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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On Wheels

A new poem by Patrick Mackie

The hills swarm and soften towards the end of the day just as
flames do in a fireplace as the evening
loosens and breaks open and lets out night.
A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,
and the new one will be bitter,
tired, opaque. Words wrangle in every inch of air,
their mouths wide open in stupid shock
at what they have just heard every time they hear anything. Venus,
though, blazes with heavy wobbles of albeit frozen
light. Brecht, who I like to call my
brother just as he called Shelley his,
has a short late poem where he sits by a roadside, waiting
while someone changes the wheel on his car,
watching with impatience, despite not liking
either the place that he is coming from or
the place that he is going to. We call it
connectivity when in truth it is just aggression
and imitation writ ever larger. Poems, though,
are forms of infinite and wry but also briskly
impatient patience. Brecht’s poem seems to end,
for instance, almost before you
can read it. It wheels. The goddess is just a big, bright
wilderness but then soon enough she clothes
herself again in the openness of night and I lose her.

Patrick Mackie’s latest collection, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints, is published by CB Editions.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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