The King who failed to conquer Switzerland

Elvis with his puppy Sweet Pea in 1956 Keystone

As 50,000 fans attend a candlelight vigil at Graceland to mark the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death on Thursday, Swiss fans are also paying their respects.

This content was published on August 16, 2007 - 09:52

But while the King of Rock'n'Roll has always had many devoted subjects in Switzerland, a look at the country's history and culture explains why Elvismania here has always been rather subdued.

"August 16 is a sad day," Jacqueline Raphael, president of the Elvis Show Fan Club in Basel, told swissinfo. "It's not a day for having big parties, so we're just gathering and listening to Elvis's music and watching some films – remembering him."

Raphael adds that there is no typical Elvis fan. "There are people who are over 70 and children aged six. The most recent fans [to join the club] are teenagers. It's a new generation."

Marketing departments have jumped to tap into this new demographic within two shakes of a pelvis. Sony BMG Switzerland, for example, has just released yet another 'Best Of' compilation aimed at newcomers to Elvis's music.

"Whenever there's an anniversary, demand increases, but in general it is constant," Gabriella Felder from Sony BMG Switzerland told swissinfo.

But this demand got off to a slow start in Switzerland and never reached the hysterical levels of neighbouring Germany.

Late developer

Elvis first hit the top of the US charts in January 1956 with Heartbreak Hotel, but Peter Stähli, a Swiss author on Elvis, says the first article he could find in the Swiss-German press to mention Elvis appeared in October 1956.

Stähli said Elvis entered Switzerland in 1957/58 over the airwaves, but not necessarily Swiss ones.

"At the time young Swiss listeners were listening to AFN [American Forces Network] Radio or Radio Luxembourg and they played Elvis's records. In the Fifties – during his rock'n'roll years – only a minority of young people knew about him and bought his records.

"It's hard to believe that Elvis had to wait until 2002 for his first number one in Switzerland, a remix of the 1968 song A Little Less Conversation – and even that was thanks to a sports clothing advert.

Admittedly however the official Swiss charts did not begin until 1968, and Elvis did in fact have two unofficial Swiss number ones: It's Now or Never, in October 1960, and Wooden Heart, in February 1961, both based on European folk songs (O Sole Mio and Muss i denn zum Städtele hinaus, respectively).

Economic boom

Stähli said the main reason many Swiss youngsters weren't snapping up Elvis's early records was that they couldn't. "Young people didn't have financial independence until the economic boom of the early Sixties," he said.

"Also in the Fifties only a few Swiss spoke and understood English. This changed in schools in the Sixties – just as The Beatles arrived."

And compared with neighbouring Germany, Switzerland took a distinctly neutral attitude towards Elvis.

"Of course he visited Germany in his army days [1958-1960] and in Germany there were still a lot of British and American soldiers who used to go to nightclubs that would play his records. Those soldiers influenced German youth after the Second World War much more than was the case in Switzerland," Stähli said.

"Elvis's real popularity in Switzerland started and peaked in the early Sixties, but really it was nothing compared with The Beatles. The youth revolution in Switzerland came with The Beatles. Elvis came too early."

Youth rebellion

But what did Swiss youth have to revolt against? The country hadn't been badly affected by the war, the economy was taking off...

"The atmosphere for young people was very authoritarian," Stähli remembers. "Swiss musicians who went to England in 1957-58 found the atmosphere much more relaxed and tolerant. Young people were rebelling against authority and the establishment."

Stähli also believes French laissez-faire resulted in Elvis being more popular in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. "They were open to new things and new sounds and the atmosphere there was more tolerant than in the German-speaking part," he said.

But while Elvis failed to make a massive impression on Switzerland, marketing departments and purveyors of tat continue to see the world through yellow-tinted Aviator sunglasses.

"Elvis is timeless," admitted Felder at Sony.

Key facts

Elvis never came to Switzerland and never toured outside the US apart from a few concerts in Canada in 1957.

Forbes magazine currently ranks Elvis as the second-highest-earning dead celebrity – after Nirvana's Kurt Cobain – with an estimated $42 million (SFr51 million) from licensing deals in 2005-2006.

This represents a 40-fold rise in revenue from 1979, when ex-wife Priscilla Presley stepped in as an executor of the estate after the death of Elvis's father Vernon.

His total record sales are more than a billion – and rising.

Since opening in 1982, Graceland – the ornate Memphis home Elvis bought for $100,000 in 1957 – has developed into a travel destination visited by about 600,000 people a year, earning about $27 million in 2006.

In 2004 impresario Robert Sillerman bought 85% of Presley's estate, including rights to the singer's name and management of Graceland, in a deal worth $100 million. Elvis's daughter Lisa Marie owns the other 15%.

When he died aged 42 from a heart attack exacerbated by drugs, Elvis weighed an estimated 150kg and his daily calorie intake was around 100,000 – more than an elephant and enough to feed an average man for a month.

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