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