Welcome To The Jungle: Never Again (Venus, 2010)

The rebel label, Venus, has returned to the scene with a second volume of Graceland 1976 session outtakes, Welcome To The Jungle: Never Again.

As with the first edition, Welcome To The Jungle: Solitaire, the producers focus on a handful of songs from start to finish, each followed by the undubbed and finished master take.  For Presley session completists or historians, these releases are a gold mine, while for regular fans they may just be curious at best.

This disc includes "Danny Boy," "Never Again" and "Love Coming Down," cut on the evenings of February 5 and 6, and all issued that May on From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis Tennessee.  Legend has it that these sessions were as depressing as the material, but like FTD's The Jungle Room Sessions from a few years back this CD shows the mood to be somewhat light and spirited.

With the traditional folk ballad "Danny Boy" Elvis was reaching back to his past.  Long a favorite of his father, Vernon, he'd been fiddling around with the song since at least his army assignment overseas, in Bad Nauheim, Germany.  RCA issued a beautiful 1959 guitar demo on a 1984 box set, and more recently a guitar instrumental, caught on tape in 1968 during one of his dressing room jams at NBC-TV in Burbank.

In the den on a Thursday night, we catch up with Elvis as he attempts take 5.  "Gimme the key," he says to pianist Glen Hardin.  After Hardin's plays a D chord flourish, Elvis begins a lovely run-through that breaks down when the his voice cracks during the bridge.  They try it again, with the same result.  "Still not, still not high enough," Elvis notes.  "Take it up to E," he asks.  Take 7 sounds pretty good, it being done in one of Presley's most comfortable keys, but it crumbles in the same spot, for the same reason.  "Got too much shit in me," he admits, clearing his throat.  Was Presley being literal or ironic?  Perhaps both.

For take 8 Elvis switches keys again.  "I'd like to do it in C, that's ... that's where I'd like to do it better, you know" he announces.  And so his rich baritone sings "Danny Boy" beautifully not once, not twice, but three times.  On take 8, the ending is a bit tentative.  For take 9, Elvis sings without any vocal backing, and the performance is outstanding.  It could have been the master, but Elvis decided to include backing vocals in the arrangement after all.  He sings master take 10 with tremendous confidence and wraps it up with a beautiful falsetto, becoming perhaps the finest track on the entire LP.

What really stands out from listening to this marvelous sequence is that Ernst Jorgensen's conclusion in Elvis Presley: A Life In Music regarding this event is incorrect.  He maintains that the key changes signified Elvis accepting a "lesser achievement" than in days past.  But all other known versions (1959, 1968) are in the same key of C major, which implies Presley decided to use the key he always loved best, whether he was in his 20s, 30s or 40s.  That's hardly a "failure," rather, it's an artist choosing what works "better."

The remainder of Never Again presents Elvis working on a couple of Jerry Chestnut ballads.  Chestnut had delivered a rollicking rocker the previous year ("T-R-O-U-B-L-E"), but apparently nothing like that made the cut in 1976.  Billy Edd Wheeler co-wrote "Never Again" with Chestnut, and we hear all 13 takes. 

James Burton is playing acoustic on this one, and his between-song fills are evident throughout.  Burton's sweet intro is not unlike what is heard on 1970's "Twenty Days and Twenty Nights."  Unfortunately, Elvis voice is not as sweet as the night before, and the early versions are off-tempo and awkward.  "Goddamn it!" Elvis exclaims after one aborted take.  He mishears Ronnie Tutt make a comment about the sound being "all drums" as "all drunk" and he jokes, "What, are you drunk, man?  Fuck, man, you goddamn bum, you don't know where you're at.  Bring out the booze ... Grandma!"  Everyone breaks up.  At another point, friend Lamar Fike walks in during a take, to which Elvis halts the performance with "Lamar walked in and just interrupted the whole room." 

It's clear Presley and the band are feeling their way through the verses, but the song does build to the type of finale Elvis always loved, and one gets a sense that he likes this number.  A neat line change on one rundown is "A heart that don't love, don't get broken," which kind of sums up the song's lament.  The master is take 14 (there was no take 13), and to hear the finished, overdubbed track right after the unadorned version is shocking.  The tender feeling is absolutely buried in  a hailstorm of voices and strings.

"Love Coming Down," was the second and final tune on this night, and is a decent, if unexciting, country ballad.  Again, Elvis is lightly stepping through the lines, finding where to put the emphasis.  It leads to some nice vocal lines here and there, left by the wayside en route to the final product.  The overdubs by Felton Jarvis are less obtrusive on this cut, for what that's worth.

And there it is: another Elvis session, close up, for the hardcore collector.  The disc is loaded with previously-unheard takes and session chatter, the sound is pristine throughout, and the artwork once again pays tribute to the original May 1976 LP, although the front and back cover photos are a bit on the unflattering side.  The liner notes contain some bizarre commentary, like "... his concerts in August were admittedly below par, apparently due to a cold" and elsewhere poorly rewrite the "1976-77: Elvis Leaves The Building" chapter in the afore-mentioned book by Ernst Jorgensen. 

More color images from on tour in 1976 adorn the booklet pages as well, but most do the singer no favors.  Rather, they offer more clues as to the troubled direction Elvis' career was headed.  No matter.  This is another key purchase for the diehard Presley fan, no matter how he looked, what he sang or for how long. 

Fans like you, and me.

[Johnny Savage, USA]