Monday, 30 August 2010

The 10 best books about music

The oft repeated missive is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. This is perhaps even more true in internet savvy world where even the least experienced music fan can access unlimited music at the click of a button. One wonders therefore where this leaves music blogs (such as this) and even more so the music book. I would argue that people still value a recommendation while others will always want to know more about a genre or artist than a website can provide. A good music book enables the potential listener to delve deeper into a genre or artist, finding out what makes them tick and what the formative sounds were that influenced them (as well as enabling the reader to find out about other related artists which might be of interest). Having spent many years ploughing through such books I feel well qualified to signpost you to some of the best. I admit a bias towards the recent and to genre-wide reads rather than a focus on individual artists - I guess that's just taste. Disagree? Then leave your suggestions at the end of the article for others to enjoy...

10. Chuck Klosterman IV – A decade of curious people and dangerous ideas

A book in three parts- the first consists interviews with various megastars – Britney, Bono, Jack White, Thom Yorke etc. The second, a series of essays on theories that Klosterman believes in (from the profound to the absurd) and the third a short story about a woman who drops out of the sky. Utterly baffling but the first section in particular is very good. His skill is in managing to have something new to say about the stars that we think we know so well. His tale of Bono picking up hitchhikers is particularly amusing and his observations on Britney's use of sex (or not)is extremely thought provoking while a piece on Jeff Tweedy from Wilco is actually very moving.

Sample quote 'Bono punches up track four. He hits play, and it's loud; it sounds like someone dropping the throttle on a Harrier Jump Jet. Bono starts singing along, harmonizing with himself. He's playing air drums while he drives. The music changes, and he exclaims, "This is the Gary Glitter part!" The music changes again. "This is the Brian Wilson moment!" The teenagers aren't even talking. They're just kind of looking at each other, almost like they're afraid this is some Celtic version of Punk'd.'

9. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop – Jeff Chang

One of many histories of hip hop on the market from the Bronx of the 1970’s through to Jay Z. What sets this one apart is its wider sociological analysis of urban decay in the early days and understanding of the suburbanisation of hip hop in more recent years. The story of Public Enemy is well told as is the story of Gangster Rap. Includes interviews with DJ Kool Herc, Ice Cube, Afrika Bambaata among others.

Sample quote ‘If the arc of hip hop generation’s cultural revolution was bowing toward difficult issues of engagement and exploitation, its political revolution was just taking flight.’

8. Walk this way – Aerosmith with Stephen Davis

Classic tale of drug fuelled, sex crazed debauchery. Aerosmith spent two decades snorting and shagging around the world. This book is a collection of quotes from the band and their associates and great toilet reading. See also Hammer of the Gods (Led Zeppelin) and the Dirt (Motley Crue).

Sample quote ‘I’d been buying opium, an ounce at a time, black pinch opium you roll in a ball and swallow and be fucking stoned for 12 hours.’

7. 45 – Bill Drummond

The ex KLF man is the author of some of the very best writing about music (See also: How to have a number 1 single and 45). Like Paul Morley (below), Drummond considers at great length what it is to like music and constantly challenges himself to listen to it in different ways. Spending a whole year listening to artists that begin with the letter B for example. His views on the place of music in his life often leads to insights about his own life - including his time on the Merseyside indie scene in the 1980's and his time with KLF. This particular project focuses on ignoring recorded music and creating music that will be performed just once thus making it totally unique. The 17 of the title refers to the 17 individuals who need to be present for each performance.

Sample quote: What is music for? And why do we listen to it in the way that we do? And what would it be like if…? But the big questions seemed to be Why am I so frustrated with it? and Why do I want it to be something other than it is? and Why do I want it to exist in some other sort of way than it already does?'

6. Last night a DJ saved my life – Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

Hugely enjoyable read about the history of the DJ. Starts with post war Parisian nightclubs and Jimmy Savile (the world’s first DJ doncha know!) and takes us through almost every ‘scene’ since. Covers off dicso, northern soul, hip hop, house etc and like the Tim Laurence book (below) contains a number of lists of key songs of clubs such as the Hacienda and Stealth.

