Albums of my years – 1984

Ah. Little behind here. Having just completed another rotation round the sun I realise I’ve now got approx 48 weeks to cover another 36 posts after this…. better get cracking then and crank these out with a little more regularity.

1984… I do have some memories; a walk to playgroup, some toys coming out of the murky mists of memory…. but I remember nothing of Once Upon A Time In America or The Terminator, Ghostbusters or even This is Spinal Tap. It would be many a year until I’d discover the year’s cinematic entries and how there is none, none more black.

While I’m pretty sure I would’ve seen or heard the news at some point that year, I can’t say I had any idea what it mean Elton John got married in February ’84… to a woman named Renate Blauel – though I’m sure it must’ve received plenty of press in the UK. Chrissie Hynde also got married in 1984, to Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr, they’d divorce in 1990, 2 years after Elton John.

Meanwhile in 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ topped the charts, despite it being banned on the BBC here, and began to infect American radio too and ‘The Power of Love’ would infest the charts before the year was out. Mick Fleetwood, presumably having snorted most of his money up his nose, declared bankruptcy in ’84. In October – just as I was gearing up to blow out a cake with four candles (one of the greatest comedy sketches ever) – a special report on Ethioipia’s famine was aired on the BBC. Bob Geldof was watching and was inspired to start up Band Aid and would put out “Do They Know It’s Christmas”,  within two months, it quickly became the fastest- selling single of all time in the UK despite it’s monstrous errors and condescension (it’s heart was in the right place). It would be respun three times over the coming decades and also be the basis for 1985’s Live Aid concerts.

In February of 1984 , Joe Perry and Brad Whitford attended an Aerosmith concert – oddly enough at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre. Perry had left the band in ’79 and Whitford in ’81. Their own solo careers having failed to ignite and Aerosmith itself in a downward spiral, the two would rejoin a few months later and the band would tentatively begin the process toward its comeback… though they’d have to stop a few bad habits first.

It wasn’t a good year for Rick Allen – well, it may have been a good year but New Year’s Eve was a bit shit: he lost control of his car, spun, hit a wall and was thrown from the vehicle, severing his left arm and giving rise to the joke ‘what’s got nine arms and sucks?’ The biggest bit of news, though, was likely the killing of Marvin Gaye at his father’s hand – with the unlicensed Smith & Wesson.38 special calibre pistol his son had given him for Christmas the previous year. It’s a really surreal and shocking story that’s worth reading up on.

Bands that called it a day included Jefferson Starship, Split Enz, King Crimson, Rainbow and Kansas. It was also fair well to Deep Wound, a hardcore band who’s members Lou Barlow and J Mascis would promptly form Dinosaur Jr – who joined Big Audio Dynamite, Bruce Hornsby & The Range, Live, Living Colour and one of the first ‘grunge’ bands Green River – which featured future Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney members-  in forming in 1984.

Van Halen kicked the year’s releases off in grand style with 1984 – easily the only time in which I can tolerate David Lee Roth for anything over 30 seconds. Bon Jovi released their self-titled debut with a cover photo which I’m sure still haunts all involved. David Gilmour dropped his second solo album About Face in 1984. I’ve heard it… it’s not going to be featured but if you’re curious what Mr Gilmour was up to after The Final Cut when he wasn’t shopping for snazzy blazers…

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s second album Couldn’t Stand The Weather is a cracking collection as is Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, also released this year. Metallica dropped their Ride The Lightning which featured the phenomenal ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ in 1984 and R.E.M dropped their stellar second album Reckoning:

Bryan Adams released Reckless in 1984 – it was the album that sent him into the massive sales category (for a while, at least). The album that contained ‘Summer of ’69’, ‘Run To You’, ‘Heaven’ and three further singles would go on to shift over 12 million  copies – one of which was the first CD I’d own some seven years later, given to me as either a birthday or Christmas present with a CD player in 1991 (I think it was ’91).

