Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Elvis Anthology Problem.

The Elvis Anthology Problem is simple: There are too many great songs to fit onto a single disc.

Not that that's stopped anyone from trying--roughly once every decade.

What follows is a survey of Elvis's classic single-disc compilations, followed by a recommendation for a new one that I believe solves The Elvis Anthology Problem.

I also ranked the anthologies on the classic Rolling Stone/ 5-star scale:

***** = Classic
**** = Great
*** = Good
** = Fair
* = Poor

Elvis' Golden Records [RCA, 1958] *****

The Concept: The archetypal "Greatest Hits Collection," capturing Elvis's most famous material before entering the Army.

The Tracklist:

Side A

1. Hound Dog
2. Loving You
3. All Shook Up
4. Heartbreak Hotel
5. Jailhouse Rock
6. Love Me
7. Too Much

Side B

1. Don't Be Cruel
2. That's When Your Heartaches Begin
3. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear
4. Love Me Tender
5. Treat Me Nice
6. Any Way You Want Me (That's How I Will Be)
7. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You

The Verdict: It largely succeeds in its goal. Prior to entering the Army, Elvis released 8 major singles for RCA, all of which were essential building blocks for rock & roll:

"Heartbreak Hotel"/"I Was The One"
"I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"/"My Baby Left Me"
"Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel"
"Love Me Tender"/"Any Way You Want Me"
"Too Much"/"Playing For Keeps"
 "All Shook Up"/"That's When Your Heartaches Begin"
"(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"/"Loving You"
"Jailhouse Rock"/"Treat Me Nice"

One side of each hit #1 on the US Pop charts with the exception of "Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel," where both sides hit #1.

A ninth single that was released just before he went into the Army--"Don't"/"I Beg Of You" in early 1958--was left off, presumably because it had yet to go golden. Also left off are the sides RCA created by reissuing the 12 tracks of his first album as 6 singles in the post-"Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel" mad rush for Presley product. Finally, RCA omitted are both sides of an additional single released at the same time as the 6 album singles, "Shake, Rattle, & Roll"/"Lawdy Miss Clawdy," which was his only non-holiday single to EVER miss the charts in America in his lifetime from that point going forward. (All put together, it was the poorest release of singles until 1967, when Columbia Records released 5 Moby Grape singles simultaneously, killing the chances for any of them to hit.)

Of the 16 eligible sides above, RCA chose 13 of them to make an album, adding a 14th song--"Love Me"--that had previously been issued on an LP after it hit the Top 10 as the lead song an EP. Of the 3 songs that were left off--"I Was The One," "My Baby Left Me," & "Playing For Keeps"--only the latter deserved to be left off, especially when you consider that "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" made the cut, which is easily weaker than any of those sides. From a modern perspective, the most glaring exception was "Blue Suede Shoes," which is now considered among Elvis's signature songs. However, Elvis held back releasing the song as single so that his old Sun label-mate Carl Perkins could have a bigger hit with it; by the end of the year, Perkins' version hit #2 while Elvis's stalled at #20. (Still, that's a bigger hit than some of the material that did make the album, including "That's When Your Heartaches Begin.")

All that said, Elvis' Golden Records holds together well because of its killer material spread out over an excellent running order. Even though Elvis would have other hits--"Can't Help Falling In Love," "Suspicious Minds," "Burning Love," & many more--these are the ones that crystallized his career--as well as rock & roll as mainstream music. For those who agree with John Lennon that Elvis died when he went into the Army, this is the definitive collection. But most want a fuller picture.

Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 1 [RCA, 1974] ****

The Concept: The Elvis Presley Story, in hits, history, & rarities.

The Tracklist:

Side A

1. That's All Right
2. I Love You Because [Take 2]
3. Heartbreak Hotel
4. Interview
5. Don't Be Cruel
6. Love Me [Live]
7. Trying To Get To You [Live]

Side B

1. Love Me Tender
2. Peace In The Valley
3. Elvis's Farewell To Fans 
4. (Now & Then There's) A Fool Such As I
5. Tonight's All Right For Love
6. Are You Lonesome Tonight [Live]
7. Can't Help Falling In Love

The Verdict: Although there would be 3 more volumes of "Golden Hits" in Elvis's lifetime, each covered a new span of time, except for the embarrassing fourth volume, which reached back to material from the third volume to fill its sides. The second & third volumes have their merits, but without the core pre-Army period represented, none can be considered a definitive stand-alone disc.