Sample quote ‘Sal Abbatiello remembers the first time he heard Rapper’s Delight...I was in my office, I heard the record and I’m like Who’s out there rapping? They said No that’s a record. I said About time somebody was smart enough to put this shit on record. Now they won’t be breaking all my microphones.’

5. Energy Flash – Simon Reynolds

An excellent history of dance music from the warehouses of Chicago, Detroit and New York to the UK Jungle Explosion and Daft Punk some two decades later. Reynolds covers off techno, house, garage, trip hop and drum n bass and manages to place the scene within its political (Criminal Justice Act etc) and social (explosion of Ecstasy use etc) contexts. Original copies came with an excellent CD...

Sample quote ‘For me, the exhilarating thing about rave was that it was psychedelic disco, a mindblowing merger of rock delinquency and club culture’s science of sound.’

4. Bass Culture – Lloyd Bradley

A comprehensive history of post-war reggae in Jamaica and the UK. Bradley takes us from the early ska years of Duke Reid, Clement Dodd and Prince Buster, through lover’s rock, dancehall dub and ragga. Tales of early soundclashes are excellent as are the sections on Rastafarianism and Lee Scratch Perry.

Sample quote ‘To the uninitiated it must appear remarkable that grown men could get so worked up that they’d go to war for what is, after all, no more than playing records, even in the light of the sound systems’ earning potential.’

3. Words and Music – A history of pop in the shape of a city – Paul Morley

Morley’s book rather bizarrely takes as its starting point his love of both Alvin Lucier’s experimental monotone I am sitting in a room and Kylie’s Can’t get you out of my Head and seeks to explore the reasons for his love of both. His subsequent journey (with various legends sharing a car with Kylie) explores two millennia of music culminating in a thesis that Rock n Roll as a valid art form died with Nirvana. Deliberately thought provoking and concluding that the making of lists of the greatest records of all time is completely pointless (which it clearly is, but much fun).

Sample quote ‘Albert Einstein named Time’s Man of the Twentieth Century. Annoyingly he prefers the Strokes to Prefuse 73.’

2. Electric Eden – Rob Young

Only released this summer, Electric Eden tells the story of British Folk with a particular angle on acid folk (folk infused with psychedelia). Young traces the origins of the modern folk movement to Cecil Sharp and the first folk revival at the beginning of the twentieth century and takes the reader from Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst through Ewan McCall and the 1950’s folk revival before dwelling heavily on the folk movement of the 1960s covering acts such as Pentangle, Vashti Bunyan, Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake etc. He takes the story on through the Wurzals, Kate Bush and Boards of Canada to highlight the journey that folk music has been on ever since. The quality of the writing throughout is superb. Like many of the other books on the list Young situates the music well within a wider social context and explores at length related topics such as the Glastonbury Festival and the Wickerman and Withnail and I movies.

Sample quote ‘Donovan flew back as a magic carpet with a pipe load of Eastern mysticism and a newly piqued interest in Celtic Medievalism manifested in songs such as Guinevere, Legend of a child girl Linda and Season of the Witch.

1.Love saves the Day – Tim Lawrence

A exhaustive text on the history of New York disco. Taking in the journey from the Loft through to the Paradise Garage Laurence secured interviews with all of the key players including Mancuso, Francois Kevorkian, Tom Moulton and Nicky Siano. The book explores disco’s birth via splicing together rock and funk records in gay clubs, through the evolution of the disco sound, its burst into the mainstream and its eventual decline and re-evolution into house. The book includes lists of the key records DJs played at their best known clubs (Loft, Gallery, Garage, Flamingo etc) and a comprehensive discography at the back (from which I’ve been attempting to collect from ever since). Laurence’s commentary on David Mancuso’s ethos and background (he was brought up in an orphanage for some of his childhood) is particularly fascinating. Like all the best music books it has you wanting to hear the music. For an exclusive interview with Tim Lawrence check my post from 28th April...

Sample quote ‘The Loft – which was dark and warm and, at 1850 square feet, really quite cozy, also symbolically recreated the irretrievable scene of the womb....unable to avoid body contact on all sides, individual dancers had little choice but to dissolve into the amorphous whole.’

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