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The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs Hardcover – September 2, 2014

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Editorial Reviews


“This could be Marcus’ most inviting book: Emotion paces erudition, and the present gets to ride shotgun with the past, real and imagined.”—Will Hermes, Rolling Stone
(Will Hermes Rolling Stone)

“Marcus is our greatest cultural critic, not only because of what he says but also, as with rock-and-roll itself, how he says it.”—David Kirby, The Washington Post
(David Kirby The Washington Post)

“In his new book, which is surely one of his best and most beautifully written, Marcus revisits ten songs, recorded during the last sixty years, some of them long forgotten, in order to capture the pulsating and powerful language of rock 'n' roll. . . . The book, I am certain, will compel readers to return to the songs Marcus has anointed, and to others. Even if they have heard them before, they will listen to them as if for the first time.”—Glenn C. Altschuler, The Huffington Post
(Glenn C. Altschuler The Huffington Post)

“Marcus, of course, is one of the epic figures in rock writing. . . . Like so many of Marcus’s previous books, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs often feels like a tone poem or perhaps a written embodiment of the cultural memory.  He flows through the songs and musicians he loves as if creating a waking dream crowded with the stars of rock history.”—Touré, The New York Times Book Review
(Touré The New York Times Book Review)

You could go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and take in the artifacts and roll call or you can read Greil Marcus’ kinetic, pulsing, brilliant history of this deeply American art form, The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs. From his choice of which ten songs to explore to his invention of a kind of a listener’s lexicon—a new way of bending sound to language—Marcus captures why Rock and Roll resonates down to our bones. —WALTER MOSLEY
(Walter Mosley)

"When I was 18 and leaving home for college, my brother put one thing in my hand: a copy of Greil Marcus's Mystery Train. It changed my life. More than 20 years have passed, and he's still the Don, still connecting caves. He's as good on Beyoncé in this new book as he was on Harmonica Frank back then, but the range of associations is wider, the mind making them deeper, and the deceptively jazzy precision of his prose sharper. He's a treasure."—JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
(John Jeremiah Sullivan)

"Greil Marcus lingers inside a song, following it from the first utterance to the last note, through performances across time, to give us the context, meaning, and interpretation not only of the song but of peoples and nations as well. His is an unconventional, fearless chronicle of the famous and the less well-known, the sacred and the profane, of the limitations and full-blown possibilities."—FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN
(Farah Jasmine Griffin)

“Revolutionary.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
(Elissa Schappell Vanity Fair)

“Marcus ingeniously retells the tale of rock and roll as the undulating movement of one song through the decades, speaking anew in different settings. . . Marcus brilliantly illustrates what many rock music fans suspected all along but what many rock critics have failed to say: rock ’n’ roll is a universal language that transcends time and space and reveals all mysteries and truths.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
(Publishers Weekly, Starred Review)

“Marcus is a great prose stylist, fun to read even when he’s spinning his wheels, and often — there’s no telling when — he will pick up speed and zoom off into unexpected territories.”—Evan Kindley, The Los Angeles Times
(Evan Kindley The Los Angeles Times)

“Cultural critic Greil Marcus' new book, The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs, goes beyond a simple list of tunes that define a genre. Marcus uses each of the songs as a jumping off point to write about an era, a time, place or emotion, and that's the least of it.”—Leah Garchik, The San Francisco Chronicle
(Leah Garchik The San Francisco Chronicle)

“Marcus springs free of linearity and chases associations across decades and from music to books, movies and other art forms that ‘at once raise the question of what rock 'n' roll is and answer it.’ . . . Marcus is, at his best, the music critic equivalent of Gore Vidal when Vidal was also at his best: an essayist whose digressions are as intriguing as his main points and who almost always connects the former to the latter.”—Jon M. Gilbertson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
(Jon M. Gilbertson Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“Greil Marcus hears things no one else hears. He translates ?eeting moments of sound into historical fantasy, extrapolating poetry from what may have been just another day in a recording studio. . .  It may take longer to read Marcus’s dissection of a two-minute pop song than it does to listen to the source material, but it’s often worth it.”—Michael Barclay, Maclean’s
(Michael Barclay Maclean’s)

‘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’.’—Mark Ellen, New Statesman
(Mark Ellen New Statesman 2014-09-29)

The History of Rock 'n' Roll isn't a rational or defensible history of rock 'n' roll. That's the point. The narrative fluctuates according to every listener's unique experience.”—Sam Lefebvre, East Bay Express
(Sam Lefebvre East Bay Express)

“For Marcus, every great song is a Rosetta Stone, an esoteric code. This approach gives him great imaginative, literary breadth . . . Out of Marcus’ dozen or so books, Ten Songs is the purest distillation of his ideas . . . The chapters on Joy Division, on Buddy Holly, and on the two ‘Money” songs are tours de force.”—Carl Wilson, Slate
(Carl Wilson Slate)

“Another allusive, entertaining inquiry by veteran musicologist Marcus. . . . [He] does what he does best: make us feel smarter about what we’re putting into our ears—Kirkus, starred review
(Kirkus 2014-03-31)

“A great essay begins with a theme and then makes it fly. Greil Marcus can make it soar.  In The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs he does just that. He says of Amy Winehouse that she could unlock a song. Marcus unlocks rock ‘n’ roll history to find more than you ever thought might be there."—Jenny Diski
(Jenny Diski 2014-03-31)

“I first heard Elvis in early 1956 in a school corridor in Norfolk, England. I knew something profound had happened. Where was Greil Marcus back in those Dark Ages to explain to me what was going on? He knows everything and tells an electrifying story.”—STEPHEN FREARS
(Stephen Frears)

'Overall, it's a stunning, virtuosic performance, as good as any and better than most of what Greil Marcus has written since 1975's genre-redefining Mystery Train. It's a hectic, wild and occasionally bumpy ride, loaded with trapdoors and wormholes leading to unexpected places where you never quite know who you'll confront next, and where you'll immediately yearn to hear every record to which he alludes.'—Charles Shaar Murray, Literary Review
(Charles Shaar Murray Literary Review 2014-10-01)

‘Marcus is a man in brainy love with the music. I don’t know of anyone else who writes as beautifully, and deeply, about songs and singing.’—Roddy Doyle, The Irish Times
(Roddy Doyle The Irish Times 2014-10-25)

‘The title of the US critic’s latest playful, erudite and passionate work, The History of Rock n Roll in Ten Songs, should come with lurid neon inverts around each constituent part: “The History” of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in Ten “Songs”. It’s a magnificently subjective history, in which significant chunks are set outside the realm of rock, in pop or soul.’—Kitty Empire, The Observer
(Kitty Empire The Observer 2014-10-19)

“Like Leslie Fiedler, Greil Marcus is a critic for the ages.  There aren’t many writers I’ve learned more from, nor many whose word for word and sentence for sentence writing I enjoy more.  The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is among his richest work, perhaps his most heartfelt.  Like Mystery Train, it’s something we will be learning from, that will give us new ways to think about the sounds that have filled the worlds around us and the worlds inside us, for years to come.”—MIKAL GILMORE
(Mikal Gilmore)

'True musos need little introduction to Marcus, whose meditations on the rock and pop canon have delighted many. . . Here, he is at his most ambitious and obtuse, defying the obvious choices to map an alternative history of popular music.'—Louis Wise, The Sunday Times
(Louis Wise The Sunday Times 2014-11-30)

'His accounts of listening to these songs, of being transported in unearthly directions by them, show him to be as bewitched by this music as he ever was . . . The Mystery of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs might have been a truer name for his latest inspired, wonder-struck book.’—Paul Genders, TLS
(Paul Genders TLS 2014-11-14)

“No writer puts you inside the experience of music the way Greil Marcus does. His descriptions of songs, especially, unfold like thrillers or romantic rhapsodies, sucking you in and revealing aspects of each beat or vocal trill that you'd never have noticed on your own. As the most esteemed music writer of his generation, Marcus has made a career of challenging conventional wisdom on everything from Elvis to punk to Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. . . . It's so much fun to let him drag your brain onto the dance floor.” —Ann Powers, NPR.com
(Ann Powers NPR.com)

“Try telling a teenager who’s just heard ‘Black Dog’ for the first time that rock ’n’ roll is dead. Marcus knows it’s not. He maps recordings, re-recordings, and performances as if they’re veins belonging to the same body, warm and breathing and very much alive.” —Lara Zarum, Bookforum.com
(Lara Zarum Bookforum.com)

“[A] wonderfully alive book.”—The San Francisco Chronicle, best of the year 2014 list
(The San Francisco Chronicle)

From the Author

“Another allusive, entertaining inquiry by veteran musicologist Marcus. . . . [He] does what he does best: make us feel smarter about what we’re putting into our ears.”—Kirkus, starred review

Q: How did the idea for the book come about?
A: My editor Steve Wasserman wondered if I’d write a history of rock ’n’ roll. I thought it was a terrible idea, that it had been done to death, well and poorly, that there was a finished and accepted narrative that rendered any retelling of the story redundant and pointless. But, then I thought: What if the book was nonchronological, discontinuous, and left out almost everyone who couldn’t be left out (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, the Sex Pistols, Michael Jackson)? What if it neglected the well-known, iconic moments (the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, Bob Dylan going electric), and centered instead on a small number of songs, each of which in its own unique way embodied rock ’n’ roll? That interested me—and the idea became this book.

Q: Isn’t this a ridiculous conceit?
A: Sure. The premise of the book—trying to ascribe the entire history of a form containing hundreds of thousands of exemplars into ten—is fundamentally absurd. That’s what makes it fun. Maybe we could hold a contest to see what ten songs readers would choose to sum up this history. The prize would be a copy of this book for the winner to tear up.

