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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.