“The Black Album” scene … from “Boyhood” (2014) dir. Richard Linklater

One of my favorite scenes from “Boyhood.” The father played by Ethan Hawke gives his son a mix CD and tries to explain why it’s so great. His son, played by Ellar Coltrane, graciously accepts the CD, but has a look on his face that he’s been down this road many times before with his Dad. The Hawke and Coltrane characters are good people, but let’s just say, I’m trying really hard NOT to be that kind of dad re: pop culture and my kids.

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“The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” by Greil Marcus (2014)

Marcus

“The only thing that rock ‘n’ roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequences … In country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when your dragged yourself to church.  Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”
-Bill Flanagan … from an interview with Neil Young (1986)

Greil Marcus’s “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” is one of the finest, most beautifully written books about music, art, and culture of all-time.  When Marcus wrote this book, he decided to avoid songs that most people would insist would be on a list of ten songs that would explain rock ‘n’ roll.  The songs Marcus selected are:

“Shake Some Action” – The Flamin’ Groovies
“Transmission” – Joy Division
“In the Still of the Nite” – The Five Satins
“All I Could Do Was Cry” – Beyonce
“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” – Buddy Holly / The Beatles
“Money (That’s What I Want)” – Barrett Strong / The Beatles
“Money Changes Everything” – The Brains / Cyndi Lauper
“This Magic Moment” – The Drifters
“Guitar Drag” – Christian Marclay
“To Know Him is to Love Him” – The Teddy Bears / Amy Winehouse

The songs he selects are all great in their own way, but may not be obvious choices in many peoples’ definitions of songs that define rock ‘n’ roll.  Yet, these songs, in the way Marcus describes them, tell an incredibly rich story of not only rock music, but American culture / history… with a few sidelines into British culture.  Marcus has been one of our finest cultural critics for over 40 years and this book equals his classic 1975 book “Mystery Train,” (which has since gone through 7 editions with additional notes by Marcus).

I will let Marcus explain why he included “Shake Some Action,” from an interview he did with Henry Rollins, who narrated the audio version of the book:

“When I came up with the idea for the book, I knew that ‘Shake Some Action’ by the Flamin’ Groovies would be the first thing I would write about,” he said. “It had to be there, and that’s because from the first time I heard it, and every time since, I’ve just been so shocked by it. It’s like, ‘This is it. This is what rock & roll is. This is everything rock & roll wanted to be. This is a performance that isn’t jazz, that isn’t blues, that isn’t country, that isn’t pop, that isn’t anything but rock & roll. Nothing like what you hear on ‘Shake Some Action’ was in the world before there was rock & roll.”

“The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” is a terrific achievement and even if you don’t agree with Marcus’s selections, I guarantee he’ll make you a true believer.  If you need further convincing, you absolutely need to check out the audio version narrated by Henry Rollins.  Rollins is an extraordinary orator and the way he conveys Marcus’s words shows a profound respect for Marcus and his thoughts. Easily one of the five best audio versions of a non-fiction book … and that includes Robert Evans reciting “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”

At the link below is a lengthy interview Rollins did with Marcus about the book that’s worth hearing:

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/hear-henry-rollins-fascinating-chat-with-greil-marcus-about-ten-songs-20150126

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – Prince, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, et al (2004)

This is from George Harrison’s posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, where Harrison’s artistic peers performed some of his songs.  “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is not only my favorite Harrison song, but my favorite Beatles song of all-time.  While Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne share the vocal duties, the standout is Prince’s blistering guitar work towards the latter half of this performance.  I realize that calling Prince underrated may seem silly, but how often do people mention what an outstanding guitarist the man is?   Prince steals the show here and aside his mind-blowing work on “Let’s Go Crazy” and his Super Bowl performance of “Purple Rain,” this is my People’s Exhibit A as to why Prince should rank as one of the greatest guitarists of all-time.  If you’ve never seen this, you must check this out.

