24 June 2012

THE HISTORY OF ROCK 'N' ROLL

I just finished reading It's Different for Girls: My True Adventures in Pop by Louise Wener, and I have to say, whether you're fan of Sleeper in particular or you just have fond memories of the Britpop boom of the mid-'90s, it's an absolutely fantastic read. Just as frank and conversational as Wener's Sleeper-era interviews, I found it as difficult to put down as some of my favorite novels. Or, as more often the case these days, my favorite biographies.

Music biographies in particular have really captured my imagination over the last decade or so. I'm not sure if that's down to the quality of the books themselves or if there's just a greater quantity of books about my favorite bands available, but I do love reading them. Right now, I currently have no fewer than three on my nightstand awaiting my attention, and I think Blur bassist Alex James' second biography, All Cheeses Great and Small: A Life Less Blurry, is up next.

Before that, though, a list of my top favorite rock biographies to date...

1. X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography by Ray Ravies (1995)
Described as Ray Davies fictional autobiography, I bought this when it came out and then went to see Davies read from it alongside stripped down versions of various Kinks Klassics in a setting that would later become the basis of VH1's Storytellers. The reading/show (which I attended with Image co-founder Jim Valentino) was excellent, but it's the book I remember most. Fascinating reading on a number of levels, not least of which was the rumor he supposedly fashioned his story as fiction to cleverly avoid any lawsuits from some of the key figures in the Kinks' story.

2. Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher (1998)
After The Beatles and Paul Weller, I've probably read more books about The Who than any other band, but hands down, this is the best. It's the earlier parts of Moon's life and Fletcher's vivid descriptions of England in the early '60s I recall the most, but the overall attention to detail Fletcher lavishes on his subjects life are is what makes this such an engrossing read. Oft-repeated anecdotes aren't merely recounted, they're fully investigated and sometimes even debunked in an effort to present Moon's life as it actually was. That such a talented and flamboyant character ultimately came to such a sad demise remains on the greatest tragedies in rock 'n' roll history, and the sensitivity with which Fletcher drives that point home makes this book nothing short of a triumph.

3. Stoned: A Memoir of London in the 1960s by Andrew Loog Oldham (2001)
Andrew Loog Oldham was the manager of the Rolling Stones throughout most of the '60s. As the man who guided them to fame, there are obviously parallels between him and The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, but as this and it's follow-up, 2Stoned, reveal the Loog was a different animal altogether. As with Dear Boy, Stoned is a detailed portrait of 1960s England and Swinging London in particular, not just in terms of the music scene of the time, but the burgeoning Mod scene Oldham found himself at the vanguard of. That his story intersects with that of Epstein, Mod messiah and early Who manager Pete Meaden and everyone from Phil Spector to the Beach Boys, Small Faces and more makes the first two of what Oldham claims will ultimately be a trilogy essential reading for any fan of '60s rock.

4. The Jam: A Beat Concerto by Paolo Hewitt (1983)
A bit of a sentimental favorite this one, as I got when it was still relatively new. Written by Paul Weller's then-close mate Paolo Hewitt, it's not a warts-and-all affair by any stretch, but it's packed with tons of photos and was something akin to the Gospel on the Mount for heartbroken Jam fans in the wake of the band's 1982 split. Re-issued in 1997 with an inferior cover, but the original version is still the best.

5. The Beatles Anthology by The Beatles (2000)
Compiled on the back of the successful television miniseries and albums of the same name, The Beatles Anthology is more or less The Fabs' story in their own words. Lavishly produced with hundreds photos and enough detail to please die-hard Beatlemaniacs whilst still remaining accessible the casual fan, it's not the final word on The Beatles, but it comes close.

6. Life by Keith Richards (2010)
People tend to kid about Keith Richards' death-defying feats of daring when it comes to substance abuse, but the joke's on them because the man's memory is either more resilient than his drug-battered body, or he long ago made it a point to write everything down, because this book is nothing short of remarkable. My only quibble is that if former manager Andrew Loog Oldham can fill two books and counting with his account of the '60s and life with the Stones, then Keef could definitely have spread his own amazing journey out multiple volumes.

7. Bit of a Blur by Alex James (2008)
True story: I once provided Alex James' with fire. It was during their show at the John Anson Ford Ampitheatre in Los Angeles back in 1995. My friend Robert Lacko and I awkwardly ran into Damon Albarn and Dave Rowntree before the show and then buoyed with enthusiasm by that meeting, we somehow managed to push ourselves to the front of the stage for what remains my favorite of all the Blur shows I've seen. During a break between songs, the ever-louche James put a cigarette in his mouth and gestured for a light, and since I happened to have a lighter on me at the time, voila – Blur's bassist was leaning down toward me from the stage, ciggie in mouth. One wrong move and I could have burned that damn perfect fringe of his clean off. Thankfully, I had a steady hand, Blur continued being one of the greatest bands of all time, and once they ceased operations in the early 2000s, James emerged via the written word as a somewhat more thoughtful sort than anyone could have possibly imagined. Not surprising, then, that his autobiography isn't just good, but bloody great.

8. It's Different for Girls: My True Adventures in Pop by Louise Wener (2010)
My favorite thing about this book is that apart from the photos on the front and back, there isn't that obligatory middle section with band photos. Scratch that. I have lots of favorite things about this book – starting with Wener's wonderfully conversational writing voice – but the whole no-photos thing immediately stood out. The fact that magazines and photographers were constantly trying to get her to pose for photos less than fully clothed (which, to her everlasting credit, she didn't) and interviewers regularly asked her how it felt to know her male fans masturbated to images just underscores the strength of her decision to let her story speak for itself. And as it turns out, the story itself is pretty great.

9. Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman (2010)
There are many sad stories in the annals of rock history, but that of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett's is right there at the top of the list. Dismissed by some as merely an acid casualty of the '60s, Barrett's story is altogether more complicated than that. Rob Chapman does a good job putting this tortured genius' strengths and weaknesses into perspective following Barrett's death in 2006.

10. Everything (A Book about Manic Street Preachers) by Simon Price (1996)
Relentlessly fannish and Price's overly clear adulation of the band can be a tad off-putting at times, but a treasure trove of information nonetheless and even after 16 years, still the best book on the Manics out there. That said, an update is long overdue.