Der Hund von Baskerville (1929). Review

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Tonight was a special treat, as I finally got hold of the 1929 version of Hound of the Baskervilles, made as a silent film in Germany. This was a very late silent, and while it was popular in mainland Europe at the time, it never reached the UK or America as cinemas had converted to sound by that point. It is directed by Richard Oswald, the same director as the 1914 version of the story.  The 1929 film was found about a decade ago (after eighty years) and has now been restored and is released on blu ray and DVD (in one pack) by Flicker Alley.

The film is very good indeed. Sadly, a few bits early on are missing and replaced by stills, but not much. It is strange watching a film such as this as one can see how a film like The Cat and the Canary (1927) had been influenced by German expressionism, and then how THIS film was influenced by Cat and Canary. So we have German films influencing American films influencing German films! Carlyle Blackwell plays a surprisingly chipper Sherlock Holmes, which is rather at odds with much of the film that is dark in tone and looks like it came straight out of a silent horror movie. Cue lots of secret passages, hands emerging from wall, and even a Fu Manchu-like device  to try to kill off our hero.

Richard Oswald, who directed the film, is a fascinating figure. He wasn’t a top-tier director in Germany, but a surprisingly important one considering few today have heard of him. He was what might be called a jobbing director. He didn’t secure for himself a particular style, but he was the first director ever to make a film that challenged anti-gay laws in Different from the Others, a film that celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Bear in mind, it took the UK to 1961 to make Victim, a similar themed film!

Oswald also helped to pioneer the portmanteau fantasy/horror film genre – where short stories are joined together to make one movie. In 1916 he did this with his version of Tales of Hoffmann, and in 1919 did the same thing with Eerie Tales, which includes stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. If you’ve seen Corman’s Tales of Terror from 1963, this was in many ways the prototype of it. He also made other early horror films that no doubt influenced the expressionist horrors that followed. 1917 saw him direct the Picture of Dorian Gray and A Night of Horror.

Oswald was also the director who brought Conrad Veidt to the fore, giving him leading roles in both Different from the Others (as the doomed gay violinist who gets blackmailed) and Eerie Tales, and casting him as Phineas Fogg in his version of Around the World in 80 Days. Werner Kraus and Emil Jannings also got career boosts at the start of their careers thanks to Oswald. Sadly, despite all of this he is a virtually unknown figure, overshadowed by Wiene, Leni, Murnau and Lang – and, unlike some of those, when he sought exile in America, his career didn’t take off there.

The Flicker Alley release of Der Hund von Baskervilles is quite a treat. It not only includes the 1929 version, but also the 1914 version which was also directed by Oswald – but which I have yet to see. The blu ray/DVD combo edition is region free and will play worldwide. The downside is the price, especially if you are outside of America and get stuck with customs. I paid £25 for a used copy on ebay simply because it was being posted within the UK so no customs to pay, but you’re looking at nearly £40 if you buy it new and factor in customs – which is a lot of money for two films of the same story.

But there is no getting away from the fact that this is an important release, and is the second major “lost” Holmes silent movie to be discovered and released in less than a decade (the other being the 1916 film “Sherlock Holmes”). So never give up hope!

Neil Sedaka: One More Ride

I don’t write many blog posts these days, but I thought that this deserves one.

When I was around sixteen or so, Neil Sedaka appeared on TV (The Des O’Connor Show, I think), promoting a new album of his greatest hits (Timeless), and his new single, The Miracle Song, which became rather popular here in the UK. A little later in the year, a concert recorded in Birmingham was shown on TV, too, and that was enough to get me hooked.

I was lucky enough to see Sedaka twice at the Royal Albert Hall, in 2012 and 2017, both of them great shows that got the audience both laughing and crying. Sedaka refers to himself as having been the king of the sha-la-las and the dooby-downs, but he’s also the king of creating songs that creep up at you and not only tug at the heartstrings, but actually snaps them. If you’re not moved by Solitaire, The Hungry Years, Going Nowhere, or The Leaving Game, you must have a heart made of stone – and behind the cheery exterior are often songs that often have a lot to say: The Immigrant has certainly taken on a life of its own in the Trump era, for example. The story of loss of innocence in Superbird is one that, in middle age, I can identify with . And was there ever a time when Going Nowhere was more appropriate than ours?

Original recording of “Going Nowhere.”

In the 1970s, Sedaka made one of the greatest comebacks in popular music, and now in 2020 he’s back again, through the most unlikely of circumstances. A couple of months ago, he popped up on YouTube in a short video made in his living room in New York (with his pet bird who probably has a fanclub of its own now), singing a medley of his 1950s and early 1960s hits to try to lift some spirits during lockdown. Buoyed by the response, he came back the next day with a few more tunes – and then added he’d come back every day until lockdown ended. Quite whether he expected to still be doing these “mini-concerts” nearly two months later is anybody’s guess, but he has been good on his word and not missed a single weekday since he made his promise (with the exception of one due to technical issues). I’ve counted 37 videos thus far, covering well over a hundred of his songs.

