The King is a Copycat [Too]

By Mark Earls, Herdmeister at Herd Consultancy

“There have been a lotta tough guys. There have been pretenders. And there have been contenders. But there is only one king.” Bruce Springsteen

“He was a unique artist — an original in an area of imitators.” Mick Jagger

Of all the icons of musical creativity in the 20th Century, Elvis Presley remains an original: from his early Rockabilly days with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, through his Hollywood period, to his gloriously overblown Vegas years, Elvis remains distinctly original and not just as a white man playing the blues (there were a number of those around Young Elvis’ Memphis). The great classical composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein was unstinting in his estimation of Elvis’ impact, in his view:

“Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything — music, language, clothes — it’s a whole new revolution. The ’60s comes from it.”

He changed the course of popular music with his musical choices and his vocal stylings — the Reverend Al Green, one of the greatest soul and R&B writers and performers of all time, suggests that:

“Elvis had an influence on everybody with his musical approach. He broke the ice for all of us.”

And as both James Brown and Jackie Wilson noted, his act became the template for many black artists whose music he loved:

“A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.”

Rod Stewart sees a more direct influence:

“People like myself, Mick Jagger and all the others only followed in his footsteps.”

The one and only

Elvis’ physical appearance — be it as the beautiful Sun-era hoodlum, the mid-era cheesecake (Warhol rightly picked out Gunslinging Elvis to play with) or the bloated jump-suited beast of the latter years — still seems so unique. Most of us have at some time tried out an Elvis move and vocal mannerism (an “uh-huh” or a “vair march”) and most of the time our efforts are rewarded with recognition. Impersonating (“paying homage”) to the King is no new phenomenon — France still just about has it’s own Elvis (Johnny Halliday) and Britain has both Cliff Richard, whose early career was built on Elvis impersonation, and a host of others (including Cardiff’s own Michael Barrat AKA Shakin’ Stevens who styled himself on Truck Driver Elvis, wobbly leg and everything). You don’t have to look far to see Elvis in today’s leading performers — Alex Turner, frontman of the Arctic Monkeys has recently (like so many before him) restyled himself as a young Elvis-a-like.

Even today some 37 years after his death, Elvis remains one of the favourite fancy-dress choices around the world and the basis of many a night-club act: at various times and in various places, I’ve seen Chinese, Sikh, Jamaican, Bangladeshi and Thai Elvis impersonators. Recently the “Elvies” (an annual festival of Elvis impersonation held in the South Wales holiday resort of Porthcawl) managed to break the world record for the simultaneous performance of 942 Elvises (singing “Hound Dog” of course).

Copycat Elvis

You’d think then, that for Elvis to be “The King”, to be “The Original”, “The One and Only” he’d need to be, and do, original and different at every turn.

Interestingly, the truth is otherwise: Elvis wasn’t even his mother’s only son — he was one of a pair of identical twin boys to be delivered to Gladys Presley on January 8th 1935. Sadly Jesse Garon Presley was born stillborn and Elvis remained an only child for the rest of his life.

His music was far from original — the early swampy mix of blues, country and gospel emerged from the stew of all those gamblers, hustlers and musicians drawn from across the Mississippi delta to downtown Memphis. Indeed, the story goes that on his first session at Sun Records, it was only by accident that the hard-paced rockabilly sound was spotted. Elvis, Scotty Moore & drummer Bill Black were mucking around while a tape was being changed, racing through a fast cover version of the old country tune, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. “That’s it”, came a voice from the control room — “that’s the sound!” Over the years, his love of gospel styles (learned especially from family visits to the Tupelo Assembly of God Church) became more and more clear and visible, as did his love of sentimental ballads of all sorts.

While in later years, his management twisted the arms of songwriters to hand over a share of publishing credits to the Big Man for him doing the favour of recording their tracks (including, unsuccessfully the stony-hearted Dolly Parton) Elvis was essentially a covers artist — using other people’s music as the basis of his art. For example, while you may think “Hound Dog” as a Presley tune, it was written 4 years before Elvis’ cover by 19-year-old songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and was a hit for blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1953, spawned a handful of country-style covers and a bizarre selection of “response” and spoof records (including “Bearcat” with re-written lyrics by Sun’s own Sam Phillips).

It appears that Elvis was particularly taken by the tempo and the verve of the version played and recorded by Vegas lounge act Freddie Bell & the Bellboys: “When we heard them perform that night, we thought the song would be a good one for us to do as comic relief when we were on stage. We loved the way they did it.” noted guitarist Scotty Moore. So Elvis and the boys copied it and made it their own.

His clothes were not especially original or novel either: from his earliest days hanging around in Memphis, Elvis’ loved the street fashion he saw from the cosmopolitan, and somewhat shady crowd that gathered on Beale Street. Local shopkeeper and tailor Bernard Lansky dressed Elvis throughout his career — as he got more famous, Lansky and his brother either closed the original Beale Street shop so that Elvis could shop unmolested by his fans, or took armfuls of “real sharp” threads up to Graceland for the King to select his own. Lansky’s influence on Elvis lasted nearly 25 years: “I put his first suit on him and his last suit on him,” he boasted. Over that time, Lansky introduced him to the latest street-sharp looks in Downtown Memphis. From the peg-leg pants and boxy jackets of the early days through the leather jumpsuit of the ’68 comeback TV special and the white all-in-ones of the Vegas and Hawaii era — all of these looks Lansky borrowed from what hustlers and gangsters were wearing in that one small Southern city. And helped Elvis to do the same, too.

It’s not even that his name is all that original (although it may seem now to us that there could never be another Elvis): it’s no “moonunit” (the name Frank Zappa gave to one of his unfortunate children). Indeed, analysis of the historical record suggests that the name was already in decline in the US when Elvis was christened. And as our own Dylan Thomas impersonator, Rory Sutherland, points out, Elvis is a Welsh name. It is the name of the bishop who baptised the future patron saint of God’s Own Country, St David. This is why the original Church of St Elvis is not to be found in Memphis or Vegas, but on a windswept Pembrokeshire hillside, within reach of the city of St Davids and in sight of the Irish Sea.

So what does all this Elvisology have to tell us about creativity and originality?

Well, first and most importantly, it’s clear that copying and originality aren’t polar opposites: being original and doing original work is often best achieved by using the power of copying. Elvis was a covers act, whose musical stylings were borrowed and honed through practice and accident. His iconic appearance was the result of borrowed fashions and styles. Even his name — perhaps the most “unusual” aspect of the piece — turns out to have a long, borrowed history. Elvis is not a fake but he is a copycat and that’s what makes him and his music so original.

Other creative minds have long appreciated this simple truth about making original things: Sir Isaac Newton may possibly have been the most self-regarding of all physicists but even he was forced to admit that Descartes and Robert Hooke’s work on the science of Optics had provided the basis of his own much acclaimed work.

The Scientific Method — with its focus on experimentation, transparency, peer review and verification through experiment — has enabled science to advance by providing a reliable way for scientists to use each other’s work (rather than just rely on authority and reputation).

While in our world we tend to disdain people who copy and work that is clearly copied from other work (“derivative”, “pastiche” or “rip-off”), there are folk like the brilliant Faris Yakob who have challenged this: Faris’ blog puts the famous Picasso dictum that ‘talent copies, genius steals’ to work to champion and explain “remix culture” and sampling.

Take the Amen break — a 4 bar drum sample from the b-side of the 1969 single by the Winstons, titled “Amen Brother” (sic) which is probably the most sampled piece of music ever. It was originally shared by hip-hop pioneer DJ Breakbeat Lenny on the first of his Breakbeat sample compilation albums in 1986. Slowed down, it became the basic rhythm track for early hip-hop; speeded up, it’s the template for dubstep and drum and bass, and in between it became a mainstay of 90s dance music, even getting sampled by the Gallagher brothers. Taking a piece of someone else’s stuff and using it, collage-style, is one way of using copying to create something new that is now an accepted part of contemporary culture.

But another — more important and more widespread — use of copying to create original work is described by the poet TS Eliot. All poets copy, but it’s how you copy — not if you copy — that signals the poetry’s quality:

“One of the surest tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

On the one hand, there’s Single White Female copying — where accuracy of replication seems to be important; then there’s what you might think of as “sort of” looser copying. This has a really important scientific basis: when a copy is looser, it creates error and it’s in the error and variation that the value for a creative person or enterprise emerges. Mistakes in copying — like Elvis’s speeded-up “Blue Moon of Kentucky” — are where the juice is.

This is clear in genetics and evolution: when your parents bumped uglies to create the amazing unique individual that is you, they produced a mixture of their own genetic material — or rather, copies of their genetic material. It’s the miscopying in this that is responsible for your uniqueness (and as far as the species is concerned, the variation that makes it possible for the evolutionary forces of selection to operate — without variation, selection becomes a very black and white affair).

If you’ve ever played the “Chinese whispers” line game with me, you’ll know how rapidly copying a simple gesture along a line can create innovation and transform the original thing.

Of course, this is not what we normally mean by “copying” — we tend to think about copying either as deceit (think of forger Tom Fielding’s “Sextons” or of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” which — so the circuit judge thought — was unconsciously copied from Ronnie Mack’s original “He’s so fine”); or, think about copying in terms of producing the same old, same old. The business school notion of “benchmarking” tends to produce just this kind of bad copying result: again and again, when key players in an industry benchmark themselves against each other, this will tend to commoditise the market, producing interchangeable products, processes and services.

What’s needed is looser copying — copying making errors — rather than Single White Female copying.

Far far away

The other way to access this power of looser copying is to copy from far away. Again, T.S.Eliot put it clearly:

“A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest”

Rather than copy from your immediate peers, copy from as far away as possible. If everyone’s copying Korean filmmakers, look at Argentinian or African sources — anything to get away. If everyone’s design is aping Apple, who are you going to look for as your source material?

In my work, I’ve turned this into a whole approach to solving problems: together with my collaborators, I’ve collated some hundred different types of strategy, each of which has been successful in a particular context (from Frederick the Great teaching the Prussians to eat potatoes to Apple making their users advertise the popularity of their music players by using white earbuds).

Rather than following the traditional reductionist approach (where there must be only one answer to the client’s unique problem), we ask first what kind of problem is this and then use the 25 or so strategies appropriate for that kind of problem to act as start-points. This pushes the thinking as far as possible away from the problem we’re thinking about and whatever rules might be the norm for people working in the space.

And if my observations about how people use this archive is correct, it seems that having several potential sources is important in making the copying looser. In innovation projects, my chum John Willshire does the same thing with a game he calls “popular thing — broken thing”, which encourages problem solving by using a whole range of different successful answers — sometimes at least, we need to shake off our habitual solutions and force ourselves to look at a wider range of source materials.

This is where that old practice of scrap-booking is so useful: noticing and recording things you find interesting and useful, and then forcing yourself to apply them as source material to any problem that comes your way, creates the opportunity for error and variation. The more different things you can copy from and the further away they are from your problem, the better because you’re creating more error.

Alex’s top tips:

My friend and co-author Professor Alex Bentley first opened my eyes to the importance of copying, so I thought it only appropriate to ask him for his tips on copying and creativity (one of the core subjects of his Anthropology and Archaeology studies). And for me to pass them off as my own.

Get over the idea that copying is cheating.

Yes, when you discover all of the movie plots identical to Avatar, it’s hard not to think worse of the movie and its creator. But loose copying and copying from far away really do create error and variation and it helps you see the problem from new angles rather than the same old way. It’s also something that humanity have long done — Anthropologists distinguish between “invention” (what we would normally think of as creativity) and “innovation” (using copying to create variation and error and thus new ‘stuff’).

Get over the idea that copying makes you a cheat.

Copying is a natural as breathing — we do it from the moment we are born and it becomes our species’ #1 learning style. The ability to use the brains and behaviour of those around us — to outsource the cognitive load, as the scientists put it — is one of the central evolutionary advantages that our species has. Just don’t be a Single White Female.

Not copying is cheating yourself.

In his recent Reith lecture, transvestite ceramicist Grayson Perry points out that “Originality is for those with short memories”. All those ideas and suggestions are out there in the world, waiting for you to use them — why ignore them and insist that you have your own idea. Is it really worth it? Yes, you may be a genius but even then it’s probably a better bet to start elsewhere.

Ask yourself this: if copying is good enough for Elvis, why isn’t it good enough for you?

The above was taken from the “Creativity” section of our latest book, Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation, which features chapters from 35 leading creative directors and business owners giving their views on the big topics shaping the future of advertising and brands.

And if you liked this piece, we would highly recommend, Mark’s new book: Copy Copy Copy: How to do Smarter Marketing by Using Other People’s Ideas.