Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

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John Kingsley Orton was born on January 1, 1933 and died on August 9, 1967 – a little over a week after parliament had voted to partially decriminalise homosexuality.   However, that political event gets no mention within Prick Up Your Ears, a film that takes its title from the play that Orton was about to start work on at the time of his death.

The film tells the story of Orton (would was rechristened “Joe” instead of “John” once he achieved literary success) and Kenneth Halliwell, his lover, mentor, friend and partner-in-crime (even if that crime was defacing library books).   The two had met back at the beginning of the 1950s at RADA, with Orton intrigued by, and ultimately attracted to, the older, well-read Halliwell.  The last entries in Orton’s first period of diary-writing gives the reader a good idea of how their relationship was progressing:

15 May:  Started at RADA.  Oh bliss!

19 May:  Someone in the other class keeps looking at me

21 May:  Was Eyed.

25 May:  Met Ken at Charing Cross road.  I don’t quite understand Ken.

2 June:  Am beginning to understand Ken.

8 June:  Met Ken.  He has invited me to live with him.

11 June:  Must leave my digs

12 June:  Ken offers again.

13 June:  I say no.

14 June:  Ken offers again.

16 June:  Move into Ken’s flat.

17 June:  Well!

18 June: Well!!

19 June: Well!!!

20 June:  The rest is silence.

Writing later, Orton spoke of how he found RADA to be “complete rubbish,” and that, at the end of his two terms there “I had complete lost my confidence and my virginity.”

Orton and Halliwell wrote works together over the next decade, but it was only when they were separated that Orton’s creative genius came into its own and his radio play, eventually entitled The Ruffian On the Stair, was picked up by the BBC Third Programme.  It was based on an unpublished novel by Orton and Halliwell called The Boy Hairdresser and, as you will see in the film, marked the beginning of both jealousy and rage on the part of Halliwell that he was not got getting the recognition and acclaim that Orton was, something which only became magnified with the success of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, and Orton’s commission to write a film for The Beatles, a film which was never produced.

The film actually begins at the end, with the finding of the dead bodies of Orton and Halliwell, From there, it jumps forward more than a decade as author John Lahr writes Orton’s biography with the help of his wife and Orton’s literary agent, Peggy Ramsey.  At first, the film suggests that it is going to be a relatively straightforward account of the last six months in the lives of Orton and Halliwell, told in flashback.  However, about a third of the way into the film, the flashbacks take us to the early 1950s, telling us how the two men met and, ultimately answering the inevitable question that most will have after watching the 1967 segment:  why were these two men living together?

The relatively complicated flashback structure is unsurprisingly handled with ease by the masterful Alan Bennett, whose script switches from moments that are unflinchingly dark to others that are uproariously funny.  He also manages to filter in parallels between the past and the present.  When Orton becomes famous after the production of his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Halliwell keeps reminding him of the contributions that he has made to Orton’s script and success.  In the present-day sequences, we see the same thing with Lindsay Duncan as Anthea Lahr, wife of Orton’s biographer, trying to remind Orton’s agent that the book wasn’t a sole effort and that she was working on it as well.

Bennett’s screenplay does take some liberties with both the timeline and the truth at various points.  For example, Orton and Halliwell made three trips to North Africa and not just the one that we see within the film (although one of those only lasted a day).  One of those trips was made with Kenneth Williams, who may not be portrayed in Prick Up Your Ears since he was still alive at the time the film was made.  Their trip together was, however, dramatized as part of the BBC film Fantabulosa, a dramatization of Kenneth Williams’ life starring Martin Sheen.   Williams and Orton had become friends back in 1964, during the time when Orton reworked his next play, Loot, as a vehicle for Williams.  However, it was a flop during its try-out in Cambridge, and Williams didn’t continue his association with the play which, after many re-writes, would become a success and win Orton the prestigious Evening Standard Award.  Bennett’s screenplay pays very little attention to the troubles that Loot had from its inception through to its eventual success.  Meanwhile, it is understood that the telephone call between Brian Epstein and Orton regarding the film script for the Beatles never happened, with the script being turned down with no reasons given.  In Prick Up Your Ears, Joe Orton proudly talks about having sold the film rights for Loot.  The film was made in 1970, as was an adaptation of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, but, rather interestingly, the general opinion was that they had not translated to the screen well.

Alan Bennett as scriptwriter headed a production whose cast reads like a who’s who of British acting talent.  Gary Oldman was cast as Orton on the back of his acclaimed performance as Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid and NancyPrick Up Your Ears was Alfred Molina’s breakthrough role, although he had also appeared in films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Letter to Brezhnev.   The supporting cast of the movie is likely to have many audience members of a certain age thinking “oh look, it’s him,” at various points as Lindsay Duncan, Frances Barber, Eric Richards, Sean Pertwee (if you look close enough), Richard Wilson, and Julie Walters flash up on the screen.  It’s interesting how thirty years can make a difference to an actor or actress’s life – Walters, playing Orton’s mum, is on screen for all of five minutes, and yet her name is proudly emblazoned on the front cover of the most recent DVD release of the film as if she is one of the main performers.  Stephen Frears directs the film, just two years after he was at the helm of another gay-themed movie, My Beautiful Launderette.

It is interesting to note that the film received largely good reviews in the UK, but not so in the US, although one perhaps has to disagree with some of the comments by Philip French, written in the Observer.  He says that the “film’s sympathies ultimately lie with Halliwell, a sad, pathetic, vulnerable figure.  He is made to think himself in grave need of psychiatric help because his fidelity, loyalty and tolerant kindness have turned him into a jealous monster. As opposed to the cruel, opportunistic, amoral Orton, who radiates psychic health while exhibiting the air of false innocence and psychopathic absence of guilt associated with his bisexual hero, Mr Sloane.”  One can only wonder if the critic’s sympathies for Halliwell rather than Orton had to do with the time in which the film came out and the review was written: 1987, when the AIDs crisis was at its peak, and conservative Britain (with both a small and capital C), only a year away from imposing section 28, was not allowing itself to sympathise with a promiscuous gay man who enjoyed meeting strangers for sex in public toilets – whether he was violently murdered or not.

Nearly a decade after Prick Up Your Ears was made, British queer film would take an altogether lighter form with a cycle of gay romantic-comedies spurred on by the success of movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, among others.  There is little sign of that levity within Prick Up Your Ears, though, despite the fact that is very funny in places.  Instead, the movie is part of a tradition dating back to the late 1950s, where the dour Serious Charge and the sobering The Trials of Oscar Wilde paved way for 1961’s Victim, which was then followed by A Taste of Honey, The Leather Boys, The Killing of Sister George, Nighthawks, and Sunday Bloody Sunday.  This dark, gritty tradition of queer-filmmaking that the Orton biography is a part of would continue through The Fruit Machine in 1988, Young Soul Rebels in 1991, Priest in 1994, Like It Is in 1998, and even on through the acclaimed Weekend in 2011.

Like so many of those films that I have just mentioned, Prick Up Your Ears makes no excuse for the flawed nature of its protagonists, or even how there are moments within the film when they come across as thoroughly unlikeable.  At times within the film, both Orton and Halliwell appear to hit the self-destruct button, although it is unlikely that either of the two men could have envisaged how their story would end.  Perhaps Orton realised, however, that his success would eventually bring unhappiness, writing in his diary just two months before his death that “to be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature.”

 

 

The “Elvis Presley 100”

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The following is taken from the appendix of the forthcoming book “Reconsider Baby.  Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide,”  2nd edition:  revised and expanded.  440 pages.  The book takes the reader session by session through Elvis’s career, commenting on all of the 700+ masters, and (new to the 2nd edition) it also simultaneously examines how Elvis and his music and films were  discussed in the press during his lifetime, drawing on over 550 articles and reviews .  Released in September 2017.  

Please follow the blog to be kept informed of the book’s release!

The best place to start any Elvis collection is with the three “decades” boxes covering the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s respectively.  Released in the 1990s and re-released recently in a smaller, cheaper format, they are essential for any newcomer investigating the Elvis catalogue, providing the complete 1950s studio recordings as well as presenting the “essential” 1960s and 1970s recordings in an attractive, logical way.  But where should someone go beyond those sets?  The following pages present “The Elvis 100” – short reviews and comments on all of the LPs released during Elvis’s lifetime, as well as a selection of recommended posthumous releases outside of the decades boxes for those looking to investigate the Elvis legacy beyond the seven hundred or so master recordings.  All except one of the posthumous albums to make this list contain at least some previously unreleased material.  Each album is from Elvis’s main label (RCA/BMG/Sony), unless otherwise stated.

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  1. Elvis Presley (1956)

Elvis’s first album is also often hailed as his finest.  The striking cover art, with its black and white photograph with green and pink lettering has become iconic.  However, the first album is great not necessarily because of the music it contained, but for what it stood for.  The music itself ranges from the sublime (Blue Suede Shoes, Money Honey) to the bland (I Love You Because) and, being a mish-mash of new recordings and leftovers, was the first indication of how Elvis’s legacy would be tainted by albums put together with little regard for artistic integrity or coherence. 8/10.

