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.

Albums of my Years – 1982

I actually have a memory from 1982 – and it can really only be 1982 or 83 -but it’s not music related. I can’t claim that I was sitting under a piano and singing Beatles songs in my second year on this planet.

So I have no memory of either hearing music or music news from 1982 such as that about the bloke from Birmingham , who’d already bitten the head off a dove in ’81, doing the same to a bat in January 1982. Of course he claimed he thought it was rubber but you’ve got to be fairly off your tits not to be able to tell the difference between a squeaky toy and a live mammal. 1982 wasn’t his year as he’d be arrested a couple of weeks later for taking a leak on something called The Alamo…

At the same BB King decided he didn’t need his record collection and donated the lot – some 7000 rare blues records. I suppose it saved money on IKEA Kallax units.

In March, Billy Joel came off his motorcycle and dinged himself up pretty good – he’d spend more than a month in hospital undergoing physio on his hand which must’ve gone well judging by the quality of The Nylon Curtain…

I don’t really care for Black Sabbath or Ozzy but he seems to have been dominated music headlines in ’82. His guitarist Randy Rhodes was killed when the plane he was in crashed after buzzing Osbourne’s tour bus. A few months later Ozzy would get married and, presumably, start bellowing “Sharon!”

Pink Floyd released the movie version of Waters’ diatribe The Wall which mixed the egos of Waters and director Alan Parker to mixed results.

My favourite bit of music trivia from 1982 though is the point at which, fearing poor ticket sales for a tour in support of Combat Rock, Joe Strummer was convinced to “disappear” – his manager suggested Strummer ‘vanish’ and stay in Texas for a couple of weeks. Instead, Strummer genuinely disappeared for a couple of months – choosing  to run the Paris marathon (he claimed his training consisted of drinking 10 pints of beer the night before) and “dick around” in France. The Clash were falling apart with tension – Topper Headon would be fired in ’82 thanks to his cocaine addiction – and Strummer would later say he regretted his vanishing act. Though he would later run the London marathon without any training too.

In 1982 it was goodnight from ABBA, Bad Company, The Blues Brothers (this was the year John Belushi died), The Jam and Blondie (until 1997 that is). Meanwhile American Music Club, A-Ha, James, Public Enemy, The Smiths, Swans and They Might Be Giants all formed in 1982.

So what dropped album wise in ’82? I’ve already mentioned a couple – The Clash dropped their best-selling album Combat Rock in July – it features their biggest singles too in ‘Rock the Casbah’ and the Stranger Things favourite ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and the formidable ‘Know Your Rights’:

There were quite a few albums from artists that feature within this blog’s orbit in 1982 including the first Sonic Youth album and the debut EPs from both R.E.M and the Replacements – though neither could really, honestly, be called the band’s best work. Split Enz dropped Time and Tide in  April of ’82 and The Cure released Pornography shortly after. George Thorogood & The Destroyers released their fifth album, Bad to the Bone which continues to thrill me a considerable amount more than Thriller (also released in ’82) ever did. B-b-b-b-b-b-b-bad:

The year also saw the previously mentioned Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel which features one of my favourite tunes by the piano chap, ‘Goodnight Saigon’.

Kate Bush dropped her least commercial album, The Dreaming, which was full of highlights and served as the perfect bridge to The Hounds of Love… Prince released the extremely commercial and massive-selling 1999 while Neil Young pushed out Trans which was so noncommercial in its orientation that it was one of the albums used by his label Geffen in their lawsuit against him for producing wilfully unrepresentative and noncommercial material. Oh, and Aerosmith released the appropriately named Rock In A Hard Place. Well, I say ‘Aerosmith’… even Joey Kramer doesn’t consider it a proper entry in the band’s catalogue – “it’s just me, Steven, and Tom — with a fill-in guitar player.” It’s not entirely without merit – ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ has a real groove to get stuck on and both ‘Jailbait’ and ‘Lighting Strikes’ are decent tunes (the latter featuring Brad Whitford on guitar, presumably recording his rhythm parts on his walk to the door) but were I to tackle Aerosmith on a Least to Most… this would be the least.

Now in terms of albums that do feature high on my personal favourites list… Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Long After Dark which features ‘Straight into Darkness’, ‘ A Change of Heart’ and ‘You Got Lucky’.

And then there’s Nebraska. Once of Springsteen’s finest albums, his first ‘solo’ album and his most stark in terms of subject and sound…. it really, really should be the featured album on this list…. but I’ve written about it exhaustively as part of the Springsteen Least to Most series and rules are rules. So… it looks like a second entry on the list for one band:

Dire Straits – Love Over Gold

It’s fitting really. For a while I questioned whether this should be the choice for this year but there’s a number of factors that mean Knopfler and co’s fourth album sits here for ’82; It’s an album I heard a huge amount of in my youth and growing up thanks to my Dad’s penchant for the band. So much so that down to the fact that his record had a skip on the “I’ve seen desperation explode into flames and I don’t wanna see it again” in ‘Telegraph Road’* that I got so used to that I still expect the skip when listening on CD or online.

As part of my debating whether to go with this album for 1982 I listened to it in full, again, and realised that I didn’t need to be questioning it – it’s not only a bloody strong album but it’s one that resonates with me on so many levels and is part of what formed my tastes moving forward. ‘Private Investigations’ was one of the first things I set about learning on guitar and will still go to from time to time – especially if I pick up the old ‘classical’ guitar out of the garage. Combined with ‘Telegraph Road’ it makes for a faultless Side A:

Love Over Gold is, to me, the final ‘classsic’ Dire Straits album. There’s still a very quintessentially English element about it and it’s sound and writing are less direct and radio-ready than the Brothers In Arms era that would follow. It’s the final of those early albums before ‘Money for Nothing’ threw them into bigger venues and TV sets around the world and the scale that would lead to Knopfler walking away began to build.

The music and sound benefits from the addition of Alan Clarke on keyboards – wider and more intricate sounds that mark a natural and real development on that of Making Movies – just listen to the interplay between the two on ‘Love Over Gold’:

The sheer power and length of the two songs that make up Side A do mean that trio on Side B are often overlooked, much as the album itself – sitting between Making Movies and Brothers In Arms – can be. But the title track,  ‘Industrial Disease’ and ‘It Never Rains’ are far from filler.

As much as I understand Knoplfer’s reasons for not attending the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and his disinterest in reforming – I do wish that this era of the band (before it became about headbands and filling the largest venues) could get the revisit and attention it deserves.

*Side note/ pub quiz / music trivia point: Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, is also a Dire Straits fan – he was working at his cousin’s record studio (The Power Plant) when Making Movies – and has admitted to ripping off ‘Telegraph Road’ with ‘Dry County‘.

 

Over and Out

It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”

It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.

Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.

I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.

Nirvana – In Utero

Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.

As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.

In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.

Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.

Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.

In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.

Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).

Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:

Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?

Band of Susans – Here Comes Success

Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.

Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.

Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.

Full of lush production,  pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.

 

Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.

REM – Collapse Into Now

How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is.  Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”

Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh  My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.

Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…

The Replacements – All Shook Down

The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.

As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.

The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.

Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.

Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.

Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.

There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”

Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Two quotes:

“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.

Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.

Chances of a follow-up: Nah…  While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.

 

Tracks: Tunic (Song for Karen)

Dreaming, dreaming of how it’s supposed to be
But now this tunic’s spinning – around my arms and knees
I feel like I’m disappearing – getting smaller every day
But when I open my mouth to sing – I’m bigger in every way

I’ve mentioned before how huge Sonic Youth are/were for me. Every now and then I still get bummed when I realise that I won’t hear ‘new’ material from them again. That being said it’s not as though there’s a shortage of songs to listen to; 15 studio albums, 9 SYR instalments and a number of post-dissolve releases trickling through.

It’s close-to impossible for me to choose a favourite Sonic Youth album but when it comes to an individual song it’s always Tunic (Song for Karen). I can’t recall my first hearing of it – I have some idea it involved something being smoked – but I know I was instantly hooked.

Yes; it’s a song about Karen Carpenter. Kim Gordon has said ‘I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body. It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager – they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller.’ In the instrumental breakdown in the middle of the song Kim and J. Mascis are singing Carpenters songs  – it’s buried deep in the mix but on the demo version (included in the 2005 Deluxe Edition) you can hear this more clearly.

The music certainly carries a dark edge appropriate to its subject matter but it’s pure hook and driving rhythm pinned down with guitar squeal. The collapse in the mid section, pulled out by the re-start of the drums and rhythm, is heaven to my ears.

 

2015 Between Covers

I’m never able to do these things at the expected time. There’s the whole ‘being busy’ thing (working, writing my own fiction and fitting that around living etc) and the fact that I like to think about these lists a bit. That and whittling it down this year was tough.

I read a lot in 2015. Old, new, fiction and non, printed and, upon occasion, kindle. I bought a lot of books and I was fortunate enough to be sent some wonderful, eye-opening fiction (and non) to review as well.

As such the list includes two non-new titles as they were still among the best books I read last year, they were new to me and, well, it’s my blog.

So, in no particular order; my 10 Best Reads of 2015.

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New

It’s always a good year for literature when Louis de Bernières drops a ‘big’ novel. The The Dust That Falls From Dreams is set in a locale all the more local than his previous such tomes yet contains so much warmth, humour, emotion and dazzling prose as to render its authorship and excellence unquestioned. That this is the start of another trilogy from Louis de Bernières can only be great news.

Not the start of a trilogy but the start of a series, Snowblind is the first Dark Iceland novel to be translated into English and published by Orenda Books. With Nordic-Noir fast becoming a genre of choice for me, this gripping thriller delivered on every page and, as mentioned in my review, is remarkably confident and powerful for a début. A genuine hook of a plot, superbly evoked setting and a real shake-up of the ‘locked-room’ approach.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes may well have been picked up out of amusement at the “He’s back, and he’s Fuhrious” tagline but once I picked it up and glanced over the blurb I was already hooked. Yes, it’s never going to be as 100% funny as it could have been thanks to the ever-lasting horror that the central-figure’s real-life counterpart committed but it does have a lot of genuinely funny moments, realises that the initial joke could become old fast and develops into a biting and dark satire that does leave you wondering just how far-fetched the “it wasn’t all bad” belief actually is. Having met some people since and heard them use just that line in relation to the likes of Mussolini, perhaps not that far after all.

Another book with some well-timed questions this year was The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto. The second novel to feature police investigator Anna Fekete (I still need to read the first), this is a great novel with a real slow-burning plot that builds momentum as its many sub-plots weave together in a masterful manner. Everything about The Defenceless – from its characters and narration and its brilliant reveal – is top-tier stuff but it’s the central story of Sammi, the Pakistani refugee who resorts to increasingly desperate measures to avoid deportation that will linger long after the final page has been turned.

It’s known that I’m a sucker for historical fiction (and even non-fiction) that deals with World War 2. The first of two on this list that deals with such an era is James Ellroy’s Perfidia. Again, lifted off the bookshop table out of curiosity at the cover and promptly taken to the till following the blurb, this was my introduction to Ellroy (I was unaware of his authorship of LA Confidential and the Black Dahlia) and it’s one hell of a place to start. A huge novel in terms of both scope and intricacy and detail. It’s an intense and all-consuming read and I genuinely felt immersed Ellroy’s 1940’s Los Angeles. In theory this is the start of a trilogy, that will link to his previous novels to form a sort of ‘history of America’ and I can’t wait for the next, though I may jump forward and read them in published, rather than intended chronological, order.

I suppose, technically, there’s three books that deal with this era of history…. Part of How To Be Brave by Louise Beech is the story of Colin – lost at sea after his merchant navy ship was sunk by a torpedo. The other ‘part’ deals with the diagnosis of nine-year-old Rose with Type 1 diabetes and how her and her mother come to terms with the changes this will have on their lives while – as Colin fights to stay alive – they fight to save their relationship as mother and daughter. The story lines intertwine in a wonderful and poetic manner, the characters are all genuine and warm and – I’ve said it before and I’ve said it to others since; Louise Beech  vividly evokes the sensations of panic and dread that accompany being a parent when a child falls ill and perfectly captures the feeling of isolation from the rest of the world that occurs at such times, wrapped in an all-consuming love for your child. As a parent of a young child with a voracious appetite for books that already rivals mine, so much of this book stayed with me that it had to round out the new fiction element of the list.

Less-New

I still cannot believe I took so long to get to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (the third WW2 book of the year’s list). Annoyed that I’d missed out on this undeniable classic yet at the same time so glad that I’m now familiar with the hilarity of Yossarian (the moaning epidemic at the briefing before the Avignon mission cost me a mouthful of coffee) and this bitingly funny satirical swipe at the futility and ridiculous bureaucracy of a bloated army-at-war.

Strangely enough the other non-new book that sits in this list ticks the same boxes as above but is set in the First World War. An extremely important and well-regarded (though tragically unfinished) book, The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek is an immense read in terms of both size, scope and enjoyment. Again, mixing both slapstick and satire to deliver both a swipe at the pointless futility of conflict and war, the discipline of the Austrian army and the Austro-Hungarian empire itself. With Josef Švejk, Hašek created an iconic character and I can only wonder – were the book to have reached completion before illness took its author – whether the imbicility of Švejk would’ve reached ever-new heights or be denounced as feigned (though where’s the fun in that). A quick glance at the already cracked and well-read spine of my copy (an inspired birthdaygift from my wife) will show just how devoured The Good Soldier Švejk was at the tail of last year.

Non-Fiction

Given that I touched on it plenty in fiction, I don’t think I touched the Second World War in non-fiction during 2015.

I’ve long been fascinated by Russia. That mysterious country that’s had such an impact on my life via the Cold War (I won’t go into that here) and has delivered some of my favourite writers (nobody can touch The Master and Margarita). I’ve been looking for a way in to understanding more of the country and this year found just that with A Journey Into Russia by Jens Mühling. A compelling account of Mühling’s journey from Moscow into the depths of Siberia in search of the last Old Believer living in reclusion, this book delivers many fascinating explorations of stories that are almost too strange to be true (from the new Jesus preaching to his believers in their private paradise to the priest who still preaches in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone and via the surreal supremacists-as-Slavs encounter)  in its attempt to discover and understand the soul of Russia.

There’s no way that, as a Sonic Youth fan, my list wouldn’t include Kim Gordan’s Girl In A Band. Yes; there are times when the full-disclosure element of the break down of indie’s golden couple makes for unpleasant reading (perhaps even more so as a fan as it makes you start to question the substance of recent songs) but the telling of Kim’s journey from art student to alt-rock pioneer and back to art (not that she ever left) makes for a revealing and fascinating read and the insights into Sonic Youth songs make for essential reading.

As for 2016… there’s already a few contenders and definite entries (keep an eye out for my entry on the Jihadi; A Love Story blogtour)  and when you throw in the fact that Bruce Springsteen has revealed his auto-biography is to be published at the tail-end of the year… it’s been a great start to what’s undoubtedly going to be a good year of reading ahead for sure.

Girl In A Band

IMG_4834When Girl In A Band was released earlier this year I didn’t rush out and buy it. In fact, it was my wife that added this one to the collection and got to it first.

It’s safe to say that going in to this book I had mixed feelings. On the one hand; I love Sonic Youth and was anxious to gobble down more insights into the band, its working process and its body of work. On the other; Kim and Thurston’s split meant not only the end of Sonic Youth but a shift in focus whenever the band or either of them were mentioned in print. As such all press surrounding the release of Girl In A Band – including the excerpts printed in various publications – seemed heavier on that matter than the music.

It’s also safe to say that coming away from this book I have mixed feelings.

This is a memoir, after all. Says it right there in the title: Girl In A Band: A Memoir. So not an auto-biog in the traditional linear sense nor a “making of the album” type book. Further ‘nor’ is it a My Time In Sonic Youth book. No; it’s Kim Gordon’s memoir and to expect it to be solely on SY would be rude and demeaning as Ms Gordon’s life revolves around a whole lot more.

