It had always intrigued me that Elvis Presley died during the very apotheosis of punk. To teenage rebels in drainpipe trousers, brothel creepers and leather jackets, Elvis seemed about as far away from our worldview as Venus or Mars.
What did an overweigh cabaret singer know about youthful insurrection?
What little we knew. Not only was Elvis largely responsible for the way we looked – even at high school Elvis was wearing pink peg trousers and satin shirts – but, saliently, he was single-handedly responsible for the music we were listening to. The Clash may have shouted about “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones, in 1977!” but without Elvis fusing R&B and country back in the mid-fifties, The Clash would have had nothing to respond to, nothing to add to the lineage of 20th century pop.
Of course, Elvis would have hated punk. To him, it would have been just noise. He obviously appeared to understand the finer elements of certain types of American music, and he certainly liked, and knew a lot about, rhythm and blues, country and gospel. Insurrection, anti-establishment behaviour, and anything to do with the counter culture were all beyond him, though, as they were anathema to his understanding of the world. Punk’s raison d’etre was nihilism, plain and simple, regardless how some of those involved like to dress it up with politics or bondage trousers. Being for something would have been against its principles; at this point in the arc of post-war popular culture, being against something – anything, frankly – was far more fun.
Punk harked back to the time when the idea of the teenager was just beginning, at least in its modern sense. The distillation of punk could be traced back to a line in The Wild One, the Marlon Brando outlaw biker movie from 1953, a time even before Elvis. When a girl asks the Brando character – Johnny Strabler, the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, who is dressed in blue jeans, leather jacket and cap – “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”, he answers, “Whaddaya got?”
It was all these mixed messages that started to make me think that there might be a book in Elvis’s relationship with punk. My last two music books had both taken a macro/micro approach to their subjects. The first was a book based around David Bowie’s appearance as Ziggy Stardust on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1972, performing his single “Starman”. This allowed me to discuss the effect that appearance had on the nation’s youth, as well as exploring the nature of pop culture in the seventies.
The second was a book about Live Aid, which again allowed me the opportunity to discuss this extraordinary day in detail, while broadening the book out to discuss economics, politics, geopolitics and pop culture.
With my Elvis book I felt I could do something similar, discussing the minutiae of the day itself – where were you on the day that Elvis died, where were you on August 16th 1977? – as well as exploring the huge effect that Elvis had on punk, and on the wider culture.
Bob Dylan fell into an immediate depression when he heard the news, as Elvis had been largely responsible for his own self-invention. “When I first heard Elvis’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing Elvis’s voice for the first time was like busting out of jail,” he said, without a hint of hyperbole.
Somebody once said that when Bob Dylan first started his career he wanted to be Elvis Presley much more than he wanted to be Woody Guthrie. The trouble was that there was an opening for a Guthrie and not for an Elvis, so Dylan went down the folk road instead.
Who wouldn’t want to have been Elvis?
Elvis as an image refuses to die. The fashion industry, which likes to go out of its way to claim that it is never starved of ideas, continues to use Elvis as a trope in the same way it uses tartan, leopardskin, Savile Row, camouflage, fluorescents, punk or gender play. There are few male 20th Century icons as formidable or as enduring as Elvis, and in the fashion industry - although they will always say otherwise - proven ideas are never left to fester for long. The Elvis we all know from 1956 is as much of a fashion cliché as Marilyn Monroe or Grace Jones, which is why the industry loves him so much.
A year after Elvis’s death, the critic John Berger asked the question, “Has the camera replaced the eye of God?” He said that the decline of religion corresponded with the rise of the photograph, in which case: “Has the culture of capitalism telescoped God into photography?” To judge from the way in which Elvis’s image pinballed around the world in the year after his death, it would be easy to say the answer was yes. In death, Elvis very quickly became an icon, a cult hero worshipped for his image as much as his talent, worshipped for the accident of being born at the same time as his followers, adored for being the first teenage pop star.
Hopefully my book goes a little way to explain just exactly how, and why.
Dylan Jones’s Elvis Has Left the Building, the Day The King Died is published on 17th July by Duckworth Publishers.