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The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs

by Greil Marcus

Hardcover, 307 pages, Yale Univ Pr, List Price: $28 |


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The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs
Greil Marcus

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Selects 10 songs recorded between 1956 and 2008 that embody rock and roll as a thing in itself — in the story each song tells, inhabits and creates in its legacy.

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Singer Ian Curtis on stage in 1980 with Joy Division, whose song "Transmission" is among those explored in Greil Marcus' book The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs. Rob Verhorst/Redferns hide caption

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The Other Rock History

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs

The only thing that rock & roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequences," the writer Bill Flanagan said to Neil Young in 1986. "In country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself to church. Or when you didn't drag yourself to church." "That's right," Young said. "Rock & roll is reckless abandon. Rock & roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock & roll's place in the course of events is dispersed"—and what a remarkable thing to say that is. "There's a fish in my stomach a thousand years old," Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family sang slowly, over a heavy, lumbering fuzztone in "Winnebago Skeletons" ten years after Young spoke—not likely meant as an image for rock 'n' roll as a force, a spirit, a joke, that was there all along, like that fish waiting for the chance to get out, but it speaks the language.

You can hear Young's epistemology come to life in a thousand records, from Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" in 1950 to Young's own "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze" to a group without a name yet stumbling on the right, preordained, never-known way to get from one place to another in their version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which Kurt Cobain was once happy to admit was Nirvana's version of "Louie Louie," the all-time number 1 garage-band hit—a song lost by its composer, Richard Berry, in the throat-cutting small label competition that ruled rock 'n' roll in Los Angeles in 1956, and found, for good, when Rockin' Robin Roberts picked it out of a bin in Tacoma in 1958. He recorded his own version in 1961. Two years later he watched, along with Richard Berry, as the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders, who cut their versions in the same Portland studio one day apart, made it not only the most popular but, it was somehow clear, the most archetypal song in the country— the Raiders taking the Pacific Coast, the Kingsmen the rest of the nation—as if it had always been there. But I never hear Young's words translated with more urgency, with more joy, than in the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action." "I really try to do something every time I go out there that stretches my capabilities, that puts me on the edge of going too far," Young said one October day on Skyline Boulevard, thirty miles down from San Francisco, in 1993. "Where it might not work. Where the song may be too new, may not be the right song—but if I deliver the song right, and I'm really into the song, then it'll make people forget who I am." You can hear that all through Young's career, in the successively more impossible guitar passages in "Cowgirl in the Sand," in "Over and Over," in the music he improvised for Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man, and you can hear it too in "Shake Some Action"—but with the certain feeling, in the song that was there all along, that for as long as it lasts the music has called up the players, not the other way around.

The Flamin' Groovies—a name so stupid it can't transcend its own irony, a name so stupid it's embarrassing to say out loud ("Where're you going tonight?" "I'm going to see the, the—you know, that San Francisco band Roy Loney used to have before he left")—made more than a dozen albums, and one song, recorded in 1972, unheard until 1976. They began in 1965 as the Chosen Few; by 1976, with Chris Wilson at the microphone, the band was still playing bars. Cyril Jordan was still playing guitar and writing the songs. "It was the only free country left in the world," he once said, not talking about America but about rock 'n' roll in America, or anywhere else. "No boundaries, no passports. There wasn't even a government." By 1976, rock 'n' roll might have seemed like an old story, fixed and static, its secrets all exposed, a fact to learn: precisely a government, run by a few record companies and half a dozen lifeless icons. But in "Shake Some Action" everything is new, as if the secret had been discovered and the mystery solved on the spot. No founding rock 'n' roll statement—Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years," the Drifters' "Let the Boogie Woogie Roll," Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" or "Ready Teddy," Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" or "Lovin' Up a Storm," the Chantels' "If You Try," Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," Dion and the Belmonts' "I Wonder Why"— creates the same moment more fully, but that is not really the point. The point is that before rock 'n' roll, as it was defined by those performers, those records, and a thousand more, nothing like what happens in "Shake Some Action" had ever been heard on earth; the point is that rock 'n' roll, as music, as an argument about life captured in sound, as a beat, was something new under the sun, and it was new here, in 1976, in the hands of a few people in San Francisco. In that sense, more than twenty years after that fact first emerged to be learned, "Shake Some Action" can itself serve as a founding statement. "OLYMPIA, the birthplace of rock," you could have read on the back of an album issued by the Kill Rock Stars label of Olympia, Washington, in 1991. That meant rock 'n' roll could be invented anywhere, at any time, regardless of any rumors that something vaguely similar might have happened before.

Excerpted from The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs, by Greil Marcus, published September 2014 by Yale University Press. Copyright ©2014 by Greil Marcus. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.