If rock & roll has achieved institution status, Greil Marcus certainly qualifies as one of its pillars. As one of the most influential critics of rock music--a small and vital, club, to be sure--he has made a long, distinctive career by elevating an often disparaged form and placing it firmly (rightly) within the hierarchy of great art. In addition to his writing for the likes of Rolling Stone (he was its first reviews editor), Creem, and The Village Voice, Marcus has authored many books, often dealing with the idea that rock & roll is both a accelerant and amplifier of cultural memes, Narcissus and his reflection in one. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, originally published in 1975, traced rock music's roots, evolution, and impacts--intuitive and otherwise--through the lives and careers of six epochal artists; TIME appointed it one of the 20th century's most influential nonfiction books. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century launches itself from the Sex Pistols and the punk scene of the 70s into an examination of heretics, rioters, and iconoclasts spanning Western civilization, across both time and geography. There are many more, occasionally academic, always incisive, and definitely fun.
In his latest--The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs--Marcus rambles the back roads of rock history to present short biographies of 10 songs spanning the entire breadth of rock & roll, from doo-wop to post-punk, demonstrating how rock's impulse to combine (and recombine) its influences made each possible and entirely original. Two pieces of advice for readers: 1.) Unless your record collection is as expansive as Marcus's, have YouTube cued up so you can listen while you learn. 2.) Set "Shake Some Action" to repeat.
We asked Marcus for 10 songs that shaped his own rock & roll experience. Here's what he said.
Greil Marcus: 10 Songs
Rock & roll for me has always been a culture of surprise. When it’s at its best you never know what’s coming and you can’t wait to find out what it is—when all the music seems to be one great answer record, with everyone, performers, listenters, the radio, a club, even the background music in a supermarket or the foreground music in a restaurant part of the same conversation. That happens best on Quentin Tarantino soundtrack albums, which aren’t references to his movies but almost counter-works—from the neo-surf music in Reservoir Dogs to the creamy, sleazy pop on the two Kill Bill albums to Django Unchained, which is probably the best. But it can happen anywhere.
In the order they occurred to me:
Outkast, “Hey Ya!” (2003). As Lou Reed once said, when you first heard this song you felt as if you could listen to it forever—“And then you kind of had to.” But endless airplay didn’t wear the song out, it only revealed equally endless layers of play, emotion, and a life being lived: the cool comedy of the verses always falling into what seemed like the unalloyed joy of the chorus. And it was in the chorus that, after weeks, months, never, provided its own drama: the way the first “Hey ya” was nothing but a smile, the way the second pulled away from the first, with a dying fall of regret, loss, uncertainty, doubt. There is a whole history of American music in this song—minstrelsy, wild and fast L.A. doo-wop (the Jewels’ “Hearts of Stone,” the Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz Buzz Buzz”), Bob Dylan’s carnival sound (“I Want You”), Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”—and also prophecy: a sound and a feeling the Roots will probably always be looking for.
Bo Diddley, “Say Man” (1959). Even by 1959, after Little Richard, after “The Book of Love,” I didn’t understand how anything this ridiculous—so ridiculous it was, somehow, pure anarchy, an epistemological proof that neither government nor society did, in fact, exist—was allowed on the public air. Now, long after learning that this was just a Top 40 version of the dozens, of The Signifying Monkey, of a harmless African-American insult ritual going back to forever, I still don’t.
Rolling Stones, “Gimmie Shelter” (1969). It’s been on the radio for 45 years and hasn’t lost anything. It’s kept up the with times, or the times are still chasing it. And I knew that would be the story from the first time I heard it.
Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley” (1958). For me, proof that music—the language everyone was speaking, that everyone though was sufficient to say whatever needed to be said—could change overnight. The day before, whatever was on the radio sounded just right. The day after, it sounded old, tired, and fake. The same thing happened with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Hockey “Song Away” (2009). I heard it sitting outside a shoe store in Minneapolis. I caught a few words, maybe the title phrase, but mostly a smile that I couldn’t get out of my head. Thanks to the internet, I could track it down and play it a dozen times in a row. I still couldn’t get it out of my head. Whenever I think about it, I still can’t. That’s what rock & roll is for.