  1. Elvis (1956)

While Elvis’s second album contained nothing that reached the dizzy heights of the first (with perhaps So Glad You’re Mine coming close), it was at least a more coherent package, with all but one track having been recorded at a single set of sessions.  This creates a more consistent record, and if the upbeat numbers such as Rip It Up and Long Tall Sally don’t have the sheer energy of the rock ‘n’ roll tracks recorded at other sessions in 1956, then the improvement in the ballad performances more than makes up for it.  8/10.

  1. Loving You (1957)

The first of Elvis’s soundtrack albums contained the seven songs featured in his second film, together with a handful of tracks recorded during the same period.  There are some classic performances amongst the soundtrack songs, even if a couple are ludicrously short.  The second side is, according to the liner notes, made up of well-known love songs even though Don’t Leave Me Now was a new song, so hardly well-known – but such contradictions were common on Elvis albums.  Blueberry Hill and Have I Told You Lately That I Love You are among the most disappointing recordings Elvis made during the 1950s, but fans lapped them up, and the album reached the top spot in the charts.  7/10.

  1. Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)

Elvis’s fourth album was his first seasonal offering, combining eight Christmas songs and carols with the four tracks released earlier in 1957 on the Peace in the Valley EP.  Elvis’ Christmas Album might have caused some controversy on release (although not as much as we have been led to believe), but it has since become one of the best-loved of all Christmas LPs.  There are no weak tracks here, with the material ranging from the dirty blues of Santa Claus is Back in Town to the beautiful rendition of O Little Town of Bethlehem – and the gatefold packaging of the original LP was stunning.   10/10.

  1. Elvis’ Golden Records (1958)

Elvis had been a national star for approximately two years at the time of the release of Elvis’ Golden Records, which brought together fourteen of his biggest hits and B-sides – a remarkably generous package considering there would be occasions within just a few short years when Elvis’s albums barely reached twenty minutes running time.  Despite the dozens of greatest hits albums that have been released over the years, this remains a must have and a brilliant encapsulation of Elvis’s first two years at the top.  10/10.

  1. King Creole (1958)

Elvis’s greatest soundtrack album was the wonderful King Creole from 1958, in which rock ‘n’ roll became merged with the sounds and instruments of Dixieland jazz.  The title song, Hard Headed Woman and Trouble are some of the best performances in the Elvis catalogue, and Crawfish is wonderfully evocative of the film’s New Orleans setting.  True, there is the disposable Lover Doll and the superfluous Steadfast, Loyal and True, but they don’t distract from the rest of the work here.  9/10.

  1. For LP Fans Only (1959)

There was a concerted effort to keep Elvis in the public eye while he was over in Germany.  Enough single sides had been recorded in advance to keep him in the charts, and three compilation albums appeared during 1959.  Each one of those albums contained just ten tracks, and hardly provided value for money for the fans that bought them.  For LP Fans Only (an ironic title given this was anything but a long-play album) brought together a disparate group of Sun single sides, RCA B-sides and EP tracks.  The album is most notable for making That’s all Right and Mystery Train available on LP for the first time, but it was the first Elvis LP not to reach #3 or higher in the charts, instead peaking at the relatively low #19 spot.  Hardly a carefully compiled album to begin with, and all the music is available elsewhere, and so it’s hardly surprising that it is not currently available on CD from Sony other than in a giant 60 disc set.  6/10.

  1. A Date with Elvis (1959)

A Date with Elvis might have been what many girls (and 5% of males) wanted in 1959, but perhaps not this type.  This second compilation of single and EP sides in 1959 was a more deluxe offering than its predecessor, being housed in a nice gatefold sleeve with a 1960 calendar on the back (hence the title).  Four of the ten tracks were from the Jailhouse Rock EP, which no doubt fans already owned, making this hardly value for money, nice packaging notwithstanding.  Fans agreed and, despite some great tracks, it would be the lowest charting Elvis album until Double Trouble nearly eight years later. 6/10.

  1. Elvis’ Gold Records Volume 2(aka: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong) (1959)

Along with Elvis’s first album back in 1956, this collection of ten single sides from the previous year and a half is as famous for its cover art as for the musical contents – in this case, the much-copied repeated image of Elvis in a gold lame suit.  Musically speaking, it is a superior album to the other two 1959 compilations, containing hits such as One Night, Don’t, and A Fool Such as I, but it must have been striking to fans at the time that this second volume of gold records was four songs shorter than its predecessor, clocking in at just twenty-two minutes, and, despite its iconic status, it failed to break the top thirty.  7/10.

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  1. Elvis is Back (1960)

With Elvis out of the army, no time was wasted in recording some new single sides and an album that turned out to be possibly the best of his career.  Elvis is Back covered virtually all of the genres that influenced Elvis’s music, concluding with two sensational blues numbers.  There was no gospel here as such, but the beautiful The Thrill of Your Love gave something of an indication of the sound that Elvis would utilise in his first full-length gospel album later in the same year.  Elvis’s voice had deepened and matured while he was away, and fans now got to hear that voice in stereo for the first time.  10/10.

  1. G. I. Blues (1960)

1960 saw a strategy of trying to widen Elvis’s appeal beyond that of his loyal teenage following.   G. I. Blues, a traditional Hollywood musical, helped to achieve that goal.  The Grammy-nominated album was certainly not Elvis’s greatest artistic success, but it was a worthy souvenir for those who saw the film and outsold Elvis is Back by a considerable margin.  As with almost all of the soundtracks to Elvis’s 1960s musicals, the highlight was a tender ballad, the beautiful Doin’ the Best I Can, but there is plenty to enjoy here if you are not expecting a rock ‘n’ roll album.  6/10.

  1. His Hand in Mine(1960)

Elvis’s third album of 1960 was his first full-length LP of gospel songs.  Presley clearly relished the chance to sing some of the songs that had meant so much to him growing up, and he excels throughout, whether on the blues-tinged ballad Milky White Way or the spirituals Joshua Fit the Battle and Swing Down Sweet Chariot (which he would re-record in 1968 for the film The Trouble with Girls).  Crying in the Chapel was recorded at the same session, but withheld for release until 1965, when it became Elvis’s last top ten hit for four years.  8/10.

  1. Something for Everybody (1961)

Something for Everybody was the sequel to Elvis is Back, but little of this effort had the fire or substance of the earlier album.  There are some great moments, most notably There’s Always Me, one of Elvis’s greatest ballad performances, but Elvis’s singing is far more polite and mannered that previously, and the material itself just that little bit blander.  There were still hints of the 1950s sound with Give Me the Right and I Want You With Me, but in the main this was the first sign that Elvis was losing his musical direction – and it had nothing to do with the soundtracks.  7/10.

  1. Blue Hawaii (1961)

Blue Hawaii was the archetypal Elvis movie of the 1960s, and the first of the formula films in that this was built entirely around Elvis.  Unlike G. I. Blues, no other musical performer or dancer got the chance to shine; it was all Elvis from the very beginning of the film to the end.  The soundtrack album was a phenomenal success, and it’s probably true to say that Elvis never sang more beautifully than he does on the ballads here.  Sure, there are a couple of trivial items such as Ito Eats and Moonlight Swim, but the album sounds great from start to finish, and Can’t Help Falling in Love remains one of the great Elvis performances.  8/10.

  1. Pot Luck (1962)

If Something for Everybody showed a softening of Elvis’s singing style and a head towards lighter material, then Pot Luck cemented that direction.  Elvis sings beautifully throughout the album, but there is little denying just how weak or bland many of these songs are.  Still, there are some fine tracks, most notably That’s Someone You Never Forget, a haunting ballad, as well as the seductive Easy Question and the rockers Night Rider and Gonna Get Back Home Somehow.  However, the rest of the album is largely forgettable, although the over-rated Suspicion inexplicably became a hit in the UK fifteen years after its release here.  6/10.

  1. Girls! Girls!  Girls!  (1962)

By this point there was little differentiating the regular studio albums and the soundtracks, and there are some tracks here that surpass the work on Pot LuckReturn to Sender became a classic, and Elvis croons his way through a series of rather pleasant ballads.  Elsewhere, Thanks to the Rolling Sea is an effective sea shanty-type number, and Song of the Shrimp sees Elvis tackling calypso in a song which is a morality tale about the evils of the big city, and remains one of the most divisive songs in Elvis’s legacy amongst fans.  6/10.

  1. It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)

At just ten tracks and a running time of around twenty minutes, It Happened at the World’s Fair was the most disappointing Elvis album up until that point.  Elvis was still singing well, but the material was mostly second-rate, save for the lovely They Remind Me Too Much of You.  Many of the other songs had a second-hand feel, though, most noticeably Relax, which might as well have been entitled Fever II.   Two of the ten songs were aimed at children, including the tedious How Would You Like to Be, but Cotton Candy Land is beautifully sung, even if it is the creepiest lullaby you ever heard.  4/10.

  1. Elvis’ Golden Records, Volume 3. (1963)

It seems that nobody could make up their mind whether this series was “gold” or “golden,” and the front cover art suggested that nobody probably cared.  Luckily, though, this collection of singles from the post-army period effectively demonstrated that Elvis was still a force to be reckoned with when he put his mind to it, whether crooning the 1927 song Are You Lonesome Tonight or attacking the bluesy I Feel So Bad.  Musically more diverse and impressive than volume 2, this still works even today as a great compilation of the period.  8/10.

