More musical one-upmanship at the top of the charts! The Big ‘O’ has just finished teaching Ricky Valance how to do heartbreak properly; now Elvis has heard Roy’s operatic vocals and clearly thought to himself ‘So, this Orbison thinks he can sing an aria, does he? We’ll show him how it’s done! Uh-huh-huh.”
It’s Now or Never, by Elvis Presley (his 5th of twenty-one #1s)
8 weeks, from 3rd November – 29th December 1960
If only that’s how the pop charts worked – a never ending attempt to outdo the chart-topper that went before you… At least that’s how the autumn of 1960 is turning out. Hot on the heels of ‘Only the Lonely’, this is more opera-lite. Except, while Orbison kept the operatics to a minimum in what was still a rock ‘n’ roll disc; Elvis really lets fly. The King was never one for understatement.
We open with backing singers – the Jordanaires – and a slice of cheesy Italian guitar… And then boom: some very famous lines indeed. It’s now or never, Come hold me tight, Kiss me my darling, Be mine tonight… Elvis croons the verses and belts out the choruses. It’s a rhumba, or perhaps a bossanova – the kind of rhythm that gets your hips swaying gently. It’s a very sexy record.
Or, at least, it’s trying to be a sexy record. Something, though, is lacking. You can’t fault the voice – Elvis sings it very well, and very properly – but to my modern ears it just sounds a bit… silly. A bit camp? Maybe it’s the flourishes of said Italian guitars. Maybe it’s the lyrics straight from an 8th grader’s poetry collection – When I first saw you, With your smile so tender, My heart was captured, My soul surrendered – plus some of the rhymes: excite me with invite me, a lifetime with the right time…
I don’t suppose the song’s cause has been helped by the intervening fifty-eight years since it was released. It’s now a standard of the white jump-suited, microphone twirling Elvis impersonator. Plus anyone who has been to Venice will have heard it mangled by hundreds of gondoliers all high on the fact that they’re getting a hundred euros for twenty minutes work. Plus, anyone who grew up in the UK in the ‘80s and ‘90s will instinctively start singing ‘Just one Cornetto, Give it to me, Delicious ice-cream, From Italy…’ when the intro kicks in. This is a song laden with pop-culture baggage.
Perhaps it’s impossible to view this song as it sounded in 1960. Though it was far from being a ‘new’ song even then. ‘O Sole Mio’, the Neapolitan folk song upon which it is based was written way back in 1898, and people would have known the melody. Whatever this record was – or is – perhaps depends on your age, or on whether you’ve holidayed in Italy, or on whether you’re a fan of cheap, mass produced ice-cream cones…
One thing that isn’t up for debate is the success of this disc. Eight weeks at the top. Presley’s best-selling single in the UK – with 1.3 million copies sold it is his only British million-seller and was, at the time, the 2nd biggest selling single of all time behind ‘Rock Around the Clock’. A brand new entry at number one, only the 2nd single to ever do so. A monster hit. Some sources claim that its success was down to it being Elvis’s big comeback after a year away in the army. That’s not quite right, however. His first new recording, ‘Stuck on You’ had already hit #3 earlier in the year.
Whatever the reason for this record’s success, it’s what I’d call the beginning of Elvis MKIII – the neutered, granny friendly, chart-humping behemoth. MKI was the rough an’ ready country boy making his Sun Recordings – a version we never saw at the top of the UK charts. MKII was Elvis the Pelvis, singing ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’, scandalising TV audiences across the globe with his thrusting. The big shock here is that this Elvis sounds so different to that Elvis. He’s dropped all the mumbling, and the growling and the uh-huh-huh-ing, and is singing perfectly, like an angelic choirboy in front of an archbishop. We caught a whiff of it in his last #1 – the cabaret-ish ‘A Fool Such As I’ – but the difference is quite shocking. I’ve mentioned it before, but hearing these famous records in context, surrounded by their contemporaries, really lets you hear them afresh.
One thing I do like about this song, I have to admit, is the ending. And not in an ironic, thank-God-it’s-over kind of way, no, no, no. I like the way Elvis slows it down, the guitars twiddle their way to silence, and we await the big finish. It’s now or never… But… with a great bit of showmanship, and in a way that drags this song well past the three minute mark, Elvis goes round one more time… my love won’t wait. And then he belts the ending out: It’s now or never… MY LOVE WON’T WAIT (chun-chun-chun)!
Before I go, I must mention that – way ahead of schedule – I get to celebrate one of my birthday #1s. ‘It’s Now or Never’ spent another week at the top of the UK charts at the end of January 2005, just in time for my nineteenth birthday. Which kind of annoys me, actually, as it spoils the flow of my ‘Birthday #1s’ playlist by sitting there amongst Limp Bizkit, Enrique Iglesias and Lady Gaga like a big old sore thumb. Anyway. First world problems. You better get used to hearing Elvis over the next few months, as he has the British Singles charts in something of a choke-hold from this point on – hitting the top at least three times per year – until a certain bunch of lads from Liverpool come along and kick him off his perch.