Review: 13 Reasons Why (season 3)

This review contains spoilers.

You have to feel sorry for those associated with the making of 13 Reasons Why. Despite good intentions, it has come under fire for each of its three seasons. It has been accused of romanticising suicide, of depicting shocking events including rape and sexual assault in too much of a graphic way. It also has been blamed for children’s reaction to the show, despite the fact it is clearly not aimed at kids and that their parents should be to blame for not keeping an eye on what their pre-teens are watching.

The knives were out for the third season before it was released. Critics have asked why there needs to be a third season – a question I find rather odd when the same question isn’t asked of other TV shows. Does their need to be any TV series? And now that we have the third season, the critics have declared it depressing and monotonous – presumably because there is little within the new series that can be viewed as shocking or graphic. What’s more, some critics were arguing this in reviews published less than twelve hours after the series dropped – and we have been told that reviewers didn’t get copies in advance. And if that doesn’t tell you that reviews were written before the writers had seen the series, nothing will!

It certainly seems true to say that the third season is the least impressive so far. Dealing with the murder of serial rapist Bryce Walker, it seems overlong, baggy, and contrived. Much of this is to do with the introduction of a new character, Ani, who dominates the series. When she’s not on screen, she is narrating the action. But Ani is just a plot device. She is there so that we get to see what happened in Bryce’s house. She is, basically, our eyes and ears. But the plot device is clunky and jarring, as is the awful decision of using three different timeframes – Ani talking to the police, the post-murder scenes, and the pre-murder scenes. Again, it’s jarring, not helped by the fact that the makers decided to indicate time frames by going to black and white or by changing aspect ratios. Viewers are clever enough to work it out for themselves – they don’t need on-screen indicators in this way.

There has also been criticism (and in some cases, shock) amongst viewers on social media that a different side of Bryce Walker is shown in this series. But I would suggest this was a brave move on the part of the writers. Bryce was the only one-dimensional character in the first two series. Everyone else in the main cast were much more developed, whereas Bryce was just the bad guy. But people in real life are not good or bad guys. Everyone does good and bad things, some of us more good than bad, and vice versa. But those criticising the move to humanise Bryce are suggesting that people can’t change, and that redemption is never possible, and that some people have no redeeming features whatsoever. Bryce, in the end, doesn’t get redeemed. He tries, but finds it difficult to escape his old ways, and in the end that brings about his murder. Interestingly, I got similar comments from people when I wrote Breaking Down, a sequel to Breaking Point, my novel about homophobic bullying. In the sequel, the bully of the first book tries to make good, but it didn’t sit well with all readers. Likewise, in the first book, I had one of the victims doing bad things, and that was seen as problematic too. “But he’s the good guy,” I was told. Now, whether I or 13 Reasons Why managed to deal with this supposed redemption is up for debate, but it’s not as if Bryce suddenly becomes a good guy or stops doing bad things – as some commentators would have us believe. He’s still an arsehole, and now a self-pitying one.

But, for all it’s awkwardness and ridiculous length, 13 Reasons Why still remains the only programme willing to delve into serious, difficult teenage issues in this way. In reviews of previous seasons, I have highlighted how other TV shows aimed at the same age group give easy answers or gloss over difficult issues as soon as they have brought them up. In 13 Reasons Why these things are ugly, and messy, and life-changing.

There are some truly remarkable and important moments in this third season. Has there ever been a more honest portrayal of the aftermath of male on male sexual assault than in 13 Reasons Why? The moment in episode eight where Tyler finally tells someone face to face about what happened to him months earlier is devastating, brilliantly written, and stunningly acted.

The end of season two found Bryce basically getting away with rape thanks to the court system. I though this was a mistake. It would have been unrealistic to show him getting the punishment he deserves, but in this instance I thought it would pass on the right message to viewers, giving them the courage to report crimes against them. In this series, though, the show makes up for this thanks to the moving sequence in episode ten in which Jessica talks to the school about her experience and members of the school audience stand up and admit they were “survivors” too.

There will be a fourth and final season of the show next year – a rather odd choice given that the final episode of this season seems to wrap up the story rather efficiently. One has to wonder if the show could have gone a different route, perhaps the way of Skins, where a new series brings a new cast of characters and fresh storylines. Quite what the fourth season will bring is unknown at this stage.

13 Reasons Why is not perfect. It tries hard, and it makes some horrible decisions from time to time, but it is remarkably important. Teenage life is horrible – perhaps it always has been – and, if critics and adult reviewers are criticising the show, perhaps it is because it bares some ugly truths that we, as adults, don’t want to face. Bullying, rape, gun violence, sexual assault, drug addiction, violence, mental health issues – they are, unfortunately, part of teenager’s lives. We get them to put on their school uniform, send them off to school in the morning, and assume the school is looking after them for the six or seven hours before they come home. We, as adults, hate to be reminded that sometimes our trust in the school is a mistake. Schools can be ugly places. 13 Reasons Why throws that unsettling fact right in front of us, and it seems that too many (re)viewers would rather complain that the images are too graphic or shocking than accept that there is a problem out there, and that the depictions in the series are far closer to the truth than anyone wants to admit – and so we blame the show rather than the real life it is depicting.

Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

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The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.

