Frank Zappa’s famous maxim that “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read” has, for the most part, be borne out by history. However, like much writing, there is good, bad and indifferent. In an attempt to separate some decent wheat from pompous chaff, here are some rock music books that are worth getting out of bed for, throwing “shapes” at and definitely taking to that tax evading mansion in the south of France.
Our Band Could Be Your Life- Michael Azzerad
Michael Azzerad’s brilliant history of the US underground, punk and hardcore scene of the 1980’s and early 1990s is not just a stunning chronicle of some of the most influential (and at the time, largely unknown) bands of the American music scene, it is one of the best books about rock music per se. Azzerad has an unerring eye for detail and an insightful understanding of the motivations and drivers for starting and maintaining a band. Even if you know nothing about bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat or Husker Du, it scarely matters a jot. Through Azzerad’s writing you meet a fantastic range of characters, all with their very human frailities and failings on display. This is no hagiography: Azzerad is a passionate yet objective narrator and guide and you’re left with a detailed and perceptive understanding of how the underground music scene influenced the mainstream and a burning desire to go and discover some genre-defying life, affirming music.
2) The Dirt- Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band- Neil Strauss
In his 1992 comedy show, No Cure for Cancer, Denis Leary told the following story: “I was reading an interview with Keith Richards in a magazine and in the interview Keith Richards intimated that kids should not do drugs. Keith Richards! Says that kids should not do drugs! Keith, we can’t do any more drugs because you already f*****g did them all, alright! There’s none left! We have to wait ’till you die and smoke your ashes! Jesus Christ! Talk about the pot and the f*****’ kettle.” Actually, Leary was wrong. Motley Crue did em all, as this hysterically funny, eye wateringly honest biography of the Los Angeles based heavy metal band will attest. As a biography of one of the most notorious bands in rock’n’roll it’s pretty hard to beat but its as a cautionary tale about what huge amounts of money, drugs and alcohol can do when given to a group of young men in a hurry, where it is unsurpassable.
3) Never a Dull Moment- David Hepworth
Most music fans love a good argument and this extended argument by former Smash Hits and (still much missed) Word journalist David Hepworth is the best sort of extended argument. Hepworth’s contention that 1971 had “more influential albums than any year before or since” and remains “the most febrile and creative time in the history of popular music” is of course completely arguable (that’s the whole point) but it’s the brilliance and effervescence of his writing that makes Never a Dull Moment completely live up to its title.
More than simply bringing a “I’m right, you’re wrong” contention to the book (which, naturally, he does) Hepworth brings an insight to what was going on behind the scenes as much as what was happening on stage or in the recording studio. Hepworth is a writer of insight and elan with a knack of making connections and offering a lens and opinion that other writers simply daren’t attempt. As a young writer living through that year, he brings an eyewitness account that is affectionate yet not overly misty eyed. He doesn’t get everything right- he’s weak on the influence of soul music and heavy metal, for example- but when he does get it right, he gets it right in spades. This is as much a social history as it is extended pub argument and all the better for it.
So there you go- three tomes for your burgeoning shelves. What would you recommend? I’d love to hear from you.