You can get a sense of the manic energy of Mr. Theroux's writing from the colorful dismissals of popular musicians he scatters on nearly every page. Barbra Streisand singing "People," he says, gives him "a serious toothache." He describes Three Dog Night's "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog" as an "unmusical abortion" and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory" as "nothing less than a f—king massacre." The most provocative sections are his demolitions of the catalogs of such universally beloved pop icons as Burt Bacharach ("Bacharach as a composer was artifice personified") or Jimmy Webb ("Prosiness came easily to Webb, not so much poetry"). Sometimes, though, the target seems hardly worth the ammunition, as when Mr. Theroux trashes a trifle like "John Denver's impossibly saccharine 'Follow Me,' " a hit in its day but not a song anyone has ever claimed as a superior slice of pop music.
Still, Mr. Theroux's style of criticism is a tonic. Music writers tend to make overly grand claims for their preferred forms. "The Grammar of Rock" insists that popular music is supposed to be entertaining. More than any other composers or performers, the Beatles receive kind words from Mr. Theroux. He writes, "Lennon and McCartney's early lyrics, like 'All My Loving,' 'Please Please Me,' and 'I Feel Fine,' for example, while thin and one-dimensional, are nevertheless quite effective." Earlier in the book, he notes, "it was through their lyrics, examining them, following their bliss, as much as through the joy of their music, that fans of the Beatles—them more than any singers I can name—sought the darshan, a word that is employed in India to describe the beneficial glow one feels from a glimpse of greatness." In one of the few spots where he is critical of the Beatles, he opines that "certain passages found in highly revered songs," such as "I Am the Walrus," "sound like mad Hieronymo spouting nonsense in a gulf of high winds." (He must be well aware that the song is meant to be nonsense.)
Considering that the book spends most of its pages detailing what other people got wrong, "The Grammar of Rock" could have benefited by a fact-checker: Mr. Theroux attributes "Blue Skies" to Rodgers and Hart but then makes it up to Irving Berlin by gifting Martin and Blane's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to him. And too often he gets personal: It's one thing for Mr. Theroux to dislike Tony Bennett's singing but quite another to attack him for "hobbling on stage . . . be-corseted"—especially when Mr. Bennett has never had anything like a weight problem.
All of which underscores the point that this is a book of highly subjective, even inflammatory, opinions that we're free to disagree with as we choose. Rather like many of the songs he savages, "The Grammar of Rock" is not an essential book—in the sense that it won't help composers write better songs and it won't help listeners listen better. What it will do is to make you laugh out loud or shout in anger—even if it does sometimes feel as if words, as Lennon and McCartney put it, are "flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup."
By Will Friedwald