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Can’t Help Falling in Love: Comparative analysis of original by Elvis Presley and cover versions by UB40 and A-Teens
The popular music genre is extremely diverse and has roots in the late 1890s but it was not until the 1920s until the term had gained currency (Shruker, 1998) (p. 226). It is not simply a genre but is an important means of documenting the evolution of society through the decades and is at the mercy of its audience. Therefore, when analysing popular music, it is essential to study it from a broad perspective and take into consideration the environment in which it was written. Shruker elaborates on this by stating, “The study of popular music embraces aesthetics and musicology, economics and sociology, and social psychology” (Shruker, 1998) (p. x-xi). These factors are explored in this essay to trace the changing socio-cultural trends across the decades and their effects on musical style. The example of Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley is employed to achieve this objective, as well as two cover versions by English Reggae and pop band UB40 and Swedish pop group A-Teens. A detailed musical deconstruction of each song will be provided with an overview of the structure, lyrics, instruments and stylistic indictors, which place the song in its era. Furthermore, an in-depth exploration of the relevant era in which the song was written and recorded will be provided, including a brief background of the performer with regards to his appearance, presentation and promotional material. Ultimately, this essay will prove popular music to be a product of its socio-cultural environment.
Can’t Help Falling in Love was adapted from the classical French love song Plaisir d’Amour written in 1784 by Jean-Paul-Egide Martini. The song “muses on the pleasures and pains of love and was inspired by a poem, which appears in Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s novel Celestine” (BBC, 2017). Humphries draws similarities between Martini’s love song and Elvis Presley’s Can’t Helping Falling in Love by commenting on the replication of the memorable melody with alternate lyrics (Humphries, 2014). Presley’s version was written by George Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore and was featured on the movie Blue Hawaii released in 1961 (Songfacts, 2017). The original recording features Presley as the lead vocalist with The Jordanaires and The Surfers as backing vocalists. The instrumentalists included Hank Garland, Scotty Moore and Tiny Timbrell (guitar), Bob Moore (bass), D.J. Fontana, Hal Blaine and Bernie Mattinson (drums), Floyd Cramer (piano), Dudley Brooks (piano, celeste), Boots Randolph (saxophone), Alvino Rey (steel guitar), George Fields (harmonica), and Fred Tavare and Bernie Lewis (ukulele) (Elvis the Music, 2017). The incorporation of exotic instruments (ukulele, steel guitar, celeste) incorporates a world music element as the film on which the soundtrack was featured is set in Hawaii. The remaining instruments form a band with backing vocals, which suits the love ballade genre of the song.
The original recording has a simple quadruple time signature, which features the quaver triplet rhythm in the accompaniment and crotchet triplet rhythm in the lead vocals during the refrain. The rhythm in the verses are comprised of mostly minims and semibreves, except for the pair of quavers in the upbeat to the second line and triplet motive in the refrain. The rhythm contrasts in the chorus, however, where syncopation is used moderately, which supports the unusual use of chords in this section. The verses use the same chord progression of I iii | vi | IV I | V | VI V | vi VI | I V | I | with the progression fully repeated in the first verse and the last four beats repeated in the third verse (Ultimate Guitar, n.d.). The first four bars are concluded with a I-V Half Cadence (HC) and the second four bars are resolved with a V-I authentic cadence (AC). The chorus alternates between chords iii and VII7 with each chord equalling one minim in length (Ultimate Guitar, n.d.). A ii-V HC occurs in the last bar of the chorus. The structure can be described as verse-chorus with a one line refrain at the end of each verse. The overall structure is ABABA though each verse its own structure. The first verse has an abcabc rhyme pattern, which has two eight-bar phrases, forming a sixteen-bar section. The chorus has a separate rhyme pattern of abab, which is shortened to only four bars and followed by a short instrumental interlude. The second verse is shorter than the first with only eight bars in two four-bar phrases with an abb rhyme pattern. The third verse, following the recurrence of the chorus, which is unchanged, is similar to the second verse but includes a repetition of the refrain line (Peretti, Creatore, Weiss, 1961).
One of the stylistic indicators of the song, which places the song in the 1960s decade is its use in the rock musical Blue Hawaii and association of the film with youth culture. Shruker discussed this in Key concept in popular music in 1998:
During the 1950s, the decline of the Hollywood studio system and dwindling cinema audiences led to the need to target more systematically particular audience demographics. Hollywood linked up with the record industry to target youth, with a spate of teenage musicals. (p. 127).
