Reviewed by Annabel
Greil Marcus is, arguably, the granddaddy of contemporary popular music journalism, having been the first reviews editor for Rolling Stone magazine, which was founded in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, and a columnist, critic and reviewer there and at other esteemed publications such as the Village Voice ever since. Along the way, he’s written some classic books about rock ‘n’ roll; his first from the mid-1970s, Mystery Train, subtitled Images of American Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, remains revered today.
It is Marcus’s ability to contextualise music, seeking out influences from literature, TV, film, art, politics and beyond, that makes his writing so interesting. He always considers the effects of history and the world at large, enabling him to make connections that may seem obvious once described but elude you until you read them. For fans of the history of rock ’n’ roll and writing about popular culture, Yale have published two volumes by Marcus this autumn.
The first is the paperback edition of The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. Let me disabuse you of your response to that title immediately. This is not a book about ‘the ten best rock ’n’ roll songs ever’ according to Marcus. Instead, he picks ten songs that to him embody and personify what rock ‘n’ roll is. They’re not obvious choices either – he looks for deeper connections as he explains in the introduction:
Who, as the music took shape and developed a memory, was really speaking to whom? What if the real, living connection is not between, say, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but between the Beatles and Buddy Holly – or simply, which is to say not simply at all, between a single Buddy Holly song and the Beatles’ attempts, across the entire length of their life as a group, to play it?
I’m not going to go through Marcus’s choices, just pick up on bits from a couple of them that particularly resonated with me.
The first is the strangeness of his second pick – Transmission by Joy Division. I was never a fan, preferring much happier and/or prog-rockier fare in 1979 when this track came out. However, I did enjoy Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control, which was all about Factory Records and New Order’s lead singer Ian Curtis specifically. This is where Marcus starts his dissection of that song and it’s place in his pantheon.
‘Transmission’ is not an argument. It’s a dramatization of the realization that the act of listening to the radio is a suicidal gesture. It will kill your mind. It will rob your soul.
He draws parallels between Joy Division and The Doors – as Curtis inherits Jim Morrison’s mantle, we get quotes from Faulkner, interviews with Peter Hook. The hook of this piece though is the film Control and how the young actor Sam Riley who plays Ian Curtis uses that experience in his next major role – Pinkie in the remake of Brighton Rock.
I found the chapter on Buddy Holly’s song Crying, Waiting, Hoping, a particularly satisfying one. In it, Marcus expands on his premise from before that emulating Holly was what the Beatles initially hoped to do, via the Stones and Dylan along the way. Interestingly, he shows what a great song-writer Holly was, and how the Stones got Holly, by referring to their cover of Not Fade Away:
The Rolling Stones heard the open spaces in ‘Not Fade Away’, and what they did with it is a proof of how much room there was in Holly’s songs.
The Beatles played Crying, Waiting, Hoping as one of their audition songs when they were rejected by Decca. Played as ‘boilerplate Merseybeat’ says Marcus, as the group kept the song in their repertoire.
The closer in this musical tour is the Teddybears’ hit To Know Him is to Love Him, written by Phil Spector, and covered by Amy Winehouse in 2006. A chapter of notes on sources etc, which is fascinating in itself concludes this volume.
Marcus fans will love this book, and it would make an interesting present for anyone interested in the history of contemporary popular music.
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For nearly thirty years Marcus has written a column called ‘Real Life Rock Top Ten’. Mostly monthly, it has followed him from publication to publication, and this volume collects together all of those top tens. Starting in 1986 at the Village Voice, it runs through to 2014 where it had been appearing in the slot in The Believer formerly occupied by Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading columns. It continues too, appearing now on the Barnes & Noble website.
From TV ads to gossip columns, via new books and records – these Top Tens encompass literally anything that catches his eye or piques his interest. Here are just a few of the more pithy samples:
May 1986. 3. Stephen Davis, Hammer of the Gods – The Led Zeppelin Saga (Ballantine) Davis wildly overrates the music, digs up and then smoothes out endless incidents of exploitation, sexism, and violence, and finally makes an ultimately meaningless story moving. Still, you’ve got to like the bit about drummer John Bonham placing below Karen Carpenter in the ’75 Playboy music poll.
May 1, 2000. 1. American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron (Lions Gate) This really is Katrina Leskanich’s moment. In 1985 with Katrina and the Waves she scrubbed the airwaves clean with the horrifyingly bright “Walking on Sunshine” (“Soon to be a major floorwax commercial,” one reviewer wrote at the time.) Now the gruesome thing is leaking out of Patrick Bateman’s headphones as he heads into his office, services as a hideous wake-up call on High Fidelity, and chirps from your TV in incessant ads for Claritin allergy pills while fresh-faced folk frolic on the grass and little kids pick up the chorus. No wonder everyone has to die.
May 2002. 2. Sheryl Crow, “Soak up the Sun” (A&M) Money, fame, cheesecake photos, and on this song she still sounds like someone making her first record without the slightest interest in whether it will go anywhere at all.
He does say nice things too, but those entries tend to be slightly lengthier. Although it’s US-centric, but not exclusively so, I have really enjoyed dipping into this history of pop culture over the past thirty years. If you want to get an instant feel for a particular month or year in music and film, this volume will certainly give you a critic’s view!
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Marcus Greil, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs (Yale, 2015). 978-0300216929, 320 p.p., paperback.
Marcus Greil, Real Life Rock (Yale, 2015). 978-0300196641, 600pp., hardback.