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Thursday, January 06, 2005
SONGS I LISTENED TO THIS YEAR THAT I LIKE A LOT (SILTTYTILAL) #2-2005: ELVIS PRESLEY, "JAILHOUSE ROCK"
(Yes, these have been old songs so far; I don't know why. So it goes.)
Reason number four trillion why you should pay more attention to novelty songs, suckas. This started off as a goof for superproducers-of-their-time Lieber and Stoller, a pastiche written for an Elvis movie which began as a sort of campy homage on the music they loved very seriously--check the walking bassline and the Count Basie (?) piano in the chorus. A joke, in other words, about rock 'n' roll's lowbrow take on their highbrow style. But it works as a song, and today we take it fairly seriously, or as seriously as you can take a song featuring dancing prisoners. One reason, of course, is that L&S were so on fire at the time that they couldn't help shoving whole legions of hooks in there, from the now-canonical half-step walkup-boom-boom pattern in the intro, to the actually kinda Pixiesish transition between sparse verse and big, loud chorus.
But the main reason is because Elvis takes the joke and tells it totally straight-faced. He was certainly capable of smirking at his songs, but on the recording, he is singing his guts out, just shredding the shit out of this stupid little tune. The main place to hear this is in the slightly flat, pentatonic-blues single-note business at the end of every verse (and, ps, we should remember how well short verses work) where his voice just seems to be wanting to break free of his throat. It's also there in the way he ends notes in the verses, crescendoing and pitching up and then choking them off suddenly, cutting the sound short. And, of course, there's the "run run run!" right before the solo, a precursor, maybe, of The Scream, in "Hard Day's Night."
This is what I'm saying about taking things unseriously, because someone else is always taking them very seriously, and it's this combination, of telling a joke like it's the truth, of taking a thrown-off little thing and performing it with everything you've got, that can make for greatness.