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Image: Jamie Inglis for Time Out

‘The King is cool again’: how London fell hard for Elvis

From a blockbuster exhibition to a hologram experience and Gen Zs serenading him on TikTok, the capital can’t get enough of the rock and roll star

Amy Houghton
Written by
Amy Houghton

In case you hadn’t noticed, Elvis Presley has been all over town lately. The so-called King of Rock ‘n’ Roll never performed a single gig in London, yet decades after his death, the city appears to have well and truly caught the Elvis bug.  

There was Alexa Chung’s dress at September’s London Fashion Week with his cherubic face slapped on front and centre and the tribute concert from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra a few months later. Not enough? In October, the most significant collection of his stuff to ever leave Memphis was unveiled at the London Arches and later this year, a hotly-anticipated Elvis hologram experience will premiere right here. But why London, and why now? 

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Never left the building 

Across the world, Elvis’s posthumous popularity has remained pretty consistent, with the aid of a few cultural boosts now and again. Over the decades since his death in 1977, Elvis has had 95 songs in the UK’s official top 40 (including 13 number ones) and his character has cameoed in 31 feature films. According to Forbes, the star currently ranks fourth on the list of richest deceased stars, behind JRR Tolkein, Kobe Bryant and David Bowie. 

Professional Elvis impersonator JD King has spent more than two decades channelling the King, winning awards and performing across London from the Ministry of Sound to Wembley Stadium. When he first started in 2002, Elvis had ‘suddenly become cool again’ thanks to the 25th anniversary of his death and the release of Junkie XL’s remix of ‘A Little Less Conversation’, which soundtracked Nike’s 2002 FIFA World Cup campaign and reached number one in 20 countries.  

 A man dressed as Elvis
Photograph: JD King

‘Throughout the years there have been those little spikes but in general it’s never felt like it’s gone down into a real trough,’ JD tells me on Zoom, his background adorned with Elvis posters and a rack of bedazzled, big-collared bodysuits. 

London’s Elvis buzz makes sense to JD. ‘There’s a lot of cultural exchange between the UK and America. Just as The Beatles became massive over there, Elvis became massive over here.’

Of course, Elvis’s current relevance is courtesy of the 2022 biopic, which exposed a new generation to his snake-hipping ways. Just days before we speak JD had played at a 16th birthday party: ‘She saw the Elvis movie when she was 14, fell in love with Elvis in the same way that I did when I was a kid and became obsessed with him. She even told me which outfits she wanted me to wear.’

Mission: Gen Z

But only recently, the legacy of Elvis-the-Pelvis (an actual nickname) seemed in the lurch. In 2017, a YouGov poll found that 29 percent of British adults aged 18 to 24 had never listened to an Elvis song. At the same time, the value of Elvis memorabilia had dropped significantly, London's official Elvis shop in East Ham was forced to go exclusively online and one expert even claimed that he had been diminished to a ‘novelty act’. Tragic times. 

So, the latest bout of Elvis mania is no accident. It’s the result of a wildly calculated campaign by Elvis Presley Enterprises — which since 2013 has been owned by Authentic Brands Group, the same company in charge of the estates of Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali — to make the King cool again. Or at the very least, profitable.

The latest bout of Elvis mania is no accident

Three years ago, ABG chief exec Jamie Salter declared that 2021 would be ‘probably the biggest year in the history of Elvis Presley’. Rolling Stone reported just how hard Elvis HQ went to try and get the youth on side – a challenging task when you consider certain Gen Z-unfriendly facts like Elvis’s disturbing age gap with his wife and arguments about his appropriation of Black music. 

ABG created a Snapchat filter to get the oil-slicked quiff and sideburns on teen radars and there were reportedly even discussions about downplaying anniversaries of the musician’s death so people don’t get hung up on the fact that Elvis would be a geriatric by now. Last year, Netflix released ‘Agent Elvis’, a cartoon sitcom that follows Elvis (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) leading a double life as a rock ‘n’ roll legend and US government spy. He’s got a chimp for a sidekick and fights bad guys while tripping on LSD. Bizarre, yes. But it got an enthusiastic green light from the Elvis estate and even Priscilla Presley got involved to voice herself.

Elvis exhibition
Photograph: Aled Llywelyn

Then, of course, came the biopic, and in true Baz Luhrmann fashion, it came with a soundtrack that melded old-school Elvis with current stars like Doja Cat and Måneskin – presumably in the hopes of recreating a similar buzz to Junkie XL’s hit. 

Graceland comes to London

Thanks to all of that groundwork, London’s Elvis mecca, ‘Direct from Graceland’, was born. Launched in collaboration with Graceland (Elvis’s Memphis home and shorthand for his estate) it gives seasoned Elvis fans and post-Austin Butler newcomers an intimate window into each and every stage of the crooner’s life. Although it’s only a temporary show, it was recently extended thanks to its immense popularity. 

Launched at the end of last year and spread across 11,000 square feet, the exhibition features more than 450 original Elvis artefacts, including loads of stuff that’s never been seen before. His school graduation certificate, helmets from the American football team that he owned, his Vietnam draft letter, handwritten notes for a kung-fu film idea, his wallet with bank cards still inside: it’s all there.

Scribbles on wall at Elvis exhibition
Photograph: Amy Houghton for Time Out

Venue manager, Neil Jones, says it has surpassed all expectations and they’ve even had visitors leaving the exhibit moved to tears. ‘He was arguably the first influencer in many respects,’ says Jones. ‘You still see the ripple effects from the seismic impact he had on popular culture, not just music, that we’re still seeing today. I think Lennon was right — before Elvis there was nothing.’ 

What Lennon actually said was ‘nothing affected me until Elvis’. And the exhibition’s final rooms make clear that there are hundreds who feel similar. Near the end of the show, you’re met with five walls graffitied with layers of lipstick stains and thousands of passionate scribbled tributes: ‘Elvis I love you to the moon and back, forever in my heart’, ‘I still miss you my first love’, ‘God sent an angel down to earth then called you back to stay’, ‘You will always be King’. 

AI Elvis 

Then, it was announced at the start of this year that London would host the ‘world’s first Elvis immersive experience’ featuring a hologram that brings the star to life. Unlike ‘ABBA Voyage’, ‘Elvis Evolution’, which is launching in a yet-to-be disclosed London location this autumn, won’t be so much a concert as an all-encompassing walk through Elvis’s life and career — from what it was like to live in the deep South to the role that gospel music played in shaping his music. But don’t panic fans: it will still end with a ‘concert finale’. 

Created by ‘immersive experience provider’ Layered Reality, in close collaboration with the Elvis estate, it’s the first show of its kind and the first time that Layered Reality has launched an experience centred on a musical icon. CEO Andrew McGuinness tells me that talks started with ABG at the beginning of 2023. As with the Arches exhibition, all parties recognised the boost given by the Lurmann movie and were keen to get the show on the road ASAP. 

Elvis was the first influencer – you still see the ripple effects from the seismic impact he had on popular culture

After being launched here, Elvis Evolution will open in other global destinations like Tokyo, Berlin and Las Vegas. But why did the British capital make sense for its debut? ‘London is a hub for style and music and it’s been that way since the Elvis days,’ says McGuinness. ‘He’s almost the crystallisation of that, a fusion of those two elements.’ 

Elvis’s brand has endured for more than four decades, spread across multiple continents and seeped into popular culture generation after generation (just compare his glittery bodysuits to Harry Styles’s wardrobe or his heartfelt ballads to those of Father John Misty). While Brits might have missed out on being serenaded by the King IRL, 2024’s Elvis mania should surely provide a little compensation.  

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