-By EIN contributor Harley Payette.
For some reason or another, “Burning Love” Elvis’ last Top Ten Billboard US Pop Hit (#1 Cashbox) and his last Top Five Pop Hit on any chart has fallen out of favor amongst Elvis’ fans and pop critics. Once upon a time, this ’72 classic was the only consensus late period Elvis pick. Casual fans knew it and when it hit the streets in ’72 it was greeted with almost unanimous praise from critics including Robert Christgau who picked it as one of the ten best singles of the year.
Oddly enough, as the reputation of Elvis’ 70s work has increased with fans, his most famous late period work has fallen into the background. The record seldom makes lists of great singles. It’s seldom written about or analyzed. It’s been omitted from some ‘70s oriented radio formats. Latter day critics have dismissed it as self-parody and even fans have called it overrated, preferring to lavish praise on Elvis’ generally worthy ballad work of the period. Whatever the reason, the record doesn’t quite have its steam anymore; it’s a shame because “Burning Love” is, even 34 years later, one of the great pop singles- sexy, funny and subversive.
When folks think of “Burning Love” today they think of that ending, one of the great payoff hooks in all of pop music. Yet for most of its playing time, the record is a seductive tease offering innuendo about the dangerous urges below its surface but extremely careful not to lay them out bare. This contradiction makes it something of a rare piece in that it offers both seduction and consummation. In many ways, the record can be seen as an up tempo variation of Roy Orbison’s pop bolero format where a performer gradually builds the energy level until a sudden violent burst of emotion is let loose in the final seconds often knocking the listener back. What’s amazing about “Burning Love” is that we’re already excited and it still knocks us on our heels.
Kicking off with a crunching electric guitar lick, overdubbed by the song’s composer Dennis Linde, the record immediately grabs your attention. Soon after Linde is joined by a percussive almost steroid driven organ and, for the first time on an Elvis studio side, a furious drum roll from Ronnie Tutt. By the time, Elvis and the band kick in we’re almost breathless in anticipation.
Amazingly, Elvis’ awe inspiring presence, by 1972 an almost supernatural occurrence, takes us a down a notch. He’s all restraint. While Tutt’s stomping beat and Linde’s guitar keep the speed and energy, Presley gives us a vision of sexual implosion. While he increases the heat and the melodic quality of the song with well placed asides like an “mmm” or a “yeah”, his phrasing is completely naturalistic: no screams, no words broken into a thousand syllables, no self-conscious vocal curlicues. Elvis lets his voice and Linde’s lyrics handle the suggestion, which was absolutely the right decision. With lyrics as direct as “Burning, Burning, Burning and nothing can cool me” and a heavy beat, there’s no need to topple into hysteria. The listener gets what you’re singing about.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking that this isn’t great singing though. Electing on most of the record to sing in more of a lightly pinched higher nasal tone than he generally used in the 1970s, Elvis’ vocal has kind of a keening quality to it that not only gives the lyric a desperate, helpless air but also is filled with implication. Robert Christgau said Elvis made the line “the flames are now licking body” sound like an assignation from James Brown’s backup band. He was right. By drawing us in, Elvis sets our imaginations wild.
As usual, he’s a master of timing. He rips through the line “You’ve gone on and set me on fire” and lets it hang for a few taunting seconds as if he’s accepted a dare.
And while he knew enough not to overpower Linde’s lyrics (the best he ever wrote in his solid but unspectacular career), he also knew when to let us lose a few words. On the chorus for example, the line “And your kisses lift me higher/Like the sweet song of a choir” fits the music very awkwardly. But Elvis, who has by now shifted the speed of his phrasing, sings to the beat instead of the words so you never notice the wordiness.
This is important because the chorus, throughout the song, provides with our only release from the tensions built up in the verses. The tempo is accelerated, a piano joins in and JD Sumner and the Stamps on vocals echo Elvis. Adding to the tensions, from the second verse on, is the relentless clucking of a cowbell, an often overused point of emphasis that here succeeds in creating more drama than it did on any record outside of “Honkytonk Women”.
With tensions almost at the breaking point at the end of the second chorus, Elvis decides to extend our anxieties a little further by stepping back for one of the most unusual breaks on a 1970s record. It’s not an instrumental break because the emphasis is on the open throated harmonies of the Stamps. They never sang better. While their white gospel, almost chorale, sound made some of Elvis’ records sound dated and corny, here they are completely appropriate in that they create a sense of awe at both Elvis and the song’s subject matter. Singing without a lead, they increase our awareness of Presley’s lead and we desperately want him back to lead us through the end of this erotic journey we’ve started. They also contribute to our sense that what is happening to the singer is not something that you encounter every day.
Meanwhile the musicians are going through everything they have in the arsenal including some devastating rolls by Ronnie Tutt and a weird heavily echoed guitar chord at the end by James Burton. We’ve left Kansas, Toto and rolled into a land of sin that would probably kill Auntie Em.
Featuring some of Linde’s best lines, the final verse and chorus are almost overwhelming in their sense of urgency. When Elvis says, “I’m a burning a hole where I lay,” all ambiguity is laid away and we know we’ve reached our destination.
This is not the tease; this is the act itself. Just when we think we’re finished, Presley and his group give us a climax as well. A second after Elvis gives an encore reading of the title phrase, the Stamps come up singing “Hunka, hunka burning love” and Elvis follows and soon it’s a full out call and response shouting battle. It’s a crude phrase but in this context, that crudeness gives it power. By the end of the song, they’re not even sticking to the script. They’re improvising even cruder phrases, trading mocking falsetto wails. By the time we’re out, it’s more funny than sexy emphasizing not only the cosmic absurdity of the sex act but also the sense of joy and release that comes from letting out. It only lasts- maybe- 20 seconds but those are 20 of the most ingenious seconds ever captured on record.
So powerful they are, that “hunka hunka Burning Love” became an instantly identifiable catch phrase used not only in assessments of Elvis but for reference and emphasis in unrelated pop culture ephemera like the TV series the Facts of Life a decade after the fact.
Once a listener has heard “Burning Love” they seldom forget it. Lots of people can take credit for that as “Burning Love” emphasizes the fact that pop music works best as collaboration. There is of course, Presley’s skill as singer but also his chops as a bandleader, producer and editor. The decision to place so much emphasis on that great end hook reveals Elvis’ commercial genius never deserted him. Other versions of the song either omit this part (Arthur Alexander) or throw it away (Linde). Even more, you can see on that hook that Elvis never completely lost his sense of play.
Credit must also be given to the Stamps and the TCB Band who all knew right where to take this tune. Then there’s Dennis Linde who created a wonderfully constructed pop song.
Some fans might be surprised that Elvis was actually reluctant to record this classic number. Recorded just after his separation from then wife Priscilla, Elvis was not in the mood for a rocker. Producer Felton Jarvis, though, knew Presley and Linde’s song were perfect for one another. Recognizing that he had a serious minded Presley, Jarvis used his wiles to get Presley to record the song and kept him at it until he got an inspired take. Jarvis, who is sometimes unfairly singled out by Elvis fans for incompetence, showed he did indeed know how to make a pop record when he got Linde to do that guitar intro.
All that inspiration and talent makes it kind of a shame that the song does not get its due today. While “Burning Love” falls a little short of the super elite singles like “Suspicious Minds”, “Mystery Train” and non-Elvis sides like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Billie Jean” and “Like a Rolling Stone” it can stand without apology next to those monuments while it towers over most everything else. (Must have been tough in ’72 to go back to something like “Take it Easy”.) The record is final proof that Elvis’ pop genius never deserted him and even in 1972 he was still the King.
Burning Love's international chart statistics:
Date - Chart Position - Weeks in Chart
(With thanks to FECC's 'Mr Statistic' for the above details)
This Spotlight written by EIN contributor Harley Payette.
Quote:"Elvis Presley is the supreme socio-cultural icon in the history of pop culture"
(Dr. Gary Enders)
Quote:" Elvis is the 'glue' which holds our society together....which subconciously gives our world meaning"
Quote:"Eventually everybody has to die, except Elvis"
(humorist Dave Barry)
Quote:"He is the "Big Bang", and the universe he detonated is still expanding, the pieces are still flying"
(Greil Marcus, "Dead Elvis")
Quote:"I think Elvis Presley will never be solved"
Quote:"He was the most popular man that ever walked on this planet since Christ himself was here"
Quote:"When I first heard Elvis' voice I just knew I wasn't going to work for anybody...hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail"
Quote:"When we were kids growing up in Liverpool, all we ever wanted was to be Elvis Presley"(Sir Paul McCartney)