I’m often asked what books I would recommend to someone wanting to delve deeper into the history of the various popular music scenes of the past fifty years or so. That’s an interesting question, as there are so many fascinating volumes out there (and a fair few blatant cash-ins too, which really aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on). Rummaging through my own now-sizeable collection of music books inspired me to put together this list – that and being a total listoholic, as regular readers will know!
When it comes down to it, I’m not necessarily saying these are the ‘best’ books on music ever because that’s such a subjective definition – I’ve chosen these books because I have read and enjoyed them all, and because I think they would be of interest to those music fans wanting to learn more about the music they know and the music they don’t. Most of them will be easy enough to find – your local library or bookshop should stock many of these titles – but you may have to track down one or two online. They’re worth the effort though…
The list has been divided into three sections for ease of perusal. Biography, Autobiography and Memoirs contains exactly that – books written by or about a band, artist or music industry insider. Scenes, Eras and Places lists volumes covering specific times, locations and musical movements that have had an important impact in some way. Finally, Collected Writings covers more general texts, and compilations of music journalism and other writings. Each section is listed in alphabetical order by the author’s surname and the date given is that of first publication, where known.
22/05/15: Having since read yet more books on music, I decided to update my list with some new additions, which are in bold type. If you’d like to contribute to the really quite brilliant crowdsourced list of music books which resulted from this original list, please do get in touch here, or tweet me. Thanks!
Regular readers will know of my involvement in compiling Top 50 music lists – indeed, I’ve posted my complete 1970s and 1990s albums lists here in the past. For more information on the Top 50 Albums Lists project and more details of my Debut Albums choices, visit the Top 50s blog. You can also find a wide selection of other Top 50s from various different music fans over on the List of Lists.
50) The Charlatans – Some Friendly (1990)
49) The Verve – A Storm In Heaven (1993)
48) Chemical Brothers – Exit Planet Dust (1995)
47) Super Furry Animals – Fuzzy Logic (1996)
46) Elliott Smith – Roman Candle (1994)
45) Gram Parsons – GP (1973)
44) Daft Punk – Homework (1997)
43) The Postal Service – Give Up (2003)
42) Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
41) Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine – 101 Damnations (1990)
40) The Prodigy – Experience (1992)
Once upon a time, there were four weekly music papers in the UK. These were Sounds, Record Mirror (both of which folded in the early 1990s), the New Musical Express (still published and better known as the NME) and the grandaddy of them all, Melody Maker, which originally dated back to the mid 1920s and finally gave up the ghost in 2000. Affectionately known as ‘inkies’ because they were once published on the kind of newsprint that covered your fingers in black ink as you turned the pages, these publications were a hugely important part of the lives of generations of British music fans and introduced many a music-mad teenager to the latest, greatest hot new thing. But they didn’t always get it right…
Melody Maker, in particular, began life as a paper aimed squarely at jazz and dance band musicians, and as such they stubbornly and snobbishly ignored the growth of a new kind of popular music that began to emerge in the 1950s – the ‘cheap and nasty’ threat of rock ‘n’ roll. If they did mention it, it was to dismiss it as a pointless and distasteful fad that they desperately hoped would never catch on, as reviewer and broadcaster Steve Race wrote in May 1956:
Viewed as a social phenomenon, the current craze for Rock-and-Roll material is one of the most terrifying things ever to have happened to popular music. […] Musically speaking, of course, the whole thing is laughable. […] The Rock-and-Roll technique, instrumentally and vocally, is the antithesis of all that jazz has been striving for over the years – in other words, good taste and musical integrity. […] It is a monstrous threat, both to the moral acceptance and artistic emancipation of jazz. Let us oppose it to the end.
The irony in this, of course, is that these are exactly the kind of negative things that were said about jazz in its early days too (and worse – a great deal of the criticism aimed at the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s had a distinctly and often openly racist tone to it). Even more ironically, a direct line can be drawn from the British ‘Trad’ jazz scene of the 1950s to the rhythm and blues-based rock scene of the early- to mid-1960s that gave us the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds via the ‘Skiffle’ craze of the late 50s (which was where the Beatles started out….).
Last year, after much deliberation, I posted a list of my favourite fifty albums from the 1990s. Since then, I’ve compiled a 1970s list, which you can find in full below. For more information on the Top 50 Albums Lists project, visit the blog here – and you can find lots more 70s Top 50s on the List of Lists here.
50) The Police – Reggatta de Blanc (1979)
49) Madness – One Step Beyond (1979)
48) The Damned – Damned Damned Damned (1977)
47) Marianne Faithfull – Broken English (1979)
46) Lou Reed – Transformer (1972)
45) Various Artists – Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (1972)
44) Gram Parsons – GP (1973)
43) Sly & The Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971)
42) Iggy & The Stooges – Raw Power (1973)
41) John Martyn – Solid Air (1973)
40) Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (1977)
Since 2013 has finally drawn to a close (and since so many people asked me to), I’ve compiled the now-traditional end-of-year list of my favourite albums. As far as I’m concerned, 2013 has been a very interesting year for music. I’ve certainly been listening to more new albums over the last twelve months than I have done for a very long time – particular thanks must go to the #twitterindiecrew for all their excellent suggestions and recommendations (you know who you are!) – although this has also been a year for (re)discovering many old favourites too, which is perhaps reflected in the choice of artists and albums below…
10) MARK LANEGAN – IMITATIONS:
I confess that I find it pretty difficult to resist almost anything Lanegan does; I could listen that wonderful, world-weary voice of his sing the phone book and still love it. One of the joys of his voice is the sheer range of styles he can sing – everything from the blistering rock roar of his work with Screaming Trees to his delicate take on some of the well-known standards and more obscure tracks that appear here. Highlights include a lovely version of Nick Cave’s ‘Brompton Oratory’ (and I am not a Nick Cave fan), an astonishing reworking of the Bond theme ‘You Only Live Twice’, a gorgeous, heartbreaking take on Neil Sedaka’s ‘Solitaire’ and, to my delight, a deliciously melancholy version of Brecht and Weill’s classic ‘Mack The Knife’. This album is a fascinating treat for the music lover.
