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Thursday, 19 July 2012

That smirk of cold command

Elvis never cut it for me. A defensive heterosexual, I failed to respond to his swivelling hips and his lush blue-black hair (clearly a wig). And that globular voice, like methane bubbles emerging from a marsh. So strange. They said he was the first white to sing like a black man. Then why not listen to a black man and cut out the intermediary?

To be fair Elvis faced problems not of his making. I’d just discovered posh music and he wasn’t Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His songs persecuted me as noise during RAF national service. During a brief period when I listened to pop driving to work in Philadelphia he came up with the relentlessly maudlin In The Ghetto. And Heartbreak Hotel was a perfect target for the musical satirist Stan Freberg (“Too much echo – echo – echo. Turn me off – off – off.”).

One thing in his favour:  he did his national service like a man, instead of claiming to have flat feet or a social disease. And there was a mild hint of self-mockery about Blue Suede Shoes. Other than that I let him be and rather cruelly regarded his ignoble death as a slap in the face for his deifiers.

But with pop, context is all. Often status is achieved in contrast to what went before. I have dwelt on the sheer wetness of Radio Luxembourg output during the very early fifties and perhaps if I’d been limited to that I might have regarded Elvis differently. People whose music I enjoy and whose integrity I admire (eg, Paul Simon) say Elvis was seminal and that I therefore profit from his role as a stepping stone. That he shouldn’t be scourged for interfering with my reading in B Block, RAF Yatesbury, Wiltshire.

Oh, I don’t know though.

7 comments:

Rouchswalwe said...

My favourite Elvis record is still: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYelPk8Oum0&feature=relmfu

Plutarch said...

I couldn't listen to him either with any degree of tolerance. Only recently in more a more measured frame of mind do I realise that he did possess a remarkably melifluous voice. But like you I would choose Dietrich and Schubert in preference to Elvis and Blue suede shoes.

Sir Hugh said...

In the late Fifties and early Sixties there was a strong local jazz following in Bradford with enthusiastic amateur groups playing modern and traditional versions mainly in pubs. I was a keen follower. Coincidentally there was a political upheaval in the global jazz scene which suddenly lifted some previously existing embargo, and exchange visits between the UK and USA of their respective jazz groups was permitted. During that period I saw performances in Bradford, without exaggeration, of almost every major USA jazz band, or group. I was hooked forever.

At the same time Elvis and The Beetles were dominating the pop scene along with Rock and Roll performers, and other fringe pop genres. With the sweeping dismissiveness of youth we considered all that to be rubbish, and for me that bigotry continued through the era of Queen, The Rolling Stones etc. etc., and then I discovered posh music, but I still like to hear some good Sonny Rollins, Jerry Mulligan, Ellington or Woody Herman.

I have from time to time listened again to the stuff I denigrated in youth and identified the positive qualities where they exist, but still cannot conjure up much enthusiasm.

Relucent Reader said...

Nice to see Stan Freberg mentioned in your post on Elvis. I once mentioned Freberg's talents to colleagues(younger than I), and was rewarded with blank stares.
Elvis had no cushy job in the band or similar: he was a tanker. Respected him for that; otherwise, didnt really listen to his stuff.

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

All: I was conscious I was being cruel here. Also I wasn't really allowing for the fact that our tastes can evolve, even though we frequently make sentimental exceptions about music heard in our youth. I tell myself that Shrimp Boats Are A'Coming (Jo Stafford, early fifties) is a naive example of pre-pop popular music. And yet when I play it back in my head I find there's nothing inherently wrong with the tune and Jo Stafford's clear and tuneful singing is still admirable. It's just that I'm a snob (frequently admitted to elsewhere in Tone Deaf and Works Well) and I don't care to be identified with Shrimp Boats.

RR: Stan Freberg. We're beginning to clone each other in all sorts of ways. I didn't realise Elvis was a tanker. A fact that deserves repeating to all those firebrands in the Senate and Congress who regularly urge young men to get their heads shot off in Helmand yet strangely never donned uniforms at the time of Viet Nam.

Lucy said...

Always had a soft spot for 'Always on my Mind'. Sorry.

Mostly though I'm afraid his image will forever be associated with things I learned about his eating habits and the particularly grimly farcical nature of his demise.

Oddly my nieces and nephews ten or so years my juniors listened to and enjoyed him more than I ever did; until he died one didn't actually hear that much of him when I was growing up, though he was probably better than much of the pop that was around. Then the punks tended to like the harder-edged rock & roll, which I didn't like much either.

Can you explain 'tanker' in this context?

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

Lucy: There's a huge age gap between us; it's not surprising we've ended up with contrasting views about certain aspects of pop music. To be born into it, rather than attempting to pick it up afterwards, are two widely differing processes.

I'm glad you asked about "tanker". I had assumed it meant Elvis drove one of those gigantic fuel tank lorries. I should have known better. Relucent Reader (a recent visitor to Hereford) served in a US tank regiment (ie, tanks with caterpillar tracks and long guns sticking out at the front) and so apparently did Elvis. On such strong bonds are unshakeable brotherhoods formed.