Tag Archives: Elvis Presley

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

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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

RITA#598b

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

Can You Hear Me Major Tom?

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I heard a rumour from Ground Control, oh no, don’t say it’s true…

The world has lost some of its magic. Absolutely heartbreaking. It’s been almost a week now but I’ve been so upset about Bowie leaving us, that I’ve only just managed to start putting everything into context. Let’s start at the beginning…

When I was 9 my parents took me on a weekend trip down to London. Manchester might only be a train ride away from the capital at the other end of the country, but to me it felt like the other end of the world. London is so different to the rest of the country; it never feels like you’re in England. Down there you’re just as much a foreigner as all the other tourists.

One highlight of the trip was a visit to an attraction called Rock Circus. An extension of Madame Tussauds, this was essentially where they put all the rock n’ roll waxworks. Elvis, next to Michael Jackson, next to Buddy Holly, next to the Rolling Stones. You get the idea. It doesn’t exist anymore. I guess they decided that London had its share of celebrity waxworks at Tussauds.

At the end of the exhibit, we were ushered into a small viewing room. Everybody sat down – maybe twenty of us – and the lights dimmed. The familiar orchestral tune-up of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started, the curtains opened, and there they were, the Beatles themselves. Well, obviously it wasn’t them; it was their waxworks, dressed in the fluorescent military garb from the front of the Peppers album cover. And just like that iconic image, they were flanked by endless rows of cut-outs of the Beatles’ heroes.

They roared through that opening track as much as you can expect a bunch of mannequins to. Their jaws opened and shut in time with the vocals, and to this 9-year old it looked pretty damn good. They probably segued into With A Little Help From My Friends – I can’t remember – but they finished and everybody clapped and cheered.

The curtain closed, and a minute later, a quiet acoustic guitar faded in. I now know it’s a C major going to an E minor, and back; but I wouldn’t have known that then. Then the curtains opened again, the scene has changed to a starfield in outer space and there’s some oddball – a waxwork again obviously – slowly spinning around in a spacesuit, with a bung eye and crazy snaggleteeth.

‘Ground Control to Major Tom…” he sang.

Ladies and gentleman, my introduction to Mr. David Bowie.

Bowie 2
I next ran into Bowie a couple of years later. At secondary school we had to go out into the big, bad world to do some work experience. I landed a job at a small engineering firm called B.J.Engineering. BJ engineering? Isn’t that what pimps do? It was the kind of place where they send the student to the local hardware store for a long stand, or to the sweet shop for a bag of clitoris drops. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer any such pranks; but for two weeks I had to answer the phone, saying “Good morning, B.J.Engineering, can I help you?” There’s nothing like starting at the very bottom.

On my first day, the foreman of the place went to the bookies on his lunch-break, and returned excitedly with a music cassette. It was a new album – Changesbowie – that had just come out that day. At home time, he offered me a lift to save me from the bus-ride, and the new cassette went straight onto the car stereo. I recalled the first song on the compilation – Space Oddity – from the London trip and the foreman’s enthusiasm for this weird looking singer planted a seed.

I then caught a great drama on the BBC in 1993 – The Buddha Of Suburbia – and noticed that the music for the series was performed by David Bowie. This guy is fucking everywhere, I thought, and he’s still relevant.

Bowie 4I started off with The Singles Collection when it was released in 1993, and I’ve been working my way through all of the individual studio albums ever since. I first got into the glam-rock Bowie (The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane), then I turned backwards to the singer-songwriter Bowie (Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory), then forward in time again to the strung-out on cocaine Bowie (Station To Station), onto the Berlin Bowie (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger), then to his early ‘80s pop reinvention (Let’s Dance).

These days I tend to jump all over the place. A little bit of Stone Love here, a little bit of Speed Of Life there, followed with that hypnotic bass line from Let’s Dance. Lately, I’ve been listening a lot to Seu Jorge’s studio sessions from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. For the uninitiated, this is a great collection of Bowie covers by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, played on a Spanish acoustic and sung in Portuguese. They’re wonderful interpretations – abstract yet ambient; even Bowie himself was a fan. “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs acoustically in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with,” he is quoted as saying.