The video that started it all. With Basel.

The early videos covered hits like Oh Carol, Laughter in the Rain, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and Calendar Girl, but as time has gone on Mr. S has been opening his trunk of what he calls his “forgotten children” – songs that appeared on albums (many out of print, alas), B-sides and/or were written for other singers. The process of resurrecting these wonderful songs has clearly been a happy one for Sedaka (you can see it on his face with every video), who settled into the video format very quickly, and for the last few weeks has been taking time to introduce these songs that he hasn’t sung in public for decades, isn’t afraid to goof occasionally – or to shed a tear, either. “I’m a cryer,” he said on a BBC documentary a few years ago. Me, too.

Contains “The World I Threw Away”

There are some surprises, too. A few days ago, there was a performance of The World I Threw Away, which Sedaka had previously recorded back in the late 1960s for an album intended for the Australian market. But, stripped back to just a piano and an unamplified 81-year-old voice, Sedaka blew the fifty year old recording out of the water, giving it a sense of depth and despair that just wasn’t present before. The rawness of the performance reminded me of the qualities of the first album that Johnny Cash recorded for Rick Rubin: almost painfully raw and utterly devastating. There isn’t much similarity between Cash’s dark baritone and Sedaka’s tenor, of course, but they do have one key thing in common: both men are great storytellers (and The World I Threw Away is beautifully told). We see Sedaka-as-storyteller so often in his post-1970s work, like the moving Superbird (with its baroque influences and the beautiful twist in the final verse), the nostalgic Betty Grable, the French cabaret style of One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round (curiously absent from the videos so far), or the daft-as-a-brush Tillie the Twirler.

For how many more weeks Neil will continue with his mini-concerts, we don’t know (although I doubt his public will allow him to stop them completely any time soon), but the video series has been a delight from start to finish, with the online feedback clearly demonstrating that ten minutes of music each day, forgetting the bizarre and dark situation we are all in, can put a smile on people’s faces. Beyond that, though, the videos are important as a wonderful recap of a career that has lasted over sixty years so far, and spotlighting songs that Sedaka himself thinks are important or which he is particularly proud of, rather than just those that made the charts or that fill the “best of” compilations. So, if you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing songs like The World I Threw Away, Superbird, or Cardboard California, head over to the NeilSedakaMusic YouTube Channel or check out the original recordings.

A Queer Romance: Gay Characters and Male Bonding in Early Film (video)

Let me begin my saying that I hope the readers and followers of the blog have managed to remain healthy during the current situation.

Looking at social media, many people have done their best to remain active and busy during the lockdowns that are going on around the world. I also needed a new project, and so I purchased some very basic video editing software and decided to revisit the research I did for my PhD and book on gay characters in silent film. My plan was to create a short video about it, lasting about ten minutes – but it ended up at 68 minutes instead.

“A Queer Romance” is a video essay, written and narrated by yours truly and covering gay characters and romantic friendships in European and American film up to 1934. Clips are included from three dozen movies, some of which are obscure or hard to find. Sadly, a couple of edits had to be made when uploading the finished product to YouTube due to copyright claims on a couple of clips – I could have argued the case given that my use falls under “fair use,” but given the current situation I just thought it best to make a couple of edits and upload it anyway or I could potentially be sitting on the video for weeks.

Hopefully the video will be of interest to some of you. Stay safe.

Ella Fitzgerald: All That Jazz (Review)

The final albums of legendary music stars seem to fall into one of two camps critically: either they are reviewed as being “a little sad,” or as only having “slight glimpses of former glories” – or they are viewed as artistic triumphs. Ella Fitzgerald’s final album, All That Jazz, recorded in 1989 and released in 1990, has always tended to fall into the first group.

Ella had barely recorded at all after 1983, producing an album with Joe Pass in 1986 and then this final album at the end of the decade. And yet live performances from the period that have been preserved actually show her to be in good form for much of the time – and even adding new or rarely heard material to her repertoire. But what may well have led to her return to the studio in 1989 was the 1988 release of a thirty year old concert recorded in Rome, which went straight to #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. In concerts, Ella made references to the album, and seemed proud of her achievement. And, although it wasn’t known at the time, it was the first in a steady stream of previously unreleased concerts from Ella’s Verve years that is still on-going.

In the liner notes to All That Jazz, Norman Granz makes reference to the change in Ella’s voice by the time it was recorded. He also makes reference to the fact that she was one of the few of the jazz greats still alive, let alone recording. And yet, a great jazz combo was put together for the album, including Al Grey, Clark Terry, Harry Edison, Ray Brown, Bobby Durham and Benny Carter. This wasn’t just a rehash of what Ella had done in the past, though. While a couple of numbers were associated with her, others had been out of her repertoire for decades, and others had barely been recorded by anyone. There are not really any How High the Moon-style flight of fancies here (the nearest we get is the scat number Little Jazz, but it’s a pale imitation of what had gone before); the days of raising the roof with five minutes of scat singing were perhaps gone. Here, the general vibe is that of a relaxed get-together of some old friends. Even a song such as Oh Look at Me Now is given a ballad reading.

So, while this was an unambitious record, it certainly was a sensible one for a seventy-something who was well known to be struggling with her health. And yes, that voice is certainly weaker than it was just five years earlier, but it’s still that voice. The opening Dream a Little Dream of Me, that Ella had swung with Basie back in the early 1960s, seems to set the scene very well. Ella is happy to contribute an opening and closing chorus for each number, and let her musicians have the spotlight for the rest, giving this a real feel of a jam session – a kind of later version of an album such as Fine and Mellow or even Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.

Ballads like My Last Affair (a song she had first recorded over fifty years earlier) and Baby Don’t You Quit Now fit Ella like a glove, and while Ella sounds a little more uneasy on the upbeat songs like Jersey Bounce and When Your Lover Has Gone (to which she still manages to contribute a short scat chorus that puts other singers half of her age to shame), she still manages to swing with confidence, and that ability to twist and turn a melody at will hasn’t diminished.

Ironically, the weakest upbeat number is probably the title song – not the well-known number from Chicago (a show that Ella had recorded two songs from in 1975 for a single – her only Pablo recordings never to have made it to CD), but a song from the mid-1960s first heard in the movie A Man Called Adam – a song that fails not because of Ella, but because it’s not the greatest song in the world. Elsewhere, the only ballad that Ella seems to struggle with is That Old Devil Called Love, with its angular, wide-ranging melody just too much for a well-weathered voice. Two songs were only released on the CD version of the album. Little Jazz was of no great loss to those who bought the vinyl, but they missed a lovely ballad performance by not getting to hear The Nearness of You – which would have been a better title for the album than All That Jazz.

Ella did venture into the studio again a year or so later, supposedly to record another album with Joe Pass – a project which was never finished and which no audio has been released from. She also recorded The Setting Sun, her very final studio recording, the theme song to a Japanese film – and if ever there was an appropriate title for a legend’s last musical statement on record, it was that. That song isn’t commercially available (although it’s on YouTube), and her voice had deteriorated further by that time.

No-one is going to pretend that All That Jazz is Ella’s finest or most exciting moment on record (although it did win her a Grammy). It clearly isn’t, and yet it seems a warm-hearted and fitting end to her recording career, and it’s certainly not the sad album that so many have made it out to be. There is no strain in what Ella does here – she knows her limitations, and it’s almost as if one can imagine her in a comfy chair in her living room, microphone in hand, and with a group of musical friends with her, playing through some old favourites, asking each other “do you remember this one?” or “why did we never get around to such-and-such?” And what a wonderful image that is.

Breaking Point: An Introduction

I don’t write for my various blogs as much as I used to. I still write as much online, but it just seems to end up in forums or Facebook groups. But I did want to take a few minutes out from my really busy life (note the sarcasm) to say a few words about the playscript of Breaking Point that I have just published.

I published the novel of Breaking Point back in 2013, and then an expanded version in 2019, alongside a sequel called Breaking Down. You can see where this is going. Before long we’ll have Breaking Up, Breaking Out, Breaking Wind… OK, perhaps not. They are not going to happen. And I shouldn’t really joke because Breaking Point is very important to me, as it’s a hard-hitting story about homophobic bullying in schools, but it’s not just the victim’s story, it’s the bully’s and the teacher’s too. And Breaking Down (the sequel) looks into the after-effects of bullying – again, through the eyes of all victims, bullies, and teachers. The long term mental health effects are very much to the fore here.

But I wanted to talk about the play because it was written long before the novel. It started life as a script for a short film back in 2002, which never got made for various reasons. I then turned it into a full-length film – which also didn’t get made, and then wrote it for the stage around 2009. Because I wrote the novel afterwards, and could put much more into that longer format, I tended to forget about the play, but every so often I found the files on the computer and thought “I must take another look at that.” When I finally did look at it last autumn, I surprised myself at how well it worked as a play – and also how far it tapped into certain things that would become commonplace during the last decade (such as online bullying). But I knew I couldn’t publish it without changing a few things here and there, and so set to work.