Praise for Lipstick Traces:
"Lipstick Traces has the energy of its obsessions, and it snares you in the manner of those intense, questing and often stoned sessions of intellectual debate you may have experienced in your college years. It was destined, in other words, to achieve cult status."—Ben Brantley, New York Times

Praise for Mystery Train:
"A classic. . . . Full of passion and intellectual fervor."—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (September 2, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300187378
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300187373
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #54,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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93 of 102 people found the following review helpful By audrey TOP 500 REVIEWER on July 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There is no doubt that author Greil Marcus knows his stuff, and also no doubt that he's chosen an interesting way to talk about the history of rock & roll -- not chronologically and not by discussing the "big names", but through analysis of ten influential songs.

So far so good.

What hurts the book is the writing, which displays itself in multiple run-on sentences as Marcus chases every stray thought in his head and generates mind-numbing lists of songs and people to illustrate even minor points. Here's one random sentence (and there are MANY such):

'With verbs evaporating out of the lyric, the song feels less like any kind of pop song than a folk song, and less like the Rolling Stones' 1964 wailing-down-the-highway version, their first American single, than the Beatles' "Love Me Do", their first single anywhere, from 1962, which the late Ralph J. Gleason, the music columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, would refer to as "that Liverpool folk song", confusing some readers, like me, into wondering if perhaps it actually was.' Confusing some readers, like me, into trying to remember what the point was.

I read a lot, and I don't mind dense material, but I also like clarity and flow, and this has neither. The sentence above is not an aberration. The book is all like that, and it becomes tedious. Unfortunately the writing style really detracted from my enjoyment of the book. It rambles and runs on as if you turned your music professor loose after a few shots.

This is interesting material in a difficult style. If you're a fan of rock and roll, and commas, this is the book for you.
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By William Merrill VINE VOICE on August 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have long admired Greil Marcus' skill as a music writer, a level of skill very few of us could ever hope to reach. His Lester Bangs book is an acknowledged classic, and I still find value in everything he writes (incl. his current column for The Believer mag). I have problems with his new "History of Rock 'n' Roll," though, and one is that his writing style is beginning to wear thin with me. Too many times in this book, he describes a song in such a way that it passes over the boundary of metaphor into perplexing imagery that only makes sense to the writer. My reaction in the frequent moments like that was usually "What the heck is he talking about?" It's as if Mr. Marcus doesn't care at all whether the reader is able to follow him on these journeys of the imagination, he's just putting down what came into his mind as he listened to the song.

I was also bothered by the inaccuracy of the book's title -- it's not THE History of R 'n' R when he used ten mostly minor (but still excellent) songs for his narrative. True, he is able to get across how the songs contain and evoke various aspect of R 'n' R, and the effects it has on its listeners. I will also grant the idea that had he covered "My Generation," "Satisfaction," "Purple Haze," and the other recognized masterpieces, the book probably wouldn't have been as interesting. But he only makes limited attempts to connect HIS ten songs with the broader ("real") history. He does consistently succeed in delivering a most apt telling of the origins and creation of the ten songs. Perhaps a change in article -- from "THE" to "A" -- would have reduced my complaint slightly.
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55 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Brian J. Greene VINE VOICE on July 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I'll start this by saying I like the book's premise. A music critic writing about 10 non-obvious songs from this history of popular music, that he feels are somehow essential tracks that define rock and roll . . . good idea. And I like some of Greil Marcus's music writings. The problem here is execution. The book is just one ongoing flaw. It starts with the introduction, which makes zero sense. I don't have a problem with rambling writing. I'm a fan of Lester Bangs. But Marcus's intro is a convoluted mess that simply makes no points and does nothing whatsoever to give the reader a desire to dive into the main text. Then the chapters start in and it gets worse. Just as I don't have a problem with rambles in writing, I don't mind tangents - if there is a point to them. But in Marcus's chapter on The Flamin' Groovies song "Shake Some Action" he spends as much time lecturing us about Neil Young as he does actually discussing the 'Groovies or their song. In his write-up on Joy Division's "Transmission" he goes off on a tangent about the actor who played Ian Curtis on film - and mostly about another movie the guy acted in, one that has nothing to do with Joy Division. I used the word "lecturing" a moment ago, and that's indicative of another problem with the book. It's a lecture rather than an engaging read. It's show-offy. And if you're going to be a show-off with your knowledge on a subject, you ought to at least do something meaningful with that knowledge. Instead, Marcus lectures us with these tangential rants that don't do anything to clarify why he thinks these songs are so important. I love both "Shake Some Action" and "Transmission," but reading Marcus's words on them gave me no new outlook on or appreciation of either; it just made me think, "What was the point of all that??
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