Books About Music

The Definitive Miles Davis Biography

I still haven’t written much about books yet, huh? Well, allow me to combine my two main interests with a list of the best books about music which I have read. Sadly, in comparison with literary figures, the biographies of rock musicians are often rather unimpressive efforts, with most writers happy to retell myths and legends, and few going to the trouble of footnoting and citing their information. When I think of a truly impressive biography, I think of Richard Ellman’s masterful biographies of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, for example: these not only follow their subjects in close detail, they illuminate their subjects minds and philosophies through deep learning and deceptively-simple explication, and they place them in their precise cultural and historical settings. This, obviously, is no mean feat. But given the intense interest in rock music, it is unfortunate that few if any biographies of major musical figures have been written which aspire to such high academic standards. Similarly, far too many books on rock (and even jazz) are content to titillate with stories of drug intake and sexual conquests. I’m thinking of books like Hammer of the Gods (about Led Zep); The Dirt (Motley Crue); Slash (um… Slash); I Am Ozzy; and so on. Yawn yawn fucking yawn. Such tawdry transgressions always (it seems to me) devalue what rock is about.

Never mind. There are nonetheless numerous good and substantial books on music out there, so let me share the ones I have found the best.

England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage

Few rock books might have the academic standards of Richard Ellman, but this one perhaps comes closest. With unbelievable detail (he must have interviewed several hundred people), Savage traces the birth and trajectory of (English) punk through the prism of the Sex Pistols, from their origins to the death of Sid Vicious through to the final legal victory of Lydon over McLaren. Savage also gives an overview of the careers of other luminaries such as The New York Dolls (at least, in terms of their involvement with McLaren), The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Public Image Limited and many more – though not The Stranglers, whom he seems to detest – and most importantly, places it all in a political, cultural and philosophical context. He explicates the souring of 1960s idealism, explains the relevance of postwar philosophies such nihilism and situationism, and combines this with a strong understanding of working-class hedonism and street-culture, from the Teddy Boys to Northern Soul to Mods and Rockers to Glam and Bowie. His reading list and discographies are also magnificent achievements in themselves, ideal resources for any would-be historian (would that there were more!) or even interested reader or listener. Not only that, it’s a fun, zippy read, able to mix high drama with sordid crimes, deep philosophical discussion with anecdotes about Sid Vicious’ hairstyle methods, and serious musical analysis of some of the most basic and visceral tunes put to record. Needless to say, it is a fucking brilliant book.

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

None of the Beatle biographies have been fully satisfying. We still await the book to place either Lennon or McCartney (or, indeed, both!) in their full cultural and philosophical context, as musical creators and innovators to rank alongside any classical composer you might care to mention. Really! This might be because the story is too big and too mythic for words to even begin to convey; or it might be that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney are still alive and jealously protecting the sacred image of Lennon/McCartney. (I suspect the latter). It is, to say the least, a crying shame that an edition of Lennon’s letters has not been produced. The great books that do exist about the Beatles are those which concern themselves less with the lives of the people involved and which instead document their musical, professional activities. I’m thinking of Mark Lewisohn‘s magnificent The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle which documents their studio work and general activities to an astonishing degree. Ian MacDonald’s book on the other hand looks at every recorded song individually, noting who played on it, the date(s) of its recording, when it was released and in what format, with a short(ish) essay about it. (Tim Riley’s book Tell Me Why does a similar job, but keeps to the music rather than the context. Riley also displays rather a tin ear, misreading songs on far too many occasions). While MacDonald is far more of a music critic than me (he knows about scales, modes and all the musical arcana), he really does get to the bottom of each song, relating it to where The Beatles were at that moment and in what they were trying to achieve. Thus, the entry for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the longest, as he analyses the effect of LSD on Lennon and in 60s cultural generally, and explains its “dazzling aural invention”. (On the other hand, his entry for songs like “Altogether Now” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are dismissively short). His bibliography is also excellent, though his introduction, bewailing the demise of popular music, is a bit silly. (He would have been better off noting that music, like other cultural forms, has a fragmented from a unifying medium to a Balkanized means of near-solipsistic consumption).

