The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs


Unlike all previous versions of rock ’n’ roll history, this book omits almost every iconic performer and ignores the storied events and turning points that everyone knows. Instead, in a daring stroke, Greil Marcus selects ten songs recorded between 1956 and 2008, then proceeds to dramatize how each embodies rock ’n’ roll as a thing in itself, in the story it tells, inhabits, and acts out—a new language, something new under the sun.

“Transmission” by Joy Division. “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James and then ...

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History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs

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Unlike all previous versions of rock ’n’ roll history, this book omits almost every iconic performer and ignores the storied events and turning points that everyone knows. Instead, in a daring stroke, Greil Marcus selects ten songs recorded between 1956 and 2008, then proceeds to dramatize how each embodies rock ’n’ roll as a thing in itself, in the story it tells, inhabits, and acts out—a new language, something new under the sun.

“Transmission” by Joy Division. “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James and then Beyoncé. “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” first by the Teddy Bears and almost half a century later by Amy Winehouse. In Marcus’s hands these and other songs tell the story of the music, which is, at bottom, the story of the desire for freedom in all its unruly and liberating glory. Slipping the constraints of chronology, Marcus braids together past and present, holding up to the light the ways that these striking songs fall through time and circumstance, gaining momentum and meaning, astonishing us by upending our presumptions and prejudices. This book, by a founder of contemporary rock criticism—and its most gifted and incisive practitioner—is destined to become an enduring classic.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 08/18/2014
In his typically provocative and far-reaching style, music critic Marcus (Mystery Train) ingeniously retells the tale of rock and roll as the undulating movement of one song through the decades, speaking anew in different settings; it’s a “continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers.” Selecting 10 songs recorded between 1956 and 2008, he ranges gracefully over various performances of the same song, probing deeply into the nuances of each singer’s style as well as the ways that the recorded version of the song reflects its time. Thus, for example, Marcus follows the career of Barrett Strong’s 1963 Motown hit, “Money (That’s What I Want),” and Strong’s harsh and violent rendition to The Beatles’ 1964 version in which John Lennon is “appalled, hateful, and ravenous all at once, and so powerfully the music seems to fall away from him, letting him claim every molecule in the air.” Marcus cannily shifts to a song that deals squarely with the power of money, Tom Gray’s “Money Changes Everything,” and traces the ways the power of the song shifts and transforms in Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 version (she turns it from a “man’s lament into a woman’s manifesto”); her 2005 version (the “only language it speaks is mourning, pain, desperation, and defeat”); and Gray’s 2007 version, which dried up quickly. Marcus brilliantly illustrates what many rock music fans suspected all along but what many rock critics have failed to say: rock ’n’ roll is a universal language that transcends time and space and reveals all mysteries and truths. (Sept.)
Jenny Diski

“A great essay begins with a theme and then makes it fly. Greil Marcus can make it soar. In The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs he does just that. He says of Amy Winehouse that she could unlock a song. Marcus unlocks rock ‘n’ roll history to find more than you ever thought might be there."—JENNY DISKI
Stephen Frears

“I first heard Elvis in early 1956 in a school corridor in Norfolk, England. I knew something profound had happened. Where was Greil Marcus back in those Dark Ages to explain to me what was going on? He knows everything and tells an electrifying story.”—STEPHEN FREARS
Mikal Gilmore

“Like Leslie Fiedler, Greil Marcus is a critic for the ages.  There aren’t many writers I’ve learned more from, nor many whose word for word and sentence for sentence writing I enjoy more.  The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is among his richest work, perhaps his most heartfelt.  Like Mystery Train, it’s something we will be learning from, that will give us new ways to think about the sounds that have filled the worlds around us and the worlds inside us, for years to come.”—MIKAL GILMORE
Walter Mosley

You could go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and take in the artifacts and roll call or you can read Greil Marcus’ kinetic, pulsing, brilliant history of this deeply American art form, The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs. From his choice of which ten songs to explore to his invention of a kind of a listener’s lexicon—a new way of bending sound to language—Marcus captures why Rock and Roll resonates down to our bones. —WALTER MOSLEY
John Jeremiah Sullivan

"When I was 18 and leaving home for college, my brother put one thing in my hand: a copy of Greil Marcus's Mystery Train. It changed my life. More than 20 years have passed, and he's still the Don, still connecting caves. He's as good on Beyoncé in this new book as he was on Harmonica Frank back then, but the range of associations is wider, the mind making them deeper, and the deceptively jazzy precision of his prose sharper. He's a treasure."—JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
Farah Jasmine Griffin

"Greil Marcus lingers inside a song, following it from the first utterance to the last note, through performances across time, to give us the context, meaning, and interpretation not only of the song but of peoples and nations as well. His is an unconvential, fearless chronicle of the famous and the less well-lnown, the sacred and the profane, of the limitations and full-blown possibilities."—FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN
Vanity Fair - Elissa Schappell

“Revolutionary.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
Library Journal
While Marcus (The Doors; Lipstick Traces) holds near-unrivalled credentials as a rock and cultural critic, this title overreaches, beginning with the definitive article "the" in the title. The author argues that instead of understanding rock's history as a chronological narrative, we should view it as a series of associations, in which songs take on their own meanings across different periods and performers. This is an unconvincing thesis, but it does allow Marcus to delve into the background of each piece he analyzes, which plays to his strengths as a writer. Chapters on "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" (by Buddy Holly) and "Guitar Drag" (by Christian Marclay) are particularly notable in tracing how the songs have existed within different musical and social contexts. Marcus is erudite but remains accessible, and his selected compositions are available mostly online as accompaniment. Consider this book a qualified success, then, despite the failure of its overall intention. VERDICT Students of rock history and popular music fans in general will come across rewarding material here.—Chris Martin, North Dakota State Univ. Libs., Fargo
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-07-02
Another allusive, entertaining inquiry by veteran musicologist Marcus (The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, 2011, etc.).The opening is an accidental tour de force: a list that runs on for a full six pages of the inductees to date into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one that, though full of lacunae, is still wildly suggestive of just how influential and deep-rooted the sound is in our culture. He takes Neil Young’s observation that “rock & roll is reckless abandon” and runs with it, looking into 10 songs that are particularly emblematic. Even though any other 10, 100 or 1,000 songs might have done just as well, one cannot fault Marcus’ taste. It is just right, on the reckless abandon front, that his survey should begin with the Flamin’ Groovies jittery, diamondlike anthem “Shake Some Action,” released to the world in 1976 and heard, if not widely, by at least the right people. “I never heard Young’s words translated with more urgency, with more joy,” Marcus avers, than in the goofily named Groovies’ (“a name so stupid it can’t transcend its own irony”) song. Yet there are other candidates for best paean to reckless abandon, or perhaps best inspirer thereof, including the prolegomenon to all other songs about filthy lucre and lolly, Barrett Strong’s “Money”; the lovely but portentous Buddy Holly ballad “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”; and the Teddy Bears’ 1958 hit “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” which, though tender, became something hauntingly lost in the hands of Amy Winehouse. It’s no accident that the originals of many of these tunes lay at the heart of the early Beatles’ repertoire, nor that Phil Spector played his part in the uproarious proceedings, nor that from every measure of music, thousands of tangled storylines flow—many of which Marcus follows wherever they will lead, to our edification.Essayistic, occasionally disconnected, but Marcus does what he does best: makes us feel smarter about what we’re putting into our ears.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300187373
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/2/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 81,951
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus lives in Oakland, CA. His books include Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. With Werner Sollors he is co-editor of A New Literary History of America.
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