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’
(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”.
(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.
‘Hi everybody, this is Chip Taylor’, introduces a uniquely weird jigsaw of homespun whimsy, an album of intimately whispered conversational anecdotes and confessionals, with occasional backchat dialogue and playful horn-beeps to take out expletives. “Enlighten Yourself” is barely a song at all, more an effortlessly engaging whirl of words aimed at feel-good therapy-phonies. “Barry And Buffalo” is a rough-edged croaky spoken-word piece, a soft-centred routine related like he’s confiding this story about a kid’s golf tournament across a barroom table. “Bobby I Screwed Up” dredges breathlessly apologetic half-forgotten memories of the ‘drunken magic’ of a 1980s recording session spent with Bobby (“He Ain’t Heavy”) Scott. The songs are sometimes achingly raspingly fragile, spun out over feather-light instrumentation… but never underestimate the guy who wrote “Wild Thing”. “Refugee Children” is movingly heartfelt, an acutely personal and damningly political riposte to insular isolationism, touchingly joined on the chorus by his own three granddaughters. While the brothers of the title-song are geologist Barry, and Jon Voight – yes, check out that archive cover-photo and its unmistakably ‘Joe Buck’ from ‘Midnight Cowboy’. Against all logic and reason, this performance hangs together as one of the most enjoyable CDs of 2016.
Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was not something much talked about back then. But that is clearly what this curious little film is about. For the shattered generation returning from the World War I trenches even to discuss the horrors they’d endured was to dishonour the fallen. The popular myth of the stoic Tommy must be maintained, anything else would be considered a form of patriotic betrayal. So they lived with their night-terrors. In flashback, when little Joyce Ballantyne was just six-years-old, her adored and idolised Daddy marches off to the Great War. There’s a sequence of stills-photos of the trenches. When he arrives home from the ‘Big Push’ at the rail-station, he’s shell-shocked and hideously disfigured. He’d become ‘strange’. The consequences alter the lives of Joyce and sister Ellie, and of their brother Stephen who is born later, in 1921. Both sisters still talk to the uniformed portrait of Daddy, as he was before the war changed him. Of course, all this detailed back-story is only teased-out gradually, as the Slasher-narrative unravels. But as the basis for a horror-film it provides an unusual premise, one that maybe could have been done better, more sensitively. As it is, ‘The Beast In The Cellar’ stands as one of Tigon-films weirdest oddities. The storyline is dubious, the Horror-content negligible, there’s no action sequences and few tense thrills. Instead, the film’s early focus and entire appeal revolves around the wonderful two-handed performance delivered by Flora Robson (Joyce) and Beryl Reid (Ellie) as those two Ballantyne sisters grown up into batty old ladies.
Beryl Reid (17 June 1919 to 13 October 1996) started out as a Variety and Music Hall performer under the comic Brummie character-persona ‘Marlene’, until she crossed-over into national awareness through the bizarre concept of a BBC radio ventriloquist, with her supporting part as naughty schoolgirl ‘Monica’ in the Light Programme’s ‘Educating Archie’. She graduated into films as ‘Miss Wilson’ in the original ‘The Belles Of St Trinians’ (1954), with Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell. Until two outrageous movie-roles shifted her out of comedy into the shock-mainstream, carrying over her West End stage-portrayal of a lesbian Soap-star in ‘The Killing Of Sister George’ (1970), and as sexually-frustrated ‘Kath’ in Joe Orton’s black farce ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ (1970). Then she found time for this hammy chiller set in the ‘cold endless winter’ of the bleak Lancashire moors.
There are explosions and military maneuvers as armoured cars race through muddy moorland splash-pools. Until unit ‘Zero-Seven’ breaks down and gets stranded. As he’s trudging his way back towards his Little Mere base-camp, he’s savaged by something nasty. ‘Animal, vegetable, or what…?’ speculates investigating Detective Chief Superintendent Paddick (TP McKenna, quoting popular radio quiz show ‘Twenty Questions’). There are gashes on the body, the claw-marks of razor-sharp talons wielded with brutal strength. Sir Bernard Newsmith (Vernon Dobtcheff), is the dapper pathologist with carnation buttonhole and stylish swagger-stick. Was it some kind of beast-attack…? No, not a puma, he ponders, but something bigger, heavier, a leopard? ‘In Lancashire?’ gasps the dumbfounded cop.