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher

As rock biographies go, this is one of the best. Not only is it astonishingly detailed (it’s about 800 pages long!), it avoids the prurient salacious detailing of drug and alcohol excess. This might sound odd, given Moon’s well-known proclivities, but Fletcher to his credit never sounds impressed when detailing Moon’s intake – rather, he sees it as evidence of his disturbance(s). I also really like the way that he gives great detail to Moon’s drumming, detailing the complex rhythms which Moon made sound so easy. Though the book can sometimes seem a bit overlong, it does really get to the dark heart of who Moon was. It is also, of course, a good overview of The Who, especially their early days.

Miles: The Autobiography and Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr

I’m going to lump these two together, because I read them at about the same time, and because they are very complementary. The Autobiography is a demotic street-voice stew of feeling, anecdotes and opinion. It’s written as though in Miles’ actual voice, and so is initially hard to read, diving straight in to talk about how “Bird played bad as a motherfucker” and the like. (I didn’t know that “Bird” was Charlie Parker). While Miles was of course an educated, Juillard-attending man, he liked to present himself as a guy from the street, despising the cultural eliteness that calcified jazz – see his 70s urban funk recordings (particularly On The Corner) as his direct riposte – and so there is a deliberate coarseness that sometimes strays into bravado, as when talking about his mid-70s slump into the depths of cocaine and “taking white bitch’s money”. There also isn’t much detail in the music: just lots of “he played like a motherfucker”. Nonetheless, you really get the sense of his voice and character through the book, and particularly of his lifelong dedication to his artform and his search for “the new thing”. Ian Carr’s book on the other hand is a traditional critical biography, with a great understanding and ability to evoke Davis’ classic recordings. Given that Davis’ style changed so considerably and so frequently over the years (compare with the Rolling Stones, who have had a similarly lengthy career!), Carr displays a tremendous ability to appreciate bop, cool jazz, modal, time-no changes, jungle funk to the jazz funk of the 1980s. He also gives more detail than Davis is willing to do about his relationships, both romantic and professional, and writes with clear relish when Miles twice arises after an addiction seemed to strike him out of contention.

How about you?

Favourite Bands Through Time

The Beatles

Sorry about that inordinately long break – the new job has been taking up so much of my time, and I was also on holiday in Scotland for two weeks, celebrating my daughter’s first birthday. But things feel a bit more settled now, and I’ve passed my probation at work :-), so hopefully I can get back to prattling on about my musical and cultural hobbyhorses (hey, that’s what you folks seem to like!).

I’ve previously written about books which were “life changers“, which altered the shape and colour of my mind. In a similar vein, I thought I would go through my favourite bands as time has gone by, and look at how they comment on what  was doing at the time.

1. Queen – 1986-1988

Like many British people born between 1960 and 1990, I became aware of chart music through Top of the Pops, my family regularly watching the show. (I still have a fondness for songs from 1986-7, as those were some of the first which permeated my consciousness: songs like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, “Caravan Of Love” and “Pump Up The Jam”). But the first group that really connected with me were Queen, as a result of us having the Queen: Greatest Flix video, which went from “Killer Queen” to “Flash”. There is something so timeless about Queen, about how many of their songs have become not just standards but embedded into the very soul of the British population. Just start singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a bar and see how everybody joins in! Also, it was my first real introduction to the power of the electric guitar, and also to the rather more subtle pleasures of fine bass playing – I esteem John Deacon very highly.

2. Guns N’ Roses – 1988-1992

Yes, I was a greasy little metaller. A smalltown boy with a bad ginger mullet, some truly epic metal tshirts, an electric guitar I couldn’t begin to get the hang of (dexterity is not my strong point), and a detestation of anything pink and fluffy. Oh me! All the same, Appetite For Destruction is an absolute monster of an album, and one whose power and authority have if anything increased as time has gone by; and the guitar playing on the second half of GN’R Lies is remarkable, worthy of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers. I just wish I hadn’t looked like such an absolute tool in those days. Ah well.

3. Sex Pistols – 1992-1993

While a metaller, I didn’t really know much about punk except through its hardcore subvariant (I still have a vinyl copy of the peerless Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing by Discharge). Then one day I on TV an advert for the Sex Pistols compilation Kiss This, and the rawness of the guitar shocked and delighted me. I got a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, and was blown away! Holy fuck! The sheer raw exuberance, the thrilling noise, the outraged sneer of Lydon and the thick power of Jones’ guitar… an intoxicating mix. fortunately, in those days you could pick up punk compilation CDs for buttons, and so I spent many happy hours discovering great songs like the Undertones “Teenage Kicks”, Ian Dury’s “Sex And Drugs And Rock N’ Roll”, Sham 69’s “If The Kids Are United”, and the brilliant “Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps Please” by Splodgenessabounds. Punk/post-punk is probably still my favourite genre of music. Teenage kicks, indeed.

4. The Beatles – 1993-1995

Guess I’ve said all I need to say about The Beatles. But, oh boy, what a discovery! What colour, wit, variety and grace! They remain my No. 1 All Time Favourite Best Band In The World Ever (man), but of course other groups have periodically taken their place.

5. The Smiths – 1995-1997

It’s sometimes ridiculous how apt music can be – or maybe it just finds you at the right time. Anyway, in those days Britpop was jst getting going, and I used to read the magazine Select. In the small ads section at the back, there was an entire category called “Stuff About Morrissey”, such was the devotion of his fans. I knew he’d been in the band The Smiths, so one day I borrowed their Best Of Vol. 1 from the library, and… ZANG! Often dismissed as miserablists or because of Morrissey’s patent narcissism, The Smiths considered just for their music are a band of high lyricism, from the gloomy foot-stomper “How Soon Is Now?” to the fierce indictment “The Queen Is Dead” to the outrageously pert “This Charming Man” (still a dancefloor filler) to the achingly selfpitying “I Know It’s Over”. This was just as I was becoming a literary-obsessed love-bereft aesthete; in other words, a real prat. Still, I can’t deny the force of The Smiths’ impact, nor how incredibly pertinent it all seemed.

6. Tricky – 1997-1999

During my time as a student, I developed an inordinate pot-smoking habit. (There was about a three-month period when I was never not stoned). Tricky’s remarkable Maxinequaye was an ideal accompaniment, being sensuous, slinky, and itself obviously a devotee of the herb. His subsequent albums Pre-Millenium Tension and Angels With Dirty Faces were ever more dark, brooding, disjointed and dismissive of simple pleasures like melody and structure, and his entire career has been a continual downward trajectory (how galling to have so many “special guests” on his comeback album Blowback, and how badly they were used!), but there was a time when Tricky seemed like a genius. How swiftly times change. (I haven’t smoked pot in almost 12 years now.)

7. Belle and Sebastian – 1999-2000

Like many people, I suspect, I bought this album by mistake. Intending to buy an album by Arab Strap, I instead bought The Boy With The Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian’s third. But even on its first play, I found it to be a striking listen – quiet and underplayed, to be sure, but poetic, folky yet rich with orchestral colour, and with lyrics to die for. Apart from The Beatles and Kraftwerk, 99% of my music was dark, gloomy, or angry – I had also been going through a Joy Division phase earlier (great band, but not one which illuminates your life). But Belle and Sebastian’s ironic gentleness, their soft lilting melodies set to hushed, biting portraits and evocations came at a completely different angle, and set the pace for what was a hazy, crazy, lazy summer, the likes of which you can only have as a student.

8. Leftfield – 2000-2001

After a few years smoking pot, other drugs began appearing. The most revelatory was ecstasy, which as the cliché goes, gave me a whole new outlook on life. (The most important, ironically enough, was that the joy was within us all, and that we didn’t need drugs or anything to access it. Just knowing it was there was enough). So of course you need a soundtrack, and though their first magnificent album Leftism was already five years old by then, Leftfield fit the bill splendidly. It was unusual to get dance/electronica that worked well across an album, which had such a range of emotions and textures and which was paced so well. Starting with the bouncing toy-piano-y “Release The Pressure”, modulating through the gears in “Melt” and “Song Of Life”, and building to a peak through the sinister charged force of “Black Flute” and the exhilarating dancefloor release of “Space Shanty”, Leftism was a remarkable feat. I also saw Leftfield in summer 2000’s T In The Park festival, and was blown away by the sheer intensity of their attack – it beat any rock band I’d ever seen. (Moby, whose album Play was taking off after being out for a year, also did a really good headlining set).

9. The Velvet Underground – 2001-2003

While I’d been a fan of the Velvets since discovering them in 1995, they were never quite my favourite band; I admired them, but maybe I had to get through some living first. I also wasn’t keen on their third or fourth albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, which I considered weak pop sellouts. Anyway, eventually it started to dawn on me just how impressive they were, particularly The Velvet Underground. Ditching the extreme amplification and distortion which made White Light/White Heat such a glorious failure (in recording terms, at least – song-wise, there’s not a thing to complain about), the Velvets instead revealed their vulnerable, open, fragile side; not in a weak way (as perhaps with Nirvana’s Unplugged) but with a sense of strength and nobility. Being able to dig this, and continuing to worship at the altar of the ferociously distorted “Sister Ray”, finally made me fully appreciate the Velvets. I mean, a band with Lou Reed, John Cale and the incredible Sterling Morrison? Whoa!

10. Miles Davis – 2003-2005

As I said before, I got into jazz via the Velvets, and started with Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. I then spend about six months buying a jazz album every week, mostly Miles Davis, but also John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Parker. (Though I am a big Philip Larkin fan, I seem to disgree with him on every aspect of jazz). What’s so admirable about Miles Davis? At his best, he integrates vision and method with astonishing success, as seen in the out-there horns of “Orbits”, the candlelit dusky dreaminess of “Shhh/Peaceful”, the aching melancholy of “Blues In Green”, the sinister foreboding of “Pharaoh’s Dance”. But more than that, his ever-changing approach is magnificently inspiring. His willingness to constantly challenge himself, to leave his comfort zone and seek new musical territories is an object lesson in how to create. (Somebody once asked him why he didn’t play ballads any more. “Because I like playing them so much,” he replied). Similarly, his work with younger musicians is incredible – this is the man who recognised the talent in musicians of the calibre of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams (if you don’t know who Tony Williams is, listen to his top-hat work on “Shhh/Peaceful” – he plays it like a lead instrument!), and Joe Zawinul.

Since about 2005, I haven’t really had any new favourites; I seem happier exploring the byways of musical history than seeking out the latest sounds. But how about you?

Favourite Albums

The Guardian has been doing a nice series on writers’ favourite albums – see here. With some nice left-field choices (it was pleasantly surprising to see Alex Petridis choose “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack” as his favourite – it’s not often you see disco treated in the music press without sniggering), it’s been a fun new feature. There are albums which are the greatest – and these the classic rock mags endlessly pontificate on, with endless lists – but your favourite is something more personal, more meaningful, more autobiographical. The grandma with a taste for T. Rex and Alice Cooper, the aging fish factory worker with a passion for Charlie Parker, the oil engineer whose liking for The Blues Brothers led him to Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson, the prog-rocker turned onto The Orb… I have known all these people, and it’s sometimes wonderful how unexpectedly musical passion will hit.

