The History of Rock n Roll in 10 Songs: A List Created by Legendary Rock Critic Greil Marcus

Rock crit­ic and schol­ar Greil Mar­cus has just released a book with Yale Press called The His­to­ry of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, and it appears to be an unusu­al take on a very hack­neyed sub­ject, as Mar­cus admits in the video trail­er above: “Every­body knows the his­to­ry of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says, “What if it was just about a few songs?” “Unlike all pre­vi­ous ver­sions of rock ‘n’ roll,” writes Yale, “this book omits almost every icon­ic per­former and ignores the sto­ried events and turn­ing points that every­one knows.” This is not entire­ly true—you’ve got your Bea­t­les, you’ve got your Bud­dy Hol­ly, but you’ve also got… Joy Divi­sion. And a num­ber of oth­er sur­pris­ing, off­beat choic­es that don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly sound like rock ‘n’ roll his­to­ry, but cer­tain­ly tell it their var­i­ous ways. “At any giv­en moment,” Mar­cus says above, any of these songs “could con­tain the whole his­to­ry […] the whole DNA of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Some of the choic­es seem like per­son­al quirks. Noth­ing to get too bent out of shape about, if that’s your ten­den­cy, but odd nonethe­less. The Flam­ing Groovies would not be a band I’d choose as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of garage rock, if that’s what they rep­re­sent. Their song “Shake Some Action” above may be bet­ter known for some from Cracker’s work­man­like cov­er on the Clue­less sound­track than as a gen­uine hit in its own right. But the sin­gle sure had a cool cov­er.

It also has some excel­lent gui­tar work and a per­fect­ly dis­tinc­tive tone that Mar­cus can’t for­get. Its lyrics are by turns vapid and creepy, which, now that I think of it, per­haps makes this a per­fect track to define much of rock ‘n’ roll his­to­ry.

No one best­ed post-punk dar­lings Joy Divi­sion when it came to boy­ish good looks and relent­less despair. In an oblique rock his­to­ry sense, they were piv­otal, tak­ing the obscu­ran­tist min­i­mal­ist exper­i­ments of bands like Wire and mak­ing them viable options for an entire genre of music. Mar­cus choos­es “Trans­mis­sion” instead of the much more pop­u­lar “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which has become almost a musi­cal rite of pas­sage for cer­tain bands to cov­er. This was the last sin­gle the band released before singer Ian Cur­tis killed him­self. “It’s sort of fit­ting then,” writes Con­se­quence of Sound, “that this would be both one of the band’s most pop­u­lar songs and also pave the way for New Order, specif­i­cal­ly in terms of its sound and direc­tion.” Lit­tle live footage of the band exists. See them above in 1979 on UK retro tele­vi­sion pro­gram The Wedge (orig­i­nal­ly broad­cast on Some­thing Else with the Jam).

Mar­cus’ third choice is not real­ly what we think of as rock and roll, but it’s a close cousin, and with­out doo wop, we’d have had no Lou Reed. 1956’s “In the Still of the Night,” writ­ten by Fred Par­ris and record­ed by his Five Satins in a Catholic school base­ment, was a hit in the 90s for Boyz II Men on the R&B and Adult Con­tem­po­rary charts and reli­ably appears in films about the fifties. Mar­cus also refers to a ver­sion record­ed by the Slades, a white vocal group. The pair­ing illus­trates the famil­iar fifties prac­tice of white groups record­ing black artists—and often out­selling them, though cer­tain­ly not in this case—for pre­sum­ably seg­re­gat­ed audi­ences.

Etta James’ 1960 soar­ing lament “All I Could Do Was Cry” again seems a world away from rock and roll, with its lush stu­dio string sec­tion and spa­cious, spare pro­duc­tion. The song lacks the bite and growl of “At Last!” from the same album, but Mar­cus makes a weighty allu­sion in refer­ring to two dif­fer­ent ver­sions. By includ­ing Beyoncé’s take on the song, the list hauls in the his­to­ry of Chicago’s Chess records and Knowles’ out­stand­ing per­for­mance as James in 2008’s Cadil­lac Records, a film that takes us from Mud­dy Water­s’s elec­tric blues to Chuck Berry’s hybrid crossover sound.

Yes, we have Bud­dy Hol­ly, but we don’t have “Peg­gy Sue” or “Not Fade Away.” Instead Mar­cus gives us the B‑side to the posthu­mous­ly released “Peg­gy Sue Got Mar­ried,” a song called “Cry­ing, Wait­ing, Hop­ing.” Orig­i­nal­ly record­ed by Hol­ly alone in a Man­hat­tan apart­ment and mixed with stu­dio back­ing tracks by pro­duc­er Jack Hansen in 1959, the song had noth­ing to do with Holly’s fame in life—hence the bad vocal sync in the video above. The band’s play­ing an entire­ly dif­fer­ent song. Mar­cus chose this as sym­bol­ic of the Hol­ly mythos after his death, which spread across the ocean to Mersey­beat bands like the Bea­t­les, who often cov­ered this song and record­ed it live on the BBC. Like the musi­cians who played on the first record, they aren’t just cov­er­ing Hol­ly, writes Mar­cus, “they’re con­duct­ing a kind of séance with him.”

Speak­ing of the Bea­t­les: every­one knows their “Mon­ey (That’s What I Want),” but did you know that the song, per­formed in 1959 by Bar­rett Strong (above), was the first hit for Berry Gordy’s Motown records (then Tam­la)? A direct link between Amer­i­can R&B and the UK vari­ety, “Mon­ey” was a sta­ple for British inva­sion bands in the ear­ly 60s.

I had nev­er heard of The Brains before read­ing Mar­cus’ list. That’s not say­ing a whole lot, but I had also nev­er heard Cyn­di Lauper’s 1983 hit cov­er of their minor hit “Mon­ey Changes Every­thing,” or even the rare Smiths’ instru­men­tal ver­sion, ardent fan though I am. So chalk that up to a musi­cal blind spot, if you will, or take it as evi­dence of the song’s out­lier sta­tus. Hear the 1978 orig­i­nal above. Mar­cus has said else­where of its raw, cyn­i­cal hon­esty that “there’s no oth­er way the decade could end.”

“This Mag­ic Moment,” the 1960 hit by Ben E. King and the Drifters, sounds like the per­fect choice of song for nos­tal­gic boomers, not so much for jad­ed rock writ­ers telling a new sto­ry of rock ‘n’ roll, but there you have it. Mar­cus also refers to a ver­sion by “Ben E. King with Lou Reed.” As far as I can tell, no such record­ing exists, but we do have a ver­sion by Reed alone. Hear it above.

The only way per­haps to dis­cuss this ninth “song” in any rock ‘n’ roll con­text is by way of Lou Reed, it so hap­pens. Reed’s “thor­ough­ly alien­at­ing” Met­al Machine Music con­sists of 64 min­utes of feed­back and dis­tor­tion caused, some leg­ends have it, by Reed record­ing the sound of his gui­tar lean­ing against a cranked-up amp. Artist Chris­t­ian Mar­clay does him one bet­ter. “Gui­tar Drag” is exact­ly what it adver­tis­es, the sound—and video, above—of a gui­tar dragged behind a truck. Rep­re­sent­ing the pure noise of Met­al Machine Music and the gen­er­al destruc­tive­ness of rock ‘n’ roll, it also re-enacts the absolute­ly hor­ri­fy­ing 1998 drag­ging death of James Byrd, Jr, one of the low­est moments in Amer­i­can racial his­to­ry. Does this dis­turb­ing piece of sound/video art aes­theti­ciz­ing a racist mur­der, chill­ing and grue­some beyond words, belong on any list about rock ’n’ roll his­to­ry? Greil Mar­cus thinks it does.

We return to famil­iar, if cloy­ing ter­ri­to­ry with “To Know Is to Love Him,” an ear­ly hit for Phil Spec­tor and his Ted­dy Bears in 1958 (above)—written not about a crush but about Spector’s deceased father after the words on his head­stone. Next to the quaint­ness of this record­ing, Mar­cus also lists Amy Winehouse’s 2007 cov­er (below). Maybe he hears them at once, both songs haunt­ing each oth­er. Writ­ing on the song in The Guardian after Winehouse’s death, Mar­cus says “it took 48 years to find its voice.” It’s a sto­ry of two incred­i­bly tal­ent­ed, and trag­i­cal­ly dis­turbed, rock ‘n’ roll char­ac­ters, and one of the pain and loss that lie behind even the most bub­blegum of hits. See Yale Press’s web­site for more on Mar­cus’ The His­to­ry of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A His­to­ry of Rock ‘n’ Roll in 100 Riffs

100 Years of Rock in Less Than a Minute: From Gospel to Grunge

Revis­it The Life & Music of Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe: ‘The God­moth­er of Rock and Roll’

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (12)
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  • Tara_Windwalker says:

    very well done … anoth­er song to con­sid­er is Elvis “Raised on Rock”

  • TimJ says:

    This list seems a bit pre­ten­tious with Mar­cus look­ing for the most obscure stuff hard­ly any­one but him as ever heard of, but it is fun nonethe­less.

    • Paul Tatara says:

      That’s how Mar­cus does every­thing, and it annoys me. Any one of his essays is actu­al­ly about him try­ing (some­times not very suc­cess­ful­ly) to find the most obscure con­ceiv­able con­nec­tion between two odd­ball songs. It’s pure mas­tur­ba­tion, but with a pedi­gree, so we’re not sup­posed to ques­tion it.

  • Jack Feerick says:

    Quick cor­rec­tion: The Smiths instru­men­tal “Mon­ey Changes Every­thing” is unre­lat­ed to the Brains track; it is an orig­i­nal John­ny Marr com­po­si­tion. nn, there is a vocal ver­sion of that Smiths song; when Marr was co-writ­ing songs with Bryan Fer­ry for the lat­ter’s Bete Noire album, he recy­cled the music for “Mon­ey Changes Every­thing” as “The Right Stuff.“nn

  • fishygod says:

    Nice list. I am sur­prised that Greil was able to resist includ­ing some lit­tle known Dylan frag­ment like “Spu­ri­ous­ly Sev­en­teen Win­dows.” I guess he fig­ured he’d been there and done that.

  • Tourinct says:

    A lit­tle old, but can’t com­plain. How did I miss The Brains?

  • Diana Trimble says:

    Obvi­ous­ly it’s a com­plete­ly ridicu­lous list to be giv­en the title Mar­cus has pub­lished this col­lec­tion under. It would’ve been so much more palat­able had he titled it some­thing less pompous and that reflect­ed the true nature of his list, e.g.: “An Eccen­tric’s Route Through Rock His­to­ry In 10 Unlike­ly Songs” or some­thing. I mean I could just as valid­ly cre­ate a list fea­tur­ing songs by Pen­e­tra­tion, The Bad Brains, Alton Ellis, The Wail­ers, De La Soul, Nick Drake, Pat Benatar, P.I.L. and E.S.G., just off the top of my head, and I’m sure I, or Greil, could go on to then write a very inter­est­ing series of essays illu­mi­nat­ing hith­er­to unrec­og­nized musi­cal con­nec­tions between these seem­ing­ly wide­ly vari­ant artists, in a lin­gua-musi­co­log­i­cal feat like launch­ing audio-men­tal sil­ly string into the mind and ear.

    But on anoth­er note. Does any­one else notice that the gui­tar riff in “Mon­ey changes every­thing” is the same melody and phras­ing, just in a dif­fer­ent key, as the hook from Bowie’s “Heroes”? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this point­ed out any music jour­nal­ism and as far as I know, Mar­cus does­n’t either. Any­one have thoughts about this? I’m kin­da sur­prised there was­n’t a law­suit!

  • Rik wheatley says:

    Hey, I like the cut of your jib, Madam. Superb stuff indeed.that is one crack­er of a list you’ve start­ed there .….….

  • oily says:

    Blimey „ iv‘e been lis­ten­ing to crap all my life I thought Dylan , xtc , bea­t­les , elvis ‚zep ‚zap­pa ‚clash, ori­oles ‚rudy green , move , amboy dukes ‚bil­ly lee riley ‚deep pur­ple , phil ochs and so on on on on on .….were good rock­ers with all the ingre­di­ents to bake the per­fect musi­cal defin­ing rock cake , thanks for show­ing me the way into the depths of rock musi­cal­i­ty dreams mind you I do have all the records you picked but nev­er realised they were the real deal world of rock shak­ers , its a good bit of fun though , best ..

  • Stuart Rose says:

    Paul, I can’t sec­ond your take on Greil Marcus(well, I kin­da can), but I love that phrase, “it’s pure mas­tur­ba­tiob, but with a pedi­gree…”

  • Leticia Cortez says:

    It´s who are not includ­ed that make this list emp­ty: Pink Floyd, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, New Order (Thanks for includ­ing Joy Divi­sion, Lou Reed, Etta James), Mar­vin Gaye, The Vel­vet Under­ground, Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Robert John­son, Steely Dan, The Bea­t­les, Rolling Stones, and oth­ers who make-up the his­to­ry of Rock n Roll because of the sounds they cre­at­ed to the influ­ence on many.

  • Dave Sarbach says:

    Well said!

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