She-Wolf of London (1946)

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The release last year of the complete series of the 1930s and 1940s Universal Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies on blu-ray has, no doubt, had many, like myself, revisiting some of the films from these cycles that they hadn’t seen in some time – only this time in much better quality.  It is worth adding that, perhaps appropriately, the Invisible Man movies are nowhere to be seen on blu-ray with the exception of the original movie.  Without doubt, these films look wonderful in high definition, and some of them really come to life in a way they hadn’t in their DVD incarnation.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is a key example.  This is a weird, dark, and eerie film that came at the end of the first cycle of Universal horror films during the sound period.   On blu-ray, all of that weirdness seems even more startling, and the picture quality for a film of this vintage is truly stunning.

Werewolf of London (1935), from a year earlier, was another that I enjoyed revisiting over the Christmas period.  Not part of the Wolf Man series at all, but a stand alone effort from six years before Lon Chaney Jr started having a problem with facial hair, this one suffers a little from rather sedate pacing, but is still an interesting movie nonetheless and is certainly better than many of the Universal horror movies of the 1940s.

In fact, Werewolf of London was the last film I saw in 2017, and so it only seemed right that She-Wolf of London (1946)  was the first I screened in 2018.  This is probably the least-known of all the films on the recent blu ray sets, and yet it is also one of the best.  As with Werewolf of London, it is not part of the Wolf Man series, but a stand alone feature starring June Lockhart as a young woman who fears she has the family curse of becoming a werewolf when there are a series of murders and attacks in a park close to her home.

I confess I don’t have much time for the “House of” series, in which the various Universal monsters come together in one film, that dominated the 1940s horror cycle.  By this point, the series had, arguably, lost its way, becoming more fantasy (and comedy) than horror.  She-Wolf of London isn’t really traditional horror either – no hairy beasts are seen within the movie at all, with the except of a couple of dogs.  Instead, we have a film which seems to be a mix of Gaslightthe Val Lewton films for RKO, and even Rebecca.   It seems almost ironic that Universal, who at one point led the way with regards to horror during the previous decade, here borrows from what other studios were doing.  The central character’s obsession with her supposed family curse has a great deal in common with Cat People (1942) from the Lewton/RKO series  and The Undying Monster, made by Fox.  Sadly, She-Wolf of London doesn’t have the same intelligent script or sense of dread as Cat People, although it certainly treads some of the same ground thematically.  It is still a taut little thriller, aided and abetted by some really fine performances, including the wide-eyed June Lockhart herself, but also Jan Wiley, who does well in a far less showy role.  Sara Haden, meanwhile, chews up and spits out the scenery.

Running at only 61 minutes, the mystery element isn’t given room to be taxing, and the ending comes about rather suddenly, but the film seems remarkably classy compared to the other horrors that Universal were producing at the time, and the period atmosphere is nicely sustained throughout.   Certainly an enjoyable way of spending an hour if you prefer your horror to be of a sinister rather than supernatural variety.

Elvis Presley: The 1969 Vegas Season

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The following is an except from the book “Reconsider Baby.  Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, 2nd edition” available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.  

The day after the airing of the NBC TV Special, the New York Times announced: “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances.”[1]  Elvis’s season at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, beginning on July 31, 1969, was to be his first live appearance in eight years (unless one counts the live segments of the TV show).  Unlike the TV show of the previous year, and the albums recorded in Memphis six months earlier, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Billboard raved that “the greatest rocker of them all came and met one of his toughest audiences at the International Hotel showroom….But it was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s, on stage Thursday.  It was a polished, confident and talented artist, knowing exactly what he was going to do and when.”[2]  A week further on in the season, they reported that “nine years away from live performing have not affected his affinity for interpretation, combining the visual affects (sic) of the flaying arms and slowly gyrating hips; of his gutsy attack on quasi-blues songs or his shifting into a romantic milieu for Yesterday or Love Me Tender.”[3]

Norma Lee Browning in the Chicago Tribune takes time from her caustic assessment of Elvis’s appearance at a press conference to admit that “Presley’s smash opening in the showroom of the new International hotel, following Barbra Streisand’s fair-to-middlin’ engagement, has set a lot of showbiz folks back on their ears.”[4] Mary Campbell of the Ottawa Journal said that most of the audience were “old enough to have hated him 13 years ago and some of them admitted that they had…Rock music no longer gives cultural shock to the middle-aged.  And neither does Elvis Presley.  Presley still makes those ‘suggestive’ movements.  But the shocking of 1956 can be the nostalgic of 1969.”[5]

The third and final act of the Presley comeback was an unequivocal success, and it was hardly surprising that RCA were there to record a number of shows for a live album.  Six days of shows were recorded, and then a live album was assembled from the tapes.  Originally released as the first disc of From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the live album would eventually be re-released on its own with the equally catchy title of In Person at the International Hotel – or In Person for short.

The disc starts with Blue Suede Shoes, the number that Elvis used to open the shows.  The Vegas setting is obvious from the first notes of the album thanks to the introduction by the Bobby Morris Orchestra.  This is followed by an opening vamp from Elvis’s core band before Elvis finally starts singing.  His voice is strong (probably stronger than in the Memphis sessions earlier in the year), and he sounds confident and full of energy.   The song is taken at a faster pace than the studio versions (and, for some reason, Elvis repeats the same two verses rather than using the others), and the whole thing is over in two minutes, including the introduction and the vamp.

The high energy continues with a cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode.  Again, Elvis misses out a verse, the second in Berry’s recording, and substitutes it with a repeat of the third verse.  Elvis would continue to use the song in slightly different variations over the coming years.  It would be shorn of the repeated verse by the time of the performance on the Aloha from Hawaii TV special in 1973, and would get the briefest of renditions in the final years, normally as part of the extended band introductions.  The version issued on In Person is probably the best Elvis version that has been released.  He rocks with abandon, spitting out the words at breakneck pace, and the band is as tight as a drum.

All Shook Up follows, at much the same pace as the previous two numbers.  The song doesn’t really work so well at this speed, but Elvis had a penchant for speeding up his 1950s hits on stage during the following eight years, and that habit appears to have been formed even at this stage.  It is a far cry from the shuffle rhythm of the studio recording, and it lacks charm and suggests there were some of his earlier hits that he struggled to update for his new live act.

Are You Lonesome Tonight gets a serious rendition from Elvis, with Millie Kirkham’s almost-otherworldly soprano providing a lovely obligato.  The performance is very different from the one captured on tape a couple of nights later in which Elvis gets a fit of giggles and laughs uncontrollably through almost the entire song.  That version, referred to affectionately as Are You Laughing Tonight, was released in 1980.

Elvis introduces Hound Dog as his “message song” for the evening.  The self-deprecating humour of these shows is often quite charming, but at other times just doesn’t work on record.  From this point of view, the live album released from these concerts doesn’t always work due to the often-sloppy editing.  There are long moments of silence (do we really want to hear Elvis drinking water?), and other times where the on-stage humour needs the visuals to work or where a joke goes on too long.

Hound Dog doesn’t receive the throwaway performance that it would in later shows, but it seems clear that, even in 1969, Elvis didn’t really know what to do with it.  It was no longer the yell of frustration and rebellion that it was in the 1950s, and the first verse is repeated over and over, leaving out the “high-classed” second verse on the vast majority of live performances. This demonstrates the conundrum that Elvis would find himself in for the next eight years – songs that were huge hits a dozen or more years earlier were not necessarily relevant to Elvis in his mid-to-late thirties.  His commitment now was often towards more recent songs of a more serious (and, in the coming years, more maudlin) nature.  And yet it was clear that he had to include the “oldies” in his set.  In 1969, the older songs generally got given proper attention, but they would later be used as a punctuation point in a show where Elvis could sing half-heartedly, catching his breath while handing out scarves to screaming fans.  In these 1969 shows, it is great to hear Elvis singing Hound Dog live, but there seems little point to it.  The arrangement has no real structure (it doesn’t build to a big finish), and it simply does the job and little else.  Not everyone agrees.  Cub Koda and Bruce Eder write that the guitar work of James Burton “puts a new edge on Hound Dog, coming up with something different than, yet vaguely similar to, Scotty Moore’s approach to the song in concert 14 years earlier.”[6]  One can only wish that Elvis had chosen to keep the switch to half-speed that was present in the live renditions from the 1950s.

The same can’t be said for I Can’t Stop Loving You.  Whereas the song was given a country flavour in the short jam session at the Memphis sessions earlier in the year, here it is given a full work-out and becomes a show-stopper, with a much more thought-out arrangement than many of the live versions of Elvis’s own hits.  Elvis’s vocal is both sincere and playful and the big finish is stunning, even if the cut-in of an audience member screaming is unnecessary and distracting.

Elvis romps through the r&b classic My Babe, using the song as a vehicle to show off his stronger vocal abilities.  A second version of the number was released in 1980, and this uses slightly different orchestration, but Elvis’s vocal isn’t as strong or controlled here, although it is always nice to hear the different arrangement, and fascinating that Elvis was still toying with his act this late in the engagment.

The medley of Mystery Train and Tiger Man is given a typically self-mocking introduction in which Elvis talks about the sound he had in the early days.  The sound here is brought up-to-date, though, with an arrangement that rocks like hell and features some great work from Ronnie Tutt on drums, with his riffs effectively punctuating Elvis’s vocals on Tiger Man.  The medley is, alongside Suspicious Minds, the highlight of the live album.

The recent Bee Gees hit Words gets a relatively perfunctory run-through.  Elvis’s vocal is sincere and committed, but the arrangement would be slightly modified for the Vegas season a year later, and those performances seem to have a bit more substance.

In the Ghetto doesn’t have the same impact in a live setting that it did in the studio.  The arrangement is beefier, and something is lost.  Elvis’s voice isn’t in such good shape here either, and he appears to be struggling with the low notes, with them having heavy vibrato and often threatening to go out of tune.  The biggest problem, though, is that Elvis hadn’t found a way to translate the intimate sound of the studio recording on to the concert stage, and this was something that would appear to cause him issues during the next eight years.  The ballads that made their way into the live act were, for the most past, ones with big arrangements and big choruses, which could be delivered with an impact during the live performances.  More fragile songs from the 1970s, such as I’m Leavin’ and Until It’s Time For You To Go were, like In the Ghetto, “beefed up” when sung in Vegas or on tour.  Elvis could have done with a short section in each show where the arrangements were stripped back to just him and a couple of musicians.  This would have resulted in some light and shade during the performance as well as giving an appropriate setting for Elvis to sing some of the quieter moments from his back-catalogue, whether hits such as Loving You and Don’t, or album tracks from the 1970s such as I Miss You or For Lovin’ Me.