The second act needed most work, as it was rather flimsy in its original form, and so I went back to the novel I had written based on the story and pulled across some episodes from that which I thought would work well, and which would flesh out some of the characters as well. But what struck me most of all was how relevant it all was – even more relevant, I think, than when I had last fooled around with it a decade ago.

I spend a lot of time online, and it doesn’t take much to see that homophobic abuse is increasing within our everyday lives. We can see it every day on Twitter, for example. And, living in the centre of a city as I do, I can hear it every day from my window – and an increase in racial and religious abuse, too. And, without getting too political, it says something of the state we are in as a society when I needed to insert current gay slurs into the text for the bullying scenes and the ones I chose were the same ones used by our Prime Minister.

Breaking Point has never been performed, although it has got as far as read-throughs and rehearsals, and I would very much like a production or two or three to happen. The play is one of the pieces of writing I am most proud of, despite how heartbreaking it is in places – and how much of it rings true with regards what I went through or saw when I was at school (although this is certainly not my story).

The play of Breaking Point is free for any amateur group, youth theatre, school, college or university to perform (and any variations of those I have missed out). All I ask is that you “keep me in the loop.” That means, contact me before you start your production, and then let me know how it’s going. If the production is in the UK and I can attend, I would love to do so – health permitting. If you are thinking of producing the play, I am happy to provide you with a PDF of the script, so that you can get your copies the cheapest way possible. The use of a bare stage with minimal props also helps keep the costs down for theatre groups.

So, finally, I set the script of Breaking Point off into the world. Take good care of it…and yourselves.

Shane Brown

Breaking Point can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle form at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Breaking-Point-Play-Shane-Brown-ebook/dp/B084RWSP6D/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=shane+brown+breaking+point+play&qid=1581906379&sr=8-1

And it can be bought in paperback form at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Breaking-Point-Play-Shane-Brown/dp/B084QK92QL/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=shane+brown+breaking+point+play&qid=1581906421&sr=8-2

It is also available at Amazon stores across the globe.

Review: It (Chapter Two)

Is it really three months since I last shared my inane thoughts with you? How time flies!

I saw “IT (Chapter Two)” tonight for the first time, having been too ill to get to the cinema to see it when it came out.

What in hell’s name are we meant to make of this likeable mess of a film?

Credit where credit is due – the film is nearly three hours, but it doesn’t feel it. It zips along rather quickly, in fact, but then it has got a lot of things to fit it. The telephone calls at the beginning of the film are done especially well, I think, and I like how they are linked through visual elements. Here we have nigh-on two hundred pages of the book condensed into ten or fifteen minutes of film – quite an achievement. In fact, I would return to the book more often if it wasn’t for the thought of wading through that lumbering section at the beginning. Also I’ve got to give credit to the fact that the acting is ten times better than how the adults were in the 1990 version (I still prefer the 1990 kids). In five cases, the casting is superb, and the performances believable. The casting and portrayal of Eddie is the exception here – nothing like what he was like in the book or the first adaptation, and that is a mistake. Ritchie doesn’t need a jokey buddy as Eddie is portrayed here. The whole point of the seven people coming together was that they were all so different. Eddie has morphed into a gym-fit second Ritchie and it doesn’t work, and nor is it logical.

MILD SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH!

There are some other changes which are very strange. Much of the tension in the adult part of the book comes from the fact that Audra, Bill’s wife, follows him and gets caught by “It.” That is completely missing here, and a huge mistake I think. I’m not quite sure what the thinking was behind that. I also don’t know what the thinking is for changing Bill’s reason for not playing with Georgie when he was a kid. In fact, that change makes no sense whatsoever. He didn’t want to play, but was happy to spend several hours making a boat? That is completely nonsensical – and also goes against what we see in the first movie. It’s a twist too far which, thankfully, can be put to the back of the mind, but it seems odd that, considering how many problems the film has to surmount, time was given over to adding something in which didn’t need to be addressed.

SPOILERS OVER

But the main issue I had with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and that it misses the reason why the book is so acclaimed. The movie should have been serious and terrifying, and for much of the time it doesn’t come across as either because the so-called horror is so comic-book and juvenile. When Beverly goes back to her home and sees the old woman, she turns into what? A CGI naked eighty year old with boobs down to her knees that looks like Ann Widdecombe on a night out. What’s THAT all about? And then we have the animated Stan’s head. Again, absolutely ridiculous – and not in the book, as far as I recall. The fortune cookie sequence has always been problematic enough for its comicbook nature – both in the book and in the previous adaptation – but the new film seemed to have an identity crisis outside of this. There were times when it felt like a serious movie, times when it felt more like “House” or “Idle Hands,” and then it moved into an adventure movie at the end akin to “Raiders of the Lost Arc” or “Romancing the Stone.” At least there wasn’t a giant spider, I guess.

The other issue is the underlying message at the core of the book – that the clown/monster/It was a kind of representation of the corruption and failure of society. Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (written just prior to It) does exactly the same thing. And perhaps that element is why the second half of the story simply doesn’t work well on screen. It is missing its guts. Whereas the book has some gravitas, the film versions eventually turn into a monster movie and little else. What we get is enjoyable and likeable popcorn fodder – an epic, big budget, three hour B-movie, in fact, and the text of the book is much more than that, which is no doubt why it disappointed many people. No doubt the running issue of Bill not knowing how to finish his books was intended as an in-joke about this very issue – the last section of the book is notoriously hard to translate to screen. But even that attempt at humour was somehow heavy handed. And, despite the fact that the adult characters are better drawn, acted, and cast (for the most part), the film still only really shines when the kids are back on screen during the flashbacks.

Finally, it was interesting that the decision was made to include the gay-bashing incident at the opening – and even more interesting that it turned out to be the most horrific sequence in the whole movie, and not because of CGI. Many thought it would be cut – and a few years ago I think it would have been. But with hate crime increasing in western countries, it suddenly became more relevant again.

I would like to say that I was surprised by the level of violence in those few minutes of Xavier Dolan’s cameo, as it is really quite severe, but for some reason both American film and TV seem to have upped the violence quota in the last five or six years or so. I watched the first few episodes of Titans on Netflix at the weekend (no, I don’t think I’ll be watching the rest) and was rather shocked by the gratuitous violence in that as well. Even something as inane as Riverdale or as ridiculous as Supernatural has become seem all too keen to make their violent sequences as dark and bloody as possible. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this trend – especially considering three of those examples are either from comic-book adaptations or in that style of storytelling. Whatever happened to traditional comicbook violence? Perhaps I’m just getting old and squeamish, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in my thinking given the commentary there has been on Joker since it was released (although I confess I haven’t seen it).

Elvis and the Critics, 1976-77

This blog-post is a piecing together of a number of excerpts from the book Reconsider Baby. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide. It takes the reader through Elvis’s concerts from March 1976 through to the spring of the following year, and concentrates on how these were received by critics and reviewers at the time, as well as the fans’ reaction to some of the negative reviews.

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Despite continued worries about Elvis’s health and state of mind, 1976 saw Elvis embark on what must have seemed like a never-ending touring schedule. The first tour was at least respectable.  Whereas Hurt was the only new song added for the tour, Elvis did at least sometimes pull surprises out of the bag such as Until It’s Time For You To Go and Steamroller Blues.    

At the afternoon show in Cincinnati, Elvis split his trousers (not for the first time) and left the stage to get changed, with J. D. Sumner introducing the band while he did so.  Billy Reed in the Courier-Journal wrote a lengthy column about the show which concentrated on Elvis’s weight rather than his singing abilities.  He quoted a female fans as saying “Lord, he looks like Raymond Burr, his face is so fat.  I came to see Elvis Presley and I get Raymond Burr.”  Elsewhere in the piece, the columnist referred to Elvis as “fat.  Not just overweight, but F-A-T.”  Later he calls him “Moby Elvis,” “the Great White Whale,” and “Whalelvis.”  The following week, numerous letters were published in response to the article, including one telling Reed to “drop dead.”  Despite the splitting of his jumpsuit, Elvis appeared to be in good spirits.  According to the report, when he returned to the stage after getting changed, he brought the ruined garment with him, laughing, and showing the audience the damage, telling them that the jumpsuit he had on now was the last one he had with him and so he needed to be careful.  The evening show, released unofficially, finds Elvis in solid form and giving an enjoyable show, particularly for the period, albeit with a shorter setlist than usual.

For the next six months, the tours continued. Nothing of significance was added to the setlists, except that the band introductions, and instrumental solos that went with them, now lasted ten to fifteen minutes, thus reducing the amount of time that the audience actually got to hear Elvis.  Sometimes there were solo numbers from Kathy Westmoreland and Sherrill Nielsen as well.  On occasion, a show such as that given in Memphis on July 5th would give hints of former greatness, with Variety noting that he had the audience “in his palm” after telling them “it’s the end of our tour and I have as much time as you want tonight.” Mid-show, he shows defiance at his critics, announcing That’s All Right and saying, “I’ve had a couple of people say ‘you can’t do that anymore,’ but by God you watch me.”  It is a surprisingly touching moment as Elvis goes on to sing a spirited rendition of the song, clearly trying his best for his hometown crowd and trying to convince them (and possibly himself) that everything was just fine.  In the end, he was on stage for ninety minutes.  It isn’t classic Presley, but it is Elvis being the best he could be at that point in time, and by the end, as he attempts It’s Now or Never, it is clear that he has used up all the energy he has, and is totally spent. 