  1. Fun in Acapulco (1963)

Fun in Acapulco was one of the best of the formula films, and the soundtrack doesn’t disappoint.  This remains one of Elvis’s most upbeat records and he sounds fully committed to the recording of a full-length album centred around the Latin rhythms he had utilised occasionally on Pot Luck and elsewhere.  There are no ballads here (at least, not outside of the bonus tracks), and I am told that Elvis’s Spanish pronunciation is appalling, but even nonsense such as the much-maligned There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car seems to have a natural home on what might well be Elvis most fun album.  7/10.

  1. Kissin’ Cousins (1964)

Kissin’ Cousins saw a huge drop in the quality of Elvis’s film work, and the soundtrack reflects this, and it is an album with almost nothing to recommend it.  Tender Feeling is probably the best of the soundtrack songs, but even that is marred by the strange instrumentation.  Elsewhere, you get to hear Elvis sing such drivel as Smokey Mountain Boy and Barefoot Ballad.  Only the surprisingly dark bonus song Long Lonely Highway stops this from being a complete waste of time.  2/10.

  1. Roustabout (1964)

Roustabout was a significant improvement on the previous film, and so was the soundtrack, although it is hardly a highlight of Elvis’s recording career.  There are a surprising number of rock-lite numbers here, but it’s just a shame that they are nearly all under-developed.  However, Elvis is in good voice, and seems to be having fun with the kooky Little Egypt and the snarky Poison Ivy League.  The first album released after Viva Las Vegas hit the cinemas, it was Elvis’s last #1 LP for nearly ten years. 6/10.

  1. Girl Happy (1965)

The Girl Happy soundtrack is probably most often remembered for the truly awful Do the Clam (which seems to go on forever), although Wolf Call and Startin’ Tonight are little better, but they are at least shorter.  The ballad Puppet on a String is pleasant enough, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that a song with the title Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce will have you humming its tune for days.  The most significant track here, though, is the three-year-old You’ll Be Gone, Elvis’s only genuine writing credit and another example of his love for Latin rhythms.  5/10.

  1. Elvis for Everyone (1965)

Originally intended as an album to celebrate Elvis’s tenth anniversary with RCA, Elvis For Everyone ended up being something far less ambitious.  With a front and back cover that celebrated Elvis’s sales record rather than his artistic worth, the album featured a dozen tracks recorded between 1954 and 1964, most of which were unreleased.  It could have worked as an anniversary album with a couple of extra tracks to give it a more respectable running time, and some liner notes to inform listeners of the history of the recordings, but sadly no-one seemed to care enough.  Instead, consumers got a pleasant enough twenty-five minute opus with a track-listing with no rhyme or reason.  6/10.

  1. Harum Scarum (1965)

Harum Scarum is arguably Elvis’s worst film, and it is also in the running for worst album too.  The sound quality is particularly awful for the most part, and the LP kicks off with Elvis singing horribly out of tune at the start of the opening Harem Holiday.  Things get little better over the next half an hour, with Elvis only really sounding awake on a couple of tracks, most notably the kitsch Animal Instinct and the ballad So Close Yet So Far.  2/10.

  1. Frankie and Johnnie (1966)

With the film being set on an 1890s riverboat, the Frankie and Johnnie soundtrack contains songs far removed from the type of material Elvis was normally associated with.  Some songs, such as Petunia the Gardener’s Daughter and Look Out Broadway, work fine in the film but struggle to have a life off the screen.  Of the other tracks, Elvis sounds surprisingly disengaged in the limp medley of Down by the Riverside and When the Saints Go Marching In, and the title number never really comes to life in the way it should, although the spunkier early take on the Out in Hollywood release suggests that Elvis might have lost interest halfway through the recording process.  However, Elvis does at least get the chance to sing a semi-decent blues number in Hard Luck, which deserves to be better known.  4/10.

  1. Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966)

Paradise, yes – but only if you listen with the volume set at zero.  The film was a clear attempt to try to recreate the success of Blue Hawaii on a budget, but it failed miserably, and the soundtrack LP is appalling.  Queenie Wahine’s Papaya finds him singing a tongue-twister, while Datin’ and A Dog’s Life are among the most stupid songs ever to be found in an Elvis film (and that’s quite an achievement), although the outtakes on the 1980 Elvis Aron Presley boxed set are a hoot.  Sand Castles is about the only track worth listening to – and even that only sounds more worthwhile due to the company it keeps.  2/10.

  1. Spinout (1966)

Spinout does at least find Elvis in better voice than the previous few albums, and the songs from the film are a better bunch too – and considering one is called Smorgasbord and another has Elvis singing “dum-de-dum-de-dum, yeah yeah yeah”, you can tell just how bad the last few records had been.   Spinout is made particularly worthwhile thanks to the three bonus tracks that had been recorded at the How Great Thou Art sessions.  I’ll Remember You is a beautiful Hawaiian ballad, while Down in the Alley is a wonderfully dirty take on The Clovers’ r&b hit.  Best of all though is the five-minute rendition of Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time.  These were hints that Elvis was finally on the comeback trail.  6/10.

  1. How Great Thou Art (1967)

Elvis’s first Grammy award was for this, his second album of gospel music.  The album is, rather like Something for Everybody, split into a ballad side and an upbeat side – possibly the only mistake here as it doesn’t give enough variety.  The ballads are heavier and darker in nature than those on His Hand in Mine, but the upbeat songs are generally more joyous.  Standout tracks include the title song, Stand by Me, and Where Could I Go But to the Lord.  The album only reached #18 in the charts, but has since been certified as selling over 3 million copies in the USA alone.  8/10.

  1. Double Trouble (1967)

Elvis hadn’t failed to reach the top thirty with an album release since 1959, but the soundtrack to Double Trouble managed just #47, and it’s hardly surprising.  Even the most die-hard fans must have seen Old McDonald amongst the tracks and despaired.  However, that song aside, much of the music here is no better or worse than the Spinout disc, although the bonus songs are not of the same quality.  From the film, City By Night is an interesting attempt at a kind of sleazy jazz club ballad, while Never Ending (one of the bonus tracks) is a beautiful, if slight, attempt to channel Sam Cooke.  4/10.

  1. Clambake (1967)

The Clambake disc is almost schizophrenic as it lurches from the great to the galling.  This is the only time when an Elvis soundtrack would open with one of the bonus songs, but it’s the bonus songs that are worth having here – most notably Guitar Man and Big Boss Man.  Of the film songs themselves, The Girl I Never Loved and You Don’t Know Me are pretty, but Confidence and Who Needs Money rank amongst the most awful things Elvis recorded.  4/10 (mostly for the bonus songs).

  1. Elvis Gold Records, Volume 4 (1968)

This is a nice collection of single sides recorded between 1958 and 1966, but it is clear that it was a tough job to put together an album such as this in early 1968, and Devil in Disguise is really the only big hit on the entire LP.  That said, the record does serve as a home to some of the songs that had got lost as B-sides or poor-selling singles, and the likes of It Hurts Me, Indescribably Blue, and Lonely Man all deserve to be much better known than they are.  6/10.

  1. Speedway(1968)

Speedway was the last of the soundtrack albums, and is rather a limp effort.  While the film had considerably more zest than the rest of the formula films over the previous few years, very few of the songs had a life outside of the film, and Nancy Sinatra chipping in a few lines here and there doesn’t help proceedings – although her solo number is, ironically, one of the best on the whole record.  Let Yourself Go is probably worth the price of admission, and Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet Baby is cute enough, but the rest is very mediocre.  4/10.

  1. Singer Presents Elvis Singing Flaming Starand Others (1968)

Catchy title, don’t you think?  Originally only sold through Singer sewing machine shops before being reissued on the budget Camden label, this little effort is almost an Elvis For Everyone Part 2, with the tracks stretching back ten years and all knew to LP in America.  This is all very pleasant for the first side of the album, but standards fall considerably during the first three songs of side two with the dregs from the Viva Las Vegas and Easy Come Easy Go sessions.  Rather bizarrely, this was the first time that fans got to hear anything recorded for the NBC TV Special thanks to the inclusion of Tiger Man as the final track.  4/10.

  1. Elvis (1968)

This, the soundtrack to the 1968 TV special, contains some great music but is, alas, a sonic disaster.  What was exciting on television doesn’t translate as well to record – especially in chopped up, fragmented form.  Things are hardly helped by the sound quality during the live segments, with one medley having a flaw that sounds like someone vacuuming in the background.   This great music is best heard in the 4CD boxed set released some forty years later, where the sound quality is much better and hearing the tracks in their proper context makes much more sense.  6/10.

  1. From Elvis in Memphis (1969)

Elvis’s set of recordings made in January and February 1969 are now legendary, and spawned four hit singles, including In the Ghetto, which is included here.  This is Elvis at his very best, without a weak track on the entire album.  It is hard to pick out highlights, but it is not an exaggeration to say that Long Black Limousine, Only the Strong Survive, and I’ll Hold You in My Heart are among the best things that Elvis ever recorded and, finally, Elvis was being presented as a singer of adult material – a far cry from his previous proper non-soundtrack album, Pot Luck, which seems very, very flimsy in comparison to the grit and substance here.  10/10.