The highlight of the original album and the Vegas season in general is Suspicious Minds.  This was Elvis’s latest single at the time, and he turns it into a showstopper that lasts over seven minutes.  Again, this lacks some of the vocal subtleties of the studio version, but here it doesn’t matter, as Elvis starts the number relatively sedately and then slowly but surely works it up into a frenzy over its mammoth running time.  This should be tedious, but it works superbly, and the excitement of the stage performance transfers surprisingly well to record.

The original album ended, as did the shows, with Can’t Help Falling in Love.  Taken at a faster pace than both the original studio recording and that used in the previous year’s TV special, the track becomes a closing credits theme song rather than receiving a fully committed performance.  Soon it would take on a new meaning, as Elvis would use the number in the vast majority of his live shows for the next eight years, and it would signal to the audience that their time with their hero was all but over.

The live section of the double album resulted in Elvis getting some of the best reviews of his career.  Don Heckman in the New York Times wrote that “the rhythmic surge is the same and peculiarly appropriate mix of Presley’s country twang with the rolling syllables of black blues still scorches the ear – what was successful a decade and a half ago is successful today.”[7]  Variety stated the live set is “packed with performer and audience excitement that explain the singer’s title as king of rock ‘n’ roll.  His vocals and poise are in top shape, and although he does considerable material over 10 years old, the backup updates the music.”[8] Robert Hilburn simply called the live album “the best thing Presley has done on record in years…Presley [demonstrates] the restless, unconventional vocal style that made him rock’s most important and most influential male singer.”[9]

Two more songs from this Vegas season were issued in 1970 on the album On Stage, primarily recorded in February 1970.  Runaway, a cover of the Del Shannon hit, receives a fine performance from Elvis, who gives the song a slightly harder edge than Shannon.  Years later, another performance was released, this time on a night when Shannon was in the audience.  It’s a nice moment when Elvis introduces him from the stage, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t this version that was released back in 1970.

The other song from 1969 on the On Stage LP is a rather bland take on The Beatles’ YesterdayIt was originally performed with the “na na na” refrain of Hey Jude tagged on the end, but this is omitted on the original release.  It is a pleasant enough rendition, but the arrangement is uninspired to say the least.

In 1991, RCA issued a three-album boxed set entitled Collector’s Gold, featuring outtakes from Elvis’s soundtrack and secular non-soundtrack recordings during the period 1960-1968, with a final disc given over to more performances from the 1969 Las Vegas season.  The emphasis here was on songs not included on In Person, although alternate versions of some of those titles were used to fill up the disc.  What these recordings show is that the double album released in 1969 should have been an all-live affair, with the Memphis material saved for a separate project.  Here we have a driving version of I Got a Woman, complete with a bluesy coda; a nice update of Heartbreak Hotel; a country-influenced version of Love Me Tender; and a fun medley of Jailhouse Rock and Don’t Be Cruel which teeters on the edge of being a throwaway during the latter half but doesn’t quite topple over.

With RCA recording, Elvis also tried out some of his newer material on occasion, and that is also included on the Collector’s Gold CD.  From the Memphis sessions, Elvis tried out Rubberneckin’, which works rather well in the live setting, and Inherit the Wind and This is the Story which suffer from Elvis losing his focus and fooling around just a bit too much.  From the TV show of the year before, Elvis includes Memories, a strange choice of song that simply doesn’t fit in this kind of live setting, and Elvis is out of breath, rather fatal for a song that requires such precise phrasing.  He also revives Baby What You Want Me To Do, but this time in a much more structured version than seen on TV the previous year. Elsewhere, there are one-off performances of Funny How Time Slips Away (nearly a year before Elvis turned to it in the studio) and Reconsider Baby, which is nearly as good as the studio recording from 1960, and certainly the best live performance of the song released thus far.  Sadly, the disc ends with an interminable rendition of What’d I Say, which might have been exciting to watch, but is remarkably tedious to listen to as Elvis shouts out the words rather than sings them, and the band play a series of solos.  It lasts for nearly six minutes, and is not remotely satisfying.

Over the last decade or so, a number of complete concerts from this Vegas season have been released by Sony both at retail level and on the collector’s label.  What these releases demonstrate is the remarkable consistency in both quality and choice of material within these shows.  There is relatively little variation between shows, with the majority of the material consisting of full throttle performances of past hits as well as the covers already discussed.  Perhaps it is hardly surprising, therefore, that the most interesting shows are the ones that veer most from the standard repertoire, and these are the dinner and midnight shows from August 26th, released as Live in Vegas and All Shook Up respectively.  The first of these features the alternate arrangement of My Babe, as well as performances of Inherit the Wind and Memories.  The midnight show, on the other hand, gives us renditions of Rubberneckin’ and This is the Story, as well as allowing us to hear the laughing version of Are You Lonesome Tonight within the context of the very loose show from which it originates.

These shows may well be the best performances that Elvis gave, but it could be  argued that they are not the most satisfying set-lists.  The concentration here is on rock ‘n’ roll.  Sure, there are a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure, but only Are You Lonesome Tonight really gets a decent treatment.  As we know, there was more to Elvis than rock ‘n’ roll.  There are almost no nods to his country influences here, and no gospel material at all.  By the following summer, he still wasn’t performing gospel songs on stage (except for an off-the-cuff performance) but at least the gospel sound was much more prominent, incorporated into the backing of some of the ballads, such as Just Pretend, and country songs became part of the live repertoire.  At this stage in 1969, then, Elvis’s set-list was surprisingly restricted, and ultimately built upon the black leather segments of the 1968 TV special.

