Elvis in uniform with peaked cap on the reverse. ‘A Date With Elvis’ (July 1959, RCA LPM 2011, UK RD-27128) has a cover-shot of Elvis in uniform at the wheel of a car, with reverse-art that consists of a 1960 calendar countdown to his demob date (March 24)! Both of them valuably collect and reshuffle electrifying earlier sides going back to the ‘Sun Records’ period, providing convenient hop-on points for newer fans. ‘Elvis’ Golden Records Vol.2’ (November 1959) uses the famous gold lamé suit cover photo, the frequently-spoofed blurb ’50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong’ and gathers subsequent hits including those issued during his army exile, “I Need Your Need Love Tonight”, “A Big Hunk Of Love”, “A Fool Such As I” and “I Got Stung”. 



It’s only then, following his Army discharge, that sessions for his fourth studio album begin. 



Issued in April 1960 ‘Elvis Is Back’ was a pivotal album in the ‘King’s career, the key moment of transition from his earlier Rock ‘n’ Roll rebel years into the more mainstream domination of the Pop charts that would follow. During his much-publicised stint in the US Army the music scene had undergone significant changes. Chuck Berry was facing jail over his alleged sexual misdemeanours. Jerry Lee Lewis’ career was in ruins following revelations over his marital complications. Little Richard had found the Lord. The wild Rockers were gone. They’d been replaced by a newer sweeter teen-beat generation. Could Elvis retain his supremacy against such competition? 



There were times in his career when Elvis could be complacent. With the realisation that fans would buy just about anything he recorded, he didn’t need to try. And because he didn’t need to try, he didn’t. He was content to coast. But there were a few significant points when his formidable abilities were totally focussed. With his reputation at its absolute nadir, he made the remarkable TV ‘1968 Comeback Special’ which turned his profile around and regenerated his star status anew. ‘Elvis Is Back’ was the other vital moment. He had a lot at stake. He rose to the challenge, offering an album that crossed options and offered new pathways, while staying true to his southern blues roots. He was in a position to take advantage of the cream of Nashville A-Team session players, and what was then considered to be state-of-the-art recording technology. It is a unique album. He’d never venture into such diversity again. 



With his regular team of Scotty Moore on guitar and DJ Fontana’s drums, there was Floyd Cramer on piano and Boots Randolph saxophone. The bass-line was supplied by Hank Garland on electric bass reinforcing Bob Moore’s stand-up double-bass. Bill Black had declined to attend due to the success of his own ‘Bill Black’s Combo’ which, among a string of hits, charted in the US with his own instrumental take on “Don’t Be Cruel” (no.11 in October 1960, and used as the theme for the weekly Radio Luxembourg ‘Elvis Presley Show’). With Chet Atkins and Steve Sholes in the producer-chair the sessions were quickly and efficiently conducted through just two days in March and April 1960. 

His first album to be issued in stereo, it was packaged in a gatefold sleeve, opening up to reveal a portfolio of ‘Bonus GI Snapshots For Your Collection’, photos of Elvis in uniform, driving a jeep, sitting inside a tank, climbing out of a troop-carrier, wet-shaving. Fifteen photos arranged in three lines. Women love a guy in uniform, don’t they? All the way down to Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’. And Elvis would replicate that demob moment in movie sequences a number of times to come. I remember seeing that album sleeve, my nose pressed up against the plate-glass of the record-shop display window down Whitefriargate in the Hull old town. Elvis with that lazy surly half-smile. Twelve new songs. 

This is an album that tells a story… the story needs to be told. 



‘ELVIS IS BACK’ 

(Side One) 

(1) “Make Me Know It” (Otis Blackwell). 1:58-minutes, recorded 20 March 1960. The album countdown commenced with an all-night session at Nashville’s RCA Studio B on the third Sunday in March. Right up until the point that the chartered Greyhound coach was parked and instruments unpacked, the musicians were under the impression they’d been booked for a Jim Reeves session. A subterfuge intended to thwart fans gathered outside who knew full well who was coming in. Recorded in nineteen takes, the play-in groove to the album opens with Floyd Cramer’s piano and ‘Doo-wop Doo-wop, Doo-wop Doo-wop’ vocal back-up from the Jordanaires, into a fast easy ‘uh-huh huh’ Rocker. Hearing’s deceiving he accuses her playfully, seeing’s believing. There are some informative failed-start outtakes as Elvis misses the cue – a low whistle, then take ten, he apologises, ‘my goof’, before hitting it for take eleven. 