As a guitar player it’s the guitarists I tend to categorise Bowie by; and what a choice! Who do I want to listen to today? Mick Ronson? Earl Slick? Carlos Alomar? Robert Fripp? Nile Rodgers? Stevie Ray Vaughan? Absolutely incredible – what a roll-call! Bowie and Rodgers were in the crowd when Stevie Ray Vaughan played at the Montreau Jazz Festival in 1982, and despite seeing Vaughan booed off stage by the festival’s purist attendees, they still went backstage and offered him the gig playing on the Let’s Dance album.

My friend Vini and I would joke endlessly about Bowie’s music video for Be My Wife. His demeanour and actions in that video prompted many a drunken impression back in the day. That’s definitely the strung-out on cocaine Bowie right there. It’s like he’s doing an impression of himself. It would only be a better impression if Phil Cornwell from Stella Street was doing it.

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In January 2011, the 7” of Be My Wife even made an appearance at my wedding. My wife and I also put a nice CD together of all of our favourite songs to give away to people as a memento, and we included Wild Is The Wind on there as it’s a song that we both love so much. It’s nice that Bowie was part of that day.

The first person I thought of when I heard about Bowie’s death was Adam Buxton – from comedy duo Adam & Joe. Their enthusiasm for anything Bowie-related is legendary (they even did a nice little song about Bowie’s appearance in Labyrinth) and Buxton is such a super-fan, even taking Bowie as his specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind, that my first thoughts were that Adam & Joe would never get to interview him.

(As a sidenote, it’s probably Adam & Joe’s fault that I love Ashes To Ashes so much. I had almost written the song off – I’ve never been fond of nursery rhyme style lyrics – but their love of the song opened up its world of magic to me. There is a lot going on in that song, both musically and lyrically, that it never gets old.)

Bowie 7Mark Twain once said ‘When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” I feel the same way about Bowie – it’s just one of my natural instincts. If you love Bowie, then I automatically like you. How can any self-respecting muso not dig what he does? He subverted and crossed so many genres, he is his own genre. When I listened to rock, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to metal, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to punk, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to electronica, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to soul, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to jazz, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to blues, I listened to Bowie. Whenever I take a break from listening to music, I still listen to Bowie! I have a great Bowie t-shirt that says everything you need to know: “There’s old wave. There’s new. And there’s David Bowie…”

The surname has always been a subject of debate. Born David Robert Jones in Brixton in 1947, he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones. The surname comes from the Bowie knife – that’s why it’s Bow-ie to rhyme with snowy, not Bow-ie to rhyme with Maui. Let’s try to get it right from now on.

There are so many moments that endlessly go around in my head. Like the story about celebrities being afraid to perform on TV with Bowie after Bing Crosby and Marc Bolan both met their end after duetting with him. Or the time that Bowie introduced the famous famine clip at Live Aid. Or the time Bowie serenaded Ricky Gervais on Extras: “Pathetic little fat man…”

Bowie 3
I once found myself in the Auckland Wintergardens, standing on the very same spot that Bowie had stood, being reprimanded back in 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. We should never forget that he was a great actor – and could have filled the screen with great performances had he not concentrated on music.

Back in my days playing Delta 7, I used to do a cover of Ziggy Stardust during our acoustic set. It was probably my favourite Bowie song back then. Around the same time, I was lucky enough to see Bowie headline on the Sunday night at Glastonbury. His band started playing the opening bars of Wild Is The Wind, and after a few minutes, Bowie sauntered out in a palatial, quilted gold coat that looked like it had been sewn with the pubic hair of angels.

Bowie 8
Surely he wouldn’t play Ziggy Stardust, I thought; he’s just here to play the hits. But my friend Vini was adamant: “He’ll play it!”

Bowie thundered on through the set – all the songs you’d expect – but still no Ziggy Stardust. I had resigned myself that he wasn’t going to play it, but first song into the encore, there it was, that crashing G chord. Usually, I leave the festival in a funk as I don’t want to go back to the real world, but that year I left a very happy man.

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My only photograph of Bowie from that evening.

A couple of years later in another band, we used to rehearse on the top floor of an old mill in Manchester (Sankey’s Soap for those who remember). We used to be able to hear the Bowie tribute band in the room below our doing note-perfect renditions of songs like Five Years. I never actually saw the band, but the music was so spot-on, I’m glad I never did. It would have spoiled the illusion.

One of my favourite punch-the-air Bowie moments in recent years was attending the New Zealand premiere of The Cove in Auckland, with director Louie Psihoyos in attendance. I challenge anybody to find a more apt use of a song than Heroes on the end credits of that film.

Bowie 9In light of Bowie’s death, Psihoyos posted the following message on Facebook: “David Bowie could have charged us tens of thousands of dollars to license “Heroes” for The Cove – we didn’t have that kind of money – but one could dream. Pop songs by superstars like him can license for 6-7 figures. He made his publishers take the absolute minimum they would take and we were charged nearly nothing for that song. Rest in peace Mr Bowie, you are my hero.”

Last week, when the news broke about Bowie on Monday night, comedian Jimmy Carr was playing a stand-up show in Auckland. The news broke during the intermission. Now this is tricky ground – an offensive joke from Jimmy Carr is as sure as death and taxes (pun very much intended), but he treated the situation gracefully: “Looking on the plus side we’re all a little cooler now as the coolest man on Earth just died.”

I’m going to give the last word to a member of a vinyl group I’m a member of on Facebook, Bernado El Masiosare. It’s a popular sentiment we’ve heard before, but in this case it seems very appropriate:

Whenever you’re sad, just remember this world is 4.5 billion years old and you were so lucky to live at the same time as David Bowie.

 

Bowie 10

The last photograph of David Bowie, having fun promoting Blackstar on his 69th birthday.

Rocks In The Attic #372: Various Artists – ‘60 Number Ones Of The Sixties’ (1990)

RITA#372In terms of hits, this is the undoubtedly the best album in my collection. Sixty (UK) number ones! That’s a lot of A-sides – and most of them are still superb, even now fifty years later. I bought this for DJing purposes – and while I did delve into it from time to time, I ended up playing Je T’aime by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin the most because the landlord of the bar I worked at really liked it.

Oh, and San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie, because Danny Beetle used to like that one. And Do It Again by the Beach Boys, because that’s my favourite single of theirs. And Tom Jones’ It’s Not Unusual always goes down a treat, doesn’t it? It seems everybody has their favourite ‘60s hit.

Sixty number ones, and not a record by the likes of Elvis, the Beatles or the Stones. It’s a wonder how anyone else ever managed to reach the top, with Lennon and McCartney dominating the charts the rest of the time. And looking at the quality of the songs on here, why would anybody even bother? If I was a recording artist in the 1960s and I heard something as sublime as Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross (Peter Green single-handedly inventing chill-out and ambient in one fell swoop), I’d just give up there and then. Get a job in a shoe shop or something.

Hit: Baby Love – The Supremes

Hidden Gem: Shakin’ All Over – Johnny Kidd & The Pirates

Rocks In The Attic #255: Elvis Presley – ‘Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite’ (1973)

RITA#255I was on a plane once, on a long-haul flight, and I was flicking through the TV stations on my screen. I ended up watching a TV special on that tour from a few years ago when Elvis’ band played against a giant TV screen of Elvis singing.

Aside from being impressed with the sheer logistics of putting that sort of thing together, I was most interested in the interviews with the fans at the shows. Interspersed with tracks from the show were vox pops with audience members gushing about the genius of good ol’ Elvis.

And this is the thing about Elvis fans. They’re batshit crazy. They’re not even fans of music – they’re just fans of Elvis exclusively, as though there’s music…and then there’s Elvis…and the two should never meet.

Hit: Blue Suede Shows

Hidden Gem: See See Rider