Greil Marcus' book The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs has a conceit that is pretty obvious, its plastered on the freakin’ cover.
The book is over the top, it is what I expected and it is what is delivered. I felt like I was having a couple beers with a friend and some guy with cocaine dripping from his nose comes in and starts telling us in breakneck speed what is great about Neil Young, Maurice Williams, and Joy Division, and that “Shake Some Action” is actually the best rock song ever made. Good points one and all, entertaining for sure, but if it went on too long it surely would grate on your nerves.
The book starts with some great writing. Somehow Marcus manages to list the names in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he makes the very long list of information interesting. It mostly is just a list, but his little additions of “the record man” Leonard Chess, “self proclaimed Master of Time and Space” Leon Russell, and the Sex Pistols (who declined) make a list readable and mostly such things are not.
I don’t know about the ten songs idea, I didn’t really follow it and I don’t care about it. He has great writing about some great songs is what I took away from it. It — thank god — doesn’t flow like an argument for some ten songs; it more like takes a song and riffs on it and then goes on to the next set of riffs.
He has some great stories repeated, including from Bernard Sumner (guitarist for Joy Division) who saw the Sex Pistols first show in Manchester with about 40 other people and said, “I saw the Sex Pistols. They were terrible. I wanted to get up and be terrible, too.”
The true test for me is that, afterwards, I listened to nearly every song he mentions in the book and I got more out of them if I previously knew the songs and fell in love with most of them if I didn’t know them before, like The Handsome Family’s “Winnebago Skeletons.”
Reading that takes you places and reading that takes you back to the music. What more do you want in a music book?