PRINT December 1991


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His latest book, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, has just been published by Doubleday, New York.

  1. Buzzcocks: Spiral Scratch (Document CD or 12", U.K.) and Time’s Up (Document CD, U.K.)

    In the summer of 1976, in Manchester, the Buzzcocks formed on the model of the Sex Pistols; in October, with Howard Devoto as singer, they went into the local Revolution studio and for something under $100 of mike time cut their songs. Released in February 1977, the EP Spiral Scratch was only the third U.K. punk disk to be issued; more than that, it was the first independent, do-it-yourself U.K. punk record; and more than that, it was definitive. “Boredom” (“I’m living in this, uh, movie,” Devoto snapped, “But it doesn’t move me”) was an instant anthem, or rather a fragment of an anthem floating away to be caught by its listeners. It set the tone: sarcastic (many of the tunes had their genesis in a notebook where Devoto had set down all-purpose, lumpen-surrealist insults), distracted, thin, spidery, and most of all in a hurry. Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” was about taking a stand; “Breakdown,” “Friends of Mine,” and the rest (bootlegged as Time’s Up again and again over the years) were about evading an enemy more sensed than defined, and then turning up at his back, then disappearing. The feeling was anonymous—a dare taken and won.

    Devoto went on to more ornamented music with his groups Magazine and Luxuria; led by guitarist Pete Shelley, the Buzzcocks made sharp, poppy punk through the decade (re-formed, they tour the clubs even now). But October 1976 was their moment. With “Lester Sands (Drop in the ocean)” they caught an ancient snarl, blindly retrieving the voice of the Ranters along with echoes of their cosmology (“Every creature is God,” it was written in 1646, “every creature that hath life and breath being an efflux of God, and shall return to God again, be swallowed up in him as a drop is in the ocean”). Blasphemy edged out of their blank complaints; ambition rose from the songs and came down as vengeance.

    “History is made by those who say ‘no’,”Jon Savage writes at the close of England’s Dreaming, his recreation of the Sex Pistols’ era, “and Punk’s utopian heresies remain its gift to the world.” On Spiral Scratch and Time’s Up that gift was offered as ordinary, unspectacular, everyday life; since the music was made the world has changed enough that, putting on the disks today, it can seem as if the gift is being opened for the first time.

  2. Bruce Thomas: The Big Wheel—Rock & Roll and Roadside Attractions (Faber and Faber)

    Elvis Costello’s former Attractions bassist on the road, living in a dream, remaking it on the page with a born writer’s love of the right phrase and a loathing for cliché, and, finally, trying to break away: “There were times when it all made sense. After all, nobody plays a piece of music just to get to the last note. There were some nights when everything went with that effortless kind of swing that requires a certain kind of effort to allow. Nights like those were never the same and could not be repeated; they contained a feeling of being a spectator as well as a participant.”

  3. Nirvana: video for “Smells like Teen Spirit” (directed by Samuel Bayer, DGC Records)

    Lear to Gloucester: “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, corruption”—all this when the visual setup is no more than a small crowd and a furious Seattle three-piece in a high school gym.

  4. Ashtray: “Trailer”/ “Riding on the Train” (Shoe Records, P.O. Box 42249, Philadelphia, PA 19101)

    A nothing day in the present on the A side wars against a timeless, lyrical chorus shared by guitarist Joe Leifheit and bassist Sarah Howells on the B; the balance tips to the past and into it.

  5. Erasure: Chorus (Sire)

    Dance music you can use sitting still, at 3 A.M.

  6. Brian Morton: The Dylanist (HarperCollins)

    In this novel about a young woman growing up through the lives lived and surrendered by her parents, ex-Communists who still believe, what begins in mildness turns graceful and then quietly hard. Bob Dylan is Sally Burke’s talisman—she’s a Dylanist, a young union man tells her as she revels in a bootlegged copy of the incomprehensible, never released Basement Tapes tune “I’m Not There” (“This,” she says, “may be the greatest song ever written,” and she’s right); she’s “too hip to believe in anything but [her] own feelings.” But she grows past Dylan, too—in her late 20s, “when she looked at his records, she could never find anything she wanted to hear.” In the end who she is is more fated, a life made of a contradiction Dylan might have escaped but she can’t: “She would never find a home, as [her parents] had, in the effort to transfigure the world. But in her belief that she lived in a world that needed to be transfigured, she’d probably always feel homeless.”

  7. Roxy Music: Total Recall—A History, 1972–1982 (Virgin Music Video)

    TV appearances, concert footage, and primitive videos: madly outré in the beginning, when Bryan Ferry and the band would do anything for a thrill, pathetic in the middle, when they’d do anything for a hit, and exploding off the screen with Ferry’s 1976 solo “Let’s Stick Together”—where, as he emotes in his stiff-legged way, then-girlfriend Jerry Hall sticks a long leg into the frame vamps across it with a bombshell grin so self-absorbed you can already feel Ferry’s heart breaking.

  8. Guy Debord: Panegyric—Volume I, translated from the French by James Brook (Verso)

    From the author of The Society of the Spectacle, a brief and elegiac memoir of a life lived in its shadows and cracks. With a notable chapter on drunkenness as part of Debord’s lifework, and a comment on the loss of taste imposed on alcohol by mass production: “No one had ever imagined that he would see drink pass away before the drinker.”

  9. Cargo Records: advertisement (Option, September/October)

    “This young band,” reads the copy for First of Many, the debut disk from a duo calling themselves the Future, “dares to capture 60’s folk-rock music, and blend it with the 70’s revival, to create a new sound for a new generation.” “NO FUTURE FOR YOU/NO FUTURE FOR ME”—this must be the payoff.

  10. First Presbyterian Church, Yellow Springs, Ohio: sermon announcement (September 1991)

    “What kind of country is it in which people believe God is Dead but Elvis is Alive?”

  11. First Presbyterian Church, Yellow Springs, Ohio: sermon announcement (September 1991)

    “What kind of country is it in which people believe God is Dead but Elvis is Alive?”