“Elvis died the day he joined the army” was the purported response from John Lennon when pressed for comment sometime after The King of Rock n Roll’s death in August 1977. Though an acerbically dispassionate response from a supposed pacifist who once campaigned for world peace, Lennon’s point was obvious: Presley’s induction into the U.S Army in 1958 left behind the whirling excitement of his breakthrough years and, the moment his sideburns were lost to military uniformity, he ceased to be the powerful symbol of teenage rebellion who delivered visceral rock n roll belters like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock”.
After spending the majority of the 1960s releasing a succession of blandly formulaic Hollywood vehicles and laughable soundtrack albums, the NBC programme that was to become known as the “68 Comeback Special” saw Elvis back doing what he did best and returned him to the realm of artistic credibility. “If I Can Dream” was written specifically for the show’s finale and was inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr who was shot dead just 2 months before the song was recorded.
Performed on the TV special with the now iconic adornments of all-white suit and red “ELVIS” backdrop, the song was written to order by Walter Earl Brown after Elvis expressed his dismay at the recent assassinations of both King and Bobby Kennedy. “If I Can Dream” is a beautiful yearning for a better world and the lyrics “If I can dream of a better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand” paint a clear utopian image; these somewhat naïve ideals are given ample conviction by Presley’s craving vocal performance and he has perhaps never sung with such emotion and sincerity.
Elvis’ musical career was thus reignited and, nine years ahead of time, Lennon’s words are proved patently wrong.