Restrictive set lists notwithstanding, Elvis’s return to live performing was a huge success and, after years of having his career in the artistic and commercial doldrums, he was once again back on top.  It had taken just over three years (from the How Great Thou Art sessions to the live performances of July and August 1969), but the effort had been worth it.  Elvis now had his second chance – all he had to do now was build upon the foundation he had created for himself.

[1] Mike Jahn, “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances,” New York Times, December 4, 1968, 51.

[2] James D Kingsley, “Presley Faces Toughest Challenge in Las Vegas,” Billboard, August 9, 1969, 4.

[3] Eliot  Tiegel, “Elvis Retains Touch in Return to Stage,” Billboard, August 16, 1969, 47.

[4] Norma Lee Browning, “Elvis, in Person, Still the King,” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1969, Entertainment Section, 5.

[5] Mary Campbell, “The Pelvis Isn’t Stilled,” Ottawa Journal, November 1, 1969, TV Journal, 13.

[6] Cub Koda and Bruce Eder, “Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada,” in The All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music, ed. Vladimir Bogdanov (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 605.

[7] Don Heckman, “Zeppelin, Elvis, Butterfield – Three Styles of Rock,” New York Times, December 7, 1969, D42.

[8] “Elvis, The Byrds, Neil Diamond, Rankin, Lou Rawls, Joe Cocker, Parks, Humble Pie Top New LPs,” Variety, November 19, 1969, 48.

[9] Robert Hilburn, “Live Albums Best for Displaying Artists Talents,” Lansing State Journal, December 6, 1969, D3.

Bobby Darin: 1971 – The Lost Year

Even for many Bobby Darin fans, 1971 is a year which is a bit of a mystery.  Darin began the year with a residency at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.  An album was planned, entitled “Finally,” but it didn’t emerge until 1987.  Straight after the engagement, Bobby had heart surgery and laid low for next eight months or so, only appearing on TV again in September in a short, almost unrecognisable, cameo in a Jackson 5 special, and then in two acting roles in Ironside and Cade’s Country.  He finished the year with an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

This post pulls together some press cuttings from this “lost year.”  I have purposefully NOT included the many articles that dwelled on the surgery, and instead concentrated on other things.  Check out, though, the second and third articles, both from Variety.  In the first, they accuse some singers in Bobby’s act of walking out without warning on his show.  In the second, just days before the heart surgery and when he no doubt had plenty of other things on his mind, Bobby wrote to Variety to set the record straight.

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Fort Myers News-Press, Jan 6, 1971. 

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Variety, Jan 27, 1971. 

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Variety, Jan 29. 1971

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All of the above:  Detroit Free Press, Nov 10, 1971

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Burlington Daily-Times News, March 16, 1971

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Des Moines Free Press, June 4, 1971

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Reno Gazette-Journal, September 10, 1971

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San Bernardino County Sun, September 19, 1971

Neil Sedaka at the Royal Albert Hall, Sept 18, 2017 (review)

neil sedakaNeil Sedaka admitted to Billboard magazine in 2010 that “I’m a crier.”  Well, I am too, and Sedaka got me from the moment he walked on stage and sat down and sang what is possibly my favourite of his songs: One More Ride on the Merry-Go Round.  Recorded back in the day by Peggy Lee, Sedaka’s own version has always been  more compelling, not in any small way due to the fact that he includes an extra verse.  With the singer-songwriter now aged 78, one could be forgiven for thinking that the show would be one lasride on the merry-go-round, and yet, for the most part, he sounds little different, and the version of the song from last night sounds virtually the same as the one recorded for the criminally out-of-print live album from 1977,  Neil Sedaka and Songs, if perhaps the voice is now a little darker (note that the “CD” pictured in the Youtube video is not official).  Does this 78-year-old sound any older?  Yes, a little.  He now sounds all of 50.

One More Ride is a melancholy start to a concert but does give way to Standing on the Inside and The Miracle Song, with the latter not performed in 2012 when I saw Sedaka at the Royal Albert Hall the first time, if memory serves me correctly.  Again, this lush sweeping melody is sung beautifully.  Sure, a couple of melody notes are changed to allow for a slightly narrower vocal range, but essentially nothing has changed.

The run of early hits was given more attention this time around.  I seem to recall that some were abridged back in 2012, but not only were they sung with in full tonight, and with particular attention, Oh Carol even got an encore.  Likewise, Where the Boys Are gets a full and passionate outing, with no apologies from the singer for the performance of what was essentially a woman’s song, and it was all done far less self-consciously than on the aforementioned 1977 LP.  Tonight, alas, there was no I Go Ape, or, indeed, the slow version of Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, but when you’ve written 600 songs (that’s ten a year in a 60 year career!), you can’t do them all.

Despite his permanently cheerful demeanour and good humour, I prefer my Neil Sedaka singing about lost love, desolation and missed opportunities.  The Hungry Years is still the saddest song I know, Solitaire is still devastatingand Going Nowhere makes me bawl like a baby each time I hear it.  It was good too hear Superbird, too, another song of innocence lost – and, in a twist, regained.  Cheerful Neil also put in an appearance as he shimmied around the stage to Do You Remember in a slightly absurd, but disarming, fashion.  Sedaka takes his songs and his craft seriously, but not always himself.

