Rock’n'roll and all that jazz
A new book from Greil Marcus takes a road less travelled when it comes to putting rock’n'roll’s history on the page
I mentioned the new Greil Marcus book, The History of Rock’n'Roll in 10 Songs, in a piece I wrote in the paper at the weekend about Jerry Lee Lewis and the growing blush of heritage acts. Actually, there’s a great book out at the moment too about the Killer by the Killer with help from Rick Bragg, but we’ll come back to that again.
In the case of Marcus, a new book is always a case for eager anticipation. He’s rock’n’roll’s don, the writer and thinker who has put shapes over the years on this most unwieldy and often uncategorisable musical form. Be it Lipstick Traces (the 1989 book which started out with the Sex Pistols and became a headspinning treatise on where punk’s many waves originated) or Mystery Train (the seismic 1975 exploration of how rock moved beyond the margins and its teenage leanings to become a part of the larger American culture), Marcus is a writer who has never lost the love or the critical edge when it comes to parsing and dissecting rock and pop. He’s also a writer where readers need to strap themselves in such is the velocity of his literary swings and roundabouts. A cut and paste merchant he most certain is not.
In The History of Rock’n'Roll in 10 Songs, he lets fly in a typically Marcusian way. The neat title may lead one to believe that he’s going to put 10 tunes under the microscope. Yes, there are 10 tunes here alright, one to kickstart each chapter, but there are hundreds more in the riggings alongside them, a playlist which takes us every which way imaginable to add to the narrative. Anyone who has read Marcus the critic (bylines in every US publication that matters over the years) or writer or academic will know he’s a man largely unable to confine himself to minimalism.
But then, maximalism suits both Marcus and the subject matter because it allows him to roam at will. After all, rock and pop’s borrowings never really confined themselves to one nest. His canvas is large because his view of rock and pop is so broad and deep and full of these magnificently spun connections and roots. While there have been times at the past when his writing has been a little dense and dry, The History of Rock’n’Roll In 10 Songs is a playful, delightful scamp of a read, a history tome which is curious, occasionally inventive and always downright readable.
“Playful” is a good word to use to describe Marcus’ approach because he goes against the grain by and large. When it comes to writing about rock’n’roll, there’s a certain lexicon and cast of characters and few veer from this course. There’s certain standards and tenets which have become a little bland and bloated and Marcus uses a smart way to demonstrate this homogeneous baloney with a list of every single person listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s hundreds of names there and it’s all so, well, safe. This is because, Marcus seems to be saying, rock’n’roll in the manner in which we’ve become accustomed to curating and celebrating it, has become safe. The mavericks and oddballs and freaks have become sidelined, leaving history to be written by the commercial winners. Thus, why so many anodyne rebel yells dominate the discourse.
Marcus thought his publisher’s original idea, to write a history of rock’n’roll, was a terrible idea. “But, then I thought: What if the book was nonchronological, discontinuous, and left out almost everyone who couldn’t be left out (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, the Sex Pistols, Michael Jackson)? What if it neglected the well-known, iconic moments (the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, Bob Dylan going electric), and centered instead on a small number of songs, each of which in its own unique way embodied rock’n’roll? That interested me—and the idea became this book.”
What Marcus is keen to show is a feeling. It’s an emotion which is hard to articulate, but impossible to mistake for anything else when it hits. When he’s talking about Joy Division’s “Transmission” or “All I Could Do Was Cry” (by Etta James and Beyonce) or The Flaming Groovies’ “Shake Some Action”, you’re so caught up in the fever and the writing that you don’t realise you’ve taken the path less trodden. Some will argue vehemently that a book about rock’n’roll without Dylan, the Stones or the Beatles is a fallacy, but obviously, Marcus is not one of those.
That said, the greats do appear. The Beatles are here covering Buddy Holly B-side “Crying Waiting Hoping” (and there’s purple prose for “Sgt Pepper” too) and the Stones appear when Marcus turns his focus on The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” and also praises “Not Fade Away” to the hilt. It’s all grist to the mill, a case of the greats amplifying a point rather than becoming the point. Marcus’ thinking is always anti-rockist even when he’s totally in thrall to what rock’n’roll is supposed to be.
It makes for a thrilling experience with all sorts of characters onboard for the ride. The chapter on Joy Division’s “Transmission” takes in the Beach Boys, Sex Pistols, the Monkees, “The Old Man and the Sea”, Saul Bellow, Dostvevsky, Sixties London and the Kray Twins blackmailing Brian Epstein. I mean, c’mon, who would prefer to hear Peter Hook talking about how they wrote the song after reading that? This is rock’n’roll as literary rollercoaster, a brilliantly bad-ass, freewheeling, free association rough and tumble run through how a song takes on everything and anything around it and even before it.
Throughout, you’re left mesmerised by how much Marcus packs into his lines. He takes a forensic approach to paring songs back to their essence and often takes the road less travelled because it’s far more likely to get people riled up. For instance, he’s provocative in the extreme when he suggests that Phil Spector’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him” only found its feet when Amy Winehouse sang it. Really? Not even Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, John Lennon, Marc Bolan, Gloria Jones or Nancy Sinatra did it justice in the meantime?
There are occasions when you have to really work to stick with his choices before the story reveals itself. Fred Parris and The Five Satins recorded “In the Still of the Night” in a school basement in 1956 and it was an example of the impact doo-wop would have on rock’n’roll. As Marcus goes on to point out, the song was covered by various other groups down through the years, including white vocal group The Slades, one of the many examples of a white group recording the work of black acts and out-selling them.
One of the most fascinating chapters focuses on sound artist Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag”, a track which consists of the sound of a guitar dragged behind a truck. It’s experimental noise, a WTF moment for anyone totally in thrall to much of what is supposed to be rock’n’roll, but a reminder in Marcus’ mind of how rock is supposed to put feedback, distortion, disturbance and disruption centrestage, a throughline which goes all the way to Jimi Hendrix and the steel driving mythical folk hero John Henry.
There are many who would probably prefer a more straight-ahead history of rock’n’roll in ten songs and this book – and Marcus – is most certainly not for them. But for anyone who is fascinated by rock’n’roll’s embrace of the esoteric and its draws for the dreamers will love how the writer lays out his stall – and how it’s clearly obvious that he still has the fever for the sound.