Developments in Elvis Fan Culture: An Interview with Nigel Patterson (part 1)

Nigel Patterson works for the Australian government and has been a dedicated Elvis fan since 1969. 

His participation in organized fan club activity in the Australian Capital Territory from the mid-1980s onwards led him to start the Elvis Information Network in 1999. It rapidly became a prominent and respected Elvis site. EIN recently reviewed my book Counting Down Elvis, so I took the opportunity to interview Nigel, hoping he might provide a fully-fledged ‘insider’ account of Elvis fan culture. He is living proof, however, of the idea that academia and Elvis fandom are somehow fully separated is a myth: Nigel once ran an academic course called ‘New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema’ at Canberra College. He has also kept up with academic writing on the Presley phenomenon.

This is the first part of a three part interview. Click for part two and part three 

You’ve been a fan since 1969. Tell us more about Elvis fan culture in the 1970s. What was the fan world like back when Elvis was alive?

The Elvis world in the 1970s was very different to how it is today. With the easy communication and immediate availability of information offered by the Internet still decades away, fans had to wait weeks, if not months, for the latest Elvis news from overseas. Discussions around Elvis were generally localized within the myriad of Elvis fan clubs in each country. Clubs were active all around the world, in the US, UK, Australasia, Japan and South America. Many clubs had regular meetings and other activities and as is well known, Elvis fan clubs have always been at raising money for charities and other worthy causes. However, even within countries, the sharing of information between fan clubs was usually minimal and characterized by the odd phone call or snail mail letter. 

As far back as the mid-1950s the Colonel, quite astutely, had initiated contact with Elvis fan clubs in the US, and the large British fan club headed by Albert Hand (and following Albert’s death run by Todd Slaughter). Both Hand and Slaughter cultivated a strong and enduring relationship with the Colonel.

The British fan club model of a well administered central headquarters with branches (local clubs) scattered across the United Kingdom meant British fans were arguably the most informed of any fans in the world. Fans in other countries weren’t as fortunate: the Colonel’s office made contact with their fan clubs on an infrequent basis, and usually in response to an enquiry to Elvis and the Colonel. 

The Colonel’s strategy regarding contact with fan clubs was generally the same throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Strangely, England was the primary driver of fan club activities and distribution of Elvis related information in the 1960s and 1970s.
Apart from their strongly run UK wide fan club, British fans also benefited because Albert Hand operated the Heanor Record Centre which had lucrative publishing and merchandising divisions. Undoubtedly, the publishing arm allowed Hand to capitalize on the public’s interest in Elvis from the outset.

The publishing arm allowed Hand and then Slaughter to cost effectively release a series of different Elvis publications. The British fan club’s slick bi-monthly members magazine is now in its seventh decade of being published while Hand’s most famous publication, the pocket-sized Elvis Monthly (a veritable institution in the Elvis world), was available from local newsagents in the UK, Australia and several other countries for an impressive continuous 483 months (from 1960 to 2000).

By comparison, the Beatles Book (aka Beatles Monthly only managed 321 issues during its two stage run) while Elvis Monthly’s record was eventually broken a few years ago the by Doctor Who (magazine) which is now approaching its 530th issue.

Interestingly, when I spoke to Todd Slaughter about the demise of Elvis Monthly, he told me sales were still strong and it was the distributor’s desire for it to be in a larger format that sounded its death knell. Todd wanted to retain its pocket-size, while the distributor felt a larger size would work better on newsstands; I guess the thinking was it would be less likely to get hidden behind larger sized magazines.

Complementing Elvis Monthly was the British fan club’s popular Elvis Special, a hardcover book (except for its debut edition) that was published annually between 1960/61 and 1984/85. Hand and Slaughter also published a variety of one-off or semi-regular publications over the years including A Century of Elvis, The Elvis Presley Appreciation Society Handbook (several editions), Elvis The Man and His Music, Elvis A-Z and The Elvis They Dig.

The British Fan Club also published a glossy bi-monthly members magazine, occasional information bulletins and was instrumental in promoting Elvis throughout Great Britain and its colonies. It was also active in undertaking several campaigns attempting to bring Elvis to Britain.

Another very popular British based publication was the Worldwide Elvis News Service Weekly run by Rex Martin. Published in the 1970s Rex (who sadly passed away in February 2013) distributed his renowned newsletter to thousands of fans around the world. Its weekly publication (and sometimes semi-weekly when there was a surfeit of news, reviews, articles, etc, on offer) offered an immediacy that the monthly magazines lacked. The Worldwide Elvis News Service Weekly was the precursor to what fans now expect and enjoy thanks to the Internet. As many readers will know, Rex Martin was also a film buff and amassed an incredible collection of footage of Elvis ‘live’ on stage.

Elvis Monthly lacked widespread distribution in the US. Rocky Barra’s Strictly Elvis filled the void, albeit with a different tone and emphasis. First published in 1968, it was not associated with any fan club. Rocky and his network of contributors attended many of Elvis’ “live” performances in Las Vegas and on the road in the 1970s. Rocky himself saw Elvis in concert 68 times! He provided a well-produced magazine full of up-to-date news, reviews and topical articles.

Rocky informed me in one interview that the monthly distribution of Strictly Elvis was between 5,000 and 7,000 copies. He was approached at one point by a large American publisher which wanted to produce the magazine commercially and print 125,000 copies a month. Rocky decided to maintain editorial control of Strictly Elvis and keep it from being overrun by ads, but the offer signifies the high level of interest in Elvis at the time.

The triumvirate of Elvis Monthly, Worldwide Elvis News Service Weekly, and Strictly Elvis were the regular publications that fostered fan culture around Elvis, particularly in the first half of the decade. While fans were geographically separated and often deprived of news, these three major Elvis publications, together with the myriad of local fan club newsletters and activities, provided a sense of shared community. Strictly Elvis ceased publication in 1975, however, and the Elvis Worldwide News Service Weekly lasted only until late 1978.

Albert Hand, Todd Slaughter, Rex Martin and Rocky Barra are thus deservedly recognized as the key drivers of ‘things Elvis’ outside of Colonel Parker during the late 1960s and 1970s.

By the mid to late 1970s a number of organizations began operating in the US, distributing Elvis merchandise and unofficial material, such as bootleg albums. Paul Lichter’s Elvis Unique Record Club and Paul Dowling’s Worldwide Elvis became prominent players. Lichter also started publishing Elvis books with his 1970s releases Elvis: The Boy Who Dared To Rock and Elvis In Hollywood selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

In the 1970s we knew little about what was happening around Elvis in non-English speaking countries. South America was a virtual unknown and while we knew there were flourishing Elvis fan clubs and high quality record releases in Germany and Japan, the tyranny of distance, language and inefficient information channels limited what we knew.

What would you say have been the biggest landmarks in the culture of Elvis fandom over the years since 1977?

There are three events that stand out in my mind.

First, Priscilla Presley’s foresight to open Graceland to the public in 1982. This provided a focus and meeting place for fans to come together. 

It facilitated an annual pilgrimage to Graceland, where for many, they could build and reaffirm friendships and share their memories and feelings about Elvis. In a sense this opened up fans to a broader experience as it was a shift from the more insular world of the local fan club and its particular culture of often ego and politics. Apart from safeguarding the costs of maintaining Graceland and its grounds, the opening of Graceland to the public also allowed Elvis Presley Enterprises to develop plans to build on Elvis’ legacy and enhance the experience for fans worldwide both through attractions at Graceland and an often mouth-watering (if occasionally tasteless) array of merchandise.

The second, and probably most important, event was the Internet. Its arrival ‘connected’ fans globally and provided timely and often more cost-effective access to friendship, news, information, foreign records, CDs, books, and so on. For the first time, fans could ‘share’ Elvis with others on a global stage ‘today rather than tomorrow or next month.’

The third event was Sony’s establishment of the Elvis collector’s label, Follow That Dream (FTD). For Sony it helped combat, but not eradicate, the ongoing release of Elvis bootleg material, not to mention a steady, virtually guaranteed, additional Elvis income stream, albeit on a smaller scale than the profits usually generated by global Elvis releases. For the fans, it offered access to a best quality alternate recording material, soundboard recordings of Elvis’ ‘live’ concerts and eventually high quality and well researched ‘coffee table’ book plus CD releases. All-in-all it helped increase interest in and discussion of Elvis’ music at a higher level than it would otherwise have been.

Was moving online a continuation or a watershed?

That is a very good question. My view is that moving online was a natural shift for Elvis fandom due to technological change. While a natural shift, it was also a watershed moment. As mentioned earlier, with one or two exceptions, historically, Elvis fandom was generally a geographically and communication restricted collection of local fan clubs. The advent of the Internet fundamentally changed this. Elvis fan clubs and Elvis fans now had access to the latest news and discussion without having to leave their homes or wait for the next fan club newsletter to arrive. This ‘new Elvis world order,’ with its introduction of Elvis discussion groups and forums, meant that more fans could become involved in issues, more fans could express themselves globally, and more fans could build friendships outside their local area. An outcome of the Internet was that fan clubs had to adapt to the ‘new Elvis world order’ or see their membership shrink.

Can you give us a brief overview of the scope, operation, history, and audience for the Elvis Information Network?

