|ROCK ICON: ELVIS PRESLEY BY FRANK TURNER
September 01, 2016 - Team Rock.com / Elvis Express Radio
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Rock musicFrank Turner pays tribute to The King
My choice for THE, rock icon is simultaneously obvious and left field, but I’m going to choose Elvis Presley. And the thing about it is, if you’d asked me this question anywhere up to
three years ago I would’ve laughed if you’d suggested that I might have said Elvis; he’s cheesy and overly commodified and culturally ubiquitous. He’s also just a bit of a joke; when
you say Elvis Presley people think of fat Elvis impersonators in Blackpool, or American truck drivers with Elvis badges on their denim jackets. So he’s definitely overdone.
But, and here’s the but, I read a lot of music biographies – because I enjoy them and also because I feel like I should educate myself on the history of what I do for a living – and
one of my friends mentioned the Peter Guralnick two-volume biography of Elvis; The Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. And he’s rarely let me down with his
recommendations, so I thought, ‘Fuck it. I’ll give it a go.’
So I picked up the two biographies and started reading them, and as you do if you’re reading books about music, you start listening to the tracks as you’re going along. Before I’d
finished the first book I became a diehard Elvis fan, and by the time I’d finished the second one I had an Elvis tattoo.
One of the things that really hit me was this; if you talk about the Ramones and the impact that they had when they first came out, you have to mentally shift yourself back into the
context to fully appreciate it. That’s not the case with Elvis. Go and listen to Hound Dog right now. That song is punk as fuck. It’s heavy.
Now, a lot of the songs that hit me by bands like the Ramones, The Clash and Black Flag are quite badly produced, and as a 13 year-old kid who’s used to listening to Good
Charlotte it can be hard to understand why the first Clash album is important. But if you go back and listen to the first couple of Elvis records, the production is stunning. So that
was the first thing; I don’t feel like you have to mentally contextualise yourself. But just to do that a little bit, if you think about what was going on at that time with Perry Como’s Magic
Moments and stuff like that, and then you listen to Hound Dog, it’s immediately clear why it was so important.
I should also add that one of the big hipster conceits about Elvis is that he didn’t write his own songs. He might not have written his own songs, but he was the master producer and
engineer of his generation. It’s also popular opinion to say that the original Hound Dog is better, but no it fucking isn’t. That’s just bollocks. Elvis’ version of that song is lightyears
ahead, and if you listen to the two of them back-to-back you can hear what he was doing.
In the Guralnick biography it says that Elvis used to literally get sent hundreds of acetates for songs that he might want to record, and he always picked the one that he thought
nobody else was going to pick. Songs like Heartbreak Hotel; everyone was like, ‘Don’t cut that one.’ But he cut it and it came out great. He arranged the band himself, too. This was
obviously the ‘50s so it was all cut live, and he’d stand in the middle of the room with all the musicians around him and they’d do 60 takes in a row. He’d be like, ‘Bar three, verse
two; drop that F sharp to an E. Now let’s do it again.’ He was in full control of his vision.
It’s taken me until my mid-30s to realise it, and when I was younger I didn’t really get it, but now with a bit more knowledge and context I think it’s completely unquestionable that
Elvis Presley invented rock ‘n’ roll. His showmanship was incredible as well. A lot of people rip on the Vegas years, but the beginning of the Vegas years was Elvis at his absolute
peak. If you look at the way he put the '68 Comeback Special together, a lot of the stuff that I do with running songs together and having spoken sections in the middle of the songs
comes directly from Elvis. He was the first artist to ever have an intro tape, too. He defined the live rock ‘n’ roll show.
It’s a fucking shame what happened to him. There’s quite a good argument to be made that Elvis should’ve been even bigger than he was, but his manager Tom Parker screwed it
all up. He never toured outside of the US because Tom Parker was an illegal immigrant and he was scared he wouldn’t be allowed back into the States if he went with him. So an
awful lot of shit went wrong with Elvis, and a spoiler alert for the book is that it doesn’t end well. He died tragically and it was a waste of his talent. The lesson is this: keep an eye on
your manager and don’t take drugs.
AM ROCK TAKES A LOOK AT THE KEY ALBUM IN THE HISTORY OF ROCK
On first listen there's nothing especially extraordinary about Elvis Presley's eponymous debut album. The majority of the tracks are covers of hits from the likes of Carl Perkins,
Little Richard and Ray Charles, the arrangements are sparse, the track-listing is uneven, and his voice is barely a patch on the instrument of musical mastery and mass seduction
that Elvis developed during the later years of his career.
Nevertheless, the incomplete nature of the album does not obscure the magic and charm of a world-class recording artist, and the vulnerability of tracks like Trying To Get You and
Blue Moon hint at the superstar within, waiting for the right vehicle to take the world by storm. It might not strike the modern music fan as a masterpiece, but it is the first feature-
length rock n' roll LP and therefore the seed from which everything we know and love of rock music grew. From Black Sabbath and The Who to Green Day and Metallica - all roads
lead back to this.
If these 12 songs aren't instantly affecting it's because you've seen and heard everything that's come since. To truly understand and appreciate the power of Elvis Presley you
have to transport yourself back to 1956.
Viewed in this light, the range of musical styles on display – rockabilly, country, gospel, blues and R&B – and the conviction with which Elvis delivers them make for an expertly
realised debut album, particularly considering there was no blueprint on which to base itself. This was ground zero.
There'll always be those that think Elvis was just a white boy singing black music, as there will be those that claim Carl Perkins is the better songwriter, Chuck Berry the better
guitarist, Jerry Lee the better pianist, and Little Richard the better vocalist and performer? But Elvis Presley was the world's first true rock star, the first to reach the top of the charts
with a full-length album, and the one who sold more records than any other artist during the 1950s. This may have been more than partially down to his movie star good looks and
the colour of his skin, but there's still no denying his incomparable talent.
Elvis was, and always will be, The King. Even The Clash, who claimed to reject his music early in their career (on the biting 1977) later acknowledged his claim to the rock n' roll
throne by choosing to subvert the cover of Elvis Presley for the design of their third record London Calling. And Elvis had his own rebellious punk rock soul of course - back in the
day his gyrating pelvis caused just as much controversy as the filth and the fury of the Sex Pistols did in 1977, which in a tragic twist of fate also turned out to be the year the great
The King is dead. Long live The King.