Elvis Presley did his best work when he was up against the wall with no place to go and plenty to prove. This happened in 1954 when he walked into Sun Records at 706 Union Ave in Memphis, a nervous 19 year old kid hoping to get noticed, receive deliverance from a life of abject poverty into stardom. It also happened in 1968 in Burbank, where he stood alone under hot lights at the center of a sort of arena, surrounded by critical eyes and television cameras, ready to prove that time, the counterculture, and Hollywood had not rendered him irrelevant. It’s easy to forget that between those two events, Elvis was drafted and served time in the military from ’58-’60, called off to the army at the first peak of his career.
They cut his hair, put him in fatigues, and sent him off to Germany. While he was away he met the girl who would become his wife, the daughter of a higher ranking officer. His beloved mother grew sick in his absence and died, a heartbreak from which he would never recover. Rock & Roll as a popular force and movement shriveled without his face. Popular youth music moved towards label created teen idols and Brill Building created pop. Many Rockers, those for whom Elvis was a savior and idol, swore to never forgive him. John Lennon was one. Malcolm McLaren claimed he first envisioned a band like The Sex Pistols when Elvis joined the army.All of this seems like it would be constrictive, but in actuality it was freeing. This is a point too often lost to history: Elvis was not a purist locked into one genre of music. In fact, anything but. It’s actually possible and perhaps even likely that he was blissfully ignorant to the idea that any kind of tune had to belong to any particular group of people. He had a radio and a guitar growing up. The radio had a functioning dial and the guitar had six strings, and that was the whole world. So when Private First Class Presley was returned to freedom into a world that might not want his Rock & Roll anymore, he found a freedom perhaps unknown to him to that point- the latitude to bring the attitude of experimentation.
Elvis Is Back is a declaration, both as a literal term and as an album. It was here that he first tackled his brand of immediate sounding ballads full tilt. Girl of My Best Friend came off of this record, as well as his barn burning take on Such A Night. Are You Lonesome Tonight is here… A mature man made these songs, someone who had known incredible loss, found love, and had time to reflect in a world away from home, all alone.
Elvis Is Back was recently re-released on a remastered CD, backed with the also fantastic Something For Everybody.