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Today’s SotW is the 500th song featured since this thing started in February 2008. Thanks for your continued feedback and support. T
I recently finished another great rock music history by Greil Marcus – The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs (Yale University Press, 2014). It’s a terrific book and I highly recommend it if you like intelligent, intellectual rock history.
The first song he chooses is “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies.
The Flamin’ Groovies were a San Francisco based band that formed in the mid 60s and lasted through the 70s as the core band. Different configurations gigged until 1992 and there have been a few reunions in the 2000s. This band never achieved the fame they deserved as pioneers of the power pop genre.
“Shake Some Action” was the title song from their fourth album, released in 1976. The song was produced by Dave Edmunds, a British pub rocker that is no stranger to cutting a pop hit.
Marcus makes his case for “Shake Some Action’s” importance in the history of Rock ‘N’ Roll thusly:
‘The story told in “Shake Some Action” is complete in its title – though in the song it’s a wish, not a fact, a desperate wish the singer doesn’t expect to come true. The words hardly matter: “Need” “Speed” “Say” “Away” are enough. It starts fast, as if in the middle of some greater song. A bright, trebly guitar counts off a theme, a beat is set, a bass note seems to explode, sending a shower of light over all the notes around it. The rhythm is pushing, but somehow it’s falling behind the singer. He slows down to let it catch up, and the sound the guitar is making, a bell chiming through the day, has shot past both sides. Every beat is pulling back against every other; the whole song is a backbeat, every swing a backhand, every player his own free country, discovering the real free country in the song as it rises up in front of him, glimpsing that golden land, losing it as the mirage fades, blinking his eyes, getting it back, losing it again – that is its reckless abandon, the willingness of the music, in pursuit of where it needs to go, where it must go, to abandon itself. “You have to go into a crowd and do something they can’t,” [Neil] Young said that day in 1993. “Some of them are hearing it and some of them aren’t, but it doesn’t matter. The idea is the tension.”
In “Shake Some Action,” the tension is there from the first moments – that count is a count to the end, the dead end, the door you’ve locked from the inside and can’t open, and the whole song can feel like an attempt to escape the tension, to let it dissipate, until the musicians no longer remember that the theme that kicked them off was fate. Here, every element in the music is a leap. As different parts of the song slow, as others pick up speed, depending on where you are, which wave in the song you’re riding, the sense of imminent loss can disappear – and then the singer drops back and there is a guitar, more than a guitarist, replacing the story you’ve heard with one you haven’t.
It’s what the singer is afraid of losing defined now purely in the positive, as flight, as freedom, in Norman Mailer’s words loose in the water for the first time in your life, because no matter how many times in how many pieces of music you are swept away at the instrumental passages in “Shake Some Action” can sweep you away, it’s always the first time. When the guitarist steps onto the magic carpet of his first solo, it is a picture of everything the singer is certain is slipping away from him, but it is not slipping away, it is present, you can hold it in your hand, see it glow. At the end, the guitarist again steps forward – and while the notes played might on paper be the same as they were before, in the air they are speaking in a different tongue. The drum roll that has tripped the song into the instrumental passage that will end it has tripped it over a cliff, and you feel not the worth of what the singer wants, but what it was worth, before it vanished, before it went back beyond memory, into fantasy, as if desire never had a face. Is that why you have to play the song again, to make it come out differently? Or because you can’t live without that beat?’
I can’t end this post without answering the question I know you all have – What are the other 9 songs? Marcus often makes his case by discussing multiple versions of a song but I’ll just list the originals:
Transmission – Joy Division
In the Still of the Nite – The Five Satins
All I Could Do Was Cry – Etta James
Crying, Waiting, Hoping – Buddy Holly
Money (That’s What I Want) – Barrett Strong
This Magic Moment – The Drifters
Guitar Drag – Christian Marclay
To Know Him Is to Love Him – The Teddy Bears
Enjoy… until next week.