CHAOS IN COLLEGE PARK
This release by Straight Arrow has aroused much interest amongst fans as it contains an unreleased audience recording of the infamous 27th September concert at College Park. According to reports from several band members, this was one of Elvis’ worst performances and has previously only been available in very poor sound, making it difficult to determine the scale of the problems apparent on that night. Consequently, this release aims to provide a much clearer view of events, allowing us to indulge our curiosity and assess the show accordingly.
As usual, this label has produced another high quality package with superior artwork, including a 16 page booklet containing interesting liner notes and an abundance of photos, many from the show itself. In addition, the sound has been remastered and proves to be above average, enabling us to hear most of the dialogue and appreciate the atmosphere from the crowds’ reaction to Elvis’ performance this evening. So, now to address the burning question-- just how bad was it, from the evidence presented here?
The recording starts with a clipped 2001 introduction, leading into a painfully weak and breathless See See Rider, which is accompanied by overexcited screams from an enthusiastic crowd. He also struggles with the tempo in parts and certainly from the evidence here, it’s not a far stretch to imagine him clinging onto the microphone for support as reports have mentioned. Quite simply it’s the worst version we have ever heard. Afterwards, breathless and in slurred speech Elvis addresses the audience, asking them if the band are too loud. This is greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response and results in the introduction of Bill Porter, his sound engineer and a request that the band be turned down a little bit. This request receives rapturous applause and is followed by a further two minutes of hesitant banter with the audience, before he begins the usual Well Well routine prior to I Got A Woman.
However, his dissatisfaction with the sound set-up continues, causing him once again to address his sound engineer, adding, “There is an echo on the stage that is driving me up the wall…I’m hearing myself 2000 times louder. I don’t like to hear myself that much, I like to hear myself sing.” Happily this is soon corrected and after pleading with his fans to refrain from calling out, I Got A Woman proceeds apace. Later, it proves to be a protracted affair as it features an extended dialogue during J. D.’s vocal contortions, where he replies to several fans who persist in calling out, saying, “Wait a minute, I have a job to do….When I come out on the stage 2000 hundred flashbulbs hit me right in the eyeball, so I cannot see anything. You could put two Bengal tigers out there I wouldn’t know it. I’d be singing and they’d be chewing my leg off.” Although this song represents an improvement on the opening number, this extended version did not go down well with someone close to the tape recorder who pronounces the performance to be terrible.
After this he introduces himself as Wayne Newton and is heard stammering as he addresses the plethora of requests from the audience. “I will do all the songs I possibly can that you might want to hear, I promise you as Charlie is my witness…and if you don’t believe me, you’re on the wrong track, mack.” he calls out, before spending further time giving out several items, including his guitar pick, to some excitable fans. From here, things improve for a while with a standard version of Love Me, followed by If You Love Me Let Me Know, which is performed well.
It’s Midnight is sung next and proves to be a good version and afterwards he again addresses the repeated requests, this time saying, “I don’t know Jailhouse Rock, that was too long ago…honey, I was only twelve when I did it…We have a lot of the other ones—Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up, Love Me Tender…coming up later in the show. I don’t have Jailhouse Rock because we have never rehearsed it.” Big Boss Man is then performed in the usual style, immediately followed by a weak and unfocused Fever, which has an extended introduction while he attends to the ringside fans and proceeds to explain the reason for the Band Aids on his hands, being the result of an over enthusiastic female fan in Las Vegas who had ‘fingernails like claws.’ “I got eighteen doctors and they can’t do nothing with it, so anyway I’m trying to cover it up…it’s like a hole,” he adds.
After this there is more dialogue as he goes to introduce Love Me Tender as his first movie. A fan shouts out Blue Hawaii, mistakenly believing this to have been his first film, to which Elvis responds good-naturedly, “Honey you are behind the times…Blue Hawaii came ten years later.” He then goes on to hesitantly list the titles of a selection of his films, which according to his recollection include Return To Sender and Wild Wild Country. A painfully weak Love Me Tender follows, with mumbled and missed lyrics, which ends with him sounding so breathless he is hardly able to sing.
Before Hound Dog, there is some weird banter where he says, “Who put this rope on the stage? Am I gonna go and hang myself? It’s probably a member of my own group…a member of my own group is hoping I’m gonna hang myself…probably John Wilkinson, the rhythm guitar player.” Hound Dog eventually proceeds after a drawn out and teasing introduction, but once again it’s a very weak attempt, with lyrics more mumbled than sung. Bridge Over Troubled Water also sounds unconvincing, lacking any authority and almost proves too fast for him, as he instructs the band to slow down at one point with some off-key attempts at vocal improvisation towards the end.
