Tag Archives: Elvis Presley

Rocks In The Attic #736: Willie Nelson – ‘Always On My Mind’ (1982)

rita#736News has just come in that Willie Nelson has been hit by a car. He was playing on the road again.

Jokes aside, is there a musician more associated with marijuana than Willie Nelson? Bob Marley maybe, but I can’t think of anybody else. Sure, every musician has smoked it, but Willie and Bob made a personal religion out of it. Maybe they should have taxed marijuana – would Willie have partaken then?

This 1982 studio album finds the tax-dodging Nelson playing Trigger, his trusty (and battered) acoustic guitar, on a number of covers aimed to attract a different audience – including the title song (made world famous by Elvis in 1972), Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale.

rita#736aDespite my dislike of country and western, I can just about manage to sit through this.

Hit: Always On My Mind

Hidden Gem: Do Right Woman, Do Right Man

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Rocks In The Attic #733: Queen – ‘A Night At The Opera’ (1975)

rita#733I finally caught Bohemian Rhapsody at the cinema recently. I wasn’t too bothered at first, thinking I probably wouldn’t enjoy it. In the end, it was okay, but – just like the band’s discography – it had some killer moments, surrounded by too much filler.

The problem with music biopics is that they tend to go down two routes. They’re either interesting artistic exercises (Control (2007), Ray (2004), I’m Not There (2007)), or they exist as a paint-by numbers exercise to sell cinema tickets on the strength of their subject’s name.

Bohemian Rhapsody falls firmly in the latter. It’s always risky watching a biopic when you know so much about the band. How will the film keep me interested and entertain me, when I already know what’s going to happen?

This film isn’t for me though. It’s for the other 99% of the cinema-viewing public; those whose experience of the band is a well-played copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits in their car’s CD-changer, and the knowledge only that Freddie Mercury died of AIDS.

It’s a wonder the film ever got made at all. Original lead Sacha Baron Cohen departed the project back in 2013, after falling out with the film’s executive-producers, Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor. He claims they wanted Mercury’s death to be plotted in the middle of the film, with the second half dealing with Queen’s dull as dishwater post-Mercury career. He wouldn’t clarify which of the two said this to him, before adding that Brian May was “an amazing musician” but “not a great movie producer.”

Baron Cohen’s involvement might have led to a better film. He suggested directors David Fincher and Tom Hooper, before the film landed with Bryan Singer, whose departure due to ‘personal issues’ led to the film being completed by Dexter Fletcher. Having seen what Fincher can do with a biopic (The Social Network (2010)), it’s a real shame he wasn’t hired. Hooper would also have been an interesting choice, being no stranger to biopics either, with both The Damned United (2009) and The King’s Speech (2010) under his name.

Baron Cohen’s mooted replacement was Ben ‘low whisper’ Whishaw, an actor with a similarly limited range as the film’s eventual star, Rami ‘low energy’ Malek. I first saw Malek in HBO’s mini-series The Pacific, in a role that suited his mumbling, bug-eyed weirdness. He then landed a similarly comatose lead in Mr. Robot, a TV show that rewarded viewers of its first year with an awful nudge-nudge-wink-wink season finale.

rita#733aWe’ll never know what Baron Cohen’s interpretation of Mercury would be like, but we can imagine. And I imagine it to be far, far more interesting than what we got from Malek. Aside from a bit of pouting, and a plummy accent, I didn’t ever think I saw Freddie Mercury in him. His performance (and the film’s marketing) reduces Freddie to a caricature of a moustache and a pair of aviator sunglasses. He’s just won the Golden Globe though (which might suggest an Oscar win in February), so what do I know.

The casting of the rest of the band deserves credit though. At one point, at a band meeting to discuss Mercury’s plans to go solo, the actor playing John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, also from The Pacific) looked so much like the bassist, that I thought it was him. I glanced at the actor playing Brian May (Gwilym Lee), who embodied the guitarist from his first scene, and the lines between fiction and reality started to blur. Then the camera cut to Rami Malek and it was like somebody waking me up from sleepwalking.

Only Ben Hardy’s casting as drummer Roger Taylor felt a little off the mark. The actor did a fine job delivering his lines, but he just didn’t come across as enough of a cunt.

