Slipcue E-Zine: Pop and Rock Music Theory & Criticism Books rock theory and criticism

Hi there... This is one of several pages devoted to reviews of rock and pop music books. This page deals with egghead-y critiques of the music, and is part of the larger Book Reviews Section of Slipcue E-Zine. Other Pop links are listed below...

This section is devoted to critiques and histories of musical trends and other general pop culture commentaries (as opposed to profiles of individual artists...) I hope to expand this section in the future, but for now, here are recommendations for a few books you may find interesting...

Pop Music Essays and Criticism

"Flowers In The Dustbin -- The Rise Of Rock And Roll: 1947-1977"
by James Miller
(Simon and Schuster, 1997)
A strong, tightly-focused outline of the history of rock and roll, from its early R&B roots, through the late 1970s. A lot of this material has been covered extensively elsewhere, but Miller has a knack for writing compact sketches of bands and artists, which is particularly compelling for "golden era" acts such as Frankie Lymon or Rickie Nelson, where six or seven pages really cover about all you need to know. The book is a good read, as Miller presents his information knowledgably and concisely, and also does a great job of explaining what was so innovative about each of the artists he selects. This is a fun book, which can be read casually, chapter by chapter, but also holds together as a cohesive work.

Stylistically, Miller is one of those pop culture writers who feel the need to enshroud their work in a cloak of academic solidity -- to prove that this music ain't just kid's stuff anymore. Thus, we are treated to the occasional uber-egghead word, such as "ephebe," "aleatory," "perfervid" and "salvific" -- which even your average Harvard prof is unlikely to use in his or her lifetime. Despite these flourishes, it's a compelling read, and Miller even loosens his writing up a bit when he gets into the hippie era -- briefly imitating Tom Wolfe's satirically psychedelic prose from the Electric Koolaid Acid Test.

Miller's cultural limitations may be of more note -- in the book's preface, he states his belief that all the major innovations of rock and roll as a genre had been accomplished by the endpoint of his book's timeline: the 1977 death of '50s icon, Elvis Presley. Miller, who was one of the earliest writers at Rolling Stone, and later the pop music critic for Newsweek, is clearly stuck in a mid-to-late 'Sixties frame of reference... which is all very well and fine. In fact, he probably does a better job encapsulating the growth of rock as a cultural phenomenon-cum-global industry than many of the other celebrated musicwriters of his generation (Lester Bangs, etc). Yet even though he acknowledges and includes genres such as punk, hip-hop and electronica as offshoots of "rock," Miller's assertion that all the musical movements since the mid-70s are mere retreads of a basic formula betrays an intellectual blind-side in an otherwise admirable analysis. Heck, I'm no expert in the stuff kids these days listen to, either, but I can recognize that the instrumentally-based textural sonics of ambient electronica represent a radical departure from the whamp-bamp-a-loo-bop of Little Richard and his contemporaries. It just isn't possible to accurately place a rigid intellectual label on any musical style, or to freeze that definition in amber. Pop music is a dynamic, ever-changing form, which keeps combining new elements, and will eventually go into some wildly unexpected direction, which may not be apparent to us right now. Every generation feels like they've seen and heard it all before-- in 1930, could anyone have anticipated Dizzy Gillespie's be-bop sound? In 1950, would they have been able to imagine what Jimi Hendrix would do to our 12-tone scale? Likewise, even though we are exposed to (and mass-marketed) an astonishing variety of sounds, who knows what the future will bring? In twenty years or so, we probably won't even be using the same kind of sound as we have now to present pop music; technology alone may dictate the change of musical style. Nonetheless, if you want to get a good overview of how we've gotten to where we are now, and get a fuller understanding of many "classic" rock artists you thought you already knew all about, this book is definitely recommended.

Greil Marcus book cover

"In The Fascist Bathroom -- Punk In Pop Music: 1977-1992"
by Greil Marcus
(Harvard University Press, 1993)

An eminently readable collection of some of the best writings of one of the grand-daddies of "serious" rock criticism. These reviews and essays cover the span of punk/alt/indie music from the dissolution of the Sex Pistols to the post-Nirvana grunge boom; flipping back and forth through the book, the enthusiasm and absurdly idealistic intellectualism of the time comes back in full force. Along with writers such as Lester Bangs, Marcus was at the vanguard of the rock critics who felt that Art Mattered, that rock was Art, and that as cultural critics, music reviewers should be serious cultural historians. Sometimes he got a little carried away with himself, and is, in many ways, the forefather of today's crop of unreadably pretentious, show-offy writers (SPIN, Rolling Stone, No Depression, et al...) who bask in their own linguistic glory at the expense of, well... communicating with their readers.

