Actually his real name is James Brown – something pretty funny about a white Irishman named James Brown who makes a crust by impersonating someone else; not only just someone else – but Elvis (“the King”): A white singer who made his name and based his act on sounding as black as he could and ‘borrowing’ from the R’n’B, country, rockabilly, soul and rock’n’roll singers from the world/s of black music.
Okay, okay, that’s starting to become a whole lot to unpack. Particularly since this is basically a comedy act – albeit a slightly serious one, a decent singer…
It’s most certainly a gimmick-album.
And I shouldn’t care about it, nor own it, nor want to write about it – but it symbolises a time when you couldn’t be up to speed with the jokes and gimmicks and memes of the world via the internet. A musical parody was a whole album – not a 30-second clip. It was a full band and a honed act and it was a fucking gamble really…
Would this thing work? Could it stick? Did it mean anything?
I have been going through some of the work by “Weird Al” Yankovic again recently. The master of pop-song parodies. It’s amazing to think he’s based a 40 year career around one trick. But it’s a bloody good trick and a hard one to master – mocking pop songs by copying the building blocks and adding jokes that satirise the content, all while approximating the original delivery.
There aren’t many that could (ever) do it. And none that could carry the buckets without spilling the contents in the way that Al can and still does.
I also liked what The King did with his debut album, Gravelands. I liked the gimmick too – not just an Elvis impersonator (a pretty good one too, really – he never oversold it, he reckons his natural voice was just similar-enough to Presley’s and that’s a good story at the very least) but an Elvis impersonator singing songs by artists that were dead. Geddit? Gravelands – grave…okay, it’s no sophisticated joke at all. (No grace!)
This was blunt. Forced. Traumatic…for some…
But I liked it. It was just silly enough. And just clever enough.
And at the time I heard it that probably applies to me too – maybe it still does. Or perhaps I’d at least like to think so…
The King could never keep it going – the name alone meant he had to topple or be toppled. This particular King pretty much just petered out. There was another album or two. Some shows. But I didn’t care. It was too late after one album really. That was the joke. And any real commitment to the act might be admired somewhere down the line – but it’s also just taking the joke too far. A gossamer-thin joke at that.
Where the Dread Zeppelin singer (also an Elvis impersonator) was deliberately and 100% hamming it up, James Brown The King wasn’t really hamming it up, beyond sounding like Elvis and singing songs by singers that had died. Implied ham. And cheese on the side. But there was something that grabbed me about the ‘honest attempt’ feel of this. And it sorta still catches me (off-guard) still.
I’ve been listening to Gravelands a lot lately. Way more than I should, or should probably even admit to – but it’s the nostalgia wave that lockdown put me in. And the nostalgia wave that thinking about Dread Zeppelin and playing “Weird Al” also put me in. It’s the way we can share and move on from silly parody-stuff now. Plaster it to a wall and be mocking the joke rather than celebrating it or doing both. We can just be drawing other people’s attention to something as a way to divert our own.
Back then – and then is 1998 and really right up until the invention of YouTube a decade or so ago – if you wanted to take the piss you did it properly. Or tried to. And the audience that wanted to invest in that spent time (after spending the money) working on liking it, maybe working too on understanding it, or trying to.
I like thinking back to that sort of struggle.
I like thinking about how meaningless the search for some meaning can sometimes be.