Robert Gordon

Elvis Presley: The Searcher — A Review

I had the opportunity to view another rock-documentary with the mysterious, yet evocative title, Elvis Presley: The Searcher. This film seems to have originated with the desire of Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla, to show Elvis as the artisté that he was and the process of this discovery is a long and detailed one, I must say. I wasn’t quite expecting the level of minutiae that came my way when I sat down to view the movie and had I known…well I might have penciled out another week or something. I have to ask: Does the world really need another Elvis movie? Hasn’t this story been told about a million times by now? Is this just another one of those cynical money-grabs by people in the industry who are really just making product for other people in the industry? Sure seems like it to me. Let’s check out some details.

Did you ever rent one of those Elvis biographies on VHS from Blockbuster? Or watch a 1 hour documentary on AMC at like 2 am? Yea! Totally! Me too! One summer afternoon a long time ago I watched 3 of these specials in a row because it was the anniversary of Presley’s death and the family and I were trapped in a hotel room on the Jersey Shore because of bad weather. So if you’ve SEEN those, you have more or less SEEN this movie as well. In addition to all of the recycled Elvis footage there was also stock footage from sources like this VHS tape that I used to have called Times Ain’t Like they Used to Be : Early Rural and Popular American Music, 1928-1935. I spent most of the first half of the movie with my own Mystery Science Theater 3000-type dialogue that consisted of: “Seen it. Yea, seen that. Heard that. Yea, totally used to have that. Wow, they’re using that too, eh? Man, I’m really tired. What time is it?” I didn’t even make it through the first half of the film, called it a night and went to bed. This movie is over three hours long, (which is first of all, completely unnecessary) and what happens is the visually-interesting quality of the film is missing for someone familiar with the subject so storytelling is supposed to compensate…I guess? The director, Thom Zimny has worked with Bruce Springsteen and is real big on NARRATIVE. Dude…seriously. Write a book. I don’t wanna watch NARRATIVE.

The focus on NARRATIVE means the film uses a type of Ken Burns approach to production: still photos, zooming, voice-over interviews, repeated somewhat corny motifs (a bicycle with a baseball card in the wheel). This approach kinda, sorta works if you are producing a documentary on the Civil War, but in the wrong hands, done the wrong way the voice-overs often sound like Mansplaining. I don’t need Springsteen dissecting the transcendence of Gospel Music. He, Robbie Robertson and Tom Petty did most of the musician voice-overs (except for some old stuff they dug out from Scotty Moore and Sam Phillips [seen it, heard it]). It’s better when “guests” are on camera, as in the Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll film. Hearing these guys expound heavily behind some of the visuals was really annoying and Tom Petty was the only interesting voice-over artist. Why do all of these movies end up with rock writers bloviating in the background? How about some singers or musicians like, Robert Plant? He’s a HUGE Elvis fan. Those tales of Led Zeppelin meeting Elvis in the 70s are amazing! Here’s Jimmy Page wearing an Elvis on Tour Ribbon so you know he’d be down for reminiscing. The Beatles had an impromptu jam with Elvis in 1965. Their memories of meeting Elvis were a lot more entertaining. Paul drives a boat while remembering in this footage. How cool is that? Add that stuff and for good measure get more Scotty Moore involvement. Then get Page, Jeff Beck, and Brian Setzer to give guitar demonstrations on “that sound”. Have Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding talk about those Sun Sessions and Treat Me Like a Fool and how great and influential and downright life-changing it all was! Yes! What we’re going for is footage and commentary that is the same quality as Little Richard talking about his big toe shooting up in his boot (because he loved Jimi Hendrix’s playing so much). Can you feel the magic here? I should be in pictures.

Finally, there is obviously an attempt to avoid any notion that the King of Rock and Roll also became the King Of Cheeseballs and the King of the Tabloids later in his career. The audience is supposed to accept the proposition that a guy who appeared onstage in caped rhinestone jumpsuits, zonked on any number of different medications, performing karate moves while singing Suspicious Minds to over-the-hill babes grabbing for his scarves…was a totally serious person. I’m sure there was a lot of high-fiving in the post-production room when the movie was done, but I was there in the early 70s and even then 13 year-olds like myself knew the only person less serious than Elvis was Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. The next person who wants to make an Elvis movie should be forced to use the following suggestions: 1) The musicians above appear in the movie; 2) Examine the appeal of The King to his fans; 3) Explore the still vibrant Rockabilly and Psychobilly communities; 4) Discuss the weirdness that always surrounded the King–The Memphis Mafia, Presley’s interest in the Occult, UFOs and Conspiracies, and finally 5) How real and imaginary elements of the Southern Gothic tradition and the rest of these items are indispensable to Presley’s story and as much a part of rock n’ roll as the “devil at the crossroads” is to blues legend. Otherwise you’re just left with a big WHY? I still don’t have an answer for that question, but I’ve spent enough time with this subject already, so we’ll just have to leave it to the cosmos to figure out.

Chris Spedding

Chris Spedding with his Gibson Flying VChris Spedding — an absolutely stellar guitar player, and all-around cool guy, who I met soon after meeting another awesome gent, Spedding contemporary, Mick Ronson, who I interviewed for Guitar World Magazine. I was introduced to Chris after I started working for VITAL VAN, the premier musician cartage and van moving service in NYC back in the late-80s and early 90s. My Spedding and Vital Van stories could’ve been combined into one really long novella of a post because they are so intimately intertwined, but that isn’t really suitable for the blog format, especially for people who don’t like to scroll, and Chris DEFINITELY rates his own entry. Like Mick Ronson he is a total Guitar Hero and the two of them are not only archetypal British guitar slingers and producers, they also have some very interesting similarities in style. But first, check out Chris with long-time pal, Robert Gordon live on the Conan O’Brien Show.

We were roadies for the Robert Gordon band many times, so I had the chance to watch Chris play up close and personal and we also had many conversations about Guitars, Guitarists, and Guitaring. There were some long drives back from gigs in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC and while the rest of the band was recovering from rocking out, Chris was happy to sit in the front seat of the van and talk music and guitars so I would stay alert and on the road (the traveling back to the city was usually 2am-to-whenever). So, as you can imagine, I was able to hear a lot about what he thought about guitar playing! Chris has a very compact, tasteful, lyrical style and he related at one point that someone he admired was George Harrison, because George’s solos usually functioned as a story within the story of Beatles’ songs. While George was certainly a major purveyor of this style of playing, he didn’t invent the concept and all you have to do to see how this evolved from the Jazz/Blues/Swing era to Rockabilly and Rock and Roll is read my post on The World is Waiting For the Sunrise. Like George, Chris is ALL OVER that hybrid of jazz/blues found in rockabilly and rhythm & blues music and playing with Robert Gordon has given him the chance to work this style for a long time. He has an arsenal of neat little tricks that he pulls out from time to time (see the next video), and unlike a lot of guitar heroes he doesn’t make the execution of tricky things a big production. They are just cool little technical moments that add to the atmosphere of the song. It has been years since I was involved with these guys, but I think Chris’s guitar stylings and Robert’s rockabilly boogie baritone have only gotten better with age. Both of their respective careers traversed much of the same landscape as the 70s and 80s punks, and I’m glad they have managed to age with the confidence and grace that is a characteristic of any of the great music icons. If you want to hear some great Rockabilly and Rock n’ Roll, they are the Real Deal.

Chris also hung out with the Vital Van crew from time to time — a real down-to-earth cat with a great sense of humor, and an avid reader. I remember him working his way through Gore Vidal’s Burr. The Vital scene was chock full of guitar players, and all of us picked up many a helpful hint just from being in Chris’s orbit. He also left his guitars lying around and at least 3 of us cut songs on our own recordings using a Chris Spedding guitar. He had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird that I used on a song I did for a demo that included the awesome WORKDOGS rhythm section. At one point Chris mentioned that he thought that the Mickey Baker jazz books were a great way of learning how to read and play the kind of stuff he was able to work into his music. I’ve seen Chris start a set with a chord-melody medley of Christmas carols, totally cold (no warm-up backstage), and just kill. As a matter of fact I NEVER saw him warm-up for all the gigs I worked and he was always able to walk onstage, plug in and rock!

As a session player, Chris has been a very important person on some very great albums. It always knocked me out that he was one of the guitarists on the original Jesus Christ Superstar recording. Some of the other music legends he was involved with include Jack Bruce, Harry Nilsson, Roxy Music, John Cale, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits and Elton John. When I interviewed Leslie West in 1990 I mentioned that I had been working with Chris and Leslie had fond memories of his band, Mountain, touring with an early Spedding band, The Sharks, in the 70s. Chris later confirmed this and said that not only did the two bands share the tour, but also would get together at the end of some of the shows to have a big jam. Would’ve been great to see Chris and Leslie together on stage for a song or two don’t you think? Chris also produced some of the first Sex Pistols recordings, and for a long time it was rumored that it was him, not Steve Jones, actually playing on those recordings. I was successful in pitching a Chris Spedding article to Guitar World, (I wish I could find it, but I can’t). and before the interview my editor asked me to bring up the Sex Pistols rumor. I said “yea I’ll totally ask him” even though I already had, and knew the answer, I thought there would be a better chance for the article to get published by stalling. (I had already been handed a couple of rejections). As it turns out, not only did Chris not play on the songs, but his mixes weren’t used and you can read about it from the man himself HERE. Chris did have a whole lot to do with Steve Jones getting THAT guitar sound, which I’ve always thought was pretty flippin’ pro for a 1976 punk band and is probably the reason many people thought it was actually Chris playing. It’s the Spedding sound! If you read the list of credits on his Website, it’s obvious he is a player and producer who is home in many different settings and this is another parallel with Mick Ronson. Both Chris and Mick can be classified not only as superior players, but also as tasteful producers and idea guys for making music — Dudes with Multi-Vision! Here is Chris with Roxy Music from early in the last decade. After the rockabilly, you might think… What’s he gonna do on this song?…and then he plays emotionally and tastefully as he always does.

Chris was a long-time user of Gibson guitars and Fender amps…There are a lot of details on his guitar choices on his Website. He was telling me one night that he found it very easy to work with Les Paul Juniors because he only ever needed or used 1 pick-up (bridge position). On most guitars, he explained, it is impossible to get the sound he wanted on both the bridge and neck positions simultaneously, so it was just easier to get the good sound on the bridge position and use the tone knob or hand muting to produce a neck position sound on the bridge pick-up. As with all guitar players, I’m sure his thoughts on equipment constantly change through the years — at some point he started using a Gretsch, which suits his style perfectly, especially for the rockabilly stuff. He’s always had the slap-back echo sound working for him too and that is one of the two types of guitar echo I favor, especially the way he uses it. When we were working for him he used the Memory Man Deluxe and he would sometimes use a second Fender amp facing him from the front as a guitar monitor. One of my favorite gigs we ever worked was a Chris Spedding-fronted power trio gig in Boston, that included bassist extraordinaire Tony Garnier, long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band. I forget who played drums that night, but after the sound check, Chris, Tony, the drummer, Chicken John and I went and had Thai food and then we returned to the club and the band played something like this…

Of course the crowd dug it immensely just like they still do! It’s great that both Chris and Robert are enjoying a measure of success, because they are two of the very best at what they do. If you have a chance to see them, by all means go!! Hopefully, through the power of the internet, recordings and live performances there are younger players out there who will explore all of the possibilities of studying Chris’s style and will integrate some of it as I and others were able to do so many years ago. It is a way of approaching guitar that can definitely broaden the sonic palette and musical horizon of any player.

**Special thanks to Chicken John for providing the pic of Chris with the Flying V. Chicken has been the proud owner of this guitar for many years.