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:
13 thoughts on “412. ‘Way Down’, by Elvis Presley”
Elvis was huge in our family from the moment I was born, so it was a real sense of disbelief and shock and sorrow when he died, even if he’d been pretty bland for the 70’s by and large. For me it was a double whammy as Marc Bolan died a few weeks later, even more shockingly, but where Elvis was in the “Un-approachable Superstar” category Bolan was appearing weekly on TV at that time on his own Music show featuring new popstars and big names like Bowie, so that hit me harder as I went off to Uni for the first time.
The song? Didn’t really matter, but at least it was a fun rocker to go out on, Burning Love in 1972 had been the last good one, and it was 100% a better way to say goodbye to The King that the awful mess that was My Way, his first posthumous release, and the godawful tribute track I Remember Elvis Presley. I loathed both of them. Much better to just buy his old classics, which had been stuffed in boxes on reissue as a potential picture-sleeve collection for a few months, stubbornly not selling as well as The Beatles collection had the year before. So, wham, bam, Dead Elvis does what Alive Elvis couldn’t – create an industry based around his back catalogue on a huge scale, starting with an Elvis singles chart invasion. Always a good career move, permanently leaving the stage at a relatively-young-age, from Buddy Holly to a more recent run of charting RIP rappers. Warning, though: it doesn’t always work – Marc Bolan got forgotten about after the Elvis avalanche….
Wasn’t Marc Bolan quoted as saying something along the lines of ‘I better not die today, as nobody’ll notice’… when Elvis’s death hit the news?
I do like that people had no choice but to buy ‘Way Down’ – which is nobody’s idea of his best song – if they wanted to mark his death. Same with John Lennon’s ‘Just Like Starting Over’. Nowadays, people can cherry-pick the classics of a dead artist, which is understandable, but the choices are predictable.
Yes indeed, Marc did say that! Which led to the naughty gag at the time “what did Elvis & Marc Bolan get for Christmas?” to which the answer was Bing Crosby, who died near christmas. A bit like 2016 in terms of big name losses, ironically when David Bowie kicked it all off having been among the last acts to perform with both Bolan & Crosby just before they died. I don’t think he did any more duets for a while…
Yes, the upside was new material being the beneficiary of a sudden death, but the downside was you didn’t get that immediate boost if you popped your clogs with nothing current out so there was a wait for the posthumous releases…
I read a couple of books about him a couple of years ago. As I read the second book about the second part of his life…I kept stupidly hoping he would fire the Colonel and get control of his life…of course it don’t happen…just like the Lennon books and he always dies at the end.
The Colonel used him up and then got 50 percent of everything afterward…Elvis was bigger after he died.
Anyway I went off topic…this is a better song to go out on anyway.
I think there’s a movie in production with Tom Hanks as Parker… I wonder how they’ll portray him? You’d think Elvis of all people could have broken away from him, no matter the threats or financial costs, but maybe their relationship was more complicated.
He thought he owed him something for the beginning of his career…hell he owed him nothing. He did leave him once but the Colonel made up all kinds of threats and Elvis caved in. He also said who he could and could not see in the last 10 years or so.
I’m happy that the Beatles had Epstein instead of a Colonel Parker type…Lennon would have never fell for that though.
Seems like the humble little country boy never quite left Elvis, even when he was the most famous man on the planet. Which could have been a good and a bad thing, I guess…
Elvis passed exactly two weeks before my 11 birthday. I remember it. This isn’t a terrible last song. J.D. Sumner could rattle windows, I suspect.
Yes, I bet he could. I loved that low, final note as a kid.
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