Elvis And Stones Beat Out Rap And Teen Pop

By Larry Katz, The Boston HeraldOct 16, 2002
Pardon my confusion. Is this 2002 or 1972? Hard to believe, but this week the top two spots on the Billboard 200 albums chart are occupied by Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. The King of Rock 'n' roll and The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band rule the pop music roost, at least momentarily. They've outsold the likes of foul-mouthed rapper Xzibit's "Man vs. Machine'' (No. 3 on the chart), the overscrubbed "American Idol'' cast's "Greatest Moments'' (No. 4), and brat rockers Good Charlotte's "The Young and the Hopeless'' (No. 7) - albums typical of the youth-oriented glop that usually dominates the charts. As a baby boomer old enough to remember watching Elvis and the Stones perform live on "The Ed Sullivan Show,'' I confess to feeling a certain smug satisfaction in seeing the thrilling rock rebels of my youth show their staying power, if not their relevance, in the new millennium. But does this geezer-rock comeback signal a shift from pap/rap superficiality to classic pop/rock virtues? Nah. It proves nothing except the commercial potency of smartly positioned, shrewdly marketed greatest hits packages. The new, improved model for rock-icon hit sets is the Beatles' "1,'' which gathered 27 Fab Four faves on a single CD, making it the most economical retrospective/starter set available. It's been a fixture on the Billboard 200 for the past 98 weeks and sold more than 8 million copies in the United States. RCA, Elvis' longtime label, figured what worked for the Beatles should work for Elvis. Now we have "Elvis: 30 #1 Hits.'' Just like the Beatles' "1,'' it features a pictureless cover and a historically fuzzy lineup of songs that were No. 1 hits in either the U.S. or the U.K. It shot to No. 1 the week of its release, the first Elvis album ever to do so. Pretty good for a singer dead 25 years. The success of "30 #1 Hits'' is due to more than hewing to the Beatles' "1'' business model. RCA has been priming Elvis interest in novel ways of late, such as allowing a half-dozen Elvis tracks to be used in the Presley-centric Disney animated movie "Lilo & Stitch,'' a smart way to reach the Happy Meal demographic. The notoriously prissy Presley estate even permitted Dutch DJ JXL to make a dance remix of an overlooked Elvis gem from the '60s, "A Little Less Conversation.'' With a newly hyped-up rhythm track, the single reached No. 1 in England. It might have followed suit in the U.S., but just as it made its debut on Billboard's Top 100, RCA withdrew the single in order to use it as an enhancement to "30 #1 Hits'' instead. Now "30 #1 Hits'' contains 31 No. 1's. But who's counting? As an introductory course to Elvis, "30 #1 Hits'' provides most of the requisite highlights along with a few clunkers. Take "Wooden Heart'' from the 1960 movie ``G.I. Blues,'' please. It was adapted from a German children's song, and it sounds like it. The CD puts most of its focus on Elvis' pop years in the '60s, which keeps it true to its chart-topper concept while shortchanging Elvis' rock side. And let's be clear: that rockin' side was his best side. It's almost criminal that neophytes won't get even a taste Elvis' thrilling pre-RCA Sun recordings such as his first single, "That's Alright, Mama,'' which must have gone to No. 1 in Memphis if nowhere else. So, no, this is not the only Elvis CD you need. Still, there's plenty to savor, including a punchy sound remixed mostly, thought not always, for the better. Too bad no gain in sonic quality can transmit how profoundly weird and earthshaking Elvis seemed when he first appeared in the mid-'50s. But "30 #1 Hits'' gets across an equally vital point: His music was and still is lots of fun. The Rolling Stones are on tour and for the first time, they don't have a new album to support. What they do have is "Forty Licks,'' which does what no Stones set has done before: bring together hits from the Stones' ABKCO-controlled '60s heyday with their Virgin-controlled '70s-and-on output. The first of the two "Licks'' CDs includes nearly all the essential '60s classics you can otherwise find spread across five different greatest hits sets as well as 17 other albums recently released in digitally spiffed-up form as part of ABKCO's Stones reclamation project. The second disc culls the necessities - "Brown Sugar,'' "Angie,'' "Beast of Burden,'' "Miss You,'' "Start Me Up,'' etc. - from the Stones' often spotty past 30 years. Devotees may be annoyed by the nonchronological sequencing and argue about what's missing - "Time Is On My Side,'' "Let It Bleed,'' "Midnight Rambler'' - but why quibble? "Forty Licks'' has other Stones best-of's licked. It also contains four new songs. Not one rates as a classic, but they do deliver the intended message: the Stones are not just an oldies band. One of the new tracks is a piano-led ballad sung - croaked, really - by Keith Richards. He provides a sly, ironic close to "Forty Licks'' by fretting aloud that he is "Losing My Touch.'' He needn't worry. Look at the charts. The Stones are almost as big as Elvis.
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