Rock Icons: Elvis Presley by Frank Turner

Elvis Presley
(Image credit: GAB Archive\/Redferns)

My choice for a rock icon is simultaneously obvious and left field, but I’m going to choose Elvis Presley. And the thing about it is, if you’d asked me this question anywhere up to three years ago I would’ve laughed if you’d suggested that I might have said Elvis; he’s cheesy and overly commodified and culturally ubiquitous. He’s also just a bit of a joke; when you say Elvis Presley people think of fat Elvis impersonators in Blackpool, or American truck drivers with Elvis badges on their denim jackets. So he’s definitely overdone.

But, and here’s the but, I read a lot of music biographies – because I enjoy them and also because I feel like I should educate myself on the history of what I do for a living – and one of my friends mentioned the Peter Guralnick two-volume biography of Elvis; The Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. And he’s rarely let me down with his recommendations, so I thought, ‘Fuck it. I’ll give it a go.’

So I picked up the two biographies and started reading them, and as you do if you’re reading books about music, you start listening to the tracks as you’re going along. Before I’d finished the first book I became a diehard Elvis fan, and by the time I’d finished the second one I had an Elvis tattoo.

One of the things that really hit me was this; if you talk about the Ramones and the impact that they had when they first came out, you have to mentally shift yourself back into the context to fully appreciate it. That’s not the case with Elvis. Go and listen to Hound Dog right now. That song is punk as fuck. It’s heavy.

Now, a lot of the songs that hit me by bands like the Ramones, The Clash and Black Flag are quite badly produced, and as a 13 year-old kid who’s used to listening to Good Charlotte it can be hard to understand why the first Clash album is important. But if you go back and listen to the first couple of Elvis records, the production is stunning. So that was the first thing; I don’t feel like you have to mentally contextualise yourself. But just to do that a little bit, if you think about what was going on at that time with Perry Como’s Magic Moments and stuff like that, and then you listen to Hound Dog, it’s immediately clear why it was so important.

I should also add that one of the big hipster conceits about Elvis is that he didn’t write his own songs. He might not have written his own songs, but he was the master producer and engineer of his generation. It’s also popular opinion to say that the original Hound Dog is better, but no it fucking isn’t. That’s just bollocks. Elvis’ version of that song is lightyears ahead, and if you listen to the two of them back-to-back you can hear what he was doing.

In the Guralnick biography it says that Elvis used to literally get sent hundreds of acetates for songs that he might want to record, and he always picked the one that he thought nobody else was going to pick. Songs like Heartbreak Hotel; everyone was like, ‘Don’t cut that one.’ But he cut it and it came out great. He arranged the band himself, too. This was obviously the ‘50s so it was all cut live, and he’d stand in the middle of the room with all the musicians around him and they’d do 60 takes in a row. He’d be like, ‘Bar three, verse two; drop that F sharp to an E. Now let’s do it again.’ He was in full control of his vision.

It’s taken me until my mid-30s to realise it, and when I was younger I didn’t really get it, but now with a bit more knowledge and context I think it’s completely unquestionable that Elvis Presley invented rock ‘n’ roll. His showmanship was incredible as well. A lot of people rip on the Vegas years, but the beginning of the Vegas years was Elvis at his absolute peak. If you look at the way he put the ‘68 Comeback Special together, a lot of the stuff that I do with running songs together and having spoken sections in the middle of the songs comes directly from Elvis. He was the first artist to ever have an intro tape, too. He defined the live rock ‘n’ roll show.

It’s a fucking shame what happened to him. There’s quite a good argument to be made that Elvis should’ve been even bigger than he was, but his manager Tom Parker screwed it all up. He never toured outside of the US because Tom Parker was an illegal immigrant and he was scared he wouldn’t be allowed back into the States if he went with him. So an awful lot of shit went wrong with Elvis, and a spoiler alert for the book is that it doesn’t end well. He died tragically and it was a waste of his talent. The lesson is this: keep an eye on your manager and don’t take drugs.

Frank Turner is on tour now. Frank was speaking to Matt Stocks.