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

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs

Greil Marcus

history

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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Nas Review: Life Is Good

Nas

Life Is Good

album cover art for the Nas album Life is Good cover art

It was 1994 when Nas released his debut album Illmatic, which helped strengthen the on-the-rise East coast hip hop scene all the more. Since then, he has released nine more albums, almost all of them being the same level of dynamic quality as his debut. Sure there were slumps here and there, a few rivalries sparked up (most infamously with Jay Z), and the birth of his mainstream success, but none of these things have ever seemed to phase Nas. He has always seemed to stay consistently on par making his own brand of jazzy, instrumental-based hip hop with tack sharp, socially poignant lyrics flowing over the back beats like wine through the gullet of Dionysus himself. The only thing that seems to separate Life Is Good from the rest of his albums is that it took him two extra years than it normally does for Nas to put the album out. Not that he took the time to recreate himself in any large way, but maybe to recover from the loss of some friends, the divorce from his wife Kelis (which is a primary theme in the album), and to try and figure out his place in hip hop once again, which I believe is still near the very top.
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Amy Winehouse Review: Lioness

Amy Winehouse
Lioness: Hidden Treasures

We all knew it would come out eventually, it was just a matter of when. It’s a hard pill to swallow that Amy left so early in her career with so much promise in her future. She was only getting started, but it never really seemed like she was going to be able to pull herself together enough to become truly successful, or truly happy. Many bands have come and reworked the sounds of the 60’s into modern rock once again (ie The Strokes, The Hives, The Redwalls, Dr. Dog) But Amy and the pioneering team of producers behind her were spearheading the revival of that beloved Motown sound that had been missing in music for over 40 years. It was brilliant … She was brilliant. Unfortunately her untimely death has ceased any further progress, but rather than letting the unfinished demos/recordings lay wasted on their hard drive, producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi have hand picked and reworked a few tracks for Amy’s first posthumous compilation album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures. Both brilliant producers have their fingerprints all over this album, essentially constructing/producing every track on the album aside from two (“Wake Up Alone”, “Body and Soul”).
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