  1. From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis(1969)

For no logical reason, it was decided to pair a live album from Las Vegas with a second album drawn from the Memphis recordings.  Both albums are extremely good, but the pairing must have seemed an uneasy one from the start, and they were issued separately just a year later.  Elvis in Person as the first album is now known is a good condensation of Elvis’s return to live performances in 1969, and includes a staggering seven-minute Suspicious Minds as its climax.  Back in Memphis is also very strong, even if it takes a number of listens to realise just how good it is, as the songs are not necessarily ones that stick in the memory particularly easily.   8/10.

  1. Let’s Be Friends(1970)

This budget album mostly contains songs from Elvis’s non-formula films at the end of the 1960s, along with some lesser tracks from Memphis and, oddly, a song from Girls! Girls! Girls! It’s a pleasant enough, if unsubstantial, affair, with the slight but beautiful Almost from The Trouble with Girls being one of the highlights.  It is also nice to hear Elvis crooning his way through Bobby Darin’s I’ll Be There in an effortless performance.  The CD issue inexplicably contains a shortened version of Mama – rather unfortunate given how short the LP was to start with.  5/10.

  1. On Stage – February 1970(1970)

On Stage was an attempt at a different type of live album.  This time around the focus was on pop and rock standards that Elvis had never recorded before.  Despite the title, two of the songs were actually recorded in August 1969, and one of those, Yesterday, is the weakest of the tracks here.  The Wonder of You became an international hit, and tracks such as Polk Salad Annie and Walk a Mile in My Shoes became as much associated with Elvis as with the original artists.  On Stage remains one of Elvis’s best 1970s albums.  8/10

  1. Worldwide 50 Gold Award Hits, Vol. 1(1970)

This 4LP set was essentially a greatest hits package released to capitalise on Elvis’s return to form and the charts.  Only released briefly on CD, all of the tracks here are available elsewhere and, forty-seven years and dozens of greatest hits compilations later, this set is now largely redundant, although the track listing is as good a summary of Elvis’s first fourteen years at RCA as one could expect to find.  8/10.

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  1. Almost in Love(1970)

Almost in Love, as with Let’s Be Friends, was a compilation of songs from the late 1960s films and a handful of single sides.  Without doubt, this was the best of Elvis’s budget releases, sounding surprisingly contemporary and hanging together rather well as an album as well.  The UK edition also boasts a rather striking cover art, too, especially when compared to the generic nature of the Stateside release.  A good starting place for anyone wanting to discover the best material from Elvis’s much maligned 1967-1968 recordings.  7/10.

  1. Elvis’ Christmas Album(1970)

RCA were playing a game in 1970 to see how many Elvis albums could be released in the course of a calendar year.  They managed six different titles – plus the individual releases of the 2LP that made up the From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis set from the year before.  None sold as well as this repackaging of the eight 1957 Christmas songs, put together with 1966’s If Every Day Was Like Christmas and the 1969 recording of Mama Liked the Roses, (supposedly by popular demand).  For so many of us, this budget release was the incarnation of Elvis’s Christmas songs that we grew up with, and the seasonal material shines even more here than when paired with the Peace in the Valley EP songs.  10/10.

  1. That’s the Way It Is(1970)

This, Elvis’s best album of easy listening material, was not an official soundtrack to the MGM concert film of the same title.  Instead it pairs together recordings from the August 1970 Las Vegas season with songs from a mammoth session that had taken place in June 1970.  As with On Stage, this is 1970s Elvis at his very best, and featuring stunning versions of I Just Can’t Help Believin’, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, and Just Pretend.  Only the live versions of I’ve Lost You and Patch It Up let the side down a little, with neither being as good as their studio counterparts.  8/10.

  1. Elvis Country(1971)

Another contender for Elvis’s best album.  Compiled from material recorded in June and September 1970, this fine album contains Elvis’s interpretations of country songs old and new.  Generally referred to as Elvis’s “concept album” due to the strange device of using snippets of I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago in between each song, but it’s pushing the idea of what a concept album is to the limits, not least because the use of those snippets is one of the few unsuccessful things about Elvis Country.  There are some great performances here, most notably Tomorrow Never Comes, Funny How Time Slips Away and a reworking of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On that has little to do with either country music or Jerry Lee Lewis’s original.  10/10.

  1. You’ll Never Walk Alone(1971)

This Camden release is a mopping up exercise of some of Elvis’s gospel material.  The four songs from the Peace in the Valley EP are included, alongside soundtrack songs Sing You Children and Let Us Pray, both sides of the You’ll Never Walk Alone single, and Who Am I, recorded in Memphis in 1969 and getting its first release here.  The UK release also reprised Swing Down Sweet Chariot from His Hand in Mine.  Not an essential collection, but pleasant enough. 6/10.

  1. Love Letters from Elvis(1971)

This was the first real sign that the artistic heights of the comeback were effectively over.  Basically a collection of mostly weak tracks from the June 1970 sessions, and overdubbed in such a way with woodwind and horns to make the whole thing sound like elevator music.  It’s not even an album of love songs, with Got My Mojo Working and Cindy Cindy being rockers, Only Believe a religious song, and Life  being about…evolution.  4/10.

  1. C’mon Everybody(1971)

The first of two budget albums that were mostly a pulling together of the tracks from the Kid Galahad, Follow That Dream, Viva Las Vegas, and Easy Come Easy Go EPs.  An example of the strange release policy of the time, but this is still a surprisingly enjoyable concoction.  5/10.

  1. The Other Sides – Elvis Worldwide Gold Award Hits, Volume 2(1971)

This is a 4LP collection of B-sides and EP tracks which had nearly all been issued on album before, but still makes an interesting compilation of mostly non-hits up to and including 1970.  For a long time, this was the only place to find the studio versions of I’ve Lost You and Patch It Up other than on the original singles, but today, with over a hundred compilations in the Elvis catalogue, this is a redundant release.  7/10.

  1. I Got Lucky(1971)

This carries on where C’mon Everybody left off, completing the mopping up exercise of the soundtracks originally released on EP in the 1960s, with the added bonus of Fools Fall in Love.  This is the weaker of the two entries, in no small part due to the inclusion of Yoga is as Yoga Does, although the wonderful I Need Somebody to Lean On almost makes up for it.  4/10.

  1. Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas(1971)

The first album to be released from the May 1971 sessions is one of the most depressing seasonal albums ever recorded, and is a very disappointing follow-up to Elvis’s 1957 effort.  For the most part, Elvis sounds very uninterested, and, saddled with a bunch of morose new songs, one can hardly blame him.  He wakes up for the glorious On a Snowy Christmas Night and O Come All Ye Faithful, and manages to give us a classic recording in Merry Christmas Baby, but otherwise this is hard work. 5/10.

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  1. Elvis Now(1972)

Given the amount of recordings Elvis had made during the 1971 studio sessions, one can only wonder why the powers that be were putting together an album containing leftovers and cast-offs, dating back to 1969’s horrible Hey Jude at this juncture.  As with all Elvis albums from the 1970s, there are a couple of songs that are worth the effort, most notably Early Morning Rain and I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago, but given what was in the vaults, this should (and could) have been so much better.  5/10.

  1. He Touched Me(1972)

This gospel album gave Elvis his second Grammy, although it is not as good as How Great Thou Art, which got him his first.  Elvis mixes it up here, presenting traditional gospel sounds with more modern Christian rock, but it doesn’t gel particularly as a cohesive album.  Highlights include the title track, An Evening Prayer, and Reach Out to Jesus, but at the same time we are lumbered with There Is No God But God and He is My Everything, both of which are bland in the extreme.  6/10.

  1. Elvis Sings Hits from His Movies, Volume 1(1972)

So this is an album of songs such as Can’t Help Falling in Love, Return to Sender, Bossa Nova Baby and Jailhouse Rock, right?  Errr…no.  This is an album of “hits” like Confidence, How Would You Like To Be, and Old MacDonald.  Completely and utterly pointless.  1/10.

  1. Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden(1972)

Elvis gives an energised performance at Madison Square Garden.  For years it was assumed that the recording was slightly speeded up in order to fit it all on one record.  The truth is that he was simply in a hurry.  Elvis is in fine voice, however, but the highlights are his versions of other people’s songs such as Proud Mary, Never Been to Spain and The Impossible Dream.  Sadly, the original mix left a lot to be desired, making the record sound remarkably dry, although recent remasters have improved on that.  The 2012 Prince from Another Planet release includes this concert as well as the afternoon performance in remixed and remastered sound, and also includes a DVD containing interviews and some amateur footage of the event, and is the best way to obtain this material. 7/10.

  1. Burning Love and Hits from His Movies(1972)

Here we go again, but this time there’s two twists.  Firstly, both sides of Elvis’s current single release was included on the album.  And, secondly, the “hits” from the movies this time all had a connection – they are all songs based on folk songs or pieces of classical music.  If being generous, you could almost class it as a concept album!  4/10.