Presley was a lead actor in a total of thirty-one rock musicals during his lifetime, including the film Blue Hawaii (Elvis Presley Australia, n.d.). Blue Hawaii follows the journey of Chad Gates (Elvis Presley) who desires freedom and independence from his parents after returning from Army Service (Blue Hawaii, 1961). Perhaps the most prominent theme is youth culture, which can be observed from Chad’s dissociation from his parents and disinterest in joining the family business. In this film, Presley helped establish an identity for rock ‘n’ roll by placing youth in opposition to adult authority and confirming “the folk devil image of fans of the new genre, associating them with juvenile delinquency” (Shruker, 1998) (pg. 128). The soundtracks used in the film are reflective of youth culture and the increasingly rebellious youth in the post-War affluent years. Flemming supports the evolution of music through this decade by explaining, “Change is an inevitable part of life, and the youth, and consequently their music merely moved with those changes” (Flemming, 1977) (p. 62).
In addition to the youth culture appeal, the live performance traits also place the song in the 1960s era. Presley was an icon of his time and his voice was certainly a distinctive instrument, which made him so unique. Middleton supports this by stating, “His tone is full, rich and well produced, his intonation is precise, stable and correct, the notes are sustained and held right through, and the phrasing is legato” (Middleton, 199) (p. 18). This is the typical style of the love ballads of the late 1950s and early 1960s which rose with the revival of folk music, which is where the song Can’t Help Falling in Love is originally sourced (BBC, 2017). Can’t Help Falling in Love is easily recognisable in the 1960s as it reflects Presley’s singing style as it was developed at the time. Presley’s crooning style had emerged later than his rock style voice, which was studied in Henry Edwards article in High Fidelity in 1972, which appeared in Ewen’s All the years of American popular music in 1977:
Since those early days that dramatically changed the direction of pop music, Elvis had sung practically every kind of song. His range is greater than that of almost any other popular singer. His voice is a mellow and expressive instrument. (p. 560-61).
Presley began singing at a young age in church, at camp and revival meetings and at church conventions. At age ten he entered the annual singing content in the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show where he won second place. Shortly after, his mother bought him a guitar, which he learned to accompany himself on as he imitated the style of popular country music singers he had heard over the radio. In his early years, he sang country and blues but when working with Sam Philips in Sun Records he experimented with various sounds and styles until he was eventually signed as a recording artist 1954. His first covers, which gained popularity were That’s All Right by Arthur Crudup and Blue Moon of Kentucky by Bill Monroe. From there, he began recording songs and albums but put his career on hold to serve in the Army for 2 years from 1958-60. After his service, he returned to music and was dubbed “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” as he dominated the rock scene (Ewen, 1977) (556-62). His appearance captured the attention of his fans, with his ducktail hairstyle, flashy suits and larger than life persona. Ewen comments, “When he sang he rolled his hips more than ever, grimaced with pain and punctuated his singing with throbbing hiccups, and lowered his heavy eyelids over his dreamy eyes” (1977). Presley’s fame is attributed not only to his music but the image he created as Frith suggests, “It is the way in which singers sing, rather than what they sing, that is central to their appeal to listeners” (1989).
UB40 released a cover of Can’t Help Falling in Love in 1993, which can be fitted into a reggae-pop fusion classification (UB40, 1993). The contemporary approach to the classic song makes it typical of the 1990s era as well as the laid-back feel (Cooper, 2015). The reggae influence of the song is obvious from the simple quadruple time signature, staccato piano chord on the off-beats, Jamaican male vocal harmonisation, incorporation of instrumental ensembles playing an octave apart (trumpet, trombone, French horn, saxophone) and prominent bass line (How to Play Reggae, 2009; New World Encyclopaedia, 2015). The bass line is particularly important in this style of music; in the example of Can’t Help Falling in Love, the bass line features a combination of quaver and semiquaver rhythms, which are mostly comprised of repeated notes or notes moving in step-wise motion (e.g. median-supertonic-tonic). The lyrics are slightly altered to give a more relaxed and inclusive effect. For example, instead of Like a river flows | Surely to the sea, the lyrics become As the river flows | Gently to the sea. The adverb gently is more suited to the reggae style. Another example follows, Darling, so it goes | Some things are meant to be becomes Darling, so we go | Some things were meant to be. The preposition we is more inclusive and the treatment of the second phrase in past time is more free in nature.
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