Elvis Presley c.1975. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In 1970’s That’s The Way It Is, you get Elvis at his artistic peak

With this re-release of the 1970 documentary, the question is really how many different versions of “Suspicious Minds” you want in your life.

Elvis: That’s The Way It Is was a documentary shot in 1970, covering Elvis Presley’s third, triumphant Las Vegas season. Just eighteen months after the televised 1968 Comeback Special had brought him out of his baleful Hollywood years, Elvis was looking good and sounding strong, recording contemporary material by a new wave of southern writers like Tony Joe White (“Polk Salad Annie”), Joe South (“Walk A Mile In My Shoes”) and Mark James (“Suspicious Minds”). Watching the movie now, it’s hard to credit how swift his decline would be. Six years after the film was released, he was dead.

Leaving the Sun sessions aside, That’s The Way It Is finds Elvis at his artistic peak. He can belt out “Heartbreak Hotel”, caress then-current single “I’ve Lost You”, and add funk to the Bee Gees’ “Words”. The closeness between the singer and his crack band (including James Burton on guitar and the Sweet Inspirations on backing vocals) is seen backstage in rehearsals, which are as revealing as the shows. The white jump-suit fits snugly, but not too snugly. And his sense of humour, often hidden behind politeness in the Fifties, is daft, endearing, and a constant presence – it makes sense that he was a big Monty Python fan when you hear him read out a postcard from the Pope. Beyond this, there are telling interviews with fans, from a nerdish obsessive, to a highly religious couple, to Ann Moses, the young editor of Tiger Beat (the Smash Hits of its day), dressed in her best Marsha Brady outfit. Nevertheless, director Denis Sanders was criticised by some Elvis fans for including these cameos, and the film was completely recut in 2000 to feature more live performances.

Which brings us to the 2014 edition of That’s The Way It Is. This 12” box set compiles the 1971 soundtrack album, both the original and recut versions of the film, six full length concerts, plus a superfluous disc of Elvis mucking about in rehearsals. The box is bulked out with a decent 80-page photo book, which includes an Ann Moses interview with Denis Sanders, and brief interviews with the musicians and a few key songwriters. It’s a handsome looking set, and Sony/RCA have done well not to toy with the original, jump-suit cover.

The performances are uniformly intense and engaging. Elvis was at his most charming and confident at the turn of the Seventies, post-comeback and pre-divorce. He’s a hoot, doling out kisses to the front row during “Love Me Tender”, snoring as he does the band introductions, and throwing in lines like “We had to learn fifty songs for this show... we were supposed to learn fifty songs, we only learned five. So here’s one of the ones we don’t know.” He introduces the ballad “Twenty Days And Twenty Nights” with “It’s not a great song and I don’t particularly dig singing it”. Does he mean it? Probably not, as he says much the same for B J Thomas’s exquisite “I Just Can’t Help Believing”, before delivering the definitive, tough but delicate version, a UK #6 hit in late 1971.

One of the pleasures of this set is to hear, for the first time, the complete concert that contained this familiar recording – we finally get to find out why Elvis sniggers on the line “with a trace of misty morning”. Some nights he played the Beatles’ “Get Back”, other nights the underrated “Patch It Up”. He always finished with “Suspicious Minds” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love”.

So the question is how many different versions of “Suspicious Minds” you want in your life. Six discs that start and end with the same songs? If you own the three disc “That’s The Way It Is”, released to coincide with the recut film in 2000, you may not think you need anything else. Having lived with this set for a week, I can’t get enough of it; it’s immersive, and terrific fun. In fact, my main gripe is that there isn’t a companion CD set of the rehearsals, which look and sound tremendous on the DVDs – rather frustratingly, they are all listed in the accompanying book, and apparently almost all of them were recorded. If you’re going to push the boat out with an eight-disc set, you may as well make it fourteen discs and include everything. With pop’s brightest star at the absolute top of his game, there’s no such thing as too much.

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood