ELVIS PRESLEY Elvis 56 (RCA)
Like Miles Hunt, I never loved Elvis, yknow? Yes, "The Sun Collection" may be the best rock n roll album ever made, but, like Robert Johnson or the first few Beatles albums for example, the way the music it contains has informed pretty much everything that follows dilutes the listening experience for the younger listener; not having experienced the before first-hand makes it difficult to appreciate the true importance of such monumental releases and their consequent impact on the after.
"Elvis 56" is a different beastie altogether. Containing great swathes of the primitive and electrifying rock n roll Presley recorded during 1956 - 22 tracks, none lasting over 165 seconds - as well as the obvious hits like "Heartbreak Hotel", "Blue Suede Shoes", "Hound Dog" and "Dont Be Cruel" theres a smattering of previously unreleased and alternate versions and the occasional reminder - via moments like the gymnastic vocal line of "One-Sided Love Affair" - of how truly alien this music must have sounded over forty years ago.
The fantastic booklet helps massage the legend into shape as well - no gushing notes and cursory biography here, just pages and pages of superbly evocative photos of the singer going through the day-to-day motions of inventing the concept of the rock n roll star: signing autographs, arriving early at the recording session and playing the piano to while away time till the band comes in, listening to acetates whilst on the train, record player sitting on his knees...they really tell you all you need to know; words never could. Irrespective of whether or not you like the mans music, these are the roots of rhythm from which everything else on these pages has sprouted in one way or another.
ELVIS PRESLEY Elv1s 30 #1 Hits (RCA)
This heavily promoted compilation is my first Presley purchase, and pretty ideal in its role. It contains 31 number one hit singles (Junkie XL's Nike advert remix of "A Little Less Conversation" was released during the album's production), although some of them aren't quite what "The Great Rock Discography" would understand by the term ("In The Ghetto", for example, doesn't appear to have been any kind of number one anywhere).
Listening attentively to this music for the first time, it's like having all the gaps in my cultural education bridged simultaneously as disparate elements are joined up. Even if you dont have any particular admiration for or fascination with Elvis' music, the need to own at least some of it is inescapable, because it makes sense of so much else. For example, to pull out some random observations and associations: why Jeff Beck and ol' sandpaper tonsils covered "Jailhouse Rock" and "All Shook Up" on "Beck-Ola" why Deep Purple rifled the lyrics of "Hard Headed Woman" for "Speed King" how Spiritualized almost sneaked "Can't Help Falling In Love" onto "Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space" why The KLF dipped liberally into "In The Ghetto" when assembling their proto-ambient house epic "Chill Out" why The Smiths used to cover "(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame" in concert why Mark Eitzel called an album "Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby".
And the music I'm not going to criticise, because one person's Presley preference may not be another's, and the scope of "Elv1s 30 #1 Hits" is such that nobody leaves empty handed, but a few observations immediately suggest themselves. The simplicity of some of the arrangements ("Love Me Tender", "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and "Crying In The Chapel", for example) is simply staggering, as is how he travelled from "In The Ghetto" to "Suspicious Minds" in three days when it would take Marvin Gaye's music eight years (from "What's Going On" to "Here, My Dear") to cover the same ground.
Some elements of this package are less sacrosanct, however. Wouldn't you really rather have the original "A Little Less Conversation", as dusted down by David Holmes for the "Ocean's Eleven" soundtrack, rather than the Junkie XL remix? Isn't the "Special thanks to our friends at Nike" credit just a little creepy? Why have acclaimed Presley biographer Peter Guralnick's promised track descriptions been excised from the vinyl version's packaging? And isn't it a damning indictment of the rate at which Presley reeled out his talent that the first three sides cover the years 1956 to 1963, leaving the fourth to breathlessly mop up the last 15 years of his career?
Such petty whinges aside, this is a great, and I really wasn't expecting it to be. If you've never bought an Elvis Presley album before, you could hardly go wrong with this one.
ELVIS PRESLEY From Elvis In Memphis (Speakers Corner)
Whenever I find myself in heated discussion about the relative merits of Elvis and The Beatles, a point I raise in the fabulous four's favour is their complete mastery of the long player. How many great Elvis albums can you name? And how many Beatles albums were less than superlative? Case dismissed, I think. However, "From Elvis In Memphis" might be that rarity: a genuinely great Presley platter. Recorded in the wake of his '68 comeback, it convincingly positions Elvis as a lean, if not hungry, blue-eyed soul singer, much in the manner of what "Dusty In Memphis" did for Ms Springfield at round about the same time. Despite having its strength sapped in places by a baffling, very of-its-time stereo mix that has me wondering whether a genuine mono version of the album would rank even higher, it's mostly marvellous.
