Elvis Presley is a figure like no other in American culture. He exists in his own cultural vacuum — the only American entertainer who can match the country in size, spirit, & style; no one else even comes close. It helps that his story is also the American story — a rags-to-riches tale with its own rise ('50s rockin' Elvis), fall ('60s actin' Elvis), & resurrection ('70s Vegas-in' Elvis), more or less.
All three parts are essential to the story: Elvis wouldn't be Elvis if it weren't for his hip-gyrating early rock, his rhinestoned-jumpsuit grandiose gestures of his late rock-n-schmaltz, or the string of crappy B- to D-level movies he made in between. The latter is what gets the least amount of attention, largely because unlike his glorious early rock & campy late rock, the movies aren't very much fun — if they looked dumb when they were made, time has only rendered them worse.
But still, when I was compiling every recording Elvis released while he was alive, the '60s soundtrack stuff was a big part of the slog, often filled with weird, fascinating artifacts that were borderline absurd to the point of disbelief. It was as though someone took the greatest singer in the world & paired him with the worst material conceivable.
It wasn't pretty, but it too was an essential part of the story.
What follows is the worst of the worst — 5 trainwrecks that are so bad, they in turn become compelling disaster-pieces in their own right.
5. "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad"
The year is 1968: Vietnam wages on while revolutionaries all across the world take to the streets; by the year's end, MLK & RFK will be assassinated & LBJ will announce he won't seek another term. Not that you'd get any of that from this, a chidingly patriotic number from Speedway that seems to exist in its own parallel universe. In light of Elvis's own army stint, as well as his own conservative politics, it's all the weirder, & that doesn't even take into account the song's grounding concept of Elvis duetting with Uncle Sam (i.e., America) in a tune that speaks to his character's chief dilemma: Tax evasion. Oh yeah, & that's Gale Gordon who pops out towards the end, Lucille Ball's favorite comedy foil & the "other" Mr. Wilson on TV's Dennis the Menace. Just in case things weren't already weird enough.
4. "Queenie Wahine's Papaya"
I needed a song to represent Elvis's famous Hawaiian pictures, & found it surprisingly tricky to narrow down. At first, I wanted to go with Blue Hawaii's "Rock-A-Hula Baby" as a sort of "mainstream" example of Bad Elvis — a minor hit (as the flip to "Can't Help Falling in Love"), just decent/famous enough to be sung on Full House (by Uncle Jesse, 'natch!) & included on Elvis: 2nd to None, the follow-up to the huge Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits comp — & then with "Ito Eats" from the same film, which fit all the requirements of awful & embarrassing, but was somehow in its stupidity, was bad even as a bad song. It's basically just Elvis singing to a gluttonous fat guy [insert yer own joke about Elvis later singing AS a gluttonous fat guy here]. No, the tongue twister-filled "Queenie Wahine's Papaya" from 1966's Paradise, Hawaiian Style will have to fit the bill. It's got the most inane title, the dumbest lyrics, & gets extra schtick points for increasing in speed as it continues. Plus, the little girl duetting with Elvis in the movie is yet another weird, awful-n-awkward touch.
3. "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"
Thomas Jefferson once imagined America to be nation of independent farmers, ruled by a sort of "philosopher king." According to his wife Priscilla, when Elvis was informed he was to sing the traditional children's song "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" for 1967's Double Trouble (Elvis plays twins — in London!), the King had his own philosophies on the matter, reportedly screaming, "It's come to THIS?!" Yes, it had. & with the added lines that strayed from the traditional version — presumably to distant it a bit & add in a few (not-funny) jokes so that it sounded, um, better — only made it weirder. That, & the way Elvis sings "Oink, noink." Huh? At least he was told when recording it that the song would be left off of the movie's soundtrack album. Except that they included it anyway.
2. "There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car"
Among Elvis's awful period are many songs where the titles seemingly speak for themselves, offering a shot of random surrealism that must've been envied by the likes of Dali & the Dadaists: "The Walls Have Ears," "Song of the Shrimp," "Poison Ivy League," "Dominic (The Impotent Bull)," & "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce." Yes, the King of Rock & Roll once recorded a song about an impotent bull & another called "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce." Boggles the mind. At any rate, in this grand tradition, we have "There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car" from 1963's Fun in Acapulco. It's too bad that I couldn't find an accompanying film clip to go with this one, but luckily (or unluckily), the bizarre clarity of the lyrics & the awkward cha-cha of the beat conjures up mental images that the real movie could only begin to hint at.
1. "Yoga Is As Yoga Does"
Here it is, the "A Day in the Life" of Bad Elvis, from 1967's Easy Come, Easy Go. There's so, so much that's wrong with this it's basically a perfect storm of stupid Elvis songs: You've got the dumb, clunky title of "Sports Car," the cloying, stuck-in-your-head childishness of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," the one-joke lyric (& awkward duet) of "Queenie Wahine," & the stupid call-&-response structure of "He's Your Uncle." But there's more. Singing the duet with Elvis is none other than Elsa Lanchester, A.K.A. the Bride of Frankenstein from the classic 1935 film. Throw in the hindsight knowledge of yoga exploding out of nowhere some 30 years after this was released, & it becomes more than absurd — it becomes oddly prophetic, as if the Beatles had recorded a song about eating home-grown organic vegetables. (Oh wait, that was the Beach Boys.) The result is the bizarre cultural artifact to end all cultural artifacts: The King of Rock & Roll. Singing about the still-nascient cult of yoga. With the Bride of Frankenstein. Like the best parts of American culture, you just can't make this stuff up.