As a theme, getting locked up carries a lot of weight and takes on various manifestations: there’s mental prisons of our own making; lonely cells behind actual bars; locks, and chains and the heavy burden of time, doing it and being crushed under it.
It’s really no surprise to see the number of songs related to some variant of the word ‘prison’, not to mention movies. Prison films make up a special genre all their own, and I’m sure you have your favorite. Something about a piece of art that depicts the horrors of losing one’s most fundamental right, their freedom, just begs for a deeper look, and creates in the depiction a purer form of empathy than exists in other genres. Something about being locked away, unable to control even the slightest aspect of your own autonomy, and often subject to the basest of human behaviors, creates in the viewer/listener a sense of fear and sympathy. Simply put, it boils down to: there but for the grace of God…No matter how awful the subject, the lack of freedom makes us pause and wonder. And feel what the prisoner feels.
But, there will be plenty of time to focus on a nice, dark bit of music inspired by prison. For now, let’s have a little fun.
Despite the inherent silliness of this song I’m choosing, or perhaps because the subject leans so precariously toward the dark and the serious, I can’t resist highlighting The Blues Brother’s take on the classic “Jailhouse Rock” for our theme of “Prison.”
The Blues Brothers movie—cable TV ubiquity aside—is a classic. Over the top, gratuitous, destructive, balls to walls in every way, including the straight up marvel of the live musical numbers, The Blues Brothers is one of the films that tends to overcome its own flaws and take on a greater sense of iconic the older it gets. The musical performances, including Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and more are the strongest aspect of the movie. The all-out musical mayhem and the use of the city of Chicago as a set to pay tribute to some of the great voices of Rhythm and Blues is what make the film. James Brown’s burn down the house preacher scene, Ray Charles’ pawn shop jam, Aretha Fraklin singing R.E.SP.E.C.T in the diner, John Lee Hooker as a street musician. The movie would be great without the addition of the madcap antics of brothers Blues, the Illinois Nazis (“I hate Illinois Nazis!”), the entirety of the Chicago PD force, The National Guard, and the Good Ol' Boys…You know the movie. If you don’t, you should. It deserves the cult status it has earned and for a certain segment of us, the “We’re On a Mission From God” poster was standard décor for the dorm room.
The song itself? If you don’t know it was one of Elvis’ earliest and biggest hits, then you probably don’t know much about music. Here, John Belushi and partner Dan Aykroyd, both musical aficionados and true fans in real life, use the movies to enact their own living, breathing rock n roll fantasy while paying tribute to the King, much in the same way they did with other greats, such as Sam and Dave and Solomon Burke. A lot of people viewed the Blues Brother’s musical venture with cynical scorn: two Hollywood goofs play acting their way through a vanity project. But with the heavy weight additions of some of the aforementioned greats, a legit backing band, and a true love for Rock ‘n Roll, Soul and the Blues, the Blues Brothers output, at this far remove, seems like a lot more than shtick. And, their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, did actually reach number one.
“Jailhouse Rock” is the end scene of the movie, last in line for a lot of amazing musical numbers. While most of the movie was done in Chicago, and was, according to Aykroyd a tribute to the city itself, the finale was shot in LA. Somehow, the entire band ends up prison, thought it was only Jake and Elwood that got arrested. Joe Walsh, from the Eagles, plays the prisoner who jumps up on the table and starts the riot. Its not the highlight of the film but it is the Blues Brothers doing what they did: down and dirty R&B that passed for the real thing, because it is.
As for the original, by Elvis—have you ever listened to the lyrics? It’s a great rock song that features that indescribable shuffle and strum that only the King could spin, the beat that changed the sound of pop music ever after. It’s such an iconic piece of musical history, the covers of it run into the thousands (Search Spotify if you doubt me…). But honestly, its an odd song, content-wise, and I always wondered about it. According to Rolling Stone, the “…theme song for Presley's third movie was decidedly silly… kind of tongue-in-cheek goof. The King, however, sang it as straight rock & roll, overlooking the jokes in the lyrics (like the suggestion of gay romance when inmate Number 47 tells Number 3, 'You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see')..." I feel like I need to add, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and there isn’t, but, seriously: the song has forever struck me as odd, simply for the fact that it does seem to be a strange, poorly told, and in poor taste joke, that despite his uber-cool, Elvis really didn’t get what he was singing. Maybe that’s an indication of the times, maybe there’s noting wrong with keeping an innocent sense of what the song is. Maybe we should just focus on the sound: the clock-work rhythm, the punchy up-down guitar, the spin out drums and Scotty Moore’s quick-step riff or wailing solo. When a song is as instantly iconic and recognizable as “Jailhouse Rock”, does it really matter who sings it (movie stars), or what it really means, so long as it gets played? And really, great songs, or movies, don’t really need to make sense to be good.