The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs Review

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs

Greil Marcus

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Rock ‘n’ roll music as its evolved has become harder and harder to define. You often hear a couple different approaches to define rock ‘n’ roll: either talking about the music itself (any type of music coming out of a combination of blues, country, New Orleans jazz, and gospel) or the spirit of the music (youthful and rebellious).

When defining the history of rock ‘n’ roll, legendary rock critic Greil Marcus argues in his new book The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs that simply looking at who is in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland isn’t enough. Marcus was the first reviews editor for Rolling Stone, in certainly would belong in a museum of his own if there was one for rock journalism. After listing every inductee into the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame, Marcus states there is no better way to capture and define rock ‘n’ roll then the music itself, then defining ten songs that characterize the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll.

The ten songs chosen are by no means the obvious choices in terms of the most monumental (that would be more “Rock Around the Clock”, “God Save the Queen”, etc) or the most comprehensive (almost every song here was written in the late 50’s or early 60’s), but it’s certainly a fascinating choice of ten songs. Like any good critic, Marcus uses the 10 songs as a gateway into a larger theme, idea, or emotion that a large portion of rock music encompasses. Marcus uses Joy Division’s “Transmission”, the second newest song on the list, as a way to explore rock’s sense of rebellion against the absurdity of life. He uses “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” by Buddy Holly and “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong to talk about the Beatles, their covers of each song, and what it meant to the band at that point in their careers.

“Shake Some Action” by the Flaming Groovies – Just one of the ten songs Marcus chooses.

 

The book doesn’t just talk about one version of each song, but for each song, discusses several versions of the songs, and in many occasions, admits the original wasn’t the best of the bunch. “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, a doo-wop tune first done by Phil Spector’s band the Teddybears, is discussed more in terms with Amy Winehouse’s version, and how the song was actually truly meant for her, nearly 60 years after it was written. There is also far more than 10 songs discussed, as this is truly a pretty loose structure for which Marcus shares his observations and ideas on any number of things: Robert Johnson’s legacy, the horrific murder of James Byrd, Jr., the ordinary brilliance of Buddy Holly, or the troubled life of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Marcus’s writing works a lot like his brain: moving from association to association, and if you don’t pay close enough attention, you’ll be wondering why he’s talking about the Superbowl half-time show when he was talking about Etta James.

Above all else, Marcus’s gift for description is unprecedented to anything else I’ve read on music. It’s no secret music can be hard to describe, but Marcus explains the sounds, emotion, and movement of the music better than anyone else I’ve read. The incredible detail and surprising metaphors give you a much deeper appreciation of the music, and truly bring each of these songs to life, even if you couldn’t care less about the Cyndi Lauper. It makes you want to relive each and every song, which in a perfect world, is what music writing should do.

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The Wrecking Crew Review

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In recent years, music documentaries have been covering the unsung heroes of music, from the mysterious artists (Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man and Fantastic Man about Nigeria’s William Onyeabor), to the spaces and behind-the-scenes people that create classic sounds. There’s been a recent string of music studio documentaries about the magic of some famous studios, from Dave Grohl’s Sound City to the southern mysticism of Muscle Shoals. A couple years ago, 20 Feet from Stardom even won a “Best Documentary” Oscar for its tremendous history and day in the life of some of the greatest backup singers. The Wrecking Crew! Looks at the biggest hitmakers of all time, L.A.’s recording band The Wrecking Crew. On a larger scale, the documentary looks at the lost art of the session band: musicians that could by hired and relied on in an instant to play anything you dreamed up.
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CHVRCHES Review: Every Open Eye

CHVRCHES

Every Open Eye

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When a band releases a huge smash debut that’s a critical and commercial success, I strangely feel sympathy for the band. Why? Well to follow up a debut that is the creative culmination of everything you’ve put together from your childhood until now in a year or two has to be overwhelming, and that’s not to mention fan’s crazy high expectations. It’s sort of a no-win situation for their second record.
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Pinestock Music Festival 2015 Review

Pinestock Music Festival

September 11-12, 2015

Churubusco, IN

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Northeast Indiana is not exactly a touring destination or musical hot spot, but Fort Wayne native’s Nick Weaver and Nate Norris have worked hard to make it one, for at least one weekend every September.
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Kamasi Washington Live Review

Kamasi Washington

September 9th, 2015

Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL

Kamasi Washington performs live in the KCRW studio.
Credit: KCRW

As an extremely casual jazz fan, Kamasi Washington’s three hour epic aptly titled Epic is the first jazz record I’ve listened to non-stop in probably five years. For those unfamiliar, Kamasi Washington is an L.A. saxophonist with a laundry list of great recording credits, including work for Snoop Dogg, Flying Lotus, Ryan Adams, Gerard Wilson, Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan, Broken Bells, and of course, stamping his fingerprints all over the album of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Fellow LxLer Todd and I caught Kamasi Washington and his band – filled with musicians Kamasi has played with for over 20 years – at the Bottom Lounge, and it officially ruined the rest of the rock shows we go to this year.

