Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Mysterious Case of Elvis Presley's Album Covers

There are a few salient points that everyone knows about Elvis in the 1970s: (1) He performed live a lot, usually in Las Vegas. (2) He tended to perform in white rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuits designed, I think, to make him look like a middle-aged, overweight superhero (like in the Incredibles).

Here's something else we can add, that perhaps not everyone is fully aware of: (3) He couldn't really be bothered in the studio, at least not after, say, 1972, and (4) His record label, RCA, was committed to pumping out product, regardless of quality, at a blinding rate. It's tough now, even with the glut of chintsy Elvis records available at any yard sale LP bin, to imagine just how committed RCA were to market saturation. But here's a clue: not even counting international releases, in the USA alone, RCA released 8 albums and 5 singles in 1970 alone. 7 albums and 5 singles in 1971. 6 albums and 5 singles in 1972. And on it goes... These albums included live albums, studio albums, half-live/half-studio albums greatest hits albums, bizarre compilations sequenced by an albino monkey pulling names of songs out of a hat... With album releases happening with staggering regularity, RCA would, of course, be committed to ensuring that the consumer would readily be able to distinguish between these releases, right? Well...

This attractive puppy gets it all started. Elvis, white jumpsuit, microphone. But it's called On Stage, and that's what it is: a live recording. Can't complain, then, right?

Live at Madison Square Garden: This is 1972, and there's a good amount more cheese here, but it's still live, so microphone and white jumpsuit? Excusable.

The jumpsuit's still there, hiding the effects of a lot of bacon-and-peanut-butter sandwiches, but it's smaller now, or rather way, more massive, as Elvis is being beamed from a satellite across the surface of half of the planet. Sci Fi never got scarier than this.

I'm skipping one live album because, miraculously, it didn't show jumpsuit+mic, going instead for a picture of Elvis's house. This is considered by some to be the worst album ever made. Entitled Having Fun with Elvis on Stage, it's a document made up entirely of Elvis's spontaneous adlibs between songs. Yes, between songs, for there are no songs here at all. But just in case you think RCA is being too cheap here, they make up for it with six, count 'em six pictures of The Jumpsuit.

The last live album released during Elvis's life, the mic is on a stand and the white jumpsuit has a lot of black on it. Forward-thinking artistic progress unfortunately snuffed out by Elvis's untimely death.

That's the Way it Is combined studio tracks with live ones, and dates from 1970, when a white jumpsuit was cutting edge. The live aspect here justifies the live picture. And it's not that bad a cover.

And his final studio job was also half-live, half-studio. So more white jumpsuit, though he's tiny in the picture: tiny, but corpulent as they come. Scarily unattractive, but bathed in blue borders, and a sticker calling it 'the blue album' For, you know, the colour-blind.

Before moving on to the entirely-studio albums (the core of his 70s legacy, surely), let's spare a moment for those cheap budget compilations RCA milked fans with. This one, called C'mon Everybody, mops up some junk from the movie soundtracks. So a movie still for the cover? Nope: white jumpsuit and mic.

More of the same. More soundtrack knock-offs, same suit as above, same pose as above.

Not actually a Sesame Street tie-in, this is called Elvis Sings Hits From His Movies, Vol. 1, which shows an attempt to at least inform the hapless audience what is contained within. Well, not that they were 'hits' per se, but they were from the movies. A time when he wasn't wearing white jumpsuits, as pictured on the cover.

How bad did it get? Well, the hunka-hunka classic "Burning Love" was Elvis's biggest hit in the 1970s. How did RCA package this surprise chart-topper? With an album called... wait for it... Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Volume Two. I kid you not. RCA had no idea what they were doing. And by now you have to wonder if a single photograph was taken of the man in the 1970s wearing anything but a white jumpsuit and holding anything but a mic.

This was the same trick: the recent single with Hollywood rejects from the 60s stuck on to make an album. But here the album is about 100 times more hideous: Elvis's white jumpsuit has morphed off of a Vegas stage and reappeared in the middle of a highway. Where a diesel pickup truck somehow failed to come around that corner at 120 and mow him down...

Could it get worse? Well, this album is actually, believe it or not, an album of the greatest hits from the previous five money-grab compilations. Yes, it's a compilation compilation. Not that you can tell from the cover, which is... an elaborate artistic sci-fi painting by Roger Dean, who was famous at the time for making covers for prog rock group Yes. Nah, I'm kidding: it's Elvis on stage with a white jumpsuit.

And this... This is a reissue of one of Elvis's 1960s soundtrack albums. Frankie and Johnny was set in Wild West era. The original cover showed him in front of a casino wheel-of-fortune. The reissue? It shows... wait for it... Elvis in a white jumpsuit...

This is the first completely studio release we're looking at. It came out after Elvis Country, which actually had a nice picture of Elvis as a baby. But this was still studio rejects... so we get three almost identical white-jumpsuit-and-mic pics.

Another batch, a bit of a hodgepodge of 70s studio tracks. But who could tell, really? After all, it looks exactly the same as every other album on the shelves.

This particular issue wasn't even given a title: The Jumpsuit screams into a mic next to just his name in big letters and a tracklisting. But people know the album as 'Fool', in honour of a song on the disc and in honour of the dignity RCA's release schedule were affording Elvis at this point.

This one's called Raised on Rock/For Ol' Times' Sake, the split title presumably because they had two songs they wanted to highlight. Not enough to give the album a cover with any modicum of individuality, however. Can you imagine the packaging team at RCA saying, "Colonel Parker, we think we've got a winner this time... see, this time he's to the left, and the big blackness is to the right. Radical, eh?"

It's called Good Times, but the album title lies. These could not have been good times at all for Elvis, and to that end I think these album covers are at least perfectly apt in illustrating the rut he was in at this point. Is this the very same costume as the last cover?

I really am going through these studio albums consecutively. The only one I've missed out is Elvis Country. So this really is what every studio album of Elvis's looked like. I repeat: studio albums. They're not even live.

I'm sure RCA was confident that no one would confuse a studio album with a picture of Elvis in a white jumpsuit live on stage called Elvis Today with a studio album with a picture of Elvis in a white jumpsuit called Elvis Now. The difference is black and white...

This is the last one of these I have to do. And it's just as well, because I don't think my poor heart, or my stomach, could take any more. Elvis's last fully studio-recorded album (actually recorded in his den), and by now RCA was so lost that not only did they issue the customary live white-jumpsuit-and-mic cover, but they actually wrote "recorded live" on the cover of an album that was no such thing.

Toward the end of his life, Elvis was said to have been 'bored of being Elvis Presley'. The monotony of endless Vegas dates couldn't have appealed to him. But monotony? It seems to have been his stock in trade, right down to the album covers, which have to be the most boring, repetitive and idea-bereft covers in the history of music.

Elvis... he deserved better. But then again, he always deserved better than the tacky cheese that is today an unfortunately large part of his legacy.

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