Elvis Presley | Elvis Presley (March 1956)
RCA Victor (USA)
Rock and Roll / Rockabilly / Country – 28:03
“Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant sh*t to me…Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”
It’s a bold statement from Public Enemy’s track Fight the Power. It gets to the nub of the cult of personality which has grown up around The King; a musical legend who is now as much about the legend as he is the music. If nothing else, it highlights what may be one of the most difficult parts of dissecting some of these iconic albums and the artists who recorded them. Because, after 60-plus years of hearing Elvis songs and seeing him as an overweight, lamé-wearing, drug addicted Las Vegan attraction, how do you separate the music from the myth?
Initially I believed that, putting this blog of the 1,001 must hear albums together, the most difficult pieces I would need to critique would be those genres that I knew nothing about – jazz, techno, country and western. But that lack of knowledge can work in my favour; when I get to those albums, I really will be listening to them for the first time. They will sound fresh to my virgin ears, and I will be able to comment freely on new sounds, unaware of what the ‘experts’ deem to be important tracks or essential listens. Yet listening to Elvis often means hearing a song that I could have heard hundreds of times over the last 30 years. Can I get back to that moment when I heard it for the first time?
I’d love to do that with The King’s self-titled first album; go back to a time when these tracks were pumping from a player for the first time in history. How did they sound to those teenagers when they put the needle on the record back in 1956? This was a generation which created modern music as we know it – they had nothing to compare it to; no context of influences. To them, this was as raw as it got.
Sadly, I’ll never know that first time; nor can I unlisten to some of those iconic tracks which I have heard countless times in my life. The album kicks off with Blue Suede Shoes; a song that has become part of the zeitgeist (see, I told you I liked that word) and imbedded itself into modern parlance. The list is endless; while there may not be quite as many well-known Elvis favourites, there are still plenty of takes of other artists’ hits – Tutti Frutti, made popular by Little Richard at around the same time, or Blue Moon, covered by many other groups (perhaps most notably The Marcels in 1961). Try listening to the opening refrain of Tutti Frutti and not hearing the scream of Little Richard (an artist we will come to in a few albums time).
And yet…and yet…it is still possible to recognise the greatness. There remains a rawness to the sound which instantly pulls you in – within the first few seconds of the opening number, you can’t help feel your whole body shake (or possibly succumb to some sort of Elvis-esque hip wiggle). Blue Suede Shoes still has the power to hit a spot deep within the soul; it still feels revolutionary. Of course, the debut album isn’t perfect and things soon slow down for I’m Counting On You; suddenly, in the space of two songs, it feels like we are in impersonator territory. And it comes as a shock to realise that, perhaps, Elvis didn’t come fully formed. Yes, there is plenty to mock in hindsight, knowing his 1970s excesses and those cheesy times when we’ve attempted that Andy Kaufman curl of the lip. But on his debut, you can hear him attempting different styles, trying to find his voice. Frankly, two songs in and already he sounds like a parody of his future self. Fortunately, it’s all back on track by song three; I’ve Got A Woman picks up the swagger of the opening number and once again this is Elvis as dangerous rebel. You can feel the sexual energy drip from him (ok, not the best metaphor but you know what I mean).
And so we seem to hit a pattern with The King’s debut – one moment there is pure, undiluted talent giving birth to a whole new genre that will eventually take over the world; the next, there is a slightly cheesy smooth operator who is trying to emulate a lover man character he’s heard about but never witnessed in person. One-Sided Love Affair seems like a bizarre breed of the two and I Love You Because is little better. But then, just when you wonder what the fuss about this boy from Memphis was all about, along comes a number like Just Because or, as mentioned earlier, Tutti Frutti. And you hear the voice and music which caused such fervent fanaticism from the young and fervent outrage from their elders.
Trying To Get To You is a prime example of what this album does at its best. You can hear Elvis bear his soul as he tries to restrain his feelings of (dare I say, physical) desperation to reach the woman he loves. In many ways, the second half of the album is the stronger, with Elvis seeming to finally let go of any restraint, or even doubt in his own ability, and, for want of a better phrase, start to make love to the microphone – I’ll Never Let You Go (My Darling) being the one exception. In fact, by the time you reach the closing numbers of Blue Moon and Money Honey, you don’t want it to end. Elvis has found the voice which will have 50 million fans crying out his name for decades to come. Rock and roll – that raw, dangerous and sexy phenomenon – had finally arrived and the music scene would never be the same again.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:
Next time: Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers