So, What Are The Best Books Ever Written on or about Music?

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I thought this would make for an interesting Pop Junkie page, but before doing so I threw the debate open to some hand-picked music connoisseurs (with a wide range of tastes) on Facebook. It generated a huge response for which I thank all my chums who participated.

After considering the responses, I’ve thrown them into the blender along with my own prejudices and favourites and come up with a Top 10 (or so) of the greatest books ever written on the subject of music – with occasional comments. All categories were acceptable – be it biogs, manuals, encyclopaedias, analysis or fiction.

So, in no particular order, we begin with Head On by Julian Cope as this one seemed to keep cropping up. One I’ve wanted to read for ages but never got around to buying or borrowing a copy. Cope’s Krautrock Sampler, and Japrock samplers were also name-checked; “Even if you ain’t into the music, the writing always trumps just about every other ‘journo’ or writer.” Cope must be one of those rare musicians who nobody dislikes (am I right?), being that he has made some jolly good, if not great, and inoffensive pop at various stages of his career, but always gave great interviews. And always came across as a bonkers good egg (a la Viv Stanshall), and we all love one of those don’t we?

Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, the story of punk over here as opposed to the NYC version, also cropped up. A long time since I’ve read it, and although I can’t recall exactly why it was so good, it left enough of a mark to make it onto my own shortlist.

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No-one else gave this the thumbs up, but I loved Rich Cohen’s The Record Men, the story of Leonard and Marshall Chess and the legendary Chicago record label that gave us Muddy Waters, Chuck and Bo. A Jewish businessman and his son who recognised where a healthy buck could be made. Fascinating and wryly funny.

Biogs accounted for most of the feedback. Several titles got the nod from more than one correspondent. Debbie Curtis’ Touching from a Distance (Ian Curtis), Tony Fletcher’s Dear Boy (Keith Moon), George Melly’s Revolt into Style and Owning Up, Wreckless Eric’s Dysfunctional Success, Mark E Smith’s Renegade, Faithfull by Marianne Faithfull, Ginger Geezer (Vivian Stanshall), Dylan on Dylan, Harry Shapiro’s Alexis Korner, Will Birch’s No Sleep Till Canvey Island, Andrew Loog Oldham’s two Stoned volumes. John Sinclair’s Guitar Army was mentioned, but apparently runs out of steam after a promising first half. He was manager of the MC5 and certainly has a tale to tell.

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However, the award for the most innovative autobiography goes not only to one of pop music’s few genuine geniuses, but to someone who attempted to do something entirely different with the genre. Part sci-fi, part biog Ray Davies’ X-Ray could be termed ground-breaking, yet, to my knowledge, no-one has attempted a similar approach. It failed to quench my desire to know what exactly was going on when RDD retreated into his world of village greens, tea shoppes and Johnny Thunder, that inspired the greatest of english pop music, but I am not entirely sure that he knows himself. And if he does, it’s too personal and painful a place to revisit. Brother Dave’s slightly more straightforward account, Kink, is also a damn good read. [n.b. This paragraph has been added to the original article after I bizarrely overlooked X-Ray when first compiling this feature]

A pal spoke very eloquently of the “sheer inspiration” given to him by Uptight: The Story of the Velvet Underground. A coffee-table book, purchased at 17 and read cover-to-cover countless times. The coffee-table book was severely neglected by my cerebral chums. Perhaps, despite the eye candy properties, few oversized books have cut the mustard.

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Nick Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. The “exhilaratingly opinonated” ground-breaking book, perhaps the first critique of rock ‘n’ roll. Talking of groundbreaking critics, Lester Bangs’ collected writings Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung warrants a mention.

Most of these come from the rock, punk, indie spectrum, but suggestions came in for David Nowell’s Too Darn Soulful: The Story of Northern Soul and Beth Lesser’s Dancehall. Jazz was represented by Richard Cook’s Blue Notes Records: The Biography and the aforementioned Mr Melly.

Another classic that stands alone is Pete Frame’s exhaustively researched and painstakingly written Rock Family Trees.

A pal who knows his onions suggested three books, none of which were name-checked by anyone else. I think this perversely gives his picks some validity, (or maybe not?). ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’ Simon Reynolds. ‘Fargo Rock City’ Chuck Klosterman. ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’ Michael Azerrad.

Best Beatles Book ~ My vote was Alan Williams’ The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away, an excellent account of the early years in Liverpool and Hamburg. But two stood out from the pack. Pete Brown’s The Love You Make and Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, the song-by-song account generally acknowledged as a masterpiece.

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Best Elvis Book ~ Didn’t get much feedback with regard to The King. Despite being a huge fan, I have a great fondness for Albert Goldman’s character assassination. It makes Elvis seem more human and it’s also very funny (and, naturally, tragic). Wouldn’t you go nuts if you were Elvis? Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis got Gita’s vote, but I tried it once and couldn’t get on with it. Therefore, I think Peter Guralnick’s two volume work; Last Train to memphis and Careless Love takes the prize.

Best Fiction ~ In a category conspicuous by the absence of candidates Ian Banks’ Espedair Street wins almost by default. Read it a long time ago and enjoyed it very much, particularly as I thought I’d got Banks sussed, having also read the Wasp Factory and was expecting a similar ending. He surprised me. Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia Gita was suggested and there is also Hornby’s High Fidelity. I remember little of Jonathan Coe’s Dwarves of Death, but do recall, almost twenty years later, that it referenced John Peel (as did Banks in the Wasp Factory) and the Subway Sect.

Best Reference Book ~ “Virgin published a set of tomes covering genres including Blues, Reggae, Indie, Heavy Rock, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s etc…about a dozen books I think. It covers all the bands…and has been an invaluable aid to me over the years. Looks great on the bookshelf, too”, The Faber Book of Pop, The Guinness Book of Hit Singles and The Rough Guide to Reggae.

Best ‘How To Play’ Manual ~ There is only one, it would appear. Bert Weedon’s evergreen Play in a Day. Never read it m’self, which may explain a lot.

Worst Book ~ I didn’t ask for worst, but people kept volunteering unprompted Lemmy’s White Line Fever. Whether the worst or not, it would seem to be a hands down winner in the category of widest gulf between expectation and delivery.

Apologies if this has come across as a rather rambling an incoherent survey. To be honest, I hadn’t expected so much of response, with such a diversity of titles. Many more were suggested that I could have mentioned, but it’s time I had my breakfast. Thanks again to everyone who contributed.

Oddly, no-one mentioned a single book about Bowie, which suggests that the Great Bowie Book has still to be written. Now, there’s a project for a hungry writer…

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