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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era