Gordon writes movingly about her early life and family – the terror inflicted upon her by her older brother and the greater terrors unleashed by his illness – and finding her way in the art world and path into music.

All that being said, though, Sonic Youth is/was a big part of Kim’s life and so does get plenty of page time too. Gordon is remarkably frank about her limited singing abilities – explaining that she asked Kim Deal to sing the harmonies on Little Trouble Girl as she, well, couldn’t – and offers insights into the writing / recording of many of SY’s tunes including my own favourite Tunic (Song for Karen).

There’s also plenty of revelations about life with the band – touring with Neil Young and its pitfalls, Kurt Cobain (a gentle yet tortured and manic soul here) and enough to suggest that Kim Gordon and Courtney Love don’t exchange Christmas Cards.

For all of the above I loved this book and would happily read it again.

Though as it’s a memoir and a recent one at that, the dissolution of Kim and Thurston’s marriage hangs heavy over the book. Hindsight often gets a few words in on recollections of earlier times and then there’s the break-up itself. It’s dealt with in, again, a remarkably frank manner – the discovery of text messages / emails from the Other Woman, attempts at counselling and repairing the marriage and, throughout, Kim’s own devastation.

It’s hard reading. Perhaps, to me, because the two had previously been more private about their relationship. When the announcement of their separation was made it was very quiet and via their label. In a world where celebrity couples can’t walk the dog alone without speculation appearing across the internet that their relationship is on the skids, it was a welcome relief for private matters to remain just that.

But then, as mentioned, this is her memoir and its her right to use the medium to set her version on the record, perhaps so as to never need do so again. It’s a little uncomfortable to read given just how open and forthright the sordid details of Thurston’s betrayal and the abrupt collapse of their marriage are laid bare – as though, perhaps, the disclosure was a little too full.

Nonetheless, Girl In A Band is a compelling read.

For a Youth Probably Now Past

I’ve been remiss in writing here. I’ve not been remiss in listening to music.

A little while ago I heard the stream of the new, self-titled, album by Chelsea Light Moving. I’ve listened to it a couple of times subsequently though I’ve yet to order up the vinyl. Something is stopping me. Tugging at me. Suggesting it might even be treacherous to do so…

Chelsea Light Moving (CLM) is the new band for Thurston Moore. He of Sonic Youth. I do own all of Mr Moore’s previous solo albums – at least the three that are readily available and not of the pure-noise variety. I even have Demolished Thoughts on vinyl – beautiful double coloured vinyl at that. But those were solo albums not ‘new band’ albums. It’s not that CLM is bad. Not at all, really, for a first effort. It bristles with all the energy that you’d expect of Thurston’s thrashier additions to an SY album and makes more noise than he ever does on his own. At least in song-mode.For the problem I have when listening to CLM is that this is as pretty clear indication as you’ll ever get that Sonic Youth should now be referred to in the past tense.sonic youth

Given that the indie-rock world was thrown upside down by the news that Thurston and Kim Gordon recently announced that their marriage was over, it shouldn’t really be a surprise. Given that that they’ve been together and put out more music than any of their contemporaries, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Given that they recently parted ways with their long-term label Geffen (their going Major was one of the things that smoothed the way for Nirvana and many others to do so) and released The Immortal on an indie label as a one-time-only thing, it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s not really a surprise. It is, though, a bloody big shame.

It’s hard to write about Sonic Youth and their music. Whenever I write about music I’m mindful of the quote that likens doing so to ‘dancing about architecture’. With such an analogy writing about Sonic Youth and their music is nigh on impossible. Others have tried, they’ve done so better than I ever could.

To me though, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House. Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Nobody else has been able to make music that’s so chaotic and deconstructive while still in complete control and ridiculously tight. Watching Thurston and Lee Ranaldo playing together was like watching music’s mad scientists create. And playing prepared guitar with a screwdriver? Forget it. Absolutely amazing.

It is a shame, and here’s more than a few reasons why: