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Books on music


Top 5 tips on seeking out great books on music + a list of recommendations

Frank Zappa famously dismissed all writings about music by saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” To me, though, far from being an irrelevant or even a contradictory thing to do, writing about music can lead to a greater appreciation (or dislike!) of a piece of music. If you’re a fan, a well-researched and written book about a favourite artist or band can give you some great insights into how the music was made, the people behind it and the times in which it was created. While each person’s response to a piece of music is unique and personal, to me it rarely breaks the mystique of that interaction to learn more about it or to discover other people’s opinions of it.

I’ve always loved reading about music, ever since avidly devouring the Melody Maker and then the NME in the ‘70s. The excitement at the arrival of punk was heightened by the writings of those young guns at the NME, Nick Kent, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons and others. They opened a window onto what was happening in London, Manchester and New York. Even before that, my faded scrapbook of early reviews of King Crimson, Bowie and Led Zep is avid fandom just as much as owning the records.

The music weeklies gave you news, reviews and interviews, taken up when they faded and disappeared by glossier monthlies. I’ve been a subscriber to Mojo pretty much from the start, as my attic cupboard testifies as I can’t quite face getting rid of any them. I wonder what they made of The Fall’s Middle Class Revolt in 1994? I’ll just dig out that issue and find out.

However, it’s books, particularly in the last twenty years, which have become a fantastic source of information and entertainment. Those hasty cash-in fan biographies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, written about stars when they were still in their twenties or even their teens, have matured in every way. Those stars have got older, and many of course have now died. There is a richness and a depth to their stories and the ability for those lives to be written about with a sense of perspective. Pop music, as a form of expression, was one which our parents thought would be some passing fad and would soon be forgotten, with primacy being rightfully restored to less frivolous forms of music. Scholars and critics in the 1960s who started to compare Lennon and McCartney to classical composers were derided and told that the music of The Beatles would soon be forgotten. Who knows what judgment on the music of The Beatles there will be in, say, 2220, but certainly in 2020 their importance is undiminished.

So, what do books bring to this? For me, all the great books I’ve read on The Beatles, and on all the varied types of popular music I’ve wanted to read about, of the ‘50s right up to (generally) the end of the twentieth century, help to convey two main things. Firstly, the sheer importance of music to the culture of the times and to our lives during those decades. The importance of the charts (remember them?), the thrill of live music, the gatefold album sleeves, the rise and fall of stars, music as protest and a catalyst for social change, breakthroughs in recording techniques… the list is a long one of the many fascinating aspects of music and music making which can best be explored in the longer form of a book.

The second aspect I love exploring via books is the wonderful variety of music which has opened up over the past 70 years. Pop, rock, folk, blues, jazz, minimalism, metal, reggae, electronic, ambient, prog, punk, post-punk, indie, glam, disco and a splintering of hundreds of sub-genres and movements in-between – I love reading about it all. There are now loads of books on virtually every major artist and genre – in fact, we are now spoilt for choice, with a slew of new titles appearing every month.

So, how to navigate your way through so many books? What music you choose to read about will be largely dictated by your musical preferences, but regardless of these, here are my Top 5 Tips. The ‘Top 5’ is inspired by Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which is full of musical top 5s. That book (and film) is exceptional in that it is a great novel about music. In my experience, novels which feature either real-life or fictional bands are incredibly difficult to pull off successfully, with many creating a cringing mixture of not-quite-accurate evocations and pointless name-dropping of real stars into fictional worlds. Some great novelists have tried to tackle the ‘rock book’ and have failed, so generally, I steer clear of music fiction.

Anyhow, here are my Top 5 Tips about books on music:

  1. Don’t buy books which date too quickly

An example of this is one of those list books such as 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. I have an edition of this from 2005 and some of the albums included are, from a 2020 perspective, bizarre: The Darkness and The Zutons?? Similarly, biographies written part-way through an active music career end up missing vital albums or events. A biography of Bowie, Starman by Paul Trynka, which still features in book lists, is “…now with an update on the making and release of The Next Day.” So, even the updated version is out of date, not featuring Bowie’s amazing final album, Blackstar.

  1. The best books aren’t always the most comprehensive

Volume 1 of Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles All These Years trilogy, published in 2013, only goes up to 1963 and runs to over 900 pages (1700 pages for the ‘expanded’ edition!). While fascinating and interesting, way more fun is Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, which just focuses on some great (and in some case little-known) Beatle stories.

  1. Fans rarely write the best books

Books by fans may be labours of love, but often there is no critical filter, no perspective and way too much nerdy detail.  The book Big Day Coming on US indie darlings Yo La Tengo by Jesse Jarnow was referred to by the band in some liner notes as an “exercise in tedium”: harsh but fair!

  1. Where to buy books on music

Please avoid using the Evil Empire to buy books on music. Many are from by smaller publishers and obscure authors who need all the support they can get. Small, independent vinyl record shops often have a book section, which I head to even before browsing music. HMV and Fopp have bargain ‘2 for £6’ deals on all sorts of music books. The new initiative for independent bookshops, www.bookshop.org is a great new online store. And music festivals usually have a great little bookstore among the hippie clothing outlets.

  1. Go to book talks and signings

This is such a great way to see your heroes and hear them talking about music. These have sprung up over the last few years at book festivals across the UK. Here in Sheffield, Off The Shelf festival usually has more than one book on music featured. And then, join the queue, get your book signed and try not to say anything too embarrassing to your musical hero in your 30 seconds in front of them (here I speak from experience, unfortunately.

So, with Christmas coming, and the prospect of the 2020 festive period being one of largely enforced quietness, what better than to curl up with a great book about music. As for recommendations, mine are skewed in favour of my heroes, hence my list includes books on Bowie, The Beatles, Joy Division and The Fall, see list below. And I’ve even created a Spotify playlist based on that list: https://open.spotify.com/user/lexiconmark/playlist/3C47qael2rUbSSrT254LsR?si=MczE33jfRmmz7w_pL2wUUQ

Books on music: recommended reading

Craig Brown - One Two Three Four

Ian MacDonald – Revolution in the Head

The Beatles Anthology

Pete Paphides – Broken Greek

Thomas Jerome Seabrook – Bowie in Berlin

Roger Griffin – David Bowie The Golden Years

Tony Visconti – Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy

Chris Frantz – Remain in Love

Nick Hornby – High Fidelity

Roddy Doyle – The Commitments

Guy Peellaert – Rock Dreams

Steve Hanley – The Big Midweek

Jon Savage – This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else

Jon Savage – England’s Dreaming

Jon Savage – 1966

Simon Reynolds – Rip it Up and Start Again

Simon Reynolds – Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and its Legacy

David Hepworth – 1971 Never a Dull Moment

David Hepworth – Uncommon People

Peter Hook – Unknown Pleasures

Stephen Morris – Record Play Pause

Viv Albertine – Clothes Music Boys

John Lydon – Anger is an Energy

James Rhodes – Instrumental

Wilko Johnson – Don’t You Leave Me Here

Michael Bracewell – Remake/Remodel

Joni Mitchell – Morning Glory on the Vine

Julian Cope – Head-On/Repossessed

Dylan Jones – Sweet Dreams

Mike Barnes – A New Day Yesterday