Long live the King

Why Elvis is still Number One.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Culture

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As a lifelong modernist you might expect me to bemoan the knee-jerk nostalgia that has put Elvis Presley back on top of the British singles charts; and as a critic of capital I might also be expected to complain about the marketing exercise designed to milk for all its commercial worth the coincidence of Presley’s seventieth birthday (8 January) with the thousandth week of sales-based record charts in the UK – a coincidence which conveniently occurs before 50-year copyright on his early hits runs out in many European countries.

However, I never agreed with the no-futurism of the Covent Garden punks who spat on Presley’s grave before he was even committed to it, and remain unimpressed by the particularism of Public Enemy who declared ‘Elvis never meant shit to me’. Moreover, complaining about the market in music is like protesting against a circle in a wheel.

I would not have chosen the non-vintage ‘One Night’ for the thousandth Number One. It was originally released while Presley was in the US army making himself respectable (a process that prompted John Lennon to remark that Elvis died in 1958). I concede that in scoring the past two UK Number Ones (‘Jailhouse Rock’ last week and now ‘One Night’), Elvis has twice lowered the bar on sales required to top the charts (21,262 and 20,467 respectively).

Regardless, if the thousandth UK Number One had been the appropriately wintry ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and if it topped the UK charts for two months as it did in the USA in 1956, I would be over the (blue) moon.

Pace Public Enemy, here are four reasons why Elvis legitimately lives on in the cultural canon:

1. He crossed musical boundaries between Rhythm‘n’Blues and Country‘n’Western. While technically not the first to do this, Presley’s transgressions were integral rather than occasional, setting the tone for a musical form that was universal rather than parochial. Other white boys were messin’ with the blues – Carl Perkins, for example, but their results remain bound to the South, whereas Elvis makes the South sound like everywhere.

2. All cultural life is there. From the louche libido of ‘That’s All Right’ to the existential pain of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, through the amphetamine-like adrenaline of ‘All Shook Up’ to the cartoon angst of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and chocolate-box sentiment of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’, Presley presages the future history of rock and pop, and recapitulates many of the themes of modernism. Compare ‘That’s All Right’ with Gauguin, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ with Egon Schiele , ‘All Shook Up’ with Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ – you get the picture? And if you listen hard to ‘Mystery Train’ you can hear the sound of industrialism coming off the rails, long before Kraftwerk pulled it off the road with ‘Autobahn’.

3. John Lennon got it right: ‘Before Elvis there was nothing.’ Elvis was the first to represent a new order in popular music and culture. Moreover, the fact that there was widespread cultural resonance for this new aesthetic, ie, it was truly popular and not confined to a bohemian fringe, was a matter of great social significance. Presley’s disregard for musical limitations and the social mores and racial boundaries associated with them, together with young people’s enthusiasm for his transgression, pointed to the provisional character of the postwar settlement. What his generation threw up in the air would not come down again.

4. But pop charts and cultural studies are not (yet) indistinguishable. Apart from his relevance to the student of cultural and social history, for Elvis to top the charts today there has to be something about his ways which is still winning. There’s plenty to choose from: his off-white good looks; the grain of his voice; his much-cited sexuality (‘the Pelvis’). But this remains powerful because Elvis is also virginal. As the world’s first to penetrate new musical and cultural territory, it was his first time too. He’s never been here before, either; and to watch footage or even listen to his early output is to observe the quickening in him when it works – it works as music, it works with women, it works on the audience as a whole (even with the ones who hate it).

Thus the perennial attraction of the young Elvis is that in his sheer delight we can relive the excitement of new cultural horizons opening up. The downside is that each time we relive the experience, the quickening effect gets slower.

Andrew Calcutt has written numerous books on culture and society. His latest work is ‘Creative Britain: the re-mediation of social relations in the UK, 1994-2001’, and he is currently looking for a new publisher.

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