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LeBlog’s Cheesetastic Classics: Harry Nilsson vs Elvis Presley

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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.

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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!

 

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Posted on August 10, 2016, in 1970s, Cheesetastic Classics, Music, poll and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I’m giving the King a pass. But this list can’t go on without Harry Nilsson. He’s cheesetastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In the Ghetto is not cheesy. It’s just a great song. As one of the world’s biggest Elvis fans, I’m not sure how to vote on this, because I want more exposure for the King’s music.

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    • Is Elvis in danger of becoming unknown to younger music fans? I don’t really know the answer to this question. It’s hard to imagine personally, but of course as the years pile up it is possible that the roots of modern pop and rock music may fade a bit if they aren’t reinforced every once in a while. I tell you what – I’ll post an Elvis song from the same year as “In the Ghetto” that I like a lot.

      It could be that the latter day backlash against Elvis may have done its job a little too well. My impression was always that the backlash amped up in its force because his legion of fans was unwilling to admit to any of his artistic faults, which led his detractors to double down. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in-between. His stage persona in his later years was undeniably cheesy and not very “rock ‘n’ roll.” This should have been no surprise considering his time spent making movies and his own driving ambition, but in an era and art form which treasured being “authentic” over just about anything else, his Vegas act put him in the category of guys like Dean Martin for some people.

      I can see why this would be galling for many fans of rock ‘n’ roll. Especially when the guy was capable of something like this:

      interesting that he takes a moment to mock one of our Cheesetastic Classics which was popular around the time this comeback special was recorded.

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      • Thumbs-up to this just because I really like “Suspicious Minds.” As for whether younger music fans are aware of Elvis–and of how big he was in the day–I don’t really have a good feel. As a college prof, I sometimes have the chance to get a feel for my students’ awareness of past pop culture figures. What I have noticed is that they seem aware of figures who were really big for my generation–I’ve dropped references to the likes of Dylan or the Stones in class from time to time–but not more obscure ones. When it comes to people earlier than that, such as Golden Age film stars, they almost always draw a blank.

        I’ve never specifically brought up Elvis, though.

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      • My father in law is a big Elvis fan, so this may skew my experience. But my kids know who Elvis was at least in a very vague sense. When we listen to Disney music, Elvis songs from the Lilo and Stitch soundtrack are included. I imagine L&S is probably the gateway to Elvis for a lot of kids these days. He’s still such a fixture in pop culture, I don’t think irrelevance is an issue. At least not in our lifetimes.

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  3. My late aunt was a big Elvis fan. I respect his music, but I’ve never really been a fan myself. However, I feel bad for him in that he never obtained the dramatic film career he wanted, and was kind of forced to be more of a flashy visual salesman than he preferred. Even though I voted “In the Ghetto” as cheesetastic (when I was a kid, I knew people who, when the term “ghetto” was mentioned, would usually reference that line from the song right away), I still feel that it’s kind of soulful. There is no doubt that Elvis was a talented artist.
    Oh, and I voted for both songs as cheesetastic (I always approach this exercise in a positive way); I like how the poll was reformatted as well!

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    • Thanks Glustery! I am interested to know how people feel about shoving every option into a single poll. While I’m more than happy for anybody to vote however they like, I’m guessing that formatting the poll in this new way might encourage more people to vote selectively because they’re still voting “yes” on something if they just vote for one.

      Not sure if that makes sense, but I’d love to hear what everybody else thinks.

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      • I don’t know how anyone else is going to feel, but I think this format is the best one yet, as all the options necessary are available in one tidy box. When the yes/no option was given for both songs separately, I felt the need to choose one song over the other, but now that there’s a written option to choose both, I’ll be more inclined to consider that option. That’s just me though:-)

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      • The new format works for me.

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      • I don’t know about the psychology behind it, but I like the single-poll approach.

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    • I’m the same. I appreciate Elvis, but I have never been a fan.

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  4. I love Elvis. And bonus points for including Cartman singing In The Ghetto! Personally I don’t find the song cheesy but even if it is I still love it. Elvis has his own station on XM radio and I’ve been known to spend a chunk of my driving time just cruising while listening to Elvis tunes. And yes, they do play In The Ghetto. Not the Cartman version though, I don’t think they have a sense of humor.