Flora Robson (28 March 1902 – 7 July 1984) was the Grande Dame of UK acting with a thespian career going all the way from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, equally at home on the stage since the 1920’s as she was on the film-set. As Joyce, she’s perfectly cast as the stronger of the two sisters. She’s the realist. But although the sometimes child-like Ellie is the dreamer, her fidgety energies and deviously manipulative abilities are not to be underestimated. Their well-observed bickering banter maps their mutual interdependence. The two spinsters live together in the remote family farmhouse they were born in. A chintzy old place with lace tablecloths, antimacassars, and an aspidistra in the alcove. Theirs is a meticulously mapped-out character-interplay reminiscent of the darkly comic ‘Whatever Happened To Baby Jane’ (1962) a decade earlier, with Bette Davis as a crazy, alcoholic former child-star who acts as virtual jailer to her crippled show-biz sister Joan Crawford, once a major star. In their only co-starring film together it unites Davis & Crawford as ageing sisters who are also bound together by a terrible secret. Now, Joyce hears the news of ‘a vicious brutal slaying’ on the phone. And gets dressed up in an army greatcoat, complete with medals, and grimly heads for the basement. To the visiting District Nurse, Joyce and Ellie might seem like ‘two dear sweet old ladies’, but they know what’s going on, they’re concealing something grisly dark and sinister in their cellar.
Soon, there’s a snogging couple rolling in the hay in the barn. Her knickers are wriggled down her legs – the closest we’re going to get to gratuitous titillation, until the squaddie boyfriend is abruptly wrenched away and slashed, blood splashing. Then there’s another lone soldier on a pushbike. He’s the next victim. Something is targeting and mutilating army personnel. Could it be a wild animal? Or something worse? At first, details are kept vague. But the sisters share a secret. Has the someone bricked-up in their cellar escaped? They search the outbuildings and find the opening of the exit tunnel he’s excavated… and they find the body of the cyclist. They block up the hole with Daddy’s old workbench and – as Joyce is now under Doctor Spencer’s orders following a fall, Ellie must bury the corpse, as feral night-cats howl.
Both sisters fancy helpful Corporal Alan Marlow (John Hamill) who calls around to enquire after their welfare. He tells them the soldiers have been issued with small-arms. Just in case. But when one of the night-patrol slips off to buy fags – something nasty drops out of a tree onto him… Incidentally, the song he hears soundtracking the NAAFI-scene is “She Works In A Woman’s Way”, provided by Tony Macaulay. He most usually – but far from exclusively, worked with John MacLeod, churning out slick fine-tuned Pop-catchy songwriting that saw him glide through the 1960’s with a string of easy-listening hits centred around studio-concocted groups with names like Pickettywitch, Brotherhood Of Man or Edison Lighthouse, although big-hitters the Hollies, Scott Walker and Donna Summer also scored success with his compositions. The NAAFI song is a piece of Pop-fluff typical of his style, although he was using the opportunity of scoring this movie as a bridge to his second career in the seventies writing for Musical Theatre.
Meanwhile, Tessa Wyatt is District Nurse Joanna Sutherland. In real-life she was once Mrs Tony Blackburn – their highly-public break-up transformed into a national soap opera as he blurts out on-air details during his Radio 1 Breakfast Show. She later encountered visiting aliens in an episode of ‘UFO’ (“The Long Sleep”, 15 March 1973), and decoratively co-starred with Richard O’Sullivan in the so-so sit-com ‘Robin’s Nest’.