Much has been said about the screenwriters’ toying with timelines for dramatic effect, leading to a glut of historical inaccuracies. Most importantly, Freddie Mercury didn’t learn he had AIDS until 1987, and didn’t inform the band until 1989 – four years after the film’s Live Aid finale.

Some of the other changes didn’t even make sense. Backstage at Live Aid, Mercury passes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it U2, leaving the stage, fresh from their legendary set (when Bono decided to spend three minutes dancing with a member of the audience, rather than perform their big hit, Pride (In The Name Of Love)). But it was Dire Straits, not U2, who played directly before Queen. Wouldn’t a sweatband-headed Mark Knopfler be a more recognisable figure to walk past? He could even have been walking with a yoga-suited Sting. Given how loose the writers were with the facts, they might as well have had him walking past a jumpsuited Elvis.

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The most annoying thing about all of this, of course, is that the film will now become the generally accepted version of events. Adults of today and tomorrow will think that Queen were on the verge of breaking up before Live Aid, not that they used the opportunity to win back public support lost after playing in apartheid South Africa. They’ll think that they were a last minute addition to the Live Aid bill, when in fact they were one of the first bands announced. They’ll think that the band’s Live Aid set was notable for the ramp-up in charity donations, when it was Michael Burke’s video report from Ethiopia, introduced by David Bowie and set to the music of the Car’s Drive, which started the ball rolling. They’ll think the band were managed by that creepy Irish guy from Game Of Thrones and Queer As Folk.

I remember finding about Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis while reading the headlines during my Sunday morning paper round. By the following Sunday, the papers were filled with his obituaries. It was only then, when Bohemian Rhapsody was rereleased as a cassette single – which I bought, helping it get to #1 in the UK – that I started listening to the band.

Many years later, I picked up a second-hand copy of the album the song was taken from, 1975’s A Night At The Opera. It is a fine record, but the stand-out track by country mile is Bohemian Rhapsody.

Listening to I’m In Love With My Car reminds me of my favourite line of the film, a subtle ongoing joke with the rest of the band ribbing Taylor about his song: “So, Roger, what would you say is the sexiest part of a car?”

Hit: Bohemian Rhapsody

Hidden Gem: Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)

Rocks In The Attic #715: Rod Stewart – ‘Body Wishes’ (1982)

RITA#715My Rod Stewart collection continues to grow and grow, despite me never having bought a Rod Stewart record in my life. I just keep acquiring them.

Even though his later records are junk compared to his more fruitful earlier material, both solo and with the Faces, I really don’t mind these later ones. I guess they could be described as mid-period albums, with his truly awful output these days being the ones to avoid like the plague.

I saw a documentary filmed at Rod’s house once. The guy loves football so much, he has a full-sized football pitch at the bottom of his house. I always thought that was a little extreme. It’s not like a snooker table or a dart board. You need twenty-one friends to come over and play on it to make it worthwhile. Not a problem, it seems, as he gets ten of his mates over and takes on the local amateur teams. Legend.

I’ve since seen that he’s bought another house and put a 7-a-side pitch in that one, so it looks like he’s slowly trading down.

This is Rod’s twelfth solo studio album and wasn’t received well despite a stonker of a lead single in Baby Jane, and a ‘so-1980s-it-hurts’ cover image paying homage to 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

Hit: Baby Jane

Hidden Gem: Move Me

Rocks In The Attic #661: Dean Martin – ‘French Style’ (1962)

RITA#661It is 1962. In the conference room of Reprise Records, Hollywood, California, we find the label’s founder, Frank Sinatra, discussing Reprise’s release schedule with various members of the Rat Pack.

Frank Sinatra: Okay boys, what are we going to put out next for Deano? It’ll need to be something good.

Dean Martin: Let’s just do what we always do, Frank. I can record some numbers with the band. Joe Public will lap it up.

Sinatra: That ain’t gonna cut it, Deano. The kids need something new, something different.

Sammy Davis, Jr: What if he does a country record, Frank?

Martin: Yeah Frank, what about country? I love Country!

Sinatra: No, not classy enough. No record label of mine is going to release hillbilly music.

