Marcus never comes to a direct answer to the question of whether this is failure, and if so what kind it is, but he does offer an oblique one. Along with The Mekons and The Clash and a host of other groups, many of them just the kind I admired most at age fourteen (X, Sonic Youth, Black Flag), these pieces trace the careers of two singers who were, at most, fellow travelers: Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, the crowd pleasers of the title. In Costello, he sees someone trying and failing to express a single idea of surpassing importance: “that fascism, far from being defeated in 1945, simply went underground, where it now functions as the political unconscious of the West.” In Springsteen, he sees something like the living embodiment of rock music, his anthemic treatments of working class immiseration and his stark acoustic ballads of murder on the high plains the natural and fitting obverse of, say, The Mekons’ obsession with striking coal miners.
“The Sex Pistols’ first achievement,” he writes in his introduction, “was to burn rock ‘n’ roll down to essentials of noise; if punk ever really ended, it was in the middle of its tale, when two singers from whom most punk chroniclers would withhold the name burned punk down to something close to silence.” It is a striking claim, and in it one can just discern an answer to the problem posed by The Mekons. There is a worse thing than not to be heard and to not have an audience, it would go; it is to be heard and not understood, to have a vast audience that simply doesn’t care what you have to say. (This is a fate with which a Rolling Stone writer whose intricate, dense articles on various rock genealogies are skimmed or skipped by millions of subscribers eager to make their way to the latest interview with Jackson Browne is perhaps unusually sympathetic.) And there is a real victory in freeing oneself from the need for validation, in being content with an audience that may be small but has ears to hear you.
For as long as he’s been writing, Marcus has been generally less interested in his actual subjects than in the invention of resonant mythologies about them. This is dangerous for someone writing about simple music, and leaves him prone to unconvincing theoretical disquisitions on such ideas as how old Dylan records about getting drunk fit in a line tracing back to the Great Awakening. (Lipstick Traces, his other book on punk, shows the danger by tracing the connection between the Pistols and the French situationists; it is nowhere near as bracing as his reportage on the music.) It’s one thing to write about pop records and live performances as if they are strictly cultural artifacts, and something very different to forget, as he sometimes has when not faced with the immediate presence of an act as powerful as Gang of Four, that this is a fiction and a contrivance.
It says a lot about the power of this music that it forced him to remember, and to show just how sharp a thinker he can be at his best. Perhaps fittingly, unlike several of his less compelling ones, this book has been flitting in and out of print in various editions and under various titles since it was published. Like its subjects, it hasn’t been heard widely; one hopes it’s heard well.