The first disc to try & capture the whole of Elvis's scope was A Legendary Performer, which appeared in the mid-'70s. By that point, Elvis had gotten back from the Army, lost his way in Hollywood, reemerged in "The '68 Comeback Special," & scored what would be his final monster hit, "Burning Love." It was also the first collection to ever mix his Sun & RCA material.

The collection begins with his first Sun hit, followed by a previously-unissued from his first professional recording session. It then goes to his national breakout hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," an interview clip where he assigns his success to luck, & then "Don't Be Cruel," which would become the biggest-selling single of its time. There's the title cut from his first film ("Love Me Tender"), his first gospel recording ("Peace In The Valley"), & then a clip from his farewell to fans before entering the Army. "(Now & Then There's) A Fool Such As I" captures his post-Army caricatured style, "Tonight's All Right For Love" is a bum movie track from his first post-Army film that had never been issued in the U.S., & "Can't Help Falling In Love" was the hit version of the song with which he closed his concerts.

The 3 live songs throughout (all then-previously unreleased) were taken from the legendary "sit-down" shows of "The '68 Comeback Special," finding him full of swagger, good humor, & hard-rocking defiance when he wanted to be. The remake of the old Sun recording that was originally issued on his first album, "Trying To Get To You," packed the most punch, as he seemed to be not just singing to a girl, but to his audience.

Rock historian Greil Marcus has famously championed this now out-of-print set, explaining: "On this album, Elvis's career makes sense, it has shape. You can hear the artist grow, the god fail, the King return, the main endure & change." Based on my vinyl copy, I would have to agree, although I would want to add "Suspicious Minds" & "Burning Love" to the running order, just to see it through the post-comeback recordings & the 1970s.

Using the original Legendary Performer as a template, RCA could issue a killer expanded version on CD--& given all the stuff they have reissued over the years, it's kind of shocking that they haven't.

Pure Gold [RCA Camden, 1975] **

The Concept: One budget collection worth of pure gold from The King Of Rock & Roll.

The Tracklist:

Side A

1. Kentucky Rain
2. Fever
3. It's Impossible
4. Jailhouse Rock
5. Don't Be Cruel

Side B

1. I Got A Woman
2. All Shook Up
3. Loving You
4. In The Ghetto
5. Love Me Tender

The Verdict: Someone once claimed that all of Elvis's most important music could be summed up on a 45-minute album. If that's the case, Pure Gold could be an interesting test case. Unlike other budget collections that spanned a time period or theme, Pure Gold is seemingly an attempt at just that, a collection of Elvis's very best songs.

What makes it so fascinating is how close it is to succeeding in its apparent goal. It is one of very few collections of Elvis's lifetime to span every decade he recorded in, & seemingly begin to tell a complete story. Yet, for every spot-on choice ("Jailhouse Rock," "Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up," "Love Me Tender") there's another excellent but off-the-mark choice ("I Got A Woman," "Fever") & one that is simply off-the-mark altogether ("It's Impossible," perhaps included as a comment on trying to make a 10-song collection of Elvis's pure gold?). If half of these songs were replaced with more appropriate fare--say, "Can't Help Falling In Love," "Suspicious Minds," & "Burning Love"--we'd be onto something. But as it is now, it is like so many other Elvis budget collections: Half-baked & poorly executed, with a tacky cover.

Still, the compilers get points for bravely putting a real slice of pure gold up top that would've been on few people's shortlist in 1975: "Kentucky Rain." Despite this, Pure Gold is a testament to what might have been, as opposed to a success in & of itself.

The Number One Hits [RCA, 1987] ***

The Concept: Every #1 Hit by The King Of Rock & Roll!

