Friday, June 13, 2014

Top Music Books

Jarvis Cocker has written a typically diverse and fascinating list of his favourite music books for the Guardian. He knows of what he speaks, being a roving editor for Faber as well. Cocker's own best work is often those songs which tell a story - we were dancing/listening to "Underwear" on a friend's iPhone in a hotel room in Tallinn last night coincidentally!

Anyway, I may not be a Faber editor or have written "Common People" but I do have a bit of love for music books - so here's an alternate list.

1. The Beatles Forever - Nicholas Schaeffner

I was a Beatles obsessive in my early teens, though probably as interested in reading about them as listening to them. I guess it was the start of a wider interest in a pop cultural framework - reading about the Manson cult's obsession with "The White Album" - watching "Rosemary's Baby".... I picked up this book from a bookshop in Bournemouth when on holiday with my family. Its brilliant, but a bit odd. The author is an American whose life was changed by hearing the Beatles - so the familiar story is shortcutted, his Beatles begins in 1964 and is as much about Beatles tribute records and Beatles memorabilia as the music. Somehow this helps tell the story - its also got fantastic photos. I first heard about the "butcher" cover here (and saw a picture of it.) He also continues through their solo years. The story is told better elsewhere, but he's got a lively style and I obsessed over this book for a long time. Well worth hunting down.

2. Wrong Movements - Mike King

I'm a massive Robert Wyatt fan, and with an official biog due this year, its worth mentioning this fabulous - and quite rare - book that came out a few years ago. Its a superior clippings job - telling Wyatt's story through all available sources.  A great book with a good discography (which in the days before Wikipedia was essential.)

3. Head On - Julian Cope

Julian Cope has written quite a few esoteric books now, but this was his first and the best. A rollercoaster autobiography - it benefits both from his being a decent writer, and the iconic nature of his story - from ambitious but unfocussed suburbanite, to off kilter singer in the Teardrop Explodes, to unexpected pop stardom, before imploding under too many drugs. A classic story.

4. Psychotic Reactions - Lester Bangs

Predictable, but none the worse for all that - this collection of posthumous journalism by the best rock writer of all time is something you can pick up time and again. His pieces on Kraftwerk, "Metal Machine Music", Grand Funk Railroad and others are pretty legendary, and he was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the awesome "Almost Famous."

5. Crass Lyrics

Maybe I've imagined this one as I can't find a link on Google, but I've certainly got a copy of the complete lyrics of anarcho punk band Crass. They were always so much more than noise and this lovely collection does them every bit as much justice as the Patti Smith or Paul McCartney complete lyrics. Given how important their lyrics were politically its a powerful read in its own right .

6. Nowhere to Run - Gerri Hershey

A classic, but vital regardless, this is the history of soul music. A great great story told brilliantly.
I could have filled this list with classics by Griel Marcus, Jon Savage and others, but this slightly lesser known history is exemplary.

7. Touch & Go

There have been a few "collected fanzine" collections, but this beautifully reproduced recreation of "Touch & Go" a magazine and record label synonymous with U.S. hardcore is particularly good. You get to see the evolution of a movement - the early issues are mostly reviewing UK punk and new wave, but at some point the US hardcore scene coalesces, and its around this magazine that it coalesces. As a somewhat sardonic zine, its also funny - so much more than a period piece.

8. Roxy Music - Johnny Rogan

Before he wrote his infamous Morrissey and Marr book, Rogan looked at band rivalry through the lens of art rock legends Roxy Music. When this book came out it was quite hard to find out the full story of their remarkable career - and particularly the strange solo excursions of Eno, Manzanera et al. A very well researched little paperback I'm amazed its not been reissued, but worth unearthing if you can find it.

9. In Session Tonight - Ken Garner 

This wonderful piece of scholarship tells the full story of the Peel sessions - and annotates them all. It even has a CD with it. But its mostly just a great telling of this alternate history that is the Peel session.

10. The Dirt - Motley Crue

Most of my favourite music books are about artists I love, but this is a favourite for other reasons. It tells the mad uncensored story of Motley Crue, from their own mouths. If you ever wanted to know how depraved rock music can get, and how lacking in self awareness this is the book. It really dishes "the dirt" but because they are telling their own story its got a searing honesty that is part comedy, part tragedy. Hasn't made me want to listen to their music, but great fun to read.

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