‘Without Elvis,’ John Lennon once declared, ‘there would be no Beatles.’ Yet songs by the King are conspicuous by their absence on The Beatles’ original albums.
What could the hip-shaking Memphis rockabilly of Elvis, and the Mop Tops’ mind-bending psychedelia, possibly have in common? It’s a long way from Liverpool to Tupelo, Mississippi. But the King’s influence runs deep throughout The Beatles’ work, both together and in their solo years.
Even the most casual McCartney fan knows that Paul is now the owner of the Elvis Presley bass: the famous upright once played by Bill Black. You’ll find plenty of clips of Paul looking adoringly at it before essaying his a startlingly good version of Heartbreak Hotel.
‘They weren’t playing much of Elvis’ stuff on the radio in those days,’ Paul remembered. ‘To hear Heartbreak Hotel I had to go into a record shop in Liverpool and listen to it through headphones in one of those booths. It was a magical moment, the beginning of an era.’
John was equally moved: ‘When I first heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’… me whole life changed from then on, I was just completely shaken by it.’
While perhaps more famous for his Little Richard screech, the dopy charm of Paul’s Elvis impersonation is just as convincing: full of love and respect for the man. You’ll hear it again on There’s Good Rockin’ Tonight and Blue Moon of Kentucky from his 1991 MTV Unplugged live album, as well as on scattered recordings from across several decades.
When The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was touting his boys to the record labels he described them, with astonishing prescience (or barely credible hyperbole) as ‘potentially bigger than Elvis.’ Once they’d got their deal, however, they largely steered clear of Elvis’ repertoire. Perhaps conscious they needed to make their own mark, The Beatles put some distance between themselves and the 20th century’s other runaway pop phenomenon. Despite being huge fans, they only recorded four songs made famous by him, including Paul’s take on That’s Alright Mama. Even these only appear on the BBC recording sessions rather than any of the original 1962-70 LPs.
Countless other Elvis songs peppered their early live sets, when their gargantuan sessions at the Star Club and Reeperbahn in Hamburg necessitated an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock and roll. John took the lead on tough sounding material like Mean Woman Blues (later also covered by Paul on Unplugged, but unreleased). John’s drinking buddy, Brian Griffiths remembers being with John while Paul was heard practicing It’s Now or Never one morning in Hamburg. ‘Oh, why the frig’s he playing that sort of crap for?’ asked John. But Paul knew that an Elvis ballad was just the sort of thing the German crowds lapped up – even delivering Wooden Heart, complete with its German verse.
Yet strangely none of these graduated onto the early albums, which were otherwise crammed with affectionate tributes to their other musical heroes. You can’t help but feel that when selecting the songs from their live act to fill their first LP, Please, Please Me, it was a deliberate move not to be seen paying such public homage to their transatlantic idol – and now rival.
They were, by contrast, far less coy about recording Buddy Holly’s tunes, (no fewer than six on record, and 13 on stage) including That’ll Be The Day, their first ever recording as The Quarrymen in 1958. Admiring of Holly as a composer as well as performer, they even styled themselves after his band, the Crickets, with some slightly twee insectoid punning. If Buddy Holly had lived, and continued to flourish, perhaps they would have distanced themselves from him too.
While they might not have recorded many of his songs, Elvis’ influence can be found everywhere in The Beatles’ output. The flip side of their very first record, Paul and George’s In Spite of All the Danger, has the unmistakably ring of early Elvis – a distant cousin of the sort of mournful teenage cri de coeur Elvis so favoured when he wasn’t ripping it up. It even features the same, slightly hokey backing vocals you’ll find on Elvis’ 50s records. When Paul included it in his 2018 live set, it became an unexpected sing along favourite with fans.
Then there’s Paul’s magnificently moody mumble on Back in the USSR. While it may be a Beach Boys pastiche in conception, the vocal is pure Elvis. The same is true for Lady Madonna – its boogie woogie styling has its roots in Fats Domino and Bad Penny Blues, but the voice is an echo of King; perhaps while it appealed to Elvis. He heard himself in it.
There’s a spirited but all too brief take on (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care that surfaced on the deluxe reissue of The Beatles (White Album) in 2018. It was recorded directly before Helter Skelter, their proto-metal work out. It seemed that they hit upon the idea that channelling Elvis might put them in the zone for the heavy excursion that would follow. Meanwhile, when The Beatles’ 1969 Get Back sessions descended into a series of sloppy rock and roll jams, Elvis was one of their frequent go to points.
While they may have cool towards the King in their recorded output, they couldn’t resist an opportunity to meet him in the flesh, a summit (brokered by their managers as a PR coup) which finally took place in Bel Air at the end of August, 1965. While it’s sold as one of the iconic moments of the 20th century, the reality was somewhat anticlimactic. Priscilla Presley remembers The Beatles ‘being so excited, but so nervous. You could hear a pin drop when they came into the room… they were speechless. John was shy, timid. I think he couldn’t believe he was there with Elvis Presley.’
