1982: On the Shoulders of Giants
Television column written for Socialist Worker, August 1982, but not published.
NB The mention of the “New Wave editor” of SW at the time of Elvis’s death is an ironic reference to Chris Harman.
Last week was Rock Week on BBC television. I am delighted to say that long-standing speaking engagements prevented me from seeing the two David Essex movies, but I did see an inspired combination of programmes on Bank Holiday Monday: Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock followed straightaway by the Specials at the Colchester Institute.
The immediate effect was rather like being hurled in the Tardis from 1957 to 1979. But it left behind an interesting question. Do things change, or does each generation go through the same experience, thinking that it’s unique? Was punk rock nothing more than the Charleston, shocking to its contemporaries, but tame to those who came after?
Seeing Elvis again in the light of the Specials certainly showed his limitations. The Specials were, visibly and musically, the unity of black and white. Elvis, despite his huge debt to black music, came out of a profoundly racist culture. When he first performed on the Grand Ole Opry he was told “We don’t do that nigger music around here. If I were you, I’d go back to driving a truck”. In Jailhouse Rock all of Elvis’s fellow-prisoners were white.
The Specials supported CND; Elvis admired Richard Nixon and would have loved Ronnie Reagan. No trace of controversy, political or sexual, was allowed to find its way into Elvis’s lyrics. When the Specials, in Too Much Too Young, ask “Ain’t you heard of the starving millions, Ain’t you heard of contraception?”, one can almost hear Elvis replying in shocked tones “No I ain’t”.
And finally, the Specials showed a total involvement in the words and music they were producing. Elvis, despite his obvious talent, never seemed committed to anything. In Jailhouse Rock, he played Vince Everett, a working-class boy who becomes a rock star and gets rich and arrogant overnight. When Vince says he’s only in it for the money, it sounds like the most sincere line Elvis ever spoke.
And yet Elvis can’t just be thrown into the dustbin of history. When Elvis died in 1977, at the peak of the punk era, the New Wave editor of Socialist Worker told me there would be no obituary because “no-one under thirty-five has ever heard of Elvis”. I had my doubts at the time (the television news was full of pictures of weeping teenagers) and now I’m certain he was wrong.
John Lennon said that “before Elvis there was nothing”. But there was. Before Elvis there was Frankie Laine and I Believe, David Whitfield and Answer Me, Dickie Valentine Finger of Suspicion and the odious Jimmy Young with Unchained Melody. Music to go to sleep to. What Elvis brought above all was aggression – the self-confident arrogance of Blue Suede Shoes and the sheer hate of Hound Dog.
And it’s this aggression that saves Jailhouse Rock, despite the tired plot and the lame acting. Elvis killing a man with his bare hands, Elvis in a jail riot and getting whipped, Elvis smashing his guitar in the face of a man who talked while he was singing. Elvis in Jailhouse Rock was a singer at war. He didn’t know what he was at war with, and the system took good care he never found out. But Elvis opens up a period in which music is about conflict, not about relaxation.
And as a result Elvis made possible much that was to come after. As Little Richard, one of the great black rock singers put it: “they wasn’t playing no black artists on no Top 40 stations … it took people like Elvis and Pat Boone, Gene Vincent to open the door for this kind of music, and I thank God for Elvis Presley”.