Five more years, and Elvis Presley will have been dead for as long as he was alive. That’s seldom an anniversary that the world sits up and pays attention to, but it’s actually on of the most pertinent of them all.
Nice round numbers, your fives, tens and twenty-fives, they’re fine because... well, because they’re nice and round. But the mirror moment is the one that matters, because that’s where you can sit back and seriously consider - this is what happened during the forty-two years that he lived, for which he can be held directly responsible (or at least influential). And this is what has happened in the forty-two years since....
We’re not going there today, and not simply because the answer is probably too depressing to contemplate. But also because we have another five years to go, and absolutely anything could happen in that time.
Let’s hope so.
It has become a tradition of sorts for August every year to deliver the next grand installment in what we might call the revitalization of his discography. Yeah, you know - that rather sad an oft-times limp looking mass of albums, singles and soundtracks that RCA, Colonel Tom and Elvis himself hurled out more or less willy-nilly throughout his lifetime, and which, though it sure is an impressive heap of wax when you look at it, was scarcely the portrait of the artist... of any artist... as history should recall him. It’s hard, after all, to be the King of Rock’n’Roll, when your last album included - and here we pause for you, the reader, to insert your favorite Presley puzzler. The song that you cannot imagine him having even heard of, let alone felt like singing....
That was then. This is now and, in release terms, it has been for the past twenty years, ever since the first of the Essential Masters box sets rolled out in 1993, and let us know that some people, at least, cared about maintaining Presley’s much-vaunted status. Last year it was three CDs of Elvis at Stax;; 2012 gave us the deluxe Prince from Another Planet rendering of the 1972 Madison Square shows; 2011 brought the Young Man with the Big Beat exposition of his first ever album. Spread now across five CDs.
And in between times... that same debut album, coupled with its immediate successor; Elvis is Back paired with Something for Everybody; two CD extensions of 1973’s Aloha from Hawaii and 1974’s Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis; double disc packages built around the sixties-ending Memphis sessions and the early seventies Elvis Country bash; and, this year, a Behemothic eight discs that essentially tell you everything you ever wanted to know about That’s the Way it is, the 1970 multi-media presentation that mashed a Nashville studio with a Las Vegas residency to build upon the successes of the last eighteen months and prove, lest anyone still doubted it, that Elvis was back.
It’s a big box, but it’s not the biggest. Two twenty disc packages are out there too, one rounding up each of the movie soundtracks that kept him amused through the sixties; the other corralling a fairly random, but representative nevertheless selection of his regular works.
If your love of Elvis can be sated with more-or-less unadorned recreations of his catalog as it came out in the first place, these two boxes take you close enough to completion that a lot of customers probably don’t need go any place else. Or, if you do, the Platinum, Close Up and Today, Tomorrow and Forever box sets probably round up enough in the way of bonus material to keep you happy.
Plus, some of those soundtracks are really very good.
The Legacy series, then, is aimed at the more devout fan... bordering onto the collectors, and (via the inclusion of a few bonus tracks per disc) edging into the territory that the Follow That Dream team have mapped out with their own series of truly spectacular Elvis releases. Elvis Country, for instance, couples I’m 10,000 Years Old, whose top-of-his-game credentials have never been in doubt, with Love Letters from Elvis, the second album pulled from the Nashville sessions (or the third if you count the relevant parts of That’s the Way It Is) - which, it’s probably safe to say, has never been atop anyone’s “I wish they’d rerelease it” list. (Although it did get into the 20 Original Albums box.)
In fact, there are moments when it is the superior of the two LPs. I’m 10,000 Years Old wins out for the cohesion that it gleans from the constant returns to its title song, snatching away the silence between the regular track, and for “There Goes My Everything,” the latest Great Single to tumble from the tonsils of the King. But “Love Letters” is rendered with a depth of emotion that matches any other version you’ve heard, and the knockabout medley that travels from “Got My Mojo Working” to “Keep Your Hans Off It” is cut from the exact same playful cloth as the earlier album’s “Whole Lotta Shaking.” And “Sylvia” rates among Elvis’s greatest Epic Vocals ever. So there.
The double disc repackaging of Elvis’s first two albums cannot hope to compete with the aforementioned five disc extravaganza... which is, in some ways, only four, unless you really want to play the interview CD over and over. But it comes close, even without reaching into the realm of explosive live shows and revealing out-takes that devour discs three and four in the box. Two original twelve track LPs are bolstered with a twelve more bonus cuts, rounding up the period singles - although that is probably less of a consideration than the remastering job performed on a pair of LPs that, in all fairness, have never been treated well by CD.
Well, now they have been, and the result is a depth and warmth that the digital age had hitherto done its best to convince us never even existed. Similar magic (and bonus track bump-ups) have been wrought across the Elvis Is Back set too, and no less than with Elvis Country, anybody who eyes the second disc askance, play it first. Something for Everybody may not have actually included anything for anyone who wanted Elvis back rocking like he did in ’55, but it’s an enjoyable romp regardless.
It is with the live albums that the Legacy series has raised the most eyebrows, of course. Each of the releases so far has appended the “original” album - all dating from the 1970s, of course - with a second disc’s worth of unreleased material; an alternate show for the Madison Square album; a test-run recording cut two days earlier in Richmond for On Stage in Memphis; and a newly remixed version of the old Alternate Aloha rehearsal show on the Hawaiian set.
Are they significantly different to the released versions? Not really. Do they offer dramatic improvements on what we’ve already heard? Again, not really. But fans of live Elvis know the little bits and pieces that they are listening out for, and that is why, no matter how many times you tell yourself that you really only need the two CD version of That’s the Way It Is, somewhere at the back of your mind there’ll be a little voice whispering... no! You need it all! Eight CDs, two DVDs, all the Summer Season August 1970 Vegas concerts, the rehearsal, the movie, the movie recut... wow. And you thought you had to be a Dead fan to witness this kind of overkill.
The shows are great, though. Even as you listen to much-the-same-thing for the fifth time in a row; even as Elvis’s ad libs begin to sound rehearsed, there is a vivid freedom and vivaciousness to these performances that later concerts only occasionally capture, and earlier ones (and this includes the NBC Comeback) are still aspiring towards. Plus, you can never tire of his "Hound Dog" riff....
The eighty page book that accompanies the full box is a work of art in its own right, at the same time as reminding you just what an enjoyable job has been done with the smaller booklets that accompany all the other albums.
What’s next? The Elvis grapevine is constantly alive with rumors, theories and plain old wishful thinking regarding what will be coming down the pipeline next, although in many ways it’s more fun ignoring all the tattle and treating the whispers like spoilers for your favorite TV show. The March ’75 Hollywood sessions that produced the much-abused but really-rather-charming Today album will be celebrating their fortieth birthday, after all.
Or maybe, as we are entering those all-important final five years before the mirror anniversary finally befalls us, it’s time that the entire catalog was put into order; remastered, realigned, a la the completeness of the Beatles, the Kinks and co. A lot of far lesser acts than Elvis can point to a gleaming set of CD remasters, and proudly declare them “all my own work. Literally.” Isn’t it time that he could, too?