We are, sadly getting used to the idea that rock stars die just like everybody else.At the start of the 70’s we had a nasty wakeup call with the 27 club. The deaths
of Morrison, Joplin and Hendrix are tragic even after all these years. They were
young people who died accidently before any hint of a creative slump had been
reached. We had had a foretaste of things to come when Blues and Jazz legends
began to pass away. Oldish people with their best creative years now behind
them. These were our first experiences of older musicians dying a reasonably
As a young man death was quite a stranger to me. My grandad had died in the
late 60’s but overall our families seemed a fairly healthy bunch, my grandmother
lived to 99 and first introduced me to the concept that, sometimes, it’s always
great to live that long.
The first death that really hit me was, of all people, Mama Cass. The ex-Mamas
and Papas singer had been in London and I had listened to an interview with her
on the radio just a few days before she died. I wasn’t really a fan but I can
remember the shock of someone just disappearing, someone who a few days
previously had been completely alive.
Among people a bit older than me there was always the ‘where were you when
Kennedy was assassinated’ question. I do remember seeing ‘Kennedy ist tot’
headlines when walking around a town in Germany with my mother. This related
to Bobby of course I can’t remember a thing about Robert at all.
The really big death we had to contend with in the 70’sof course was that of the
King of rock and roll no less than Elvis Presley himself. I remember hearing of his
death naturally. It had been a warm summers night and I had been to the pub
(the Maid’s Head in old Catton fact fans) with my school friends Phil and Dunk.
That’s as much as I can remember until I came home and my mum prepared me
for some bad news much as she had when my grandad had died.
But the king’s death was not too bad, certainly not as serious as having a family
member die as I had initially anticipated but also not as traumatic as Mama
The fact was that Elvis was of another generation and another country, tastes
were pretty ephemeral in those days. My uncle David who was about 15 years
older than me was an Elvis fan, his older brother John liked Paul Robeson. Elvis
probably meant more to my mum than he did to me.
I must say that in theory at least I am a big Elvis fan, he looked great, he moved
great and he invented rock and roll (discuss!). But, on the other hand there was a
lot of crap associated with him. Crap films, crap records,crap stage shows a crap
fancy house and a crap manager. In the 70’s he was a bit of a joke, the people
who really rated him (like John Lennon and my uncle David.) were all at least 10
years older than me and that was a lot of time in the 70’s.
But. Going back to my initial purchase of 25 rockin and rollin greats I always
maintained a soft spot for rock and roll. Chuck Berry was still cool as was Little
Richard and possibly Jerry Lee. I always had just a little space in my heart for a bit of Elvis
In to 80’s when music got really bad I started to dig out the Sun Sessions stuff.
As time progressed I developed a little love for his Vegas period but all this took
time and effort. In the 70’s I have three memories of Elvis’s music which came to
me with no effort at all because he was a chart artist who was going to live
The first was ‘Way Down’, a gospel/swing/disco mashup which was his last hit
before he died. The record grooves. I didn’t really want to like it but I did. I rate it
as up there with his best but I am probably influenced by the fact that Legs and
Co did a routine to it on Top of the Pops which was enough to sway any
teenager’s musical tastes.
The second memory was ‘American Trilogy’. An overwrought piece of flag waving
which an awful lot of Americans seem to find irresistible. I was able to resist the sound as well as the
urge to dress in a sheet. I’m not saying Elvis was racist really and I quite liked the
way that he incorporated the gospel ‘all my trials’ into the performance but it
didn’t say anything to me about my life. He was a hero to most but for this song
he never meant shit to me.
The track that did count however came a bit earlier. ‘Burning Love’ encapsulated
all the good things about 70’s Elvis for me. For a start it’s a really good rock
song, the King sounds like he’s really enjoying himself on this one, it’s swampy
and a little bit bloated just like the early 70’s. Around the time this was a single I
had started going to disco’s at the Duke Street Centre in Norwich. I was
discovering girls and coca cola in bottles. In the depths of my brain ‘Burning
Love’ is linked to the infinite possibilities of growing up just as ‘Way Down ‘is
linked to the lack of possibilities with Legs and Co.
As we now know, Elvis died on the toilet while full of drugs. He was 42, forty
fucking two ! What happened there?
My family where almost American. My Auntie Peggy finding herself pregnant
after WWII headed to California to find the father, it didn’t work out but she
found someone else and married him instead. She was followed by my uncle
Brian and his wife Nancy. For much of my childhood I received parcels from the
promised land and occasionally visits and stories about how great it was in the
land of the free. My Dad never took the bait and the view existed by those of us
left behind that our American relatives were a bit weird. Peggy was fine to be
honest although rather brash and larger than life but there was a lot of weirdness
going on around her.
And it’s always seemed to me that anyone who takes the American dream too
seriously is on a highway to hell. Elvis was a prime example, if he had lived
longer surely someone would have tried to shoot him, instead he had a
premature death as a drug addict.
And don’t get me started on the Beach Boys and their endless summer
And with Elvis gone someone just needed to write a tribute song. Phil Lynott of
Thin Lizzy was the man for the job, some call it romanticism some call it cheese but it was a dirty job and someone had to do it .
The Kings Call
And, irony of ironys, while I was writing this, news came in that Fats Domino had
died, born before Elvis and survived him by 40 years. A very different career, his
work has aged better simply due to the fact its a smaller body of work with a lot
less duds there’s enough for a greatest hits LP which, of course, will be great. He
was black and realised the American dream was a bit shit.
As Elvis said
‘A lot of people think I stated this business..lets face it, I cant sing like Fats
Domino can. I know that’.
And if anyone asks me where I was when Fats Domino died I can can tell them I was writing an article about where I was when Elvis died