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Jul 08

ELVIS PRESLEY – “Way Down”

FT + Popular93 comments • 5,485 views

#412, 3rd September 1977

Elvis’ first posthumous Number One is like a miniature of his career: a brilliant beginning, a saggy middle, and it ends way too soon. Elvis comes out fighting, swaying and swaggering over a roiling disco boogie – when the brass stabs in on “all of my resistance” it’s a genuine thrill. His voice is still iconic: its slurs and mumbles an economical, broadstroke sketch of Presley past, but born of expertise as much as laziness. “Way Down” is let down by its chorus, whose jauntiness sweeps all tension away and whose ending dispels any momentum: the song’s components just never really fit together.

And then he’s left the building. With the rock’n’roll revival such a force in mainstream seventies pop it’s fitting Elvis got his own last word in – and “Way Down” is considerably better than the Showaddywaddy or Stardust efforts we’ve been through, even if it’s a minor entry in the King’s own record book. At the time of his death, by all accounts Elvis was a marginal figure – with the right medical care, maybe he’d have had a comeback or two in him. Maybe not.

A strange thing about Elvis Presley is that his figure in decline has become an archetype as strong as his younger self. It can be hard to feel his direct impression on pop, harder the further away we get from the event zero of his emergence, but if he no longer defines pop he still encompasses it. Few began so blazingly, sold out so totally, returned so fiercely, collapsed so gracelessly: Presley anticipates every pop story.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Dan R on 8 Jul 2008 #

    I was too young yet to appreciate Elvis’s astonishing importance to world culture. I was old enough, however, to note the oddness of the BBC’s coverage. On the early evening magazine show, Nationwide, who did they get in to talk about her memories of the King? Irene Handl.

    Now, I wouldn’t want to say a word against Irene Handl (Maida Vale’s finest, etc.) but even aged eight I thought it passing strange to watch Irene Handl sit being interviewed by Bob Wellings – or whoever it was – tearfully talking about the great influence of Elvis on her life.

    This is a smashing bit of late Elvis. Gracefully boogying, making fine use of his gospel tenor to create a kind of Burning Love II. Unlike some of his self-important ballads, this makes sex sound fun. Hell, it makes being alive sound fun. He did churn out some wretched material and when they started releasing things like ‘I Can Help’, you were aware that we were already near the bottom of the barrel. But this is marvellous stuff.

    Does it matter that Elvis is so often recalled in his Vegas Whale period? I don’t think so. Guralnick’s magnificent two-volume biography makes very clear that Elvis was in uncharted waters. It’s easy to tut and say that he should have left Tom Parker and made no movies after G. I. Blues and ditched the Memphis Mafia and stayed thin and never gone to Vegas and recorded a series of roots recordings with Rick Rubin etc. etc. etc., but that’s all hindsight and there were no career paths in rock to follow. Evidently the only careers in popular music he saw around him that could compare were Sinatra. But Sinatra changed popular singing, he didn’t change the world. Elvis became bloated and lazy and dissatisfied because what’s a boy to do?

    Elvis of the 50s is iconic because it holds out a possibility of living. Elvis of the 70s is iconic because I think many of us have our bloated Elvis moments, where you think, how did it come to this? Why is my body rebelling against me? Where was the promise I had? What does all this effort mean? And yet you carry on singing and karate-kicking and mumbling witticisms and finding the whole thing sad and absurd and extraordinary. And I love Elvis for that.

  2. 32
    DJ Punctum on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Didn’t Presley want to be Dean Martin (and Nick Tosches’ Dino is in its vanishing, breezy way a better Elvis biography than the Guralnick epic)? But instead of drifting into contented non-existence (or anti-existence) he was basically a terrified coward, a Parker patsy, a carnival barker’s free ride, a performing well let’s not even go there.

    Seventies Elvis fetishisation is basically glorified necrophilia – it is a characteristic of decaying middle aged males to want to fetish/glorify/iconify decaying middle aged males because they can’t handle the prospect of saying no, or fuck you, of throwing away that security blanket of the past even though they know it will end up strangling them (and because they’re afraid of death but anyway) – and of course because Elvis is a conveniently dead icon that also makes him a puppet and we can make him do, say or think anything that suits us.

    You see, I see the reality of “how did it come to all this?” etc. but like Nadal on Sunday I refuse to accept “reality.”

