Introducing a new contributor to RCM: Dr. Bob.
Below, enjoy his musings on the theory of Rock’n’Roll, ELVIS VERSUS EDDIE – Had Cochran lived, who’d be the King, today?
On January 8th, 1935, a young man was born in Tupelo, Tennessee. 3 years later, October 3rd, 1938, another young fellow came into the world. They both shared a gift for music. Not just any music, but the only music that is truly owned by young people, Rock’n’Roll. Sadly, they both died young. Too young. Either one could have been crowned the King Of Rock ’n’Roll.
But only one was. I’m here to put the case, that Eddie Cochran would have taken Elvis’s crown without any difficulty, because, as I see it, Elvis gave it away from the day he joined the Army.
Plus, the truth was, at 21 years old, Cochran was already making better Rock’n’Roll than Elvis. And getting better all the time. Whereas, Elvis got worse. And by worse, I mean he was no longer making Rock’n’Roll. With Colonel Tom Parker, he embraced popularity and stardom and by doing so relinquished the Throne.
Regrettably, the body of work he produced up to 1968, suggests that he was never hungry enough again to create those magical moments from the first couple of years which were pure Rock’n’Roll genius, like That’s Alright Mama, Blues Suede Shoes and Hound Dog.
You don’t agree? Let’s compare credentials and chronology.
The Elvis Presley that walked into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios had a fully formed appreciation of Blues, Gospel and R’n’B; recording territories almost exclusively the domain of black Americans.
This was surely a perfect fit for Sam Phillips who liked to experiment, reinvent and give his recording artists total freedom to make something new.
And Elvis was it. The ‘King-thing’ was created between 1954 and ’58. And he deserved it. He was awesome.
From the very beginning, he was creating something bigger than just ‘the best Rock’n’Roll’, he added overt sexuality to the mix. To the point where boy gangs hated him coming to their town because from that day, the girls would compare the local boys to Presley. No contest.
Presley was beautiful to look at and electrifying to watch. Plus, the music was new, ‘our music’ said the young. Teenagers screamed and swooned, parents feared the worst.
Sam Phillips worked hard to give this young phenomenon latitude and support. And it worked. This attracted interest from many a recording and management company. RCA and Colonel Tom Parker won out and, in 1956, Heartbreak Hotel was released.
Around the same time, a young guitarist/songwriter named Eddie Cochran was building a following which generated an invite to play and sing in what would be the first Rock’n’Roll movie, The Girl Can’t Help It. Even with Jayne Mansfield starring, it was an infinitely forgettable rom-com if it were not for the fact that it featured performances from R’n’R giants like Bill Haley, Little Richard, Fats Domino and a 19 year old Eddie Cochran.
That’s when we started ripping up cinema seats and our parents got really scared.
Cochran performed Twenty Flight Rock, a song he made his own both as a co-writer and performer.
He was a natural savant juvenile – gifted guitarist, creative songwriter – girls lusted after his good looks and the way he held his guitar. Skilled musicians sought to emulate his guitar playing style.
He was about to have a run of self-penned hits that included the first true ‘teen anthem’, Summertime Blues that revealed this young guy’s insight into how politics works – “I called my congressman, and he said ‘Nope, I’d like to help you son, but you’re too young to vote” – a line as worldly-wise as any Dylan protest lyric, and years earlier.
Meanwhile, Lieber & Stoller were getting Elvis to suggest you ‘put a chain around my neck and lead me anywhere’. Just like a Teddy Bear. An innocent enough notion at the time. And insightful, but in the wrong way. (Animal rights, like human rights, were not a major consideration yet).
Cochran, on the other hand, was declaring ‘Who cares’ at the thought of being caught drinking under age and wrecking his parent’s house – Come on Ev’rybody.
It seems to me, the rhetorical young Cochran was already speaking more for the Rock’n’Roll generation than Presley was, or would ever again.
To be fair, Elvis might have made more great, ground-breaking R’n’R had he not been drafted into the US Army and sent off to Germany to become a PR ambassador for the White House. And, had ‘Colonel Parker’ not dictated the course of his subsequent career down to the smallest detail.
This is where I struggle to accept how Elvis went along with it. The cheesy movies with mediocre pop songs. Few or no public gigs. Is that anyway for The King Of Rock ’n’ Roll to behave? In my book, if you champion an art form, you live it. When you inspire a generation, you become accountable to it.
Was Presley lazy, gullible, easily bullied? Too polite to say ‘No’? Or did he simply have no idea of what he had created?
I can’t imagine ‘The Boss’ Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young, after a couple of hits, saying ‘ya know what, I think I’ll make movies like Harem Scarem and Clambake. Never in a million years.
You might not like or agree with what I’m about to say, but … I’m only speculating, so forgive me as I present another possible reason for Presley moving away from Rock’n’Roll, but it might be the case that Elvis, seeing the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran creating, writing, playing, touring with their own showcases of outstanding Rock’n’Roll, ‘The King’ lost his nerve and couldn’t compete with anything resembling an authentic alternative.
Lieber & Stoller were great pop song writers. But they were not authentic rockers like Jerry Lee and Little Richard. Elvis started the revolution. No doubt about that. But the ‘Kingdom of Rock’ got bigger than Presley. It also had, and still has, integrity.
The body of work attributed to Presley simply does not stack up to him, forever, being The King. He will always be known as the The King. For sentimental reasons only I think. Rock’n’Roll is more important than Elvis Presley.
It has a pulse, it sweats, it bleeds, it tears your heart in two and sucks you into the eye of the storm. Which brings me back to Eddie Cochran. He was described as ‘James Dean with a guitar’.
The youth of that era were becoming more than just fans of the genre. They wanted their music to be a manifesto for their generation. Cochran was an exceptional musician. Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix were heavily influenced by his guitar playing. Hendrix always said he wanted Cochran played at his funeral. And did.
Eddie Cochran had it all going on. Looks, rawness, virtuoso rock guitar playing, creativity that spoke to and for his generation, commitment, a rebel with a cause and a soul that was pure rock. Sadly, like James Dean, he died in a car crash. He was on a UK tour with his buddy Gene Vincent. They were reaching out to all their fans across the world and blowing them away.
How do I know that? I saw them. I was ten years old and my dad took me and my older brother to one of his last gigs a week before the fatal car crash. I’m sure to upset a few people with my assessment of the situation.
Not the least of whom will be my older brother, a life-long, devout Presley fan.
If you agree or totally refute my summation, tell me. We’ll talk more about it. This has been my first contribution to Rock Cellar Magazine. If you’ve found it stimulating, let RCM know. Till next time, I remain your humble practitioner of all things musically provoking, Dr Bob.