Wise men say, Only fools… would be surprised at Elvis Presley claiming yet another UK #1. His sixth inside fifteen months. And with it, he takes his chart-topping singles account into double figures.
Can’t Help Falling in Love / Rock-A-Hula Baby, by Elvis Presley (his 10th of twenty-one #1s)
4 weeks, from 22nd February – 22nd March 1962
One of the good things about Elvis’s post-army career is that he never released two similar records in a row. We’ve had operatics (‘It’s Now or Never’) followed by a ballad (‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’) followed by oompah (‘Wooden Heart’) followed by a return to La Scala (‘Surrender’) then a spot of rock ‘n’ roll (‘Little Sister’ / ‘His Latest Flame’) and now some more balladry.
Some supreme balladry. Because ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ is Elvis at the height of his crooning powers – a classy, classy record. Not one that I probably have to describe in too much detail, given its ubiquitousness, but I’ll give it a go anyway. A simple piano melody, the ‘ting’ of a xylophone, and The King: Wise men say, Only fools rush in, But I can’t help, Falling in love with you… Oh, Elvis, do go on… Shall I stay, Would it be a sin, If I can’t help, Falling in love with you…? That voice. There are no operatics, nothing fancy; but you’re dragged in, and left as putty in his hands. It’s a very chivalrous love song, too – with the singer almost apologising for his affections.
It’s like an update of the big fifties ballads – ‘Here in My Heart’, ‘Answer Me’ and so on – with the same OTT emoting (Take my hand, Take my whole life too…), but much more stripped back. And yet compared to its contemporaries, this record – all of Elvis’s records for that matter – sounds incredibly polished. Very crisp and very clear. As if it’s been recorded in the most palatial of recording studios using the most up-to-date equipment (to be fair, it probably was). If ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ was in a high-school class with all the other recent #1 singles – suspend your disbelief for just a second, please – then it would be the cool kid, the rich kid, the captain of the football team with the cutest cheerleader girlfriend.
Two bits stand out in particular: the twang of the guitar in the bridge, and the moment when Elvis and the backing singers combine for the final verse. Mmmm. Shivers. Elvis released some drivel in the 1960s; but when he was at the top of his game, releasing beauties such as this, there was no touching him. Cliff could but watch and weep.
For proof of the transcendent nature of this song, look no further than the fact that this is both the unofficial club anthem of Sunderland F.C. and my parents’ ‘song’ – despite the fact that they had barely started primary-school when this was at the top of the charts. And just a few weeks ago, while on holiday in Cambodia, I heard a busker performing it in the street.
So: ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ is an utter classic. The song on the flip-side of this disc, on the other hand… Well, let’s pull no punches here: it’s Elvis at his shitty B-movie contractual soundtrack worst. ‘Rock-A-Hula Baby’, or to give it its’ bandwagon-jumping full title ‘Rock-A-Hula Baby (Twist Special)’, sets out to be a fun song, with a Rock-a-hula, rock rock-a-hula, Wow! intro, and I want to find it fun… But I can’t.
Because I don’t believe Elvis himself is having much fun here. He sounds like he’s going through the motions as he describes his Hawaiian lover with silly lines like: When she starts to sway, I gotta say, She really moves the grass around… and Although I love to kiss my little hula-miss, I never get the chance, I wanna hold her tight, All through the night, But all she wants to do is dance… And if he ain’t enjoying it, then how are we meant to?
Couple this with the terrifying guitar effects – Rock! Whhrrraa! – and the ridiculously cheesy chorus-line ending, and you’ve got a hot mess. Still, at least it’s a rocker – ridiculously fast-paced and over in under two minutes. An up-tempo bad record is always, I repeat always, better than a slow-tempo bad record.
Both sides of this disc featured on the latest Elvis film, ‘Blue Hawaii’ – a film that I’ve never seen but, going by its write-up on Wiki, might be worth checking out. Sample sentence: “Before Ellie can drown herself, Chad (Elvis’s character) saves her and administers an overdue spanking.” Quite. And though we’ve covered a fair few double ‘A’-sides up to now, none of them have contrasted as much as this pair of songs do. Surely ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ could have stood alone and still made it to #1? Surely people weren’t buying this disc for ‘Rock-A-Hula Baby’?? But it’s there, in the annals of British chart history, as much of a hit as its far-superior twin. And that egalitarianism, that chance that any song can get to number-one as long as enough people buy it, is why we love the charts. Isn’t it…?