Elvis, Hound Dog and questions of intended meaning
Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equalled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humour of his country.”
President Jimmy Carter
August 17th, 1977 (the day after Elvis’s death)
‘Hound Dog’ is often cited as THE song that precipitated the enormous generational, cultural and social upheaval that took place the in the 50s and 60s. It was the first song in history to simultaneously reach number 1 on all three Billboard charts – Pop, Country & Western AND Rhythm & Blues – and sold over 4 million copies. Clearly its status as cultural phenomenon is unimpeachable, but a close analysis of the music itself reveals very little that could be considered either revolutionary or explicit.
Instead, the entire song is geared towards dancing – hardly a novel concern, nor a dangerous one, not even in 1954. The twelve-bar blues structure is even, measured and perfectly geared towards dancing, especially when the tempo is as quick as it is here. The double bass provides a steady, constant backbone for the song, both through the chorus and the guitar solo section. The drumming is simple and unadorned, striking deliberately and precisely on the beat before exploding in tight, machine-gun bursts at the end of every verse, announcing the start of the next twelve bars. The lead guitar solo (anything but virtuoso) serves this same purpose of compelling people to dance simply by the fact that it is simple, rhythmic and does nothing to distract from the beat. The rhythm guitar is also working towards this goal of kinesis, providing a compulsive, driving impetus. Indeed, the rhythm guitar may be the most interesting aspect of the instrumentation as it is only being played for nine bars of the twelve bar pattern. When this rolling, strutting riff is being played it adds depth and body to the song as a whole, but when it isn’t being played it is conspicuous in its absence.
In considering ‘Hound Dog’ in light of its tremendous cultural and social impact, it is difficult to find a reason for this among the instruments mentioned. None are unique or particularly distinctive, the twelve-bar blues is already (by 1954) the basic structure for rhythm & blues, rockabilly and indeed most forms of what was considered ‘popular’ music, and there is nothing in the instrumentation that hasn’t already been heard at a slower pace in numerous Buddy Holly songs, or even at speed in Bill Haley’s hit ‘Rock Around The Clock’.
Of course, the one instrument that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Elvis’s voice. Perhaps the most distinctive voice of the 20th century it is the driving force of this song, with power, perfect control and just a touch of grit. It bounces, jumps, growls and rages in a way that Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and the rest of those 50s velvetine crooners couldn’t compare to.
And when coupled with his gyrating, thrusting, shaking dance moves, which Frank Sinatra attacked as being “deplorable…a rancid smelling aphrodisiac”, you could really understand why Ol’ Blue Eyes, along with most of suburbia, was so terrified of this man who “fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people”. If the estimates are correct, and 40-60 million people watched each of Elvis’ appearances on the Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows, then the smack in the face with SEX that was Elvis Presley could never possibly have been stopped. This was music that didn’t give two hoots about Como and his cardigans, Russians, MAD, whitegoods or cocktail parties. This was music that wanted to dance and fuck. Elvis knew what time it was. The people promoting him knew what time it was. Milton Bearle, Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen knew what time it was – and they wanted to be riding whatever wave this doe-eyed boy from Memphis was on. It was swagger, braggadocio, cojones- and it was money.
‘Hound Dog’ isn’t a song with intended meaning. It is a song with intended feeling. A song that shakes, rattles and rolls like a one eyed cat peeping in a seafood store. It’s a song sung by a young, good looking white boy who sounds like a young, good looking black guy. It sounds dangerous, even with singing these nonsense lyrics. And that is the meaning that people took from it. Teenagers were coming. Sex was coming. And Elvis was already here.