How I Spend It: John Cooper Clarke on how Elvis ‘out-punked everything’

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A couple of years ago I did a Christmas Mastermind celebrity special, along with the late, great Roy Hudd. I thought he was going to come top, but we both came joint third, to put it diplomatically. My “chosen subject” was the movies of Elvis Presley. 

What’s not to like about an Elvis film? Elvis, beautiful locations, new songs, loads of pretty girls, fantastic cars. Since the hippy days, people have always been negative about Elvis’s movies post-army – they’re fine with Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, King Creole, Love Me Tender – but the more hippy-orientated members of our cultural world are always very dismissive of his post-draft movie output. He did make a lot of them and admittedly there was not a great deal of intellectual content there, but so what? As entertainment, they’re absolutely faultless. 

Elvis Presley and Vicky Tiu on the set of It Happened At the World’s Fair (1963) © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The first time I heard Elvis was via the western movie Love Me Tender in 1956 or ’57. I was a cowboy nut; I would maintain, to this day, there’s no such thing as a bad western. The nearest thing I can think of to a bad western is The Left-Handed Gun. The screenplay was written by Gore Vidal and it was what they started to call a psychological western. But I’d say you can’t introduce psychology into the Wild West. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding. There is no psychology in the Wild West; there’s good and evil and that’s it. And people trying to stay alive. 

Every story imaginable can be played out beneath the big skies of Montana; human problems that achieve an epic importance, beyond the individual. And there’s that in Elvis’s films. The nearest he comes to being an out-and-out bad guy is in the early stuff, and Jailhouse Rock. He goes to jail because he had killed a guy, but he killed him in defence of a woman. So his gallantry has put him on the wrong side of the law. He starts off the movie as a naive young tractor driver and he’s just been paid and he goes into a caff, and someone starts hitting on the waitress and Elvis plays the old chivalrous role that he’s so suited to, and he winds up in the slammer. And then when he comes out he’s not very nice. Stardom goes to his head, he forgets who his friends are, he becomes a philanderer. But he pays for it; he almost loses his voice at the end. So there is redemption, pulling back from evil. 

Love Me Tender was also the first time I came up against female hysteria. I haven’t got a homosexual bone in my body but that is the most handsome man that ever lived, without a doubt. You can’t take your eyes off him. Also, to have a voice like that. Incredible. Charisma ain’t a big enough word for it. 

Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii (1961)
Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii (1961) © Alamy

I get asked if punk was a rejection of Elvis and his style of rock ’n’ roll. But people who have a go at Elvis just miss the point. Elvis would shoot at the TV. If something was on that he didn’t like the look of, it was the Colt 45. Elvis out‑punked everything. He wrote the book on punk. I never saw punk rock as being a rebellion against Elvis Presley, otherwise I wouldn’t have done gigs with bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols.

I’ve never been to Graceland, but before the pandemic my plan was to honour this. I had a full tour sheet stretching into next year and I thought, “As soon as we get these gigs out of the way, me and my wife are going to go on the holiday of a lifetime.” I was going to get an open-ended rail ticket from Grand Central Station in New York finishing at Graceland. I wanted to see the heartland of America. Most of us British performers – Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones apart – tour the coasts, New York, maybe Philadelphia, perhaps Chicago and California. I don’t think the farm boys of Oklahoma would be interested in what I do. No offence to them. I wish it was different. I want to see everyday America. America’s occupied my imagination since year zero. Everything I’ve ever enjoyed in life, that’s where it came from. I’m quite patriotic about America. 

Every August, on the anniversary of Elvis’s death, I write something about him. So I’ve got books and books and books of poetry and stuff around Elvis… “The man who didn’t love Elvis is not as other men /Condemned to miss the point time and time again.” Elvis, he’s the king of the world. 

I Wanna Be Yours by John Cooper Clarke is published by Picador at £9.99

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