Hats in the ring for songs
about Elvis Presley:
The Colonel and The King
Elvis Presley Blues
Apparition in Las Vegas
MANY SONGS NAME-CHECK OTHER SINGERS. SOMETIMES THIS is done convincingly, sometimes it seems an easy way to become part of a mythology that belongs to someone else, or a blatant piggyback on to someone else’s fame and achievement.
Elvis, who died 36 years ago this week, must hold the record for the number of songs that have been written about him, that name him or that reference him explicitly or implicitly. All these years after he finally left the building, Elvis’s name still resonates and tugs at our imaginations.
The Colonel and the King
The Colonel and the King by Danny Wilson of Danny and the Champions of the World is a rocking, stomping, country anthem which neatly and evocatively combines personal experience with the public perception and knowledge of Elvis’s troubled relationship with his manager.
The song begins with an image of kids (Danny and his brother?) watching Flaming Star, the 1960 film about a mixed-race family, part-white and part-native Americann, in which brothers take different sides when conflict arises.
The song names both Elvis’s character, Pacer, and his brother Clint. This little detail from a film, probably long forgotten by many, highlights the intensity of the experience of seeing and hearing Elvis for the first time, and the song itself, with the insistent refrain ‘Elvis was a flaming star’, is a tribute to the enormous debt many musicians owe to Elvis.
The focus on Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, is unexpected and works well emotionally and musically. The Colonel was a controversial figure, mysterious, controlling, enigmatic, and the breakdown of trust between him and Elvis and his negative influence on Elvis’s later career has been extensively discussed and analysed.
The song expresses the shame, pity and bafflement that ‘something so electric could become so disconnected’. The mixture of regret and celebration and the homage to the King is potent and stirring.
Apparition in Las Vegas
Clive James’s song, Apparition in Las Vegas, sung by Pete Atkin on the album A King at Nightfall also presents Elvis’s later career. The song looks at the years between 1969 and 1976 when, under the aegis of Colonel Tom, Elvis did two shows a night for four weeks at a time at the Las Vegas Hilton.
On stage, he wore karate suits, white jumpsuits, matador cloaks, capes, gold belts, pearls. The Elvis of blue suede shoes and pink Cadillacs and pick-up trucks was no more.The song evokes the empty glamour pithily and heartlessly. Elvis ‘sparkled like the frosting on a drum kit’ in his ‘shining sliver buckskin suit’, and he ‘didn’t seem to age like other men’.
But Elvis gets off lightly compared with his audience. The evocation of the Vegas fan-base, ladies with pink rinses and disappointed lives, is cruelly accurate.
A few phrases capture the trajectory of a generation of women whose youthful and adolescent desires found an outlet in adulation of the boy from Memphis. Now, years later, with dreams that came to nothing and which have left them floundering in the shipwrecks of dashed hopes and stale marriages, they are subject to later life’s indignities of pills and tics and winces. And Elvis will put it right. The dreamboat will sail again. He will break their hearts once again. He will make them live again. They neither know nor care that he is no longer the Elvis they knew.
I’d like Clive to write another song about Elvis. (Perhaps now that he’s finished translating Dante’s The Divine Comedy? I know, I know.) Apparition in Las Vegas has the same air of sleazy disillusionment as some of the other songs on the album.
There is the drummer in the decaying cellar club with its stained and frayed velvet drapes. There is the punter grimly chasing shorts with halves of bitter in a Mayfair club called The Early Quitter. There is the pianist in the jazz quartet, 30 years in the racket, who knows everyone is there to hear the young girl just starting out. It’s sad to see Elvis in such company. He was, after all, a flaming star.
Elvis Presley Blues
So my favourite is Gillian Welch’s Elvis Presley Blues. It’s a stripped-down, laid-back sound with Gillian and David Rawlings on guitar and vocals.
There is a simple, haunting chorus, about how she was thinking about Elvis the day he died, which she returns to twice. In the verses in between, there is a barrage of images and references with enough punch to knock you off your feet, but always contained within the controlled chorus and the cool delivery.
We meet Elvis the country boy who loved his mama; the midnight rambler, who sang with his soul at stake and who shook it like a chorus girl and a Harlem Queen. He’s linked with John Henry, the West Virginian folk hero who shook his hammer drill which rang like silver and shone like gold as he beat the new-fangled steam hammer. Mind you, he died tragically. Much like Elvis.
I like the little snatch of ‘Well bless my soul’ which is later expanded to ‘Well bless my soul, what’s wrong with me?’ You can’t hear this lovely, tender reference without bursting into the rest of All Shook Up.
How nice that she knows it wil be recognised. How nice to remember how all of us were shook up by Elvis.