  1. Separate Ways(1972)

The sixth(!) album release of 1972 was another that saw a hit single used as the headliner on a budget album.  This time, around, the LP was fleshed out with three songs from Wild in the Country, a few early 1960s recordings, and a couple of 1950s tracks.  It’s a pleasant, if low-key, way to spend twenty minutes, but there were better ways to utilise Elvis’s hit singles.  However, whoever thought of the cover image of a giant Elvis straddling a motorway in a jumpsuit has a lot to explaining to do.5/10

  1. Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite(1973)

This double LP was Elvis’s last #1 album in America during his lifetime, propelled up the charts thanks to the historic TV broadcast associated with it.  But this finds Elvis in less than stellar form.  His voice often has a nasally quality here, and the performance is surprisingly laid back given what was riding on it.  Still, songs such as I’m Lonesome I Could Cry, What Now My Love, My Way, and I’ll Remember You show that Elvis was able to deliver when fully engaged.  Overall, though, this is the weakest of the live albums released during his Elvis’s lifetime.  The Legacy Edition release of this album also contains the so-called “rehearsal” show from a couple of days earlier (first released in 1988) and the intimate songs recorded after the main performance, and is the recommended issue of this title. 6/10.

  1. Elvis (The “Fool” Album)(1973)

Just when Elvis needed an album to capitalise on the success of Aloha from Hawaii, RCA released this, one of the most low-key albums of his career.  That’s not to say the album is without merit, most notably through the inclusion of the piano songs from 1971, the folkish For Lovin’ Me and an edit of the Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright  jam, but the other tracks are mediocre at best, and nothing here really make an impact.  Running under twenty-five minutes, one has to wonder how and why the Dylan jam was cut to just under three minutes.  5/10.

  1. Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake (1973)

Largely made up of songs from Elvis’s July 1973 sessions at Stax studios, this album promises much but delivers relatively little.  On the plus side, the collection contains more upbeat numbers than any other Elvis studio LP during the 1970s, but Elvis often sounds tired.  The title song makes little sense being sung by the guy that started it all, and Three Corn Patches is one of the worst numbers Leiber and Stoller ever wrote (and that’s without taking into account the title sounds like a song about a foot complaint).  On the plus side, the remaining upbeat numbers see Elvis heading into soul and funk territory, and the ballads are much more quiet and reflective efforts than most of those Elvis was recording during this period.  5/10.

  1. Elvis: A Legendary Performer Vol. 1(late 1973 or 1974)

After Elvis sold the rights to his back catalogue to RCA in 1973, the label took little time in putting this package together of master recordings and unreleased live performances and outtakes.  Highlights included three songs from the sit down shows for the 1968 TV special.  While redundant now, the album charted higher than any full-price studio album since Love Letters from Elvis, and the success not only led to three further Elvis volumes, but also to albums in the series dedicated to other artists from Caruso to Glenn Miller.  5/10

  1. Good Times(1974)

Elvis had returned to Stax in December 1973, and this was the first of two LPs culled from the results.  It is also the weakest.  The album comes to life occasionally with the funky I Got a Feeling In My Body and Talk About the Good Times, and there are a few decent ballads for good measure, but the remaining five tracks are very lacklustre, with Take Good Care of Her (recorded in the July sessions) possibly the weakest opening song on an Elvis album since Harum Scarum nearly a decade earlier. 5/10.

  1. Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis(1974)

The last live album to be released during Elvis’s lifetime is also one of the best.  Recorded in March 1974, Elvis is in superb form on this edited version of the concert.  The emphasis here is on rock ‘n’ roll and, more importantly, having a good time.  While some of the audience reaction might have been overdubbed, it still adds to the atmosphere, and Elvis gives spirited renditions of Trying to Get to You, My Baby Left Me, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, I Got a Woman and How Great Thou Art, with the latter earning him his third Grammy award.  Great fun.  The Legacy Edition of this album contains the complete unedited concert (both a blessing and a curse) as well as a concert from Richmond a couple of days earlier. However, the complete show does not have the impact of the edited version. 8/10.

  1. Having Fun with Elvis on Stage(1974)

From the sublime to the ridiculous.  This is Elvis talking.  Well, sometimes not even talking but, instead, singing “weeellll” a lot and laughing intermittently.  There are no songs at all here.  Completely pointless.  0/10.

  1. Promised Land(1975)

This second album of songs from the December 1973 sessions is superior to the first, helped by a rocking version of the title track and some fine country performances in There’s a Honky Tonk Angel, Help Me, and You Asked Me To.  Not particularly well-received when released but, in hindsight, marked the beginning of a brief improvement in Elvis’s studio albums.  6/10.

  1. Pure Gold(1975)

Another example of RCA cashing in on the 1973 sale of Elvis’s back catalogue, but they could have done better than this rag-bag assortment of ten songs mixing hits and album tracks recorded between 1956 and 1972.  It sold by the bucket load (helped by it being a mid-price album), but the tombola-like track listing seems utterly pointless. 6/10 (for the individual songs, not the album).

  1. Today(1975)

If Promised Land was a better than average studio album for the period, then Today took it one step further.  An album that could easily have been marketed as a kind of sequel to Elvis Country but, for the most part, nobody bothered to market it at all.  But time has been kind to Today, and it now stands as Elvis’s best studio album since early 1971, and he excels on the rocking T-R-O-U-B-L-E, as well as Susan When She Tried, Shake a Hand, and I Can Help.  The recent Legacy Edition release also includes the 1975 concert recordings first issued on the Elvis Aron Presley boxed set, but this time in better sound quality. 7/10.

  1. Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 2(1976)

Following on where the first volume left off, here we have more alternate takes and live performances mixed with well-known masters.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to the songs chosen or their order on the LP – but this is something that has yet to change with regards to many of Elvis’s compilations.  5/10.

  1. The Sun Sessions (1975/6)

Released in the UK in 1975 and in the USA in 1976, this was the first collection of Elvis’s Sun material, with the recordings only having been available spread over a number of LPs prior to this.  It remains a stunning collection, even more so without the wonders of the master recordings being watered down by poor sounding live material and alternate takes as has been the case in Sun compilations since.  10/10.

  1. From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee(1976)

RCA had done a good job of keeping Elvis’s vocal decline a secret up to this point, but there was nothing they could do maintain that with this depressing album, consisting of nine maudlin ballads and just one upbeat number, For the Heart, that never gets off the ground.  Recorded in the Jungle Room at Graceland, the only really worthwhile addition to Elvis’s legacy is a moving Danny Boy.  Some might argue that Hurt is an Elvis classic, but, if so, then the bar had been lowered considerably.  3/10.

  1. Welcome to My World(1977)

This country-themed compilation could have been more worthwhile than it is.  While there are a couple of unreleased tracks included, it seems strange than more unissued live performances were not included to make it of more interest to fans.  Even so, it’s a nice mix of songs, and it still performed better than Elvis’s studio albums of the period.  5/10.

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  1. Moody Blue(1977)

Elvis’s last album before his death is a strange mix of single sides, studio leftovers and live tracks recorded and overdubbed out of desperation.  And yet it all holds together as a surprisingly enjoyable effort.  Way Down and Moody Blue are genuine classics, and Unchained Melody shows that Elvis could still deliver a killer performance when he felt inclined, despite his spiralling health problems.  6/10.

  1. Elvis in Concert(1977)

The first posthumous release was this double album recorded on Elvis’s last tour in June 1977, released to tie-in with the TV special of the same name.  The special is devastating, although the album is a little less difficult to listen to thanks to some post-production overdubs and sweetening.  Still, it’s clear that Elvis was a very ill man by this point, and the good performances are very few and far between, although That’s all Right and I Really Don’t Want to Know are worthwhile.  Sad though this album is, it’s still an essential part of the Elvis story, and has been in print constantly since its release in 1977. 3/10.

  1. Our Memories of Elvis(1979)

This album was intended to be a chance for fans to hear how Elvis sounded in the studio in the 1970s without all the overdubbed instruments.  Actually, that isn’t quite what you get here, but it’s close enough.  At a time when RCA were still lost as to what to release next following Elvis’s death, this was a decent concept and was relatively effective.  Volume 2 was actually better, featuring an eight-minute edit of Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, and now both have been released on a Follow That Dream CD along with the aborted volume 3. 7/10.

  1. Elvis Aron Presley(1980)

This 8LP boxed set was the first release to mine the vaults in a significant way, and there was something for everybody, ranging from live recordings from 1956, 1961, and 1968-77 to alternate takes and previously uncompiled singles.  A real treasure trove for fans when released, and this still holds its own with some of the later boxed sets – and stands out through being sequenced by theme rather than chronological order.  7/10.

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  1. A Golden Celebration(1984)

This 6LP set is organised in a similar way to the 1980 set, but this time the emphasis is on early Elvis, with a collection of alternate takes from the Sun years, early live recordings and TV appearances, and a batch of private recordings making up most of the box.  The final disc jumped forward to 1968 for a collection of recordings made for the TV special.  Poor sound quality lets the set down, but this was in many ways the start of RCA treating Elvis as an historically important artist, and is still the only way to obtain the audio from the television performances via Elvis’s own label. 7/10.

  1. Essential Elvis: The First Movies (1986/8)

First released in Europe, with the American edition following two years later, this album contained the master takes from the first three movies together with a substantial number of alternate takes.  Quite a revelation on release, this was another sign that Elvis was once again being taken seriously.  All of this material has since been re-released in better sound quality, but that doesn’t take away the importance of this release.  9/10.

  1. Stereo ’57: Essential Elvis, Volume 2(1989)

This follow-up to Essential Elvis saw the focus shift to recordings made in binaural in early 1957.  While this was hardly Elvis’s best few months of recordings from the 1950s, once again we get to hear him working (and, in some cases, struggling) in the studio.  Highlights include alternate takes of Peace in the Valley and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.  7/10.

  1. Hits Like Never Before: Essential Elvis, Volume 3 (1990)

The third volume of the Essential series concentrates on recordings from 1958.  As with the first volume, this material has been released in better sound quality since but, despite this, the disc is still remarkably enjoyable, and important for giving us almost a full album of unreleased Elvis in his prime.  The highlight was the unreleased takes of King Creole and the unedited version of Crawfish.  8/10.

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  1. Collector’s Gold (1991)

Collector’s Gold took the format of the Essential series further, by putting together three discs of unreleased material from the 1960s.  The first disc concentrates on movie songs, and the second on the Nashville recordings.  But most important was the album of concert recordings from 1969, containing a number of songs previously not widely known to have been ever performed live, such as Inherit the Wind, This is the Story, and Rubberneckin’.  Hugely enjoyable.  8/10.

  1. Double Features (1993-1995)

This series of ten CDs saw the 1960s soundtrack recordings re-released in superior form.  Many were remixed in order to improve the sound quality, while others included previously unreleased songs, alternate takes and unedited masters.  Highlights include the undubbed master of Almost, the unedited versions of the stereo masters of Kid Galahad songs, and the first ever complete release of the Viva Las Vegas soundtrack.  The final disc, concentrating on the non-formula films is particularly good.  7/10.

  1. If Every Day Was Like Christmas(1994)

Despite the amount of errors in the extensive liner notes, this merging of Elvis’s two Christmas albums with some added alternate takes is the best release of this material during the CD era – despite these recordings having been re-released in a different running order virtually every year since.  Sadly, this doesn’t make the 1971 performances any more cheerful, but at least the maudlin numbers are interspersed throughout the disc.  7/10.

  1. A Hundred Years from Now: Essential Elvis, Volume 4 (1996)

This time, the Essential series jumps forward to 1970 for a disc full of alternate takes from the Nashville sessions of June 1970.  Heard without the overdubs, these performances sound really quite different, and highlights include a beautiful alternate version of Bridge Over Troubled Water and a (very) informal version of The Lord’s PrayerFollow that Dream would also mine these recordings for more alternates on The Nashville Marathon several years later, which is also recommended, although it is not quite as strong as this release.  8/10.

  1. Platinum: A Life in Music(1997)

This 4CD set aimed to tell the story of Elvis’s career mostly through the use of live recordings, alternate takes, jam sessions, and private recordings – and it succeeds very well for the most part.  This was the first of a number of 4CD sets of this ilk to be released over the coming years, but none did their job as well (or as enjoyably) as this one.  The decades boxed sets aside, this may well be the best Elvis boxed set ever released.  Highlights include a beautiful home recording of Tennessee Waltz, a stunning alternate take of You’ll Never Walk Alone, and the first release of Steamroller Blues from the March 20, 1974 Memphis show. 10/10.

  1. Brightest Star on Sunset Boulevard, Volumes 1 & 2 (Fort Baxter, 1998)

The only bootleg release to make this list is this collection of recordings made during rehearsals for the August 1970 Las Vegas season.  RCA/Sony have also released performances from these rehearsals, but they have mostly been given over to fragments and novelties, whereas here we get Elvis tackling songs with interest rather than just goofing around.  While Elvis’s off-colour humour might put some people off, hearing Elvis at work in this way is fascinating.  7/10.

  1. The Home Recordings(1999)

Quite a risk was taken issuing a full-length disc of often poor-sounding home recordings, but the result was a fascinating, if flawed CD.  Sadly some tracks were edited for reasons still unknown, and this take of Tennessee Waltz is, alas, one that finds Elvis fooling around far too much.  Still, the performances from 1966 are often real eye-openers, most notably If I Loved You from Carousel.  A further volume of home recordings, entitled In a Private Moment, was later released under the Follow that Dream banner.  6/10.

  1. Such a Night: Essential Elvis, Volume 6 (2000)

This final entry into the Essential series concentrates on recordings made at Nashville between 1960 and 1964.  This is a particularly strong collection of alternate takes that cleverly manages to mask the falling standards in material during this period.  The only issue here is that most of the alternates sound very much like the masters, thus making them of less interest and less importance.  After this release, compilations of this type were mostly reserved for the Follow that Dream label.  7/10.

  1. Live in Las Vegas(2001)

This 4CD has a number of flaws but it still provides a complete concert from 1969 (albeit with the monologue moved to the end of the disc), another from August 1970 (touted as the best Elvis concert ever recorded), and a disc of soundboard recordings from 1974 and 1975.  The last group are rather underwhelming (and needn’t have been), but the two full concerts are worth the price of admission alone.  Reissued recently at a cheaper price and in a slightly smaller format.  6/10.

  1. Memphis Sessions(Follow That Dream, 2001)

This disc is the only complete release given over to outtakes from the 1969 Memphis sessions.  It isn’t quite as satisfying as perhaps it should be, but it’s still a fascinating set, in particular the alternate takes of Power of My Love and Suspicious Minds.  Also, the producers managed to splice something together to make even Hey Jude sound reasonable.  7/10.

  1. Today, Tomorrow and Forever(2002)

Another 4CD this set, this time entirely given over to alternate takes and live performances.  Not as strong as Platinum, with the cream of the unreleased material already having been issued in many cases.  Also some of the songs chosen are head-scratchers.  Was the retail market really interested in outtakes of Never Say Yes?  Still, there are some nice performances here, and the set also provided the first official release of the Little Rock concert from 1956.  7/10.

  1. Close Up(2003)

This 4CD set has one disc dedicated to soundtracks, Nashville recordings, binaural recordings and a concert from 1972.  In other words, it was like four Follow that Dream releases thrown together for no obvious reason.  The main point of interest here is that this is the only official release of any of the concerts recorded for the Elvis on Tour documentary.  6/10.

  1. So High: Nashville Outtakes, 1966-1968(Follow That Dream, 2004)

This disc of outtakes centres on one of the most under-rated periods during Elvis’s career – the non-soundtracks recordings of 1966-1968.  This shows Elvis mostly in fine form, particularly during the How Great Thou Art sessions, but also during 1967 and 1968 as well as with his recordings of Guitar Man, Hi-Heel Sneakers, and You’ll Never Walk Alone. 7/10.

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  1. I Sing All Kinds(Follow That Dream 2007)

This is another of the Follow that Dream discs that feels like an entry in the Essential series.  Concentrating on the 1971 recordings, this is a patchy group of performances, but there is still enough of interest to make this a must for fans (and the only single-disc collection of outtakes from the period).  Mixing seasonal and non-seasonal material together may not have been the best idea, but it is still worthwhile.  6/10.

  1. The Complete ’68 Comeback Special(2008)

Finally, the four unedited live segments of the 1968 TV special were collected together in one package, alongside the original album (with bonus tracks) and the tapes of the dressing room rehearsals.  One only has to wonder why it took until 2008 for this to happen.  Quite why the bonus tracks (such as Let Yourself Go and It Hurts Me) weren’t inserted back into the medley of which they were intended to be a part of is unknown, but that is a small complaint given the quality of music here.  9/10.

  1. Nevada Nights(Follow that Dream, 2008)

This 2CD set contains two concerts from the rather strange August-September 1974 Las Vegas season.  This release is highlighted due to the inclusion of the opening night performance, in which Elvis changed his repertoire a great deal, only to ditch many of the new songs the very next day.  Many have put this down to an unresponsive audience but, listening to the concert, it’s clear that the audience are only reflecting the lack of enthusiasm they see on stage.  Elvis’s singing is largely uninspired, but the inclusion of one-off performances of Good Time Charlies’ Got the Blues, Down in the Alley, and others, make this a must for those wanting to go deeper into the Elvis catalogue, even if the soundboard quality is not the greatest. 6/10.

  1. Elvis as Recorded at Boston Garden ’71(Follow that Dream, 2010)

This fine concert was available for some time on bootleg releases before finally being issued officially on the Follow that Dream label.  It is without doubt the only official release of a 1971 concert that is worthy of this list, and shows Elvis back to performing at his best following the funk he had shown during the two previous Las Vegas seasons.  The sound is not perfect, but decent enough to enjoy this spirited performance.  6/10.

  1. Chicago Stadium(Follow that Dream, 2010)

Chicago Stadium is included as part of an effort to include at least one concert per year from the period 1969 to 1977 within this list.  Recorded on October 15th and 16th, 1976, this double disc set provides two concerts showing Elvis is in surprisingly good form for the year.  Others might suggest that something from the December tour would be more fitting, but in these October shows Elvis seems less agitated and manic than in the later ones, and the sound quality is extremely good (particularly on the second concert) given the soundboard source. While Elvis is still struggling on quieter ballads such as And I Love You So, he is in fine form on the likes of Steamroller Blues and You Gave Me a Mountain.  6/10.

  1. Young Man with the Big Beat(2011)

This 5CD set includes all of Elvis’s studio recordings from 1956, as well as a batch of alternate takes, interviews and live recordings.  Perhaps most important was a newly-discovered Louisiana Hayride performance from December 1956.  Originally issued in deluxe packaging at a high price, this has since been reissued in a smaller format for a little over £10.   8/10.

  1. Elvis at Stax(2013)

If you were wondering why the fifth volume of Essential Elvis from 1998 wasn’t listed here, then this is the reason.  That CD featured alternate takes from the two 1973 sessions at Stax studios.  This 2013 release includes the majority of those takes plus some others besides and the master takes of all the songs recorded.  Not quite as positive a listening experience as the liner notes might have you believe, this is still probably the best way to get hold of the Stax performances.  7/10.

  1. Way Down in the Jungle Room(2016)

This two-disc set attempts to present Elvis’s last recording sessions in the best way possible and, for the most part, succeeds.  The first disc is given over to the master takes, while the second consists of alternate versions, most of which had been issued before on the Follow that Dream label, but not at retail.  The result is a surprisingly satisfying package which, while not being able to demonstrate that Elvis was anything like his best here, still manages to show that he could step up to the mark when he was fully committed.  6/10.

  1. The Hometown Shows(Follow That Dream, 2016)

This double disc set contains two Memphis concerts, one from 1974 and one from 1975.  The 1975 show had been available on bootleg issues for years and here makes its official debut.  The 1974 show, however, had not been released in any form, and it is this concert that assured this release makes this list.  Not only is Elvis in fine spirits and remarkably good voice, but this is also the best-sounding soundboard recording you are ever likely to hear.  7/10.

  1. A Boy from Tupelo(2017)

And we end at the beginning.  This 3CD set includes all of the recordings Elvis made at Sun (including the private discs), as well as all known outtakes and the live recordings from the period that exist in listenable sound quality.  This includes the performance of I Forgot to Remember to Forget that was found a few years ago.  Due for release in July 2017, this promises to be the most historically-significant Elvis release at retail level for many years.    10/10.

The Question of Jack Pickford (1924 article)

The following article by Grace Halton first appeared in Motion Picture Magazine in October 1924.   Along with twenty-seven other interviews with silent film stars, it is reprinted in Silent Voices:  Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities, available in paperback and kindle formats from Amazon online stores.  The pictures do not originate from the original article.

 

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Huck and Tom (1918)

*

THE QUESTION OF JACK PICKFORD

An appreciation of this young star who, if he stood alone, and were measured in the public eyes only by the merit of his work –as an artist should be measured – would accomplish very great things indeed

Author: Grace Halton

(Motion Picture Magazine: October 1924)

He sat there behind a desk in the small studio office-room, and from time to time he lit a cigarette, rather nervously.  When he smiled, it was quickly but with no reflection of an inner amusement in his eyes.  He talked rapidly, but without ease.  I felt that in his mind he was wondering what I would ask him next and wishing quite fervently that I would leave.

Outside the summer sun beat down on the Pickford-Fairbanks lot.  The walls of Mary’s old Rosita sets seemed to curl and quiver in the downpour of tropical sunshine.[1] The minarets of Bagdad rose, an eye-piercing blaze of silver against the hard blue of the sky.  Only in the shelter of the mammoth walls of Doug’s mediaeval castle, erected for Robin Hood and later serving Mary well in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, was there shadow and cool.[2]

And, quite wisely, a Pickford-Fairbanks chauffeur had parked one of the family’s Rolls-Royce cars in this grateful shade.

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The Double-Dyed Deceiver (1920)

So Jack Pickford and I sat in the little office – Jack most immaculate in white trousers and well-cut gray coat – and when the riveters, working on a giant gas-tank nearby, did not drown out our conversation with their staccato clatter, we talked of various things.

But I knew, even as I asked him questions and he answered them obediently, like a little boy who hopes he’ll grade at least eighty per cent in examinations, but rather doubts it, that it was no sort of interview.

One gets no glimpse of the real Jack Pickford this way.  I know, for I’ve met him a dozen times in the last half-dozen years, at parties, formal and informal, at the various dancing places, on transcontinental trains.  Times when he was his natural, youthful self.

He was not himself the other day.  His manner was guarded.  He was earnestly striving to uphold the dignity of the Pickford family.

He endeavoured not to arouse interest in himself and in his reactions, veering ever from the personal with talk of Marilynn (sic), or Mary and Doug.[3]

“It’s lonesome around here without them,” says Jack.  “Sure.”

He has a way of saying “Sure,” as tho to emphasize his remarks.

News had come that day of a decoration upon Doug in Paris by the Ministry Beaux Arts.  Two gold palms, crossed, and suspended by a purple ribbon.  A great honor for Doug.  No actor has ever before received this decoration, which was originated by Napoleon and has heretofore been awarded only to educators.

Doug and Mary “have a new stunt” – thus the conversation continued.  They like to go down to the Orpheum sometimes, when they’re here at home.  It’s hard on Mary never having a chance to go out anywhere without being mobbed, and at last she and Doug have solved the difficult problem and how to enjoy a peaceful evening at a vaudeville show.  They buy seats in the last row on the aisle, dress more inconspicuously and put on dark glasses.  Then they slip into the theater after the show has started and out again just before the last act is over.  The stunt works fine.

Then – Marilynn.  Marilynn Miller, before whom jaded first-night Broadway has bent the knee in homage, more than once.  Mailynn of the soft golden curls, the babyish face, the twinkling toes.  The adored “youngest star on Broadway.”  Jack’s wife.

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Brown of Harvard (1926, with William Haines)

Of these he will talk.

He and Marilynn are going abroad later in the summer, he says.  Marilynn is to meet Barrie.  She’s bringing Peter Pan to the stage in the fall and, well, it seems a good idea to meet Barrie beforehand.    It’s an awful responsibility, you know, following Maude Adams in Peter Pan.  Sure.  Jack likes London.  He has lots of friends in London.  He lit another cigarette.  No – he doesn’t like Paris.

It is later, perhaps, one remembers that Jack’s first wife, the beautiful Olive Thomas, met her tragic death in Paris, and one senses that Jack has been remembering all the time.

One brings him back from London – and Paris to the sunshine and heat of the Pickford-Fairbanks lot, the rat-tat-tat of the riveters working on the gas-tank, the light laughter of Marilynn and some other girls playing badminton on the studio court.

Jack’s next picture, he says, will be made in New York.  Marilynn will be working there, he explains, as sufficient reason why he should desert Hollywood.  Young Mr. Dudley is the title of the story and, the plot being conveniently laid in New York anyway, they’re going to shoot everything from the Battery to the Bronx.

His ideas of what he would like to do in future seem rather vague.  The majority of actors, when one has talked to them for one consecutive minute, will tell one confidentially of their burning desire to bring to the screen some certain story or play, to create some certain character known to history or literature. But not Jack Pickford.  In the main, his life has been mapped out for him by The Family.  One feels that decisions as to what Jack will and will not do, rest with them usually, rather than with himself.  Initiative is not developed under such circumstances.  One feels also, that if he did cherish a secret longing to create some daring, difficult role, to depart in some manner from the comfortable, even routine mapped out for him, he wouldn’t be apt to say anything about it until he had The Family’s O.K.

In some obscure way, this irritates me, belonging as I do among those wilful persons who consider him an actor with tremendous possibilities.  His work before the camera is stamped with authenticity.  He possesses the rare ability to submerge himself in the character he is portraying.  He never struts and poses in the well-known Hollywood male star manner.  If his wild, primitive mountaineer boy in The Hill Billy isn’t as genuine a portrayal as the screen has seen this year, I’ll eat my fall chapeau.[4]

But he won’t talk about himself.  Facing the interviewer, he becomes inarticulate.  He’s not thinking of his work.  He’s wondering just what sort of impression he is making on me.  He is self-conscious, lacking the egotism on which a less sensitive soul might rely.

That soul of his has been scarred.  He has seen his name in ugly headlines blazed across the world.  That slight, nervous body has bent before the storm, and the years have passed.  Jack hasn’t forgotten.

As I say, it was no sort of interview.

I left him presently, and the white-hot glare of the Pickford-Fairbanks lot, with the haughty Rolls-Royce still standing in the thickening shadows of grey stone castle walls, and the silver minarets of Bagdad writing fairy tales unnumbered across the sky.

But the feeling of irritation persisted.  I found myself wishing that Jack wasn’t a Pickford.  That he hadn’t the fortunes of Hollywood’s royal family behind him.  That the rare, delicate artistry of his work might draw strength from some hardier atmosphere.  In short, that Jack wasn’t quite so smothered in The Family ermine.

After watching the sensitive play of expression across his face for an hour, it intrigues one to muse on what Jack might accomplish if, freed from all prejudice, he stood alone, measured in the public eye by the merit of his work, as an artist should be measured.

It is good work, that the boy of Seventeen,[5] The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, and innumerable other photoplays of the native American type, has given us.  To one who watches with somewhat bored amusement the tug-of-war now going on between our middle-aged film heroes and the Latin lads, a Jack Pickford performance with its blending of humor and pathos, provides a welcome distraction.

We find it within us to hope that some day he may contribute to the screen a truly great performance.

[1] Rosita (Ernst Lubitsch, 1923)

[2] Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922); Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (Marshall Neilan, 1924)

[3] Marilyn Miller:  Jack Pickford’s second wife.

[4] The Hill Billy (George W. Hill, 1924)

[5] Seventeen (Robert G. Vignola, 1916)

Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities (book announcement)

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I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a book I have been putting together for some time!

Around a hundred years ago, film fan magazines were emerging from their infancy to become some of the most-read periodicals of their day. These were places where cinema-goers could read with anticipation about new releases, as well catch up on Hollywood gossip, see glamourous pictures of their favourite actors and actresses, and read interviews with (and articles by) some of the great stars and directors of the day.

“Silent Voices” collects together twenty-eight of these interviews and articles (many out of print since their original publication in the 1910s and 1920s), covering a dozen different screen personalities of the period: Renée Adorée, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Carol Dempster, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Robert “Bobby” Harron, Johnny Hines, F. W. Murnau, George O’Brien, and Jack Pickford.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle editions from Amazon.

contents page

 

Review: 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

13ReasonsWhy [www.imagesplitter.net]

Once in a while, a TV drama series comes along that is genuinely important – and Netflix’s offering 13 Reasons Why is one of them.  Teen dramas seem to be notoriously hard to get right – they are either light and airy with no substance, or they are so intent in getting “messages” or “issues” across that they lack dramatic substance.  13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect by any means, but it does manage to straddle the categories of “issue” TV and “effective drama” for the most part.

Hannah Baker, a teenager, has committed suicide.  Two weeks later, a box of cassette tapes winds up on the doorstep of her friend Clay.  Over the coming days, Clay listens to the tapes, each side of which gives another of the “13 reasons why” Hannah took the step of killing herself.   The series is based on a book I haven’t read but, by all means, is decidedly less bloated than the near 13 hour Netflix adaptation.  But the adaptation benefits from showing the stories of the present day stories of the people mentioned on the tapes, and the affect that the airing of their stories and actions has on them.

What is key here is that 13 Reasons Why is an intelligently written, superbly acted piece of television that deals with bullying, depression, sexuality, assault, and suicide.  A bundle of light-hearted fun it isn’t.  And yet the structure of the series (showing the post-suicide stories) allows for it to be more than just a worthy after-school special type programme.

One would argue that this wasn’t even made for teens at all – indeed, inexplicably the BBFC in the UK have given this an 18 rating.  This is, presumably, because of the two rape sequences which, while uncomfortable, are certainly not of the ilk we are likely to find in an 18 film.  It seems totally counter-productive to have a series dealing with teen issues in an intelligent way being branded as unsuitable for teens under 18!  Perhaps there was a fear that, somehow, the option of suicide would look attractive to the viewer – but anyone seeing the final episode where we see the act itself will know that isn’t the case either.  Thankfully, the series is on Netflix and younger people will no doubt have access to it anyway – but a 15 certificate would certainly have been more apt and appropriate.

But 13 Reasons Why is most important because it deals with mental health issues – with depression and suicide – without lecturing, and without talking down to the viewer, and without trivialising it.  In fact, the term “depression” is barely mentioned at all.   But this is the topic that dare not speak its name, of course.  We don’t talk about mental health.  But here it is “discussed” along with teen issues “responsibly.”  A number of episodes have warnings about the content before they start.  The first episode has helpline numbers before it.  And there is a documentary appendix episode dealing with the issues featured in the series.

All of this, and yet any adult who has gone through mental health issues has to ponder quite what the point of those phone numbers are.  We should seek help if we are going through the problems featured in the series, we are told.  And yet there are thousands of us with mental health issues who have come forward and asked for help with our condition and yet cannot receive any.  We are told on the NHS in the UK of a year-long waiting list for counselling, for example.  It is rather scary that a TV drama can be more responsible about the damage mental health issues can do than our own health system or our own government in recognising its failings.

But I have written about that at length elsewhere, and this is about the series.  The “13 reasons” are spread over 13 episodes and, as some others have noted, this is too many.  Quite easily, there are occasions where two reasons could have fitted into one episode, for example.  The central episodes, directed by Gregg Araki, are bloated and move very slowly before the series gathers pace again around episode 10.

As much as I admire and “liked” the series, though, there is a feeling that the final instalment is unsatisfactory.  The realms of possibility are stretched, as not one, not two, not three, but four students in the same group of friends get their hands on guns – and we’re not told of the consequences of this in most cases.  Instead of giving us a neater ending, the series makes the mistake of making sure it is left open for a second season.  It’s the one thing that lets the programme down.  All of this good work, this great writing and wonderful acting, is jeopardised because the programme makers/Netflix wanted to make sure they still had a story to tell if a second season was decided upon.

Sometimes a story just needs to be told and then finish – especially when adapting a novel, which obviously does have an ending.  In fact, the problem here is that, rather than giving the viewer the idea that there is a second season in the offing, it gives the impression that someone forgot to make a final episode – because episode 13 acts like a penultimate one, not a final one.   And this is such a shame.

But even this error of judgement can’t undo the good work here.  Dylan Minnette gives one of the best performances in a TV series I have seen for a very long time – and one of the most nuanced accounts of a “troubled teen” I’ve seen in film or TV.  Everything about the performance rings true.  The same is true for Katherine Langford as Hannah, although she, ironically, has less to work with – not least because of those bloated episodes in the centre of the series, and the fact that she is only on screen for around half of the running time.

As a final note, Netflix chose to release all of the episodes of the series in one go – and this was possibly a mistake.  This is not binge-watch television, and it really doesn’t work well when watched in that way as it slowly numbs the viewer to each new event that is revealed in the story of Hannah Baker, and nothing becomes shocking.  While there is a “thriller” – even a “whodunit” – element to the story, that isn’t what this is about, and a weekly episode format would have worked better.  But it is what it is – an intelligent, gripping, and responsible series that deals with teen life in an undeniably adult way, and in a way that most dramas simply don’t have the balls to do.

Tchaikovsky, Rostropovich and Me: A Passionate Affair!

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When I turned 13, I was then getting interested in classical music – something that my parents didn’t really listen to, but my interest had been aroused by one of those inspiring teachers at school that we all too often believe only exist within Goodbye Mr. Chips or Dead Poet’s Society. With my birthday money in my pocket, I headed off to the local department store to buy an LP of the fifth symphony. I was a little naive in thinking that only one composer had written a fifth symphony, and so was a little traumatised when confronted by many different works with the same title. I had heard of Tchaikovsky, and so bought that one and headed home. Job done. Then I placed the LP on my record player and realised it didn’t sound a bit like the work I had heard (which was, of course, by Beethoven), but I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony nonetheless, somehow absorbed by the while EMI Eminence label as it spun around, the informative liner notes (that I didn’t wholly understand at the time) and the painting on the front of the LP cover. The recording was the one contained in this boxed set.

A few years down the line, I came across Manfred, clearly part of the same series of LPs, and bought that too, and then some of the others as and when I came across them – which was more difficult back in the days before looking something up on Ebay and being given a choice of copies to buy. A few more years later, and I was converting to CD, and bought a different cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, which I suppose I thought would sound the same no matter who was conducting. My Rostropovich LPs were disposed of, and I was left with a rather unsatisfying set of the music I had loved.

Eventually, the Rostropovich set on CD came my way but some symphonies were split over two discs – a ridiculous idea – and the artwork which had clearly first attracted me wasn’t there either. But it was a step in the right direction. A further step came last year, when Warner in Japan released the seven symphonies on seven individual discs but, alas, only the first three had the original artwork of the LP, and the other four just had a generic picture of Tchaikovsky (no idea why).

Now, with this current set, we are almost reaching perfection. No symphonies are split over two discs, and the artwork of the LPs can be found on the front of the cardboard sleeves containing each CD. There is one exception (hence the “almost” perfection) in that the first two LPs are combined onto one CD and so only the artwork from one LP is retained. It’s a shame the missing artwork wasn’t used for the front of the box, but this is, I think, good enough. Why, at 43 years of age, LP artwork matters to me so much, I have no idea. Perhaps a mid-life crisis as I yearn for the things that gave me pleasure in my youth. Perhaps I’m just a sentimental old fool (and that is the only explanation for me re-buying the 5th symphony on vinyl last year!).

But this is truly a wonderful (and ridiculously cheap) set.  Rostropovich’s interpretations aren’t for everyone. But his passionate, emotional readings of these works sparked something in a 13 year old boy thirty years ago, something he has never ever forgotten – and if a recording can do that, then you can’t ask for much more. I fell in love with these recordings back then, and am just as much in love with them now as me and the Rostropovich Tchaikovsky cycle celebrate our Pearl anniversary. There are no plans for separation any time in the future, for there is enough passion in these six discs to sustain any relationship.