Ellie is shocked when Nurse Joanna brightly tells her of the new soldier-murder. She scuttles down to the cellar where their childhood rocking-horse still rocks, and peers through a hole in the wall into the empty chamber beyond. Joyce sleeps, overdosed on tranks. And without her older sister’s resolute guidance to rely on, Ellie confesses all to the police. Troopers with tracker-dogs arrive, others dig in the garden, as with quiet dignity she sits down to tell their tale. ‘It was such a long time ago, there’s so many things to explain…’ Mindful of the horrific effect war had had on Daddy – who’s since died, ‘we were quite glad really’, the sisters are unsettled by the looming prospect of a new European war. Brother Stephen is keen to enlist, to do his patriotic duty. They must save him from himself, protect him from suffering his father’s fate. So they drug him and imprison him in the bricked-up part of the cellar constructed by Daddy. ‘We both thought it was best for him.’ Problem is, once the war is over and it’s presumably safe for him to reemerge, the combination of drugs and incarceration have taken their terrible toll. So he must stay down there, for thirty years. Except now he’s escaped, and he’s on a killing spree.
Alan and Joanna arrive just as the traditional horror-story storm begins. And Stephen is slouching up the stairs, creepy-crawling towards the sister’s room, his nails brandished like claws. His shadow briefly recalls the famously sinister image from FW Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ (1922). But Joyce is wearing Daddy’s uniform, and the medals momentarily stop him in his tracks. Then Alan appears, just in time to shoot him dead. But no, he wasn’t coming to wreak vengeance on his sisters, but to savage the picture of dear dead Daddy. ‘He will never know now, everything we did, the whole thing was all done for him’ laments Ellie.
As a Slasher-film the build-up works reasonably well. There are some eerie and atmospheric scenes set around the old farm. The repartee between the two ageing sisters is both authentic, and wonderfully comic. But the climactic horror-reveal might have worked better if the monstrous brother didn’t resemble Michael Palin’s ragged wildman from the ‘it’s ‘Monty Python’ intros! Some recent news-stories have dramatically shown how long-term incarceration in converted basements has actually happened, although more usually it’s perpetrated by predatory male paedophiles against female victims. None of whom regressed to the savagery we’re expected to accept happened to the luckless Stephen. And if this curious little film is really about Daddy’s Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the horror elements tend to distract from any serious consideration of its effects. Nevertheless, ‘The Beast In The Cellar’ stands as one of Tigon-films weirdest oddities. Which is a recommendation, of sorts.
FESTIVAL OF HORROR’
‘THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR’ (Tigon British Films/ Leander Films, 1970) Producer: Tony Tenser, Christopher Neame, Graham Harris. Director and Screenwriter: James Kelley. With Beryl Reid (as Ellie Ballantyne – and Gail Lidstone as ‘Young Ellie’), Dame Flora Robson (as Joyce Ballantyne – and Elizabeth Choice as ‘Young Joyce’), John Hamill (as Corporal Alan Marlow), Tessa Wyatt (as Nurse Joanna Sutherland), TP McKenna (as Detective Chief Superintendent Paddick), Vernon Dobtcheff (as Sir Bernard Newsmith), David Dodimead (as Dr Spencer), John Kelland (as Sergeant Young), Dafydd Havard (as Stephen Ballantyne – and Merlyn Ward as ‘Young Stephen’), and Chris Chittell (later of ‘Emmerdale’). Music: Tony Macaulay (including song “She Works In A Woman’s Way”. 101-minutes (DVD, Odeon Entertainment: The Best Of British Collection, September 2011, DVD extras include Stills Gallery, Booklet Notes, and ‘Best Of British’ trailers
‘ANNIE ON ONE’ – Annie Nightingale on Radio One that is.
Dance Music’s Radio-Dial fixture for insomniac Clubbers. But
for the BBC’s first-ever female DJ this is just the latest incarnation
of a career that began... sort-of, by insulting John Lennon.
ANDREW DARLINGTON reads the book, sits in on the show,
and even finds time for an interview
ANNIE ON THE VERGE OF
A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN...?
