Best Music Books of 2014
2014 was a bumper year for music books. (Yes. I said ‘bumper’. I’m bringing that word back. Deal with it.) Here’s my pick of some of the best.
The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus
Greil Marcus is one of a dying breed: an old-school rock critic in the Lester Bangs mould (You may remember Lester Bangs as the rock critic played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Almost Famous). Most widely-known as a writer for Rolling Stone, as well as for his exhaustive chronicling of the career of Bob Dylan, Marcus takes his music very seriously. And this is no bad thing. He is extremely passionate about music, and that passion is front and centre in this book. Marcus uses the ten songs of the title as his starting point to talk about the evolution of popular music between 1956 and 2008 but – as is always the case with him – that starting point soon becomes a meandering road that leads him not only through the history of rock n’ roll but through history itself
The Big Midweek: Life Inside the Fall by Steve Hanley
If you had to choose one of the most difficult jobs in rock music, the answer might be: being a member of The Fall. (Well, unless you’re the roadie who had to blow cocaine up Stevie Nicks’ backside.) The reason for this is the band’s cantankerous frontman, Mark E Smith. Few know this better than Steve Hanley, who was the band’s bassist for nearly ten years – no mean feat given the turnover of members of The Fall over the years. Hanley’s highly entertaining book does little to dispel the notion of Smith as a Mancunian Svengali. As the Guardian review puts it “Hanley’s on-the-road anecdotes are, in the main, stories of exhausting pettiness and resentment, as well as of relentless caprice on the part of his boss. Alcohol and amphetamines combine to make a grotesque martinet of Smith … who revels in belittling his accompanists.” Fun times.
Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine
Viv Albertine was the guitarist with the influential all-female punk band The Slits. As a punk rock legend, she had one thought when it came to writing her memoir: “I’m gonna deconstruct this legend. I’m gonna pull it to pieces and show the loneliness behind it – the illness, failures and mistakes behind what looks like a successful person. I think that’s more inspiring.” And deconstruct she does. From an abusive childhood at the hands of her father to falling in with the ranks of punk royalty such as the Sex Pistols, Mick Jones and Johnny Thunders (both of whom she had relationships with), to the highs and lows of the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. What makes this book different is the fact that these highs and lows are told very much from a female perspective. That, and Albertine’s brutal honesty.
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg
If you read this book and weren’t familiar with who Jerry Lee Lewis is, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a work of fiction. Growing up dirt poor in Louisiana, the son of a bootlegger; playing honky tonk bars at the age of 13; arriving at Sun Studios in Memphis – home of Elvis Presley – to release “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, the song that would be his first massive hit … already it sounds like a made-for-TV movie. That’s before we get to the seven marriages (his third to his 13-year-old cousin!), his fiery relationship with his TV evangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart, his love of firearms, his numerous addictions, and on and on. It’s all here in a book that makes it clear why he was known as both “The Wild Man of Rock n’ Roll” and “The Killer”.
Rock Stars Stole My Life: A Big Bad Love Affair With Music by Mark Ellen
If there’s one person who knows all about the wild and crazy side of rock n’ roll – albeit from the other side of the fence – it’s Mark Ellen. Having been the major force behind magazines such as Smash Hits, Q, and Mojo, Ellen has seen it all. Sample anecdotes give an idea what to expect:
“[Iggy Pop] was in high spirits when he rolled up for a Radio One show I was presenting. In the grip of strong chemical refreshment, he thought it was a TV interview and arrived with his face daubed with striped warpaint. When he climbed onto the table and started knocking over glasses with his knees, I had to abort the interview.”
“I interviewed [Noel Gallagher] for the 14th issue of Mojo magazine in a posh tea-room full of cake trolleys in Belsize Park. The first Oasis album was just out. He drank bourbon and coke and told me – with impressive honesty – that he nicked chords sequences from other people’s songs. ‘The New Seekers are suing me for “Shakermaker” but you know where I got that from? “Flying” by The Beatles. I’d rather be sued by The Beatles as we’d get more press and McCartney might turn up in court and I could get his autograph!’”
Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie's SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and his fiction was featured in 'Surge', an anthology of new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press with the aim of showcasing “the very best of the next generation of Irish authors”. Online he can be found at his writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – and on Twitter as @derekf03