In his later career, around the Las Vegas period, his voice took on an exaggerated straining-for-effect quality, as though he was deliberately projecting for emotional content. Here his voices oozes with natural confidence, even the near-operatic climax of “It’s Now Or Never” does not seem to be forced beyond his range. As the companion ‘B’-side of “It’s Now Or Never” (45-RCA 1207), this track entered the ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.1 – 5 November 1960, where it sat for nine straight weeks! Once the copyright problems over its “O Solo Mio” origins were resolved, and “It’s Now Or Never” was cleared for UK release, it had amassed a staggering advance order from record dealers of almost half-a-million – the largest ever known at the time. Its immediate no.1 entry was only the third time that had happened in chart history, and Elvis’s second having achieving the feat with “Jailhouse Rock”. Such was the demand during the first week of sales that at least one London store simply closed for normal business and just concentrated on selling huge stocks of “It’s Now Or Never”. By 13 December the single had achieved another industry first by passing the million-sales figure inside of six-and-a-half weeks.


 
(2) “Fever” (John Davenport and Eddie Cooley). 3.31-minutes, recorded 3 April 1960. The October 2015 CD ‘If I Can Dream’ was curated by Priscilla Presley herself and conjured in the London Abbey Road Studios, it digitally remasters and reconfigures Elvis tracks with new arrangements augmented by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It includes “Fever” as a ‘duet’ with Michael Bublé. Inevitably the album debuts at no.1. Bublé is associated with the slick new Swing thing. “Fever” is a song previously associated with the jazzy inflections of Peggy Lee. Frank Sinatra had initially attacked Rock ‘n’ Roll as infantile, and its performers ‘cretinous goons’. Yet he hosted the 1960 ABC-TV ‘Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis’, filmed in Florida during a break in the album sessions, and broadcast 12 May 1960, in which Elvis sings a few lines of “It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling”, then they duet on Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” and Elvis’ “Love Me Tender”. If the slinky finger-popping album arrangement of “Fever”, with the sound of twin percussionists (DJ Fontana with Buddy Harman) split across two stereo channels, constitutes a calculated shot at broadening the Presley fan-base into a more adult demographic, then Elvis acquits himself well, and what a lovely way to burn.


 
(3) “The Girl Of My Best Friend” (Beverly Ross and Sam Bobrick) 2:21-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. The first vinyl 45rpm record I ever owned was Elvis’ “The Girl Of My Best Friend”, on the black RCA label, with its silver lettering. I’d just turned thirteen, and I was entranced. Even when I hear that song now – shuffled unexpectedly on my iPod between the Ramones and Prodigy, I still love it, from the Jordanaires opening ‘aah-aah aah-aah-aah’ into the honeyed-smooth first line. As a track on what many consider to be his finest album, it wasn’t even intended to be a single. In the USA it wasn’t. The American follow-up to his lubriciously suggestive hit “Stuck On You” was “It’s Now Or Never” c/w “A Mess Of Blues”, but when copyright complications due to its “O Solo Mio” origins held up the song’s UK release, there was a commercial vacuum that needs filling. Hence “A Mess Of Blues” was promoted from ‘B’-side status while “The Girl Of My Best Friend” was lifted from the album to accompany it. Marketed as a double-‘A’ (RCA 1194) it hit no.2 in September 1960 (beneath the Shadows “Apache”) – appropriately close to my birthday. I’d heard it on the BBC Light Programme, the ‘bumper-bundle’ most-requested record of the week on Brian Matthew’s must-listen ‘Saturday Club’. 



So I bought it. I still have it, although I also have subsequent CD and mp3 versions too. It was what critics of the time termed a rocka-ballad, written by Sam Bobrick and Beverly Ross, first recorded in 1959 for Warner Bros by Charlie Blackwell. But listen to Blackwell’s original vinyl, and it’s an awkward charmless thing. Then check out the various Elvis outtakes on YouTube as he fumbles through different takes, moulding the contours of the simple song into an irresistible Pop gem. How did he work such alchemy? By intuition? Until it sounds somehow right? A thing of instinct? 

Elvis sound-alike Ral Donner took the song into the US charts, to no.19 as an ‘Elvis Is Back’ cover. Johnny Burnette, and much later Bryan Ferry also rework it. But at a concise 2:27-minutes, Elvis’ assured vocal control takes it up several notches. It consists of fairly routine love-triangle subject-matter, recycling ‘the way she walks’, with ‘the way she talks’ – a rhyme used so frequently in Pop it’s almost a joke. Elvis gives its triteness an achingly empathic sincerity. He’s caught up in a romantic dilemma, ‘I want to tell her how I love her so,’ but he’s wary that ‘what if she got real mad and told him so?’, then he ‘could never face either one again.’ So he watches ‘the way they kiss’ and ‘their happiness’, with a jealously-pained secret that can never speak its name. Will his aching heart ever mend? Even its title is a little grammatically clunky, cut-up and reshuffled more efficiently by the Cars into “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend”. Whoever said Pop was rational? 

