Elvis at 80

elvis gun

As the year in which Elvis Presley would have turned 80 draws to a close, perhaps it is a good time to look back at what has been, by and large, a year not just of disappointment, but also of comparative disaster – and all due to Presley’s own music label.

It is certainly true to say that Elvis’s popularity has taken something of a tumble over the last ten years or so.  The early 2000s saw the success of the remix of A Little Less Conversation, the release and commercial success of the greatest hits collection Elv1s (and its sequels), as well as what remains the ultimate release of the Aloha from Hawaii and 68 Comeback TV shows on DVD.  And all of that is without factoring in over a dozen re-release singles reaching the top 5 in the UK in 2005 and roughly the same amount reaching the top 20 in 2007.  After that, however, popularity amongst the general public seemed to wane – it was due to an infectious disease called Presleyitis which is more often than not caused by a record label releasing so many inane and bland items aimed at the general public that they no longer give a damn.

What do I mean by that?  Well, as of 2015, if you go onto Amazon you can have Prime delivery on brand new, unopened copies of around 100 different CD Elvis compilations issued by his own record company – that’s not including the public domain releases.  By compilations, I don’t mean products such as FTDs or the Legacy Edition series, but hits compilations, rock compilations, country compilations, gospel compilations, and our old favourite, Christmas compilations!  100.  And people thought Elvis’s catalogue was a mess in the 1980s!

Meanwhile, the last few years have brought us a series of “Legacy Edition” titles that have nothing in common with Legacy Edition titles by other artists but are, instead, two albums shoved on a double CD with a few singles from the period thrown in.  We also have the Original Album series of 3 or 5 disc boxed sets of original albums.  Again, with other artists these are just fine – nice, budget reissues.  With Elvis, however, we have one set with the same album included twice, one dedicated to movie soundtracks that also includes Pot Luck, and one that includes Viva Las Vegas, which was never an original album in the first place.  Speaking of soundtracks, the 20CD soundtrack box from a year or so ago was a nice idea, but ended up with songs being listed but missed off the CD, incorrect artwork, and other errors.

So, all in all, 2015, the year of Elvis’s 80th birthday didn’t have much to live up to – and could only be an improvement.  Right?  Wrong!

It all started ominously with the Elvis80 release in Germany, which was basically a double CD greatest hits release (because the public really needed another one of those) with a third disc that included such tasty treats as There Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Song and a remix of Shake That Tambourine which somehow turned out to be more embarrassing than the original version.  Oh yeah, and a duet on Love Me Tender with someone we’ve never heard of.

Then came the news that the world had been waiting for – a Legacy Edition release of the Today album.  Now, don’t get me wrong I actually really like the Today LP – but with Legacy Editions supposedly reserved for an artist’s best work, it hardly fit the bill.  And, to make matters even more strange, Sony went back to the original soundboard tapes of some 1975 concerts and reconstructed from scratch, and remastered, a concert released in 1980 that was in itself reconstructed.  They took the time to do this, but on FTD (the collector’s label dedicated to Elvis) they released some historically important concerts from 1956 and 1961 without even trying to improve the sound that had been achieved in 1998 – which in itself wasn’t an improvement on the release from 1980 and 1984.

But still fans held their breath, because they knew there was something coming that would “make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.”  They weren’t kidding.  The culmination of this wonderful year of celebration by Sony turned out to be the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra overdubbed on to Elvis recordings.  Wow.  Just what we always wanted or, in Priscilla’s words, “just what Elvis would have wanted.”

Whoever came up with the idea deserves medals for both blandness and stupidity.  It is not possible to hear what Elvis would have sounded like with a symphony orchestra by placing one on top of his vocals.  If he had recorded In the Ghetto with the RPO he would not have used the same vocal phrasings and techniques that he did with just his core group back in 1969.  The vocal performance would have been very different indeed.  This should not be hard to figure out – well, you’d think, anyway.

And so what happened?  Well, someone arranged the new backings – quite what they were smoking when they were doing so is a mystery, as some sound less like they belong on an Elvis record and more like they’re channelling Debussy and Ravel…while Elvis sings Steamroller Blues, no less. Elvis’s voice on the new album might be crystal clear, but the new backings draw attention to themselves from the opening scratching strings on Burning Love to the closing notes of If I Can Dream.  The most horrendous thing about the entire project is that it wasn’t released quietly.  Oh, no, Elvis’s widow – sorry, ex-wife (it’s easy to get confused) – appeared on talk show after talk show in the UK, Sony publicised the release like mad, and the public went out and bought it, making it #1 in the charts.

This is the worst possible result of such an endeavour.  Firstly, it encourages Sony to make more bizarre, boring and bland releases such as this, and, secondly, it means that those who bought it and were buying their first Elvis album are now unlikely to buy another one.  Ever.  The album succeeds in not just being ludicrous and dull (quite an achievement), but it also even manages to make Elvis’s vocal sound worse than it did to start with on occasion.  Just check out What Now My Love.  The RPO arrangement is bizarre, and Elvis sounds awful.  Double whammy.

And that’s it, folks.  In a year when Sony should have been working like hell to release something wondrous on the back of the publicity created by Elvis’s 80th birthday, they provide us with a year bookended by utter crap releases, with a bit of unassuming country music that no-one really cares about in the middle.  Elvis’s 80th birthday year should have been the moment when Elvis rose in stature once more.  Sony will, of course, say that he did, because cash-tills were ringing and the album was a commercial success.  But at what cost?

Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide is available through all Amazon stores.