One night with Elvis.

I wouldn't, in the normal scheme of things, describe myself as an Elvis Presley fan. After a brief dalliance with glam rock (in the shape of The Sweet) in the early 70s, it was punk that really awakened my interest in music, and Elvis died just as punk broke, so he never meant anything to me while he was alive. And when you look back at his career from the perspective of the present day, the good bits make up a tiny proportion of the 20 years it lasted. For 95% of that time, Elvis was a puppet in the hands of his manager Col. Tom Parker, who squandered what it turns out was probably the greatest natural rock'n'roll talent of all time making cheesy movies and then becoming a tragic cabaret act - doped to the eyeballs, dressed like a Christmas-tree fairy and searching in desperate bewilderment for a faintly-remembered spark of burning soul from a distant past, whose occasional brief flickers through the Vegas sludge only served to illustrate the tragedy all the more painfully.

So if Elvis was crap nearly all the time, how do we know he was probably the greatest natural rock'n'roll talent of all time? Because, chiefly, of Elvis - One Night With You.

Sorry, ladies - he's dead.

The 1968 Comeback Special is generally held up as the definitive example of Good Elvis. A made-for-TV extravaganza (which wasn't actually called the "Comeback Special"), it briefly resurrected Presley's career after a load of terrible hack movies had sent his rock'n'roll reputation plunging almost out of reach into the dumper. The Special showcased many elements of the 1968 Elvis - there were big glitzy dance numbers, white-suited gospel sections and all sorts, but the heart of it is a handful of breathtaking "unplugged" performances by Elvis and some of his band, seated on stacking chairs on a tiny stage like a boxing ring in the middle of a small audience.

This performance, removed from the rest of the Comeback Special (in which only a small fraction of it was included) and depicted many years later in a separate US TV show and subsequent video release in its unedited entirety,  is what makes up Elvis - One Night With You. It's probably the greatest piece of unadulterated, pure rock'n'roll ever committed to film. Join your reporter now on a guided tour.

Rock'n'roll Babylon.

Elvis, in a tight black leather suit, holds court with four old session guys in red garage-mechanic-style overalls. Two of them (and Elvis) have guitars, one plays bongos, and the last (Elvis' long-serving drummer DJ Fontana) plays drums on a guitar case resting on a small table between the players, as if they were all just rehearsing in a small living-room. (Next to Elvis is his veteran guitar player Scotty Moore, and the other two musicians are Elvis' long-time friends Charlie Hodge and Alan Fortas, but this reporter is sadly unable to relate to minor-detail-loving viewers which one's the guitarist and which is on the bongos.)

A younger man, never introduced and not dressed like the others, kneels on the steps at the edge of the stage and bangs a tambourine in time with the drums. (It's never made clear if he's part of the band, the studio floor manager, an audience member, the pizza delivery guy or what.) Add a few textbook clean-cut young adults (this isn't a teeny screamer audience, as the Comeback Special was aimed at restoring a certain amount of grown-up artistic gravitas to Elvis' image) and the picture is complete (alternatively, you could just look at the pictures). Which leaves us only the performance to talk about.

The blond man at bottom left is Mysterious Tambourine Guy.
(Later immortalised by the Byrds in "Hey, Mysterious Tambourine Guy".)

From the opening seconds, One Night With You is a thing of beauty. Even a cheesy, bizarrely-punctuated voiceover intro only seems to add to the atmosphere, and from the minute Elvis and the band arrive onstage everyone seems relaxed and happy. There's a couple of minutes of warm, chatty intro and banter, then without any ceremony the band kicks into "That's Alright Mama", an old blues standard that's rendered with an easy playful charm that doesn't quite conceal the raw fire in its heart. Then it's straight into "Heartbreak Hotel", Elvis occasionally getting up off his chair to knowingly-obliging squeals from the audience or pretending to forget the words, and everyone's having a great time already.

The smoky crooner-ballad "Love Me" is next up, showing off Elvis' rich, reverberating baritone to great effect, but the casual, gently-paced start to the show's about to come to an end. At the end of the short song, Elvis swaps his acoustic guitar for Scotty Moore's beautiful big sunburst Gretsch electric, and the heat's turned up a little with the feral stomp of "Baby, What Do You Want Me To Do?". 

The Elv reading theatrically from the "script".

But it's a tease - after it's finished, Elvis picks up his set instructions and embarks on a pisstake of them, then starts on a curiously serious and seemingly improvised monologue about the state of music, ("Everything's improved") how he enjoys the new groups like "The Beatles, The Beards, and the... whoever" but how rock'n'roll is basically just a derivative of gospel and rhythm'n'blues, and how... the audience is gazing in rapt attention, hanging on every word and waiting for the point, but then just as it's getting interesting he slyly gives up on the ramble, links slickly into "Blue Suede Shoes" with a little in-joke that the band get before everyone else and we're off again.

