With a title like this, the first thing any music lover will do is flip through the mental rolodex of the classics and play a game to see how many song picks you can anticipate. While it might be hard to narrow it to ten, it’s easy to find a list of possible candidates: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Jailhouse Rock,” multiple possibilities for The Beatles and Dylan, “Stairway to Heaven,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Born to Run,” etc. Or will they get a little more off the beaten path, maybe some Red Hot Chili Peppers or Santana?
If that’s the expectation you have, you will be disappointed. So let me dissuade the prospective reader of this notion up front, so that when you get to the book, you will be able to fully enjoy the wonderful gifts it has to offer. Here is the list of songs selected:
1. “Shake Some Action” by The Flamin’ Groovies’
2. “Transmission” by Joy Division
3. “In the Still of the Nite,” first recorded by the Five Satins
4. “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James
5. “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” by Buddy Holly
6. “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong and various covers
7. “Money Changes Everything” by the Brains, popularized and covered by Cyndi Lauper
8. “This Magic Moment” by The Drifters (with Ben E. King)
9. The soundtrack of Christian Marclay’s video Guitar Drag
10. “To Know Him Is to Love Him” originally by Phil Spector with the Teddy Bears
Many may shake their heads with incredulity at these selections. Perhaps you’ve heard of a few of these; maybe you recognize some of the artists but can’t quite remember that particular song, but what on earth is number 9? And… Phil Spector, okay yes, but out of his entire portfolio why that song?
The problem lies in the title. The word “History” smacks of hubris and would perhaps be better replaced by “A Tour.” Adding the adjective “singular” or “unique” to describe the “Ten Songs” would also be helpful in setting the stage as well.
Once one is oriented to the direction of the novel and unexpected, then the wonders of the book can unfold properly. All of these songs have truly fascinating stories behind them that give them an importance beyond their relative place on the pop charts. For example, it may be as in the case of number 6, that the song became a classic go-to cover that inspired important groups such as the Beatles. “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” is a artistic developmental arc from which we can imagine what amazing music might have been if only Buddy Holly had not died so tragically young. And I won’t spoil number 9 for you except to say that it has a powerful message to convey.
What makes the book particularly excellent is author Griel Marcus’s deep knowledge. A long-time music critic known for placing music in broader social contexts, the author has the skill to take the reader on this tour of important musical back roads. Reading this book is the musical equivalent of making a visit to a wing in an art museum that you would not be able to fully appreciate had you not been accompanied by someone knowledgeable. Marcus does a fantastic job to educate his readers in both the minutia within the music and the larger surroundings.
Finally, a few words regarding the audio performance of the book. The narration by Henry Rollins was quite good. The sometimes stream-of-consciousness-like passages describing the songs can be difficult to read aloud effectively, but Rollins does a skillful job of it. I must confess to some disappointment, however, that full advantage was not taken of the audio form to insert some excerpts of the songs discussed. Regardless of whether you read or listen to the book, take the time to go get the songs and listen to them if you want the full experience.
*This book is also available in paper edition.