Elvis Presley – “Elvis In Person at the International Hotel” (1970)

There are many “kings” in the entertainment world. Comedian Henny Youngman was known as “The King of the One Liners;” B.B. King was “The King of the Blues;” and of course Michael Jackson was “The King of Pop.” Run-DMC claimed to be the “Kings of Rock,” which was odd since they did hip hop. Alice Cooper sang about the “King of the Silver Screen,” and Sting was perhaps the “King of Pain.” But there’s only one definitive The King. Not the “King of This” or the “King of That,” just The King. Elvis.

I wrote a week or two ago about Frank Sinatra and how hard it is if you’re younger than a certain age to understand just what a big deal Frank Sinatra was. That may go double for Elvis Presley. While it would be ridiculous to say Elvis invented rock ‘n’ roll, it wouldn’t be to say that he was a huge part in popularizing it and brining it to the mainstream. And we’re still rocking 60+ years later. But some of us don’t remember handsome, silky voiced Elvis. We remember the other Elvis, the one who became a caricature of himself, which is too bad because the man was an undeniable talent.

I actually first bought Elvis In Person at the International Hotel on CD probably 10-15 years ago, primarily due to its inclusion of “In the Ghetto.” The 10 live songs were recorded in 1969 and released later that same year, with Side A given over to a lot of his older material like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog,” and Side B including some of more contemporary numbers like “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” Much like Sinatra, one of the surprising things in looking at this set list is that there isn’t a single song on which Presley has a writing credit – he was exclusively performing songs written by others.

I have to give credit where credit is due – Elvis sounds great on this record. He’s backed by a full band and an array of back-up singers, and his voice sounds pretty damn smooth (my copy is the 1970 Japanese release). I’m not an Elvis aficionado, so I can’t say where Elvis In Person at the International Hotel ranks in terms of his catalog as a whole. After all, he seems to have about half a million different albums out there, with so much re-packaged nonsense that it’s hard to even tell what constitutes an actual Elvis “album.” But that speaks to the body of work the man left behind, and that’s no accident. What I do know, though, is that it’s an excellent live album that covers a range of his work, so it’s certainly a good starting point if you’re interested in exploring the work of The King.

Robert Plant – “Now and Zen” (1988)

Robert Plant was one of the very first concerts Holly and I went to together. It might in fact have been the first, but in talking it over while we listen to 1988s Now and Zen we’re just not sure. Other candidates are INXS and Tin Machine (<- the only way I ever managed to see Bowie… but at least I saw him). I remember that we went to the Plant show with my future father-in-law, since similar taste in music was about the only thing a mullet sporting teen and a middle aged dude could possible have in common other than their interest in the same girl… albeit approaching the girl part of the equation from completely different directions. Mind you, he was more Pictures at Eleven and The Principle of Moments, while I was more Now and Zen. But we both agreed on Led Zeppelin IV, so when Plant and company pulled out the mandolins and played some Zep tunes including “Going to California” we could finally see eye to eye.

I’d forgotten how good this record is. Yeah, I remember the hits – “Heaven Knows,” “Tall Cool One,” and “Ship of Fools.” But damn, the whole thing is pretty solid. Plant is one of those singers who aged well, changing his style as time went on and finding new and interesting ways use his changing voice. From the Honeydrippers to his work with Alison Krauss, even when I haven’t liked it a lot it’s been near flawless. As Advancement Theory teaches us… when I haven’t enjoyed Plant’s work, most likely the problem is me, not him.

“Miami Vice Soundtrack” (1985)

One day in 1984 I came home from middle school and my parents told me that my dad was going to quit his job and we were moving back to Seattle during the summer. Now, I had nothing against Seattle… we’d lived there once before, and I liked it. It’s just that I was finally getting settled into a new life a few years after we’d moved to South Carolina; I had a group of friends I liked, and high school was right around the corner. I didn’t want to go. But at that age, you don’t have much of a say in things like that, so once school was out we loaded up the family van and took a multi-week drive across the country, back to the Pacific Northwest, where we set up a temporary home in the downstairs of the house of my parents’ wonderful friends Mac and Dorothy. To soothe my adolescent pain they also bought me a very cool stereo of my own from Sears, one with a dual cassette deck, radio, and turntable all in one. I loved that stereo.

My dad and I sometimes connected over TV shows and movies – we had some similar tastes, and I suppose we both found the same things stylistically interesting. So in the fall of 1984, sitting in Mac and Dorothy’s basement, I remember we sat down together to watch the first episode of a brand new TV series about cops in Florida. It was called Miami Vice. I don’t think either one of us said a word for an entire hour, and when it was over we just looked at each other with our jaws hanging open like, “What the hell was that? That was amazing!” For me that was the start of what would become a love affair with the screen stylings of Michael Mann, and I suspect we watched Miami Vice together throughout most of that first season.