Exceptions such as the Memphis show aside, for the majority of the time performances were merely passable at best, and, on occasion, they were disasters, with the singer seemingly half asleep and barely able to speak.  Reviewers and critics couldn’t work out whether to try to overlook the obvious shortcomings, or to voice their disappointment and, on occasions, pity.  Elvis’s performance at Long Beach in April 1976 was described in Variety as “unambitious,” and the singer appeared to be “indifferent.”  Most telling is that the writer states that “the most serious offense is attitude.  Program has remained basically unchanged for years.  Talk to the audience is minimal, while chatting to fellow performers onstage is excessive.”    Meanwhile, a review from the following month in Rolling Stone described Elvis as “weak,” and “that you go to see him as much out of reverence for the past as from expectation for the immediate future.” 

Reviews from the period continually refer to the Elvis of the past, and perhaps that was hardly surprising given the release of The Sun Sessions LP at the time.  Robert P. Laurence asked in a headline if “No Longer Young, Must [Elvis] Still Symbolise Youth,” before taking readers through a list of his achievements before stating  that the “gold record figures for Elvis singles cut off at 1972; that’s the way the Colonel wants it.” Little did the writer know that Elvis didn’t have any gold singles after 1972. A review of a concert in Minnesota also suggests that Elvis and his performances are entrenched in the past:

There’s also a ‘Let’s Pretend’ element to the show.  Let’s pretend that Elvis, dressed in a tight white jumpsuit extravagantly overlaid with rhinestones, won’t really be 42 next Jan. 8, that he doesn’t have a weight problem so serious he had to check into a hospital last year to drop about 30 pounds, and that his predominately female, mainly middle-aged audience is still teen-aged: chewing gum like mad, saying ‘Kid’ in front of each sentence and hurrying home from school to catch American Bandstand…What else for the 41-year-old millionaire, so establishment these days that Richard Nixon made him an honorary narcotics officer, but to parody the Elvis of old, once the epitome of teen-age rebellion and outrageous sexuality?

There is a sadness in some of these pieces of writing that it isn’t still the 1950s, that Elvis is no longer the anti-establishment figure that he once was, and, perhaps more than anything, that the audience members themselves (and therefore the writers) were no longer the same age as they had been twenty years earlier.  For even the kinder critics, seeing Elvis on stage with the added weight, singing songs about divorce rather than the excitement of first love, and tossing off renditions of his early hits with an acknowledgement of just how innocent those lyrics had been in most cases was a constant reminder that nothing remains the same, and everybody gets older, even rock ‘n’ roll kings. 

Meanwhile, there were other critics who were less interested in reminiscing and far more concerned with letting their readers know of the stark realities of the level of Elvis’s performance and his physical condition.  Dale Rice wrote that “an overweight Elvis merely went through the motions of what once must have been a polished performance.  The show lacked enthusiasm, and the only thing that sparkled was Elvis’ costume…Surprisingly, the songs didn’t bring people to their feet.  In fact, the audience response was far less than I had expected it would be.”  Unsurprisingly, the mail bag over the next week was full with fan’s reactions to his review.  However, this time, alongside the angry condemnations of what had been written, others were writing to agree with what Rice had said.  One person wrote “in our opinion your review was a perfect description of the concert.  We were extremely disappointed by that ‘fat, puffy, over-fed’ Elvis Presley.”  Another added “[Rice] reported exactly what we felt and saw at Elvis’ performance,” while Dene Snyder confessed that “Elvis was not much of a showman Sunday night.”  Such comments must have been worrying.  Negative comments from critics was one thing, similar comments from fans themselves was something else entirely.

The final tours of 1976 were, for the most part, an improvement on what Elvis had been delivering in concert during the previous six months.  The Chicago Stadium FTD release, containing the concerts from October 14th and 15th finds Elvis slimmer, sounding somewhat rejuvenated, and giving more controlled, careful vocals than earlier in the year.  In late December, another short tour would also find Elvis in good form, culminating in the famous New Year’s Eve show in Pittsburgh that was, to all intents and purposes, Elvis’s last great show.  In between the October and December tours were rather more routine efforts both on the road and in Las Vegas, with Elvis betraying signs of being bored and tired with the latter.

One thing that stands out during the reviews of these shows (and those during the first months of 1977) is the way critics talk about Elvis’s age.  Elvis was only in his early forties, and yet he is talked about as if he is much older.  “If Elvis is 41 years old, his voice doesn’t reflect it,” wrote Pat O’Driscoll in the Nevada State Journal.  Another writer asks if you can be “sexy at 42 with a weight problem.”  Elvis is being talked about as if he is in his sixties rather than his forties.  Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he had been in the public eye for such a long time, or maybe the reporting of health problems for the last four years had contributed to this somewhat twisted view of his age and what should be expected from him. 

If there had been an upswing in performance quality in late 1976, then it had disappeared by the first tour of 1977.  There are signs that he is still trying, not least by the inclusion of such rarities as Reconsider Baby, Moody Blue, Release Me, and Where No-one Stands Alone.  However, if the mind was willing, the flesh was weak, and the performances are marred by Elvis sounding out of breath and tired, and his speech slurred. 

With four tracks still needed for the next album, and Elvis unwilling or unable to take part in studio sessions, producer Felton Jarvis had no choice but to record Elvis on tour in the spring of 1977, in the hope that a previously unheard song would enter the repertoire.  Despite weeks of recording, only three new songs would be caught on tape.

Unchained Melody had been a part of Elvis’s live repertoire for a few months.  The performance featured Elvis playing the piano, something he only rarely did in concert.  The finished recording is stunning.  It presents Elvis in total command of his craft, with his voice sounding better than during most recordings from this period.  The almost rhapsodic arrangement works well and is grandiose without being totally over-the-top.  However, much of the magic of the recording was created after the event through the overdubbing process.  The original undubbed recording is surprisingly ragged.  For once, the overdubs had improved the original recording dramatically.

Little Darlin’ is a throwaway version of the 1950s hit for The Diamonds.  While this might have been fun in concert, and would have been suitable for a live album, the jokey performance had little place on the regular album where it ended up. 

The final song released at the time was If You Love Me (Let Me Know), a rather innocuous song that had been recorded by Olivia Newton John.  Let Me Be There had been a fun and infectious addition to the repertoire a few years earlier, but If You Love Me is not such good material, and Elvis’s performance (and the arrangement used) adds nothing to the subpar material. 

All three songs would end up on the Moody Blue LP, released in June 1977.  Despite the difficulties in putting it together, the album was a decided improvement over From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee – even the artwork was classier.  It remains a surprisingly enjoyable album that paints a rather positive portrait of Elvis in his final years.  Even so, Robert Hilburn was correct in saying that “no one in pop is operating as far beneath his potential as Presley.”  Dave Marsh was even less impressed, referring to the album as being “within a track of the worst piece of garbage Elvis ever recorded.”  Unsurprisingly, those who reviewed the album after Elvis’s death saw it differently.  Wiley Alexander wrote “there is not a bad song on the album.  It is one of Elvis’ best, and that’s saying a lot…It is full of class, but so was Elvis.”

Despite the pleasant Moody Blue album, Elvis’s concerts were getting more and more problematic.  A whole CD was released on the FTD label of the recordings made during the spring tours, and the quality of performance is often shocking, with Elvis struggling for breath and mumbling his way through songs. Something as straightforward as Lawdy Miss Clawdy had become laboured, and it is hard to believe that this is the same singer who had powered his way through the gospel-tinged arrangement in the Memphis concert just three years earlier.   Bridge Over Troubled Water finds Elvis struggling with his vibrato and veering out of tune throughout the performance.  Meanwhile, the Mystery Train/Tiger Man medley sounds utterly lifeless.  Also noteworthy are the slowed down arrangements, making the overall sound remarkably bare at times

His appearance was getting worse, as were the reviews.   Fans, however, still stuck by their man.  Greg Oatis, in the Toledo Blade, wrote a decidedly unfavourable review of Elvis’s concert in Toledo on April 23, 1977 (the night before Unchained Melody and Little Darlin’ were recorded).  He referred to the singer as a “parody of his past performances,” and said that several couples sitting near him in the audience left early, “evidently disappointed.”  He states that Elvis was a “little pudgy,” and that “the only standing ovation he got was when he quit singing.”

The next day, a new article appeared in the newspaper saying the review had stirred a “hornets’ nest of fans.”  It says that the objections were to Oatis writing that Elvis “has a bulge around his waist, that he can’t play the guitar, that he mumbles at times, and that the old pelvis movement isn’t what it once was.”  Interestingly, he also says that none of the callers said those comments were inaccurate, but “all said it was unfair to write those things about Elvis, and if he read them he would never come back to Toledo.”

This, however, wasn’t enough.  A week later, the newspaper printed eight letters from unhappy fans.  One wrote that “Elvis in Toledo was an honor.  Mr Oatis’ article was an embarrassment.”  Another thought the review was “thoroughly disgusting.”  Someone also thought that the article dealt “with the writer’s personal opinion of…Presley.”  Clearly this fan didn’t realise that a personal opinion was the whole point of a review.