EIN had its genesis in a Canberra based fan club formed in 1986, the Elvis Presley Appreciation Society of the A.C.T. Before interest started to wane, the Society flourished for around five years as a ‘local’ fan club. In the mid-late 1990s, I renamed the club as the Elvis Information Network and prepared to take it online as the Internet started exploding. 

In 1999, EIN was launched online and we quickly lived up to our middle name (“Information”) with authoritative and widely read news, articles, reviews and interviews on a broad range of ‘all things Elvis,’ including our surprisingly popular Conspiracy, Almost Elvis (ETA) and Odd Spot pages. EIN’s core continues to be first rate, balanced information and reviews on Elvis news, new releases and issues in the Elvis world.

Some of EIN’s highlights include the establishment with Sony Australia of the Coalition of Australian Elvis Fan Clubs in 1999, and coordinating the first Online Symposium of Elvis Aaron Presley, which published papers by academics, fan club officials and fans in 2003. The themes expressed in the symposium were diverse, eclectic and stimulating. Some were also provocative, dealing with issues from Elvis as racial and musical integrator, his role as a social transformer, and the worship of him as a religious figure.

Now in our 20th year online, EIN’s popularity continues to increase. Our ‘hits’ vary in number, between five and seven million each month, with major spikes in January (Elvis’ birthday celebration) and, especially, August (Elvis Week). We have readers in more than 20 countries and, based on the messages that we receive, they range from primary school age to over 90. 

From almost two decades of the Network’s existence online, what have you discovered about Elvis’s fans that you didn’t already know?

That we’re all mad (only joking). I believe that thanks to the Internet the positive, collegiate and caring nature of most Elvis fans has been re-affirmed. Undoubtedly, contact with fans globally has also revealed a wide array of different, intriguing and sometimes baffling interests among Elvis fans – who would have thought (and I don’t mean this in a disparaging way) that there are some fans whose primary focus is on Elvis’ film co-stars, or in collecting Elvis buttons.

On the negative side, mirroring the experience in other of society and culture, the Internet has given rise, very unfortunately, to the baser/primeval inclinations of some fans who, usually under the cloak of anonymity provided by the Internet, engage in denigrating, bullying and trolling other fans they disagree with or, for some reason, dislike.

Of particular note here, is the infamous ‘Elvis underground’ which peaked in the early years of the Internet and was a place where death threats and the like were routinely expressed. It was incredible how posters could proclaim the virtues of the latest Elvis album release in one sentence and in the next spit forth nasty, vindictive vitriol. Thankfully, its once prolific message board network is now only a faint shadow of its former self.

Elsewhere you have made an articulate and critical case for taking Elvis’s feature films more seriously. Do you think that the movies were the best use of Elvis’s time in the 1960s?

I think this is a case of ‘with the benefit of hindsight.’ Arguably, the Colonel should not have tied Elvis to long term movie contracts. Had he not done this would have given Elvis greater flexibility in where his career went. There were a number of reasons for the long term contracts. We know the Colonel was an illegal immigrant to the US and was likely concerned that he may not be allowed to re-enter the country if Elvis toured overseas and the Colonel accompanied him.

My view is that given the Colonel’s contacts with influential people and his role in making Elvis one of America’s most profitable brands, he probably didn’t need to worry.

We also know that the Colonel realised the film medium allowed him to put Elvis in front of a worldwide audience in a timely and logistically effective way. Not surprisingly, Elvis’ ‘three pictures a year’ deal stifled him creatively and this was exacerbated by his inability to develop his acting in serious films. 

In this respect, to a large extent Elvis was trapped by his ‘star image’ (aka typecasting) and a Hollywood marketing machine that had become increasingly sophisticated and profit driven. So, unlike Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra before him – who proved that singers could be very good actors, with both winning an Academy Award for their acting – Elvis was generally constrained by an entertainment culture dominated by ‘star image’ (as were other stars, such as Rock Hudson and Dean Martin).

Crosby and Sinatra were able to move to serious acting roles in an era which had a different modus operandi, and in the case of Sinatra, also because his star was on the wane.

Undoubtedly, for Elvis touring outside the US would have been possible, but likely only sustainable for a number of years. If we are honest, in terms of his career, Elvis was a person who became bored with doing the same thing for any length of time. He needed fresh challenges. It is a great pity very lucrative offers to tour Britain, Australia and Japan were not taken up, not to mention what would have been a spectacular show: the $10 million offer by Saudi billionaires, Adnan and Essam Khashoggi, for Elvis to perform ‘live’ in front of the Giza Pyramid in Egypt. What a stunning backdrop that would have made!

Click here for part two.