But that also has its downsides.  That happy demeanour and self-deprecating humour also means that he isn’t always taken as seriously as he should be.  One can only wonder why this genius of songwriting hasn’t been rediscovered by the hip, cool cats of the student crowd.  Are there any more fitting songs for 2017 than Going Nowhere or The Immigrant?  One can only feel that so many people are missing out.  Oh, to see Sedaka at Glastonbury in the legends slot. And in that rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame.  Why he isn’t there is anybody’s guess.

Neil was on stage for 105 minutes, and performed well over two dozen songs.  Just him and his piano.  The connection with the audience was instant, and he held us in the palm of his hands all evening.  Faults?  Not really, although it would be nice if there was more time to explore some of the darker recesses of the back catalogue.  There are dozens of songs that are hidden away, and I for one would love to hear Stephen, My World Keeps Getting Smaller EverydayIs Anybody Going to Miss YouLonely Nights, or The Leaving Game – a song that should have been a hit, but was wasted as the B-side of Amarillo.   But you can only sing so much in one night.

It is almost criminal how much of the back catalogue is out of print, and never released on CD, and it is something that needs to be put right.  Albums such as Neil Sedaka and SongsIn the PocketA Song, All You Need is the Music, Neil Sedaka Now, and Come See About Me are all more than deserving of a CD release.

What perhaps is really needed is a definitive career-spanning boxed set, but Sedaka greatest hits packages of the past suggest that the various labels are unable or unwilling to work together, with (albeit very good) remakes of the 50s and 60s hits more often than not replacing the originals in recent years.  Here’s hoping that boxed set might eventually happen, collecting not only the hits but the multitude of other great songs that have been on albums and now are, perhaps temporarily, forgotten.  Until then, Sedaka will continue to do what he does best, entertaining audience with his remarkable catalogue of songs.  There was a suggestion on a TV show appearance a couple of weeks ago that this might be the last UK tour.  Going by the strength of the voice last night (much stronger than on the TV shows a fortnight ago, I might add), I wouldn’t be surprised if he returned for another ride on that merry-go-round – after all playing The Leaving Game isn’t easy.

Postscript

Given the terror attack in London just three days earlier, all credit to the staff and crew at the Royal Albert Hall last night for making people feel as safe as they could possibly be through bag searches etc.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciated that outward show of being security conscious.  As always, the staff at the RAH are some of the most friendly and helpful I have yet come across in a theatre environment.

As a final comment – if you’re at a concert such as this:  turn your bloody phones off.  An atmosphere in a concert hall/theatre can be easily spoilt by little lights going on everywhere as budding Alfred Hitchcock’s think it would be fun to start filming.   PUT THEM AWAY!   If all else fails, perhaps singers should start saying “right, you can film the next song.  Everyone who wants to film, do it now for the next performance, and then put the damned things away!”

Songs performed (from memory, and in no particular order, but I think complete!)
One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round
Standing on the Inside
The Miracle Song
Alone at Last
Oh Carol
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Next Door to an Angel
Calendar Girl
Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen
The Queen of 1964
Stairway to Heaven
Where the Boys Are
Solitaire
Laughter in the Rain
Superbird
The Hungry Years
Betty Grable
Going Nowhere
Trying to Say Goodbye
You
Do You Remember
Amarillo
Love Will Keep Us Together
That’s When the Music Takes Me
I Do It For Applause

Reconsider Baby. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide (2nd edition)

reconsider baby cover

 

Just published is the 2nd edition of my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide.  It is available through Amazon in both paperback and kindle editions.

The new version is significantly revised and expanded, with around 65% extra text, most of which examines how Elvis and his work was discussed in the press during the 1950s through the 1970s.   A detailed interview with yours truly about the new content can be found at the following link:
http://www.elvisinfonet.com/interview_Shane_Brown_Elvis-Presley-Reconsider-Baby-A-Listeners-Guide-Vol2.html

Over 500 articles are referenced and quoted from within the text, and a number of them force us to question what we thought we knew about Elvis and how his music was viewed when it was released.  For example, albums such as From Elvis in Memphis, and a TV show such as that for NBC in 1968, received far more mixed reviews than we have been led to believe, and were not viewed as instant classics.  Elsewhere, the text delves deeply into the backlash Elvis received following his 2nd appearance on The Milton Berle Show, and discovers that the instigator of that backlash, Jack Gould, had a long-running vendetta against Berle himself that dated back to 1951 and which may well have triggered his comments against Elvis.  A number of the myths regarding the reception of the 1957 Christmas album are also dispelled.

Below is a short excerpt from the book (pp.236-240), beginning with the final paragraph about the Live a Little, Love a Little sessions and continuing through an examination of a surprising set of articles that appeared in 1968, which suggest that there was a considerable amount of renewed interest in Elvis not just before the TV special was screened, but before it was even made.

