Wednesday, January 31, 2007

DVD Review: Elvis on Sullivan

“Exciting” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows. For one thing, there’s Elvis himself: he’s captured here in the infancy of his superstardom, at the peak of his rockin’ form, giving some of the most revolutionary performances in the history of American popular music—and the history of American television. Which brings up another reason why this Image Entertainment DVD package is so exciting: it represents American cultural history in the making. The early days of television, the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, and two of the most venerable personalities of both art forms, coming together marvelously to form a union that is at once highly unlikely and highly touching. But perhaps the most exciting thing about this 2006 release is that it preserves these cultural artifacts for posterity, with a thoughtful, accessible presentation to boot.

Elvis Presley achieved mainstream popularity in 1956, when rock ‘n’ roll was still considered a wild new style that was bound to fade away once the kids grew up and developed more sophisticated tastes. Many adults hated this so-called music, but as long as rock ‘n’ roll artists were topping the charts, variety shows had to feature them. After all, variety shows of the time were supposed to provide “something for everyone”—and that included the teenagers with their crazy rock ‘n’ roll music. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley was already known for his wildman antics: flashy clothes, flamboyant vocals, sexually-charged hip and leg movements. There was nobody like him in showbiz at the time. He was a white man who sang in the style of black R&B artists and appropriated their rhythmic body movements. Yet he was not the charlatan that many made him out to be; he added a distinct country tinge that followed naturally from his Southern upbringing, helping to pioneer a new hybrid style that transcended numerous boundaries. After all, his single pairing “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” hit #1 on Billboard’s pop, R&B, and country charts. Yet he was every bit as divisive as he was a uniting force: while teenage girls shrieked in amazement and arousal at Elvis’ obvious sex appeal, their parents shrieked in horror at the qualities that stood in direct contrast to the arch-conservatism of the 1950s: his raucous, reckless sound and sexual openness. His willful mimicking of black music styles also raised quite a few eyebrows in those racially tense times.

And then there was Ed Sullivan, who made a name for himself as a writer and perhaps should have stayed in that position. In retrospect, he was the very antithesis of a television star: he was not good-looking, he had little discernible charm or wit, he was uptight and rigid, and he never seemed the least bit comfortable in front of a camera—he is still legendary for his tendency to flub practically everything he attempted to say. Why was he given his own TV show? Two reasons: one, he started out in the late 1940s, the very beginning of American television, when nobody really knew what to do with the brand-new medium. Two, he had a knack for spotting the hottest new acts in entertainment and booking them on his show. Yet his was always pitched as a family-friendly program; how would Elvis Presley fit in? Given the immense popularity of the greasy-haired singing sensation, it was only a matter of time before America found out.

Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows contains all three of the Ed Sullivan episodes in which Elvis performed, reprised in their entirety as they originally aired on September 9, 1956, October 28, 1956, and January 6, 1957. (The last of these is notorious because Elvis was filmed from the waist up due to his crazed stage behavior in his first two appearances.) One could argue that a DVD consisting solely of Elvis’ performances from these episodes would have served the purpose better, but getting the entire episodes on DVD allows viewers of today to appreciate the context in which Elvis reached unprecedented numbers of American television viewers over 50 years ago. On the first episode, for example, Sullivan was recuperating from a car accident, and this was actually a surprisingly fortunate turn of events. The gloriously uncouth British actor Charles Laughton served as guest host, sharing his off-color, totally inappropriate sense of humor with a presumably appalled audience. Elvis couldn’t possibly have seemed as shocking under these circumstances as he would have had Sullivan been on duty! And throughout all of these episodes, one gets a good idea of just how revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll was at the time. Look at the acts with whom Elvis shared the bill: Indian beauty Amru Sani and Rubenesque Brazilian Leny Eversong delivering dreadfully overwrought performances of popular songs; stage actors singing numbers from the musicals The King And I and The Most Happy Fella; Senor Wences and Arthur Worsley, two of the worst ventriloquists in the world (lest you think that “talent” means the ability to say “a gottle o’ geer” without moving your mouth); the effeminate daredevil acrobat Unus; and an extremely young Carol Burnett doing a hilarious musical comedy routine. But for those who want to go straight to the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” there is direct chapter access so that one can view each song or medley individually, plus there is an “Elvis-Only Playback Option” which allows viewers to watch all of Elvis’ performances from each episode in one fell swoop.

Elvis appears with his classic entourage: Bill Black on bass, Scotty Moore on guitar, D.J. Fontana on drums, and The Jordanaires on backup vocals. These performances are the stuff of legend, all participants brimming with energy and style. “Love Me Tender” proves to be a bit of a challenge for Elvis to perform under these urgent circumstances, but the rockers ROCK beyond belief. Elvis displays contrasting sides to his personality: for all his ostentatious behavior while he’s singing, he proves himself to be a shy, humble person when speaking to the audience. Even during his songs, he is clearly embarrassed and overwhelmed by the number of adoring fans who scream at him almost incessantly. This would explain why he often looks into the audience and chuckles mid-song, but from the number of lyrics he flubs (especially during “Too Much”), one can also surmise that he was nervous. He comes off as a gentle country boy who was not ready for life in the limelight, and this makes Elvis a tragic hero in some respects. It’s sad to think that someone so talented and so vital ended up becoming another statistic in the ages-old story of performers who were simply not ready for success when they found it. Nevertheless, Elvis gives it all he’s got and takes everything in stride; “Don’t Be Cruel” always comes off well, “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” is nice to hear in this setting, and his rendition of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” is truly electrifying. His dedication of the spiritual “Peace In The Valley” to the people of Hungary is especially moving. Hungary at the time was facing stiff Soviet opposition to its attempts to enact democratic reforms, and for Elvis to dedicate a religious song to that struggle was a keen move indeed; remember that in the Soviet bloc, religion was outlawed.

In addition to the actual episodes, the numerous special features give viewers a chance to gain intriguing insight into the relationship between Elvis and Ed Sullivan. Interviews with Sullivan’s producer Marlo Lewis, TV personality Wink Martindale, The Jordanaires’ Gordon Stoker, and Elvis’ friend Jerry Schilling illuminate both Elvis’ and Sullivan’s personalities, while Elvis-related clips of later Sullivan episodes indicate that the host really meant it when he famously described Elvis as a “decent, fine boy.” One can tell that Elvis Presley and Ed Sullivan, as different as they were, had a mutual and profound respect and admiration for each other, continuing to support each other’s endeavors long after Elvis’ final Sullivan appearance. An interesting aside about the special features: the back cover of the DVD box implies that the song “Colonel Tom” is an Elvis song, but in reality it is part of a performance by comedian John Byner. Byner’s appearance is from June 21, 1964, and the song is quite similar to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Elvis’ remake of same being his current hit at the time.

The package is bolstered by many more special features, excellent audio and video restoration, and an analytical essay by veteran rock scribe Greil Marcus. This well-conceived collection is a must-have for any rock ‘n’ roll fan who has even a passing interest in the genre’s history. Scratch that; it’s a must-have for anyone who has even a passing interest in the vast cultural history and legacy of these here United States.

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

You call that music?!?!

Never one to shy away from controversy, I’ve decided to tackle one of the most persistent issues affecting popular music: the generation gap. Let’s take a look at some of the prevalent attitudes about the subject and see what I think of them.

1. “Today’s music doesn’t have the same kinds of melodies, harmonies, and attitude that the music of my youth had!”

It’s not supposed to. If it did, it wouldn’t be today’s music. And if you can relate to the sentiment in quotation marks, let me ask you this: exactly what good does it do to harp on the fact that today’s music is different from yesterday’s music? If you grew up in the ‘50s and your parents complained that Bill Haley didn’t sound like Glenn Miller, that didn’t make Bill Haley sound like Glenn Miller. If you grew up in the ‘70s and your parents complained that Aerosmith didn’t sound like Bill Haley, that didn’t make Aerosmith sound like Bill Haley. In fact, in such cases all your parents did was judge your generation’s music based on what it wasn’t. They made no attempt to evaluate it on its own terms and thus completely missed the point of it. If they had taken it at face value, they may still have disliked it, but the simple fact of the matter is that they were too narrow-minded to give it a fair chance. Don’t be just as narrow-minded with today’s music.

2. “It seems like you no longer need talent to make it!”

It’s been a long time since anyone needed talent to make it. As much as it pains me to say this, I think early rock ‘n’ roll was to blame. In the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll appealed mostly to teenagers; furthermore, many adults at the time thought of rock ‘n’ roll as nothing but a bunch of noise with a pounding beat. It was only a matter of time until enterprising businessmen realized that you could take a cute kid, have him or her make some records with a beat, and watch as smitten teenagers bought that artist’s records and gazed amorously at him or her during live performances—even if he or she had no talent. Fabian was the original archetype of the teen idol who couldn’t sing. For crying out loud, Fabian himself admitted that he couldn’t sing!

