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Death, Angels & Magic: Daniel Spicer On Elvis Presley's Way Down
Daniel Spicer , June 14th, 2021 06:13

In our monthly subscriber-only essay Daniel Spicer has a Proustian rush listening to Elvis Presley's career concluding single Way Down, is reminded of the fragility of existence and is catapulted back into a childhood of ageing teds, biker gangs and wyrd Cornish magic...

My copy of Elvis Presley’s The 50 Greatest Hits doesn’t get played very often. In fact, it really only gets a spin on Christmas Day, somewhere between Frank Sinatra’s Twenty Golden Greats and a four-CD box set of Remember Then: Vocal Group Classics From The Doo Wop Era. Yet it contains multitudes. A double CD, bought around the turn of the millennium, it traces Elvis’s career chronologically, from the explosive young rebel forging a shocking new hybrid of country and R&B in the mid-50s with ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘Mystery Train’, to unassailable rock & roll touchstones such as ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’, and through subsequent years of superstardom all the way up to the sad dissolution of his powers, fizzling out with the last single released in his lifetime, 1977’s 'Way Down'.

Whichever way you slice it – and especially compared to the eternal triumphs that precede it – ‘Way Down’ is a clunker. The final song on the second CD, it’s a strangely anticlimactic end to the collection, and painfully emblematic of the tragic conclusion to Elvis’s almost mythologically resonant tale of consuming fame and failure. But, more than that, due to a complex tangle of dim childhood memories and sociohistorical circumstance, in my mind, it represents something far deeper and more profound: it’s a reminder of the fragility of existence, a trigger signal for the uncanny and unexplained, and a harbinger of cosmic entropy.

‘Way Down’ was recorded at home in Elvis’s Graceland mansion in 1976. Much to his label RCA’s chagrin, he’d spent just a handful of days in a recording studio in 74 and 75 and showed little enthusiasm for returning any time soon. RCA’s solution was to bring the studio to him, setting up a mobile facility in his garishly decorated, tiki-themed den, built as an annexe at the rear of Graceland in 1965, and later nicknamed the Jungle Room. Two recording sessions took place there in 1976. Six nights in February yielded his penultimate album From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee, released later that year. Two more nights of recording in October generated about half of the tracks included on his final album, 1977’s Moody Blue. ‘Way Down’ was recorded during this last session, on 29 October.

Elvis was 41 years old and in extremely bad shape. Years of addiction to prescription drugs and high-fat binge-eating had ravaged his body. He was suffering from diabetes, glaucoma and hypertension. He had an enlarged heart and was chronically constipated. It’s no surprise that his performance on ‘Way Down’ sounds tired and uninspired, with little of the smouldering magnetism of previous years. The song itself, written by Layng Martine Jr, feels jarringly unsuitable for a performer long past his heyday as a sex symbol, and lyrically suspect on so many levels. (Let’s not even dwell on the song’s title and lines such as “Way down where it feels so good / Way down where I hoped it would / Way down where I never could.”) In the opening verse, Elvis’s attempt to sound seductive comes across instead as if he’s succumbing to unconsciousness as he sings:

“Babe, you’re getting closer
The lights are goin’ dim
The sound of your breathin
Made the mood I’m in
All of my resistance
Lyin’ on the floor
Taking me to places
I’ve never been before.”

Perhaps most off-key, given Elvis’s hopelessly damaging abuse of barbiturates, amphetamines and opioids prescribed by his personal physician, George Nichopoulos – aka Dr Nick – are the lines:

“The medicine within me
No doctor could prescribe
Your love is doing something
That I just can’t describe.”

Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll never sounded so unappealing.

Musically, ‘Way Down’ is not much more convincing. It begins with a low synthesizer throb (weirdly reminiscent of the theme to Doctor Who) and a slippery electric bass guitar signalling slick modernity, before settling into a lumpen rock beat with drums and piano, then erupting into a jaunty rock & roll chorus with female backing vocals adding a gospel-tinged coda. Its most distinctive feature is the phrase “way on down”, sung at the end of each chorus in a sepulchral low C by JD Sumner. Active since the mid-40s in vocal groups including The Sunshine Boys, The Blackwood Brothers Quartet and The Stamps Quartet, and a friend of Elvis since the early 50s, Sumner was a celebrated southern gospel singer with a famously bottomless bass range. Though undeniably impressive, Sumner’s improbably deep voice was also something of a novelty act, and that’s how it sounds here: just one more ill-considered element in a tune that stubbornly refuses to hang together. Though only two minutes and 39 seconds long, ‘Way Down’ is – just like Elvis in 76 – a bloated mess.

None of which changes the fact that, as a six-year-old boy, I loved it. ‘Way Down’ was the last single of Elvis’s lifetime – and the only one that directly overlapped with my consciousness. It was originally released in June 1977, just as I was beginning to pay attention to chart music. Around the same time, I also professed a liking for David Soul’s saccharine hit ‘Silver Lady,’ until my dad, quite rightly, pointed out that I only liked it because Soul was Hutch from Starsky & Hutch. But ‘Way Down’ was different. Sumner’s otherworldly bass drawl fascinated me and, besides, Elvis felt like a friend.

It’s easy to forget that, at this time, Elvis was still a big part of the culture at large. During the school holidays, the BBC would regularly run films such as King Creole (1958) and Blue Hawaii (1961). If kids didn’t stop to wonder why they were being shown these dated artefacts, it’s largely because they weren’t even the oldest oldies being served up: Tom And Jerry cartoons from the 1940s and 50s, the original Flash Gordon serial from 1936 starring Buster Crabbe, and even Harold Lloyd’s silent movies from the 1920s were all routinely screened in child-friendly slots. By comparison, Elvis seemed positively contemporary.

It hardly seemed to matter that he hadn’t had a No 1 hit in the UK since ‘The Wonder Of You’ in August 1970. Listen again to the gleaming production on ‘Way Down’, the sinuous throb of the electric bass and synth’s opening fanfare, and the piano-led rock stomp that wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on a mid-70s Elton John track. It’s just possible that, if things had gone differently for Elvis, this might have marked the beginning of another stab at relevance, like his famous comeback in 1968. Even so, it’s not entirely clear who ‘Way Down’ was aimed at. In 1977, just who was supposed to be buying this ponderous single by the ailing King of Rock & Roll? Closer consideration of this question shines a light on strange cul-de-sacs of UK sociocultural history that have absolutely nothing to do with the well-worn, familiar narratives of punk and disco.

The Author, 2021

In fact, with a 1950s revival in full swing in the late 70s, rock & roll was more popular than it had been for almost two decades. In the US, a reactionary longing for a cultural landscape uncomplicated by Vietnam and Watergate spawned the hit movies American Graffiti (released 1973, set in 1962 but effectively an ode to the teenage cultures of the late 1950s) and Grease (set in 1958 and based on a 1971 stage musical, the movie was released in 1978). On TV, Happy Days ran from 1974-1984, presenting an idealised version of white-bread teenage middle America from the mid-50s to the mid-60s.

In the UK, this retro-fascination manifested in the form of some of the decade’s strangest pop acts. Formed in Leicester in 1973, Showaddywaddy were hugely successful rock & roll revivalists who scored a No 1 hit with ‘Under The Moon Of Love’ in 1976, and were regularly seen on TV sporting bright satin suits and crepe-soled shoes like latter-day superstar teddy boys. If Showaddywaddy had an aura of primetime approachability, their London-based counterparts, Darts, had a slightly more raw appeal. Founded in 1976, they had a string of hits revisiting doo-wop and R&B tunes including 1978’s ‘The Boy From New York City'. Darts’ co-founder and bass vocalist, Den Hegarty, was a kinetic and charismatic performer who also became a familiar face to British children, appearing on ITV’s anarchic Saturday morning TV show Tiswas, inexplicably sitting in a bathtub full of baked beans or providing loud “BONG”s in his booming bass tones for a section aping the 10 o’clock news called News At Den .

It wasn’t hard to detect a self-conscious silliness about the upbeat 50s sounds and fashions pastiched and paraded by Showaddywaddy and Darts. Yet, away from the glare of the TV studios, authentic 50s originals were still very much alive, and deadly serious. Around this time, it was quite common to see groups of middle-aged teddy boys hanging around outside the amusement arcades at seaside resorts or lurking at the funfair near the coconut shy or duck shot, where you could win a prize of a small mirror decorated with a painted portrait of Elvis, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe or The Fonz from Happy Days. Even as a small child, I could sense an air of vague menace emanating from these ageing hooligans with their greasy quiffs, grubby suits and tattooed knuckles. These were remnants of a working-class British subculture that, from its emergence in the mid-50s, was synonymous with violence – and deeply in love with Elvis’s rebel rock & roll.

The artist and social historian Jeff Nuttall, in his 1968 study of the rise of the counterculture in Britain, Bomb Culture, claims: “The first showings of Elvis Presley films were celebrated by rows of razored seats in the theatres concerned. These… did not indicate dissatisfaction with the performance or anger with the management. They were signatures... The teddy boys were waiting for Elvis Presley.” If anyone was still invested in buying Elvis’s records in 1977, we might safely assume that these teddy boy survivors were among them.

But the teds weren’t the only tribe with a love of original rock & roll. From the late 50s, leather- and denim-clad biker gangs began to form in the UK, inspired in part by Marlon Brando’s performance as the existential biker outlaw in the 1953 movie The Wild One. By the turn of the 60s, they had become known as rockers, indicating, as Nuttall points out, “a defensive adherence to the simple early forms of rock & roll". This devotion to the basic tenets remained absolutely central to the rockers’ identity, particularly as a way of differentiating themselves from an emerging rival tribe and resisting their modernist agenda. While the mods were exploring soul, ska and modern jazz, rockers venerated Elvis and other rock & roll originals such as Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.

By the early 70s, the rocker subculture had faded, diluted by the influence of the psychedelic counterculture and the allure of even more extreme outlaw biker groups such as the Hells Angels. This is neatly illustrated by an unintentionally hilarious BBC documentary about the British chapter of the Hells Angels first screened in 1973. It follows the misadventures of a group of down-at-heel Angels – Pappy, Karl Sad Happy, Mad John and his dog, Hitler – on an ill-fated "run" to the countryside where they decide not to smash up a café and end up on a dilapidated, rain-soaked canal boat, drinking beer and watching Doctor Who on a portable black and white TV. Rather than the fierce road warriors they aspire to be, they come across as slightly pathetic, bedraggled and drug-addled losers who have never learned how to take care of themselves.

Whereas the original rockers were, at least to begin with, vehemently anti-drugs (which they perceived as effeminate), according to the documentary’s exquisitely portentous narration “a really righteous Angel will consume almost anything in any quantity, combination or sequence” including LSD, alcohol, marijuana and amphetamines, “as much as they can get, as often as they can get it". Perhaps not surprisingly, the psychedelicised Angels’ music tastes differed from those of the rockers, too. When they are first boarding the boat, Karl Sad Happy is seen clutching a stack of LPs, clearly showing the cover of Family’s 1968 psych-prog classic, Music In A Doll’s House. Still, maybe there was room for just a little rock & roll in their lives: later that night, as they sat around drinking and smoking, the portable record player pumped out Jimi Hendrix’s version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode', as featured on the posthumous 1972 live album Hendrix In The West.

Of course, these weren’t the only bikers in the UK at the time. The documentary voiceover states that, in 1973, there were one million motorbike owners in Britain, with only 32 of them calling themselves Hells Angels and a further 2,000 classed as “pretty regular hellraisers". I clearly remember how, from time to time, a local biker gang known as the Viking Nomads would descend en masse on The Britannia, the local pub near where I grew up in Guildford, Surrey. As far as I know, they never caused any trouble, but the rows of gleaming bikes parked outside seemed an implicit threat, a snarling eyesore in this otherwise genteel and peaceful riverside locale, with ducks and swans drifting by, blue-rinsed elderly ladies taking tea in the Debenhams café over the river and audiences attending middle-brow whodunnits and farces at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre just around the corner.

The idea of the biker was also imprinted on my consciousness around this time by the release of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell in 1977. The title track is an operatic tale of a misfit rebel leaving his lover behind as he makes his escape from a stifling society on a “silver-black phantom bike", only to crash and end up “torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike". It’s essentially an update on ‘teen tragedy’ songs such as The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader Of The Pack’ and Twinkle’s ‘Terry’ (both 1964), told from the perspective of the male biker hero rather than the bereaved girlfriend. Guitarist Todd Rundgren’s astonishing stunt-guitar simulation of the sound of a revving engine in ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ can even be seen as direct homage to the genuine motorcycle engine heard towards the end of ‘Leader Of The Pack'. My parents owned the record – it was a favourite at home – and I used to spend hours lying on the sofa, reading the lyrics along to ‘Bat Out Of Hell'’ completely absorbed in the roaring momentum of this gloriously overblown, blue-collar American melodrama.

