“The things I did and I saw / Would make the earth stand still” – Smiley Lewis

In the early days of Popular lack of research was part of the Method. Context was the enemy: the text was the text. My job was to see what, 50 or so years later, I could get out of it. Not much, in the case of plenty of the 1950s singles. Did I know “One Night” was a cover of Smiley Lewis’ “One Night Of Sin”? I did not. So I did not know what a great record “One Night Of Sin” is. In the last entry I wrote about the “how-seriously-do-we-take-this?” trick as something Elvis introduced to Rock, but he imported it from Blues records like “One Night Of Sin”, where Lewis, blessed with a rich, fruity, froggy tone, walks an extremely fine line between formalised regret for his night of sin and deep appreciation. The words tell one story, the delivery another, but subtly, making for a very funny record: I cannot help but grin at the over the top humility Lewis brings to “I’ve lived a very quiet life”. (An infinitely sleazy horn solo settles the debate, if there was still any doubt.)

Elvis loved the song but it was too raunchy, so he recorded a cleaned up version. So history tells us, but history in that case hasn’t actually listened to “One Night”. Changing the lyrics from “One night of sin is what I’ve been paying for” to “One night with you is what I’ve been praying for” gets Elvis off on a technicality – the night hasn’t actually happened yet – but it pours sexual gasoline on the nudge-wink embers of the Lewis song. The intended audience now isn’t fellow sinners familiar with the contours of such nights, it’s women who’ve likely given a good deal of thought to one night with Elvis and its particulars. The vocal is at the more mannered end of Elvis singing, a collection of Kingly tics, which make it feel offhand on first blush, but listen to how he absolutely bites at that opening “One night” – he knows what bombs he’s setting off.

(Also come on – “I need your sweet helping hand / My love’s too strong to hide”? That’s dirtier than anything in the original.)

Keeping up the fiction that this is an organic 2005 hit rather than one of a series of souvenir Toby Jugs, the contemporaries of “One Night” are obvious – Usher and Nelly’s R&B slow-burners, snapshots of seduction and/or regret. But what about “I Got Stung”? I would say Busted – in their jumping form – or McFly – fast, fun, youthful jives about chicks and their crazy ways. “I Got Stung” is a fine, minor specimen of piano-driven rock and roll, bumping and shaking like a jalopy speeding down a stretch of bad road while its teenage driver happily runs his mouth about a girl he’s fallen for. Elvis’ vocal is making even fewer concessions to legibility here, the rhythm’s the thing, he knows by this point that the punctuation – uh huh huh – is as much a draw as the script.

Context, my old foe, reveals that this is Elvis’ last song of the 50s – his last recording before his mother died and he left for service overseas in Germany. The ministrations of Colonel Tom meant that Elvis’ chart history smooths over the military years, particularly in the US – there’s always some new Presley Product available, “I Got Stung” included. But they’re still a tear in his career, and it’s a bit of context that can make you hear things in the recording that you surely wouldn’t otherwise – turn it into a rushed last blast of original King energy before the army, the amphetamines, the karate, Priscilla, the whole grand pantomime of 60s Elvis. Before decline.

Why did I avoid context so much? Because I’m lazy and wanted to get things done quickly, but the deeper reason is that context begets narrative, and narrative is one hell of a drug. Start writing about one song and you could easily end up writing about everything (there are people who do this extremely well; there are people who happily descend into bottomless riffing – I worry I’m the latter). Still, metaphorical stretches are part of the joy of writing about Number 1s – pretending, often to the point where you aren’t pretending, that there’s some grand linkage in the content and the circumstances of hits. Sometimes almost everybody joins in: “Ghost Town” wasn’t written about the 1981 riots it coincided with, but it became about them on some unbreakably profound level.

The story of Elvis is the pure stuff, the fish scale cocaine of narrative. He’s the ur-myth of all pop stories, a Golden Bough of rock. When they called him the King, they weren’t fucking around: he is the Sun king of youthful vigour; he is the wounded king of Graceland, an double avatar of brilliance and decline. Raw talent, youthful flowering, the compromises of fame and money, a late rally if you’re lucky, a squalid end. You can rhyme this Elvis myth with so many things, vary the scale from micro to macro. The descent into nostalgia of middle-aged fans contenting themselves with decorative souvenirs. The decline of 20th century pop culture itself into bloated repetition. 

How can an Elvis reissue be the 1000th No.1, I asked myself when it happened, but perhaps it had to be. Here he is, in the twilight of the singles chart, to set his lands in order. Would the last Elvis to leave the building please turn off the lights?

(For more on the context of the 1000th No.1 and its significance to Popular, read Part 1 and Part 2 of a 3-part piece on the topic over at Freakytrigger)

Score: 7

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