Music Features

Greil Marcus Interview - The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs

Picking up Greil Marcus’ new book, The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, you might expect a tour through the usual suspects, maybe starting with Rocket 88 or That’s Alright Mama, moving through I Want to Hold Your Hand, Satisfaction, and Like a Rolling Stone, finishing off with God Save the Queen and Smells Like Teen Spirit.  You’d be wrong – completely.  How about the Flaming Groovies’ Shake Some Action, or the Drifters’ This Magic Moment?  Where is Beyonce singing as Etta James, All I Could Do is Cry?  And why didn’t you think of video artist Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag?   If these don’t seem like obvious choices to you now, they will when you finish the book.  In his inimitable style of making connections and penetrating to the heart of the matter, Marcus is convincing in making the case for his unorthodox picks.   Though these are intensely personal choices, there’s no denying the rock and roll drive behind Joy Division’s Transmission or The Beatles’ version of Money.  But to Marcus, rock and roll is less about style than spirit.  There’s an attitude, an approach in these performances that didn’t exist before the rock and roll moment, and is not contained in a 12 bar blues progression, a distorted guitar, or a heavy beat. 

Those familiar with Marcus’ way of approaching his subject, his unexpected detours and penetrating insight, will not be disappointed.  But what sets this book apart and makes it one of his best is its stylistic and thematic coherence, which makes the book read like a protracted reverie.  Its non-canonical approach turns out to be its greatest strength as the reader has no idea what to expect next.  Each chapter unfolds something like this – “Huh?,  hmm, interesting, yeah, nailed it.”  While some might grumble about why their favorite song wasn’t included, the more broadminded will learn something they didn’t already know; there’s really not much more you can ask for from a book.

I had a chance to talk to Greil about his new book.  Click on the audio link below and play the audio widget to hear our discussion.

Plus, Yale Press has put together a cool video about the book you might be interested in: