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Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 6:26 am

A review of the album as I continue my way through the soundtrack box. I'll get prepared for the hate mail.

*

In February 1955, Elvis had entered Sun studios to record three songs, one of which was the classic Baby Let’s Play House. Ten years later, in February 1965, he was in RCA’s Studio B in Nashville to record the soundtrack for Harum Scarum (Gene Nelson, 1965). Oh, how the mighty had fallen. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote of the film that “Mr. Presley wanders through the improbable whimsies of Harum Scarum with all the animation of a man under deep sedation, but then he had read the script, which has to do with a Hollywood star, a mythical Arab kingdom and some oil rights.” That pretty much sums up the film, although it does still seem to fail to show just how low Elvis’s Hollywood career had sunk by this point. Harum Scarum is a truly awful film.

The first track of the soundtrack album is probably the worst opener to any Elvis LP throughout his entire career (and that includes the insipid Take Good Care of Her from Good Times). The first line of Harem Holiday (also the name of the film in some territories) is so out of tune that it sounds like Elvis and the band are performing in different keys completely. One of the writing team behind the song told Ken Sharp that it “is a good song and it had some nice rhymes in it.” While it’s reassuring to know that at least the composer believed this to be true, there is little merit to be found in the song. Presumably Elvis felt the same way, as the finished result sounds more like a rehearsal than a master.

My Desert Serenade is better, although that’s not saying a great deal. However, at least the material is better in that it sounds as if it was written by professional hack rather than an amateur and even contains a real melody. Sadly it sounds as if the choice of key is too low, but at least the performance is competent, and the arrangement is distinguished by the use of an oboe obligato during the verses, although it’s too low in the mix to really have much of an impact. On a similar level is Go East, Young Man. The whole thing sounds just a tad childish but Elvis sounds more engaged here, and the backing vocals blend nicely during the choruses, something which raises the number above the average standard here. Mirage is slightly better material from a musical point of view, but the lyrics are trite and predictable. The arrangement seems a little too fast for the melody, but Elvis makes the most of the appealing bridge section, seemingly grabbing the chance to finally sing a section of medley with some meat to it. He sounds in better voice on Kismet. Once again, the song is hardly a masterpiece, but it’s serviceable, and this kind of gentle ballad was something that Elvis was adept at making sound better than it actually is.

Shake That Tambourine
bizarrely took around forty takes before Elvis and the musicians finally gave up and settled on a splice of takes 24 and 38. At least Elvis seems to sound fully awake for the first time here, but the song was hardly worth the hours spent on it. Hey Little Girl starts off promisingly with a funky little piano riff, but the whole thing falls to pieces once Elvis starts singing and the actual song starts properly. For all of Elvis’s grunts and shouts of “alright”, few would be convinced that he was into this song to the extent that he is trying to suggest. The enthusiasm sounds fake, and probably was.

With Golden Coins we are back to ballad material, and once again Elvis makes the most of the pleasant melody of the verses, but the bridge is clumsy both from the point of view of the song and the performance. By far the best song here is So Close Yet So Far. Under normal circumstances Elvis would have made a great job of this, but even here he makes hard work of it. In the first verse on the line “then you slip away” he misses the note he is reaching for on “slip”, but nobody seemed to notice when putting the album together. A much better take was included on the Collectors Gold boxed set, which not only features a more confident vocal, but a much better mix that gives the song a whole new lease of life.

Two songs recorded for the film but not included in the final cut are included as bonus tracks on the LP. Animal Instinct benefits from a funky arrangement with a nice use of jazz flute, but the song itself, like so many on this album, has awkward moments, especially in the bridge section. Finally, we have Wisdom of the Ages, another mediocre ballad that Elvis does what he can with. Our interest is piqued thanks to the chord progression during the second half of each verse, but in the first verse the climax fails to materialise, and in the second verse Elvis (probably enthused at a slightly more interesting song) over-sings it, and the ending comes over as clumsy and sudden.

Without a doubt this was Elvis’s worst album release during his lifetime, and he probably knew it. But the fault wasn’t all his. The songs range from mediocre down to amateurish, the arrangements are uninspired, and the original mix of the material makes it sound as if the recordings were made under a sand dune, it is so muffled. Perhaps Elvis shouldn’t be blamed for his lack of enthusiasm, but here was a man ten years into his career and seemingly unable or unwilling to demand better songs. What was clear, however, was that his fans deserved something better than this. Even so, to look on the bright side, the soundtrack LP is more enjoyable than the film itself – if only because it is sixty minutes shorter.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 6:47 am

I actually quite like the soundtrack for Harum Scarum. I think Mirage, Kismet and Wisdom of the Ages are great songs. There is no one really awful song. Shake that Tambourine and Hey Little Girl are tolerable.

I think the Girl Happy soundtrack is a lot worse and is the worst Elvis album.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 6:53 am

It's not just lack of enthusiasm on Elvis' part though. Something was definitely happening to Elvis' voice in this period. It just wasn't as easy for him as it had been a couple of years before. Take a listen to a song such as "What A Wonderful Life" from the "Follow That Dream" soundtrack. It's a fun track, if a little lightweight, but Elvis' sings it superbly and effortlessly. He couldn't have done the same song as well if it had been recorded at the "Harum Scarum" sessions.
Last edited by TJ on Sun Mar 02, 2014 6:57 am, edited 1 time in total.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 6:56 am

poormadpeter--

Thanks for your comprehensive review. Like you, I think So Close, Yet So Far (From Paradise) is the best song on the album. I think this would have been an excellent single had Elvis and the Nashville musicians invested a little more time in the recording.

Elvis' movie ballads during the 1965-66 era --Puppet On A String, All That I Am, Please Don't Stop Loving Me, and So Close Yet So Far--are very pleasant contrasts to the lightweight songs used to advance the plot of the movie. These songs have remained fan favorites long after the movies have been forgotten.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:44 am

charro1971 wrote:I actually quite like the soundtrack for Harum Scarum. I think Mirage, Kismet and Wisdom of the Ages are great songs. There is no one really awful song. Shake that Tambourine and Hey Little Girl are tolerable.

I think the Girl Happy soundtrack is a lot worse and is the worst Elvis album.

You must be kidding right?
"Harum Scarum" aside from "Frankie and Johnny" is the worst soundtrack Elvis recorded .

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:47 am

With all due respect, a more succinct review might be to simply state "Harum Scarum is a piece of sh,it."

One can imagine only the most dedicated of Elvis fans buying this LP in October 1965, and probably during off-hours, so no one would see. There is nothing of value on this album. Even the cover shot is a reverse image! Harum Scarum would be the last top ten Presley album (#8) for years, almost like our hero had finally used up every last bit of his credibility from the glory days of 1956-1962.

Elvis' next LP of any chart significance would be Elvis: TV Special in December 1968 (#8), then nearly five more years until Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite hit #1 in May 1973.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:52 am

I admit that I enjoy this album when I listen to it once in a blue moon ! :)

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:56 am

The mediocre movie tunes are performed without too much interest, Elvis' voice sounds strangely pressed, the mix is lousy and the picture on the album cover is reversed. In total it's not a piece of art, but I still believe the album would leave a better Impression, if the mix had been up to the standards of the time. I would not regard the record a piece of sh*t, to me it's simply a mediocre movie soundtrack.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 11:14 am

After this bad album, Elvis made the great "How Great thou Art" LP and it charted at nr.18 in US. It was good for Elvis because after that came Clambake and Double Trouble, charting close to nr.40.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 12:51 pm

True it is a dire album, but I do like So Close, Yet So Far and Animal Instinct is half decent. I can't listen to the rest. The recording is woeful and Elvis obviously disinterested

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 1:20 pm

Great review poormadpeter.
Altough the album is one of my guilty pleasures, Even golden coins is a guilty pleasure of mine (i really enjoy how its done).
I always liked this outtake of Hey Little Girl better then the master
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especially the part where elvis sings ''Lets just go ah one more timeah!''

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 1:41 pm

The album is weak, however there is one song that is really outstanding - "So Close, Yet So Far From Paradise" .

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 2:38 pm

Nice review, how is the actual sound on it ? , and the outtake featured on Collectors Gold boxed set, is it the same as on the FTD ?
I always thought something was a miss with his vocals around 65/66 , also the awful dry mixing around that time did little to help ....

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 3:08 pm

Kissin' Cousins, Girl Happy, Harum Scarum and Frankie And Johnny are my 4 bottom of the barrel soundtrack albums. I do not think I have listened to any of these more than 10 times in 50 years. I do not know them well enough to even write a comprehensive review of them.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 3:20 pm

charro1971 wrote:I think the Girl Happy soundtrack is a lot worse and is the worst Elvis album.

