Elvis and Marlon

Fifty years on, why we bow down to the King more than the Wild One.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Culture

Rock’n’roll is 50. Five decades have elapsed since white boy Elvis Presley closed his audition for Sun records with a rendition of ‘That’s All Right’, previously a hit for black bluesman Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup. The crossover of blues with bluegrass was a cultural phenomenon as well as a commercial success. Half a century later, radio stations all over the world played the track at 5pm UK time on 5 July 2004 in a concerted homage to the birth of pop music as we know it.

Rock’n’roll may never die, but it would be better if it did. It’s bad enough commemorating its debut with the musical equivalent of synchronised swimming; what’s worse is that so much store is set by musical commemorations and cultural retrospectives.

Imagine if the teenage Elvis had been in awe of 50-year-old music such as Strauss waltzes, music hall or ragtime. Years ago, the New Musical Express published the charts of five, 10 and 20 years earlier as a kind of joke. Today the sacred aura around the relics of post-war pop suggests that the spirit of innovation that enabled Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and producer Sam Phillips to invent a new sound, and allowed young listeners to appreciate it, is sadly lacking.

Rock’n’roll did die once. It was all but buried by the likes of the protagonist of Absolute Beginners and his Modernist progeny (Caesar haircut, Italian jacket, apprentices in La Dolce Vita). But then Mod went hippie and turned sloppy, and in reaction pop music moved back to basics and started to concern itself with authenticity.

The Beatles released ‘Lady Madonna’, sixth-formers began scouring junk shops for priceless vinyl singles that had been almost worthless six months previously, and Elvis came famously back from the dead with a televised concert in Las Vegas. The bloodlessness of contemporary music set the stage for the vampiric existence of retro-culture, which continues to this day.

In the week that rock’n’roll turned 50, Marlon Brando turned over and died. He and Elvis had more than a weight problem in common. In their original moment of success, both were alienation-in-motion.

Disengagement, previously the preserve of those with learning difficulties, became sexy and poetic at the same time. Elvis went on to be the bigger star perhaps because the medium he worked in, music, provided punters with the means (dance) to express their own alienated feelings simultaneously, whereas film stays up and above the audience – except for those laughably young males who come out of the cinema with their legs so far apart they can hardly walk.

In death, Brando has been feted for making acting more vernacular and less declamatory. But his performances were marked not by ordinariness but by its distillation, which is itself an extraordinary accomplishment. Anybody can ask the question, ‘What are you rebelling against, Johnny?’. But try saying Brando’s line from The Wild One:


Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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