“I’m Down” – The Beastie Boys

After giving high praise to the Beatles’ original, here’s the lost, molar-rattling, rude, and punk-as-hell Beastie Boys cover that was supposed to be included on their legendary Rick Rubin-produced 1986 masterpiece “Licensed to Ill,” but was left off for legal reasons.   Rumor has it that Michael Jackson, by then the copyright owner, put the kabosh on it.  He felt fine licensing the Beatles’ most political song “Revolution” to Nike but … well … that’s another story.   All I can say is … thank God for YouTube.

“I’m Down” – The Beatles

Recorded during the same 1965 session as “Yesterday,” “I’m Down” is in my opinion, the Beatles’ best flat-out rocker and the best B-side of all-time.  Yes, “Revolution” and “Helter Skelter” may sound “heavier,” but “I’m Down” is much more ferocious in terms of speed and attitude.  McCartney tries to out “Little Richard” Little Richard here and he comes really damn close to achieving his goal.  A phenomenal tune that again … shockingly … was merely the B-side to “Help” and wasn’t included on a proper album until the late 1970s, when it appeared on their “Rock n’ Roll Music” compilation.

“Let it Be” – The Beatles … from the film “Let it Be” (1970) dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg

From the infamous 1970 Beatles documentary film “Let it Be” is the band performing the title song, done in a much rawer and intimate version than the version we all know and love, pre-Phil Spector “sweetening.” I realize this will sound like a cliche and that the Beatles are the last group of musicians on this planet who deserve belated praise, but this footage of all four Beatles performing this together towards the end of their career … with a very young Billy Preston on keyboards … really takes my breath away. I realize the Beatles, as brilliant as they are, may seem like the most overrated band in history, but it’s moments like this that really make me swallow hard and reassess. They weren’t always brilliant, but they had way more hits than misses. And the sheer quantity of great music made over an 8-year period … a very short period of time … is astonishing. And one more thing … all of these guys were 30 years of age or younger when they finally hung it up.

“A Hard Day’s Night” – Otis Redding

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In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ classic album/film “A Hard Day’s Night,” here’s Otis Redding’s live cover of the title track. You’ve heard of garage punk? Well, on this cover, Redding invents garage soul. Hard-driving and endearingly sloppy, this is where you can imagine the Faces started taking notes. Recorded live at the Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles in 1966. Unfortunately, the opening of this song has been cut off, but this is the best clip I could find.

“Get Back” – Clarence Reid

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A terrific Beatles cover by Clarence Reid. Reid had the talent and chops to be as big as Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, but he became more popular doing dirty parodies of soul hits (“S–ting off the Dock of the Bay,” “What a Difference a Lay Makes?”) with his XXX-rated alter-ego Blowfly. As much as the 3rd grader in me loves Blowfly, I’ve been rediscovering Reid’s straight soul recordings as of late and have been completely knocked out by how good Reid was … and also a little sad that Reid found more success with a gimmick than playing it straight.

It reminds me of seeing another Clarence … Clarence Giddens … back in 1993 at a restaurant / bar in Virginia Beach. Giddens was a terrific blues guitarist and singer that opened for a singer known as “Black Elvis.” Of course, “Black Elvis” was Giddens in an Elvis suit and I have to say as an Elvis impersonator, he was damn good. But it also filled me with regret because Giddens had the chops to be a major blues talent, but found bigger paychecks going down the Elvis tribute trail. Granted both Reid and Giddens had their reasons for going down the more lucrative path as Blowfly and Black Elvis, but it’s a sad commentary about how we … as audiences … myself included … are more suckers for a gimmick than the real deal.

“Queenie Eye” – Paul McCartney

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Folks, I had zero expectations when I heard Paul McCartney was releasing a new album. Yes, the man is a songwriting genius, but he hasn’t done much in recent years that’s impressed me … until now. “Queenie Eye” is not only the best McCartney song in several years, but one of his best period. OK, maybe not compared to the Beatles, but certainly compared to much of his solo output. What can I say? I’m sold! From his recently released album “New.”

“Eleanor Rigby” – Stanley Jordan

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Wanna see something truly amazing? Check out this cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” by jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan. Watch his hands. They’re tapping the strings … not strumming. And he’s getting a very, very intense sound out of his instrument from what seems like very little effort … but not quite.  Because you know that someone has to know their instrument really really well in order to pull something like this off. Really mind-blowing stuff.