*

Live a Little, Love a Little was another attempt at changing the direction of Elvis’s film career.  Army Archerd wrote that producer Doug Laurence described Speedway “as an ‘Elvis Presley picture,’ Stay Away Joe as ‘a picture starring Elvis Presley,’ and the current film as ‘halfway between them both.”[1]  The film attracted some solid reviews in the main.  In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote that the film is “a pleasant Elvis Presley picture that’s rather more sophisticated than the durable singing star’s 27 prior efforts.”[2]  There were also positive comments when the film was reviewed in Monthly Film Bulletin – in 1978!  Due to poor box office in America, the movie was not given a theatrical release in the UK.  As with the Los Angeles Times review from a decade earlier, the reviewer notes the “attempts to create a more eccentric, sophisticated setting for Presley than hitherto.”[3]  Not all reviews viewed the film in the same way, however.  Variety considered the film “one of [Elvis’s] dimmest vehicles…Nothing can buck that writing.  Songs are dull, physical values are standard, and mediocrity prevails.”[4]  Sometimes, though, Elvis must have felt that everything and everyone was working against him.  Even Rudy Vallee, who starred in the film alongside Elvis, told Hy Gardner a couple of years later: “Elvis Presley?  I worked in a picture with him recently and still can’t understand his popularity.”[5]

Just under four months after the recording of the Live a Little, Love a Little soundtrack, Elvis would start work on his TV special for NBC, a show that would go down in history as the performance that resurrected Elvis’s career and which would become known as the “comeback special.”  However, things are not quite that simple.  As has already been noted in this chapter, Elvis had been recording some fine material outside of the soundtrack sessions, and some of those songs would find themselves being used for the TV special, most notably Guitar Man and Big Boss Man, as well as Let Yourself Go from Speedway.   This in itself suggests that Elvis and those around him knew that he was doing some worthwhile work in the studio during these “pre-comeback” years.

What is most notable, however, is that interest in Elvis had increased even before the TV special aired – before it was even filmed, in fact.  Over the previous few years, he had been the subject of very few magazine and newspaper articles indeed, with the exception of a small flurry surrounding his thirtieth birthday in 1965 and his wedding in 1967, and in the case of the latter, the emphasis was on his private life and not his career.  But all of that changed in 1968.

In February, an extended article by C. Robert Jennings in the Los Angeles Times’ Westmagazine (and reprinted in numerous regional newspapers a couple of months later) featured an interview with Elvis and those who worked with him.  In it, Elvis talks about the changes to the sounds of records and how they are made, in a way that is remarkably similar to his monologue on the same subject during the TV special later in the year:

“Sure, recordings and arrangements have improved. They’ve learned to put strings and flutes and the softer instruments in the supporting music and trick things up some with choruses and electronic gimmicks, but the beat is still there, it’s still the thing, and it’s still what I call rock ‘n’ roll.  Just look at the charts and listen to the top records.  A little refined, maybe, but basically the same.”[6]

Later in the same article Elvis says that in Speedway he plays a “singin’ millionaire-playboy-race-driver.”  He is asked if he had played that kind of role before, and replies “only about 25 times, Sir.”[7]

What is fascinating about the article is that it was the first in a number of years (probably since the trio based on interviews from the set of It Happened at the World’s Fair) that takes Elvis seriously both as a man and an artist.  The author interviews Elvis, Parker, director Norman Taurog, and Nancy Sinatra, and for once it appears that Parker doesn’t appear to have influenced the lengthy finished article, with the writer less than complimentary at times, describing Elvis as sounding “like a displaced Ink Spot” on How Great Thou Art.[8]  Elvis discusses God, loneliness, and music – but mostly music, and he sounds more serious about it than for some time, telling the interviewer that when he was younger he “loved the records of Sister Rosetta Thorpe, all the cowboy singers, and Johnny (sic) Ray’s Cry I liked a lot.”

This article alone would be noteworthy given the lack of commercial success for Elvis at the time and lack of interest in him generally, but it was not the only one in the year preceding the broadcast of the TV show.  Some of this renewed interest in Elvis may have come about through the different types of movies he was now making.  “He no longer makes ‘Elvis Presley Pictures,’” Army Archerd told readers in June 1968.[9]  Here, Elvis was asked why he had never attended an Academy Award ceremony.  Had he not been invited?  “Yes, they invited me…but I’ve never gone.  I’ll go when I get a nomination.”  It is worth noting that Elvis was nominated for Grammy awards (and won three) but nonetheless never attended.

Perhaps most intriguing here is the news that “Elvis has…been invited [to the Academy Awards] not only to attend…but also has been invited to perform some of the nominated tunes. (None of his, by the way).  However, he’ll not perform on the show – and for the obvious commercial reason: he’s turned down as much as a million dollars to appear on television in a show other than an old movie.”  If this is indeed true, then one has to question Parker’s methods.  The publicity from an Academy Award ceremony appearance would, no doubt, have given Elvis’s career a much-needed shot in the arm in the mid-1960s.

