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Elvis Presley’s enduring influence on music and culture

aka Black Way Down Suit

The King of Showmanship

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Elvis Presley’s career high was the start of his Las Vegas era. This is the premise of Mike Connolly’s BBC Four television documentary Elvis: The Rebirth of the King, aired in December 2017. Well, whether it is or isn’t will be as perennially debated amongst the aficionados as which is the greatest Star Wars film or best Beatles album. The first of Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas shows was in 1969. He would go on to make over 600 appearances until 1976.

Las Vegas 1969.

 

Together with his unfettered choreography and the unmistakeable register and cadence of his voice, Elvis Presley is in total control of his audience and orchestra. His physique is lean and supple. It is a command performance of showmanship. He has found a new style of delivery and discovered the potency of performance. He has become a showman. And wow, does he do it well. He was the first rock star to turn his music into a theatrical performance. Yet these full-blown bombastic shows would be nothing without their core of Elvis Presley’s supreme instinctive talent.

Las Vegas 1969.

 

In Las Vegas Elvis Presley first wore those striking stage outfits that are often unfairly derided with a snigger. Presley was in his element in those first Nevada years, he was dazzling and resurgent, but fame and its trappings began to take their toll. The lissom reinvented superstar of the late sixties and early seventies grew bulkier from addictions and these outfits were let out accordingly as the decade moved on. Perhaps the outfits are remembered because they are synonymous with his visible decline.

Nail Swirl outfit. Las Vegas 1970.

 

In the 2018 New Years Honours list Barry Gibb received a knighthood. This was an opportunity for the television to run Bee Gees footage of the three brothers performing their rhythm and blues imbued disco in seventies shimmering satin shirts, and clips of John Travolta burning up the dance-floor in that bright white Saturday Night Fever suit.

Maurice, Barry and Robin Gibb. The Bee Gees.

 

John Travolta. Saturday Night Fever 1978.

 

London’s Southbank Centre is currently exhibiting ABBA: Super Troupers, until April 2018. It is an enduring reminder that ABBA’s outfits of silken one-pieces with frills and tassels, and snug white suits with aeroplane collars are as integral to their identity as their songbook, harmonies and choreography on stage.

ABBA. Dancing Queens.

 

And then there is David Bowie in his many guises and Marc Bolan with T-Rex, with their 1970s glam-rock and beautiful gender ambivalence.

David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust tour 1972.

 

Marc Bolan and T-Rex 1973.

 

Neither ABBA, Marc nor David are derided for their outfits yet with their flamboyance and theatricals they are doing the same as Elvis Presley. They are showmen and show-women. They are putting on a performance. But here’s the thing. Presley did it first. And perhaps that’s it. Elvis Presley was the first to take a first-class catalogue of music and super-charge it with showmanship. Following in the wake of his be-tasselled, be-jewelled, embroidered jumpsuits it wasn’t untoward.

They all share one thing. Breathtaking talent. And that’s why the outfits work. Rather than disguising mediocre ability, their outfits enhance the music, and vocals, and performance. They can wear whatever they want.

Thank you for the music, every one of you, and for putting on a show. But mostly thank you, Elvis Presley, for being at the start of it.

Black Cisco Kid. Las Vegas 1971.

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All roads and gods lead to Elvis Presley

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Travel up and down rock music’s roads and they lead to one person. Elvis Presley.

His imagery and sound and attitude are engrained in the evolution of rock music, and in the wider popular culture sphere. When Hound Dog was released it was like nothing heard before, and Presley exploded into the 1950s world where television was emerging, where international flight was evolving. He was at the right place at the right time to become the first global superstar. And there was something else that is often overlooked. He had talent. Raw, visceral and unforgettable.

Elton John said Elvis Presley was ‘the one that started it all off’. He was right. He changed the sound of music but he also changed its face. With Presley came the power of the look, the image, and style to complement a sound. Watch George Michael strike a pose in the 1980s emergent MTV age with the video of Faith. It’s Presley. Watch Prince rock the 2007 half-time Super Bowl with his unforgettable rain-drenched performance. Presley’s influence is there in Prince’s stance and showmanship, his attitude, exuberance and humour.

Prince plays the Super Bowl 2017

 

John Lennon said that before Elvis there was nothing. Then Elvis Presley came along and thrilled his peers, outraged their parents and inspired a revolution in youth music culture. John Lennon also said ‘if there hadn’t been an Elvis there wouldn’t have been a Beatles’. Imagine our music heritage without Abbey Road, and Sgt. Pepper and the White Album. If there had not been a Beatles, there would never have been Oasis.

Bruce Springsteen said that if there hadn’t been a Presley, he would be selling encyclopedia. If the Beatles and Bruce aren’t your thing, then imagine music without Al Green, who said that Elvis had an influence on everybody with his musical approach. ‘He broke the ice for all of us.’ Miley Cyrus cites Elvis as the influence for her 2017 album Younger Now, and the eponymous video is a homage to him.

The Girl From The North Country

 

Conor McPherson’s new play, the Girl From The North Country, packs a poignant punch. Its story of 1930s depression hit America is laced with lyrics and music by Bob Dylan. It is set in Duluth, Minnesota, where Bob Dylan was born in 1941, six years after Presley was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. Bob Dylan, perhaps the most influential and controversial performer, writer and musician of the modern era. Bob Dylan, recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Bob Dylan who said of Elvis Presley ‘The highlight of my career? That’s easy, Elvis recording one of my songs.’

All roads, and all gods, lead to Elvis Presley.

Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan

 

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