Today, the problem has indeed gotten worse because of technology. There was only so much doctoring that could be done to Fabian’s voice in 1959; have a good listen to any of his records and you can instantly sense his lack of vocal skill. But now, recording technology is so advanced that one could conceivably record a song one note at a time, apply electronic pitch correction to every note, string the notes together, and end up with a seamless mix sounding like one perfect take. Thus, a singer who can’t sing can nonetheless sound good on record. But ultimately, talent is still a vital asset. Look at what happened to Ashlee Simpson, for example: one little goof on Saturday Night Live and suddenly everyone knew that she lip-synched to pre-recorded vocal tracks when she performed “live.” From that point onward, she had to actually sing live in order to prove that she could. Unfortunately, these actual live performances proved nothing except that she had a limited range and poor breath control. Whenever she was introduced on television, many audience members would greet her by booing. By means of damage control, she had to rush out a follow-up album and make an apologetic second appearance on Saturday Night Live. That was back in 2005, but even now her name is still bandied about as a joke in and of itself.

3. “How can young people listen to this stuff?”

Because we genuinely like what's out there today. Not everyone likes everything that’s currently on the charts, but that’s always been (and always will be) the case. The point is that we like at least some of today’s music because it speaks to us on a different level than anything else; it was made for us and, in many cases, by us. From my writing you can tell that I like oldies, but oldies were made for someone else and I just so happened to discover them and enjoy them. When I find something contemporary that I really dig, it reaffirms my youth more than anything else. It also makes me feel confident that great music is still being made and that I don’t have to reach into the past to find high levels of quality.

4. If you like today’s music, you don’t like older music, and vice versa.

In my experience, this is not something that a lot of people say; it’s something that they imply. I’ve lost track of how many times it has happened that someone learns of my affinity for oldies and then proceeds to trash my generation’s music as if I am not a member of my own generation! Well, if you doubt that someone can love music from more than one era, just look through One Note Ahead.

5. “Contemporary music doesn’t appeal to me, but since I’m over the age of 40, I know it’s not supposed to.”

Actually, that’s just a matter of personal taste. A few years ago I had a friend who was in his late 40s and he happily owned at least one Backstreet Boys CD and was gushing about how Incubus' "Drive" was one of his favorite songs at the time. My mother is almost 60 and she constantly puts me to shame with her knowledge of contemporary rock—admittedly my rock ‘n’ roll IQ is more “yesterday” than “today.” And I’ll never forget one particular appearance by Liza Minnelli on Tony Danza’s now-departed daytime talk show. Danza asked Minnelli whom she admires and without hesitation she replied, "Maroon 5." She then went on and on about how great a singer that band's Adam Levine is. I could cite plenty more examples, but you get my point.

6. There’s such a thing as being too young to know about a certain artist.

Like when an unsuspecting concertgoer told a 21-year-old musician friend of mine that she’s too young to be influenced by Led Zeppelin. I rubbed his face in the fact that I dressed up as Roy Orbison for Halloween in 1997, when I was merely 16 years old. He became visibly uncomfortable; needless to say, I was pleased. There really is a definite double standard at play when it comes to this philosophy of being “too young.” After all, young musicians all the time say that they’re influenced by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, and that’s perfectly acceptable. But Led Zeppelin? Nope, sorry.

The truth is that you simply have no way of knowing what people have been exposed to in their youth. Last year I saw ‘50s pop pianist Roger Williams on the public television special Moments To Remember, explaining how amazed he gets when young people tell him they know his music. I can only quote from memory, but he said that he responds, “You’re too young to even know who I am! After all, I am 81 years old!” The young people then reply, “Oh, no, my grandparents played your records all the time when I was growing up.” As of the taping of that program, he still got floored by such statements.

7. “I hate today’s music! That is, if you can even CALL it music! I just don’t get how anybody can like this crap!”

Music touches people on a profoundly personal level. There's just no arguing matters of taste. If you don’t like something, don’t listen to it. If it’s a song you can’t get away from no matter how you try, learn to tune it out. And if you miss the way music used to sound, listen to older music.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my soapbox is caving in.

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.