I agree with you. 'Girl Happy' is the worst album of Elvis' career - IMO.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 4:24 pm

poormadpeter wrote:What was clear, however, was that his fans deserved something better than this. Even so, to look on the bright side, the soundtrack LP is more enjoyable than the film itself – if only because it is sixty minutes shorter.


This sums up Harum Scarum for me.

Thank you for the review, poormadpeter.

At the time, many were saying, "It's hard to believe that Elvis was in a film as bad as Kissin' Cousins."

Clearly Elvis wasn't happy doing Harum Scarum. To think, it's 1965, only a few years out from the British Invasion; the times they were changing fast and left Elvis behind.

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Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 4:36 pm

So Memphis '74 is undeserving of reissue, but Harum Scarum is deserving of all those words. Cool.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 5:06 pm

King Volcano wrote:So Memphis '74 is undeserving of reissue, but Harum Scarum is deserving of all those words. Cool.


You really are obsessed. I have no problem with Memphis 74 being reissued - the problem is with the fact it is being reissued on a series devoted to important albums.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 5:55 pm

Elfan wrote:
charro1971 wrote:I think the Girl Happy soundtrack is a lot worse and is the worst Elvis album.

I agree with you. 'Girl Happy' is the worst album of Elvis' career - IMO.

the sound is worse on girl happy...but I always kind of liked the girl happy album.
besides, I can almost at least listen through each of his soundtrack albums.
something I can not state about every 70s album.
why?
cause in most cases his voice is in the 60s superior ...even if the material is inferior in alot of cases.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 6:24 pm

I personally enjoy the Harum Scarum soundtrack a lot, partially because of the uniqueness of it and partially for nostalgic reasons as it was one of the first Elvis movies I ever saw and I enjoyed the music but at the time the soundtrack was not available. To me it's the most unique soundtrack he ever made and it has some really enjoyable songs, especially So Close, Yet So Far From Paradise. The FTD of the soundtrack release is a fun experience.

I enjoy the soundtracks but would have to say Clambake is probably the lowest rated in my book.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 6:43 pm

There is nothing to enjoy here, especially as Doc noted, if like me, you bought this album in Oct 1965 , and with my other LP purchases at the time, took it home, listened to it, then realized Elvis no longer mattered in the music world. He was strictly a movie star now with increasingly bad movies. Not a great place to be at the time of Rubber Soul and breakthrough 1965 music. I even favored Sinatra & Dino albums at this point. His worst album? Perhaps. I personally think his worst soundtrack is Clambake, but the LP is saved because of the bonus songs on it that had nothing to do with Clambake. As for this LP, I even think So Close Yest So far is way overrated. A standard movie ballad, nothing more. There were certainly better ones. Actually PMP is being kind in his review. This is the nadir of Elvis' career artisitcally.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:20 pm

I watched it not too long ago. A painful experience. The movie even looks cheap...like a bad tv show...with no budget for lighting or sound.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:33 pm

poormadpeter wrote:Without a doubt this was Elvis’s worst album release during his lifetime, and he probably knew it. But the fault wasn’t all his. The songs range from mediocre down to amateurish, the arrangements are uninspired, and the original mix of the material makes it sound as if the recordings were made under a sand dune, it is so muffled.

If you rate this soundtrack the worst, I'd hate to see your reviews of Frankie And Johnnie or Paradise, Hawaiian Style soundtracks. Of the ones recorded in 1965, Harum Scarum is a clear winner! :)

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:39 pm

Harum Scarum presents the nadir of Elvis's career in both films and music. Crap film and an a crap soundtrack with only So Close Yet So Far resembling anything of a decent tune and performance. The only amazing thing was that the album actually managed to reach Top-10 on the Billboard albums chart. That is even more amazing when one looks what was going on in the pop music on the same time period.

Re: Harum Scarum LP revisited

Sun Mar 02, 2014 7:44 pm

r&b wrote:There is nothing to enjoy here, especially as Doc noted, if like me, you bought this album in Oct 1965 , .

I can understand that...but when I bought the album elvis was dead already and I was a kid and liked some of the songs in this movie.
anyhow, I still enjoy some of the ballads from this soundtrack more than mostof the ballads from the 70s...simply becauce, in my minority opinion, his voice , even in 1965, is superior than the 70s voice.
on kismet, for instance, the smoothness in his voice...like silk....
very few years later he lost that in his voice