The Tracklist:

1. Heartbreak Hotel
2. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You
3. Hound Dog
4. Don't Be Cruel
5. Love Me Tender
6. Too Much
7. All Shook Up
8. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear
9. Jailhouse Rock
10. Don't
11. Hard Headed Woman
12. A Big Hunk O' Love
13. Stuck On You
14. It's Now Or Never
15. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
16. Surrender
17. Good Luck Charm
18. Suspicious Minds

The Verdict: To mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis's death, RCA Records did their first serious reissues of his material, which is to say that it marked the first time that they issued CD collections that could rival anything on vinyl. They updated the legendary Sun Sessions LP set as The Sun Sessions CD, marking the first time that every single Elvis Sun master appeared on a single disc, along with nearly all the existing outtakes. They issued his post-"Comeback" 1969 recordings as The Memphis Record, collecting the complete From Elvis In Memphis, along with major sides & highlights from the follow-up album that also came from the same sessions. & to cover the entire scope of the RCA years, they issued the stellar 2-disc Top Ten Hits, which simply contained all every U.S. song to make the Top 10. The set made itself. Elvis had 38 Top 10 U.S. hits, with 19 from the '50s & 19 from the '60s & '70s. Even with no Sun material, it remains the definitive place to collect his hits.

For those who didn't want to shell out the big bucks for the Top Ten Hits double CD, RCA issued The Number One Hits, which in theory should've assembled itself as successfully as the Top Ten Hits. Only it didn't.

The set begins admirably, near-flawlessly, losing its way where Elvis did: In the Hollywood years after his post-Army hits. Case in point: No "Can't Help Falling In Love"?! No "Return To Sender"?! No "Burning Love"?! No, sorry, they all peaked at #2. Then how did they get on the more familiar modern #1 hits CD?! Different criteria, as we shall soon see.

As for the original Number One Hits discussed here, it remains little more than a historical curiosity of the first CD age.

Elvis: The Great Performances [RCA, 1990] ****

The Concept: A soundtrack to the video of the same name, as well as the place to release the then-recently-discovered 1953 performance of "My Happiness," Elvis's earliest recording.

The Tracklist:

1. My Happiness
2. That's All Right
3. Shake, Rattle & Roll/Flip, Flop & Fly [Live]
4. Heartbreak Hotel
5. Blue Suede Shoes
6. Ready Teddy [Live]
7. Don't Be Cruel
8. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear
9. Got A Lot Of Livin' To Do!
10. Jailhouse Rock
11. Treat Me Nice
12. King Creole
13. Trouble
14. Fame & Fortune
15. Return To Sender
16. Always On My Mind
17. An American Trilogy [Live]
18. If I Can Dream
19. Unchained Melody
20. Memories

The Verdict: A Legendary Performer for the CD age. For the first (& perhaps only) time, RCA released a single CD of hits & history that told the whole story of Elvis, from the debut of his earliest recording in 1953 (the fascinating "My Happiness") to the last great stage performance before his death in 1977 (an undubbed "Unchained Melody"). Along the way, we get Sun ("That's All Right"), early TV exposure ("Shake, Rattle & Roll" from his first TV appearance), the iconic '50s tracks ("Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel," "Jailhouse Rock"), a taste of The King live at his peak (a ferocious "Ready Teddy" that scorches the studio version), the Army-era releases ("Trouble"), the post-Army return to form (the criminally underrated & almost always forgotten B-side "Fame & Fortune," which is as fine as anything on Elvis Is Back!), Hollywood ("Return To Sender"), Comeback ("If I Can Dream"), his most celebrated '70s recording ("Always On My Mind"), & a choice cut from the Aloha In Hawaii concert (a version of "An American Trilogy" that for my money trumps the original). & then, just for sentimental value, they end the whole thing with the theme of "The '68 Comeback Special," "Memories."

All that is missing from A Legendary Performer are the sit-down performances from "The '68 Comeback Special," but with some choice '70s material included, The Great Performances is its own masterful overview.

Now long out-of-print, & like A Legendary Performer, a remastered & expanded version would be a welcome addition to Elvis's catalog.

& it even includes "Blue Suede Shoes."

