Chuck Barry jams with fellow starts in an illustration by Robert Crumb.
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Red, white and blues: The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs

This ambitiously-titled new work eschews the blunt logic of most rock scholarship, and instead charges down a particular path and then meanders off-road through the dense pop-cultural undergrowth.

The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs 
Greil Marcus
Yale University Press, 320pp, £16.99

Greil Marcus takes the scenic route. Not for him the blunt logic of most rock scholarship, which usually drills deep into the narrow confines of one subject area. The highly regarded Californian author and lecturer charges down a particular path and then meanders off-road through the dense pop-cultural undergrowth.

Here’s an example. Each chapter of his audaciously titled new book is built around a particular song and the second of these takes a Joy Division single as its springboard – the bleak and unsettling “Transmission”. He finds echoes of the Beach Boys and then remembers the Sex Pistols’ show in Manchester that inspired the members of Joy Division to form a band, and how the Pistols performed “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” by the Monkees which leads to the symbolism of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and to Saul Bellow and William Faulkner and thence to Sartre and Dostoyevsky, as read by the haunted Ian Curtis, and this to a 2010 adaptation of Brighton Rock starring Sam Riley (who played Curtis in the movie Control ) and on to a theory about Sixties London and, eventually, to the revelation – news to me – of a plot by the Kray twins to blackmail Brian Epstein into selling them the Beatles.

It’s fascinating stuff. As with his game-changing Mystery Train in 1975, and Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the 20th Century in 1989, his approach to the world of entertainment is fiercely academic. Marcus is now 69 but you picture him as one of those teenagers that refused to dance, old and wise before his time. He rarely even meets the people he writes about, preferring to occupy the Quiet Zone of intellectual rumination, listening very hard to their music in pursuit of new layers of meaning.

There are beautiful turns of phrase – he hears the Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away” as a race “with the harmonica pulling ahead of the pulse, the bass and drums watching the road while the guitar drives blind”. He calls Eric Idle’s Beatles spoof the Rutles “appallingly perfect”. His prose has an almost solipsistic self-confidence about it, an enviable strength and assurance – Sgt Pepper, he claims, “made almost every other performer in rock’n’roll feel incomplete, inarticulate, fraudulent and small: left behind”.

Marcus searches for flashpoints when the earth’s axis seems to shift – recordings by the blues evangelist Charley Patton were the first time in history a single person was writing a song about their own life “and speaking to the world by themselves” – or simply shines a torch on magical moments full of folklore and mystery, my favourite being one in a documentary when Peggy Sue Rackham, who inspired the Buddy Holly hit, rings the girl she’s never met who sparked a rival single – both then in their fifties – and says: “Is that Ritchie Valens’ Donna? Well this is Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue! Want to do lunch?”

Another of his signatures is to excavate records right down to a single phrase or even the split-second gaps between notes, Roy Orbison’s “bluegrass pause” being “a silence at just that instant when the music is at its highest – Wile E Coyote as he realises there’s nothing beneath him but air, then the plunge down into what feels like an unsinkable increase in speed”. Sometimes he likes to chuck a rock in the pond and watch the ripples – Phil Spector’s much-covered “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, he claims, “took 49 years to find its voice” in the Amy Winehouse acoustic version of 2007.

The book is really a series of essays, cunningly chiselled, lovingly woven, bold, tough and illuminating, the intention being “to feel one’s way through music as a field of expression and as a web of affinities”. And it’s exquisitely sustained, apart from a deliberately anarchic moment where he lists in one sentence lasting five whole pages – just because he can – the names of every act ever to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

The master stroke is his soliloquy about Red, White and Blues, an event at the White House in 2012 in which the US president, Barack Obama, joined various rock luminaries on a Robert Johnson song. This sparks a fantasy: what if the great Delta bluesman hadn’t died from drinking poisoned whiskey in 1938? Marcus traces his imagined route through the showbiz quicksand which ends with Johnson attending the White House show and, in a moment pregnant with significance, refusing to perform when told “no one gets paid for playing for the president”. Before scanning the room and thinking, “Mick Jagger looks older than I do.” 

Mark Ellen’s memoir “Rock Stars Stole My Life! A Big Bad Love Affair With Music” is published by Coronet (£18.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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Tracey Thorn: I’m nostalgic for revolutionary feminism and the whiff of patchouli

Off the Record.

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a BBC4 documentary called Property Is Theft, about squatting in the late 1970s and 1980s. Great old footage of Villa Road in Brixton was intercut with present-day interviews with the former squatters, reminiscing about those righteous, ideological times. Pumped full of theory, living out their ideals of deconstructing the nuclear family and opting out of capitalist society, they were a beguiling mix of the inspiring and the nutty.

Their fundamental point – that housing is a basic right and a nexus of inequality – still rang clear as a bell. They had inhabited buildings that were earmarked for demolition, and saved them. A three-bedroom flat in one of those houses now goes for half a million-plus. So much for the revolution they all believed was imminent.

But other aspects of their thought and practice seemed too niche to catch on, too purist to accommodate human contradiction. Their living conditions were pretty squalid, which probably put off any working-class families dreaming of a better life, and so the community consisted of young, highly politicised graduates, most of them white – the Rastafarians apparently all living in the next street along.

The old clips made the past seem both familiar and strange. You could smell the 1970s: the lentil bake and patchouli, the dope and the wet towels, all mixed up with a whiff of bullshit – cranky theories, a houseful of primal screaming. I was hooked and, on enquiring, discovered that this programme was the first episode in a series called Lefties, made by Vanessa Engle in 2006. I waited in vain for part two to appear, but eventually found it on YouTube. Called Angry Wimmin, it tells the story of the birth of late-1970s revolutionary feminism, and again, it’s full of cracking stuff.

It opens with Sheila Jeffreys singing a revised version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” – “Men grow bald as they grow old/And they all lose their charms in the end./All men are wankers,/Said Christabel Pankhurst./WIMMIN are a girl’s best friend” – and moves on to tell of how feminists broke away from the socialist movement, defining women as a class of their own and declaring, “Men Are the Enemy!”

There are scenes of women sitting around a campfire and making the vagina sign with their hands; in full karate kit taking self-defence classes; and in dungarees, doing DIY, resolutely sawing and hammering, manlessly happy. The women relate how the removal of the word “men” led to the new framing “womben” – or, more usually, “wimmin”, which was soon adopted as a term of mockery. I remember how, in the early 1980s, Ben’s parents had a party invitation from the playwright John Osborne propped up on their mantelpiece, at the bottom of which were printed the words “NO WIMMIN”. Even then it made me fume.

The language policing sometimes went too far, demanding, say, that instead of “Oh God!” you should cry, “Oh Goddess!” Separatism led some to establish all-women households, which were then taunted by local lads, one neighbour posting a nude photo of himself through the letter box in a kind of early, analogue trolling.

Male violence led women in Leeds to set up Women Against Violence Against Women. It was the era of the Yorkshire Ripper. I was in Hull at the time, just near enough to feel the chill of his presence, and I remember the Reclaim the Night protests, and the resentment at the police advice not to be out alone after dark, imposing a curfew on the victims, not the perpetrators.

The documentary ends with Vanessa Engle asking if they are all still revolutionary feminists, and they mostly are, many working in the field of domestic violence. One woman asks Engle if she calls herself a feminist. Momentarily nonplussed, she replies, “Yeah, I’ve always thought so, but no one really asks me any more.” They laugh and conclude that feminists are “on their way to becoming an extinct species”.

Well. We’ll see about that.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit