Where does the exploitation rollercoaster of the man who was The King stop? The King would be spinning in his rhinestone grave as the music business trundle over his legacy time and time again – or would he?
Sure, Elvis took his style from black roots and gave a mainstream voice to those snakingly addictive rhythms. Sure, he has influenced musicians across the globe from the moment the pelvis went bang!
But surely we’ve heard Elvis mutated through any number of musical permutations over the years to satisfy even the most warped ears: from earnest forelock-tugging sincerity of real musicians ‘paying their dues’ to cheesy chart covers and the staple of karaoke clubs the world over. Like the Royal Family, he is in no position to answer back. So here we are treated to a selection of reggae stars from past and present with their takes on the King’s crown jewels.
They fall roughly into three categories: the surprisingly good, the ultimately average and the downright rank. Let’s wade through the cheese mongers first with Chaka Demus and Pliers making Don’t Be Cruel sound like any other of their nasty reggae-lite musical travesties. The equivalent of listening to Lilt adverts. On repeat. With sand in your pants. Forever.
How Great Thou Art is given a bizarre, but sprightly, sub-disco makeover that doesn’t speak much of heavenly reverence unless Heaven is a cheesy nightclub in Blackpool. Barbara Jones suffers by dint of mid-’80s production of insidious synth-plop and oversweetens Always On My Mind into a syrupy goo.
The average takes are no slouches, they just sound like faithful cover versions done with varying degrees of interest. Worst suspects are the straighter than straight Love Letters, the overly earnest You’ll Never Walk Alone and the pedestrian The Wonder of You amongst others. The collection does cover a wide time frame from the 60’s through the 80’s and should be applauded for its intentions, if not all of the inclusions.
But when the artists actually tease something more from the original material it is there that the magic resides. Slim Smith manages to put some heartfelt soul into such an over-familiar tune as Love Me Tender. Whereas Elvis brooded and sulked, Slim yearns and floats above the choppy guitar and organ workout.
Certain Elvis staples positively blossom under the reggae rhythms, with All Shook Up losing its rockabilly quiff to put some skanking roll in its stride, similarly Wooden Heart suits the rasta make over.
Beatles‘ favourite Pat Kelly makes Are You Lonesome Tonight? less cod-dramatic and walks a line between genuine pathos and resigned solitude in a slice of real musical beauty. One of the few female voices in this collection, Susan Cadogan makes In The Ghetto an unlikely sexy scamper with flutes – no, really. Disturbing, but for all the right reasons.
Ken Boothe makes The Impossible Dream more human than it’s Herculean original that built to hammy crescendos by saving the vocal blowout for the fadeout. Junior Byles spectral take on Fever was made for the spacious reggae style that makes its fever sound more voodoo than bird flu.
Not sure if the ‘Reggae tribute to The King’ is really a worthy accolade. Musical curio for sure, but for consistency of tunes it is a bit of a let down.