LeBlog’s Cheesetastic Classics: Harry Nilsson vs Elvis Presley
Welcome to the next matchup in our continuing search for the most satisfyingly cheesy pop songs of all time! A LeBlog Cheestastic Classic should be both undeniably corny or over-the-top while also possessing some quality that makes some of us grin and pump our fists in gleeful irony. Some people might also use the term “guilty pleasure.” But I’m not going to. For our purposes here, these are “LeBlog’s Cheesetastic Classics.” The skill and talent involved in producing some of these songs may, in fact, be quite impressive and at their core these songs might actually be rather superior to some which are considered cool. But somewhere along the way the songwriter or performer took that wrong turn at Albuquerque and landed themselves in the land of cheese.
Today’s competitors were released just two years apart from one another, but also more than forty years ago so most of us probably don’t remember when they were current. To be honest, I find it a little bit alarming that these “oldies” were less than a decade old when I started hearing them on my little clock radio in the fourth grade. Time sure does speed up as it goes along. Another thing that both of these artists have in common is that they passed away well before their time. Let’s talk about both of these songs so we can decide if they belong on our list of wonderfully corny recordings!
I had to take a week off from blogging to attend to life a little bit, but I’m back this week for more Cheesetastic goodness! Interestingly, our last Cheesetastic article got a “like” on Twitter from Corey Hart himself! This appeared to help him boost his votes enough to put his “Sunglasses at Night” onto our list of Cheesetastic Classics. He ended up with 61% “yes” votes and Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” also joined the quickly expanding list with close to 59% “yes” votes. You’ll see a slight change to the poll at the bottom of this article in my continuing effort to make this series as interesting as possible.
Our first nominee is a performer who fell into songwriting because he had trouble remembering the correct lyrics to songs he was performing. This tendency to go his own way would later lead to both success on the charts and a following move away from the style which had led to that success. Give a listen to the January chart-topper in question.
Gee whiz, that is one overwrought breakup song. I guess most of us have felt that way at one time or another, but damn “Without You” really isn’t helping matters much, is it? Its protagonist isn’t just despondent over the end of a romantic relationship, but is firmly under the impression that he literally “can’t live” without this other person. The initial temptation is to empathize with this person and I’m pretty darn sure that ever since the release of “Without You” in 1972, countless heartsick music fans have done just that, singing along to the chorus emotively as they think on that person who broke their own hearts. Well, before you reach for the rope and a bottle of pills (seriously, don’t do that shit. Call a friend please), take a minute to peruse the verses instead of just focusing on the chorus. The problem is, that if you actually read the lyrics it becomes clear that this dope singing is the one who broke off the relationship himself just earlier this evening. And now most likely less than a few hours later he feels the need to run back to her and recant. This is classic breakup remorse at its most ridiculous. Severing a longstanding relationship is indeed painful, but I’d recommend this guy sleep on it at least one more night and see if he maybe remembers why he broke up with the lady to begin with. Otherwise he’s probably just jerking her around because he’s emotionally immature.
Whatever the cause or story behind the song’s emotional content and delivery, there’s no questioning that “Without You” contains some true musical qualities, including a decent melody, use of chord progressions, and effective dynamics. It was these qualities paired with the emotional subject matter which led the song to the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 when I was barely walking. Nilsson would continue to release popular songs, including the top 10 hit “Coconut” which would become familiar to Gen X audiences when it was included on the Reservoir Dogs Soundtrack about twenty years later.
Nilsson’s success tailed off after a couple more years, however, due in part to his own disinterest in following the easily digestible approach of his earlier recordings. His newer songs were both more experimental in sound and included suggestive and profane lyrics that were not appealing to his largely Middle-of-the-Road fanbase. He actually encouraged the release of the song “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” as a single, but its prominent inclusion of “F*#% You” in the opening lines made that clear commercial suicide at the time and the song was rejected as a single by his record company. Nilsson also became a notoriously destructive partier who, along with pal John Lennon, was kicked out of a few places due to poor behavior. His record company considered dropping him, but Nilsson had Lennon come with him to a meeting and suggest that he might be interested in changing his own contract if they retained Nilsson. RCA re-signed Nilsson, but it’s probably no surprise that Lennon never jumped ship to join him there. Meanwhile, he was surrounded by tragedy in the music industry, with the deaths of both “Mama” Cass (in 1974) and Keith Moon (in 1978) occurring in his London apartment while he was away.
Always averse to public appearances, Nilsson fell out of the public eye almost entirely in the following decade despite participating in several more musical projects and events. After one heart attack in 1993, he then succumbed to heart failure in January of the following year, leaving his musical legacy as one that is almost exclusively associated with the early to mid 1970s.
Unlike Nilsson, Elvis Presley’s musical star stretched through multiple decades and in fact has remained so towering that he is widely considered to be one of the most significant musical performers in the history of popular music. He inspired countless giants to come even as he dabbled in a few different styles. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t vulnerable to a hefty slice of cheese in his discography. For example, let’s consider his lugubrious anthem to inner city tragedy, “In the Ghetto.”
There’s no doubt that this song is well-meaning and to this day the issues it addresses are meaningful, but there’s just something about its execution that leaves it wide open to parody. Presley’s Vegas-infused style of the time, featuring bedazzled jumpsuits with ear-high collars and his kung fu moves, and his emotionless delivery of the song do little to improve the suspicion that he isn’t connected with its attempted gravitas. That’s all left to the over-produced recording which melds rhythm-influenced pre disco sounds with orchestral turd polishing. Cartman of South Park fame doesn’t seem to understand the context of the song’s lyrics either.
This is a case in which the repetitive use of the song’s title and its natural combination of speech sounds lead to a catchy but unintentionally humorous refrain. The use of the currently antiquated term “ghetto” doesn’t do it any favors.
As is expected for a man who grew up in the mid-century south, there are varying and conflicting opinions about Presley’s relationships with the African-American population. While some people accuse him of profiting from musical styles which were pioneered by black performers and musicians, others consider his great success an important stepping stone in bringing those sounds and following success to those artists in mainstream culture. His reputation early in his career of respecting black artists and attending events populated mostly by African Americans endeared him to that community but also contributed to the animus many older southerners held for him. An offensive remark about the usefulness of “negroes” which has been widely attributed to him was researched and repudiated by an African American journalist during his lifetime, but this reputation has followed him into death in some quarters, with Public Enemy’s lyrics to this effect in their famous song “Fight the Power” remaining indelible.
Despite its current place on the cultural landscape, “In the Ghetto” was actually a big hit for Elvis when it was released in early 1969, becoming his first top 10 single since 1965’s “Crying in the Chapel” and paving the way for his #1 charting recording of “Suspicious Minds” later that same year. He wouldn’t go without multiple top40 hits each year for an amazing twenty-two year span from 1956 through the end of 1977, a few months after he passed away due to heart failure.
So, how do you feel about these two nominees for entry into our hall of cheese? Do you feel like there’s not enough cheese present in “In the Ghetto”? Maybe “Without You” just isn’t good enough in your estimation to do the tightrope walk we’re asking for here? Let us know by voting below!