The Essential Collection [RCA/BMG, 1994] ****

The Concept: The first single-disc collection to capture the potential (read: length) of the CD age.

The Tracklist:

1. Heartbreak Hotel
2. Blue Suede Shoes
3. Hound Dog
4. Don't Be Cruel
5. Love Me Tender
6. All Shook Up
7. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear
8. Jailhouse Rock
9. King Creole
10. The Girl Of My Best Friend
11. It's Now Or Never
12. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
13. Wooden Heart
14. (Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame
15. Can't Help Falling In Love
16. Good Luck Charm
17. She's Not You
18. Return To Sender
19. (You're The) Devil In Disguise
20. Crying In The Chapel
21. In The Ghetto
22. Suspicious Minds
23. The Wonder Of You
24. I Just Can't Help Believin'
25. An American Trilogy
26. Burning Love
27. Always On My Mind
28. Moody Blue

The Verdict: A near-great miss, marred by the lack of any Sun material & a song list that contains a few songs that are classic, but not necessarily worthy of a single-disc anthology ("King Creole," "She's Not You"), plus some genuine head-scratchers ("The Girl Of My Best Friend" & "Wooden Heart"). The answer seems to lie in the fact that this was distributed by BMG, a British label. In England, all of these songs were big hits, with "King Creole" & "The Girl Of My Best Friend" both reaching #2 & "She's Not You" & "Wooden Heart" both reaching #1. (Even more mind-staggering is that the latter stayed at #1 for 6 weeks, marking a rare time that an American song was atop the UK charts that never charted on its native soil.)

Still, The Essential Collection gets a lot of things right: It is the first includes "Blue Suede Shoes" among the early hits, it contains "Burning Love," & rescues the soon-to-be-considered-essential "Always On My Mind" from bargain-bin obscurity (especially in the U.S., where it was only issued as a non-hit B-side). Such tracks would soon be the cornerstones of Elvis single-disc compilations.

For this one though, it has since gone long out-of-print; like The Number One Hits it has been eclipsed by a similarly-titled, better-selling collection (in this case, the double-disc The Essential Elvis Presley).

The Best Of The Artist Of The Century [RCA, 2000] ***

The Concept: A one-disc overview of The Greatest Artist Of The 20th Century, culled from a larger 3-disc boxed set.

The Tracklist:

1. That's All Right
2. Baby, Let's Play House
3. Heartbreak Hotel
4. Hound Dog
5. Don't Be Cruel
6. All Shook Up
7. One Night
8. Jailhouse Rock
9. Trouble
10. It's Now Or Never
11. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
12. Reconsider Baby
13. Can't Help Falling In Love
14. Little Sister
15. Return To Sender
16. (You're The) Devil In Disguise
17. It Hurts Me
18. Big Boss Man
19. In The Ghetto
20. Suspicious Minds
21. Only The Strong Survive
22. Polk Salad Annie
23. An American Trilogy
24. Burning Love
25. Always On My Mind

The Verdict: Overall, a very strong set that functions better than the fuller 3-disc version. Nearly all of the essentials are here--"Blue Suede Shoes" is the only glaring exception--& it brings in the Sun material for the first time in the CD era. I would've liked to see hits like "Stuck On You" & "Good Luck Charm" as well as Elvis classics like "Viva Las Vegas" & "If I Can Dream" for a little color, especially over the likes of "Trouble," "Little Sister," & "It Hurts Me," all of which are great but not single-disc great. I also would've chosen "Guitar Man" over Big Boss Man" to represent his pre-Comeback hits. Finally, I think it could've benefited from even more Sun material, but as it is, "That's All Right" & "Baby, Let's Play House" are hard to argue with. This set also marks the late-period resurgence of "Polk Salad Annie" as one of Elvis's essential songs, although I've never really heard it as such. Still, this is the kind of album that plays very well through, with the missing elements unrealized until after it's over.

ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits [RCA, 2002] ****1/2

The Concept: All of Elvis's #1 hits (for real this time)!

The Tracklist:

1. Heartbreak Hotel
2. Don't Be Cruel
3. Hound Dog
4. Love Me Tender
5. Too Much
6. All Shook Up
7. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear
8. Jailhouse Rock
9. Don't
10. Hard Headed Woman
11. One Night
12. (Now & Then There's) A Fool Such As I
13. A Big Hunk O' Love
14. Stuck On You
15. It's Now Or Never
16. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
17. Wooden Heart
18. Surrender
19. (Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame
20. Can't Help Falling In Love
21. Good Luck Charm
22. She's Not You
23. Return To Sender
24. (You're The) Devil In Disguise
25. Crying In The Chapel
26. In The Ghetto
27. Suspicious Minds
28. The Wonder Of You
29. Burning Love
30. Way Down
31. A Little Less Conversation (JXL Radio Edit Remix)

The Verdict: A stone-cold classic for 99% of the people out there, but another near-miss for me.

Coming on the heels of The Beatles' epic (both in music & sales) 1, which collected 27 of The Beatles's #1 US & UK singles (well, technically "Something" only hit #4 in the US because of the ability for the opposite sides of a single to chart, or you'd have to include "Strawberry Fields Forever," the flip of the US #1 "Penny Lane" that was left off, but I digress), which led the Elvis camp to get defensive: "Well, Elvis had more #1 hits than The Beatles, if we're including US & UK charts!" The result is Elvis's biggest modern collection, & his first #1 US Album since Aloha From Hawaii back in 1973.

But from the moment this hit the stores, I had a major issue with it: Where is "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," which is the only song from 1987's The Number One Hits to not be included here?

The answer, it seems, originates with the Billboard Charts. Until 1958, Billboard had 3 singles charts: Top Sellers In Stores, Most Played By Jockeys, & Top 100 Pop Singles. In August of that year, Billboard consolidated these lists into a single Popular Singles chart. Retroactively, the Top 100 Pop Singles became the default chart in the modern age. "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," Elvis's second single of 1956, hit #1 on the Top Sellers In Store chart, but only #3 on the Top 100 Pop Singles chart. The original Number One Hits compilation seemed to treat the 3 pre-1958 Billboard charts equally--that is, a #1 on any of those charts is a #1, period. By the time 30 #1 Hits was released, only the Top 100 Pop Singles was considered a "real" #1. This, combined with the relatively low critical opinion of "I Want You, I Need You, I Want You," allowed the song to slip by unnoticed.

& yet, "Too Much" & "Hard Headed Woman" are included on the disc as American #1s, but the Top 100 Pop singles had them ranked at #2 each. However, both were #1 on the Top Sellers chart (like "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"), as well as "Hard Headed Woman" hitting #1 for Airplay.

All of which to say that "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" should've been included on the album. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the song--I think it's great & one of his truly essential performances--& the fact that it made to #1 on the Top Sellers should allow it to be on this collection. In fact, I'd include it long before "A Little Less Conversation" (which technically isn't a true Elvis song).

Furthermore, it wouldn't be the only corner cut to get a song onto the CD. "Burning Love" was never a #1 hit in the US or the UK--but it hit #1 on the now-defunct Billboard rival Cashbox, so the producers of this set decided close enough. It's a corner I don't mind cutting because "Burning Love" is a great song & should be included on a major anthology such as this. (Ironically, the song was kept from the top spot in the US by another '50s rocker's comeback hit, Chuck Berry's dreadful one-joke novelty "My Ding-A-Ling.")

Finally, while we're on the subject of perfecting this set, I'd also switch the order such that "Hound Dog" appears before "Don't Be Cruel." So there you go--take off the rexmixed "A Little Less Conversation," pop in "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" as the second cut, & follow it with "Hound Dog" & "Don't Be Cruel." Leave the rest & you'd have a CD that I could wholeheartedly endorse like every seems to do the current imperfect version.

Elvis 75 [RCA/Legacy, 2010] ****

The Concept: A single-disc career overview, culled from the 4-disc Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight boxed set, which features all sides of his career (i.e., rock, blues, country, gospel, live, etc.).