Another flurry of articles appeared in the summer of 1968, one of which tackles the enigma of Elvis.  “Although he’s been around and among ’em for a dozen years or more, the one top personality Hollywood folks have never been able to fathom – let alone meet with – is Elvis Presley,” Harold Hefferman writes.  “He often seems more the mythical result of a press agent’s dream than the typical millionaire star next door.  It becomes increasingly difficult to believe that this young man is real.”[10]

There is a sense of frustration in the Hefferman article, as he gains access to the set of Speedway and yet finds he cannot get close to Elvis, let alone have an interview.  However, not all reporters were shunned in the same way.  Vernon Scott wrote around the same time that, back in 1956, Elvis  “had the brashness of the very young, compensating for what he lacked in confidence.  In the intervening years he has never denied the UPI an interview.  Big deal?  Not when you consider Presley as something less than a head of state.  But when you know his attitude towards the press, then, yes.”[11]

Scott didn’t just write one article on Elvis in the summer of 1968, but three.  What is clear is that he found Elvis at a crossroads in his life, and that he had changed over the years, becoming more comfortable in his own skin.  When he met Elvis on the set of Charro, he found “an entirely different Elvis from the slick, black-haired youth of the past, strikingly dressed and poutingly pretty.  The self-conscious slouch was gone too.”[12]  He goes on: “For a dozen years, Elvis unfailingly greeted me: ‘Hello, Mr Scott,’ even after a score of interviews.  This time I beat him to the punch: ‘Hello, Mr Presley.’”  The 33-year-old star broke into a confident grin.  ‘Hello, Vernon.’”

The last of Scott’s articles was important in that it gave the public their biggest signal yet that Elvis was changing, and was no longer happy just to sit back and make mediocre movies and have the money roll in.  Something had changed.  “Before too long I’m going to make some personal appearance tours,” he told Scott.  “I’ll probably start out here in this country and after that play some concerts abroad, starting in Europe.  I want to see some places I’ve never seen before. I miss the personal contact with audiences.”[13]  While Elvis never toured Europe, of course, he was at least being truthful when he said he was planning a return to live performances.

While Elvis might have made that decision following the taping of the 1968 TV special a couple of months earlier, that taping did not account for the spate of interviews and articles prior to it being shown in December, and dating back as far as the beginning of the year.

What is hard to ascertain is why those articles were written.  Was is because eyebrows were raised that Elvis had started to make different types of films?  This is a possibility, but it is worth noting that the articles by C. Robert Jennings and Harold Hefferman saw the authors visiting Elvis on the set of Speedway and not Stay Away, Joe or Live a Little, Love a Little.  And, by this point, one has to question whether or not a change in direction of Elvis’s movie career was really that newsworthy, as it wasn’t as if he was now going to star in a major big-budget film.   Given the timing of the first of these interviews, a renewed interest in Elvis may well have come from the release of better quality singles such as Big Boss ManGuitar Man, and U. S. Male, but even this does not stack up given the relative failure of those records in the American singles charts.  That said, when Elvis was revelling in the success of his engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in August 1969, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times wrote that “the musical rebirth of Presley can be traced back to his recording over a year ago of two Jerry Reed songs, Guitar Man and U. S. Male.  The beat was from Nashville and Memphis rather than from Hollywood.  Elvis seemed interested again. Something was happening.”[14]

This leaves a few more options, none of which make for compelling arguments.  The first of these is that there was renewed interest in Elvis following his nomination (and subsequent) win of a Grammy for How Great Thou Art, but then none of the articles concentrate on this, and most don’t even mention it at all.  There is also the option that the Parker publicity machine had started whirring back into operation at the beginning of 1968, and the journalists in question were invited to see Elvis on the set of his films and interview him – but then, if this was the case, why was it that Hefferman never even got to speak to Elvis when he visited the set of Speedway?

That leaves the alternative that it was simply time for a renewed interest in Elvis and his music thanks to that unpredictable, and yet ever-present, pendulum of popularity that seems to control the highs and lows of showbiz careers.  If that was the case, the timing of the TV special was remarkably good fortune in that it was able to take that slight swing in Elvis’s favour and help to turn Elvis’s career around.  What is clear is that Elvis was a big draw on television during this time.  A study made of movies shown on television between 1961 and 1969 showed that Elvis had seven of the highest-rated movies, three more than any other actor.[15]  This included the 1968-69 season where Elvis again was top, with five of the highest-rated films, one more than Doris Day.

[1] Army Archerd, “Just for Variety,” Variety, April 9, 1968, 2.

[2] Kevin Thomas, “Live a Little Is No. 28 for Presley, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1968, Part IV, 28.

[3] “Live a Little, Love a Little,” Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1978, 161.

[4] Murf, “Live a Little,Love a Little,” Variety, October 9, 1968, 27.

[5] Hy Gardner, “Glad You Asked That,” Pasadena Star News,  March 13, 1971, 13.

[6] C. Robert Jennings, “Elvis Lives!” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1968, West Magazine section, 29.

[7] Ibid, 31.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Army Archerd, “Presley Image Takes on Adult Shape,” Naugatuck Daily News, June 29, 1968, 6.

[10] Harold Hefferman, “25 Films Later, Elvis Baffles Hollywood,” Philadelphia Daily News, August 8, 1967, 38.

[11] Vernon Scott, “Elvis Presley, Adam in Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Book of Genesis, Revised Music World,”  Lansing State Journal, September 30, 1968, E5.

[12] Vernon Scott, “No More Spangles for Elvis,” Long Beach Independent, September 26, 1968, A33.

[13] Vernon Scott, “Singer Plans Overseas Tour,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 30, 1968, 13.

[14] Robert Hilburn, “Elvis’ Musical Rebirth Shows Top Pop Impact,” Des Moines Register, August 26, 1969, 7.

[15] “Elvis Presley is Part of Formula That Assures Movie High Ratings,” Pottsdown Mercury, May 7, 1970, 29.