Dancing about architecture...

24/10/2011 by Graeme Neill

My top five books about music, from Soundgarden to Mötley Crüe

Whoever it was who actually said "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" clearly got it wrong - in fact the infamous quote has been attributed to various sources including Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Thelonius Monk, Clara Schumann, Miles Davis and George Carlin to name but a few.

My bookshelves are filled with titles about music and the best of them capture the egos, meltdowns and tour tedium behind some of my favourite albums. And more are on their way, with Courtney Love, the Stone Roses and even David Essex the latest to sign up to tell their stories.

So with a nod to High Fdelity, here are my top five books about music. I've avoided fiction and stuck to personal favourites, rather than a canonical 'the best'. So no room for Ian MacDonald's masteful Beatles biography, Revolution in the Head, Motorhead frontman Lemmy's deeply entertaining memoir also missed the cut, while that phenomenally gifted music writer Jon Savage is also omitted.

1. Our Band Could be Your Life Michael Azzerad (Little, Brown)

About three quarters of my music collection is American indie rock. A girl in my geography class handing me a cassette with the Pixies' Doolittle on it when I was 14 set me on the road to discovering Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr and Minutemen. Nirvana biographer Michael Azzerad looks at each of these four bands and nine others who made some of the best music of the 1980s.

He eschews the bigger names - there is no chapter for REM and Azerrad chooses to examine the Seattle scene that gave us Nirvana through Mudhoney instead - but it does what any great music book should; makes you revisit old albums you haven't heard in ages as well as inspiring you to seek out music from the bands you have yet to hear.

Each chapter is devoted to a different band and Azerrad deftly sketches a scene built upon fanzines, jury-rigged tour vans and borrowed amplifiers. I defy anyone to read the chapter on inspirational hardcore heroes Fugazi and not think starting a band NOW is not the greatest idea on Earth, even though you are the wrong side of 30 and can't play a guitar.

2. The Last Party John Harris (Fourth Estate)

I was 15 in 1995 and as a result I am an unashamed Britpop apologist. What for a lot of people is possibly one of the lowest points in British music, led by a bunch of chancers armed with Kinks songbooks, for me resulted in some of my favourite albums - Elastica and Suede's debuts, Oasis' Definitely Maybe, Pulp's Different Class and Blur's Modern Life is Rubbish.

Harris was editor of monthly Britpop bible Select during the 1990s and gives a deeply gossipy take on the Britpop years. The chapters charting the Damon Albarn/Justine Frischmann/Brett Anderson love triangle or Oasis' hilarious drunken rampages on tour are worthy of books in their own right. The sheer volume of hedonistic drinking and drug taking by the Britpop bands is worthy of a Led Zeppelin biography.

Where the book fails slightly is Harris' attempts to marry Britpop's rise to that of New Labour. While Noel Gallagher stood on the steps of No 10 is a great image of everything wrong about the Blair Years, Harris trying to bring politics into the music of that time seems very forced. Nonetheless, the book makes you reassess a sorely underrated period in British music - you may even begin to like Menswear.

3. This is Uncool - The 500 Greatest Songs Since Punk and Disco Garry Mulholland (Cassell Illustrated)

This is the best book about music I have ever read because it understands perfectly how important music is to a person and crucially, how important music is to a certain time in one's life. This is Uncool is part memoir as Mullholland looks at every year of his life from his teenage years through to his adulthood and writes about the music he loved and why it mattered to him, matching up job worries, epic break-ups and new relationships with writing about The Smiths, Public Enemy or The Source.

Now that everyone can find any type of music they like online, most music fans have a great diversity to their tastes - however, 10 years ago it was incredibly refreshing to read Mullholland effortlessly writing about genres from rap to punk to disco to pop and back again. It's perfect to dip in and out of or spend an afternoon on the sofa with. He is also a massive Prince fan, which is always a good thing in my book.

4. Hotel California - Barney Hoskyns (HarperPerennial)

My parents were quite young when I was born but instead of a soundtrack of Bowie and The Smiths, they opted for AOR - so my early years were dominated by 10CC, Paul Simon, Chris Rea and Fleetwood Mac. And I hated it.

However, a few years ago I finally wised up and realised that Rumours is actually a stone-cold masterpiece and a lot of the albums my mum and dad loved were very good indeed. A friend then gave me this book - a look at the west coast of America music scene of the 1970s and the stories behind so many of the artists my parents loved. I don't think I have ever read any book that is so filled with unlikeable characters, whether it's Neil Young's willful contrarianism or the battle within The Eagles to establish which of them is the biggest prick.

However, the music of the Laurel Canyon was fantastic and Hoskyns draws your attention to a couple of hidden gems - Byrd guitarist Gene Clark's luscious solo album No Other or the tragic Judee Sill's eponymous album, released a few years before she died of drug abuse, to name but two.

5. The Dirt - Mötley Crüe (Harper)

This is a strange one because I don't own any Mötley Crüe albums and only have at most a few songs in my iTunes. I came to it through ghostwriter Neil Strauss' bestseller The Game and a friend of mine having a penchant for sticking Crüe's Girls Girls Girls on the jukebox.

Given the Spinal Tap subject matter, heavy rock unsurprisingly makes for great reading, from Lemmy and Ozzy Osbourne's memoirs to Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods. A band like Mötley Crüe seems so alien in 2011. Can you imagine a band unashamedly snorting and shagging their way to success in a completely decadent fashion now?

The Dirt is a tale of rock excess, which reads like a work of fiction. And thankfully shows you don't even need the soundtrack for a book to be a great music read.
 

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