Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The 10 Best Music Memoirs

 The 10 Best Music Memoirs - A Highly Subjective List

I mentioned both Julian Cope's Head-On and Bill Drummond's 45 in a recent post on Zoo Records and this got me thinking about great Rock 'n' Roll memoirs. Ian Hunter's Diary of a Rock 'n' Roll Star is always mentioned when people write about the greatest music books, having never read it It's not in my own Top 10. Here's the list...  

No. 10
White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s by Joe Boyd

White Bicycles is Boyd's brilliant memoir of how he got started in the music business. He toured Britain with Muddy Waters in 1964 and by the decade's end he was producing Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band for his Witchseason production company. In between he produced Pink Floyd, co-founded the UFO Club, supervised Dylan's electric debut at Newport and launched the career of Nick Drake. Considering what Boyd went on to do in the following decades (producing soundtracks for Deliverance and A Clockwork Orange, and producing albums for Nico, Vashti Bunyan, Billy Bragg, REM and 10,000 Maniacs among others) a second or third volume of memoirs would be just as captivating.

No. 9
Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith by Mark E. Smith

Renegade is ghost written by Austin Collings and is fasinating and frustrating in equal measure. Fasinating for the honest, no holds barred detail on one hand and yet frustrating for the way other details are never touched upon. Renegade is however hilariously funny and at times comes across like a 240 page rant from a man consumed by his art. Smith delivers words of widom ("If you're going to play it out of tune, then play it out of tune properly") and put-downs ("I remember Nick Cave when he used to write on heroin, he'd show me lyrics. I'd be like, 'Nick, what you doing?'") like no other. Renegade is really complemented by Dave Simpson's The Fallen.     

No. 8
Things The Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett

Things the Grandchildren Should Know tries to answer the question: "How does one young man surive the deaths of his entire family and manage to make something of his life?" The Eels frontman's memoir is an inspiring story that's really well written with an unflinching candor that allows the reader to trust the writer completely. Compared to most of the books on this list, where it helps if you're somewhat familiar with the artist's music, you definately don't need to be a fan of Eels to become completely absorbed in this brilliant book. One thing is for certain though if you aren't already intimate with the Eels' back catalogue you'll be checking it out after reading this. Also highly recommended is Parallel World's, Parallel Lives the 2007 documentary, in which Everett talks with physicists and his father's former colleagues about his father's Many Worlds theory of quantum mechanics.

No. 7
Black Vinyl, White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell

Napier-Bell's memoir of 50 years in the  music business. A behind the scenes account from the man who at various times has been a songwriter, producer, manager and journalist. Napier-Bell co-wrote Dusty Springfield's You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, and managed The Yardbirds, Marc Bolan, Japan and Wham! Black Vinyl White Powder is an incredibly authoritative, brilliantly researched, fantastically entertaining and really well written book. His account of the planning and staging of 1985's 'Wham! in China' tour, the first by a Western pop group, is worth the cover price alone.     

No. 6
What's Welsh For Zen by John Cale

Officer of the Order of the British Empire, John Cale's What's Welsh For Zen is co-written by Victor Bockris who has also written biographies of Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith and William Burrroughs. Bockris also co-wrote Uptight: The Story of The Velvet Underground. Dedicated to Velvets bandmate Sterling Morrison, What's Welsh For Zen is not only a really well written book, it's also beautifully designed and illustrated by Dave McKean. Cale takes us from a house in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons to New York in the 60s, from the Velvets to Paris 1919 and the Island Years, from key productions and collaborations to CBGB's in the late 70s, from the disastrous Velvets reunion to the critical success of Songs For Drella.

The cast list along the journey is incredible: Aaron Copeland, Andy Warhol, La Monte Young, Nico, Patti Smith, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Terry Reily, Iggy and The Stooges and The Modern Lovers to name a few. Cale is one of the few artists from the era that is still relevant and writing fantastic new music rather than falling back on past glories, indeed since the publication of this memoir Cale has released two fantastic albums, HoboSapians (2003) and blackAcetate (2005) which rank up there with any of his previous work. A new 12'' EP is due to be released in September on Domino's Double Six imprint and a new album will follow in 2012.

No. 5
45 by Bill Drummond

45 was written as Bill Drummond entered his 45th year and takes the form of a series of short essays about various stages of his career, including stories about Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, the KLF and the K Foundation. We also get accounts of making soup in Belfast, ordinance survey maps and the wars in former Yugoslavia. Worth reading alone for his account of travelling to Nashville to get Tammy Wynette to record her vocals for the KLF's Justified and Ancient: "'How's it sound Bill?' came the voice from the other side of the glass. How do you tell the voice you have worshipped for the past twenty years, one of the greatest singing voices of the twentieth century... that it sounds shit? 'It sounds great, Tammy.'" 45 is highly entertaining and if he ever sits down and writes the full story we will have an amazing memoir.

No. 4
Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance by Dean Wareham

Black Postcards, Wareham's memoir of his time in both Galaxie 500 in the 80s and Luna in the 90s, is a remarkably honest account of Wareham's time in both bands, we get the thrills and excitement of life in a band but he's also not afraid to write about the downsides of touring in a moderately successful band.  At times Wareham portrays himself entirely unsympathetically and this makes the story so much more believeable. Ultimately Black Postcards completely deflates the Rock 'n' Roll myth. A great companion piece to Matthew Buzzell's 2006 Luna documentary, Tell Me Do You Miss Me.

No. 3
Head-On: Memories of the Liverpool Punk-scene and the story of The Teardrop Explodes (1976-82) by Julian Cope 
Repossessed: Shamanic Depressions in Tamworth & London (1983-89) by Julian Cope

Head-On was originally published in 1994 and was re-published back-to-back with Repossessed in 1999 as a "twofer" (you can flip Repossessed over and start Head-On on the other side). Quite simply Head-On and Repossessed are two of the best books ever written about Rock 'n' Roll. Head-On, as the subtitle suggests, covers the Liverpool punk scene and the rise and fall of The Teardrop Explodes. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the UK punk and post-punk music scenes. Repossessed picks up the story after the demise of The Teardrops, when Julian retreats to his family home in Tamworth, releases the two Mercury solo records before signing to Island records and storming the charts once more with a string of hit singles from his 1986 album, Saint Julian. Both books are extremely entertaining, hilariously funny and full of self-deprecating humour. After reading these memoirs you will have simply one question: where's part three? 

No. 2
Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part In Its Downfall  by Luke Haines
Post Everything: Outsider Rock and Roll by Luke Haines

These are the two most recently published books in this list. Bad Vibes covers the story of The Auteurs whilst Post Everything covers the Black Box Recorder and solo years. Both books are brilliantly written and hilariously funny. Haines comes across as completely egocentric and totally bitter and twisted, the anecdotes come fast and furious and absolutely destroy the Britpop myth. These are laugh-out-loud books which send the reader straight back to the back catalogue to rediscover why we always loved Haines to begin with. At one point in the narrative Haines is recording three albums for three different labels when he gets a call from his manager telling him that he's lost his record deal, "Which one?" he retorts. Brilliant stuff.

2009 William Heinemann

No. 1
Nico: Songs They Never Play On The Radio by James Young

1999 Arrow

Songs They Never Play On The Radio isn't a biography of Nico in the traditional sense, it's James Young's memoir of his time as her keyboard player between 1982 and her death in 1988. In 1982 he was a student at Oxford when Alan Wise, a Manchester promoter and old school friend asked him to join Nico's band for a short tour of Italy. So begins a crazy seven year journey, touring the world and recording with the former Warhol starlet. Young has written a simply wonderful memoir occupied by losers, addicts, outsiders, musicians and drifters. The book is quite bleak and tragic at times but is also really funny, and gives us amazing fly-on-the-wall detail of life in a touring band in the margins of the music business. John Cooper Clarke, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and John Cale all appear in the story. Cale actually admits in his own memoir (What's Welsh For Zen, No. 6 above) that Young's unflattering depiction of him is entirely accurate for the time. I love this book, I've two copies of it - I lent my first copy to so many people over the years it's now nearly falling to pieces.

Young has described Songs They Don't Play On The Radio as: "A marginal book about marginal people, it wasn't like being on tour with Madonna. Ultimately I suppose it was an ‘Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground’ kind of thing...copping off on someone else’s fame. I did try to get Nico’s name off the cover. The title was simply ‘Songs They Never Play On The Radio’ and I definitely didn’t want a picture of Nico on the jacket either. Bloomsbury absolutely did not see it my way. There was a stand-off...don’t get published, return the advance, or hitch your trailer to the Warhol wagon."

1 comment:

The Underground of Happiness said...

great to see this
i've only read a few from that list but black postcards and songs they don't play are both great reads (both borrowed from you as far as i remember!)
and bill drummond's a very fine writer as well
i'd add bez's book freaky dancing (won't win any literary prizes but unputdownable and with the added pleasure of phonetic spelling) and dylan's chronicles (i've only read the first volume - that reads like a novel, gripping
by the way, what about 24 hour party people?
and let's have a sequel, books about pop music in general!