independent

Monday 21 April 2014

The King and us: how Elvis shocked the Irish

Portrait of American singer and actor Elvis Presley (1935 - 1977) as he holds a twelve string guitar, mid 1950s . (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Elvis And Ireland Ivor Casey Appello €14.99

I'm all shook up. A new book on Elvis and it's not the same old same old. Ivor Casey has mined the rich seams of the King's life to give the world a remarkable new view of the greatest voice of the 20th Century: with a focus on Ireland and Irish popular culture.

Though there have been thousands of books written about the one-time truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, this is surely the first book on Elvis to give us an insight into the tragi-comic and almost-Stalinist state Ireland was in the Fifties (and right the way through the mid-Seventies) when Elvis's star first appeared in the firmament.

In 1958, the Appeals Board banned King Creole from being shown in this country, because the Irish Film Censor Liam O'Hora revealed to them that he had particular voices of complaint from "headmistresses of girls' schools regarding Elvis's most suggestive abdominal dancing".

There were many other such voices in Ireland decrying what they believed was the depraved and glorified pornography of Elvis that was going to corrupt the souls of the young people of Ireland. Yet in the same year that Elvis's King Creole movie was banned, The Irish Times ran a column asking readers what they would do if they were millionaires. A 13-year-old Kevin O'Malley from Terenure wrote in to say that he would "hire the biggest theatre in the world and engage Elvis Presley and Little Richard and others to give the biggest concert ever staged".

Perhaps this shows that our betters in the Church and State were slightly out of touch with the emotional, and even spiritual, needs of the young people of Ireland.

In any event, in the early Seventies legendary promoter Jim Aiken, travelled to Las Vegas in the hope of persuading Elvis to play one of the biggest concerts ever staged in this country. Alas, Aiken was not impressed by what he saw once he got to Nevada.

"This was the person who changed everything in music," Aiken recalled, "to see him singing in Vegas and to think of what he could have done but the Colonel" – Elvis's svengali-like manager 'Colonel' Tom Parker – "didn't allow him to do world tours. But the music and the person I imagined didn't match. It was a little bit disillusioning."

You have to admire the late Jim Aiken for trying. As Ivor Casey discovers in Elvis & Ireland, Ireland in the late Sixties and early Seventies was not a place where the establishment viewed rock'n'roll singers like Elvis as having merit.

Casey unearths some fascinating nuggets in this regard. In December 1969, The Longford Leader lambasted RTE for spending money on an Elvis documentary that was due to go out on the on Christmas Day. "Is the Irish nation slowly going mad?" it asked, before adding another question, one that could have come straight from the pulpit: "Has a kind of masochism gripped the nation?" The national station was upbraided for daring to feature "a sloppy mouthed pop singer knee-jerking in neurotic rhythm to inane outpourings".

Despite the moral panic, the show Elvis: A Presley Spectacular went out that Christmas Day on RTE at 6.45pm. The Irish Times TV reviewer Ken Gray was all shook up by what he saw. Elvis's performance "confirmed one's worst fears. If I say that it was vulgar and humourless, possibly that is because I am neither female nor under 25".

Hearing Elvis sing confirmed Horslip star Barry Devlin's profound belief in the power of rock music.

He recalls to Casey that, when he was a kid: "I wowed in my father's pub in Ardboe with Teddy Bear, the first of many records brought home by my elder sisters. He was a constant on the Dansette record players and though the Beatles absorbed much of my musical life in the Sixties, I later picked up on The Sun Sessions and his days as the Hillbilly Hepcat and got an overview of his importance to popular music as it exists today."

Casey also shows the influence Elvis had on everything from Ireland's showbands and beat-groups to the likes of Rory Gallagher, Phil Lynott, Bono, Damien Dempsey, and The Cranberries.

Casey has to be commended for a rare feat: an original book on the King.

Eoghan Harris confirmed this view to me: "Ivor came to me with the idea of a 'biography' of Elvis and Ireland while he was still a student. I wondered if there was enough material for a book, but I never doubted that this earnest young man would deliver. He had an iron integrity of purpose. This is the hardest kind of book to research.

"Common sense and your parents confirm that Elvis hugely influenced Irish popular culture. Documentary evidence is scarce. But Ivor missed nothing... He was a man with a mission. Now we have the book. Mission accomplished."

Irish Independent

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