Putting punk rock in its historical place

June 01, 1993|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

Greil Marcus is a rock critic with his eye on the Zeitgeist. Although he is really an ambitious rock writer, his frame of reference, and his sense of the critic's place, are enormously broad.

"I am no more capable of mulling over Elvis without thinking of Herman Melville than I am of reading Jonathan Edwards . . . without putting on Robert Johnson's records as background music," Mr. Marcus wrote in 1975's "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music," a book that even people not given to sweeping statements still call the best written about rock and roll.

Those who don't like Mr. Marcus say he overwrites and over-intellectualizes, that he is forever reworking a master's thesis in a desperate bid for academic respectability. But if some call Mr. Marcus pretentious or eggheaded, to others he is visionary. His greatest strength is his ability to interpret and provide context -- to frame the music with history and history with the music -- to make sense of songs and events that would otherwise exist only as isolated moments.

In the articles collected for "Ranters and Crowd Pleasers," Mr. Marcus concentrates on bands from England and Los Angeles, with particular attention to the Clash, the Gang of Four ("extras from one of those British end-of-the world movies suddenly forced to carry the film"), and Elvis Costello -- British punks fascinated by the politics of style.

He juxtaposes the music with quotes from Thatcher and Reagan, reports of Britain's racist Right, the stray film or novelist that helps the rest make sense. Most of these pieces were originally printed in Artforum, the Village Voice and New West (which became California magazine). They will be especially interesting to readers familiar with contemporary literary theory or postmodernist art criticism.

Mr. Marcus writes in his own voice but his influences are clear. An article about the L.A. punk band X, "Love and Death in the American Novel," begins with a quote from Raymond Chandler and takes its name from Leslie Fiedler's book of literary criticism. "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which is about the Go-Go's, alludes to Pauline Kael, and Mr. Marcus describes a small town where the Gang of Four plays as "in the middle of D. H. Lawrence country."

Punk, a revolt against the creeping corporate control and gentility in rock culture, the turgid art rock and heavy metal of the mid-'70s, and the cult of the guitar hero and its elevation of instrumental virtuosity over vitality and passion, was finished a year and a half after it began. But its quick flash made everything look different, Mr. Marcus writes:

"A born ranter like Elvis Costello, despite whatever musical style he might favor at a given moment, is unthinkable without punk, and he probably would have been unhearable too -- just as, after punk, the likes of George Harrison's $354 autobiography, Julian Lennon's "Too Late For Goodbyes," or USA For Africa's "We Are the World" charity record seemed much funnier, or much uglier, than they ever would have seemed before."

Born either from middle-class Bohemians or the unemployed and working class, from the art school or the dole queue, in London or New York, punk made a noise whose blast still sounds. Mr. Marcus calls punk more than just a musical style or even an attitude, but "a new kind of free speech," an angry No needed to counter the constant Yes of consumer culture.

Though Mr. Marcus is writing about a revolution that exploded more than 15 years ago, his book is in fact quite timely. Last year's "England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond," by Jon Savage, helped revive interest in the period, as has Rhino Records' "DIY" series (named for punk's do-it-yourself ethic) -- nine CDs of punk-era "classics." The title of a film released last year -- "1991: The Year Punk Broke," about Sonic Youth, Nirvana and other current hard-edged bands -- was only partly tongue-in-cheek. And the success of punk-inspired rock and roll in the '90s poses a question that this book comes at indirectly: Can punk or alternative music survive major label ownership and distribution?

Though he's known for the warmth and enthusiasm of his writing, Mr. Marcus is equally strong as an ironic, hard-bitten critic or satirist. His piece on "We Are the World" (a song that "says less about Ethiopia than it does about Pepsi") and the "No Nukes" concert are laugh-out-loud funny, as is his descriptions of his self-penned "Journey Award for the worst album by a California band" -- an award Mr. Marcus retired when the award's namesake tied itself for the prize.

At times, Mr. Marcus still shows flashes of his usual vices: overwriting, self-indulgence, over-intellectualization, '60s-style naivete and a flight from a shared critical and journalistic language to the French-inflected language of academic theory. Though Mr. Marcus never talks about it, the same punk impulse that aimed to destroy the star system targeted the pomposity of the rock press and its writers. (Rolling Stone, in turn, treated punk like rock's poorly behaved nephew for most of the style's duration.)

But "Ranters and Crowd Pleasers" is not only Mr. Marcus' best book since "Mystery Train," it's a reminder that at his best -- as he is in more than half these pieces -- he is the smartest, nerviest rock writer going.


Title: "Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music 1977-92"

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 438 pages, $22

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