The Shock of Elvis

By: Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
September 17, 2004

Bruce Springsteen once famously said that Elvis Presley freed people's bodies, the way Bob Dylan freed people's minds. Loathe as I am to argue with The Boss, this tribute doesn't accurately measure Elvis' impact. In a decade, the 1950s, synonymous crew cut conservative conformity, the way Elvis sounded - and looked - wasn't just radical, it was down right revolutionary.

Memory can be a horribly unreliable instrument but the words of those who were there, at the time, often tell the story best. Michael Palin, the future Monty Python and professional traveller, recalls sitting in his front room in Sheffield, in northern England, with his father doing the crossword. Listening to the radio. Suddenly Heartbreak Hotel came on. Palin's father looked up from his paper in outrage. 'He'd never heard anyone mumbling on radio before', recalled his son. A few coughs of escalating moral disapproval followed, Palin Senior looking, for all the world, as if revolution and anarchy were about to break out in his front room.

Disc jockey John Peel recalls a similar sense of shock: 'It might sound pretty safe now but in the context of what was happening in the 1950s, hearing Heartbreak Hotel was as shocking as if someone was dancing naked in your living room'. The shock - a jolt, a tremor that prefigured the cultural earthquake to come - was felt across the world. And what's often overlooked, in the endless analysis of Presley's musical influences, is that how he looked was as radical as what - and how - he sang.

Bill Haley had rocked around the clock but his credibility as an icon of adolescent rebellion lasted only until you first saw him live. There was nothing wrong with Haley as a musician but he was no Greek god and his - and the Comets - line in natty jackets lacked a certain sartorial eloquence.

Elvis didn't just sound black, he dressed black. His cousin Billy Smith remembers that his family, seeing the young Elvis' additions to his wardrobe, began to think: 'Well why doesn't he just go and live with them [the African-Americans]?' Presley gave rock and roll the flash (and the make-up) that everyone from Mick Jagger to Alice Cooper would revel in. (Even in the 1970s, his offstage costumes - coat, cane and hat - the superfly look, has influenced contemporary acts like R. Kelly.)

As W.A. Harbinson notes in his underrated, if hysterically written, illustrated biography of Elvis: 'Flash Harry he is and Flash Harry he'll be climbing out of the convertible with his lop-sided grin to reveal, in his modest manner, 'a billiard-table green coloured coat, black trousers, pleated white shirt, black tie, snow-white boots that zip up the side, huge cufflinks, and a striped cummerbund around the top of his pants-'. Later, he would graduate to a white silk stage shirt, trimmed with lace and, later still, his famous suit of 'soft, pliable, leather impregnated with gold'.

Millions couldn't afford the convertible, the gold lame suit or the coat, cuffs and cummerbund ensemble, but they could -and did - make their own small gestures. My father (who was 17 when Heartbreak Hotel first hit the UK charts) recalls, soon after Elvis had detonated in Britain, one of his colleagues coming to his factory in a shiny blue jacket. It doesn't sound like much today but in the sartorial climate of the 1950s, when men's fashion was (and the concept didn't really even exist then) uniformly uniform, it was as shocking as if he'd turned up in a short skirt and stiletto heels. The choice of jacket wasn't just a subject of comments and wisecracks, it was so astonishing it almost felt like an item of local news.

And millions of people, perhaps mainly men, were making similar choices, staging similar sartorial acts of defiance, either with the colour of their jackets, the flamboyance of their shirts or, in a minor gesture of homage, wearing their coats or jackets with the collars turned up over their necks, to look like him.

So sorry Bruce, but Elvis freed people's minds too - sometimes in ways that, almost half a century after he shook up the world, we are only starting to realise.

About the author: Paul Simpson is author of the acclaimed book, The Rough Guide To Elvis.

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