The difference between Marcus and his baffle-'em-with-bullshit, post-grad disciples is that, when Greil goes off on egghead-y tangents, he is actually saying something, making a point, following it through, and communicating clearly. With a few exceptions, Marcus uses fairly plain language, and though he raises big issues about music and popular culture, he does it in a way that is (gasp!) easy to follow. Also, he's critical, and not merely catty, and he's also quite, quite clever. That's why it's fun to read his stuff, to track through the ups and downs of his love affairs with Important Artists such as Elvis Costello, John Lydon, The Clash, and Bruce Springsteen, or to smile back at his undying fervor for bands like Essential Logic, whose ability to stand the test of time was always somewhat in question. Some of Marcus' tactics backfire, such as the article "70s Rock Death Sweepstakes", which ran in the Village Voice in the fall of '79. Profiling the accidental deaths, murders, suicides and overdoses of several dozen musicians -- while rating them on a 1 to 10 scale -- the article was intended as a shock piece, to question and combat the mass media's relentless trivialization of human experience. In retrospect, though, it simply reads as a blueprint for the crass Spy magazine-style ironics that became the norm in the '80s and '90s. (Oops. Oh, well!!) Regardless, Marcus' enthusiasm is infectious, and his insistence on holding up a political/cultural mirror while talking about plain-old three-chord rocknroll is a nice reminder that once, long ago, music did matter. Who knows? Maybe if we had more people writing this clearly, it might start to matter again!

"Funk: The Music, The People, And The Rhythm Of The One"
by Rickey Vincent
(St. Martin's Press, 1996)

This is the definitive book on funk music, written by Bay Area DJ Rickey Vincent (aka"the Uhuru Maggot"). A breathless adoration of all things funk which traces the style from its roots in black R&B (particularly in James Brown's band) through to its '70s heyday when folks like George Clinton, Larry Graham and the Ohio Players walked the earth like giants, and on into the rap of the early '90s. This book covers a wide historical scope, and those seeking guidance on where the deeply funky albums are will get a lot out of it. However, Vincent's religious fervor for the music (which is elevated to a symbolic, mystical level and always referred to in title case as "The Funk"), combined with his compulsion to view all pop culture through an afrocentrist/left wing political filter does get in the way a little bit. Still, it's an idiosyncratic, original style in which the author's enthusiasm comes through loud and clear.

"Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk"
by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
(Grove Press, 1996)

Back in the day, Legs McNeil's job as a reporter for Punk magazine was to get drunk with someone cool -- usually a musician -- and leave a tape recorder running on the bar while they yelled back and forth at the club, chatting about whatever came to mind. Then, as a deadline loomed, he'd frantically write up the results. He met a lot of interesting people, and his book is full of interviews and reminiscences by and about everyone who made "punk" a household word. McNeil, not exactly the poster child for modesty, credits himself for giving '70s "punk" its name (through the 'zine), but self-mythologizing aside, Please Kill Me is an engrossing, compelling history of the New York punk scene. Dozens of mover and shakers, including decadent club hoppers, drag queens, roadies, artistes, musicians and their widowed lovers, open up to McNeil and share memories which are often saucy and sometimes surprisingly touching. In the late '70s, New York was (arguably) cooler -- or at least more attitudinal -- than anywhere else. Yes, they had casual sex. Yes, they did lots of drugs -- bad drugs, like heroin and speed -- and yes, they had a lot of fun, enjoying a lot of great (and not-so-great) music. By book's end, though, the bill comes due: the final chapters are filled with the chilling deaths of several beloved scenesters, and the sense that the days of naive fun were at an end. Please Kill Me doesn't delve into post-'77 punk styles such as Oi, or LA hardcore, etc -- that's someone else's book. And rightly so; this is a charming, catty, whistful, funny and fairly authoritative history -- a look back on a wickedly clever scene that helped change the face of pop culture. An exceptional work, and well worth checking out.

"Break All Rules: Punk Rock And The Making Of A Style"
by Tricia Henry
(UMI Research Press, 1989)

Or, you could try to take all the fun out of it. This was written as graduate thesis, and it reads like one, full of phrases like "gender ambiguity," "strophic structure," and "diametric opposition". Punk rock as class project. Actually, its not as bad as all that... I read all the way through this book, and found it very informative, even if it's a little weird examining anarchic cultural chaos through an academic microsope. Obviously, Henry is a fan, and it's funny seeing all those swear words in a clinical, scholarly text. Not that you're likely to see this anytime soon at your local Barnes and Noble, but it's worth checking out.

"The Boy Looked At Johnny: The Obituary Of Rock And Roll"
by Julie Burchill & Tony Parsons
(Pluto Press, 1978/Faber and Faber, 1987)

A British history of punk, written as the history was being made. The authors went out of their way to try and be offensive and audacious, though their most pointed barbs are aimed at American rockers like the New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders, who were better at being junkies than they were at toeing the line as "true punks." The Clash, the Damned, the Stranglers and pretty much everyone who wasn't the Sex Pistols get similar treatment. This is chatty and snide; just the book to curl up with at home on a rainy day, sipping tea while your bashed-upp old Iggy albums wreck another phonograph needle.

"Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century"
by Griel Marcus
(Harvard University Press, 1989)

OK, I confess: I never actually finished reading this one... but I had a lot of fun trying! Pop culture critic Marcus weaves the history of the Sex Pistols -- and their disasterous final tour to America -- in with sideways social analyses and neo-surrealist "Situationism." A heady, stream-of-consciousness, Lester Bangs-ian nouveaux rock book that'll give you plenty to think about. You'll get dizzy being pointed in so many directions at once. A classic.

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