Interview: Greil Marcus, Author Of 'The History Of Rock 'N' Roll In Ten Songs' What makes an essential rock song? Music journalist Greil Marcus argues that it's not the stature of the performer, but the degree to which a song tells the story of rock 'n' roll itself.
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The Other Rock History

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The Other Rock History

The Other Rock History

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The new book "The History Of Rock 'N' Roll In Ten Songs" is missing just about everything you might expect. There's no Rolling Stones songs, no Jimi Hendrix performances or long meditations on Woodstock. Musicologist Greil Marcus ignores the iconic in favor of 10 songs he says tell the wild story of one of America's greatest gifts to the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE SOME ACTION")

FLAMIN' GROOVIES: (Singing) Shake some actions' what I need.

RATH: Number one is "Shake Some Action" by the Flamin' Groovies, which Marcus calls a name so stupid it's embarrassing to say out loud. And there's so much more to say about the song. It's got a beat that just won't let you stop listening, which is so rock 'n' roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE SOME ACTION")

RATH: Greil Marcus, welcome to the program.

GREIL MARCUS: Glad to be with you.

RATH: So let's jump into this list with number two. That's the 1979 post-punk anthem "Transmission" by the British band Joy Division. What's the British post-punk have to do with American rock 'n' roll sensibilities?

MARCUS: When I listen to Joy Division, it doesn't sound specifically English and particularly this song I wrote about. "Transmission" is just an example of the way that a song can start out seemingly controlled, seemingly orderly and then blow apart to the point where you can't imagine that it could ever end, that it could ever reach any kind of resolution, whether it's musical or spiritual or in any other form. And yet it does.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRANSMISSION")

JOY DIVISION: (Singing) Dance, dance, dance to the radio.

MARCUS: You know, writing this book, choosing songs - I didn't try to find the best or the most representative or the most anything. It was simply a group of songs, each of which in its own way could contain the whole notion of what rock 'n' roll is and really more importantly what it can do - what it can do to a performer, what it can do to a listener.

RATH: Number four is a particular favorite of mine. The Etta James song "All I Could Do Was Cry." Let's hear a little bit of that first.

MARCUS: Great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I COULD DO WAS CRY")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) I heard church bells ringing. I heard a choir singing. I saw my love...

MARCUS: I heard church bells ringing. That's the opening line. It's a song about a woman whose man is marrying somebody else. I heard - that's the whole song. Just in those two words, the way Etta James is able to get so many intimations of resignation, anger - so much of rock 'n' roll comes down to these tiny little moments when an artist is able to put absolutely everything that she has, that she knows, into that. And those are the things that stick with us. Could I express as much in a 10 minute song as she expresses in two seconds?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I COULD DO WAS CRY")

JAMES: (Singing) Til death do us part. Each word was a pain in my heart. All I could do - all I could do was cry.

RATH: Moving on now to song number five. This is just a beautiful little song - "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" originally by Buddy Holly and then later covered by the Beatles. Now, I have this impression no doubt from the various rock histories that you kind of criticize in your book that basically all rock 'n' roll lives in the shadow of Buddy Holly.

MARCUS: Buddy Holly had something very different from the other great early rock 'n' roll stars. He came across as so ordinary, such a nerd. He's got these big glasses. And he looks like the sort of person that, you know, every time he opens his locker you'd slam it closed in his face. And Buddy Holly never lost that demeanor - that I could be you, you could be me. But "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" - this is just a song that he had written - that he records into his home tape recorder. When you listen to it today, it's shocking just how clear the sound is, how strong the singing is and yet modest. And it's a perfect song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRYING, WAITING, HOPING")

BUDDY HOLLY: (Singing) Crying - my tears keep falling all night long. Waiting - it feels so useless. I know it's wrong to keep crying, waiting, hoping you'll come back. Maybe some day soon things will change and you'll be mine.

RATH: Greil, I want to talk about one more song in the book. "To Know Him Is To Love Him." It was written in 1958 by Phil Spector. Originally performed by The Teddy Bears and honestly, you know, the original version sounds pretty corny.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM")

THE TEDDY BEARS: (Singing) To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him. And I do. And I do. And I do. And I do.

RATH: And then you turn me on to the Amy Winehouse version which is extraordinary. What does she do with the song?

MARCUS: Well, here are The Teddy Bears in 1958 - very corny little doo-wop song, overwhelmingly sentimental. It's really kind of simple. It becomes a number one national hit. And then, you know, after the song wears out on the radio, people are kind of embarrassed by it. They don't really want to think about it. So, you know, years after Amy Winehouse died - I guess it was in early 2013 - her record company put out an album called "Amy Winehouse At The BBC." And I'm driving in my car and listening to the radio and this comes on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) To know, know, know him.

MARCUS: And again it's like Etta James with "I Heard." This is to know, to know, to know, know him is to love, love, love him. And I do. It's the beginning of the song, but it's all there in that to know. I was just devastated that she could take this song as if it had never been heard and put it into the world for the first time, even after she was gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Oh, I'll be good to him. I'll bring joy to him. Oh, everyone says there'll come a day when I walk along side of him.

RATH: Greil, for the people at home who are shouting at their radios right now things like how could you not have a chapter on "Rock Around The Clock" or "Purple Haze" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit," what do you say to that?

MARCUS: I say that, you know, we don't need the songs that most people know as a way of opening the door to the question of why we're so moved by this music. For that matter, I hate "Rock Around The Clock." I didn't like it when I was 10 years old. I don't like it now. But the whole argument is that any good rock 'n' roll song can tell the story of rock 'n' roll.

RATH: Greil Marcus' new book is "The History Of Rock 'N' Roll In 10 Songs." We didn't get to all 10 here. You can hear more on our website npr.org. Greil, real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

MARCUS: Well, it was great talking with you. I had a really good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MAGIC MOMENT")

THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) Sweeter than wine. Softer than a summer's night. Everything I want to have.

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