Do you remember the early 1960s? (Not literally – I mean in terms of this blog.) Back when every third #1 was by Elvis? Those three years in which he dominated the top spot like no one before or since, not even The Beatles? Amazingly, given the heights of his heyday, this is only his second chart-topper in twelve years. ‘The Wonder of You’ came just after his leather-clad comeback, and marked the start of the Vegas years. Since then he’s descended into a jump-suited parody of himself, mumbling his way through residencies with sweat-soaked towels round his ever-widening neck. From Sun Records, to Elvis the Pelvis, to the army, the movies and the rhinestones, there was still time for one more reinvention. Enter: Dead Elvis.
Way Down, by Elvis Presley (his 17th of twenty-one #1s)
5 weeks, from 28th August – 2nd October 1977
I don’t include the picture above to shock or to mock; more to mourn what he had become. What his management and enablers had allowed him to do to himself. I’ve loved Elvis’s music since I was young, and can find something to enjoy from every stage of his career. And I’m glad he bowed out with a rocker. ‘Way Down’ is pure cabaret razzamatazz, with the jazzy drums and the piano flourishes; but there’s rock ‘n’ roll in there. There’s a hint of disco too, believe it or not, in the churning, didgeridoo-like rhythm.
Ooh, And I can feel it, Feel it, Feel it, FEEL IT! You wonder if Elvis was capable of feeling very much at this point, and he does sound pretty bored (or pretty well sedated) during the verses. But he goes for it in the chorus. Way down where it feels so good, Way down where I hoped it would, Way down where I never could… On the one hand they sound like standard, throwaway, mildly risqué rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. But for a man in Elvis’s condition maybe he knew what he was talking about: he was having to dig very deep to feel anything. Meanwhile the line: The medicine within me, A doctor couldn’t prescribe… sounds like a very knowing reference.
I’ve always liked this one, long before I knew it was his swansong. It’s kid-friendly rock – almost a pantomime of the real thing. Would it have been a #1 smash if Elvis hadn’t died? No way. It was languishing at #42 in the week of his death, before rocketing up the charts when the news broke. Nowadays, people download or stream deceased artists’ biggest hits on hearing of their deaths. Back in 1977, those who wanted to mark The King’s passing had one choice: to go ‘Way Down’.
Sadly, Elvis isn’t actually the true star of his final antemortem release. Step forward J.D. Sumner, who ends the record with perhaps the lowest note ever sung on a chart-topping single. Way… On… Doowwwn… I did wonder if he was the same baritone as featured way back on ‘A Fool Such As I’, but sadly he wasn’t.
While this record did perhaps only hit #1 thanks to Elvis’s death, that shouldn’t suggest he had been absent from the charts. Since his last #1in 1970, Presley had scored fifteen Top 10 hits with a mix of new songs and re-releases. ‘Moody Blue’, the single before this, had reached #6. Perhaps ‘Way Down’ would have done something similar, then, if it hadn’t been for that fateful trip to the bathroom.
And this isn’t the end of the road for Elvis and the number one spot. Far from it. At the time, it gave him his seventeenth chart-topper, tying him with The Beatles. They will stay neck and neck for a good twenty-five years, until an Elvis resurgence in the ‘00s (he has twice as many #1s in that decade as he does in the ‘70s…) But still. We should still mark this occasion. One of, if not the, biggest pop star ever has left the building. Go on, order yourself a Fools’ Gold Loaf (flown in on your own private jet, naturally) and play the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s final hit, one last time…
Enjoy every #1 so far, including all 17 of Elvis’s: