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Elvis: How he changed the world ... forever

By Eamonn McCann

Published 16/08/2007

We know that the devil can quote from the Bible - but Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey an Elvis fan? Like Eddie Cochran once put it - C'mon. Maybe he just decided to follow Elvis after hearing people call him The King?

But let's be fair, Trimble didn't come over as bad as all that later on ... Actually, no, let's not be fair. I have had it up to the place where my sideburns used to end with prim conservatives of one stamp and another deciding that now they're over 50 it's safe to confess they were right tearaways back in their teens.

Is there a single member of the Tory front bench across the water who doesn't claim now to have smoked dope?

Tony Blair says he was a Clash fan. Is that not the most blatant piece of self-serving dishonesty that any former Prime Minister ... Well, alright, not a good example. But you get my point.

What next? David Dunseith was a Goth? Seamus Heaney dropped acid before his Senior Certificate? Gerry Adams was a young socialist?

Listen. It's a proven cultural and political not to mention medical fact that anybody who swivelled their hips properly to an Elvis record as a teenager couldn't grow up as stiff as David Trimble.

The 30th anniversary of Elvis's death has triggered such a deluge of dreck as to snuff out the sound of the thrill he portended. Almost without exception, those who've popped up to pontificate misrepresent, misappropriate, misunderstand and most of all just miss what he meant.

Of course, the falsification of Elvis was well under way before his death.

Pop commentators who fancied themselves as cool dudes portrayed him as a post-modern joke, somebody who had happened along at just the right moment for a fusion of black and white music, who had been 'discovered' by a record producer with an eye on the main chance and a cynical manager with a genius for promotion and who thus came to personify the, er, spirit of the age, transmitting the sensuality of black America to angsty white teenagers, deliciously to the dismay of their parents.

But, really, what was distinctive about his music had been ripped off from black musicians. And once he'd made it to the mainstream, he abandoned any fleeting thought he'd entertained of serious musicianship and slouched off to Hicksville and Hollywood, star-spangled jump suits, cabaret in Vegas and, finally, to an undignified death on a lavatory floor as an amphetamine-fuelled fatso zonked on cheeseburgers and corn-starch gravy.

The thing is that, insofar as there's any truth in any of this, it doesn't matter.

And there's a lot of it there's no truth in at all.

In Fight The Power, for notorious example, Public Enemy proclaimed: "Elvis was a hero to some but he never meant s*** to me/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain."

Not true, but the exact opposite of the truth. The record shows that Elvis didn't take up black music in order to become a star. At 16, at a time when he had no clear ambition in music, he was lurking in record stores in black districts of Memphis. This cannot have been on account of an opportunist desire to find music he could base a career on. It must have been, as he said, that this was just the music that he liked. Or read any account of the reaction of the musicians in Sun Records studio on July 5, 1954, when Elvis began playing around with That's All Right, Mama - one of the key moments in the cultural history of America - and what comes across is their astonishment, not that the white teenager had a voice that sounded black, but that the style, the tradition, the feel of black music seemed to flow through him.

He didn't adopt the leather jackets and purple shirts of the black hustler as a stage outfit. He had been buying them from his mid-teens in black folks' stores in downtown Memphis. The reason they became the uniform, near enough, of white rock and rollers in the Fifties was that they were the clothes Elvis Presley had on when he turned up.

These are not trivial details. Sure, white boho intellectuals had been affecting black styles in Greenwich Village and San Francisco for years. But this was a dirt-poor teenager in a Deep South town in the era of racial segregation, and there was no affectation about him. All this goes some way towards explaining perhaps the most startling and yet least explored aspect of Elvis's emergence from Memphis in 1954/'55 - that in the first year and a half of his career, he was as popular with black audiences as with white.

It wasn't, as some have had it, that they knew him only from records and radio and didn't realise he was white. He was playing concerts and fairs across three states by early 1955. Black people aren't colour-blind. Not until the appearance of Eminem was any white singer to connect with the consciousness of a mass black audience performing music hitherto regarded as definitively black.

(Eminem, too, interestingly enough, came from a white trash background to strike terror into the white middle class.)

Leonard Bernstein had it right. Elvis was "the greatest cultural force in 20th century America".

Or, as the writer John Garelick varied it: "Elvis did more than any other single individual to democratise American culture."

It's impossible as a literal exercise to chart the way cultural changes within the mulch of the semi-subconscious can seep to the surface almost unnoticed and change the social terrain.

But, just as I do not regard it as entirely coincidental that Van Morrison released Astral Weeks in New York within the octave of the first civil rights march in Derry on October 5, 1968, so I think that, somewhere in the starry dynamo, there's a connection between the fact that Elvis signed for RCA on December 1, 1954, in Memphis, Tennessee, the same day Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus over in Birmingham, Alabama.

He did, incidentally, take his music very seriously. If any of the anniversary 'specials' include footage from the early recording sessions (there's little enough of it surviving), look out for the way he'll stop the music to ask for more bass or less echo or a different intro on the second verse or suggest adding a harmony line to the chorus. Note particularly the respect in which he is evidently held by musicians much older than his 19, 20 years. Nowadays, his role in these recordings, acknowledged everywhere as among the great classics of American music, would entitle him to a credit as producer.

Watch and listen to him singing One Night, all lithe and black leather, at ease with himself and utterly in command, so full of raw power you have to sit back from the set, on the '68 Comeback Special. The socialist critic Neil Davidson suggests you think on Martin Luther King - this was 1968, after all - as you listen (check it out right now on cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual &VideoID=4167298) to him lifting your heart so high it flutters from dizziness on If I Can Dream.

Deep in my heart there's a trembling question

Still I am sure that the answer gonna come somehow

Out there in the dark, there's a beckoning candle

And while I can think, while I can talk

While I can stand, while I can walk

While I can dream, let my dream

Come true.

All the stuff and guff about the sad years of decline is of no importance. If it isn't memorable, forget it. Elvis changed the world. Has there ever been another singer of whom that could so confidently be said?

Elvis will never leave the building.

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