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  5. Kudos Daffy on having Corey Hart acknowledging your article! That is actually very awesome, when your subject gives your write up a thumbs up thats when you know you’ve made it.

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    • It’s always fun, whether it’s Sean Young popping off about Lebeau’s What the Hell Happened article on her, or one of the 10,000 Maniacs commenting on my Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder. And now Corey Hart has “liked” his article like Lisa Loeb did hers. Who knows, maybe it was their publicists, but we have affection for these people and the idea that they see and appreciate what we do is pretty great.

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  6. Not really related to the song In The Ghetto, but I recently discovered an interesting Elvis trivia bit I felt like sharing. It turns out that Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra have something very interesting in common. Just months after Elvis’ tragic death in 1977 his rendition of My Way was released as a posthumous single and became a hit, peaking at #22 late that year. This would prove to be Elvis’ penultimate Top 40 hit with 1981’s Guitar Man (peaking at #28) proving to be the King’s last Top 40 hit.

    Coincidentally, by the time Elvis’ version of My Way was released it was already well known as a Sinatra standard; ol’ Blue Eyes himself turned My Way into a Top 40 radio hit in 1969 when it peaked at #27. Afterwards Sinatra would all but disappear from Top 40 radio, only gaining one more hit years later in 1980, when Theme From New York peaked at #32.

    And this is the interesting bit of trivia I discovered on my own: My Way turned out to be the penultimate Top 40 hit for both Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley! How strange is it that My Way would turn out to be the 2nd-to-last hit single for both legends?

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    • and then there was this…

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      • I actually have the album for this, it’s titled “Never Mind the Sex Pistols, It’s Sid Vicious” (ha ha, what a gag, like a spoof of the title of The Sex Pistols only album). This is easily the best song on the album (which is terrible, quite frankly). I guess this version of the song will always be immortalized though due to it being played during the end credits of “Goodfellas”.

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        • I was first aware of Sid’s version based on its appearance in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Apparently, he was against recording it and spent multiple nights in the studio when he was supposed to be doing that to work on learning to play the bass. Of course he should have known how to play the bass to begin with, but at least he was working on it. Eventually he did record “My Way” and it became the only vocal performance he’s really known for in his tragically short life.

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        • I’m under the impression that Sid Vicious was seen as something of the court jester of that band, but yeah, his life was tragically short. Whatever really happened between the death of Nancy Spungen & him seemed to accelerate his self-destruction.

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        • He was “cast” in the Sex Pistols purely based on his look and attitude. He couldn’t play the bass AT ALL when they went on their crazy tour of the American south. There are conflicting reports on his true personality. While John Lydon has been quoted as describing him as a sort of sweet misunderstood kid, there is also plenty of evidence that he resented his presence in the band. Sid’s behavior overall was often pretty far outside of what would be considered puckish or simply rebellious. He either bought into the image he was selling or he really was a violent, rude prick – – or both. And all without the sharp mind that Lydon possesses.

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        • Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’ve heard about Sid Vicious as well, especially his lack of refinement with the bass. I’d have to say he personality was likely a bit of both descriptions too.

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    • On the country chart, Elvis got to #1 with his version of My Way, and also with Guitar Man.

      Other Elvis and Sinatra trivia – In 1960, Elvis was making G.I. BLUES with Juliet Prowse. He and she were apparently were getting quite “friendly” until the OTHER man she was seeing showed up with some of his “friends” and pressured Elvis into leaving Prowse alone. That other man, of course, was Frank Sinatra. His “friends” were, well, it’s been said, mob muscle.

      Also, when Elvis got married to Priscilla in 1967, he used Frank’s plane, the Christina II, to travel on his honeymoon. It was riding in this plane that helped Elvis get over his fear of flying, and which also encouraged him to buy his own plane.

      There’s also this bit of wonderful music between them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BskKbs_BHNg

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      • What a fun piece of video that is. Presley had a very nice singing voice when he focused on it, but he’s mostly just kidding around here, maybe because he knows Sinatra is the gold standard. Why compete on that ground? After all, those bobbysoxers used to be screaming for Frank and now they were clearly hooked on Elvis.

        Like

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