Greil Marcus Reveals Secrets Of Rock ‘N’ Roll


Ten songs that shook the world!

By Michael Goldberg:

I’ve learned quite a few things from the critic and cultural historian Greil Marcus over the years, but maybe the first – and the one I keep coming back to — is that when listening to music, the artist’s intention isn’t so important. What really matters is what you and I, as listeners, hear.

You know, what we get from the music.

“I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant,” Marcus wrote in the prologue to his book, Bob Dylan, Writings 1968 – 2010. “I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people’s responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it – I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that.”

Marcus has been sharing his response to the music since the late ‘60s. In Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces, The Old, Weird America: The World Of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and other books he uses art as a doorway, and steps through it to find vast secret histories, histories of America and Europe that mostly hadn’t made it into the history books – at least not in the way Marcus writes.

After reading Lipstick Traces, which starts with Johnny Rotten and then proceeds to spin into a history of anarchistic rebellion going back long before Johnny Rotten was born – I haven’t been able to listen to a Sex Pistols or Public Image Ltd. song without thinking of Dada and the Situationists and the May ’68 protests in France and so many other things that Marcus wrote about in that book.

This new one, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs (Yale University Press, 320 pages), is all about what Marcus hears when he listens to ten songs, and what he hears is unexpected and sometimes revelatory. It’s not any kind of history of rock that you or I have ever read before, because Marcus sees no point in revisiting the same old story that we’ve read numerous versions of since the ‘60s.

One of the big ideas in the book is that the chronological history of rock ‘n’ roll – that blues and country begat Chuck Berry and Elvis begat Dylan and the Beatles and so on and so on, is, if not irrelevant, beside the point. Or if not beside the point, well, we’ve been there. We all know, or think we know, the contours of that story. Marcus has a different story to tell.

“Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else – and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else,” Marcus writes in the introduction to his book. “But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, or discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language – which though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before – that speaks. In rock ‘n’ roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself.”

He continues:

“’It’s like saying, “Get all the pop music, put it into a cartridge, put the cap on it and fire the gun,’ Pete Townshend of the Who said in 1968. ‘Whether those ten or 15 numbers sound roughly the same. You don’t care what period they were written in, what they’re all about. It’s the bloody explosion that they create when you let the gun off. It’s the event. That’s what rock and roll is.’ Any pop record made at any time can contain Pete Townshend’s argument. … which is to say that this book could have comprised solely records issued by the Sun label in Memphis in the 1950s, only records made by female punk bands in the 1990s, or nothing but soul records made in Detroit, Memphis, New York City, San Antonio, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago in 1963.”

And more:

“From that perspective, there is no reason to be responsible to chronology, to account for all the innovation, to follow the supposed progression of the form. The Maytals’ ‘Funky Kingston’ is not a step forward from the Drifters’ ‘Money Honey,’ or Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’ a step forward from ‘Funky Kingston.’ They are rediscoveries of a certain spirit, a leap into style, a step out of time. One can dive into a vault as filled with songs as Uncle Scrooge’s was filled with money and come out with a few prizes that at once raise the question of what rock ‘n’ roll is and answer it.”

I’ve been reading reviews and books by Marcus since the late ‘60s, and he’s dead serious about what he puts on the page. And about what he discovers when he listens to and then writes about rock ‘n’ roll. This is serious stuff, life or death, and if you think music is nothing more than entertainment, well this book is probably not for you.

Reading Marcus is hard work because you have to think when you read his sentences. He takes for granted that you know a hell of a lot about music and art and film and literature. He’s not into coddling the reader. So when he calls his book “The History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll In Ten Songs,” it’s not that you’re going to get the literal history of the music, what you’re going to get is a theory about rock ‘n’ roll, and then ten examples that, in different ways, back up that theory.

So Marcus takes his ten songs and writes an essay about each. He works hard to tell us why these songs matter so much to him, why each in its own way contains the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and why they should matter to us too. And after you read this book, they likely will.

Surprisingly, there’s nothing obscure about these songs. Well, there’s one, “Guitar Drag,” that is pretty obscure. But those of us who really care about all the various musics that fall under the umbrella of rock ‘n’ roll (and at this point I’d include blues and country and reggae and, and…) have heard these songs. In some cases, have played them obsessively. Which is a good thing, because what Marcus does is open the songs up. He uses these songs as if each were a film he’s watching, and then tells us some of what he sees. He tells us stories he’s found in these songs, or that circle around them.

He starts with the greatest song mentioned in his book, the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action.” Yeah, we could fight about that. Maybe for you, the greatest is “In the Still of the Night,” or “Money (That’s What I Want)” or “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” and on another day, while I’m listening to it, perhaps I’d say “Money Changes Everything” or “Transmission” is the greatest, although probably not.

Well anyway, today it’s “Shake Some Action,” and frankly, that song has been in my Top 10, or Top 20, or Top 100 since I first heard it in 1976, and while it played (while it plays) I feel as free as I’ve ever felt, I feel like I can take on anything, and all the jive of this world falls away and for three-plus minutes the Truth is revealed.

So it’s some song, that song, that “Shake Some Action” song.

The Flamin’ Groovies began in San Francisco in the late ‘60s. In the beginning they were a kind of retro rock band, looking back to the ‘50s for a sound and an attitude. But soon enough their music morphed into Stones-y hard rock and the Groovies delivered their first masterpiece, the album Teenage Head. Forty-plus years later, the title track still delivers the icy shiver it did the first time I heard it. But it was only after the band’s original singer Roy Loney split and was replaced by Chris Wilson, and they traded in the Stones fixation for the power-pop of The Beatles and the Byrds, that Groovies mastermind Cyril Jordan wrote the song that has defined the band ever since.

And yes, it was that song. “Shake Some Action.”

For Marcus, it’s the only Groovies’ song that matters. Me, I would argue that “You Tore Me Down” is at least as great, and maybe better. But this is Marcus’ book, so he gets to pick he songs.

He quotes from an interview I did with Jordan in 1980 and utilized in the liner notes to a Groovies’ compilation album, Groovies Greatest Grooves, that myself and the writer Michael Snyder put together.

“’It was the only free country left in the world,’ he [Jordan] once said, not talking about America but about rock ‘n’ roll in America, or anywhere else. ‘No boundaries, no passports. There wasn’t even a government.’ By 1976, rock ‘n’ roll might have seemed like an old story, fixed and static, it’s secrets all exposed, a fact to learn: precisely a government, run by a few record companies and half a dozen lifeless icons. But in ‘Shake Some Action’ everything is new, as if the secret had been discovered and the mystery solved on the spot.”

Marcus then lists nine “founding” rock ‘n’ roll statements (songs) and writes: “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 every 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, in the hands of a few people in San Francisco… That meant that rock ‘n’ roll could be invented anywhere, at any time, regardless of any rumors that something vaguely similar might have happened before.”

This is the profound point that the whole book rides on. That at any moment a band, or individual, can make music that is brand new – “something new under the sun,” as Marcus puts it.

“It’s what the singer is afraid of losing defined now purely in the positive,” Marcus writes, “as flight, as freedom, in Norman Mailer’s words loose in the water for the first time in your life, because no matter how many times in how many pieces of music you are swept away as the instrumental passages of ‘Shake Some Action’ can sweep you away, it’s always the first time.”

From 1976 and “Shake Some Action,” we jump to 1979 and the new wave post-punk gloom band Joy Division and their song “Transmission,” by way of the 2007 dramatic film about Joy Division, “Control,” and the 2010 film “Brighton Rock,” which has nothing to do with Joy Division, and yet has everything to do with them.

What is so challenging regards writing about this book is that Marcus is constantly throwing ideas out, challenging preconceptions, pushing the reader out of their comfort zone. In this case, in this chapter, Marcus deals with what, exactly, art is, and posits, via quotes from the critic Leslie Fielder, that for something to be art, the book (or painting or music) must take a stance of “no” in the face of contemporary life, or at least that’s how I interpret it.

Quoting Fielder: “For major novelists and minor, the pursuit of the positive means stylistic suicide. Language itself decays, and dialogue becomes travesty; character, stereotype; insight, sentiment. The Nobel Prize speech destined for high school anthologies requires quite another talent from that demanded by the novel; and the abstract praise of love requires another voice from that which cries No! to the most noble temptations, the most defensible lies.”

And that’s not all. But maybe it’s enough.

Here I’ve devoted over 2000 words to the introduction and the first two chapters. But there are more chapters, more ideas, explorations of “In the Still of the Night” and “All I Could Do Was Cry” and “Crying Waiting Hoping” and “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Money Changes Everything” and “This Magic Moment” and “Guitar Drag” and finally, “To Know Him Is To Love Him.”

For Marcus it’s the song, not the singer, although that’s not quite it. He wants us to understand that no performance of a song is ever the same as another performance of that same song. Everything hinges on what happens in the two minutes or three minutes or ten minutes or 20 minutes that the song is being played. And although Marcus doesn’t compare the two studio versions of “Shake Some Action,” if he had, I would hope he would point out how different the second, cut in 1973 at a Capitol Records studio in L.A. is from the version Dave Edmunds produced at Rockfield Studios in Wales a year earlier that ended up on the Shake Some Action album that was released in 1976. How the guitars in the 1973 version carry an anger, no a fury, that is absent from the 1972 version, and how that fury, still heard in Cyril Jordan’s guitar work as recently as last year, is what makes Jordan rock’s greatest unacknowledged guitar player. That fury in Jordan’s guitar sound is the Hard No that Leslie Fielder writes about.

And that Hard No is present in Greil Marcus’ writing, and, yes, it’s another thing I’ve learned from him. If you read “The History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll In Ten Songs,” and if your mind is open, you might learn a few things too.

Michael Goldberg has just published his rock ‘n’ roll novel, True Love

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM ( in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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