With this list of number two UK singles, there are a few that I call ‘oppositional’ singles; which is to say, they stand far away – in opposition – to the number one song. The number one song for “Heartbreak Hotel” is “I’ll Be Home” by Pat Boone – a song that I’m sure has its merits (I haven’t heard it yet) – but there is no way it is anything like Elvis, either in style or performance. Indeed, looking at the chart, it’s clear that there is everyone else…and then there’s Elvis. (I am also aware that his first try in the charts, “Blue Suede Shoes,” only made it to #9 – Carl Perkins’ original version got to #10, making their friendly contest a draw, which is about right.) So clearly there were those who preferred the good-boy sentiments of Boone in the UK (in the US it only got to #6, tellingly), but there were those clearly caught up in Elvis, without the benefit of seeing him on tv – just by mere photos of him, and hearing the song. The UK’s…oppositional…attitude towards Elvis (as opposed to the US’ reaction, which was to have him at #1 for a very long time indeed) could be due to lack of tv exposure – it is, from this distance, hard to know, but I would guess his roughness (the guitar with a twine strap; the sense that he is enjoying himself and likes to dance) might have caused more than a few English girls to uncontrollably scream as well.
In any case, Elvis has arrived. He has, so to speak, entered the MSBWT building and will be here for a good long time, though there will be times when he seems to be absent. I say seems because, like it or not, Elvis was a prototype, not to mention an inspiration, to just about everyone who wanted something a little bit more raw than the polished and likable and grown-up perfomers we have met so far. Elvis was all of twenty-one when he recorded this (to give some perspective, performers who are twenty-one as of this writing include Joss Stone, Kate Nash and Hilary Duff – with Rihanna coming around the bend) and his youth and style brought an undoubted wave of freshness to the scene. (Not long after him, Gene Vincent comes back to the chart, and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and Little Richard also begin to chart.)
But to the song!
It is stark and dirty. The hotel in question is dark, illuminated only by the barest of lightbulbs and staffed by the most miserable and indeed funereal of attendants. And yet the song is not a lament. He is miserable and lonely (so lonely he could die: hello, Burt Bacharach, hello Morrissey) and yet he is not alone – how could he be? – and if she – the Other – becomes heartbroken, well, she knows where to go. Where to find him. They can be together in their misery…
…which isn’t really too miserable, as it sounds more like pouting, sexy misery, like an audible James Dean. Elvis was a good boy, but he looked and sounded bad. As if he wasn’t always what society or The Man wanted him to be, that his rebellion was in that he was always himself, twisting and jerking and Buh-Bay-Being for fun. How dare a man shake and show passion? How dare a man inhabit the song as he does, taking his loneliness and throwing it in the listeners’ faces? (He sounds as if he enjoys being miserable, even as he is miserable; hello, David Gedge and hello emo, for that matter.) The piano tinkles and the stand-up bass thumps, the guitar solo is stark and hardcore and not at all interested in being pretty. Elvis’ voice is handsome, as handsome as he is; and I cannot leave out the fact that he is from the South, the poor-grew-up-in-a-shack South that is an exotic plus for any UK listeners. Put plainly, everything here is different and confusing and there are no choirs or string sections or messages of genial consolation. The world is a dark, lonely and unhappy place, Elvis says; but everything else implies that this can be overcome, even mined for its own kind of gold.