Substantially these are songs about heartache and heartbreak in all their different shades; the feel is relaxed, as the multiple false starts of "I'll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You In My Arms)" attest. Admittedly this song finds the album at its most cornball, with Elvis' vocals glutinous, as if he's ladling out syrup rather than singing. Still, on "Power Of My Love" he conjures up a muscular, bluesy howl, here as elsewhere backed by an expertly arranged musical confection, although some of the grunting backing vocals seem a bit excessive to modern ears. His version of "Gentle On My Mind" is brilliant: it's almost country, but it's almost funk as well. Perhaps the album's most well-hidden gem is "True Love Travels On A Gravel Road", a hymn to the quiet joys of weatherbeaten steadfastness and humility that seems like the emotional flipside to "Suspicious Minds", also recorded at these sessions but not present on the album. Even better, though, is "In The Ghetto", inevitably. Does it come across as sanctimonious or preachy to hear the indulged reclusive multi-millionaire holding forth on the cyclical hopelessness of ghetto life? By rights it should, of course, but in reality the shame is that Elvis didn't try social commentary more often. He might not be Billy Bragg, but at least he got to make his "What's Going On", even if he couldn't stretch it to an entire album like Marvin did.
Speakers Corner have done their usual impressive job reissuing "From Elvis To Memphis" on vinyl. The packaging cleaves as close to the original release as possible - orange RCA labels and no barcodes! - and it's an astonishingly good sounding slab of heavyweight plastic.
ELVIS PRESLEY Elvis Presley (RCA/Legacy)
It doesn’t seem fanciful to suggest that the rock album was born with Elvis’ eponymous debut. Certainly, in becoming the first rock ‘n’ roll album to top the American charts and the first RCA pop album to sell a million copies, it established the format’s commercial potential, even as RCA attempted to undermine it by padding out the album’s slender length with previously unreleased recordings from Presley’s Sun sessions and reissuing the entire album as a set of singles, Moby Grape style.
Astutely grasping the necessity of all-round appeal, Presley softened the greasy hoodlum image inherent in the volcanic, hip-swivelling energy of “Blue Suede Shoes” with the tender balladry of “I’m Counting On You”, “I Love You Because” and “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)”. The arrangement of “Blue Moon” still sounds weirdly innovative today, with its minimalist, reverberant clip-clopping beat and Presley’s falsetto keening, and covering Ray Charles and Little Richard would’ve been pretty much like making a political statement in 1950s America. But then again, as the far-seeing sleevenote puts it, “Elvis is the most original protagonist of popular songs on the scene today. His style stands out vividly on records and in personal appearances and accounts for the universal popularity he has gained.”
Despite its 180 gram pressing, Legacy’s reissue is no audiophile delight; let’s just say that it allows the crudity of the original recordings to flood out unencumbered.
ELVIS PRESLEY 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong: Elvis' Gold Records, Volume 2 (Music On Vinyl)
An epochal compilation whose title and cover art were so satisfyingly parodied by The Fall’s “50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong”, Music On Vinyl’s reissue is not quite the album it once was or appears to be. The 1959 edition contained ten tracks, collating the non-album sides from all of Elvis’ 1958 and 1959 US singles. This shiny new version styles itself after the 1997 CD reissue, doubling the playing time (to a hardly attention-sapping 46 minutes) by including ten bonus tracks. They’re interspersed within an altered running order, to the extent that the item under consideration bears almost no resemblance to what you could have bought 50 years ago.
Given how the 21 month span of its contributory recordings sessions is pretty much par for the course of an album’s gestation nowadays, it’s tempting to view “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” not as a compilation but as an actual studio work. On those terms, it’s a pretty satisfying listen, with Elvis and band pulling it in a rough, rocky direction as the quilted harmonies of The Jordanaires haul it towards another.
“Don’t” is all coy, buttoned-down Hays Code sexuality, and “One Night” its less repressed lustful equivalent. Led Zeppelin would later work “Party” into the gargantuan concert rock ‘n’ roll medley version of “Whole Lotta Love”, and the inclusion of two songs from “Elvis’ Christmas Album” disrupts the flow less than might be imagined; hardly encrusted with sleigh bells, if they weren’t sung in English their festive leanings might never be divined. The N’awlins sashay of “King Creole” and “Hard Headed Woman”, with its ribald brass arrangement, still sound genuinely innovative today, and the electric bass groove of “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” renders it extra snappy. “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)” is ruined forever for me by coming to it after hearing The Flying Burrito Bros’ “Hippie Boy”, but it at least underscores Elvis’ versatility.
Sonically this is one of Music On Vinyl’s best yet. It’s still not of the audiophile quality claimed by the cover sticker, but it’s well-pressed and very listenable, despite noticeably high levels of pre-echo. Nevertheless, it raises the tantalising question of what the original tracklisting, cut as a single 45rpm 12”, might sound like.