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Bono's Elvis

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Laura Parfitt Laura Parfitt 18:35, Friday, 15 May 2009

Elvis Presley in 1964

When you make a radio programme, you wait for the transmission date, you hope for a couple of reviews in the paper, you listen to the transmission and then it's gone. Elvis by Bono has had a different journey. It's attracted world wide press, has become the most read story this week on the Times Online, been parodied in Private Eye and even been pirated on YouTube.

We knew this programme had the potential to be special a long time ago. Bono had read out his poem 'Elvis - American David' to Des Shaw at Ten Alps while he was recording an interview about Sun Records and said to him that he could do whatever he liked with it. It's written as a 6 minute list of Elvis's life. Des made a CD of the poem, passed it onto sound engineer and composer Chris O'Shaughnessy who gave it to me later that week knowing that I'd listened to U2 since I was 15. When I heard it, I immediately started hearing a soundscape of Elvis archive and music mixed around the poem - it stirred the imagination.

We weren't sure what to do with it, and sat on it for 2 years until Radio 4 seemed ready for this kind of material. When I managed to secure the commission from Caroline Raphael as a joint Ten Alps/White Pebble Media production, I asked Chris O'Shaughnessy to produce it and compose original music to link the sections. I gathered the archive and let Chris do the rest. U2's management graciously let us have artistic freedom. The result is an extraordinary rhythmic 'composition' of sound that charts Elvis's life and music and shines a light on the cult of Elvis.

Since then, the programme has taken on a life of its own. There has been an avalanche of press around it - from all the major papers around the world to tiny websites run from small towns in America. I guess Elvis and Bono sell. U2.com ran it as their lead news story and apparently were pleased with the results. Many of the stories have criticised the poem, the conceit, but those who have listened have been generally positive, calling it a 'radio event'.

Critic Jane Anderson from the Radio Times summed it up by saying, "I was aware that I was meant to feel somehow blessed to hear this, but I didn't. With my headphones heavy with prejudice I sat back and listened, only to be startled out of complacent disdain by the electrifying brilliance of this recording. It's no grovelling paean to Presley, and Bono's surprisingly sharp appraisal of the man's life is made truly remarkable by producer/sound engineer Chris O'Shaughnessy's inspired layering of effects, clips and archive recordings."

  • Bono, the BBC, the programme's producers and composer Chris O'Shaughnessy have agreed to do something unusual and to make 'Elvis by Bono' available on the Radio 4 web site as a permanent tribute to Elvis Presley. Click here to listen.
  • The picture was taken in 1964 and was sourced through the BBC's picture library, which is called 'Elvis'


  • Comment number 1.

    The thing about Elvis was that he got a reputation as a Redneck but what nobody understood was that it had all been an exercise in the really newest thing: marketing. It just so happened that the market had a particular profile.
    One day Parker put his hand on his shoulder and said "Son, it is all been about me" and Elvis could not take it.


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