‘It’s Annie on One – from four till 6:30am’ she opens. ‘You’re up for it? STAY up for it!’ Welcome to Annie-World, direct from the BBC’s Great Portland Street complex. I’d imagined I’d be stepping into a tech-feast equivalent of Todd Terry’s brain, neuron-buzzing with enough gadgets to get you wetting your cryosuit. But there are just four adjoining studios – three of them in darkness. And from here the Radio One crew – or most of them at least, rotate through twenty-four hours. Mark & Lard do it from Manchester, but come down in real-time through ISDN and then go out from here. While through a glass darkly Zoe Ball’s studio waits. A poster mock-up over her console admonishing her ‘KEEP IT SLOW ZO’. And there are rows of pigeon-holes labelled John Peel, Andy Kershaw, Judge Jules, Dave (‘Roll Another Fat One’) Pierce, Pete Tong, and Annie – each one crammed with mysterious communications.
Prior to the show we talk in the producer’s suite, as Carl Cox unwinds a trickymixology of relentless beats in the background. Annie Nightingale, face familiar from TV, voice unmistakably recognisable from thirty years of broadcasting. Radio One’s First Lady. Literally. ‘This Sunday morning slot is a bit mad, I know’ she gets in first. ‘But, believe it or not, it’s very very good, ‘cos all the DJ’s listen. All over the country they’re out there driving back from their gigs. They play one club at 2am, then drive over the M62 to play somewhere else. And as they’re driving, they listen to the radio – I’m on till six-thirty, and there’s no other national dance programme on, so it’s a great audience – but very critical. What makes me nervous is that they phone in if I make mistakes. Chemical Brothers. All of them. Whoever’s on tour. It don’t half keep you on your toes! It’s madness...’
‘South Park’ screen-savers flicker on the studio computers The on-air continuity promo announces ‘‘CARL’S ESSENTIAL MIX’ on Radio One’s Website.’ Then “Keep it Radio One 97-to-99FM for a Celebration Of Three Decades Of Annie On One”. Insomnia radio. In the final ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ episode, Steve Coogan brilliantly reprises his hideously insensitive failed chat-show host now banished to the Siberian wastes of twilight-shift local radio. ‘Up With The Partridge’...? Actually no, instead I’m ‘Up With The Nightingale’. Give her an hour. She gives you the stars.
Music is a very slight thing. An arrangement of sounds in sequences that we find pleasing. Nothing more. Yet it dominates our lives. While Disc Jockeys have always been the interface between music and audience. With the DJ’s job description changing and evolving considerably across the years she’s been doing it, all the way from Smashey & Nicey through to Armand Van Helden. So what’s it take to do it well? ‘I think to do it you’ve got to be honest about it. I would have to be.’ Does it help to be a Show-Off? ‘Well – being interviewed is a bit like undergoing psychotherapy. People ask me strange questions I’ve never been asked before. Like that one,’ she teases. ‘But I’ll tell you, I’m an Aries, and there ARE an awful lot of Aries at the BBC and in broadcasting in general – going back to my early contemporaries Nicky Campbell, David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Johnny Walker, Bob Harris, Janice Long, Paul Gambaccini, Philip Schofield – same day as me, April 1st, and Chris Evans! It’s very odd. Way over the national average. But when I tell people I’m actually a very shy person they go ‘ah, come off it’ – but it IS possible to be a combination of both shy and brash at the same time. The thing about Aries is that they are kind-of quite mouthy... but it’s all a cover!’
So I’m here increasing your Woman-On-The-Edge-Of-A-Nervous-Breakdown pre-Show paranoia? ‘Naw, that’s alright. Don’t worry.’
During Radio One’s 1970s peak years smug ‘Daredevil of Discdom’ Tony Blackburn and ‘hairy cornflake’ Dave Lee Travis were national celebrities. And they had mass audiences – largely because there was no competition. Now it’s different. With so many commercial stations each one has had to develop its own smaller more specialised ‘niche’ identity – including the BBC itself. Five years ago – nearly six now, Matthew Bannister undertook his Night Of The Long Knives to reinvent Radio One, losing ‘Europe’s Most Listened-To Radio Station’ millions of listeners in the process. Famous DJ’s left, nursing more grudges than Lonely High Court Judges, and no-one liked the new ones. Chris Evans arrived – his chaos and eventual departure cost the station dear. Leaving Radio One showing all the symptoms of a well-loved institution in the throws of terminal decline. Yet it survived. And survives. On the wall of this production studio there’s a map showing a geo-breakdown of What’s Going On headed ‘RADIO ONE: NATIONAL RELATIONS’. Sub-headings go from red hot-zones marked ‘THEY LOVE US’ (Cornwall, Scotland, North Yorkshire), through ‘FLIRTING’ (Wales), into ‘THEY’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS’ to the cool blue ‘TRIAL SEPARATION IN PROGRESS’ (Northern Ireland and most of London – significantly, regions with the densest waveband competition). Alan Partridge may well protest ‘I’m a national broadcaster trapped in the body of a regional disc jockey’, but hey, we’re all part of niche-broadcasting now, aren’t we?
‘But we are quite well-focused’ Annie argues back. ‘Radio One breaks the new bands. We break new music. Then commercial stations come along and cream it off. But that’s what we’re here for. A friend of mine on the local Brighton station plays by format – a record from the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, then one from now. But never anything that’s not already very successful. They daren’t. They have advertisers to deliver audiences to. So I feel quite sort-of pro what we’re doing here. I’m not here to plug the BBC, but we’ve got such a world-wide reputation for being innovative, and maybe if there was a similar set-up in other countries, with somewhere for talent to develop independent of commercial pressure, then you might get great sounds coming out of Malaysia. But there just isn’t that infrastructure to do it.’
‘Radio’ says Annie, is ‘an intimate phone-call performance’. No batteries required. She’s wearing a chill-out-blue low-cut lace-edged underskirt kind of thing which producer Claire Slevin calls ‘her strumpet dress’. Less sex kitten, more cool Bagpuss. But this is radio. She could broadcast naked. ‘This show plays new music, but every bit has to entertain. And the people who’re listening are quite shy about phoning in. So you suggest a topical subject, something to actually think about, and it makes it easier for them. You can then turn their calls into dreadful little stories to fit around the tunes, rather than phone-ins saying ‘WAAAAH! I’m having a GREAT GREAT night!!!’’ And phone-in voices get lured through the desk into a strange magical cyberland where, freed of identity, nationality or gender, they can be as weird as they want to be, ‘...‘cos that’s more funny... er, sorry, funn-ier! That goes back to my journalistic background again. Ha! But schadenfreude (delight in another’s misfortune) – is such a wonderful word isn’t it? And sometimes it inspires. Sometimes not. So we’ll see. You never know. Anyway – now I’ve got to go and DO it. I’ve got to get into the studio. Get the feel of what’s going on. See if it’s all working.’
Once she’s in the studio Claire and Natasha (wo)man the ‘phones, filtering out the loonies while jotting down ‘possibles’ for Annie’s attention. She then reads them out on air, interpreting them for maximum punch-line potential, delivering them like a pro. Well – not like a pro. She is the pro who sets the standards against which comparisons must be made. She dances barefoot beyond the glass, acts out the stories she’s relating theatrically – head-in-hands despair, hand-on-brow deep thoughts, then she jack-in-the-boxes up indicating wildly to Claire some urgent technical requirement – or perhaps just for another in a long line of coffees.
LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE
‘Wicked Speed’*, Annie’s autobiography stylishly dressed in its pseudo-Warhol sleeve, is ‘not a kiss-and-tell book’ she says – ah-shucks. Neither is it ‘an exercise in name-dropping’ – DOH! And it’s her second foray between literary covers, following ‘Chase The Fade’ (Blandford Press, 1982). But unlike – say, Mark Radcliffe’s book ‘Showbusiness’ (1999, Sceptre), punchlined with anecdotes and one-liners, this is a more personal history in which nevertheless, kisses are kissed, while names and other substances inevitably get dropped. How could it be otherwise? Irvine (with an ‘e’) Welsh – the guy who thefted Trainspotting from the anoraks and gifted it to the loved-up trendies, writes a story-flavoured intro to which the ‘cool funky tones’ of Annie’s radio show provide the soundtrack. To the fucked-up adolescent Welsh-protagonist she’s ‘more than a DJ, she’s a surrogate cool big sister’ with ‘healing powers’. She’s a voice from the speakers distinctively different from the ‘flatulent sounds of the loud, boring, thick and egotistical men’ who ‘strafe the airwaves’. Yeah and thrice-yeah.
To teenage Annie, trapped in Brighton, the Sixties was not so much a generation, more an escape committee who saw Rock ‘n’ Roll as the force that would change the world. And music was to be her magic one-way ticket out of suburbia. From a ‘Spin With Me’ record-review column in the ‘Brighton Evening Argus’ through a fortuitous Beatles interview as early as 1962 (determined to strike an impression she confronts Lennon with ‘so, John, you’re the difficult one, then?’, to which the lovably comedic mop-top instantly retorts ‘Eh?’), she gets to broadcast for local BBC West from ‘an unmanned studio’ inside the architectural weirdness of the Brighton Pavilion. It leads to fronting yoof-TV’s ‘That’s For Me’, a thirteen-week cross-over companion to the big Mod cult show ‘Ready Steady Go’, and then less credibly to a stint as bimbo game-show hostess for ‘Sing A Song Of Sixpence’, a kind of no-hoper Name-That-Tune vehicle for some-time actor Ronan O’Casey – whose best-remembered role is as the corpse in ‘Blow-Up’ (1966). Remember the shows? No. Neither do I. But she was also writing weekly columns for ‘Fab’ and ‘Honey’, and in a period when Pop-journalism was dismissed as strictly fluff for the kids, she also got to write for the tabloid ‘Daily Sketch’ too, providing limitless access to the intimate lives of the Rock-ristocracy. The relentless madness of Keith Moon, confusingly stoned encounter with LSD-tripping Roger McGuinn and ‘pretentious git’ Jim Morrison, and sessions of agonised conscience-searching over whether she should breach a confidence and leak an exclusive about the still-secret John & Yoko affair. Fortunately they upfront it themselves before she has a chance to commit herself.
Meanwhile, Homer Simpson’s local radio station dispenses with live DJ’s in favour of a DJ3000 computer ‘programmed with three varieties of inane chatter’. Yes, Radio One, it seems, has always been with us. Yet it was first foisted upon a reluctant Auntie Beeb in 1967 as a political sop by the Labour Govt responsible for banning ‘Pirate’ radio. And it proved equally resistant to the idea of employing female DJ’s (‘a Radio One job seemed to require me to own a dick!’), until Annie sneaked in under the guise of gender tokenism, as part of a ‘SOUNDS OF THE SEVENTIES’ intake alongside Noel Edmonds. She’s cool. She’s real. She’s the new John Peel. Well – not exactly, but against the odds (check out her list of surviving contemporaries) she hung on in there, successfully surfing from one generation to the next, in a precarious profession that’s left innumerable corpses along the way. DJ’s unable to change, unwilling to adapt or embrace new styles. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s so strange’ she muses in genuine puzzlement. ‘Perhaps they didn’t want to change or adapt?’ When ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris ducked out of presenting Punk on TV’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’, Annie stepped in. Then she did ‘Live Aid’ – advised Simon Le Bon to marry Yasmin. And he did. She film-documented a Police World tour, calling off in Japan where groupies refused to give head – claiming it was illegal! Then she discovered House. And Ibiza – ‘DJ-ing at a party which had been going on for a thousand years.’
Along the way she also got Radio One-One-Wonderful commissions taking her into the Cold War Soviet Union, to Iran, Cuba and Rumania. Of course, we’re all a little more cynical and less naive than they were in the sixties, but oddly, Annie’s travels show that by now Rock ‘n’ Roll had BECOME a force that changed the world. Behind the then-Iron Curtain she discovered a samizdat underground in which western influences – with imported Pop at the top of the agenda, was helping undermine and ultimately destroy those totalitarian regimes. ‘Yes. In all those countries – but particularly in Rumania, television, communications and technology achieved that. You could not keep those people down. A lot of people are saying that in Communist Yugoslavia all the old grudges now coming back lethally to the surface in Kosovo and elsewhere were all held down, that the things that are happening there now weren’t allowed then. I’m not saying the old regimes were good or bad. But it’s all so complicated... but, I’ll tell you something which I’m absolutely gobsmacked about. There’s a Club called ‘Lush!’ (with an exclamation mark) in Portrush – Northern Ireland, where all the Catholics and Protestants are dancing together. Those Clubbers are doing more to sort out the ‘Troubles’ than any ‘Peace Process’. And that’s fantastic. That’s why I’m so keen on the nineties. Because there is this idealistic thing. There’s a young DJ called Adam Freeland. There’s a photo of him in my book. And he’s always saying ‘you’ve got to change the world’ – and it’s marvellous to have that attitude. It’s very important not to get cynical, defeated, and stuff like that. Maybe I’m ludicrously naive...?’
