Thursday, February 2, 2012

Elvis in Britain



During what would have been the early to mid-Seventies in Northern Ireland I recall as a child hearing one of apparently several comedic parodies of the song The Deck of Cards which was a hit for Wink Martindale in 1959. This version was voiced by somebody impersonating Protestant political leader the Reverend Ian Paisley and when reaching the "face cards" he would note how the Jack was naturally the papist jackanapes of Rome while the Queen was of course Queen Elizabeth II the Defender of the Faith. As for the King - well that was obviously "Elvis Presley!!!"

Elvis touched down twice in Britain.  In 1967 the MGM movie Double Trouble had Presley heading a rock combo on tour in London and Belgium. His leading lady Annette Day from Telford in Shropshire never worked again in cinema after this, her first and only film performance, though the feature does lay claim to some historic importance due to the late Norman Rossington being the only actor to appear in both an Elvis and a Beatles movie - Double Trouble and A Hard Day's Night respectively.

The opening credits and theme song from the movie retain some kitsch appeal although the one minute and twenty seven seconds long single lifted from the soundtrack album - Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On) - bombed at number 63 in the Billboard Top 100 and 49 in the UK charts. The album also contains one of the total lowpoints of Elvis' life in the irony-free duet with Day on Old McDonald. Presley allegedly screamed "It's come to this" during recording of this track and was only becalmed by being assured it would not appear on the forthcoming soundtrack album where in fact it remains to this day for all the world to hear forever and ever until the end of time. The soundtrack was actually released on the same day as The Beatle's Sgt Pepper album.

Double Trouble of course was filmed entirely in Hollywood. In reality Elvis' single fleeting presence on British soil came on March 3rd 1960 at Prestwick Airport near Glasgow while in transit home to America from military service in West Germany - as lampooned in the famous "Elvin Pelvin" episode of Sgt Bilko. The airport in Ayrshire was also used at the time as a USAAF air base and during his brief two-hour stop-over Elvis signed autographs, met fans at the NCO's mess and gave a brief press conference. On exiting the plane he had asked fans "Where am I?" with the crowd shouting back "Prestwick!"

Actually during the pre-digital days of the Eighties I used to acquire some interesting bootleg video and audio-cassette material on Elvis from a dealer in Cambuslang in Glasgow. Very intriguing stuff in hindsight such as magnificent outtakes from the 1968 NBC Special including Presley flirting with the incredibly beautiful Susan Henning during a photoshoot from the bordello sequence and the unbearably sad 1977 CBS Special from shortly before Elvis' death in August of that year.

I remember too buying a grainy copy of the 1968 musical comedy Live A Little Love A Little which included both the future dance hit A Little Less Conversation and the great lost single Edge of Reality which was only released as the b-side to If I Can Dream. Also there was the final Elvis dramatic role of all in 1969's Change of Habit with Mary Tyler Moore as a nun wavering between either Dr Elvis - with his lush sideburns and brilliant black University of Tennessee at Memphis sweat-shirt - or helping to raise the spirits of the downtrodden at the community Fiesta of Saint Juan de Cheguez with some groovy latin music.

There was also a compilation of movie trailers including the appalling Easy Come Easy Go from 1967 where Elvis played navy frogman Lieutenant Ted Jackson - "The bottom of the sea - where the action is!" - and Charro! from the following year featuring Elvis in a cool beard, a striking Hugo Montenegro score, dramatic horse rides through the Superstition Mountains at Apache Junction and not much else. I actually have read somewhere that during the grim endgame of his Hollywood years this was planned as the first of several television movies.

Finally I recall an interesting Elvis bootleg audio-cassette I acquired called Kickin Back which included a gorgeous rendition of Bread's Aubrey with his backing group and a crazed onstage rant about drug allegations - probably leaked by "freaks who carry your bag to the room" - following which he only managed to calm himself down by singing The Hawaiian Wedding Song. Mental.

I got to Memphis in the end too - as haunted and strange a place as that captured in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train without question - and have in my possession to this day my own parents' copy of the iconic 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong album that I have been playing now for over forty years. That collection contained the utterly raucous Big Hunk O'Love while the other June 10th 1958 tracks from that solitary recording session Elvis made just after he had joined the army - including I Got Stung and I Need Your Love Tonight - are mortifying reminders of where Elvis' career could have and should have gone in the Sixties.

The Seventies was naturally a mixed bag for Elvis Presley but a lot of his commercial output has dated very well in hindsight. Be that renowned tracks of the ilk of the stunning Burning Love to criminally overlooked songs such as Paul Williams' Where Do I Go From Here - the latter perfectly capturing a sentiment comprehensible to so many millions of us treading water in life year after year in familiar places now changed beyond recognition:

If I knew the way I'd go back home/but the countryside has changed so much I'd surely end up lost.
Half-remembered names and faces so far in the past/at the other side of bridges that were burnt once they were crossed.

The mostly melancholic From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis,Tennessee album from May 1976 would include a moving version of the Northern Irish anthem Danny Boy with just a simple piano accompaniment and as recorded at Gracelands itself. Danny Boy - which is often used as a non-contentious alternative to the British national anthem at certain sporting events involving Northern Irish representatives - was first published in 1855 as Londonderry Air by Dr George Petrie after composer Jane Ross had transcribed a tune from local fiddler Jimmy McCurry in Limavady. The famous lyrics of exile, loss and love of Ireland were added in 1912 by an Englishman Fred Weatherly.

Returning to Prestwick Airport on that historic day, I also recall that there was even a children's television dramatisation of Elvis' visit to Scotland in the Dramarama series of the Eighties on ITV - Waiting For Elvis as produced by Scottish Televison. Presley furthermore was also the subject of a 1979 Play For Today on BBC television with regard to Neville Smith's Long Distance Information. This was about an English disc jockey and Elvis-obsessive presenting his radio show as the news of Presley's death is broken across the world.

The play ended with one of the characters reflecting upon how if Elvis had been born British then surely "we would have looked after him" or some such. An affectionate and moving sentiment in hindsight - and especially in light of how people of an older Britain saw themselves as a fundamentally grounded nation. Though then again our national character never stopped the career of George Best ending on New Years Day 1974 at the grand old age of 27.

Safe Home Elvis.