To break the ice, Elvis picked up an electric bass and played along to Mohair Sam, the Charlie Rich number, and an element of slightly forced larking reportedly ensued. John later claimed The Beatles ‘plugged in’ and jammed along, although the surviving Threetles in 1995 had no memory of this. (Ringo played football with him,’ George quipped. While no great friendship blossomed from this rather stilted meeting, Paul still remembers it as one of the great moments of his life.
Thirty years on, Paul, George and Ringo had conflicting recollections, but the sense of being star-struck was common to them all. ‘I mean, it was Elvis,’ recalled Paul, ‘he just looked like Elvis. Wow! That’s Elvis.’ Ringo lamented that he later discovered Elvis had tried to have the Beatles banned from America – either on the grounds that they were a corrupting influence or, more likely, that he didn’t want the competition.
They also learned something else: that fame wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. They took an instant dislike to Elvis’ court of hangers on and sycophants. They also saw that wealth, comfort and fame had somehow taken the edge off their idol. He wasn’t the same hungry hound dog they’d heard hollering through the static on Radio Luxenbourg. It was no coincidence that when John temporarily lost his mojo while procrastinating in the suburbs in 1965, he called it his ‘Fat Elvis period.’
Clearly having parked his misgivings, Elvis turned to The Beatles’ songs during his Vegas years, covering Hey Jude and Yesterday (although, as Paul pointed out ‘he gets the last verse wrong’ slightly changing the lyrics to the less apologetic ‘I must have done something wrong, how I long…’ ‘He added a little disclaimer,’ says Paul). Elvis seemed to favour Paul’s tunes, although his version of George’s Something is perhaps the most famous of the five. His charmingly ramshackle version of Lady Madonna features some tasteful harmonica, although it’s clearly an impromptu recording as Elvis has only the shakiest grasp of the lyrics. He loses interest towards the end, clearly thinking of his lunch: ‘I’ll tell you what, are you guys hungry?’ There’s also a film showing Elvis take a stab at Get Back, as part of a loose medley. It’s fascinating to see him reclaim the pastiche of a quintessentially American sound and making it sound authentic.
Once The Beatles were themselves history, they clearly grew much more relaxed about sharing their Elvis fixation. ‘I love Elvis so much,’ Paul told Uncut Magazine, ‘that for me to choose a favourite would be like singling out one of Picasso’s paintings.’ That said, the song Paul returned to most frequently was That’s All Right, Mama – including a version recorded with the late Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original guitarist, surely a dream come true for Paul.
John went further still: ‘I’m an Elvis fan,’ he admitted in 1975, ‘because it was Elvis who really got me out of Liverpool.’ In his promo film for Whatever Gets You Through the Night, John’s wearing an Elvis badge; while presenting the Grammy’s the same year, he sports a garish brooch spelling out the world ELVIS. By this point, he literally wore his influence on his sleeve. And further evidence, if any was needed, of his love for the man can be found in the unmistakable Memphis echo of (Just Like) Starting Over, the song that helped him kick-start his short lived comeback in 1980.
As early as 1973, when putting together his slightly indulgent TV special, James Paul McCartney, Macca recorded four Elvis songs later dropped from the official release, including a delightfully playful, We’re Gonna Move and a less successful, schmaltzy version of It’s Now Or Never. Perhaps John had a point, back in Hamburg.
Paul’s rock and roll covers projects, Run Devil Run and Choba B CCCP (‘Back in the USSR’) both lean heavily on Elvis’ output. The former (and superior of the two) features blistering versions of I Got Stung, All Shook Up and Party, which rank among Paul’s greatest covers (perhaps only bettered by Long Tally Sally), and he’s in superb voice throughout. Meanwhile, the Russian rock and rock album featured lively, although less inspired versions of Lawdy Miss Crawdy, and Just Because, also covered by John Lennon on his 1975 Rock and Roll album. For both Beatles, Elvis had a talismanic quality – almost beyond rational explanation, connecting them to some ghostly other world of magic and danger that lay beyond their reach.
It seemed Elvis defined for them the purest the spirit of rock – the original spark that lit the fire. Of course, The Beatles eventually transcended their rock and roll roots, later exploding into astonishing technicolour, their writing and recording becoming ever more experimental. Yet their sense of wonder at the person and image of Elvis never left them.
Marvelling again at the mystery of Elvis’ appeal, Paul circles back to Heartbreak Hotel: ‘Elvis is a truly great vocalist, and you can hear why on this song. His phrasing, his use of echo, it’s all so beautiful. It’s the way he sings it, too. As if he’s singing it from the depths of Hell. It’s a perfect example of a singer being in command of the song.’
When Paul finally visited Graceland in 2013, he left a plectrum bearing his own name on Elvis’ grave ‘so Elvis could play in Heaven,’ where perhaps John finally got his chance to jam with him after all.