  3. 33
    crag on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Though nominally a rocker, “Way Down” has practically nothing to do with the music Presley helped birth 2 decades previously. Slick and unthreatening with a pulsing pseudo-rhythm and synth brass stabs which always remind me, funnily enough, of Eno’s “Backwater” released a few months later(a deliberate crib?) it’s much more contemporary-sounding than any of the rock’n’roll revivalists operating in the 70’s and features a suprisingly involved performance from Elvis, who by this final stage in his career was putting much more effort into his ballad work, his ‘rock’ tracks from the period often sounding forced or even begrudged.

    Strange, though in many ways appropriate for Elvis’ send off to have been a rocker, which, in a glitzy pseudo-disco way “Way Down” nominally is,rather than one of the mournful, heartbreaking ballads which had became much more his stock and trade by the end of his life. WaCertainly “Hurt”from the 2nd last album From Elvis Presley Boulevard for example is a better record than Way Down and much more in tune with where he was at, musically and spiritually speaking, during the last half decade or so of his life but

  4. 34
    crag on 8 Jul 2008 #

    DOH!IGNORE MY PREVIOUS COMMENT- ROUGH DRAFT ACCIDENTLY SUBMITTED-FINAL DRAFT FOLLOWS!!

  5. 35
    crag on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Though nominally a rocker, “Way Down” has practically nothing to do with the music Presley helped birth 2 decades previously. Slick and unthreatening with a pulsing pseudo-rhythm and synth brass stabs which always remind me, funnily enough, of Eno’s “Backwater” released a few months later(a deliberate crib?) it’s much more contemporary-sounding than any of the rock’n’roll revivalists operating in the 70’s nodding more towards ABBA or ELO than recreating the Sun Studio sound.Even more suprisingly it features an involved performance from Elvis, who by this final stage in his career was putting much more effort into his ballad work, his few ‘rock’ tracks from the period often sounding forced or even begrudged. Here he sounds jolly, a different man from the sexual animal who emerged from Memphis in 54 (even the chuckle on “Way Down” mentioned above sounds a million miles from the leering grin heard towards the end of 1956’s “Baby Lets Play House”)but still like someone ejoying themselves for once.

    As such its a pleasing twist of fate that as the current single at the time “Way Down” happened to be the track that gave him his posthumous ‘tribute’charttopper,rather than one of the mournful, heartbreaking ballads which had became much more the stock and trade of his singles output by the end of his life.Although hardly an example of him at his best its a much more apt swan song than, say, the hollow bellow of pain that was his late 76 hit “Hurt” which, as Dave Marsh once commented, upon hearing didnt suprise you that he had less than a year to live when it was recorded, rather that he lasted that long afterwards.

    Although “Hurt” is a much more powerful and moving record,and much more in tune with where he was at, musically and spiritually speaking, during the last half decade or so of his life “Way Down” works better as a curtaincloser because it makes us think more of the Elvis we’d like to be, or like to hang out with- the fun-loving dude with the golden voice and charm by the bucketload- rather than the tragic fallen angel his more typical 70’s work evokes.

    Elvis left the building, despite all the odds, sounding confident, comfortable with his past and his present and with a spring in his step. I cant think of a more fitting send-off.

  6. 36
    Dan R on 8 Jul 2008 #

    re #31

    It’s more complex than necrophilia. You couldn’t fuel a thirty year industry on pure irony. It’s not just saying he’s fat and rubbish. It’s also acknowledging that 70s Elvis was also magnificent. Some of his seventies recordings really do stand up to the most exacting scrutiny: Burning Love, Promised Land, Faded Love, Tomorrow Never Comes, I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water, Polk Salad Annie, etc. And we need to remember that the ballooning weight gain was only visible in concert for the last 18 months of his life. In the earlier 70s he looked pretty good. Well, as good as a man can in his mid-thirties wearing a rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuit. (Comp. Van Morrison in The Last Waltz…)

    Asking ‘How Did It Come To This?’ is, of course, a way into appreciating reality, even if you choose to go all Vegas and defy it too. Recognising reality doesn’t mean submitting to it. And I’ll stop there before I get all Theodor Adorno on yo’ ass.

  7. 37
    crag on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Re#31- Surely the fetishisation of Lennon/Morrison/Cobain/Garland/any dead performer who’s form of demise is a major part of their legend could be described as “basically glorified necrophilia”. However I love Presley’s 70’s work simply because it moves me deeply. To me, at its best, its Soul Music in it’s finest and purest form. I’m too young to remember Elvis so the past he embodies is one I didnt experience. However like any human being who’s lived a few decades I’ve had my share of emotional turmoil and as such Elvis’ ability to convey these feelings in such a raw and geniune way in his late recordings connects with me on this gut level. The whole jumpsuit-hamburger-thangyewverymuch-dying-on-the-john-in-a-big-nappy thing is an irrelevance. The iconography of an artist can certainly add to one’s enjoyment of their output but at the end of the day its the quality of the music that counts.

    Good call re:Space. Such a tragedy that if anyone thinks of the name now they think of the none-more-irksome Beautiful Neighbourhood bunch. Any idea what became of them?(the Magic Fly ones i mean, not the other lot.)

  8. 38
    DJ Punctum on 8 Jul 2008 #

    No, it’s easy to fuel any long-term industry on necrophilia and misplaced lamenting (again, see Wimbledon, but that’s another story), Gracelands as trailer park Lourdes etc. because it’s easier to luxuriate in the squalidity of the decline of others (which is let’s face it ALL seventies Elvis – so much projection has gone onto that “body” it should be called the National Film Theatre) than celebrate their peaks, i.e. when they were LIVING and ECSTATIC, and extend that into your own life.

    Analyse his seventies output as much as you want, but in the end you’ll have to acknowledge that you’d exchange all of it for a split second of “Don’t Be Cruel.”

  9. 39
    crag on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Funnily enough, his late 50’s pop stuff is probably my least favorite aspect of his work. I love the Sun stuff, think a lot of the 60’s singles stand up well as great tracks of their period(sure, theres the whole awful “Dominique the Lonely Bull”type soundtrack stuff from this time but thats easy to ignore-BMG seem to have managed it with their reissue campaigns) and i’ve already made my feelings clear on the 70s.
    The trouble with tracks like “Don’t Be Cruel” for me is the contrast between the terrific sneering sensiousness of Elvis’ lead and the godawful cod-barbershop backing of those bastards the Jordanaires-listen on Hound Dog to how Scotty Moore’s brilliant solos are ruined by having their grotesque smug cooing plastered over the top. At its worst its almost like Never Mind the Bollocks if it were produced by Jeff Lynne..

    Out of interest, whats your thoughts on Suspicious Minds, MC?

  10. 40
    Waldo on 8 Jul 2008 #

    The main memory I have about Presley buying the farm concerns the reports that he wasn’t actually dead, leading inevitably to “sightings” of the King. In fact I’m pretty sure I spotted him myself stacking shelves in Safeway in Wrexham. Do any other Popular pilgrims have any sightings experiences of Elvis that they would wish to share?

    With regards stiffs to come, I recall when John Wayne hit the snooze button and I broke the news to a guy at work called Dave, who thought I was winding him up, as he was a great admirer of The Duke. Another fellow called Vince (who was nothing if not a hippy pothead – the very prototype for Neil from “The Young Ones”) came drifting past at that point…

    “Hey, Vince,” I called out. “Dave won’t believe me. John Wayne’s dead, isn’t he?”

    And Vince responded in a perfect impersonation of the great man’s drawl: “He sure is!”

    I cracked up.

    Dave didn’t.

  11. 41
    DJ Punctum on 8 Jul 2008 #

    “Suspicious Minds”? Last lease of life, still on the leash, surrendering reluctantly to his doom, dawn of the seventies – it all fits.

  12. 42
    Dan R on 8 Jul 2008 #

    re: #37

    My point was about irony, not misplaced lamenting, but fair enough. If it were possible – and it isn’t – to weigh up music in the manner you suggest, no doubt Don’t Be Cruel would outweigh much of the seventies material. But also the seventies material would not exist without Don’t Be Cruel, so it’s a meaningless question. I’m saying something simpler: that 70s Elvis is more complex that the fat Vegas burger-botherer of popular contempt. Not that controversial and it doesn’t entail knocking the 50s Elvis either.

    Mind you, I think the popular idea that he was a serious bolt of pure sexual energy who drifted into parody is precisely the wrong way round. Elvis was a miraculous, dangerous ironist, who crossed boundaries of race and gender and class, all with a wink and a smile, who unfortunately drifted into taking himself very very seriously.

  13. 43
    DJ Punctum on 8 Jul 2008 #

    I think that Elvis was rock’s Baldrick who thought that irony was a metal like silvery and goldy.

  14. 44
    Drucius on 8 Jul 2008 #

    “Elvis was a miraculous, dangerous ironist, who crossed boundaries of race and gender and class, all with a wink and a smile, who unfortunately drifted into taking himself very very seriously”

    This all seems highly unlikely.

  15. 45
    mike on 8 Jul 2008 #

    “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones, in 1977…” (The Clash, written in 1976.)

    I was in my room at my mother and step-father’s house in Harpenden, listening to Peel during a thunder storm. He reported the news as “unconfirmed reports are coming through”, then confirmed the rumours a few records later. Within the same announcement, he explained that he wasn’t about to go rushing down to the archives to pull out Elvis’s old records, as that always struck him as “ghoulish”. Instead, he paid a brief, somewhat curt tribute (albeit pointedly to the Elvis of the 1950s only), and carried on the show.

    Down at the Vortex club on Wardour Street, which had become the de facto punk hangout since the initial (if temporary) closure of The Roxy in Covent Garden, crowds of cluelessly spiked-up Johnny Come Latelys actually cheered the news, prompting fresh-faced new Sniffin’ Glue contributor Danny Baker to take to the stage and passionately berate them for their gormlessness (later written up in an article for what I think was the last ever edition of the fanzine, and I also seem to recall that Baker later named the incident as one of the final nails in the coffin for the original spirit of 1976, and a sign that it was time for all right-thinking people to bail out).

    Posthumous marketing not being the finely honed reflex response that it has since become, I was shocked when “Way Down” leapt up the charts the following week, and keenly aware that it wasn’t particularly being bought on the strength of its musical merits. In which case, it’s strange how posterity has recast this record as a serendipitously apt last hurrah, as this exceptionally fine thread has already made clear.

    “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me you see” – Chuck D, 1989.

    And to me neither, I’m afraid (although I acknowledge his influence etc etc, and Tom’s final sentence above absolutely says it all). Then again, I am partial towards certain chunks of late 60s/early 70s Elvis, particularly “Suspicious Minds” and especially the truly spine-tingling “I Just Can’t Help Believing” (recorded live, and to my ears more of an ensemble piece than anything else).

    But then again, the rough pub on the corner of Thurland Street was pumping out the “Glory Glory Hallelujah” bit from “American Trilogy” at chucking out time last night, just as I was walking back from White Denim’s raw, instinctive, spontaneous, galvanising, energising, neck-scruff-grabbingly FANTASTIC gig at the venue up the road. And to be honest? It just sounded pathetic.

  16. 46
    Mark G on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Is “Presley’s” bar/pub still going, on the TottCtRoad?

  17. 47
    DJ Punctum on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Yes, but under the name of the Rising Sun.

    The tragedy of Presley’s “American Trilogy” is that, unlike Mickey Newbury’s original, he can’t/won’t let it lie at “All My Trials” (and that was the whole quiet point of the exercise in the first place); he can’t resist the big finish and the flag waving.

    Still, if anyone’s ever seen Freddie Starr doing “American Trilogy”…

  18. 48
    Mark G on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Or indeed, “The Unknown Singer” i.e. PJ Proby, on OpKnox…

  19. 49
    DJ Punctum on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Blimey, yes.

  20. 50
    Dan R on 8 Jul 2008 #

    #43

    American Trilogy (and the path that led there, which includes the far superior, but still overserious, In the Ghetto and If I Can Dream) is certainly the sound of someone taking themselves too seriously.

    Did they cross all those borders with a wink and a smile? Yes indeedy. Just watch that scandalous performance of Hound Dog that got him banned from the waist up: he’s joking with the audience, he’s parodying himself, you can hear the audience laughing… and when he does the half time semi-encore of the song, the laughter comes in gales. This is not to say it wasn’t also very sexy and original and so on, but he was also aware of what he was doing. Not just a dumb form boy.

    And did he cross those boundaries? Well race, yes obviously – witness the people who thought he was black first time they heard ‘That’s Alright Mama’, but many other obvious things – but also gender. Read the critics who fulminated against Elvis: when they complain that he was ‘bumping and grinding’ and making moves ‘hitherto confined to the burlesque runway’ the complaint here is that Elvis’s outrage partly consists in behaving like a woman.

