Gone but not forgotten

Glory To The King

I read this thing about Elvis a few months ago – around the time of the Baz Luhrmann biopic coming out, as it happened – that suggested that the market for Elvis memorabilia had crashed to the point of irrelevence; the collectors, it pointed out, were all dying off and the younger generations just didn’t identify with Elvis in the same way.

The King of Rock ‘n Roll? From a Gen Zeder’s perspective, that’s a sad (as in embarrassing) label to tag anyone with. Get hip, daddy-o, Elvis is dead, in every sense of the word. He rocks in his box and in his box only. Unlike the timeless appeal of say, The Beatles or Queen – young kids love Queen – or AC/DC or Fleetwood Mac, artists whose music soundtracks films, appears on catch-all streaming playlists, is referenced by the pop stars of today and therefore is still culturally relevant, to young folk, Elvis is just a tragic fat guy in a white suit who died on the toilet. His records, antiquated artefacts of a sepia-tinted bygone world at best, middle of the road karaoke fodder at worst, will never be streamed, let alone spun, by anyone under 40. The King is dead, man. The King is dead…

But, but, but…let me tell you, you in the Balenciaga and you in the Yeezy Boost, Elvis could sing…he could swing…and for a while, he mattered.

The purists might point to the Vegas years; if you can, see past the bloated excess of an Elvis deep in all sorts of personal trouble, you’ll revel in his sensitive treatment of the standards. And there are definitely gems to be found amidst his army ‘n movie years of the ’60s. But to these ears, his ’50s output is easily his most exciting period. If you’re a doubter, a naysayer, a cloth-eared fool, then his version of Santa Claus Is Back In Town won’t go any way to swaying your opinion, but as far as rough ‘n ready Christmas rockers go, it’s right up at the top of the tree.

Elvis PresleySanta Claus Is Back In Town

Beginning with a mesh of close-harmonied vocals from The Jordanaires – “Christttmass, Christtmas!” – and some searching, tentative piano, the track kicks into gear immediately once Elvis takes an Olympic athlete’s run-up to that first, ‘Weeeeeell‘, his arm windmilling in time to his seesawing pelvis as he uncurls his bee-stung lips and finally lets his vocal go. “Well, it’s Christmas time pwitty bay-bee, and the snow is fallin’ h’on the ground...”

His singing, almost a parody of an actual Elvis impersonator, is full-on fun. He sings from the creped soles of his shoes in the low parts, straight off the toppa the ducktail in the high sections, the voice lightly sandpapered and soulful enough to convince the uninitiated that it belongs to a black bluesman from the Mississippi delta. There are parts where the band drops out and it’s just Elvis and his air of dangerous mystery filling the spaces. He rhymes ‘sack on my back‘ with ‘big black Cadillac‘. He breaks into a guttural laugh in the instrumental breakdown. He sings the title as one word. ‘San’aclawzizbagintaah‘. Elvis’s whole vocal schtick, in fact, can be heard in just this one tune.

There are bits on the record where everyone and the kitchen sink is getting in on the hot seasonal action. The drums, swinging like ol’ Bing Crosby on the 14th tee at Palm Springs, bash and crash like Benny and Choo-Choo’s trash cans tumbling down Top Cat’s alley. The piano plays its own unique, slurred honky tonk, soaked in Christmas spirit and half an egg nog too many. Low rasping sax fleshes out the bottom end as a swing-time jazz double-bass walks its way carefully between the notes, a drunk man on an icy pavement trying to look sober on the return home. The whole thing is over and out in less than two and a half rockin’ (yes!) and rollin’ (yes!!) minutes. It’s a daft record, but totally essentially at this time of year.

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten

Goode and Bad

The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n roll. Standing expectantly with the forceps may have been Ike Turner, and on hand with the hot water and towels was Little Richard, but there, straight outta the womb came a duck walkin’, smart talkin’ Chuck Berry, sly grin on the side of his mouth and holding a cherry red Gibson with a hand span as wide as the Mississippi.