I remember having the 7″ of the Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” and playing the living hell out of it on that Sears stereo. I don’t think I followed the show past maybe the second season, but Michael Mann had permanently changed the feel of the 1980s with the fashions and music on that TV show. When I saw the soundtrack the other day it took me down memory lane. Who can forget how Mann used Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”? Remember Glen Frey appearing in the show, which also featured his songs “Smuggler’s Blues” and “You Belong to the City”? Because I do. How could I not buy this record?

Well if you told me you were drowning,
I would not lend a hand…
I’ve seen your face before my friend,
But I don’t know if you know who I am.

Well I was there and I saw what you did,
Saw it with my own two eyes.
So you can wipe off that grin,
I know where you’ve been,
It’s all been a pack of lies.

That. Is. AWESOME.

My day kind of sucked today. It didn’t royally suck or anything, and frankly it wasn’t all that bad all things considered. But you know, dropping the needle on this bad boy tonight after dinner, with my wife on one end of the couch and a cocktail in front of me, made me realize that everything is actually pretty damn good.

44 Magnum – “Street Rock ‘N Roller” (1984)

We went to Japan a couple of years ago and I did a bit of research into Japanese punk and metal bands ahead of time, so by time we hit the ground in Tokyo I had a list of probably 40 or so bands to keep an eye out for. I managed to find stuff by many of them, but one that eluded me was 44 Magnum. But their name was still filed away in the back of my jumbled brain, so there was a spark of recognition when I came across this copy of their 1984 sophomore LP Street Rock ‘N Roller over at Time Traveler Records in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and I immediately snatched up. It was the only thing I bought at that shop, but it made the visit and the time digging worth while.

Active through most of the 1980s, 44 Magnum fell squarely into that hair/sleaze metal sound and vibe that was coming out of Los Angeles at the time with lots of hair, leather, and attitude. The songs on Street Rock ‘N Roller are a mix of some harder numbers that approach Iron Maiden territory and some slower, more mainstream tunes that make me think of Whitesnake. What’s particularly intriguing about this record is language. A few songs are done entirely in English, but most combine both Japanese and English vocals within the same song. Sometimes it’s just the chorus that’s in English, but others have a random line here or there inserted right in the middle of an otherwise Japanese verse. I thought I was losing my mind at first, but when I checked the lyric sheet this was indeed the case. The English parts are somewhat accented, but easy enough to follow.

Ten songs about love and loss and rocking and kicking ass, that’s what you get on Street Rock ‘N Roller. This one will definitely appeal to fans of 80s hair metal scene who are looking for something they haven’t heard before. My personal favorite is “Too Late To Hide,” and fortunately for us someone has uploaded it to YouTube, so you can give it a listen and decide for yourself.

Blues Brothers – “Briefcase Full of Blues” (1978)

Jake: We’re putting the band back together.
Mr. Fabulous: Forget it. No way.
Elwood: We’re on a mission from God.

Actors want to be musicians (♠), musicians want to be actors (♥). It’s the way of things. Truth be told attaining legitimate cross-over status is difficult, likely more so for the actors who want to be taken seriously as musicians. After all, their primary job is to pretend to be other people, something that does not inspire confidence that you’re legitimately good at something else. But sometimes… sometimes it works. And one of the early examples was the duo of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, who smartly combined the two arts by creating their own musical alter egos, the brothers Jake and Elwood Blues. The Blues Brothers.

Every generation has to discover the movie The Blues Brothers for themselves, and it has retained a solid following (especially among teens and young men) for close to 40 years now. The fictional back story of the brothers is populated by a veritable who’s who of actors and musicians, like a dysfunctional musical with some inspired performances. How they got so many talented artists to participate in that project, I’ll never know.

I ran across a copy of the first Blues Brothers album yesterday, 1978s Briefcase Full of Blues. Belushi and Aykroyd smartly surrounded themselves with a backing band of incredible musicians and performed an all-covers selection of blues classics, ensuring that at least the music and songs would be great and leaving them to do what they do best – perform. And they nail it. Belushi’s excitement is palpable, and Aykroyd’s vocals on “Rubber Biscuit” are hysterical. Frankly you feel like they’re not really acting, instead that they’re playing characters that are in fact elements of their own personalities.

The result is a fun 10-song live blues record with a just a bit of a sense of humor. And man, couldn’t we all use a little more fun in our music from time to time?


(♠) For examples see: Depp, Johnny; Thornton, Billy Bob; and Shatner, William.

(♥) For examples see: Cube, Ice; Bowie, David; and Jagger, Mick (♦).

(♦) My God “Freejack” was awful…