Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Ranters and Crowd PleasersRanters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Why should you or me or anyone at all read a book of rock criticism, especially when it’s filled with stuff about records from 30 years ago or longer, of bands who aren’t around anymore and musicians who aren’t even alive? It’s a good question. Why should anyone read Greil Marcus’ 1992 collection Ranters and Crowd Pleasers (also republished as Inside the Fascist Bathroom)?

It’s tempting to say something about how it putts music in a proper context, like reading a period review would help us get into the mind of that particular place and time. This might be true for some collections, I imagine, but it’s not really why I’m recommending this particular book of Marcus’ criticism.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a history of punk rock, either. Although it’s nominally a book about punk rock, particularly of English punk, and Marcus’ reviews cover a pretty good range of bands, generally a handful of names keep popping up, over and over: The Clash, Gang of Four, The Mekons and Lilliput. At the same time, more than a few seminal American bands fall to the wayside: there’s only a couple mentions of Sonic Youth and Black Flag, while both Husker Du and The Minutemen don’t ever show up at all.

So as a history of punk in the 80s, it only kind of succeeds; books like Our Band Could Be Your Life cover the 80s underground in a better fashion. So why am I recommending Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, then, exactly?

Basically because it’s a collection of criticism about music in the 80s, but is about more than just music. It takes music, ties it into pop culture and examines why this music was so important then, looks to deeper trends in the decade and gets to the core of why some of this music is so powerful and why the decade unfolded as it did.

In his heyday, Marcus wrote smart and literate rock criticism for a variety of magazines (I think now he mostly teaches). Most famously, he wrote for Rolling Stone, but the bulk of his best material came for smaller outlets: New West/California, Artforum and occasionally in The Village Voice. Most of these pieces appeared there first. The last of these pieces was written in 1992, but most of Marcus’ observations and insights haven’t dated very much.

Indeed, the book’s most dated moments are when it strays from punk and into culture: for example, there’s a look at a one-off anti-Reagan record called Bonzo Goes to Washington that I only remember because Doonesbury did a bit on it.

But largely, Marcus avoids knee-jerk reactions and delves into critical theory when writing about music. Names like Roland Barthes, D.H. Lawrence and Raymond Chandler pop up here and there as Marcus ties literature, critical theory and music together. It all sounds kind of high-flautin’ and pretentious, sure, and truthfully, I’ve had that reaction to his writing before (see: Dead Elvis). The difference here is the music is often at the same level.

See, the thing that’s easy to forget about post-punk is who made most of it: college kids. For example, the people in Gang of Four weren’t a bunch of kids who hung out together at local club, they were a bunch of young adults in university who were steeped in critical theory. This was a band that argued about the meanings and impacts of art amongst themselves. Other bands here – The Au Pairs, Delta 5 and The Mekons, among others – all come from similar backgrounds.

In other words, they brought this on themselves. And when Marcus goes into full-fledged critical mode, their music is packed with enough allusions and meanings for him to work with; this ain’t a critical reading of “Blue Suede Shoes.”

And indeed, it’s a treat. When Marcus breaks own the Au Pairs’ first record, he explains how they use an off-kilter, dub-informed rhythm to give their music it’s edge, while their lyrics don’t force a point of view, but “create situations and assume roles within them.” Between the space and thought, it’s an intelligent and more nuanced take than, say, a 200 word capsule review by Christgau or Rolling Stone.

But the book really takes off with two figures: Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello. Both finished the 70s on high notes – Springsteen with Darkness on the Edge of Town and Costello with Armed Forces – and spent the 80s alternately making great music and questionable personal choices.

When it comes to their music, Marcus’ writing rises to meet these musicians. His essays on the rawness of Springsteen’s Nebraska or on the sardonic Costello tune “Pills and Soap” are where it all comes together, Marcus tying this bleak music to the nihilism of punk rock and the then-future of Reagan/Thatcher neo-conservatism. To wit:

“Pills and Soap is catchy. And yet it is very nearly too well written, too artful, to sidle its way into a listener’s day, which is what it means to do – so that days or years later one will recall its whole, unfragmented vision, as bits and pieces of that vision become true…” (pg 250)

Even if Costello’s vision of the future hasn’t quite come true (thank god), it doesn’t make his music or Marcus’ reaction to it any less powerful. And, I think, it’s often the case throughout the book. Go read it, then go listen to the bands he writes about. It’s easier than ever and he just may convert you, too.

Rating: 7/10


%d bloggers like this: