Long live the King

There's much more to Elvis than junk food and jumpsuits.

Ian Walker

Topics Politics

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What was it about Elvis that made millions adore him?

If you knew nothing about The King and only had recent TV programmes marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death to go by, the story would run something like this:

Good-looking and talented young man records a number of good songs; he makes a couple of reasonable films; he joins the army where he falls for a 14-year-old girl and develops a taste for amphetamine; he leaves the army and makes some bad films; he has a musical renaissance with a TV special and a few more decent songs; he loses the plot and rapidly becomes a fat, sweating monster in a white jumpsuit gorging himself on junk food and pills; he dies on the toilet at the age of 42.

The overall image is of a naive kid growing into a bloated man – a life that was a train wreck of self-indulgence and greed. You could be forgiven for wondering why we are still obsessed with such a man.

But there is one period of Elvis’ life worthy of critical judgement. Almost all the songs he recorded before he joined the army created a body of work that stands out against almost everything done by his contemporaries.

Not everybody agrees with this. On 15 August, former music editor of Pride magazine Helen Kolawole argued that while Elvis was clearly talented, he stole his style and music from the black community – and was therefore symbolic of American racism (1).

The idea that popular music has a racist heart because it steals from black origins has been around for a while. Indeed, Kolawole’s article was prompted by comments made by Chuck D, the frontman for rap group Public Enemy, in Newsday on 11 August 2002.

Back in 1988, Public Enemy recorded a song with the lyrics: ‘Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne.’ But Chuck D’s comments in Newsday suggest he has now tempered his views.

‘As a musicologist – and I consider myself one – there was always great deal of respect for Elvis’, he said, ‘especially during his Sun sessions. As black people, we all knew that’ (2).

Chuck D’s comments capture the difficulties that arise when artistic judgements are based on politics. Using political or sociological criteria to judge art often means missing what is special about a piece of music or art.

Kolawole’s argument illustrates this problem, too. The one example she gives of Elvis’ ‘theft’ is his version of Hound Dog, which she claims was written by Big Mama Thornton. The song was actually written by two young Jewish guys Leiber and Stoller – though Big Mama Thornton did have a hit with the song before Elvis.

Her version of Hound Dog shows what an incredibly fertile time the 1950s was for American popular music. Generally the charts were dominated by second-rate crooners, with even the mighty Sinatra reduced to recording novelty songs. Yet beneath this bland edifice, different styles of music were making inroads, particularly among the young.

Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog features a powerful gospel-esque vocal – but far from singing of the sacred, the song tells a tale of sexual infidelity, the territory of the blues. This mixture of gospel and blues indicates that different styles were being fused to create music for a new, younger audience.

Elvis’ version is different. It is faster – but more importantly its rhythm, played on a slapped bass, and the guitar-playing, which switches from supporting the rhythm to playing the lead, are styles that come from country or rockabilly music. So as well as gospel and R&B styles, Elvis’ version adds country influences.

But there is something else about Elvis’ version that makes it different to Big Mama Thornton’s.

Mark Edwards, music critic for The Sunday Times, argues that Elvis’ Hound Dog was a seminal moment in the history of popular music (3). According to Edwards, there is a moment in the song where the gospel, R&B and country categories become meaningless – where the song transcends the sum of its parts. The pace of the song and the driving rhythm culminates in the second guitar break, played by Scotty Moore.

This guitar-playing seems to come out of nowhere. For a few seconds the song explodes into what Scotty Moore would later call ‘ancient psychedelia’. Up to this point, the song had been a rich hybrid of different styles – but in a few guitar-driven seconds a whole new range of possibilities was opened up for what you can do with a song.

There is something else about Elvis’ Hound Dog. The content of the song, of feeling cheated by a sexually erroneous ‘hound dog’, delivered by a pretty young man with eyeliner and a pink shirt, also gave the song a sexual ambiguity that it didn’t have before. The same ambiguity is explicit in another Elvis song, Jailhouse Rock, (‘that’s the cutest jailbird you ever did see’).

There may be little doubt about Elvis’ sexual tastes. But he did introduce sexual ambiguity into popular music, in a way that would be echoed by some of the most innovative rock stars of his time, and beyond.

Elvis’ early recordings changed popular music. The songs were formed out of the rich traditions of southern black and white music, but they also transcended those traditions. The music contained a tension that exploded in the imagination of young people.

If there had been no Elvis, the popular music of the 1960s would likely have been very different. There might have been no Dylan, no Jagger, no Lennon. With a combination of instinct, talent and the help of musicians and producers, Elvis pretty much invented a new style of popular music. Of course others – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly – were part of this process. But even as part of this impressive quintet Elvis stood out – and that’s why people adored him.

Of course you can understand rock’n’roll as a sociological phenomenon, and of course race plays a part in that analysis. But the history of pop music, like the history of all creative endeavours, is also the history of creative borrowing, intuitive jumps and the occasional leap of a genius. A purely sociological analysis of music misses this point, as it tends to look for a root cause of a phenomenon in the society that produces it. It cannot adequately account for those spectacular creative moments that seem to jump out of their time.

Whether you like Elvis or not is a matter of taste. But we should recognise that some contemporary anti-Elvis critiques, while looking like arguments against racism, are also attacks on artistic creativity.

(1) He wasn’t my king, Guardian, 15 August 2002

(2) Newsday, August 2002

(3) Sunday Times, 19 August 2001

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Topics Politics


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