THE LAST TEMPTATION
OF ANNIE NIGHTINGALE...?
Annie slides seamlessly on-air with Rhinocerose “Machine Pour Les Oreilles”, then Freddy Fresh “It’s About The Groove”. As the Dance Anthem groove deepens she programmes new white-label club mixes of standards like the Stone Roses “Fools Gold”, Chemical Brothers’ “Life Is Sweet” and even Prodigy’s “Climbatize”, cutting them with a long ‘Funky Monkey’ mix, Barry Adamson, PFN and a Way-Out-West mix of JDI’s “Asian Vibes”. Following it with a trailer for ‘the Now-Legendary Todd Terry Mixing Up A Storm’.
‘Music’s very healthy at the moment’ she asserts. ‘But there are dips. There are times – like the pre-Acid House mid-eighties when things were pretty dull... but it’s always there if you look for it. House changed the sound of music completely. It just did. It’s been around now for a good ten-to-twelve years, perhaps not always on the overground, but you’ve still got the big clubs – ‘Cream’, ‘Ministry Of Sound’ and the like, they will be with us for a long time yet. It’s not always easy. There aren’t fortunes to be made DJ-ing, unless you suddenly break really big. But then again – what happens is that when something comes along – like Speed Garage, people jump on it too quickly and kill it. Suddenly you see it TV-advertised as ‘THE BEST SPEED GARAGE IN THE WORLD EVER... VOL.3’ – and you go WHAAAATTTT!?!?!? It’s bizarre, they over-expose it too quickly before it’s properly developed, and that just kills it. It’s one or the other, you know?’
Three Decades Of ‘Annie On One’. Perhaps Dance is the Last Temptation of Annie Nightingale? Maybe not. But Dance now makes up a good sixty-percent of the national record charts, even while the ‘inky’ Rock press are deliberately cutting back on their Dance content, because they prefer quotable ‘Stars’ they can splash across covers. BritPop was ideal for that. Whereas Dance is the antithesis of the Star system. It’s all about anonymity, cult credibility and style-elitism. ‘This is the point, absolutely. This is the problem. DJ’s are not Sexy Rock Gods. They’re mostly very quiet blokes. In the clubs they generally want to be left alone, because they’ve got to concentrate on what they’re doing. It’s more about having both good musical and engineering skills. Whereas people do want an Oasis. They want someone to look up to. They like heroes. I agree. But there is a very big dance press, great thick magazines like ‘Mixmag’, and now ‘Ministry’ which is quite a commercial enterprise. And ‘DJ’ and ‘Music’ – there’s loads of them. The market seems to be able to support quite a few, but then again, it all splits down to so many sub-genres. Like there’s this new sub-genre that I’m trying to help at the moment called Nu-Skool-Breaks (she spells it out). It’s quite funky. I don’t really know where it’s come from, but you’ll hear it here tonight. It’s beginning to get quite international, but they need help. Everybody’s looking for the Next Big Thing. People don’t know where it’s all going. Fortunately I get all this stuff. And I DO listen to it!’
Kevin Greening slouches stylishly in for some off-mike pre-hand-over bonding with Annie. While through a glass darkly Zoe Ball’s studio waits. A poster mock-up over her console admonishing her to ‘KEEP IT SLOW ZO’.
('Let's Go' - Yuri Gagarin, immediately prior to launch as First Human In Space)
'Poetry, Like Bread, Is For Everyone'
'Stay True To The Dreams Of Thy Youth'
'Religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation... it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity' - Christopher Hitchens
'Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover...' - Mark Twain