But for me it was all quite simple. The first album I ever bought remains my favourite unto this day, after some 23 years and unending musical exploration. Let me give some context: at the time I was nine years old and was really just getting into music, via my mum’s copy of Queen’s Greatest Flix, their videos from “Killer Queen” to “Flash” (a-ah). From the off, I liked the heavier, guitary parts – the heavy section of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the faster version of “We Will Rock You”, the killer riff to “Tie Your Mother Down”. But I didn’t encounter much rock music in those days – as a family we used to watch Top Of The Pops every week (how we laughed over the “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” video, and how baffled we were at Black Box’s “Ride On High”!) and my dad and uncles were massively into Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, etc, but I almost never heard any real hard rock. My mum preferred Simply Red and Bob Marley, and my older sister liked Radio 1 stuff, especially Michael Jackson.

So then one day a music shop opened up in my one-horse home town – or should I say, another one opened up, for there was already one, which sold musical instruments, a wide variety of music, music stands, amplifiers, guitar strings and plectrums, violin cases and the like. The new shop had one killer feature, though: they had a TV in the shop, and on this they would play MTV. I had never even seen MTV before but knew what it was thanks to Dire Straits, and like all British kids’ idea of America, it summoned images of unimaginable delight and pleasure, of unguessed-at consumer possibilities and a heightened glamour of life. Here was the world of youth, of freedom, of desire. So I used to hang about the shop and browse through their cassettes while listening/watching the videos. This being early in 1988, Guns N’ Roses were then riding high, with “Paradise City”, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome To The Jungle” on pretty heavy rotation. These songs excited me beyond words. Their power and visceral hunger were enthralling, and their look was equally as appealing – the intoxicating sense of bad boys, living fast and living hard, in the big city lights. For a small town boy like me, who could resist?

My brother and I went halfs on the album, Appetite For Destruction, a reasonable 6.75 as I recall, and played it to death. Song after song was just fantastic. The overture of “Welcome To The Jungle”, half an incantation and half a shriek from hell, set the tone right away: here was something gritty, almost overwhelming and above all alive. “It’s So Easy” postured and preened with astonishing yet believable arrogance, the ultimate expression of young-man narcissism, with Axl singing at the bottom of his range and the riff exploding out at you like a Molotov Cocktail of belligerent intent. “Nighttrain”. an ode to cheap tonic wine and seat-of-your-pants living (“I never learn”) was mighty fine, almost fun, while the duelling guitars at the start of “Out Ta Get Me” were magnificent. “Mr Brownstone” had this bad-ass funk and a subtext I would only later pick up (hey, I was only 9). The major statement, though, was “Paradise City”: oh dude, that amazing cavernous drum sound at the beginning, as confident as America in the Reaganite 80s, and that amazing boogie-stomp of the crushing riff, and the urban nightmare lyrics of the verses (“Captain America’s torn apart / Now he’s a court jester with a broken heart/ He said turn me around / And take me back to the start / I must be losing my mind / “Are you blind?!” / I’ve seen it all a million times”) with the open yearning and desire of the chorus (I’ll assume everyone knows it by now). And that was just side 1!

This led me down the track of late-80s hard rock and heavy metal, with bands like Poison, Motley Crue, WASP, and the like, while I also much admired Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Faith No More’s The Real Thing. I grew my hair into a ridiculous mullet, I got an electric guitar I never could get the hang of, I made friends (well, a friend) who was into much the same stuff, I read Kerrang! and RAW magazines, I stayed up until 4.30am on Saturday mornings to watch Raw Power, the only place to watch heavy metal videos on British TV (we still didn’t have MTV), and generally was quite the greaser. I lived and breathed the album, reading the lyrics and credits obsessively, watching the tape I had of GN’R at the New York Ritz on countless occasions, and counting the days for a full successor. Guns N’ Roses subsequent career, of course, was something of a joke – has there ever been a band with such a bad trajectory? But the fact that I stayed on this path for something like five years is testament to the endless thrilling power of Appetite For Destruction, its sheer quality and unforgettable hunger and desire. I have never bored of it, and it remains my favourite album ever.

How about you? What’s your favourite? And what do you think of Appetite For Destruction?