The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus

history of rockThe first of Greil Marcus’s books I read, Lipstick Traces is a huge, sprawling mass of a book, wondering wildly through time from the origins of Punk Rock to Avant Garde Paris in an attempt to capture the 20th century.  It a massive, wild book, that runs free.  I never made it through the whole thing, but I never felt that mattered.  It’s a book you can open anywhere, read ten or twenty pages, close again and open to somewhere else.  Which all seemed very punk to me, very avant garde

I loved it.

The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs reads like a traditional essay in comparison, but just in comparison.  People unfamiliar with Greil Marcus may find it flummoxing at times.  He still wonders from place to place, he still lets his ideas run a bit wild if not completely free.  This is not your traditional history of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In the opening chapter, which looks at a song called “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin Groovies, a 1976, San Francisco band, Mr. Marcus lays out his overall theory of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The point is that before rock ‘n’ roll, as it was defined by those performers, those records, and a thousand more, nothing like what happens in “Shake Some Action” had ever been heard on earth; the point is that rock ‘n’ roll as music, as an argument about life captured in sound, as a beat, was something new under the sun, and it was new here, in 1976, and in the hands of a few people in San Francisco. In that sense, more than twenty years after that fact first emerges to be learned, “Shake Some Action” can itself serve as a founding statement.  “OLYMPIA, the birthplace of rock,” you could have read on the back of an album issued by the Kill Rock Stars label of Olympia, Washington, in 1991.  That meant rock ‘n’ roll could be invented anywhere, at any time, regardless of any rumors that something vaguely similar might have happened before. 

C.J. pointed out to me, when I read this passage to him, that this is essentially an adolescent idea, this notion that we are making something that has never been heard before.  I think C.J. is right, but I think Marcus is right, too.  Just like every person who ever fell in love for the first time was THE first person to ever fall in love, rock ‘n’ roll is about being totally new.  Later on we can all look back and see that it wasn’t really new, that we weren’t really the first to be in love or the first to make this kind of music.  Even Greil Marcus can find a history behind each of the ten songs that make up his book.

They are:

  • Shake Some Action by The Flamin’ Groovies
  • Transmission by Joy Division
  • In The Still of the Night by The Five Satins and later by The Slades
  • All I Could Do Was Cry by Etta James and later by Beyoncé
  • Crying, Waiting, Hoping, by Buddy Holly
  • Money (That’s What I Want) by  Barrett Strong and later by The Beatles
  • Money Changes Everything by The Brains and later by Cyndi Lauper
  • This Magic Moment by The Drifters with Ben E. King
  • Guitar Drag by Christian Marclay
  • To Know Him is to Love Him by The Teddy Bears and later by Amy Winehouse

You’ll notice that this list of songs seems to undermine Marcus’s essential theory that rock ‘n’ roll is always new since so many of them include songs that have been covered, sometimes so well that the cover overshadowed the original.  But that’s part of his point.

Take “Money Changes Everything,” a song most of us know because of Cyndi Lauper’s cover, for example.  In its original form by The Brains, it’s a rant against the corrupting forces of money sung from the point of view of the boyfriend whose girl has left him for someone richer.  Cyndi Lauper doesn’t just switch the pronouns, nor did she in her cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” but that shall be a subject for another day.  Instead, Lauper puts herself in the position of the girl who is leaving one boy for a richer boy.  You can really see how this affects the song in the way each sings the lines “Oh, how could you do it/we swore each other everlasting love/Yeah, I know, but when we did/there was one thing we weren’t thinking of.”  Turns out the word “Yeah” can really pack a punch.

Marcus gives the story of both versions, and of both artists, their back story as well as what happened to each afterwards.  What struck me is how the two continued to battle over this song in the years that followed.  Not legally, but artistically.  Who owns the song?  This is another common theme in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. It happened with Etta James and Beyoncé and to a lesser extent with Barrett Strong and The Beatles.  Later in their careers both Cyndi Lauper and The Brains’s Tom Gray with his new band Delta Moon released  acoustic versions of “Money Changes Everything,” each version featuring a dulcimer.  Both are pretty good and both end up bringing a new take to an old song.

And, to be honest, I never noticed that bit about the “yeah” before, nor did I really see how powerful Lauper’s version is because she makes the song about  a victorious woman.  It really does say something different about the power of money.

Greil Marcus does this with all of the songs in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, expand our understanding of them through very close reading of the words and the music.  That’s a major reason why I liked it so much.  But the reason why I’m making it a late entry on my long list of favorite reads for 2014 is the writing.  Greil Marcus loves words.  Why use ten words when 30 can do the job?  He goes off into flights of language that are just so much fun to read.  While you can convey a lot of emotion with an economical writing style, there’s nothing like letting your passion run free with a series of appositives reaching a verbal crescendo.  He’s a bit like a really good preacher, one of those old time preachers who just sort of lose control now and then.

I loved it.

And I think my old copy of Lipstick Traces is around here somewhere……