Many years later, when it was reissued as an ‘A’-side in its own right, in a chart full of Abba, Demis Roussos and Tina Charles, it reached no.9 in October 1976. Odd to think it might also have been the first vinyl 45rpm purchase for fans of that generation too.


 
(4) “I Will Be Home Again” (Bennie Benjamin, Raymond Leveen and Louis C Singer). 2.33-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. It sounds like dual-tracking, but it’s not. It’s a close-harmony duet with Army buddy and voice-coach Charlie Hodge, formerly of the Foggy River Boys, who would become part of the ‘Memphis Mafia’. Hodge also cameo’s in a couple of movies and co-wrote “You’ll Be Gone” with Elvis (‘B’-side of “Do The Clam” in February 1965). Originally recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet “I Will Be Home Again” is a yearning song of separation, with obvious inferences to absent soldiers. National Service in the UK, or the American draft was a baptism of fire experience common to all young males at the time. While the lot of their wives and girlfriends was to wait hopefully for their return. Credit for the sound quality here was due to the meticulous engineer Bill Porter. As he’d only been with RCA for six months, this was the first time Elvis had worked with him, and his rigging of a Telefunken U-47 vocal mic, to such pristine results. 



(5) “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). 1:35-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. A fast return to what Elvis does best, a jerky guitar-propelled Rocker with sharp jumpy guitar solo, and dubious tongue-in-cheek lyrics ‘I’ll drag you home with me girl, I’m gonna chain you to the wall.’ There’s a story that Leiber & Stoller had written the song for the ‘King Creole’ soundtrack, but – although it was passed over, Elvis had taken note. By 1965 the ‘Elvis movie’ had become something of a joke. Worse, they weren’t even doing good box-office anymore. The budget for the embarrassingly poor ‘Tickle Me’ (1965) did not even extend to new soundtrack songs, the Allied Artists studio was in financial trouble, so instead they agreed to delve into earlier album material – including a dance routine around Elvis lip-syncing to “Dirty Dirty Feeling”, with the final low-down ‘gone’ voiced Mr Ed-style by a horse! Again, there are various studio outtakes collected onto the extended ‘Follow That Dream’ series ‘Tickle Me’ double-album (2020, LPM 6465), that travelogue its take-by-take recording. 

(6) “Thrill Of Your Love” (Stan Kesler). 2:59-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. Working from a commercially unissued demo cut by Carl McVoy – Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin, and written by the ‘Sun’ session-player responsible for co-composing “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” (with Charlie Feathers), Elvis follows Floyd Cramer’s dramatic piano play-in, and the cooing Jordanaires backing to make his pledge of eternal love. There’s a soulful gospel feel as his voice floats and soars, no sacrifice is too much for him to make, a tremble of vibrato, and perfect pacing. As well as playing the top Nashville session piano – with Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, Everly Brothers and Patsy Cline credits, Floyd Cramer had instrumental hits of his own, with his “Last Date” kept off the ‘Billboard’ no.1 position only by another record he’d played on, Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.


 
(Side Two) 

(1) “Soldier Boy” (David Jones and Theodore Williams Jr). 3:04-minutes, recorded 20 March 1960. A sweet doo-wop ballad, with attractive chorus key-change, and an obvious theme for this post-Army album, while he’s away ‘o’er sea or land’ she’ll be waiting for his return. According to Presley-ology this was recorded for girlfriend Anita Wood who was waiting in Memphis while Elvis was meeting Priscilla in Bad Nauheim. There are slower-pace outtakes. During the mid-sixties the Elvis Presley Fan Club produced a part-work ‘El-Cyclopaedia’ compiled by David T Cardwell, it says ‘for the chicks, this is a swell number, not one the guys would go for.’


