and The Beatles
What the King could have learned from the Fab Four:
It is one of the most mythical meetings in pop history: in August
1965 the Beatles sat around Elvis's Bel Air mansion, watching TV,
listening to records and jamming on electric guitars, with Elvis on
bass. No photos were taken, no recordings made, and recollections are
hazy at best, shrouded in clouds of the pot smoke The Beatles had been
inhaling in their limo, or washed away by the whiskey and uppers
favoured by Presley's entourage, the Memphis Mafia.
Radio 2 is commemorating the event with a weekend of programmes
celebrating the music of Elvis and The Beatles, including a new play by
Jeff Young, When Elvis Met The Beatles, which tries to get to the bottom
of the encounter. The trouble is, there is really very little to get to
the bottom of. This was no great meeting of the minds, with no wise
words of wisdom and experience shared between old hand and young
pretenders, and certainly no ritualistic passing of the baton. It was,
rather, a slightly awkward collision of sensibilities, overshadowed by
an ominous future all parties may have subconsciously sensed: The
Beatles were on course not to inherit Presley's showbusiness mantle but
to obliterate it.
Initially it was a rather stiff and uncomfortable gathering, overcome
with jokes and jamming. "We walked in and Elvis was sitting on the
settee in front of the TV," Ringo Starr recalled years later. "He was
pretty shy and we were a little shy but between the five of us we kept
it rolling. I felt I was more thrilled to meet him than he was to meet
me." John Lennon, who had idolised Presley since his delinquent youth,
later noted: "We didn't talk about anything, we just played music - he
just wasn't articulate." According to Beatles press officer Tony Barrow,
who was instrumental in setting the meeting up, the band were distinctly
underwhelmed. "John said it had been about as exciting as meeting
Elvis was scared
The subtext of the meeting, which had taken a year to set up, was
that an increasingly insecure and culturally isolated Presley considered
Beatlemania a threat to his popularity. "Elvis was scared," according to
Alan Fortas, a member of Presley's gang present at Bel Air. If so,
Lennon can not have helped with his blunt opening remarks. "John asked
Presley what had happened to the old rock'n'roll Elvis, who at that
point was mainly singing the soundtracks to his films," according to
Barrow. "He was half joking, but he meant it."
"Before Elvis there was nothing," is how Lennon famously described
Presley's impact on his teenage psyche in 1957. "When I first heard
Heartbreak Hotel, I could hardly make out what was being said. It was
just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end." An
extraordinarily handsome, stylish, audaciously physical southern white
boy instinctively synthesising the energetic but culturally marginal
black musical styles of rhythm and blues with country and pop, Presley
made music that sent a lightning bolt through the world.
wanted to be bigger than Elvis," is how Lennon described The Beatles'
early motivation. But what emerged from Presley as a natural expression
of personality was adapted and developed by the Beatles generation as a
vehicle for something much deeper. Educated, arty, rebellious and
empowered by the economics of the baby-boom generation, The Beatles
wrote their own songs, shaped their own careers and gave pop a new sense
of progressive and artistic purpose. It was the moment when pop began to
take itself seriously.
Presley was never really able to take creative advantage of the
freedom he unleashed. For all that he represented something thrilling
and new, he was quickly co-opted by established entertainment forces,
guided by a huckster manager Colonel Parker. By contrast, Beatles
manager Brian Epstein saw his job as a creative facilitator.
The strange thing is that, 50 years on, The Beatles vanquishing of
Presley no longer seems so complete. The modern music business is full
of charismatic stars singing songs written by others, their all-round
entertainment careers shaped by Svengali figures like Simon Cowell. If a
talent like Presley appeared today, he would be snapped up. It is much
harder to imagine where the next Beatles might come from. The Hollywood
meeting lasted around three hours. The Beatles knew it was over when the
Colonel doled out party bags, containing Presley records. There was no
attempt on either side to meet again. Presley went on to record a few
Beatles songs, including 'Yesterday' and 'Let It Be', but also described
them in 1970 as "anti-American".
For all their differences, the most iconic pop stars of the 20th
century remain linked in the public imagination.
As Lennon acknowledged: "If there hadn't been an Elvis, there
wouldn't have been The Beatles." And for one night only, the Fab Five
rocked Bel Air.