When Elvis rocked

August 16, 2002



"Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant s--- to me," Chuck D. famously rapped on Public Enemy's classic anthem, "Fight the Power."

Chuck was trying to provoke, of course. But as we pause to consider the enduring legacy of the King of Rock 'n' Roll on this, the 25th anniversary of his death, there's no denying that in many quarters of the rock world, his sentiment is the prevailing one.

Yes, Elvis is once again on the charts with that entertaining Dutch remix of "A Little Less Conversation," but that's essentially a disco novelty track. And sure, the under-10 set is humming along with "Can't Help Falling In Love," courtesy of Disney's expertly cross-marketed "Lilo & Stitch." But many kids are under the mistaken impression that it's an original by squeaky clean popsters the A*Teens.

In the rock world, while it's not unusual to hear other '50s trailblazers such as Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis covered with some regularity by young bands whose parents weren't even conceived when those giants recorded, you almost never hear Elvis songs performed, and the King is rarely invoked as an influence. His inspiration looms much larger in mainstream country than in rock.

Part of the blame rests on his label, RCA, which is notorious for the mercenary marketing of his music, often with little regard for its actual merits. (The new collection of his hits modeled on the Beatles' "1" doesn't necessarily round up his best material, just the most successful.) And his estate is just as greedy.

The coolest use of Elvis material by a rock band that I've heard in recent years came when Spiritualized folded a snippet of "Can't Help Falling In Love" into the title track of their 1997 album, "Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating Space." But the Presley estate threatened legal action, and the band was forced to remove the tune from its album.

Elvis himself is not without blame here, as he was never the best judge of his own musical strengths. As Peter Guralnick illustrated in his indispensable two-volume biography, Elvis wanted to be a great vocal stylist, and he succeeded, earning a place in the pantheon beside such timeless pop voices as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. His desire to be a great rocker came second, so he sang whatever he was handed, whether it was soundtrack schlock or Tin Pan Alley balladry.

Today, amid the unrelenting hyping of his image, the pilgrimages to Graceland, his near canonization in certain sectors, and his ubiquitous presence in the tabloids ("I Saw Elvis at the 7-11 Hitching A Ride on a UFO with Bigfoot!"), his very real musical accomplishments have been almost totally obscured, to the point where one can hardly blame the young rock or hip-hop fan from agreeing with Chuck D.

With all of that in mind, I thought it was high time to compile a list, not of Elvis' most famous songs, but of his greatest rock 'n' roll moments--an argument, if you will, to drown out the irrelevant noise and present the man at his most rockin' and heroic.

1. "Milkcow Blues Boogie"

Part of the famous "Sun Sessions," Elvis starts the Kokomo Arnold tune as a slow blues, but abruptly changes his mind. "Hold it fellas, that don't move--let's get real, real gone!" he tells the band, then proceeds to deliver a classic slice of rip-roarin' rockabilly.

2. "Baby Let's Play House"

3. "Good Rockin' Tonight"

More Sun-era rockabilly: recorded rough and raw by Sam Phillips, driven by the great Scotty Moore on guitar, and full of attitude from Elvis. "You may go to college/You may go to school," he sneers on the former. "You may have a big Cadillac/But don't you be nobody's fool!"

4. "Rip It Up"

The title says it all, and Elvis delivers.

5. "Money Honey"

The 1956 version features not only Moore but Chet Atkins on guitar as well, and drummer D.J. Fontana kicks Elvis' butt throughout. Though he was well on his way to stardom at this point, you can almost believe he's so broke he's hiding from the landlord.

6. "Little Sister"

Often covered, rarely bettered. The version of the nasty Doc Pomus ditty that Elvis recorded in 1961 remains the definitive one, if only for that little "hiccup" in the vocal that suggest that, while little sister may indeed be mean and evil "like that old boll weevil," the King is strangely attracted to her.

7. "Tiger Man"

8. "Baby What You Want Me to Do"

Proof that Elvis wasn't completely washed up after the Army--these two tunes from the so-called "'68 Comeback Special" simply shred.

9. "Trouble"

Sure, by '69, he was looking a little silly posing as a now-far-from-teenage rebel in a black leather jacket. But when he sang the line, "If you're looking for trouble, you came to the right place," you'd have better believed him, or he'd have the Memphis Mafia beat you up.

10. "What'd I Say"

By and large, Elvis in Vegas is a sad, sad thing, but moments of inspiration occasionally shone through. The new "Today Tomorrow & Forever" box set (the umpteenth collection of newly unearthed rarities--will there ever be an end?) includes this smokin' version of the Ray Charles song recorded at a midnight show in 1969 at the Las Vegas International Hotel. By no means is it worth the price of the box--find a friend with a CD burner!--but it's pretty damn convincing.

* * *

In keeping with the strong tradition established in recent years, the bill at the Chicago Underground Film Festival once again includes several strong music films.

The most eagerly awaited is no doubt "MC5 * A True Testimonial," which has been years in the making by Chicago filmmakers David Thomas and Laurel Legler. The duo is almost religious in its devotion to the legendary band--don't expect any objectivity in this film--but even if the movie doesn't work as history, the footage of the Detroit rockers should be great.

It screens at 7 and 10:30 p.m. Aug. 22. The $15 admission to the 7 p.m. screening also includes a pass to the festival kick-off party at The Prodigal Son, with musical performers the Drapes, The Eternals and X27.

Other music-related films include the ska documentary "Rude Nation"; "Useless," a documentary about Gerry Hannah's journey from punk musician (as a member of the Subhumans) to terrorist; "Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community"; "Cakewalk" by Chicago filmmaker Jeff Economy; "Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box," and "A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake."

CUFF takes place Aug. 22-28 at Landmark's Century Centre Cinemas, 2828 N. Clark. Tickets for evening screenings are $9; matinee screenings before 5 p.m. are $6.50. Advance tickets are available through Ticketweb.com. For a complete schedule: www.cuff.org.