Yet without Elvis, neither punk nor most of the popular music of the last 50 years would have been possible. A whole generation took Elvis as their starting point.
His first British hit, “Heartbreak Hotel”, sums up what was so startlingly new about Elvis’s music. The song was a tale of bleak despair, based on a newspaper report of a suicide note. It was a thousand miles from the sugary love songs that had dominated the charts.
Elvis came to prominence as musical segregation was breaking down. White musicians began to play black music, and black musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard got a white audience.
The fusion of black and white music that Elvis created was at the very heart of this process.
As a result Elvis made many enemies. When he performed on the Grand Ole Opry, a well known country and western radio show, he was told “We don’t do that nigger music around here – go back to driving a truck.” Southern US clergymen denounced him for playing “jungle music” .
In Britain there was widespread racism, but music was not as segregated as it was in the US. The first black musician to top the charts was pianist Winifred Atwell in 1954.
Elvis was adopted by a new generation of British youth that had grown up after the Second World War, knowing nothing of the mass unemployment and defeats of the pre-war period.
As a result it was far more assertive. Elvis’s sullen aggression responded to a new mood. As he sang in “Trouble”, “I don’t take no orders/From no kind of man”.
Elvis summed up a mood of anti-authoritarianism. His films encouraged an active response, notably jiving in the aisles. Rock’n’roll and Elvis in particular were blamed for juvenile crime, then – as always – said to be increasing.
Unfortunately the left was looking the other way. The New Left that had emerged after the Suez crisis defeat for British imperialism and the revolt against Stalinism in Hungary in 1956 preferred jazz and folk music.
ここで「資本主義」制度を代表する悪役として登場するのは、プレスリーのマネージャーである“Colonel” Parkerである――”His manager, “Colonel” Parker, refused to let him meet songwriters and kept complete musical and financial control in his own hands.”
Elvis’s career illuminated a contradiction at the heart of capitalism. Capitalism needs to generate profits in order to survive. But to suck profit out of workers it also needs an ideology to ensure that workers know their place in society.
Money won. The shareholders of the record company were more powerful than smalltown clergymen who wanted Elvis banned.
There was always an element of fraud in the promotion of Elvis. His second film, Loving You, was quite cynical about how scandal can be manipulated to promote a reputation.
Sometimes it seems to anticipate the film about the Sex Pistols, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. Elvis’s sexually provocative gyrations were enhanced by hanging the cardboard tube from a toilet roll on a piece of string inside his trousers.
Elvis’s early music had drawn on the power of black music. In 1969, when it was felt that a “socially aware” song would be profitable, he was given the appalling “In The Ghetto”, which depicted blacks as helpless victims.
Elvis was rich but powerless. He once flew his private four engine airliner nearly a thousand miles – to buy peanut butter sandwiches.
He could still pull the crowds – the pampered rich in Las Vegas – but a new generation of musicians were making innovations he could not follow.
Unlike Elvis they wrote their own songs and at least tried to control their finances. Elvis controlled nothing. He despised the music and films he was forced to produce, but the “Colonel” had the last word.
Elvis posed a dilemma for capitalism, but it was not an insurmountable one. Eventually it preserved him as a commodity but destroyed him as a musician.
Often this is blamed on “Colonel” Parker. Parker was both incompetent and scared that Elvis might do something outrageous or unpatriotic.
But things would have gone the same way without Parker. As Karl Marx noted, “capitalist production is hostile to art and poetry”.
Music cannot change the world, but it can inspire those who have the potential to change it. Elvis was no socialist, just a rebel against a system he never understood – and his rebellion produced some of the great music of his century.
In Flaming Star he played a young man of mixed race – white and Native American – caught up in the conflict between two communities.
It was a powerful statement against racism, and while it was banned in apartheid South Africa, the Los Angeles Native American community inducted Elvis into its tribal council. It was Elvis’s best acting performance.