Nine years ago, on 25th October 2004, one of music’s great spirits left us. The word ‘legend’ is bandied around a great deal, but John Peel really was a legend – indeed, if you are a serious music fan, I can guarantee that a large percentage of your collection wouldn’t actually exist without him. He is still held in such affection by so many music lovers simply because he was one of us. He just got lucky and ended up on the radio, sharing his passion for music with generations of fans who religiously tuned in to his late-night Radio 1 show to hear what wonderful strangeness he was playing this time (often at the wrong speed – gotta love that vinyl!)
And his influence continues to this day, which is why Peel fans everywhere celebrate #KeepingItPeel every 25th October by posting something Peel-related online to honour his memory and legacy. This year, I decided to keep it simple and post the video to his favourite song ever (in fact, the opening lines to this glorious slice of pop-punk are carved on his tombstone) – and a truly classic song it is too….
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s highly influential final studio album In Utero, an album that has played a huge part in my life over those years – so I’m reblogging the review I wrote a few months back for the Top 50 Nineties Albums blog here…
Much as I love Nevermind (and it’s still a great record), it is this, Nirvana’s final studio album, which – in my view – proudly stands head and shoulders above everything else they ever released – and that’s despite my stated and probably irrational fondness for 1989’s Bleach. However, and even with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, it’s still very difficult to properly approach In Utero without everything that went alongside rearing its ugly head.
Indeed, you can still look at it as Kurt Cobain’s final, most tragic artistic statement, with all that implies (which it wasn’t, really – the version he originally wanted was eventually watered down a little for the record company) – or you can strip away all the bullshit and see it as one of the best albums to come out of the Seattle scene full stop; as one of the last great…
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If people get genuinely upset and frustrated that four men that last played together 25 years ago are doing other things, then those people need to go and find a hobby. If the band only split up two years ago it might be a different matter, but 25 years? Come on. It’s a long time. If you like the Smiths, the records, photographs and memories are all plenty to be getting along with.
It’s long been known that Mr Marr is the type of chap who does not mince his words and says exactly what he thinks (in fact, he’s featured in Quote of the Day before, doing just that) – and it was only a matter of time before he commented on the endless cycle of Smiths reunion rumours that seem to do the rounds – online and off – on a regular basis. With Marr’s career seemingly back on the up – and Morrissey’s seemingly headed in the opposite direction – it appears (not for the first time) that many people see now as the perfect moment for this legendary band to get back on the road, at the very least.
But any member of any influential ex-band with a strong cult following like that of The Smiths will be bombarded with such rumours every so often – just as long as they stay an ex-band. Far-fetched stories of a Clash reunion were circulating right up until Joe Strummer’s death in 2002 (according to Pat Gilbert’s fascinating 2005 book Passion Is A Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash, the closest that came to happening was in 1996, oddly enough round about the same time as the Sex Pistols reformed), and the repeated mutterings that the bit of a rant from me a couple of years ago (the fact that they eventually did is still a bit of a sore point…)would get back together provoked a
Because that’s the thing. It’s never going to be the same, is it? When a band of that sort of status reforms, people are looking for nostalgia, looking for an experience that is just like it was back in the day. Basically, they’re looking for the greatest hits. And it’s never going to be like that, not after so long. Half-close your eyes and squint, and yeah, the band up on the stage could be exactly the same as the one you fell in love with twenty five years ago – but, to be honest, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that they’re all actually middle aged and have moved on with their lives, their careers, their interests.
I’m with Johnny on this one. I’ll hold tight to my memories and continue to enjoy the music that bands like The Smiths left behind.
And yes, I’ll carry on hoping they don’t reform…
We’ve looked at the concept of musical memorial benches on Another Kind Of Mind before, after I came across the late Ian Dury’s lovely bench with a view in Richmond Park last summer. It was not long after this that I was told about another bench in the London area commemorating a real musical hero of mine, someone I have also written about before – the wonderful and much-missed Kirsty MacColl, who was killed in a shocking boating accident in 2000 (the same year her Stiff Records labelmate Ian Dury died too).
Those who know Kirsty’s work will not be surprised to hear that her memorial bench is situated in London’s Soho Square, or that its plaque quotes lines from her song of the same name. Funded by fans and admirers, who still visit the site each year around about her birthday to pay tribute to her, the bench was unveiled in a public ceremony in August 2001 – exactly twelve years ago today it seems, strangely enough.