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Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 08:21 GMT 09:21 UK
Elvis Inc lives!
Elvis Presley
A little thing like death won't stop the Elvis hit machine

To his more zealous fans, Elvis Presley makes regular appearances in shopping malls all over the world.

Now, he's starting to do it to the rest of us.

An Elvis beer stein
Elvis merchandising is in full swing
The 25th anniversary of the King's death - 16 August this year - will be accompanied by a marketing barrage unprecedented even by the bombastic standards of the US music industry.

Already the most intensively merchandised artist in music history, Elvis is branching out into all sorts of new markets this summer, including coffee-table books, an animated cartoon, his beloved cheeseburgers, and even furniture.

There may even be a bit of music along the way, too.

Record player

At the forefront of the anniversary celebrations this year is something of a surprise - Elvis's first number-one single since 1977.

Luis Figo in Nike ad
A little less conversation, a little more football

A Little Less Conversation, an obscure track which failed to chart when it was released in 1968, was remixed by Dutch DJ JXL for a Nike advertisement.

Released as a casual attempt to cash in on World Cup fever, the single has gone ballistic in Europe, hitting number one in the UK, Ireland, Norway, the Czech Republic and half a dozen other countries.

(In Slovenia, for some reason, it only reached number two.)

The single is now being released in the US, and record company BMG is preparing a compilation album of 30 Elvis number ones.

Elvis adulation varies by country, but in the UK, he has now officially overtaken the Beatles, with 18 number-one hits.

Happy anniversary

The semi-unexpected success of A Little Less Conversation has persuaded Elvis marketers to crank their anniversary plans up a notch.

Lilo: A fictional fan for a dead rock star

Fearing perhaps that the remix might smell too much of football for the US market, Elvis has also teamed up with Disney to produce a joint-venture cartoon.

Lilo & Stitch, released on 21 June, features an alien creature and a Hawaiian girl who loves to lip-sync to Elvis songs.

Half-a-dozen of the King's singles are performed during the film, and it culminates with a trip to Graceland, his uber-tacky Memphis mansion.

The next step is a series of branded Happy Meals at McDonald's, and free Elvis CD-roms distributed by internet giant AOL.

At some point this year, there are plans to launch Elvis Furniture, a surprisingly restrained range of wooden beds, cupboards and chests of drawers.

Image problems

All this is music to the ears of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), the firm created to oversee the rock star's estate.

The fact that Elvis continues to be a more powerful brand dead than most artists ever were alive is testimony to EPE's almost obsessive control.

Elvis Furniture
Not a purple satin sheet in sight

Terrified of seeing the Elvis name watered down by sub-standard exploitation, EPE has been famously niggardly in its licensing policy.

A Little Less Conversation was Elvis's first release of new material since his death, and EPE reportedly rejected hundreds of proposed alternatives.

For critics, this has a sinister side. In the early 1980s, EPE pressured the Tennessee legislature to adopt some of strictest copyright protection laws in the world, covering not just Elvis's musical and film works, but anything even remotely pertaining to his image.

Rights and wrongs

These so-called "rights of publicity" have already been invoked to shut down a string of rivals seeking to piggy-back on the Presley name, including a string of Elvis impersonators.

Japanese Elvis impersonator
Beware of imitations

At present, EPE is locked in battle with JP Stacy, an Atlanta property magnate, who is planning to construct a rival Elvis theme park eight miles from the baroque gates of Graceland.

And while "rights of publicity" are a quirk of Tennessee law, they could be spreading.

An opinion from the European Court of Justice in mid-June supported a claim from Britain's Arsenal Football Club that it should be able to control its image.

"This potentially opens the door to every pop star in the business to do the same," says Dominic Free, a music industry lawyer at the Simkins Partnership.

Grey market

EPE has far bigger things to worry about, however.

Its most pressing problem is what marketers call its "core demographic".

John Lennon
I need to get a better agent

As the living Elvis recedes ever further into the past, his genuine fans are starting to collect their pensions.

Elvis himself would have turned 67 this year, and EPE is starting to become concerned that his mix of rockabilly, bluegrass, Hawaiian and Vegas cheese has little to say to the teenage market.

Dressing up old songs with remixed backing tracks can help inject some life into the corpse, but the balance of A Little Less Conversation - where the King's voice is almost drowned out - is telling.

And Elvis's slightly comic image - the product of his jowly, karate-kicking twilight years - will also stand in the way of his reinvention as a credible rock god.

Dead or alive

But as the World Cup summer swelters on, shoppers seem happy enough to buy the dream for now.

Whatever their innermost feelings about Elvis Presley, record-buyers find nothing weird in new releases from long-dead artists.

Elvis Presley
Elvis could teach today's hepcats a thing or two about swingin'

This year has seen something of a peak, with ex-Beatle George Harrison and R&B artist Aaliyah also scoring posthumous number ones in the UK.

A string of dead singers, including Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Jackie Wilson and Buddy Holly, have achieved the same feat.

In a record industry increasingly keen on safe bankable hits, and unwilling to risk investing in new talent, the appeal of rehashing old material is compelling - especially where the artist is dead, so cannot misbehave.

To paraphrase another posthumous success story, live fast, die young and hire a ball-breaking executor.

See also:

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05 Sep 01 | Entertainment
25 Feb 00 | Entertainment
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