Despite all of this, the poor reviews kept on coming.  After a concert on April 27th, Damien Jaques wrote: 

The greatest superstar doesn’t get lost in the middle of a song and have the band start over.  He doesn’t carry sheets of paper on stage because he doesn’t know the lyrics to a song, and then ask the audience to forgive him if he makes a mistake.  He doesn’t mumble and swallow lyrics, sing so softly that he can’t be heard and play almost exclusively to the few rows in front of the stage.  And the greatest superstar doesn’t walk off stage after 70 minutes of all of this, failing to return for even one encore.

Despite the fact that Elvis was clearly struggling, a deal was inexplicably struck for him to record an in-concert TV special in June 1977. It would provide a sad final chapter to Elvis’s career.


Harry Connick Jr: True Love. A Celebration of Cole Porter (CD Review)

There is good news for Harry Connick Jr fans: his new album, a tribute to the songs of Cole Porter, is his best work since Songs I Heard, released in 2001.  In truth, it doesn’t have much competition in that regard, because, after that album, Connick took a series of disappointing musical detours.  First, he recorded easy listening albums that were one thing that Connick had never been: dull and boring.  Then, he revisited the funk sound of some of his 1990s albums (which I never had an objection to), but the resulting album, Smokey Mary, seemed half-hearted and even regurgitated tracks from Star Turtle to make up its rather meagre running time.  Then there were forays into country(ish) and pop.  By this time, I had stopped buying Connick albums.  Listening to the tracks on Youtube or a streaming service showed me quite clearly that he had given up on the music that made him famous, and therefore I gave up on him. 

Until now.

True Love is a brilliant return to form, and his first release after changing labels to Verve.  It is unclear just what made Connick revert back to his earlier style, but it is most welcome, and from the opening bars of Anything Goes many Connick fans (and maybe ex-fans) will give a collective sigh of relief – because this actually sounds like a Harry Connick Jr album.  The wonderful thing about Harry’s earlier albums such as Songs I Heard or Blue Light Red Light, is that the arrangements on them were both slightly wacky and instantly recognisable as Connick’s.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that Connick’s writing for a big band had a style just as recognisable as Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins had.  Luckily, the new album doesn’t see any attempt to change that style or to tone it down.  If you loved Come By Me, released some twenty years ago, then you will love this.

There are many highlights.  For example, the album opens with Anything Goes, with the big band sounding just as it would have done in Connick’s heyday.  Vocally, Connick sounds younger than he has done for years.  Sure, the voice is a bit darker, and the vibrato slightly wider, but he’s not a twenty-year-old anymore. What shines through this opening number, though, is that he sounds unshackled – and perhaps he is.  There is a sense here that a decision has been made to give up on trying to be commercial and reaching out to a wider audience, and of a musician just doing what he wants – and, in this case, it means using some slightly racy alternate lyrics about Grandma going clubbing, extra-marital affairs, and nudist parties.

I Love Paris is even better, with the orchestration and arrangement seemingly influenced by what would have been heard at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  The chorus taken up by the clarinet seems to cross that early Ellington sound with gypsy jazz, but soon (perhaps too soon) the baton is passed to saxophone, trumpet, bass, piano, drum, and finally trombone solos (with Lucien Barbarin as the guest trombone soloist). 

For anyone who has seen Connick live, or who owns the 20, 25, or 30 albums, it is wonderful to have a number here that spotlights his piano playing.  Begin the Beguine is bookended by a solo piano rendition of the song, with the band taking centre stage for the central section.  This isn’t as epic a piano solo as the ten-minute Avalon on the Swinging Out Live video, but the style and sound is the same – and one wishes that the decision had been made to make the whole track a solo.  As it is, with this being the only number without a vocal, it serves as a timely interlude before he swings his way through the remaining four songs.

Of those, True Love and You’re Sensational are the second and third songs here to be pulled out from the soundtrack to High Society (Mind If I Make Love To You was the first), but it’s the album’s finale, You Do Something To Me, which works best out of this final batch of numbers, as Connick’s arrangement has a kitchen-sink approach throwing in influences from his Sinatra-style vocal through to Latin and New Orleans elements in the orchestration. 

One can only hope that this is (in the words of Steve Allen) the start of something big.  It’s just a shame that it has taken so long to persuade Connick that this is what he should be doing.  It is understandable, of course, that artists do want to try new things and go down different avenues (I’ve written a book on Bobby Darin, and if anyone highlights that approach to a music career, it’s him), but the problem with that is that artists now make one album every three years rather than three albums every one year – and you can lose your core audience if you abandon them for years at a time.  Given his tour celebrating New Orleans last year, and now the new big band album, the stars seem to be aligning for Connick to make a musical comeback.