Elvis Presley, Suspicious Minds (1969)

ElvisSuspiciousMinds

Artist: Elvis Presley
Title: Suspicious Minds
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1969
First heard: circa mid-1970s

Jordan: The Comeback is the fifth studio album by musically and lyrically eloquent northeasterners Prefab Sprout. A nominal concept album (Rolling Stone summed it up as a pop symphony about “God, love and Elvis”), its standout passage, for me, has always been its four-minute title track, in which the King laments from some rhinestone-studded version of heaven.

And all those books about me
Well there wasn’t much love in ’em boys
I’m tellin’ ya, if I’d taken all that medication
Man, I’d a rattled like one of my little girl’s toys
Now they call me a recluse
Been in the desert so long
Layin’ on my back, bidin’ my time
I’m just waitin’ for the right song

Then I’m comin’ back!

Only Paddy McAloon would have the chutzpah and chops to imagine Elvis considering a move back to Memphis from the top of a stairway to heaven. But Elvis is so big, so all-powerful, so iconic in the Mount Rushmore sense of the exhausted adjective, how else do you draw him out of the desert of pagan idolatry? Certainly, how do you pick one of the countless prêt-à-chanter tunes delivered to him over his quarter-century of pelvis-swiveling, gallery-playing and myth-salesmanship?

As with the Beatles and the Stones, the Beach Boys and the Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Squeeze and other statutory genii of the 45, you’re looking at a long list of choice cuts. There are 30 number ones to trace a finger down from Elvis’s foreshortened lifetime, never mind all of those contenders that only squeaked to number two (Hound Dog, Can’t Help Falling in Love, Burning Love), or number three (Crying in the Chapel, Devil In Disguise, In the Ghetto in the US; Teddy Bear in the UK). Suspicious Minds, first recorded in 1968 by its writer Mark James (who would go on to pen Moody Blue and Always on my Mind), became a hit on Elvis’s hips a year later, and his final living US chart-topper. (He enjoyed three further number ones in the UK: doo-wop serenade The Wonder of You, the down and dirty Burning Love and the deep and meaningful Way Down.)

The 1969 LP From Elvis in Memphis, recorded there to exploit the free pass bestowed by the fabulously restorative NBC special from Burbank, Singer Presents … Elvis (colloquially known as the ’68 Comeback Special, whose soundtrack went Top 10), marked the true return of the King, having been in the desert for at least seven years, making movies with diminishing artistic returns, and not playing live. The books state that Elvis laid down Suspicious Minds between 4am and 7am in a night-shift pre-breakfast rush on 23 January, ’69, in eight takes. It was overdubbed in the not-insignificant town of Las Vegas that August and released as a single forthwith.

I’m always cheered by how low-key the intro is. It’s almost a little bit country, with Reggie Young’s caressed electric guitar and Gene Chrisman’s sticks tap-dancing on the hi-hat. Then Elvis sends out a distress signal: “We’re caught in a trap!” We quickly learn that he can’t walk out, because he loves somebody too much, baby. The last line is coloured in by the most buoyant, promenade-suite strings, which take up the cause from here. As translated into Elvish from Mark James’ text, the lyric is torrid kitchen-sink stuff. The protagonist and his ill-suited squeeze are caught in a trap of their own making. Why can’t she see what she’s doing to him? She’s probably thinking the same thing, after all, she doesn’t believe a word he says. It’s evident that they can’t go on together with suspicious minds. It’s killing them, and here they go again …

Eleven backing singers whip this problem-page teaser into a full-on melodrama, while trumpets and trombones, arranged by Glenn Spreen, pump up the volume. It’s an epic. Chrisman stick-shifts from rat-tat-tat-tat to more skittish hi-hat, and back again. He’s on  a roll. But this is expected from first-rate sessioneers.

There are two audacious, infrastructural gambits in Suspicious Minds. One comes at 1.45, when, after Elvis croons “suspicious mah-a-ha-aands“, the whole show slows down to ballad-speed crawl. The break allows him to entreaty, “let’s don’t let a good thing die”, adding an “mmmm-mmmm-mmmmm” that luxuriates in the pause for thought. Then, at 2.12, it cranks back up and starts windmilling its way to the finish. Though Chrisman holds this quick-march beat thereafter, all the heartache, harmony (“yeah, yeah“) and tumult makes it feels like it gathers further speed as it builds to the all-in climax – the eleven sound like twelve; the brass goes off the hook and proclaims heavenly timeshare; a snare fill pops in all the excitement – and then, just as it hits its exultant final bars, at 3.35 it begins to fade …

Nothing out of the ordinary there, it’s what old 45s did, for reasons practical and commercial. But don’t go away, that’s not all, folks. After 15 seconds, as the houselights are turned back on … it fades back in! Such a tease. Is it intended to conjure the band leaving the stage and coming back on for an encore? It’s certainly pure showbiz, albeit effected by a lever on the desk. It’s a sabotage decision made by producer Felton Jarvis that oughtn’t even work but, like Lou Reed struggling to scan “all the coloured girls sang” in Walk on the Wild Side and Joni Mitchell squealing with tickled delight in Big Yellow Taxi, it just does.

Now that’s what I call a comeback.

 

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Patsy Cline, Crazy (1961)

Patsy_ClineShowcase

Artist: Patsy Cline
Title: Crazy
Description: single; EP track, Patsy Cline; album track, Patsy Cline Showcase
Label: Decca
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: 1990s

Though I’m a lot rock’n’roll, I can’t really even claim to be a little bit country. I’ve watched Nashville, both the classic 70s movie about the hub they call Music City, and the current, campy TV series, and I’ve long appreciated the Country & Western influence on much of the American rock of the 1960s that I hold dear. I have albums by Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds that make perfect, bootlace-tie sense to my ears, I actually enshrined a song from Dylan’s Nashville Skyline into The 143, and if there is a lovelier, more plangent sound than a pedal steel, I’d like to hear it.

But Patsy Cline is a different order of “meat and three”. The first female artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame (in 1973; it only took them ten years after her untimely death at 30), Cline’s reputation and appeal travelled way beyond the parameters of her chosen genre and subculture. The longer-lived Dolly and Tammy self-evidently had longer careers, but it seems me – as a non-expert – that she towers over them all from beyond the grave. Beset by bad fortune like any self-respecting country singer, Cline’s life was not the self-destructive tragedy of near-contemporary Hank Williams, and she was enjoying all the fruits of success when her plane crashed in a Tennessee forest in 1963.

Crazy is hardly an obscurantist choice from Cline’s crossover repertoire, but for me, it shines brightest and interferes with my heart in a way that I might not expect from a genre whose mawkishness can be a barrier to my full immersion. Written by a then-unknown, clean-cut Willie Nelson, who recorded it himself a year later on his debut LP, it’s a unisex lament to the inevitability of a split-up. Fatalistic, as many classic love songs tend to be, for maximum yearnitude.

The protagonist – female in Cline’s impeccable reading – declares herself crazy for feeling so lonely and for feeling so blue, as she knew her partner would love her as long as he wanted, and then “someday”, leave her “for somebody new.” If she did know this, why did she go with him in the first place? Well, if you need that question answering, you have never been in love. Cline has. She’s “crazy for tryin’, and crazy for cryin’,” and “crazy, for lovin’ you.” The way she lets us in on this apres-relationship confession in that husky voice that is apparently a contralto (ie. low for a lady), almost makes her sound as if the loss and the inevitability are part of the experience. Better to have loved and lost, than to have loved and lost and not seen it coming.

A polite piano intro, augmented by the lazily ascending twang of a guitar, give the song a trilling, balmy porch setting, the better to stage Cline’s wistful but self-lacerating dissection, swept along by the brushes of whichever of the two drummers played on the parent Showcase album. It’s an idyllic backdrop to a gloomy conclusion about the fallibility of the heart. The velvety baritone backing of none other than Elvis’s partly-ordained Jordanaires gives such depth to the arrangement (they were still indentured to the King in 1961 but would later be too busy to join him in Vegas and handed over to the Imperials), but it’s Cline’s rich account that cuts through, the ends of each line quivering into the trees on the wind. In “crazy for feeling so blue,” it’s the word “feeling” that she hammers home: crazy for feeling so blue, the “blue” note held for longer than you might think feasible.

Each word Cline chooses to emphasise seems perfectly selected. It’s as if she had the ability to italicise with her tonsils, as she went along. I also love her more upbeat, clip-clop 1963 rendition of the Bob Montgomery-quilled Back In Baby’s Arms (introduced into the gumbo of Trent Reznor’s Natural Born Killers soundtrack with creditable plurality), but the career-defining ballad wins by a nose. I suspect if she’d lived, the KLF would have had her on a record in the 90s; as it is, airborne catastrophe immortalises her as a kind of guardian angel in perpetuity.

Not even a hit in the UK, Crazy found me somehow, somewhere along the long, lonesome line. There. I hope I sound like the country expert I’m not.

Pet Shop Boys, Always On My Mind (1987)

pet-shop-boys-introspective

Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Title: Always On My Mind
Description: single
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

It’s funny. I’ve been dipping randomly in and out of The 143 while on the move, trying to decide which song to enshrine next. After quite a lot of trekking between meetings and appointments one rainy London day last week, I had a handful of contenders. Then I got home, dried off, ate some dinner and watched Episode 2 of Season 2 of The Newsroom. Towards the end, as is Aaron Sorkin’s wont, they had Will McAvoy refer to a song playing in the newshounds’ local bar (it had been The Who’s You Better You Bet in Episode 1): this time, it was the whiny 1982 Willie Nelson version of Always On My Mind, which Will declared to be “the best version, even better than Elvis’s.” I like Nelson well enough, but he’s wrong. This is the best version, and it is even better than Elvis’s.

Whether or not you agree that Always On My Mind is the Pet Shop Boys’ best song is another matter. There are so many to choose from. But I believe it to be the case. And that’s not to belittle the rich catalogue of hits they’ve written for themselves. I love those, too. The Pet Shops Boys are among this country’s finest ever singles artists.

Since it is a cover – and there will be further covers in The 143 as a great song is not a great song without a great version; I’m even hovering over another cover by Willie Nelson for inclusion –  I feel duty bound to tell you that it was a country tune written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, and first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972. The torrid Elvis version came out the same year – such haste! Willie’s followed in 1982, and the imperious Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe covered it in 1987 to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death on some ITV spectacular that I never saw, on account of always being out in pubs in Tooting on Saturday nights at the time. It became their third number one, and, so I gather, their best selling UK single.

My main memory of getting into the Pet Shop Boys – and I fell instantly on hearing West End Girls during its second bite of the chart cherry in 1985, despite, or perhaps because, it didn’t quite fit into what I thought of as “my” music in those first years of college (ie. it was neither Wagnerian nor jingly-jangly, my longitude and latitude) – was admiration for the whole package. I felt the same way about Frankie Goes To Hollywood: the music, the look, the design, the philosophy, everything counted, and it was all up there on the screen, as it were. Buying Please, then Actually, via the first remix album Disco, I felt I was buying into something urbane and clever and graphic, something distillable into one-word titles. All that white space.

I don’t mind telling you, as we’re among friends: I bought a horizontal blue-and-white striped t-shirt and wore it under a reversable black/cream hooded top with a neat, canvas baseball hat in tribute. I was so Paninaro. It coincided with fancying myself as a bit of a B-boy, and the lightness of being, after the choking Goth years, was unbearable.

Always On My Mind feels like it was already number one when I first heard it, which may well have been on Top Of The Pops or the Chart Show. (Joss Ackland!) The Pet Shop Boys were a big pop act. There was nothing underground or show-offy about liking the Pet Shop Boys. And yet they were an intellectual cut above the synth-driven competition (“Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” – that was their catchphrase), aloof to the point of self-parody and JSE (Just Sleazy Enough).  Spicy hints of the illicit homosexual subculture, the power to revive a gay icon like Dusty Springfield and a song about rent boys, you could read what you liked into the essentially vanilla intentions of Always On My Mind. Its synth pulse pumps new life into what is a country song, but the sincerity of the sentiment is not lost in Tennant’s characteristically nasal delivery. Some find him detached. I find him merely semi-detached.

I illustrate with the candy-striped sleeve of third album Introspective, as that, in 1988, is where the hit single was subsequently homed, albeit remixed and conjoined with In My House. (If you know the album, you’ll be familiar with the way, at around three minutes in, Tennant trills “You were always …” and instead of “on my mind,” drops down a synthesised octave for the surprise ending “in my house,” at which the song transmutes.) This is not the definitive item, but I’m fond of it, as I listened to this album a lot, so worth mentioning.

Yes, there may well be an Elvis entry in The 143. And as previously vouchsafed, definitely a few further covers.