Sunday, December 14, 2014

Greil Marcus’s New History of Rock ’n’ Roll

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: December 14th, 2014

In departure from my stream of album reviews and product updates, I want to try my hand at a book review (of sorts) for today’s post. It’s a book on rock ’n’ roll; so, don’t worry, I won’t be diverging too much from my usual subject matter here.

The book in question is called “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs,” and it’s important to pick up on the obvious irony of this pompously authoritative title. (I doubt anyone could take seriously an author who affects such a foul posture of critical objectivity.) The essential joke of the title would probably be in bad taste if it was made by any writer other than Greil Marcus, one of the first cultural critics to treat rock ’n’ roll as a serious American art form, holding the likes of Elvis Presley up along with the likes of Herman Melville, tracing the promises and betrayals of the American ideal from the pen of John Winthrop to the mouths of John Lennon (who, despite being a Liverpudlian by birth, was no doubt an American artist) and beyond.

The book starts from a simple premise; namely, that the story of rock music has been told so exhaustively since its inception that everyone (more or less) recognizes at the very least a loose outline of the events that have shaped its history – i.e. Elvis Presley, The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, Dylan going electric, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” etc. But as Marcus writes in the introductory section, “A New Language”: “That basically familiar way [of telling the story of rock ’n’ roll] can be summed up by scrolling through the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, letting the names compose the history of the music.” And so the telling of this story another time would be unnecessary, even torturous, a celebration of redundancy. Luckily, Greil Marcus did not set out to reiterate what now seems old, threadbare and lifeless.

In fact, Marcus’s mission in “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs” was to select ten often overlooked, or just plain forgotten, songs (one of which is not so much a song as performance art piece called Guitar Drag) which nonetheless embody the essence of rock ’n’ roll. And the list Marcus puts together is by no means definitive or, for that matter, even comprised, in sheer aesthetic terms, of the greatest songs; rather, the ten songs serve as alternate if not original approach to understanding what we as listeners, as participants even, are promised by this music, and how these promises are fulfilled, betrayed or both.

So, instead of making an argument for the general awesomeness of Greil Marcus’s new book, I’ll just list the ten songs myself (with YouTube links) and let you decide for yourself whether “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs” is worth checking out:

01) “Shake Some Action”; The Flamin’ Groovies
02) “Transmission”; Joy Division
03) “In the Still of the Nite”; The Five Satins
04) “All I Could Do Was Cry”; Etta James
05) “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”; Buddy Holly
06) “Money (That’s What I Want)”; Barrett Strong
07) “Money Changes Everything”; The Brains
08) “This Magic Moment”; Ben E. King & The Drifters/Lou Reed
09) “Guitar Drag”; Christian Marclay
10) “To Know Him Is to Love Him”; The Teddy Bears/Amy Winehouse

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