The music book industry is a substantial one. It ranges from quick, cut and paste exploitative biographies through to pseudo-scientific academic tomes covering all points in between. The music reference section alone at Waterstones or Borders groans under the weight of chart listings, top one hundred this, top one hundred that and a myriad of cobbled together encyclopaedias of various forms. Some of these volumes are lovingly and painstakingly researched, but others are just cut and paste jobs recycling old information in a slightly different form. It’s quite astonishing how low the bar is set as far as quality control is concerned at some publishers.
Then there are the biographies. These range from dense, heavy volumes that treat their subjects as important cultural figures. These are often amazingly well researched, but can sometimes have the readability of a Harvard paper on quantum physics. At the other end of the scale there is the glossy quickie written about whatever is the latest pop star or indie band made good. The text usually has a reading age of about seven and is merely recycled press coverage with added gushing hyperbole.
In between there are the scene reminiscences, the criticism collections and the histories. It’s in this area where the best writing is often found – where passion doesn’t blind critical faculties and thorough research isn’t stymied but an overly academic style. There is an awful lot of pretentious guff, of course (hello Greil Marcus), but some books that are informative, entertaining, passionate, intelligent and evocative. Here are a few I particularly recommend:
KEN EMERSON – Always Magic In The Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era (Fourth Estate ISBN:1841157287). This is the story of American pop in the late fifties and early sixties, an era where the writer was king. It concentrates on the (almost exclusively) young Jewish writers who worked in New York like Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King and Pomus and Shuman and paints a warm and evocative picture of the era. Many of the writers weren’t much older than the teenagers that they were writing for, and their trade was a competitive and insecure one. Ken Emerson’s book is essential reading for anyone who is a fan of that era of American song, but just as entertaining for those whose interest is casual but who enjoys a good story.
JOE BOYD – White Bicycles: Making Music In The Sixties (Serpent’s Tail ISBN:1852429100). This is ostensibly an autobiography, although Boyd is ego-free to the extent that he becomes an almost invisible presence at times. Other personalities leap off the pages, though – even ones as reticent as Nick Drake. The passages on the era of the UFO club in London are particularly entertaining.
LLOYD BRADLEY – Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King (Penguin ISBN:0140237631). Bass Culture has been out a few years now. It’s a long and thorough history of Jamaican music. It doesn’t restrict itself to the island, but also covers the experiences of West Indian immigrants in the UK and how their music and culture gradually spread among the indigenous population. It’s an ambitious book, but wholly successful in illuminating a culture that will be fairly alien to many. The stories of the Sound System clashes in the late fifties and early sixties are particularly gripping. Even those whose interest in reggae is cursory at best will find this an entertaining and thought-provoking book.
SIMON REYNOLDS – Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-84 (Faber ISBN:057121570X). Reynolds’ book Energy Flash about Rave Culture and its aftermath was a well-researched and thorough book marred by an overly intellectual tone and too much theorising. It was not a little ironic that Reynolds poured scorn on so called “Intelligent” techno and drum & bass whilst pretentiously name-checking the Greek god Dionysus at every turn. Rip it Up is a far better book. The quality of the research is as good, if not better, and it is as opinionated as before, but Reynolds allows the story to take precedent over the theorising. This results in a much more readable volume, and one that is low on irritating passages. Of the five books here, this covers the era and field that I have the greatest first hand knowledge of, so there was a lot of triggered memories and smiles of recognition as I read it. It’s really the only book on its era, so it’s as well that it is an excellent one.
MICHAEL AZERRAD – Our Band Could Be Your Life (Little Brown ISBN:0316787531). Michael Azerrad’s book is a collection of potted biographies of 13 of the major players of the 1980s American indie underground, from Black Flag to the Beat Happening via the likes of the Minutemen (from whose song “History Lesson Part 2” the title is taken) and the Replacements. It stands as a major achievement. Each chapter reads like a novel, but has a lot of important insights into the art as well as chronicalling the deprivations and hardships that many of these bands underwent. It is by turns bathetic, funny, angry and inspiring – but always passionate. Even if you care not a jot for some of these band’s music, their stories are gripping. The moral bankruptcy of Reaganite America is an underlying tone, but this isn’t a polemic. Our Band Could Be Your Life is recognised as the leading text on its era. I would aver that it is the best book on music that I’ve read.