Polk Salad Annie is performed next and proves similarly disappointing due to his weak vocals, before we come to a rare highlight on this show—the introductions-- which are both hilarious and revealing. Humorous asides abound but the standout has to be Jackie Kahane, who is introduced with the devastating remark, “He’s not funny but at least he kills some time,” to understandable laughter and applause. This bombshell is even repeated a moment later as “Jackie’s not all that funny, but he does kill some time and give me a chance to get out here,” just in case anyone misheard the first time. Later he goes on to introduce Ed Hill from the Stamps, saying, “He’s been with the group for about a year and he ain’t learned nothing yet, but that’s his problem,” and Ed Enoch as having “One of the most powerful voices in the world….next to mine.” It was most unusual for Elvis to appear to brag, as he was normally unfailingly modest.
Throughout these introductions, fans are repeatedly calling out for his attention and he addresses one persistent fan with the remark, “Just hang loose for a second. I’ll be over there to give you a scarf and you can have the belt, and me and the suit…and I’ll go to jail.” However, his patience begins to wear thin as he later adds, “Honey, if you keep on, you ain’t gonna get nothin’…behave yourself and I’ll be over there and shake your hand…. as long as you don’t steal a ring.”
James Burton is then wrongly introduced as playing rhythm guitar and after his solo, John Wilkinson is introduced by Elvis who adds, “I won’t have him play something for us, he don’t know how.” (In fact it was not until February 1976 that John was featured in the group solos). Glen Hardin is introduced with the following observation; “This guy can drink more than anyone else in the world. He can drink seven fifths and the next day he’s as sober as a judge…no hangover nothing.” Later, Ronnie Tutt is mentioned for weighing 280 pounds at his audition, with the comment, “I have worked this man down…apart from anything.” Finally Joe Guercio is given credit for being a great arranger who ‘never misses a lick.’ Great entertainment, though I suspect his crew were inwardly cringing as to what other indiscretions he might reveal in this unguarded state.
Then its cabaret time as Elvis instructs his backing group to sing Killing Me Softly, which although pleasantly sung, begs the question as to why he didn’t sing it himself. After this, he calls on The Stamps to sing Why Me Lord, with his usual jokes at J. D.’s expense. All Shook Up, which follows, is a rushed version with weak vocals, leading into the Teddy Bear / Don’t Be Cruel medley where he sounds better and more involved. The Hawaiian Wedding Song is performed next and is nicely sung and after this he announces to the audience that his time is up but nevertheless goes on to sing an inspired How Great Thou Art, which is without doubt the standout performance for this show.
Afterwards in his closing speech he says, “I’d like to tell you in all sincerity that if all audiences were like you I would sing my GUTS out for you, I’m not kidding you.” Clearly he still felt he had something to prove to the critics of the day. He then proceeds to do exactly that with an extraordinary Can’t Help Falling In Love, where he sings the final verse in an affected passionate manner and in a much higher register, sounding uncomfortably strained and ending with a falsetto whoop. This is followed by a lengthy closing vamp lasting for almost three minutes, along with intermittent bursts of applause, before the final ‘Elvis has left the building announcement.’ Tellingly, some subdued audience members can be heard in conversation, just before the announcement, one of whom appears to suggest that this show has been ‘terrible’. This is the first time I have ever heard overtly negative comments captured on tape at a live show which could also be deeply significant.
So there, at last we have heard it for ourselves. It is heartening to note that there are indeed some positive aspects to this concert that were not widely known before. Elvis does put on a full length show and moreover appears to satisfy his fans that night, judging from their enthusiastic response, which continues unabated throughout. In addition, his mood is good natured and his speech, although initially slurred, is overall clear and entertaining but certainly a little too candid from his fellow performers’ point of view, especially during the introductions which are wide ranging and not cut short as some reports have previously suggested.
Could this show be the one his band remember to have been a total disaster? I still think it’s possible as this record is taken from an audience recorded source and therefore only a part of the whole picture that evening. Elvis’ vocal performance is for the main part very poor and if he was indeed bloated and stumbling around the stage, seemingly oblivious and completely unguarded in his comments (i.e. appearing to be out of control), his band, witnessing this up close and well aware of his limitations, may well have formed the impression it was a chaotic performance. They would not have felt comfortable as fellow performers on the stage that night which may have coloured their perception and subsequent recollection of events, giving rise to some exaggeration. Certainly from the evidence here I feel fairly confident that they would all have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the curtain finally came down that evening. So it all depends on your perception and without appropriate visual evidence we’ll never know for sure. Happily, for the majority of his fans, this does appear to have been an acceptable show but it is easy to hear that something was indeed terribly amiss that evening— listen out for the damning verdict of our forthright audible witness.
Finally Straight Arrow deserve our thanks for producing another fine package, which allows us to continue this debate with a more informed view. This release has been the subject of a lot of comment—to join the debate, this one’s essential.
SOUND RATING **¼
Reviewed by Mike Sanders (UK)