In researching this I also discovered that that little band from Ireland, U2, also released another album in 1984. Weird, I guess they must have saved up some money from their day jobs and booked some time in a little studio somewhere. They called it The Unforgettable Fire which I’d wager is a bit weird as I’d bet everyone has forgotten it. Nobody will have forgotten 1984’s big release – Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA arrived in June and has since sold more than 30 million copies. It spawned SEVEN top ten singles and heralded the start of Bossmania. It would be a strong contender for featured album but I’ve already written on it here and am currently working up a series of posts around it so it’s disqualified.

The Replacements’ Let It Be arrived in 1984 and I do love that album. I mean – ‘I Will Dare’, ‘Androgynous’, ‘Unsatisfied’ and ‘Answering Machine’ on one album?! But then I don’t really dig the daft stuff on here and anything with a Kiss cover on it isn’t going to sit at the top of my list…

So that really only leaves:

Prince and the Revolution – Purple Rain

Of those albums released in 1984 that aren’t Born In The USA, this is the one I’ve listened to most frequently and consistently. It’s impossible to remember the first time you’re aware of Purple Rain – the title song is one of those songs that’s seeming embedded in everyone’s memory from birth. You probably hear it a lot less than you think but because it’s so well known it seems one of the most played tunes ever, like certain Beatles and Stones songs… it’s a classic.

I am fairly certain that the first time that I sat and listened to Purple Rain front to back it was on wax; I distinctly remember a break between ‘Darling Nikki’ and ‘When Doves Cry’.

A soundtrack to a film I’ve still not seen, Purple Rain was Prince’s sixth album and was such a push forward in the makeup of tunes and production values and really put the little purple fella on the map – 1999 was big and went Top Ten but Purple Rain hit the top spot, cleared more than 25 million sales to date and still appears in Best Album lists the world over. With due cause – from the opening explosion and powerhouse performance of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ to the climax and ‘bring the house down’ final, and title, track ‘Purple Rain’ there’s not a duff moment on it…. well ‘Computer Blue’ ain’t great.

It was ages before I realised ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ is one of his preaching songs – the ‘de-elevator’ is the Devil and even the opening ‘the afterlife’ spiel just get washed away in the exuberance of the song and his performance and Princes two guitar solos… what a way to kick off an album:

Then pushing straight into ‘Take Me With You’… yes it sounds today very much 1984 with it’s synths and breathless urgency but it’s the good 1984. And what about ‘Darling Nikki’?! Come on… when did you hear a song this good about that?

Apparently even this song – with it’s ‘masturbating to a magazine’ – has some of Prince’s religious preaching in; there’s some reverse vocals in there at the end that, if played the right way point out the little guy was doing alright because he knew ‘that the Lord is coming soon’. I’ve heard – and seen – the Foo Fighters covering this and in anyone else’s hands (Grohl’s included) it doesn’t work. Nobody could perform like Prince.

Prince was a one-off. Sure there were some duff moments in his catalogue but it’s extremely hard (I’d say there’s not one example) to point out a great artist who hasn’t realised a turd of a song or five. His passing has left a big hole in the musical soundscape both in terms of his output and his enigma. Though it does mean I can now embed videos of this tracks here and find him on Spotify. Purple Rain remains, for me, his greatest album and it’s the one that shot him into the stratosphere. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of those essential albums for any collection. To quote Stereogum: … Purple Rain is “Prince’s grand pop exclamation, a near-perfect marriage of worldview and sonic construction….. No one has made a record like this, before or since.”

Tired but wiser for the time… Five From: The Black Crowes

This blog has, somewhat sporadically at times I’ll admit, been in service now for close to seven and a half years.

In that time I’ve mentioned The Black Crowes three times and only one of those was accompanied with an actual song. Shocking considering I really dig this band. I should say ‘dug’ really because despite reuniting in 2006, after a five year hiatus, to critical acclaim the band are listed as ‘were an American rock band’…  With a turbulent history and many a lineup change, in 2015 guitarist Rich Robinson issued a statement: “I love my brother and respect his talent, but his present demand that I must give up my equal share of the band and that our drummer for 28 years and original partner, Steve Gorman, relinquish 100 percent of his share, reducing him to a salaried employee, is not something I could agree to.”

Looked like curtains…. until now. 30 years on from their debut it looks like a reunion is on the cards with show posters for 2020 announcing that Shake Your Money Maker will be played in its entirety “plus all the hits”.

For me this is great news – whether it’s the lure of moolah or simply having settled differences, it’s good to think that the band are a going concern again. They were one of the first bands I saw live – supporting Aerosmith while they (the Crowes) toured their fifth album By Your Side at Wembley Stadium- and they were fucking awesome live. Singer Chris Robinson played the festival out behind my house this summer, on a weekend afternoon…. I heard part of it as I walked past and hearing ‘Remedy’ played as a tag on an another song as part of an 8 song set in a tent in a field in Kent….. the band needed to get back together.

So, here are five from The Black Crowes that I really enjoy and hope feature on future setlists:

Thick N’ Thin

Man… Shake Your Money Maker is a slab of great from start to finish. ‘Hard To Handle’ got em on MTV but ‘She Talks To Angels’, ‘Jealous Again’, ‘Twice as Hard’… this guys were here to blow the bloody roof off with riffs and bluesy swagger to spare. ‘Thick N’ Thin’ is the shortest track on the album and is just a real fun blast.

Remedy

Second album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion upped the blues and soul at the same time… new guitarist Marc Ford and keyboard player Eddie Harsch rounding out the sound as it leaned in a more bluesy, mature direction… and topped the charts too.

Wiser Time

The one with the pubes… I really liked Amorica. Rolling Stones’ review (pilfered from Wikipedia)  sums it up nicely “”The Crowes haven’t ceased their cocky pillaging of the universal jukebox – echoes of the Stones and Led Zep abound.” I love ‘Wiser Time’… from the opening riff and hook to the breakdown that starts about minute three, takes in some guitar soloing, some soulful keys and then a real ripper of another guitar lead…

Kickin’ My Heart Around

By Your Side was the first Black Crowes album I bought. While not as consistent or rich as Southern Harmony… or Amorica it’s a step up from Three Snakes And One Charm (which seemed like, in reaction to the disgust at that album’s pubes – which meant some stores refused to stock it – they made the same album again without the tunes). It’s closer to Shake Your Money Maker and is still worth a listen.

She Talks To Angels

Speaking of the debut… here’s another standout from that, taking a breather from the blues rock attack and proving they could handle a ballad just as well.

I haven’t spent much time with the two albums the band put out between their 2006 reunion and 2013 return to hiatus – and demise… perhaps now is as good a time as any.

Pages Turned

It occurs to me that, as we head into the final quarter of the year, I haven’t really talked much about what I’ve been reading this year outside of the larger reviews.

While I set myself a target of 40 books again this year (currently reading number 31), I really wanted to get a specific couple of books off of the ‘to read’ list and absorbed, I think I’ve done that.

First such book on the wish list was finishing James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. White Jazz differs somewhat from its predecessors as it’s very much a single-thread narrative in the style of Black Dahlia. Massively rewarding and full of Ellroy guts and power as Lieutenant David Klein unravels the biggest of puzzles – some real heavy stuff even for Ellroy. I loved every fucking page of this book and the entirety of the LA Quartet. I find it strange to think it came out in 1992 – Ellroy’s take on late 50’s LA is so vital. It also introduced Pete Bondurant who is one of main narratives in American Tabloid – which was another tick on the list as I wanted to go from the LA Quartet to Ellroy’s Underwold USA Trilogy. American Tabloid makes a smooth transition from the LA focus to a fuller, corrupt take on American History (with a fair few artistic licenses) right up to the gun shots in Texas. I’d like to get to The Cold Six Thousand but there’s a few more on the list first..

Another tick on my reading goals for the year was to catch up with Arkady Renko – the Russian detective from Gorky Park, one of my favourite historical fiction / thrillers. Took a while to find – not often kept in stock new and I went the ebay route for a used copy – but worth it; Polar Star takes place pretty much completely at sea. Renko is basically in exile and hiding from the state and finds himself thrust into solving a murder  on board a fish processing ship in the Bering Sea. I really have a thing for this cold war stuff and Martin Cruz Smith does a faultless job of making a thriller a literary work and combining a genuine mystery with enough genuine historical and political framing to tick all my boxes.

Speaking of historical references… I’ve fancied reading Maus for longer than I can remember not wanting to.  My wife has a copy of it but my reading of French isn’t up to it so I was happy to pick up an English version at a good price not too long ago. I don’t usually get on with the graphic novel thing but this one is staggering in both its power and its honesty. Well worthy of the acclaim it still receives and an important read.

I also picked up with that bloke called Reacher again but The Midnight Line didn’t really do it for me. Much like Personal it almost feels like Child is treading water here, the formula isn’t anything new and there’s no real stakes here – just ticking the boxes: Reacher gets intrigued about something, follows a trial, cracks a few skulls, things still make no sense, cracks a few more, solves a minor riddle, goes on his way.  A couple of years ago I enthused about All The Light You Cannot See by Anthoy Doerr… I still do; it’s a great book. I’d had his About Grace on the shelf for a while and finally go to it at the tail end of summer. It’s… not bad. There’s a couple of really good chunks in there but it’s not on the same level.

A few years further back I similarly enthused about Louis De Bernieres’ The Dust That Falls From Dreams,  the first in a planned trilogy. I read the second this year: So Much Life Left OverA little more focused in terms of characters, predominantly following the arc of Rosie and Daniel’s life, this slightly slimmer book is no less grand in terms of its reach or impact. De Bernieres one of those few writers with the ability to genuinely hit every emotion in the space of a few chapters. It takes a little adjusting each time as De Bernieres’ previous trilogy and novels took place in more exotic and poetic locations than this series but I really look forward to the final novel which will probably be no earlier than late 2020 at my guess.

Non-fiction wise there’s only been two hits on the list, one of which – Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd – has already been touched on. The other was a reread of one of my favourite non-fiction books: Herbert A. Werner’s Iron Coffins: A U-Boart Commander’s War, 1939-1945 which I’d first read some ten years ago, lent out and never got back. I managed to find a copy at a recent air show and it’s always worth reading and will no doubt feature in an upcoming Top Ten Non-Fiction post.

This seems like a good place to leave it for now… back to that Springsteen series.

 

Current Spins

Been a while since I shunted some of my current spins up on here. It’s not all been research for the Boss piece or Albums of my Years series after all. So here follows a few of those things that have been getting spun on either the iPod or record deck of late….

Sam Fender – The Borders

Trying to keep up with new stuff and not sound like the stereotypical Dad who only listens to music released a decade or so prior… the new Sam Fender album (which essentially collates the seven (yep seven) singles this guy has already released with a few album-tracks but is a solid listen as latest single ‘The Borders’ demonstrates – makes me think of The War on Drugs if Adam Granduciel hailed from Newcastle way, complete with an E Street Band sounding sax addition.

Led Zeppelin – Dazed and Confused

I mean, seriously, do you have to ask? I’m deep into the Ken Burns docu-series ‘Vietnam’ at the moment and this track popped up. I then discovered that, somehow, Led Zeppelin  was missing from my CD collection. Quickly fixed by getting the recent 180gsm reissue. Faultless album, stonking tune.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Pride and Joy

SRV has been getting a LOT of play in my car lately. The miles just fly by, man, interspersed with the occasional “holy fuck” of amazement.

Explosions in the Sky – Day One

I love EITS. They’re one of those bands with a discography in which I can find no fault. To celebrate their 20th anniversary they re-issued their first album and The Rescue with a couple of beautiful packages and both have been getting a lot of spin time.

Damien Jurado – Lincoln

This year’s In The Shape of a Storm from Damien Jurado is an arresting listen. He’s stripped off all the production and concepts of his last few albums and gone back to little more than an acoustic guitar and his voice for an album that’s so intimate it almost feels like a conversation. I’ve always loved this side of Damien’s work – take I Had Not Intentions – and this album is one of my favourites of the year.

May Your Kindness Remain – Courtney Marie Andrews

I know next to nothing about this artist. She came up after one of those ‘Fans Also Like’ journeys on Spotify but I really dig what I’ve heard so far, including this one – strong vocals and that guitar tone that starts to lurk and push through at the two minute mark…. more please.

 

C’mon Stevie! Talk to em!

I don’t normally give much attention to this thing of ‘react’ videos… the whole thing of YouTube ‘stars’ making money from giving it some mouth on their camera leaves me cold and dubious about the state of civilisation in general and I can’t help but feel they’re not all that genuine.

That being said, somehow I stumbled on this and it makes me laugh each time. This dude seems genuine and – like anyone with their head screwed on right – is astounded by SRV, as proven in his later videos where he hunts for more and references back to Stevie as the greatest.

“My guy Stevie look like he got diarrhoea right here…”

I also checked out ‘No Life Shaq’ reacting to Eddie Van Halen which is worth it if only for the phrase “that guitar was innocent as shit three minutes ago!”

I don’t think my reaction to Stevie Ray Vaughan was quite as dramatic, it mainly just consisted of saying “Holy Fuck” a lot, but then I do that most times I listen to SRV.

Should you want to view the video featured above without commentary:

Albums of my Years – 1983

1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be…

Man, I’m slipping with these already and I’m only three in… In 1983 the Empire was defeated, Superman split himself in two to fight with himself and Tom Cruise created a new visual that would henceforth be associated with Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’…  Not that I was able to catch any of this on screen at the tender age of two or three.

Nor did I have any awareness of the music world in 1983. I’m sure I heard many a radio hit of the day from The Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ in one way or another but my recollections of them are as likely or valid as that Orange Clown’s tax returns.

1983 saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller – released the previous year – hit the top of the charts in the US. It would spend 37 weeks there eventually. During which time CDs went on sale in America where the Beach Boys were banned from the Fourth of July festivities in Washington – then Interior Secretary (which apparently doesn’t involve dictating wallpaper and furnishing choices) James G Watts stated that rock bands attracted “the wrong element”.  Turned out President Reagan felt a bit cheesed off by the decision as he was a Beach Boys fan – Watt apologised and received a gift from the Pres – a plaster foot with a hole in it.

The Rolling Stones were quids in – not that they were strapped for cash, mind – as they signed a $28 million contract with CBS, a then-largest recording contract ever. Money isn’t everything, though – Jagger and Richards were increasingly stroppy with each other and, the following year, Mick would sign a solo deal with CBS and while the band would drop Undercover in ’83, it would be another 3 years until their first album under their new label and contract.

Both Mick Jones (The Clash) and Dave Mustaine (Metallica) got their marching orders this year. Some decisions made in 1983 worked out well – such as agreeing with the management-employee that said “yeah, Johnny Electric is a shit name, just call the band Bon Jovi” (or words to that effect).  Others didn’t work out so well – like an off-his-tits on cocaine Marvin Gaye, convinced that there were multiple plots to kill him, gave his father an unlicensed Smith & Wesson.38 special calibre pistol for Christmas. Must have been an absolute sod to wrap that.

Simon and Garfunkal called it quits, again, in 1983, as did Sly and the Family Stone, Humble Pie and The Who.  Meanwhile Bon Jovi, The Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices, The La’s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Noir Désir and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds all formed in 1983.

Dire Straits, following the success of Love Over Gold, released ExtendedancEPlay, which contained the worst song they ever committed to tape in ‘Twisting by the Pool’. Sonic Youth dropped their debut full-length, Confusion Is Sex – though, as much as I love Sonic Youth, I wouldn’t call it essential. This one is unlikely to be known to many as it barely made a ripple and, much like the band themselves, sank without a trace shortly thereafter but… a band called U2 released their third album War in 1983, with songs celebrating New Year and pointing out just how frustrating Sundays can be:

I wonder what they’re up to these days. Maybe they found a trade and took an apprenticeship somewhere….

ZZ Top dropped Eliminator, which catapulted them to MTV stardom, in March of ’83 while Pink Floyd released Roger Waters’ rant The Final Cut – needless to say it’s not my pick of the year. Mark Knopfler stepped away from the Dire Straits name for the first time with his first solo and soundtrack album Local Hero:

Men at Work’s Cargo – which featured the classics ‘Overkill’ and ‘It’s a Mistake’ – also arrived in 1983 as did, keeping in this blog’s wheelhouse, albums from REM (their debut Murmur) and The Replacements with their brilliant Hootenany on which they really started pushing away from their early punk sound and hinted at what was to come:

I think it’s fair to say there were a lot of solid albums in ’83 that I could quite happily feature on these ‘pages’ – Billy Joel (who I don’t often tip a hat to) released the hit-stacked Innocent Man – which I remember picking up on cassette at some point in time, Bob Dylan dropped back into non-religious music with the brillian Infidels and, much to the frustration of produce Mark Knopfler (who was having a busy ’83) left ‘Blind Willie McTell’ from its track listing while Tom Waits started his journey into the abstract with Swordfishtrombones.  Having boosted David Bowie’s Let’s Dance to a different level with his guitar playing earlier in the year, Stevie Ray Vaughan released, with Double Trouble, his phenomenal debut Texas Flood:

So what gets my pick for my favourite album of 1983…. well, there’s been a couple of their tunes on the entries to date but this the last year in which they could possibly feature because….

The Police – Synchronicity

Released pretty much bang on halfway through the year on June 17th, Synchronicity spawned 5 singles, all of which hit the Top 20 in the UK with the ubiquitous ‘Every Breath You Take’ hitting the top spot here and across the pond. It gained near unanimous praise in the press, interrupted Thriller‘s stay at the Top of the US chart as it traded places to notch up 17 weeks at number 1, picked up a Grammy Award, continues to be named as one of the best albums of the 80s and pop up in Best Albums lists but would be the band’s last.

It was recorded by a band already pretty much falling apart, watch any documentary or interviews with the members and you get an idea of the tensions that drove The Police.  The band members would record from different parts of the studio – Stewart Copeland (fucking awesome drummer) would drum from the dining room, Andy Summers in the studio itself (it was recorded on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, it’s a hard life) with Sting recording from the control room. Any overdubs were done one member at a time.

And yet it never sounds disjointed. Synchronicity is the sound of a band at the peak of their powers. NME’s review from the time described it as “a mega-band playing off glittering experimentation…. the music fuses intuitive pop genius with willfully dense orchestration so powerfully dense it stuns.”

And that’s why I rank Synchronicity as their finest – The Police were masterful songwriters yet, like so many other, they almost fought against it as if it were wrong to create perfectly crafted melodies – they came up in the punk movement so tried to hitch a ride on that scene’s energy, then there was the insistence of trying to shove reggae into the mix, with Sting’s god awful forced accent. I agree with Elvis Costello’s statement at the time: ‘Somebody should clip (him) round the head and tell him to stop singing in that ridiculous Jamaican accent.”

So while I love a huge amount of The Police’s music, Synchronicity, where they finally ditch all that and create beautiful melodies and textures – is the album that I happily sit and listen to all the way through. I can’t recall when I first heard it -growing up after it was released it feels like ‘Every Breath You Take’ has always been there, but even after hearing it so many times it never bores:

Though my favourite on this album is ‘Synchronicity II”, I love the drive and energy of the song and the fact that it’s couple to those lyrics; “Another suburban family morning, Grandmother screaming at the wall. We have to shout above the din of our Rice Crispies..” I can’t think of another song that mentions Rice Crispies or take its inspiration from Carl Jung…. and then references the Loch Ness monster.

The videos….  I think they were all by Godley and Creme (ex 10CC). A duo whose first music video was for their own single ‘An Englishman in New York’ (funny, that) who directed so many pivotal music videos of the 80’s which all had a distinct feel that connects to memories of my youth so vitally that it’s impossible for me to listen to these songs – pretty much the entire second half of this album was released as a single – and not be transported back to that time.

I’ll finish with ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ – the video for which spawned one of my favourite Andy Summers quotes and points out just how clearly the writing was on the wall for the band. Godley & Creme filmed it a little unusually – the music was played fast and Sting – who  loves the video “It’s incredibly atmospheric, and I think the set design is brilliant” – mimed at high speed so that when played at normal speed it gives a weird slo motion affect. Andy Summers pointed out: “I was kind of pissed off about that one. I’ve never been much of a fan of that song, actually. Sting got to shoot his part last in that video and made a meal of knocking all the candles out. Fuck him.”

Musical words…. A Top Ten Music Book List

Alrighty, lets see about combing the two usual focuses of this blog into one post –  music and books, books about music.