Peter Lawford: What about rock and roll, Frank? The kids go crazy for that stuff. Look what it did for Elvis!

Martin: Yeah Frank, what about rock and roll? I love rock and roll!

Sinatra: No, not classy enough. Presley’s a degenerate. All it got him was a stint in the army. What’s the point of making records if it’s just going to get you shot.

RITA#661aJoey Bishop: What about the blues, Frank? Joe Public’d freak out for a blues record.

Martin: Yeah Frank, what about the blues? I love the blues!

Sinatra: No, not classy enough. He’s Italian-American; he ain’t no half-blind ni…

Davis, Jr: [clears throat]

Sinatra: …er, I mean, he’s not right for that audience. C’mon, there must be something we’re missing…

The room falls into a hush, as they look to the ceiling for inspiration.

Sinatra: …something new…something different…something with a certain…je nes sais quoi…

Martin: [looks at Sinatra and raises an eyebrow]

Hit: Le Vie En Rose

Hidden Gem: C’est Magnifique

Rocks In The Attic #620: Bill Haley & His Comets – ‘Bill Haley 1927 – 1981’ (1981)

RITA#620What if Elvis had never happened? What if Elvis had walked into Sun Studios in Memphis in 1953, but was prevented from making his first recording for Sam Phillips by a city-wide power cut? Of if he was hit by a bus walking over to the studio? The whole future of popular music and teen culture might have changed into an alternate timeline that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Two years later, Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock turns rock and roll into a household name, but there’s no good-looking teen idol to pass the flame to (up and comers Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are all killed in a package tour bus crash). Instead, teenagers across America turn to Haley for inspiration, as he signs with manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker. Tartan blazers become the hottest fashion accessory, and teens across the country turn to the emerging fast food restaurants to gain weight in adulation of their portly hero.

In 1957, Haley buys a large farming property, Graceland, between Memphis and the Mississippi border. A year later, Haley meets fourteen year old Priscilla Beaulieu and they marry after a seven year courtship. Haley becomes the most famous musician in the world, with his artistic credibility waning only after volunteering to join the army in 1958.

Throughout the 1960s Haley concentrates on acting and appears in a number of films celebrating middle-age. His return to music, the 1968 Comeback Special, renews public interest and reclaims Haley’s fanbase away from the British clarinet explosion of Acker Bilk. Dubbed the Fab One, Bilk had begun to alienate his global audience in recent years with music heavily influenced by his hallucinogenic drug use.

RITA#620aIn the 1970s, Haley becomes a staple of the Las Vegas casino scene. He switches draper jackets for white and gold jumpsuits, and it seems that his star will never fade with a million impersonators copying his gold wraparound sunglasses and kiss-curl hair-style. However, in December 1980 tragedy strikes when Haley is gunned down by an obsessive fan outside the New York apartment he shares with his Japanese wife, the artist Yoko Ono. Haley falls into a coma, and dies a few months later.

Haley’s legacy – the influential sound of rock and roll – can still be heard across pop charts to this day, and his lasting effect on fast-food culture is covered in Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary, Super Size Me, a celebration of the age of American obesity.

Hit: Rock Around The Clock

Hidden Gem: Rip It Up

Rocks In The Attic #598: Elvis Presley – ‘The All Time Greatest Hits’ (1987)

RITA#598I recently watched Elvis & Nixon, a 2016 film directed by Liza Johnson. All I knew about the film was that it starred the fantastic Michael Shannon as the Big ‘E’, and the equally fantastic Kevin Spacey as the big crook in the Oval Office. I didn’t know whether it was a drama, a comedy, a satirical warning or a Bollywood musical; all I knew was that it sounded as intriguing as the real-life meeting it was based on.

A quick blast through the opening credits, soundtracked by Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Comin’, lets you know what you’re in for – a light-hearted, absurdist, partly fictionalised tale of Elvis and Nixon’s meeting. The film is executive produced by Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ long-time confidant and member of the Memphis Mafia who accompanied him to the White House, so the film clearly has one film clearly stuck in reality. The other foot is waving everywhere, guided by a script by husband and (now ex-)wife team Joey & Hanala Sagal, and where-is-he-now actor Cary Elwes.

