“I’ve been told I’m something of a genius,” says Paul McCartney, while sitting in the British sunlight with Mark Ronson, who had been recording the languid 1962 song “Get Back” for the Beatles in late 1964. “Really I’m just a nice guy trying to do my job,” says McCartney. But there’s the seductive sophistication of the Beatles—not to mention the absorbing musicality they created—which lend the song its extraordinary lyrics. McCartney, “Mark,” “John,” and “George” are seen laying in the ground, over another keyboard. “Hello, it’s strange,” the mysterious “Neil” says. “I’m unfamiliar with the ground beneath us,” McCartney replies. There is a sketch of the fantastical world of A Hard Day’s Night. While McCartney’s version adds more details of childhood far-off Liverpool, the original opens up the absurdities of life in the city, of Lennon’s Liverpool mind. Like another 1964 song “What Is Life?” it questions the randomness of life, making Lennon wonder if there is any way to tell the difference between real life and fake life. No surprise that they were huge Beatles fans, and that they devoted much time and energy to dissecting their heroes and what they must have been thinking, seeing, and feeling. For that, and a lot more, they owe much to one other song: Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”
I do not think it is a coincidence that the Beatles came of age in a time when Elvis Presley—“THE King” to his millions of fans—was releasing albums and touring in a golden era. He had already achieved worldwide recognition on movie screens such as the part-ironic Life! with Judy Garland. His performances were also brilliantly captured in movies such as Viva Las Vegas! Indeed, one could say that, even before he made his entry onto the TV screen, he was a huge star. Not that the Beatles, none of whom were even born yet, really expected to be able to mimic the authentic Elvis. In fact, they had been having problems with this task since the early 1960s. When the Beatles toured Germany in 1963, they were a well-oiled machine—there was no hint of the tensions that would emerge and ultimately cause their fall from grace. They were the Beatles, after all. And Elvis had yet to become the man they were always told he was.
Of course, they were carefully rehearsed on “Heartbreak Hotel,” which Elvis had already recorded and released in February, 1963. John Lennon himself had produced the song and given it to Elvis, who is seen playing the guitar in the ultra-cool room, as McCartney is seen with the keys of his piano. In the now famous promo film shot by filmmaker John Moore, the vocals are sung by a man who is another Elvis fan, and who is seated in a drugstore, eyes closed and head tilted dreamily. Moore was later censured by British censors for including images showing “Cocaine and Star Jotting.” Elvis thought nothing of laying down the song in front of a bathroom mirror. Even his wife Priscilla admired it, even after a friend warned her that it was “deeply immoral.”
After coming out of a swimming pool, as you might expect, Elvis dives into the pool, where he bangs out “Heartbreak Hotel” on his guitar. It is a song, he observes, about “one man’s problems on another’s coast.” He is describing both himself and McCartney and their marital troubles in Liverpool. It is probably no coincidence that he chose the song for an album called Let it Be.
Elvis once told me that “Heartbreak Hotel” was one of his favorites, and a “national anthem.” He also expressed the sentiment that “I’d do it over if I could.” I have also been told that during that troubled time, he was terrified of starting another major controversy with his cover of “Happy Birthday” for John Lennon. It is an album, by the way, which was released in 1963, a year after the Beatles’ legendary demo of “Here Comes the Sun.”