It's after "Blue Suede Shoes" that the show really catches light. Jamming inexplicably back into "Baby, What Do You Want Me To Do?", Elvis breaks the song off after the first chorus, complaining that "There's something wrong with my lip". This is the excuse for an anecdote about the infamous restrictions imposed on his early TV performances, and the first of several oblique and not-so-oblique references to the unwanted demands made by Col. Parker on Elvis' career direction (especially the terrible films). This is candid stuff, and the first sign that this is the real Elvis we're watching, relaxed and intimate among friends and doing the only thing he really wants to do - play simple old rhythm'n'blues rock'n'roll, for himself and for his fans, and with his best and trusted buddies beside him.

"I got news for you, baby", reveals Elvis. "I did 29 pictures like that."

At this point, that rock'n'roll takes the form of the ferocious, lustful "Lawdy Miss Clawdy", another blues standard in much the same vein as the earlier songs (in fact, the tune is all but indistinguishable from "Baby, What Do You Want Me To Do?"), and for the first time Elvis really lets his voice go, as if released and empowered by speaking a long-bottled-up truth.

It's followed by the jauntier, poppy "When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again", but just 45 seconds in, Elvis realises he's supposed to be doing a different song and cuts it short to go straight into "Blue Christmas". It's a charged rendition, Elvis suddenly short on the big smiles that have punctuated the performance so far and staring at the floor for most of the song, as if realising that the earlier display of dissent might not have been such a smart move.

This (whether real or merely invented by the over-imaginative viewer) internal conflict, though, finds stunning voice in the next song. Suddenly reinvigorated, Elvis delivers an incendiary, primal version of the powerful torch-blues of "Trying To Get To You" that marks the start of the show's most spine-tingling section. He gives the song everything, provoking spontaneous applause from the audience in the middle as he howls the song's yearning lyrics like they're the most important words anyone's ever had to convey. The song seems to have a physical hold on Elvis, pulling at his arms and forcing him up out of his chair on several occasions, hips swinging in spite of the lack of a guitar strap making it impossible to stand up properly. As it comes towards its end, he urgently growls "One more time, one more time, one more time" and the band obligingly and seamlessly carry on for an extra chorus.

Trying to get to us, and succeeding.

As he turns the intensity up another notch and shakes his guitar like a fist, it's easy to imagine that the song's lyrics are now about Elvis' own life, his much-frustrated and delayed journey to be right here, right now, just singing his rock'n'roll songs to us - "There was nothing that could hold me! / Or could keep me away from you!" - and free for a single blissful moment from the grisly circus run by the overbearing Parker. Unable to keep the song going any longer, Elvis plunges without pausing into the next number, the slower but equally taut "One Night With You" that gives the show its title. He's still in the music's grip, grimacing and twitching and shaking and jerking out of the chair like a rag doll every time the song peaks in the choruses between the ballady verses, and extending it with more and more choruses as if he never wants this perfect moment to end.

There's an incredible bit near the song's usual finish, when an audience member knocks out the lead of Elvis' electric guitar, and the song stops dead. With the minimum of fuss, Elvis plugs back in, and with a quick "What I was gonna say was - " dives straight back in and picks up exactly where he left off without losing a single iota of the song's built-up power or fearsome drive, and then seizes the excuse - "Gotta do it again now, I'm sorry" - to get in yet another refrain of practically the whole song, building to an electrifying climax where it looks like the whole band are going to get up and rock the place right to the ground, only for Elvis' missing strap to bring him back down to Earth and the rest of the band with him.

Scotty Moore shares a joke about bad wigs.

But they're set free now, undaunted by such trivialities and doing whatever the hell they please, so Elvis leads the band straight into "Baby, What Do You Want Me To Do?" for a we-don't-give-a-fuck third time (maybe playing this particular tune three times in the show is a coded or spontaneous message of exasperation aimed at Col. Tom Parker and the other malign influences in Elvis' life, but probably more likely they just love the song) and they tear the place up, stamping the floor like bulls and yelping and growling their way through the song like nothing else in the world will ever matter. It goes on and on, longer than the two previous renditions put together, until it seems to put everyone, band and crowd alike, into some sort of a hypnotic trance.