A good book about music or musicians isn’t as common as you’d think. There are shit loads of duffers out there – poorly researched and badly written fluff pieces. Some musicians who you’d expect a really good book out of tend to spend more time talking about their model railway collection than about the making of After The Gold Rush and some make it a little too obvious that they have an ulterior motive in a book release other than just a memoir – Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, for example.

But, there are some bloody belters out there and there’s a reason that a good chunk of my library is given over to a ‘music’ section. I’m sticking close to this blog’s wheelhouse here, obviously, but honourable mentions should go to The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross and Peter Doggett’s There’s a Riot Going on: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of 60s Counter-culture.

In no particular order, then, are my ten favourite music biogs / auto-biogs / books etc…

Pearl Jam – Twenty

Put out as part of the celebrations surrounding the band’s twentieth anniversary – the clue is in the title – which included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, CD, live album, two-day festival and short tour… Pearl Jam Twenty is a year-by-year oral history of the band’s career. Stuffed to the bindings with imagery and photos, this is as intimate and candid as you’ll get for Pearl Jam, notoriously shy of publicity and exceedingly unlikely to offer anything resembling an official biography. There’s a wealth of humour and details in here given the format and it’s fuelled many a post on this blog and every time I open it up to refresh my memory I end up absorbed again.

Keith Richards – Life

Did you know Mick Jagger started an autobiography? Sometime in the 80’s – presumably during the lull in Stones activity, he got quite far with his book but promptly forgot about it – when he was later approached by a publisher he could neither remember writing it or let it be published. Somehow, Keith Richards remembered even more and not only finished but published his autobiography, Life. Could have been something to do with the publisher giving an advance of $7m based on a short extract, but Life is an essential read for even a minor Stones fan like me. Yes there’s the thrills and vicarious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll excess – but it’s his honesty and unflinching and everlasting love for music that really comes across, you understand how he became known as the human riff. Worth following up with the Netflix doc on Keith too if you’re in the mood.

Mark Yarm – Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge

This book is, frankly, immense. In its scope, its telling and impact. Just reading it you can feel how much work and love has gone into this telling of the Seattle music scene – from its origins to its current status. The highs (both natural and chemical) and lows – some of which are pretty fucking dark and were a real discovery for me – are all covered in a forthright manner that manages to remain factual and detailed while also a clearly affectionate chronicle, sometimes gossipy, often hilarious and regularly revealing. It can’t be easy to build a narrative from so many and often conflicting memories (The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne comes across as a bit of a contrary prick) but Yarm has created what can only be described as the Bible of the scene here.

Bob Dylan – Chronicles Vol. One

“I’d been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever was there to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”

Wait, what? Nobody was expecting it, but Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One appeared like a revelatory bolt from the blue in 2004 after he got ‘carried away’ writing linear notes for planned reissues of Bob DylanNew Morning and Oh Mercy. The memoir – apparently the first of three (who know when) – is a detailed and candid insight into Dylan’s life, thinking and writing at the time of those three albums. The dejection and lack of direction he felt for his career while on tour with Petty is pre- Oh Mercy which, it turns out, came about thanks to Bono, an obscure singer with a little-known Irish band called U2* who, for some reason, Dylan showed the songs he’d started putting together and, while old Bob thought about burning them, suggested he call Daniel Lanois instead…

There’s a lot to discover in these three ‘vignettes’ considering the brevity of the periods covered and it’s a vital read for any Dylan fan. For a less personal and fuller Dylan read, Howard Sounes’ Down The Highway does a comprehensive and enjoyable job of telling Dylan’s story while keeping clear of the myth(s).

Speaking of stripping away the myth..

Peter Guralnick – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of AND Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley 

This isn’t a double-header, I’m not sneaking two books into one slot, both deserve a spot on this list but as you just can’t read one and not the other I’ll cover both in one go. I bought these books a long time before I got to reading them. I’m not a big fan of Elvis, I can quite quickly name a Top Ten but I don’t go deep with the King. These books do and I’d mark them as essential.

Last Train to Memphis does a magnificent job in detailing – and I mean detailing – the rise of Elvis Presley right up to the point where he’s shipped out to Germany in 1958. Where he’s from, who he was as a person, his love for music, getting started, this book is rich in detail and interview and a real eye-opener. Guralnick finds the truth behind what has become a much retold and embellished story that’s become so familiar that the truth of a poor young truck driver who loved nothing above his mother and music and came out of nowhere to become the biggest thing the world had seen is far too often forgotten. Take, as an example, the words of Marion Keisker, the secretary at Sun records who recognised something special in the polite teenager’s voice, words on the enigma surrounding Elvis: “He was like a mirror in a way: whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him. It was not in him to say anything malicious. He had all the intricacy of the very simple.”

The degree to which Last Train to Memphis manages to deliver the real Elvis Presley makes Careless Love all the more affecting. Once again – the demise of Elvis’ career and the man himself are too often mistold and the stock of parody: fat Elvis dying on the throne trying to take a dump surrounded by hamburgers and tv sets….

Careless Love gets underway with Elvis’ time in the army in ’58 and chronicles the gradual unravelling of the dream that had burnt so bright in Last Train To Memphis and details in disturbing detail the complex playing-out of Elvis’s relationship with his plotting, money-grabbing and manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The lying Dutchman’s desperate attempts to stop Elvis returning to the road after his comeback special (he’d have less control of him on the road), his continual pushing of terrible movie after terrible movie, the appalling contract and commission he took which fuelled his greed…. it wasn’t drugs that did for Elvis if you ask me. Written with a grace and affection for its subject, Careless Love is the real deal, a true insight into the end of one of the biggest and misunderstood figures of the 20th century.

While neither made me run out and buy anything beyond the couple of compilations that sit on my shelves, both of these books changed how I thought about Elvis.

Oddly, looking back as I write this, it’s not an Elvis song that comes to mind here:

George Harrison – I, Me, Mine

My love for this book isn’t so much down to what’s revealed or any ‘shocking truths’ – this aren’t necessary really. Though apparently John Lennon was pissed off (it came out a few months before he was murdered) and claimed to be hurt as the book doesn’t refer to Lennon as being a musical influence. What I love is the warmth and feel of I, Me, Mine. My version is that which was published in 2002, not long after Harrison had passed, with a new forward from his wife Olivia.  The autobiography itself isn’t essentially long or detailed but it’s everything else about this book I love – the bounty of photos and the song lyrics- copies of handwritten lyrics included – with details on the writing of each: “‘What is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969. I wrote it very quickly, fifteen minutes or half an hour maybe…. it seemed too difficult to go in there and say ‘Hey I wrote this catch pop sing; while Billy was playing his funky stuff. I did it myself later on All Things Must Pass.”

 

Aerosmith – Walk This Way

My first taste of musical bios is a pretty extreme one. I bought this when it came out (first edition hardback still sitting on my shelves looking rather well read) and I was really starting to get into Aerosmith. Written by Stephen Davis and the band, Walk This Way was the first official telling of the Aerosmith story, from the band members’ origins and the formation of the group through to its early rise and debauchery to its drug-fuelled collapse and nadir before being reborn via sobriety in the mid-80s – much is given over to this process and the resentment Tyler felt at the time, Perry being involved in the intervention while still using etc and the troubles that nearly caused another break up prior to Nine Lives.

Since publication three of members have written their own memoirs (oddly I’ve only read Steven Tyler’s) and have suggested that Walk This Way is perhaps a little… sanitised and glosses over a few things. Odd considering just how shocking some of what this covers …

Mark Blake – Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

I mentioned this one recently and I still believe it deserves a place in my Top 10. While there’s never likely to be as complete and comprehensive a Pink Floyd autobiography as desired – Nick Mason’s Inside Out comes close but is obviously his own story – as a) Gilmour and Waters don’t really get on and b) Syd Barrett and Richard Wright are no longer with us… Pigs Might Fly is a thoroughly detailed and researched ‘as close as you’ll ever get’.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run

Of course this is bloody well going to be on here. This is pretty much top of the list and sets a new benchmark for how autobiographies should be written. I wasn’t expecting this one to be written so well or so candidly. In my original review for this, which was extensive so I won’t go overboard here, I said: It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.

 

*If there isn’t a tribute band called ‘Not You Too’ then I’ll bloody well start one.