Wednesday, 2 June 2010

2005 Elvis Presley: Jailhouse Rock: Elvis Presley: One Night/I Got Stung

An eighties revival is one thing, but now a fifties one; what's Elvis Presley doing back at number one??? A fair question, and let's be clear here, these recordings aren't latter day mash-ups or 'versus' remixes - they are straight 2005 re-issues of the original 1958/59 recordings. Why? Well in celebration of the 70th anniversary of Elvis' birth, his label (RCA) re-issued all of his UK number ones in chronological order, from 'All Shook Up' to 'Way Down'. A nice idea, and all very well I suppose, but it does beg a question; just who was buying them? Elvis completeists who have to have everything by the man? Maybe; every single one of these re-issues would make it as far as the top five so there's a certain consistency there. Or perhaps they were bought on the basis of a feeling of a 'no home is complete without them' cultural obligation that made these a 'must have', the same way that window displays of re-issues or re-mixes of The Beatle's back catalogues can still stop traffic. Or maybe it was because these recordings from the early days of rock and roll still sound fresh, vital and relevant, particularly when they have the luxury of following an act like Steve Brookstein.

And yes, they do still sound vital - that two stop opening snap and Elvis' urgent declaration that "The warden threw a party in the county jail" still sounds like an announcement akin to a door being booted open. And that's an apt descriptor - how many of the singles that followed owe it a debt? Well, not many according to Tim Luckhurst. Writing in The Times (in 2005), Professor of Journalism Luckhurst stated "American giants such as Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa merit our affection. If he had started singing after John Lennon, Presley would not merit a place on 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here". The fact that Lennon has acknowledged that without Presley, he wouldn't have started singing in the first place (making Luckhurst's observation a bit of a nonsense to start with, and an ignorant one at that) notwithstanding, I'm prepared to gather Luckhurst's hospital pass and run with it to a certain extent: how would Elvis have fared on any 1950's equivalent of a reality show like 'Pop Idol' I wonder?

Because if there's one thing that the number one singles these shows have spawned to date have shown us, it's that they like to play it safe. Cover versions, ballads or safe pop that pushes no boundaries, Pop Idol (et al) winners clearly have no brief to advance popular culture in any direction other than sideways; when Steve Brookstein covers 'Against All Odds', he does it straight. No chaser. Contrast then with Elvis, who turned up at Sam Phillip's Sun Studios in 1954 to record 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky', a popular Bill Monroe bluegrass waltz from 1946. The version whipped up by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black is anything but a safe, cover and instead turns Monroe's pedestrian waltz into something that caused Phillip's to shout "BOY, that's fine, that's fine. That's a POP song now!" In any event, it certainly wasn't bluegrass.

Would a contemporary talent show panel be so enthusiastic at Elvis subverting an iconic American genre and song into a genre all of its own, the hybrid offspring of a white man singing Monroe's song in the manner that recalled the frowned upon 'race music' with a frenzied backbeat that was nevertheless so straight you couldn't lose it I wonder? This was new, this was original, and while I'm tempted to say that a modern equivalent would be Brookstein (or one of his ilk) 'doing' Phil Collins in the style of the Velvet Underground crossed with Dub Step, that would not come close to doing Elvis' achievement justice. After all, the Velvet Underground and Dub Step already exist; until Elvis struck up the band, the sounds heard on 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky' didn't. It's as simple as that.

For the here and now, 'Jailhouse Rock' and 'One Night' sound exactly as they did when we first met them. Neither age nor contemporary context has dulled the sheen of the former nor radically improved the latter. Over forty years old they may be, but these 'fossils' from the past have as much bite and swagger as the dinosaurs that roamed around Jurassic Park - old and out of place maybe, but get too close and they'll bite. How many of the more recent songs will we be able to say the same about forty years hence I wonder? 'Firestarter', the last truly 'what the fuck' number one is already showing its age; 'Jailhouse Rock' leaps over its head with one hip swivelling bound and dares it to keep up. And do you know what? It can't. Elvis Presley taking 1000th UK number one spot?* I couldn't have written that script better if I'd wanted to.

* With 'One Night' Which means that 'Jailhouse Rock' was the no less aesthetically pleasing 999th UK number one.

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