But the real biker heroes in my life were much closer to home. When I was a small boy, my family would, from time to time, be descended upon by our very own rebel chapter. I remember being outside the house, aged maybe five or six, kicking a ball against a wall on one of those endless afternoons of early childhood, the soft smack of the plastic ball hitting red brick the only sound in the quiet street. I hear a low hum, which becomes a distant rumble, which explodes into a deep roar as four large motorcycles round the bend at the end of the street, piloted by young men barely out of their teens, with long hair, clad in denims and leather. Leading the pack is my cousin Stephen, just five years younger than my mum, his auntie Linda. Behind him, is cousin Michael, just a couple of years younger. Next is, Tony, the loyal friend, and, at the rear, Pip, the fool and butt of all their jokes.

The Author, 1977

This tight little brotherhood had a habit of arriving unannounced and staying the weekend, throwing the house into a whirl of festivity. One Easter they arrived with dinner in the form of an enormous turkey, too big to fit in the oven, and an industrial-sized barrel of baked beans. They would stay up late and crash out in the living room in their denims. In the morning, I’d sneak in before they woke, breathing in the sweet, stale fug of beer, leather and farts. They laughed a lot, too, cracking each other up with their own made-up backward language in which a beefburger was a "regrubfeeb" and a beer gut was a "reeb tug". By hanging about near them, I was able to discern a few of the core beliefs that defined their world: unlike the old rockers, they weren’t fussed about customising classic British bikes, but preferred big, new Japanese machines like the Honda Gold Wing; as for music, they were into heavy rock by Nazareth and AC/DC. They were, in short, about as much fun and excitement as a young boy could possibly imagine.

Perhaps it was because of an overload of excitement that I remember relatively little of the time we all went on holiday together. August 1977. I’m six years old. We travel in convoy: Stephen and the pack on their bikes; me, my mum and dad, younger brother and baby sister in Dad’s van. Uncle Russ, Dad’s younger brother, is there too. We set off early and, along the way, stop in a Little Chef. The ubiquitous restaurant is usually a motorway mirage, whizzing by, forever out of reach like an unattainable roadside paradise, but today – oh, special day – we are going inside for breakfast. I ask for a milkshake, which arrives in a tall, ornate glass. It’s a dream come true. I’m less than halfway through when I knock it to the floor, broken glass and milkshake spattering on the tiles. No one has enough money to buy me another. It’s almost unbearably disappointing, like only childhood can be.

We spend a week or so in a static caravan in Cornwall. It’s a hot summer. There are a handful of other children of varying ages, all from different parts of the country, staying in the caravan park and we form a temporary holiday gang. One afternoon, something strange happens. We are playing in a small copse somewhere near or perhaps on the campsite. An older boy and girl are in charge. I’m one of the youngest of the troupe. The woods feel charged with static and imaginative potential. Suddenly we see several large sticks and fallen branches rise up out of the leafy undergrowth and hover, dancing in the air. No one questions it. We know earth magic is real. More than 40 years later, I can no longer tell if this was daydream, reverie or revelation. But the memory is as real as it is baffling.

Some recollections are more reliable. I’m sitting on the parched grass outside the caravan in the afternoon heat, hearing a hidden radio play a song I know. It’s ‘Way Down’ by Elvis Presley. The radio says Elvis has just died. It’s the first time I’ve ever been aware of somebody dying. Death has alchemised Elvis’s appeal and ‘Way Down’ is now racing up the UK charts, on its way to a long, posthumous stay at No 1. I can hear the final moments of ‘Way Down’ lingering like smoke in the still air, JD Sumner’s ancient voice singing “way on down” once, then once again, this final time plunging down an octave to a barely audible double low C. It feels like atoms falling apart, the slow, tired dissolution of matter. Rock & roll is dead. Almost exactly one year later, in August 1978, cousin Stephen is killed in a motorbike crash. Riding fast one night, another bike with an unlicensed teen rider comes too close and too fast in the opposite direction. Wing mirrors clip and Stephen is thrown to his death. He is 21 years old. It’s the first time someone I know has died. JD Sumner’s voice is still trembling in a vacuum. Rock & roll is still dead, its memory fading. Enchanted branches still bob and turn weightless in the summer air. ‘Way Down’ is still playing somewhere, imprinting the cold breath of mortality on my innocent brain, showing me that lights can be snuffed out and all things dwindle. It’s a song that never ends. It remains two and a half minutes of the most powerful vibrations I have ever known.