  21. 51
    Billy Smart on 8 Jul 2008 #

    Has anybody got a copy of Val Hennessy’s punk history to hand? There’s a remarkable editorial from (I think) the Standard included which says – from memory – that Elvis might have been misguided and wrong, but he had hope on his side, unlike these despicable, evil, punk rockers, with their seditious mission to destroy all that decent people hold dear!

    Favourite seventies Elvis moment, by the way – the “Whoo hoo hoo!” in ‘Burning Love’. An exhausted man having as much fun as a fit young one, but with rather more risk of damaging himself (further) through doing so.

  22. 52
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jul 2008 #

    Of course, one has to remember that Jimmy Savile quickly reminded us in the People (or was it the Sunday Mirror?) that the Elvis he knew was no junkie. And there’s a PJ Proby song called “Elvis Wasn’t The White N****r, I Was” but maybe best not to go there.

  23. 53
    rosie on 9 Jul 2008 #

    … and the really strange thing is, even after playing this to myself a dozen times over the last few days, when I see a reference to it the first thing that plays on the jukebox in my head is Donovan’s Legend of Atlantis

  24. 54
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jul 2008 #

    The great lost Elvis movie of course has to be Village Blues where the King plays Rusty Rutgrinder, a rock and roll singer who suddenly quits his job, gets kidnapped and wakes up in a strange seaside village. Number Two (Bill Bixby) explains that he has been brought here to explain why he quit (“this ain’t no Disneyland, boy”). Angry, Rusty attempts to escape but is defeated by a wacky weather balloon (Buddy Hackett). However, he meets and falls in love with fellow villager Stella Stevens and together they decide to set up a big roustabout barn dance on the beach. The film ends with Rusty cheerfully telling his new lady “well honey, uh guess uh’ll be stayin’ here,” before leading the cast in the big finale “You Can’t Get Over A Rover.”

  25. 55
    intothefireuk on 9 Jul 2008 #

    I remember the day Elvis died. There was a terrific thunderstorm and an absolutely torrential downpour. The rain relentlessly thudded against my front room window as I heard and assimilated the words ‘Elvis is dead’ coming from the radio. Did it matter ? It shouldn’t have. Elvis represented our parents, he was out of date, out of style and now, out of luck. More notable for his musical movies and his subsequent iconic regalia than his ground-breaking musical past. For some reason though, it saddened me greatly. Maybe because although I did not relate to him, he was a fixture, he’d been there as long as I could remember. He was an absolute God to some and suddenly he was gone. Way Down was too little too late to save him, I don’t dislike the record, I can’t, but it hardly represents his best work does it ? …although an inevitable number one for obvious reasons, none of them musical. Bolan would shortly follow him skywards and it really did feel as though punk was indeed rock’s grim reaper.

  26. 56
    Waldo on 9 Jul 2008 #

    # 54 – Of course Leo Mckern wanted no part of “Village Blues”. Instead he pissed off to appear in “Help!” where the Fab Four suddenly quit their jobs only to wake up in Pontins in Prestatyn to find Wilfrid Brambell demanding to know why they quit and they meet and fall in love with felow camper Doris Hare and then they…

    Continued on Page 94

  27. 57
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jul 2008 #

    Patrick Cargill was approached for a cameo role but expressed dismay at his one line of dialogue: “XO4? That’s nearly an armful!”

  28. 58
    wichita lineman on 10 Jul 2008 #

    Space’s Magic Fly did knock Elvis off the no.1 spot in the NME chart and – as if to hammer home “the King is dead, long the live the Korg” – no.2 was Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene.

    Simon Bates’s Golden Hour the next morning was all Elvis – that’s how I heard the news. I taped it. Did anyone else? Slightly odd selection, but this was my introduction to Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby, His Latest Flame, and A Mess Of Blues among others. No Suspicious Minds, which hadn’t yet made the legendary grade of the pre-army recordings.

  29. 59
    Billy Smart on 10 Jul 2008 #

    The other phantom NME Chart number ones of 1977; God Save The Queen, Ma Baker, You’re In My Heart, Rocking All Over The World.

  30. 60
    DJ Punctum on 11 Jul 2008 #

    To complicate matters further, here are the Radio Luxembourg-only 1977 number ones: I Wish, Going In With My Eyes Open, Red Light Spells Danger, Evergreen, Fanfare For The Common Man, You Got What It Takes, Wondrous Stories (!) and the official Xmas number two which I’ll leave until we get there.

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