The Tracklist:

1. That's All Right
2. I Forgot To Remember To Forget
3. Heartbreak Hotel
4. Blue Suede Shoes
5. Hound Dog
6. Don't Be Cruel
7. Love Me Tender
8. Love Me
9. All Shook Up
10. Jailhouse Rock
11. Trouble
12. It's Now Or Never
13. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
14. Little Sister
15. Can't Help Falling In Love
16. Viva Las Vegas
17. How Great Thou Art
18. Guitar Man
19. If I Can Dream
20. In The Ghetto
21. Suspicious Minds
22. Polk Salad Annie
23. An American Trilogy
24. Burning Love
25. Always On My Mind

The Verdict: Much like The Best Of The Artist Of The Century, Elvis 75 serves its purpose well, especially in its efforts to portray the artist from all sides. Hence a song like "How Great Thou Art" is here, for while it was never a hit, it is generally considered Elvis's finest gospel performance. Songs like "Blue Suede Shoes," "Viva Las Vegas," & "If I Can Dream" are all welcome editions, even among the stubborn "Polk Salad Annie." (I know, this was probably justified by the want of a "live" track, but I'd go with "The Wonder Of You," which couldn't have made this set because it was astonishingly left off of the main boxed set; that said, "If I Can Dream" was also recorded in front of a live audience).

So those are the anthologies. This is my recommendation to solve The Elvis Anthology Problem:

Elvis 80: The Definitive Collection *****

Concept: The definitive single-disc anthology of Elvis Presley to celebrate his 80th year.

1. That's All Right
2. Good Rockin' Tonight
3. Baby, Let's Play House
4. Mystery Train
5. Heartbreak Hotel
6. Blue Suede Shoes
7. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You
8. Hound Dog
9. Don't Be Cruel
10. Love Me Tender
11. All Shook Up
12. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear
13. Jailhouse Rock
14. One Night
15. Stuck On You
16. It's Now Or Never
17. Are You Lonesome Tonight?
18. Can't Help Falling In Love
19. Good Luck Charm
20. Return To Sender
21. Crying In The Chapel
22. Guitar Man
23. If I Can Dream
24. In The Ghetto
25. Suspicious Minds
26. Kentucky Rain
27. The Wonder Of You
28. Burning Love
29. Always On My Mind
30. Promised Land

Verdict: It's perfect (obviously).

Here's why:

1. It has more Sun recordings than any of the others. Elvis's Sun sides stand as nearly as influential as his early RCA sides, yet, few of the RCA collections (begrudgingly?) include them. Here, I went for his 4 essential Sun A-sides: "That's All Right," "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Baby, Let's Play House," & "Mystery Train."

2. It has more classic hits than the other "overview" collections. If you're making an anthology of someone like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, hits can become a relative term, as their biggest chart hits don't always line up with their definitive material. Elvis is a rare exception. Because he was first, virtually every major Elvis hit was a great & important record. Most collections leave off singles like "Stuck On You" & "Good Luck Charm," even though they are both not only major hits but some of the best Elvis songs of their time.

3. If you play your cards right, the hits do cover the range. Elvis 75 sought to show all sides of Elvis, but using the hits above, you can get that without including distracting fare like "Polk Salad Annie." This collection has rock ("Jailhouse Rock"), country ("Always On My Mind"), blues ("Hound Dog"), gospel ("Crying In The Chapel"), & live ("The Wonder Of You"), without any pandering.

4. The scope is kept intact. Like the old Legendary Performer LP, this album paints a complete picture of Elvis's career: The revolutionary Sun sides ("That's All Right"), the early RCA hits ("Heartbreak Hotel"), the post-Army resurgence ("It's Now Or Never"), the Hollywood decline ("Return To Sender"), the great comeback ("If I Can Dream"), the revelatory post-Comeback sessions ("Suspicious Minds"), the early Vegas era ("The Wonder Of You"), the final smash ("Burning Love"), & brings it all home with one last song ("Promised Land") that was his final truly essential recording.

So there you have it. The next time RCA (or whatever conglomerate they're now associated with) needs a perfect tracklist for a perfect Elvis album, look no further than here.

Just be sure to give me some credit--& an advance promo copy.


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