Elvis Costello stops the show, SNL 12-17-1977    Elvis Costello


Elvis sings the Declan McManus songbook

Posted by Al Barger on January 08, 2005

It might be a possibility that I obsess just a bit too much on all things Elvis. My excuse is that it's Elvis Presley's 70th birthday, and I'm looking for new things to think about him. What are you going to do?

Whip up an Elvis sings McManus fantasy album, of course. Leave aside that Elvis was dead before most of these songs were written, and that management would not have gone for the EC art boy personnae. Imagine that Elvis had lived, and that Col Parker got the idea that new wave was what the kids are into these days.

However unlikely such a concoction might seem, it could be constructive to our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of these two great tastes that might sometimes taste great together.

Elvis Costello actually has written a good number of songs that sound a little bit like Elvis the First. Not surprising, since he puts enought stock in him to take his name. They're kind of married. McManus has a goodly number of songs something like old Elvis rock and rockabilly. Elvis could have done great wtih "Girl's Talk" or "Pads, Paws and Claws."

McManus has a few country songs close enough to strict commercial genre standards that they would make some sense. Elvis could reasonably have took a swing at "Motel Matches" or "Different Finger."

Also, Elvis was fairly Catholic in absorbing many styles. He could do a lot more than rockabilly. McManus has a fair number of songs totally not "Elvis style" that Elvis could have done something with. "Almost Blue" would be a simple example. Also, Elvis could have really sold the high drama of "Either Side of the Same Town" or "God Give Me Strength."

Funny though, but Elvis would have been particularly unable or disinterested in the most directly Elvisian song in the McManus catalogue, "Mystery Dance." It's obviously a direct down the middle Elvis rock song- except that lyrically it's engineered to be precisely opposite of the innate Presley sexual magnetism. No matter how good a rockin' tune, Elvis would never have sung "So both of us were willing, but we didn't know how to do it." That's the point of the song, it's his "diseased" version of Elvis.

The main problem, though, is that McManus writes all these oblique college boy lyrics that would not fly at Graceland. I could really hear Elvis, Scotty and the boys taking a swing at playing "Blame It on Cain." Elvis could have done something with that tune, but he'd have never thought about singing some of those impacted verses.

As Norma Desmond would say, "Words, words, words!" A lot of interesting possibilities just get dumped on grounds of WORDS. Otherwise, I'd be thinking of Elvis versions of "Bedlam" or "Fish 'n Chip Paper."

You could consider this "college boy" thing two ways. You might see it as marking the limits of Elvis' stylistic and emotional range. Elvis wouldn't get far with a literary lyric. Also, Elvis would withdraw from the dark emotions of the otherwise outstanding "The Name of This Thing Is Not Love."

On the other hand, you might see it as a shortcoming for McManus. Imagining other people trying to sing his songs gives an alternate picture of his strengths and weaknesses than you get from listening to his Elvis Costello records. Some of his songs make sense as future standards, done by various artists in different styles. Many just don't.

McManus has a lot of clever, catchy, meaningful songs that wouldn't make much sense coming from anyone else but Elvis Costello. Who else could sing "God's Comic," "The Delivery Man" or the classic "Battered Old Bird"? They're great songs, but rather insular to his personnae. They will largely lack universal appeal to people not interested in investing in deciphering this "Elvis Costello" character.

Still and all, McManus has a good fat album worth of songs that would at least halfway make sense coming from Elvis the First. For the sake of argument, assume that McManus would have been glad to co-operate in re-writing a line or two of lyrics here and there to make it work for Elvis.

Without too much radical re-writing, Elvis might have reasonably whipped up an album something like this:

Elvis on Elvis
Pump It Up
Girl's Talk
There's a Story in Your Voice
Inch by Inch
Party Girl
God Give Me Strength
Either Side of the Same Town
Pads, Paws and Claws
Every Day I Write the Book
5ive Gears in Reverse
B Movie
Beaten to the Punch
I Stand Accused
The Big Light
Motel Matches
Different Finger
Playboy To a Man
Sneaky Feelings
Almost Blue


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