 
(2) “Such A Night” (Lincoln Chase) 2:58-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. A song that recalls a memorable one-night stand. Much later, August 1964, this would be lifted as a UK single (RCA 1411), and would climb to no.13 in a Beat-Group chart dominated by Manfred Mann, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night”. Very much earlier than that, ‘Melody Maker’ journalist Bob Dawbarn had insisted in his liner-notes to Elvis’ debut album that ‘despite the denials of Presley himself and many of his faithful followers it is equally obvious that he has been influenced by Johnny Ray.’ For, in the years immediately prior to the Rock ‘n’ Roll explosion, Johnny Ray had been one of the world’s biggest Pop stars, with a ‘crying’ style attributed to his deafness. Morrissey wore a hearing aid for a Smiths ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance as a tribute, while Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit “Come On Eileen” opens with ‘poor old Johnny Ray, sounded sad upon the radio, moved a million hearts in mono.’ Ray’s original “Such A Night” was no.1 on the ‘New Musical Express’ chart for May 1954 when it incurred BBC radio-play displeasure due to its supposedly obscene grunts and gasps. Although Elvis might equally have been familiar with the even-earlier R&B version by Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, he amplifies the sizzling sexual buzz as he indiscreetly relates the memory of how he gave his heart to her in sweet surrender, Boots Randolph adds raw sax, and there’s wild drumming that continues into the run-off groove followed – a space later, by a ‘whoo’ of pure pleasure. 



(3) “It Feels So Right” (Fred Wise and Ben Weisman). 2:09-minutes, recorded 21 March 1960. This is Elvis at his snazzy, jazzy, dirty post-Army best, from the pen of Ben ‘The Mad Professor’ Weisman who wrote more songs for Elvis than anyone else, clear through to “Change Of Habit” in 1971. With a burning sexual urgency powered by sharp electric guitar, if it feels so right, he urges, how can it be wrong? ‘The El-Cyclopaedia’ says ‘Elvis sings this in strained voice from beginning of deck to end of groove. It sounds very difficult and I bet Elvis’s tonsils played hell with him for days afterwards. But I like it.’ Rightly collected onto the 1984 compilation ‘Elvis Sings The Blues’ (RCA NL 89169, reissued on CD in 2012), it also became ‘B’-side to 1965 single “(Such An) Easy Question”, and was another song resurrected for the ‘Tickle Me’ soundtrack where it’s way too nasty for such a silly film. Onscreen he lip-synchs unconvincingly in a club scene where Red West sits at one of the tables. A High School friend and member of the Memphis Mafia, Red was fired and later wrote ‘Elvis: What Happened’ (1977) which warned of Elvis’ hazardous prescription drug-dependence. But that still lay very much in the future. 

(4) “Girl Next Door Went A-Walking” (Bill Rice and Thomas Wayne). 2:12-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. Jostling easy-jogging rhythms on a light song brought into the session by Scotty Moore as a Thomas Wayne (Perkins) demo, cut for Scotty’s own Fernwood label, and recorded in just ten takes. There’s a hint of double-tracking to streamline its smooth tight delivery. It demonstrates how Elvis had the ability to take an essentially flimsy song and weave it into something quite magical. Moral conformity was strict and uncompromising at the time, why does ‘the girl’ know that going a-walking wasn’t right? because she comes home – half-past-ten, lay-yate every night. But now the two are married, settled down for life… which makes it kind-of OK. 



(5) “Like A Baby” (Jesse Stone). 2:38-minutes, recorded 3 April 1960. The album closes on two stratospheric highs of lubricious Blues-laden intensity. When the sessions reconvene two Sunday nights after the first, saxophonist Boots Randolph was added to the line-up. The unprecedented results include Elvis’ next two no.1 million-selling singles, “It’s Now Or Never” – at least in part inspired by Elvis’ affection for Tony Martin’s 1949 hit “There’s No Tomorrow”, and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” – recorded at Col Tom Parker’s instigation, plus the nine tunes needed to complete the LP. Here, Elvis plays acoustic rhythm-lead on his Gibson Super-400 guitar – on one outtake he complains ‘Hold it! Caint think of two things at once!’ Written by Jesse Stone who also wrote (under his ‘Charles Calhoun’ alias) “Shake Rattle And Roll” and “Flip Flop And Fly” which Elvis recorded and performed, this captures Elvis at his most emotionally charged, his voice cracks at the break – ‘the day I found how you lied, I broke down and cried’, and soars in the ‘Whoha-Whoha-Whoha-Whoha’ bridge, with thick slurs of dirty Boots Randolph brothel sax. 