I hadn’t previously been to the Bottom Lounge, but was impressed by the beer selection, atmosphere, and sound of the venue. Before the show, we met Kamasi’s keyboardist Brandon Coleman and trombonist Ryan Porter while hanging out at the bar. Both had some pretty awesome stories from their touring travels with Kamasi – whom they have known and played with since they were kids – and other acts including Alicia Keys and Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Al MacKay. Stories from their childhood and and travels, including a call to the Austrian president to get a band-mate out of jail in time for a gig, were pretty incredible and promising for the show to come.

Drummer Makaya McCraven served as the opener with his band, with extremely powerful but swift drumming. He plays sort of like a hip hop drummer forced to play jazz, a pretty unique style to experience live.

Kamasi then came on stage, fielding two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner), a stand-up bassist (Miles Mosely), female vocalist (Patrice Quinn), trombonist (Ryan Porter), and keyboard and keytarist (Brandon Coleman). Kamasi’s father Rickey, who was running the merch table, also joined the band for about half the set, playing soprano sax and flute. The band’s life-long familiarity and friendship plays into the comfort and fluidity with which the band plays.

Kamasi opened with “Change of the Guard”, the Epic opener that perfectly captures the politically-charged America we currently live in. Kamasi’s style of jazz is fused with hip hop and funk, but definitely channels the spiritual and spacey sounds of John Coltrane. Other highlights included the soulful salute to his grandmother, “Henrietta Our Hero”, the smooth lounge sway of “The Rhythm Changes”, and the fluid “Final Thought”. While Kamasi certainly plays with incredible dexterity and power, it’s the golden tones he consistently strikes with his saxophone that really takes his playing to a new level.

Todd and I definitely learned the hard way when you are used to going to rock shows, the musicianship of a jazz show can certainly make everything else look like child’s play. Kamasi is a force that has not only infiltrated the hip hop and rock world, but will likely be delivering great jazz records for years to come.

P.S. You can learn more about Kamasi and watch him live on NPR’s Jazz Night in America.

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Straight Outta Compton Review

Straight Outta Compton

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If you would told me one of the 10 biggest R-rated movies of all time was an N.W.A. biopic, I’d never believe you. But clearly the original gangster rappers struck a chord with a generation, and also our moment in time.

N.W.A.’s best known members, Beats billionaire Dr. Dre and gangster rapper extraordinaire turned family man Ice Cube,  produced the film, and you can tell they had a roll shaping the narrative. Despite not having the cleanest record, each member comes up looking pretty clean, even though there’s plenty that will tell you otherwise. Even if that’s the case, almost every biopic is pretty celebratory and forgiving of its subjects, so Straight Outta Compton is no exception in this case.

The most interesting character in the film is also its central character, the late Eazy E. Eric Lynn Wright aka Eazy E is played brilliantly by Jason Mitchell, his first major role but one that won’t be his last. He captures the erratic, troubled, but good natured E. He plays an interesting opposite to Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller, N.W.A’s original manager who helped Eazy E start his own label, Ruthless Records. It seems like Giamatti has played this angry antagonist role a lot lately, but this is certainly is one of his most interesting roles: clearly caring for Eazy E but also certainly willing to take advantage of him. In most movies, they would make Heller a downright villain, but here, director F. Gary Gray depicts the truly complicated relationship that likely existed.

Straight Outta Compton certainly couldn’t have been released at a better time, as N.W.A’s fight against racial discrimination from the police is the top of the mind for many. The film depicts this sort of discrimination from the police in a scene that’s the impetus for writing “F**k the Police”. While I think in many ways they make this moment look more righteous and purposeful than it likely was, it certainly does well to spell out the importance of the song’s existence.

At a 2.5 hour runtime, I usually have a tough time paying attention. Straight Outta Compton is surprisingly entertaining throughout, even without any major storyline that carries from start to finish. While a bit cheesy and cleaned up at times, Straight Outta Compton is a great resource for understanding the history and importance of N.W.A.

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Beach House Review: Depression Cherry

Beach House

Depression Cherry

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There are very few artists I come back to more than Beach House. Like other veteran indie artists the National and Spoon, the Baltimore duo’s output is so consistently great and essentially timeless in nature that its perfect to return to when the mood strikes.
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