I don’t know why I’m doing this but I’m listening to Elvis again. The hard stuff. The fifties recordings, the famous Sun sessions, the early tracks he recorded for RCA. In fact pretty much anything that he laid down before disappearing at the end of the 1950s to Germany to do his US national service. Despite the big money backing him the Elvis of those days was still a rebel with a hand in the music he recorded. Try Elvis Presley As He Was Meant To Be Heard which is a four CD set containing his entire 1950s output. In mono, of course. Available for less than a tenner, now that the copyright terminator dateline has rolled another decade on.
When he died, August 1977, bloated and, as a creative force, completely worn I was standing in Buffalo Records on the Hayes in Cardiff. Buffalo was the nearest thing we had in Cardiff to a music superstore. Glass, light, albums everywhere. These were the days before Virgin. The racks were brimming with hand-made punk. Three chord garage music. Do it yourself, anyone can, and thousands did. Johnny Rotten was up there spitting at the world. The music dimmed and the store owner made a rare announcement. “The king has gone. Elvis Presley is dead”. The punks looked up. There was a pause then one of them started to cheer. Then another. It caught like a fire. The King is dead F*** him old fart hooray hooray. Not one of them realising that this man began right where they’d begun. Totally pissed with the staid music around him he created his own instead. Different chords but still only three. Pumped out lightning fast. Vocals screamed on top.
At Graceland last year, where I’d driven along Elvis Presley Boulevard, turned into Lonely Street and stopped just beyond Heartbreak Hotel, the car park was strung with speakers pouring out non-stop Elvis, 24/7. In the hotel my room had a TV set with three channels: Elvis on stage, Elvis films, Elvis songs. The phone was cocooned in fluffy pink cotton. There was a portrait of the great man smiling down at me from the wall. Around the heart-shaped swimming pool fans lounged – middle-aged to elderly, visiting the well springs of their youth.
The place was Elvis Disneyland, no contextualisation, no mention of the bloated, drug-addled state he’d ended up in. On the house tour you got to see all the gold discs, the rumpus room, the den, but for privacy purposes nothing upstairs. Could you get to the bathroom where the king actually passed on? No.
Why did Elvis never come to Europe, never play Wembley or appear at the London Palladium? Rumour was that he hated flying. The truth that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was actually an escapee from Holland who couldn’t face going back or getting near anywhere near. The fat man with is cigar and his single artist was christened Andreas Cornelis ("Dries") van Kuijk. He never got closer to the Army than watching a military parade.
Elvis’s decline makes his 70s output painful to listen to. I’ve got the set on now, Elvis – Walk a Mile In My Shoes – The Essential 70’s Masters, 120 tracks for something like thirteen quid. I’m two thirds of the way through and I haven’t heard a single track that I’d want to play again. The voice is full of uncontrolled vibrato, unfocused, reaching hard for notes that just aren’t there. And then there’s the material. What on earth were they thinking of? It’s like Dylan Thomas churning out Patience Strong.
Could be, however, that the conspiracy theorists are right. In the same way that men never went to the moon and the twin-towers still stand, Elvis did not die. He’s among us still. Recording voice-overs for TV adverts, working at a petrol station in Dowlais, entering the Porthcawl annual Elvis look-a-like contest and losing. He’d be crap. And, as anyone who is a true fan knows, the king was never that.