An instrumental break at the end of the song seems to stop time, everyone just lost in the primitive repetitive single beat of the music and locked into an endless groove, until finally someone remembers to do the last chorus and bring the thing to an exhausted, sweating halt, Elvis and the other guitarist sharing a knowing look as they croon the last lines softly across the stage at each other, because they've realised that nobody's ever been this good before and nobody will ever be this good again - they own the soul of rock'n'roll forever.

Happy Elvis.

The show proper is effectively over at this point, and as everyone gets their breath back after the thrilling scenes they've been witnessing, Elvis is momentarily lost for words, stammering "Uh... uh... what? Help" in the quiet moments after "Baby What Do You Want Me To Do?" has finally come to an end for the last time. As if belatedly remembering where he is, he gathers his thoughts and tells the audience that there's only one more song to come, as "There's another audience waiting to come in" (the other audience being presumably for the recording of one of the other, stagier sections of the Special).

As a loud groan goes up from the disappointed crowd he makes his excuses in a jokey comment, but one that's also loaded with meaning and sadness reflecting how rarely the world's biggest star actually gets to do what he really wants to do - "Man, I just work here!" - and the band get ready for the last number. Elvis decides he's going to put a strap on his guitar and stand up, but it transpires that there's no strap to be found. A hurried discussion follows, and one of the guys suggests Elvis could rest his foot on the chair and balance the guitar on his knee and still be able to put out some hot pelvis-thrusting action.

The other guitarist puts down his instrument and hastily enters service as a mic stand, holding up Elvis' microphone (set for a sit-down performance) at stand-up singing height and there's a second, apparently spontaneous, rendition of "One Night With You" that starts off as a joke with improvised lyrics about the missing strap but turns into a stirring, hip-swinging farewell, with beaming grins on everyone's faces as they show the world how it should be done, just one last time.

"I wish I'd brought a smaller guitar."

Annoyingly, though, it's not actually the last song of the show - there's a pre-arranged, pre-recorded version of the slushy ballad "Memories" for Elvis to croon along with, bizarrely out-of-place among the raw blues classics heard up to now and lending the show a weird, unsatisfying endpiece as the music barges in long before the applause for "One Night With You" has faded away and the band are hustled off into the shadows without a goodbye, evidently having had so much fun jamming with the boss like in the old days that the show's running time is now under severe pressure. It seems like a metaphor for Elvis' entire life. "Memories" ends abruptly and the credits - complete with Elvis' name misspelt - roll.

Elvis - One Night With You is a fantastic rock'n'roll performance in its own right, but it's everything else it stands for and carries with it that makes it one of the great cultural documents of the television age. It's perhaps the only recorded instance on film of Elvis doing the thing he was born to do, freed from the crushing weight of contractual obligations with which Col. Tom Parker almost destroyed him. It's a record of someone lost in sheer joy, doing what he loves most surrounded by people he loves; totally relaxed yet at the same time radiating raw sexual tension like an exploding star radiates raw fire and light. And it's pretty debateable whether any human has ever looked as good as Elvis does in this show.

Do my hips look big in this?

And yet there's more. This isn't some invincible god putting on a performance, this is someone unselfconsciously sharing their true personality, which just happens to be as magnetically watchable as a fireworks display at the end of the world. There are glimpses of vulnerability, candid nods at the darkness that this night is a release from, an acknowledgement of a man's lack of control of his own life, all the wasted years when Elvis could have just been doing this instead of throwing his incredible talent away on making cheap bucks for evil manipulators. It's a microcosm of the story of every artist ever chewed up and screwed up by the music industry, a parable of the dangers of letting parasites, middlemen and beancounters hold sway over the creative and the gifted. (That the warning still hasn't been heeded nearly 40 years later only adds extra poignancy to the story.)

But you don't have to be looking for cultural or socio-political significance to be thrilled like a kid at Christmas by One Night With You. The first time this viewer saw it, he had to watch it through the gaps in his fingers, because the sheer overwhelming natural power of it was like looking at the sun during an eclipse - trying to take the whole thing in at once would just have overloaded and burned out the senses. If you've seen it and disagree, get them to dig a hole for you now, because there's nothing left for you to see in this world that'll touch your cold, dead heart. (You don't need to like Elvis or the songs to see the beauty in this film.) And if you haven't, you need to.

The VHS release of One Night With You has been out of print in the UK for years, and it's never come out on DVD here, but - well, World Of Stuart is sure it doesn't have to tell you where to look for things like this that nobody will sell you honestly. And with the man dead for nearly 30 years, the parasites who killed the golden goose in the first place have made enough money from his living body and his corpse already. Elvis - in this performance especially - belongs to the world now. The world should take care not to lose him again.

Is everybody happy? For now, yeah.

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