He sang of motorvatin’ in shark-finned Cadillacs, of Coolerators and TV dinners, of a life so technicolour and otherworldly and sci-fi that he couldn’t fail to capture the imagination of anyone with half a feel for the beat. It’s no wonder that future legends like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton embraced him so keenly. Young Keith was still playing with rats on Blitzed-out bomb sites in a post-War Britain living in severely austere times, and here was Chuck, singing quite literally about the promised land.

chuck berry gogo

Chuck BerryBye Bye Johnny

I’ve always loved Chuck’s Bye Bye Johnny, a follow-up in sorts to Johnny B. Goode, a story song where the protagonist leaves home in search of fame and fortune. First time I heard it though was on Status Quo’s epic triple box set ‘From the Makers Of‘. For years I assumed it was a denim-clad Quo original. With it’s 3 chord chugga-chugga boogie and heads down, no-nonsense approach it could well have been a mid 70’s Quo classic.

Status QuoBye Bye Johnny

Back in the early 80s, (September ’83), around the time I’d have been headbanging myself into stupidity with a tennis racquet and Status Quo blaring in the background,  Chuck and a pick-up band played my hometown of Irvine. I never went. Why? Because I was a daft wee boy who was in denial about music from the past. If my parents liked it, I didn’t. It was as simple as that.

chuck irvineFound on t’internet

The promoter of the concert, Willie Freckleton, booked all the bands that came through the town, from Chuck and The Clash to Oasis and Bjork. In later years he told me the story of how Chuck wouldn’t play until he’d been given his fee in a brown paper bag stuffed with good ol’ fashioned American dollars. For a man who’d been ripped off from the moment he’d picked up a guitar, this was probably a smart move, albeit a little cold. After the main set, where Chuck had of course wowed the audience with his 3 minute symphonies and wide-legged stage antics, he left to frenzied applause.

That was great, Chuck!” cheered Willie to his idol from the side of the stage. “Are you going back on? Give the audience a wee bit more, eh?

Sho thing, man,” drawled Chuck, hand out-stretched. “Fo’ anotha’ thousan’ dolla’s…

The Irvine audience never got an encore.

chuck berry

Chuck BerrySweet Little Rock ‘n Roller

You can’t write a piece about him without pointing out the fact that Chuck Berry is, by all accounts, an appalling human being.

Not just for the money-in-the-bag story (that’s so routine in Chuck’s world now, it’s almost as much a signature move as the Johnny B. Goode riff) or the dubious lyrics that reference young girls and carnal acts dressed up in all manner of metaphors.

There is the 3 year jail sentence for transporting a 14 year-old across State lines for ‘prostitution’ and immoral purposes’. You can’t dress that up in metaphor, Chuck. Or maybe you did?

More recently, there is the story of him having a hidden camera in the female toilets in his restaurant. Charges were only dropped after he agreed to pay financial compensation to the 200+ victims who came forward.

Flawed genius? Perhaps. Or just not a nice man.

chuck mug

Broadcaster Andy Kershaw does a really terrific stand-up routine, based around his autobiography ‘No Off Switch‘ – it’s a brilliant read, and part of his show is based around his distaste for Berry as a person alongside the unbridled joy of listening to Promised Land.

If you want to travel across America, don’t do Route 66. That’s the accepted route, but believe me, unless you’re into farming and grain containment, you won’t find a more boring road in the whole of America. If you want to find out about the real America; the grit, the dirt, the soul of the country, take Uncle Chuck’s advice and follow the lyrics of Promised Land.”

Kershaw then impressively reels off the lyrics. Breathless poetry about a land that captured the imaginations of all those post-War wannabe guitar players. It’s a beautiful thing….

Chuck BerryPromised Land

I’ve always had a soft spot for the late 70’s Elvis version.

Listen closely and you can hear his lard ass a-wobblin’ out the seams of that ridiculous white jump suit as he breathlessly tries to keep up with the rest of the band. Heck, you can practically see the sweat flying over the top of the gold aviators as The King staves off the heart attack for a few more weeks. Essential listening, of course.

Elvis PresleyPromised Land


Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Live!

Baby What You Want Me To Do Quintruple Whammy

Baby What You Want Me To Do was written at the tail end of the 50s by blues guitarist Jimmy Reed.

Not that he’d have known at the time, but Reed penned something of a blues standard. In its 50+ years amongst the canon of popular song, Baby What You Want Me To Do  has been recorded in a whole range of styles by a whole range of artists. Here are some of the better ones.

elvis 68 comeback 2

Ol’ Elvis Himselvis was Jimmy Reed daft, and by the time of the ’68 Comeback Special, after he’d strapped on a guitar for the first time in ages, was intent on sneaking the Jimmy Reed riff into as many parts of the set as his band would allow. Every time rehearsals stopped, The King would find his sweaty fingers forming around the swampy tune. With quiff collapsed and lip curled high, he’d be off and running, his band of A-list sessioneers falling in behind him with a forced goofiness and much hootin’ and hollerin’.  “We’re goin’ up, we’re goin’ down…” and off they’d go once again….


The Live Show:

elvis 68 comeback 1

Elvis, dressed head to toe in Wild Ones leather and looking like a Texas oil slick played his guitar with a twanging punk ferocity not heard since Gene Vincent Raced With The Devil almost a decade earlier. That he and his band were playing inside a boxing ring rather than a stage only added to the pugilistic undertones eminating from the Presley 6 string. Terrific. There are a couple of ’68 Comeback albums worth looking out for – the edited essentials Tiger Man and the warts ‘n all Memories; The ’68 Comeback Special album, which features more versions of Baby What You Want Me To Do than you could possibly ever need. Or perhaps not. If you buy one record this month…etc etc…

dee clark

Delectus ‘DeeClark was a ten-a-penny soul/RnB singer. Most famous for having fronted Little Richard’s band after the real Richard had his calling from the Lord, Dee Clark would’ve romped the 1958 series of Stars In Their Eyes, such are the carbon-copy facsimiles of Little Richard in his earlier records.

But Dee could turn his vocals to many styles, and inbetween the high camp quiff Richardisms and duh-duh-duh-duh doo-wop stylings, he found time to cut a version (above) of Baby What You Want Me To Do that instantly conjures up lazy images of the deep south and makes me want to pour a decent measure of sour mash, fire up a crawfish gumbo and let the good times roll. Terrific too.

everly brothers

Everyone should clear 5 minutes a week to hear an Everly Brothers record – you’ll feel better for it. Battlin’ brothers Don and Phil cut a version that is classic Everlys – a polite country-ish rockin’ guitar, some barrelhouse piano and enough good time vibes that belies the fact that they hated one another with a passion. You can imagine them in the studio sharing the mike, just as Lennon & McCartney would do a few years later, their close-knit harmonies fusing together like honeyed glue, all the while angling for greater personal share of the spoils, Don doing the low parts, Phil the outrageous highs.

Likewise Dion. Not Celine, just Dion. Clear 5 minutes a week etc. No stranger to Plain Or Pan, Dion’s take comes from the suitably named Bronx In Blue LP, a somewhat laid-back affair, all twangin’ acoustics and groin-botherin’ bass. It was nominated for a Grammy, dontchaknow? Unusually for a Dion record, his version was cut in the mid 2000s, when he wasn’t smacked off his face on Class A’s, and he doesn’t quite break into that doo-wop falsetto of his, but don’t let that put you off.

dion dimucci



Cover Versions, demo, Get This!, Hard-to-find, Peel Sessions, Sampled

Victoria Wood. Morrissey Did.

Rusholme Ruffians is The Smiths at their sticky-fingered peak. From the alliteratively-alluring Ealing comedyesque title down, it’s a masterclass in Morrissey’s stolen kitchen sink observations backed by a Johnny Marr riff flat-out filched from Scotty Moore via Elvis Presley’s (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame 1961 single.

smiths bw tumblr

By the time they came to record Rusholme Ruffians for second album Meat Is Murder, The Smiths were at the top of their game. As was usually the way, Johnny would present the band with a cassette demo. The musicians would go off and shape Marr’s ideas into a band performance while Morrissey would twist and turn what lyrics he had into the new tune, writing and re-writing as he went along until, between band and bard, they had the genesis of a song.  “Let’s do a song about the fair,” suggested Morrissey. “For some reason my association was to pull out that Elvis riff,” explained Marr.

His appropriation of the riff as a frantically scrubbed rockabilly knee-trembler alongside Mike Joyce’s rattlin’ and rollin’ percussion is in stark contrast to Andy Rourke’s slap happy elastic band of a bassline. Played at half the speed, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any mid-period Sly and the Family Stone record. Played as it was, it gives the tune that certain je ne sais quoi; the essential ingredient that turned an average Elvis pastiche into an undeniable Smiths’ tune. To use what is surely by now a cliche, Andy Rourke really was the unsung musical hero in The Smiths. And by the time the vocal went on top, well, an undeniable Smiths’ tune had become an undeniable Smiths’ classic.

As a child I was literally educated at fairgrounds. It was a place of tremendous violence and hate and stress and high romance and all the true vital things in life. It was really the patch of ground where you learned about everything simultaneously whether you wanted to or not.”


The lyrics that poured out of Morrissey for Rusholme Ruffians are pure 24 carat gold. Every line features classic Morrisseyism after classic Morrisseyism; perfectly executed observations on what happens when the fair comes to town;

The last night of the fair, by the big wheel generator…a boy is stabbed and his money is grabbed and the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine…she is famous, she is funny…..an engagement ring doesn’t mean a thing to a mind consumed by brass (money)….and though I walk home alone…..I might walk home alone ….but my faith in love is still devout…..From a seat on a whirling waltzer …her skirt ascends for a watching eye …it’s a hideous trait on her mother’s side…someone falls in love, someone’s beaten up…..the grease in the hair of the speedway operator is all a tremulous heart requires…how quickly would I die if I jumped from the top of the parachutes….scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen, this means you really love me….

Classic Morrisseyism after classic Morrisseyism.

Or are they?


Morrissey was, and remains, a fan of slightly posh, slightly batty northern comedienne Victoria Wood. Her dry ruminations and reflections clearly struck a  chord with him, mirroring as they did his own skewed and melodramatic views on life and living. Sonically, she’s about as far removed from The Smiths as Take That are from the MC5, but her skits and sketches have proven a rich seam for mining lyrics and snippets that pop up across many Smiths recordings – ‘ten ton truck‘, ‘singing to the mentally ill‘, ‘not natural, normal or kind‘, the list goes on….

Wood’s 1983 concert album Lucky Bag was a big favourite of Morrissey’s. On the LP was a track called Fourteen Again. A track featuring a spoken-word intro, including a line proclaiming “they didn’t even know what drugs were” that the eagle-eared amongst you will recognise from the title track of The Queen Is Dead, Fourteen Again includes such lyrics as;

I want to be fourteen again, tattoo my self with a fountain pen….free rides on the waltzer off the fairground men for a promise of a snog….. the last night of the fair…..French kissing as the kiosks shut…..behind the generators with your coconut…..the coloured lights reflected in the Brylcream on his hair…..when I was funny, I was famous

OK, so he didn’t steal them all, and he came up with some genuine crackers of his own  – tremulous hearts and minds consumed by brass (money) and jumping from the tops of parachutes (the ‘skirt ascends‘ line is my favourite) but old Morrissey certainly utilised his love of Victoria Wood to full extent, that much is clear. And just in case you still aren’t convinced, the ‘my faith in love is still devout‘ line was taken from another Wood song, Funny How Things Turn Out, where she proclaims ‘my faith in myself is still devout’.

Hear for yourself:

Elvis Presley (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame

Victoria WoodFourteen Again

Victoria WoodFunny How Things Turn Out

The SmithsRusholme Ruffians (demo, first take recorded with John Porter July 1984)

The SmithsRusholme Ruffians (Peel Session 9th August, 1984)

The SmithsRusholme Ruffians (Meat Is Murder LP version, February 1985)

…and, acknowledging their debt to The King….The SmithsHis Latest Flame/Rusholme Ruffians (Rank LP version, recorded October 1986)

morrissey marr face 1985

Like This? Try these…

The Smiths How Soon Is Now explained

The Smiths A Rush And a Push explained

The Smiths There Is A Light That Never Goes Out explained

Johnny Marr’s Dansette Delights


Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours

It’s the mid 90s and Everything Must Go has just been released by the Manic Street Preachers. An album full of Spectorish bombast and tunes for van drivers to whistle, it’s light years away from their previous album, the Richey Edwards-enhanced The Holy Bible, an album so difficult to digest in one sitting that Everything Must Go sounded like S Club 7 in comparison. And whilst the hardcore MSP fans point to The Holy Bible as ‘the one’, the million+ sales and ubiquity of Everything Must Go (despite half the songs featuring Edwards’ oblique lyrics) made chart stars (and millionaires) out of the Manics.

At this time, I was fighting in the trenches of the Britpop wars, working in music retail. Now, speak to anyone in retail and they’ll tell you unbelievable-but-true stories about the regulars who frequent their shops. Our shop was no different. We had a regular customer, an older guy with a cracking quiff, complete with an electric blue streak up the front, who wore the Elvis aviator shades in November and the ’68 Comeback leather jacket in July. He spoke in a hokey hillbilly American accent and gave his address as Dundonald whenever he ordered something. Dundonald, in case you need to ask, is about as near to America as Mars. People in Dundonald tend to speak in broad Ayrshire, though with a slightly posher accent, given that the village (?)/town (?) is located just inside the environs of the beautiful South of Ayrshire, and a couple of generous Colin Montgomerie drives from the fourth tee at Royal Troon. He always gave his name as Jesse Garon, which just so happens to be the name of Elvis’ twin brother who died at birth. “Je-huss-ay Gar’n, suh,” he’d drawl, without the slightest hint of irony. Local lunatic, eccentric and Elvis freak, I thought he was great. Jesse, it turned out, was highly thought of and sought-after in the world of tribute acts, and had a regular gig in Blackpool, doing a kinda Scottish McElvis tribute. Which is ironic really, given that off-stage he spoke cod-Elvis, yet on-stage he celebrated his Scottishness, wearing a white cape with a saltire emblazonned across the back and whatever else have you. Every Summer he’d head off for the season and do his well-polished Elvis act for the stags ‘n hens’ n’ steamers ‘n stoaters who stumbled into the music hall at the end of the pier. (If you’re an MSP fan, by now you may have worked out where this is going).

One day, Jesse popped in to order something. “Ahm lookin’ fur sumthin’ swampee. S’gotta be swampee. Y’know like when thu Deep South mists roll across them swamps? Ah need music ta soun’track that. S’for ma show, y’see. Intra music ta make tha folks sit up an notice that ol’ Elvis here is ’bout ta enter tha building.”  A long while later, after having exhausted my general knowledge of all things swampy, he settled on a since-forgotten bit of Ry Cooder slide blues. This, he assured me, was just what he was after. And, with a wee Elvisy point of his index finger in my direction, and a tip of the gold-framed aviators, off he went.

I’ve hunted high and low and googled near and far for a qualifying quote to back me up here, but to no avail. So you’ll just have to believe the next bit. James Dean Bradfield, talking about the Everything Must Go album mentioned that opening track Elvis Impersonator, Blackpool Pier was written after him and Richey Edwards had watched an Elvis impersonator do his act at the end of Blackpool Pier. Bradfield mentioned that the impersonator was (and I’m paraphrasing here) “crap and Scottish” – two things yer actual Elvis wasn’t. Now, I know there are approximately more Elvis impersonators than there are people in China, but when you add ‘crap’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Blackpool’ into the mix, well, all the signs pointed to the one Elvis impersonator I knew. The next time Jesse was in the shop, probably about a year later, when preparing ‘intra music‘ for his next set of shows, I told him about the Manic Street Preachers and their massive-selling album and about the first track on it and how the band had written it after seeing a Scottish Elvis impersonator in Blackpool (though missed out the part about him being crap) and let him hear the song. You could tell he was quietly pleased at the thought of someone writing a song about him, especially as it was the opening track on such a successful LP, even if he did think the song itself was “a crocka sheeeit, sonny! Crocka sheeeit!”, a phrase everyone and their mother heard as he bawled it across the counter whilst wearing the big headphones perched on top of his blue-streaked quiff.

During his fat Vegas years, ol’ Elvis Himselvis used to come on stage to this, Richard Strauss‘s Also Sprach Zarathustra. You might know it better as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey. My favourite version is Deodato‘s outrageously eeeeelongated funkified version, Fender Rhodes, clipped guitar ‘n all. Jazz funk? Funk jazz? Prog soul? Who knows, who cares? This is the sound of afros jammin’. Extraordinary!

For reasons I have never quite fathomed, Also Sprach Zarathustra also makes an appearance several times in the lyrics of The Fall‘s Free Range, where Mark E Smith battles over synthesized beats and too-low-in-the-mix guitars to sound like a demented steamer arguing with himself at a bus stop. I’ve got this on one of those supposedly limited 7″s, where the sleeve was spray painted by yer actual band. You probably have it too.