If the twentieth-century tells the story of the creative culture clash between black and white musics, Elvis is located at its turbulent mid-century nexus. He was what Sam Phillips had already identified as the ‘white man who sang like a black man.’ A seismic elision he captures to perfection on “That’s Alright Mama” at the very ignition-point of his career, and which he effortlessly snares on these tracks. Years before the advent of the Rolling Stones or the Animals, Elvis Presley was the blackest white voice on the planet. Black Velvet in a slow southern style. He does it here, he does it in the three-chord single “I Feel So Bad” which charted in both the Pop and the ‘Billboard’ R&B Top Tens, and c/w “Wild In The Country” it was a ‘NME’ no.1 (23 September 1961). James Brown later recorded his own version of “Like A Baby”, issued January 1962 on his ‘Tour The USA’ (King 5710) album, which – dare I say, is less tensely raw and wired than the Elvis interpretation. 



(6) “Reconsider Baby” (Lowell Fulson). 3:39-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. If you’ve only ever seen the costumed impersonators, and wonder why Elvis is held in such high regard, crank this up, it says everything you need to know. This was a track that set my teenage self back on my heels. There are albums I can play in my head without missing a single beat, grunt or slurred intonation. This is one of them. The last of twelve songs recorded into the early daybreak hours of 3-4 April, this plea for her to ‘give yourself just a little more time’ is sleazy as a greasy quiff, his voice roughened with lurid suggestion. Again, Elvis is on guitar, inviting ‘play the Blues boys, play the Blues’ urging one of Boots Randolph’s finest bordello solos. Elvis returns to the song 23 August 1969 onstage at the Las Vegas ‘Intercontinental Hotel’, with James Burton taking the solo, and he sings it with faithful respect to the 1960 take. Earlier that same year he’d been jamming around American Studio sessions that would form the basis for the ‘From Memphis To Vegas/ From Vegas To Memphis’ album – in a 17 February 1969 X-rated outtake of Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger In My Own Home Town”, which has a similar melodic progression to “Reconsider Baby”, he playfully jams ‘I’m going back down home to Memphis, I’m gonna start driving that motherfuckin’ truck again,’ and his voice hits all that rich gut-bucket dirt again, which is missing from the cleaned-up official issue. Despite all the frivolous throwaway movie songs, there were moments when Elvis could still reach into the soul. This is one such moment. Boots Randolph meanwhile had his biggest solo hit with “Yakety Sax” – which Benny Hill later used as his comedy-chase theme! 



By 1971, for the ‘Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old)’ album, Elvis block-booked five days at the Nashville ‘RCA Studio B’, and recorded some thirty-five tracks, songs drawn from whatever caught his ear from whatever he happened to be listening to at the time. He then left it to the producer and the label to sort them and divide them up into album and singles form. There’s an impression that his approach to ‘Elvis Is Back’ was altogether more deliberate and thought-through. This album was important to him. He took time to make the correct calculations. It was rush-released days after its completion, and any doubts about Elvis’ ability in the studio after more than two years in Germany were set aside forever. Issued in the US 8 April 1960 in reached no.2 on the ‘Billboard’ chart, initially shifting 300,000 copies, and easily topped the UK album lists, nudging the ‘South Pacific’ soundtrack LP aside. 



Following the album came the ‘GI Blues’ (September 1960, RCA LPM/LSP 2256) soundtrack album – revisiting Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, and topping the chart for eleven straight weeks. Then came the very personal religious project ‘His Hand In Mine’ (November 1960, RCA LPM/LSP 2328). The next studio album proper would be ‘Something For Everybody’ (June 1961, RCA LPM/LSP 2370), made up of new all-original songs divided into two sides – the first of slow, sentimental ballads, then flip it over for more up-tempo Rocking material, including one, “I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell”, salvaged from the soundtrack of the movie ‘Wild In The Country’ (1961). So the mix of songs that make up ‘Elvis Is Back’ remain a unique one-off never-to-be-repeated experiment.


 
I visited RCA Victor Studio B in Nashville where Elvis recorded the album. Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers also booked studio time there, despite being signed to other labels. While Gentleman Jim Reeves did most of his recordings there. Floyd Cramer’s original piano is there, in the corner of the studio. The one he played on Presley’s sessions for “Mess Of Blues” and ‘Elvis Is Back’. Elvis installed his own mood-lighting. It’s still in place. He would use red lighting for up-tempo sessions. Blue lighting for slow ballads. But neither worked when he was trying out for the first takes of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. Until he decides to fade the lighting way down, and record the song in intimate darkness. Here, now, they fade the lights down to darkness, and fade the track in, Elvis’ voice resonates spookily, here, where he stood to record it. It’s impossible not feel a chill of frisson. This is a moment of extreme dislocating weirdness. I’m not afraid to admit it had me choking up.