RITA#598aThe left-field choice of Michael Shannon to portray Presley is a strange one. Ever since I first saw Shannon in 2007’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and the following year’s Revolutionary Road – two small but extremely effective performances – it’s been clear that he’s been one to watch. One of my favourite actors ever since, he hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. 2011’s Take Shelter and 2016’s Midnight Special are two particular stand-out performances, but his ominous presence shines through in everything he’s been in.

He plays Presley as a caricature of course – it is the 1970’s Vegas-era version of Elvis we’re talking about, after all – but he also shows a quieter, melancholic side of Presley. This isn’t hard to imagine, an unfortunate side-effect of the isolation from being the biggest star in the world.

RITA#598cIn December 1970, Presley turned up in Washington DC to ask Nixon to swear him in as an undercover agent for the Bureau Of Narcotics And Dangerous Drugs. The result, he hoped, would be that he’d be given a badge to add to his growing collection of law-enforcement badges. Nixon acquiesced, in exchange for a photo with Presley and an autograph for his daughter.

It was odd to see Spacey sat in the Oval Office given that I’d just binge-watched him sitting behind the same desk in the fifth season of House Of Cards. His portrayal as Nixon feels spot-on, but then Spacey has always been a great mimic. The cast is rounded out by Colin Hanks, Alex Pettyfer and an underused Johnny Knoxville, and the film is wrapped up with a great late-‘60s soul and R&B soundtrack.

This double-disc compilation, The All Time Greatest Hits, features 45 Presley 45s – an astounding body of work.

Hit: Hound Dog

Hidden Gem: Way Down

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Rocks In The Attic #507: Prince – ‘Prince’ (1979)

RITA#5072016 has been a terrible year for celebrity deaths, particularly those from music, films and television. The year started off tainted by the death of Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister just a few days before New Year. Then things started to go crazy with David Bowie dying suddenly on the tenth of January. Following him, we’ve also seen the passing of Eagle Glenn Frey, Beatles producer George Martin, Keith Emerson, Merle Haggard, Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore, and many, many more.

Losing Bowie was bad enough, but any year where we lose somebody as iconic as him, plus Prince, plus Muhammad Ali is just plain crazy. It’s like the icons of the late twentieth century are falling off the planet. I’m half expecting a plane carrying Madonna, Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen to crash into the Hollywood sign, while Los Angeles succumbs to a devastating earthquake.

Prince’s death seemed to hit a little closer to home, only because he had just played in Auckland a few weeks earlier as part of his Piano And Microphone tour. I would have loved to see Prince, backed by a full band but I didn’t really like the idea of seeing him play unaccompanied. There’s a part of me that regrets not chasing down a ticket, just because it was my last chance to see him perform, but with his passing I’m even more glad that I didn’t go – I like to think that my seat went to a more deserving fan.

I can take or leave Prince. His Batman soundtrack was the first album I ever owned, and I like a good deal of his big hits; I just don’t like all the Sexy Motherf*cker bullshit that he descended to in the early nineties. His contractual dispute with Warner Brothers around that time – leading to him changing his name to the symbol and writing ‘Slave’ on his cheek also turned me off him. All of a sudden, just as I was getting into music in a big way, he didn’t seem to be about the music anymore.

His Greatest Hits album is superb though, and the song off that record I’ve always liked the best is the opening number I Wanna Be Your Lover, taken from this, his self-titled second album. The recent repressing of his back catalogue on vinyl has given me the opportunity to buy the album (I’ve never seen an original pressing in the wild), and it’s a great record.

The album version of I Wanna Be Your Lover sounds even better, being a few minutes longer than the single edit available on his Greatest Hits, and the other singles from the record are all worthy additions to his canon. I can’t remember the last time I liked a record so much from start to finish.

What’s not to like? All the upbeat songs are of a similar quality to I Wanna Be Your Lover, and the slower ballads don’t grate as much as some of the soppier ballads from later in his career. I might put my toe further in the purple water, and try out some of his other records now that they’re widely available again.

Hit: I Wanna Be Your Lover

Hidden Gem: Bambi