HOW HAVE WE MISSED THE OBVIOUS for so long? Look, I know that old-school rock & roll fans in general and Elvis fans specifically are supposed to reactionarily hate punk rock—and most do! But the punks of the ’70s were carrying on some of the spirit of the ’50s rock & roll that we love so much—especially the untamed Elvis of the Dorsey Brother Shows!
I also know that punk fans are required to kneejerkedly loathe Elvis—and most do! But the punks of the ’70s are inconceivable without the Elvis that millions of people saw on the tv and at the movies in the ’50s! 1
As a second-generation Presley fan who came of age during the British Invasion, I had no place for punk rock on my turntable when it emerged in the second half of the ’70s. In 1981, the Clash’s LONDON CALLING got my attention and I was able to go back and begin to appreciate earlier Clash, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads, Ramones, and Elvis Costello.
But as to the rest of the hardcore punk phenomenon—never mind the bollards and to hell with the Sex Pistols and the endless parade of blathering talentless posturing one-chord bands with their ripped clothes and their bad haircuts and dumb pogo dancing I’d rather be listening to RUMOURS!
But last year, for political reasons someone steered me to the Pistols and their Anarchy In The UK single. I watched a few live versions on YouTube and y’know it weren’t half bad! 2
A little more research led to The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, a 1980 documentary that featured Sid Vicious’s vigorous version of My Way. The opening bars have Sid satirizing Frank Sinatra and any/all crooner-based singing, but once the band kicks in, Sid has Elvis the Pelvis splattered all over himself!
What kind of swindle?
If you’ve just watched Sid Vicious perform My Way in The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle (video above) and you’re not a punk fan, you may have found the performance execrable! And it is, on one level. On another, it’s fookin’ brilliant!
It’s satire—crude, but effective!
Remember, this was 1979, the end of the ‘Fabulous Seventies,’ an era when people accepted an Elton for an Elvis, mistook the Eagles for the Byrds, thought Olivia Newton-John better than Petula Clark, and preferred cocaine and alcohol over pot and acid!
It was the height of ‘the Disco Era,’ and people thought the ‘new’ Bee Gees were the new Beatles for Grommett’s sake! (Coke has that effect.)
Sid’s appearance here includes his lean face with swept-back black hair and greaser’s sideburns. Sound familiar? His movements are Elvisy and better than a lot of Elvis imitators—I keep waiting for him to do some hip-swiveling gyrations.
The outlandish sneer thing he does with his lips takes Elvis’s “I did 29 pictures like that!” joke on his 1968 NBC-TV Special to a whole other dimension. These show Vicious’s knowledge and appreciation of Elvis and rock & roll history—something rarely if ever discussed about him, the Pistols, or punk in general. 3
His posturing resembles a spoiled 14-year old brat drunk for the first time and making fun of everything around him, including tearing down Ol’ Blue Eyes, Elvis, family (that’s his Mum in the audience at the end), and royalty everywhere (Bravo!).
It’s really a rather remarkable performance from Vicious: funny, smart, lively as all get-out, and irreverent with a F*ckyou! attitude beyond anything that any ’50s rock & roller would have considered, even in a drunken reverie!
Okay, Jerry Lee probably thought about stuff like this after too many uppers and too much alcohol and not enough sleep.
And by doing the performance in a French setting (real or not, it doesn’t matter), he even takes jabs at the original version of My Way, the French song Comme D’Habitude.
About the song …
Did Claude do it his way?
A song with English lyrics titled For Me was written by Jacques Revaux and Gilles Thibault. They took it to singer Claude ‘Cloclo’ Francois, who assisted with penning new French lyrics that reflected a couple in a strained relationship (and getting him a co-writer credit). Comme D’Habitude (“As Usual”) was released in 1967, and was a hit in Europe.
Paul Anka heard Comme D’Habitude while visiting France, purchased the rights, and re-wrote the lyrics: it was now about an older man reflecting on his life that he believes he has lived on his own terms.
This song with these all-new English lyrics was then retitled My Way and given by Anka to Frank Sinatra, who recorded it in December 1968. Upon release in early ’69, it became his signature song for several later generations of Sinatra fans.
Did Frank do it his way?
Frank Sinatra’s My Way is one of his many great recordings cut during his second comeback, this one in the late ’60s. It peaked at #27 on Billboard and reached #29 on Cash Box, his eleventh Top 40 hit for Reprise Records, the company that he had formed. It was also his last Top 40 hit in the US.
It was a much bigger hit in the UK, making it to #5 on at least once weekly. It supposedly re-entered one or another of the British the charts six times in 1970-1971 and holds the record for the longest stay on the UK charts.
Sinatra supposedly “loathed” the song, which he described as a “Paul Anka pop hit which became a kind of national anthem.” In 2000, his daughter Tina said, “He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent. He didn’t like it. That song stuck and he couldn’t get it off his shoe.”
His first comeback took place in 1953 when he landed a killer role in From Here To Eternity—for which was nominated for an Academy Award—and a killer contract with Capitol Records. Exactly how much of this was owed to his New Jersey “connections” may remain forever moot. If it and other career turns attributed to friends from Hoboken are true, then his claim to have done it his way is questionable. 4
Did Elvis do it his way?
Elvis first recorded My Way in the studio in 1971 at the end of the May-June sessions where three albums worth f material were recorded: the outstanding HE TOUCHED ME and the critically under-appreciated THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CHRISTMAS. The secular songs were scattered to the wind. While My Way sounds a little rough, it’s a lovely reading that he inexplicably did not release (above).
Presley did release a fine live version in 1973 on the ALOHA FROM HAWAII VIA SATELLITE album, and it remained in his repertoire throughout the ’70s (above).
As part of the posthumous ELVIS IN CONCERT album, My Way (above) was pulled as a single and peaked at #19 on Billboard but only reached #31 on Cash Box. These are ridiculously low chart positions for a record that was certified by the RIAA for a Gold Record Award two months after its release.
As for Elvis doing things his way: Presley kowtowed to Colonel Parker’s career-making and unmaking decisions for more than twenty years, drugging his way through one onus movie after another, recording and okaying the release of awful soundtrack songs, refusing to tour at all in the ’60s.
He listened to Parker until his career was in jeopardy and then took advice from other people and made his legendary 1968 NBC-TV special that returned him to the land of the living and the relevant.
He then returned to allowing Parker to call most of the shots, which included torpedoing Presley’s chance at the lead role opposite Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and in Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born (1976).
He also refused to book Elvis anywhere outside the US when he returned to touring in 1971—despite the unwavering loyalty of his British fans and the staggering amounts of money offered him.
Facts such as these—and his monstrous drug habit!—tend to make Presley’s claim to have done it his way almost laughable. 5
The photo at the top is Sid Vicious in 1979, the one at the bottom is Elvis in 1968. If NBC had had the sense that June to place another photographer or camera on Elvis’s right, we would see that his right hand is in a position like Sid’s left hand and the similarity between these poses in these images would be more obvious. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
Did Sid do it his way?
From the moment that wee John Simon Ritchie transmogrified into the Sex Pistol’s bassist and eventual lead singer named Sid Vicious, he pretty much did it all his way—for better or worse. 6
Did Neal do it his way?
I have saved the best for last: these are Paul Anka’s lyrics as sung by Frank “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” Sinatra on his original 1968 recording. The parsing of the stanzas and the punctuation are mine, and naught is archaic and means nothing.
And now, the end is near,
and so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I’ll say it clear,
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.
I’ve lived a life that’s full.
I’ve traveled each and every highway.
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.
Regrets, I’ve had a few,
but then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do,
and saw it through without exemption.
I planned each charted course,
each careful step along the byway.
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew,
when I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out!
I faced it all, and I stood tall,
and did it my way.
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried.
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing.
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing.
To think, I did all that!
And may I say, not in a shy way!
Oh no, oh no not me,
I did it my way.
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels,
and not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows
and did it my way.
These are truly fine lyrics and I didn’t even begin to appreciate them until I passed my 60th birthday. As for me having done it my way—Oh Hell no! I was a wuss too many times, lived in fear too many times, failed too many women too many times, ad nauseam.
But a good sign when you’re my age is that I have not only survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but this song has lost all trace of poignancy!
For me, the operative word in these lyrics has become “amusing.”
I can’t tell you what that means or how that feels, but I hope you understand some day …
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken from the Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite television special of 1973.
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the line “I bit off more than I could chew” seems to sum up the last six or so years of Presley’s life. In hindsight, we would probably see him as a chronically depressed person in need of the proper meds—and I’m talking serotonin uptake inhibitors once a day—and a major change in how his career should be run. Alas, it’s just that—hindsight …
1 Elvis’s acting in his first movie Love Me Tender (1956) was his attempt to emulate James Dean, so he came off punky, but it was a western. His second movie Loving You (1957) he was Mr Nice Guy. It was with Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) that the rough and tumble Presley found his way onto the big screen.
2 I am not certain that the ones that I watch a year ago are the same as the ones that are on the Internet a this time. The videos on YouTube change so frequently!
3 The exaggerated sneer here provided Billy Idol with a hook upon which to build a career a few years later.
4 The character of Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino in the movie) in Mario Puzo’ novel The Godfather was supposedly based on Sinatra—including the famous horse’s head scene in which the adamant Hollywood producer changes his mind about giving Johnny a shot at a role in his movie.
5 Rumors explaining Parker’s control over Presley included his having mystical powers, him being a hypnotist, him blackmailing Elvis over something no one else has ever discovered, they were homosexual lovers, to most Presley detractors’ fave, the boy from Memphis was too damn dumb to know any better.
6 There is an excellent movie about Vicious’s short life: Sid And Nancy (1986) stars the always brilliant Gary Oldman as Sid with the always excellent Chloe Webb as his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. The screenplay was written by director Alex Cox and Abbe Wool—well worth seeing …