Many of us are stuck at home, isolated and with far too much time on our hands. I miss live music. You miss live music. We all miss one another. The best we can do is take advantage of this time and fill our hearts and minds with the written word. I combined all of those feels and gave you a headstart with a tantalizing list of the best bios to be reaching for on those nights when you can’t sleep or those days when you don’t want to risk being coughed on for a bag of dried beans at Whole Foods. Dig in!
The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize
The only inclusion here that is not an autobiography, Magpie Eyes was ostensibly supposed to be the bio of Creation Records founder Alan McGee. McGee had given journalist David Cavanagh unfettered access, and once the dust had settled on the rise of Oasis and the sale of his label to Sony, McGee was physically shattered by an exhausting cycle of drugs and travel and overall mania. He rejected Cavanagh’s collection, and once it was repackaged and published, he actively denounced it. The effect was enough that it was never cleared for publication in the U.S., making it a hard to find holy grail amongst those in the know.
A decade later, a healthy and reinvigorated McGee was quick to admit that it was actually a strikingly accurate recollection of each and every twist and turn of his career, and the birth of indie rock on the whole. This is how it really happened, he underlined. Cavanagh is a brilliant observer, and his easy writing style somehow leaves you wanting more after nearly 800 pages. This is the definitive history of Creation, but it is also the best book ever written on Oasis, Primal Scream, The House of Love, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Felt, Rough Trade (both the shop, label and distribution network), Cherry Red, Postcard Records, and the formation of the indie charts and UK music press, along with an inside view into the crucial time period when the majors co-opted indie rock forever. Read that back and remember that most of those subjects have had several books written just about them alone, yet Magpie shames them all, and does so with ease.
There are so many incredible stories here that I have re-read multiple times that I have lost count. The Jesus and Mary Chain firing McGee in the quiet section of a fast food restaurant; The House of Love being torn apart (and running up their expense account) while trying to make their major label debut; Primal Scream terrorizing producers and bandmates in the countryside; Literally every time Alan Horne appears; McGee trying to find a sack of money and salvation from a final trip to the home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in SBK Records; Tim Abbot chooses sides; The legend of Lawrence’s flat in Birmingham; The tiny Rough Trade record shop eventually builds a massive parallel music industry to the majors, only to see it collapse at its height and nearly take every label you have ever loved with it. None of that touches the Oasis phenomenon, the massive financial bluff everything hinges on, or the evolving influences of mountains of drugs and leather trousers. Irvine Welsh is currently making a movie out of McGee’s autobiography, but this will be the book you will want to read before it comes out.
Head On / Repossessed
Julian Cope is a megastar, and that much is evident from the first page. It isn’t relevant whether the public thinks so, or whether he has even written a single lyric or note of music yet – some people are just STARS in capital letters. Cope wrote Head On about his early life and time in The Teardrop Explodes, following up with Repossessed five years later, chronicling his early solo albums. The subsequent paperback version cleverly combines the two with a flipped format and they are a perfect pair, so be sure to find that version. These two books combine to create my favorite autobiography, music-based or otherwise.
Cope is an artist through and through, and seems almost incapable of mature behavior at times. Wildly self indulgent, yet magnetically charismatic, Cope is a powderkeg combination of Syd Barrett and Iggy Pop. The man/boy that describes a tryst with Lydia Lunch on tour in America as if he had never seen a woman before is very clearly the same man/boy that spends any money he can find closing himself off in a room filled with children’s toy cars. It might not be unusual that a musician doesn’t want to grow up, but Cope is intensely aware of these qualities within himself, and documents them better than anyone else I have ever read. As it spirals into rampant drug use, paranoia, self doubt, and what can only be described as agoraphobia, Cope still manages to describe it all in brutally honest (yet somehow still charming) prose.
When he tackles others it provides a catty insider’s look into the birth of the Liverpool scene that gave us Echo and the Bunnymen, Dead or Alive, The Mighty Wah!, The Wild Swans, The Lightning Seeds, The Zoo record label and eventually The KLF. A cross section of huge personalities intersect as well, from a teenage Courtney Love to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Holly Johnson. From end to end both books never disappoint.
The Big Midweek
Outside of the man himself, Mark E. Smith was only ever truly protective of one member of the ever revolving cast of The Fall, showing bassist Steve Hanley to be the musical heart of the operation. Hanley details the quirks of being in one of the most iconic and dysfunctional bands of all time, often acting as Smith’s lieutenant as they prepare to go to war with the music industry every six months. What he also does is do away with a single shred of romance in chronicling the day to day for a musician that was crashing into the UK charts with every album, while having to make deliveries for his parents bakery between tours and recording sessions. There are a ton of books about wearing fancy clothes as you are surrounded by adoring fans for a high profile television appearance or photoshoot. This is the book about haggling with the stylist afterwards as you try to buy the shirt from them that just made you look the best you ever had in your entire life, once they explain to you that you don’t get to keep them after the photographer packs up his lights.
Hanley provides an up close analysis of one of the most unique frontmen to ever bark orders up on stage, and the maddening business and personnel deals that followed him around like tin cans tied to the bumper of his fancy car that he may or may not have known how to drive. The humble humor of our four-stringed hero wraps around every word, showing the only pathway to sanity in this upside down world that Smith has created where everyone is named “cock”. Hanley inadvertently gives one of the most realistic portrayals of the true life of a modern musician, as he takes us from those first practices all the way to the fateful night in 1998 at Brownies when he walked off the stage as a member of the band for the last time.
Dean Wareham approaches his pursuit of what he wants in a frank manner that hardly matches his refined appearance and educational background. His prose has a certain rhythm to it that is instantly engaging, even if Wareham doesn’t always paint himself in the most flattering light. By the time the band Galaxie 500 are imploding, A+R hustler Terry Tolkin and Shimmy Disc’s Kramer join the row of devil’s inhabiting both of his shoulders. As quietly shattering as that dissolution is, the breakdown of his marriage and his sheepish appraisal of the affair at the heart of it cements his role as the detached villain of this story. His honesty can be shocking at times, and the vulnerability when discussing his son shows the other side of this self portrait. In a funny way, the book is summed up in a lot of ways with his genuine concern that former Luna drummer Stan Demeski didn’t like the music they were playing, or possibly Wareham himself.
Kristin Hersh does an incredible job in capturing her struggle with mental illness, her odd upbringing, and the fever haze as the Boston music scene suddenly becomes forever intertwined with a fabled UK record label. Centered around a succinct time period (1985-1986) this could easily be a wonderful snapshot of an artist in transition, whether it is creatively as she records her first album, or personally as she has her first child. There are a lot of fantastic books that work within those margins, and Hersh does it better than most. What makes this book truly special is Hersh chronicling her unlikely friendship with the aging actress Betty Hutton, who had returned to college after the close of her career to pursue a masters in psychology, on the campus where Hersh’s father was a professor. One of the biggest stars of the 40s and 50s, Hutton makes a surprising bond with the 19 year old upstart, and proves to be the complex heart of the novel in many ways.
The Joy Division Series
It’s not a surprise that there are a ton of books about Joy Division, one of the most obsessed over bands of my generation. What is a surprise is that there are so many really good books about Joy Division, and that they often cover different sides of the story. You can get broad views in 24 Hour Party People and books from Mick Middles and Jon Savage, but the real details can be found most clearly in three places. Chris Ott captures the recording process and band dynamics in his 33 1/3rd breakdown of Unknown Pleasures. Bassist Peter Hook gives the band the more traditional rock and roll memoir treatment in Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division while Deborah Curtis writes about her life with Ian Curtis with heartbreaking clarity in Touching From A Distance. Deborah’s book is essential reading as it gives an often neglected perspective on this story (if you ever deep dive on John Belushi I recommend Judy Belushi’s Samurai Widow for the same reason).
The New Order Series
It is difficult to not include Bernard Sumner’s Chapter and Verse in the Joy Division series, but Sumner really comes into his own with New Order, and his autobiography provides a nice counter to Peter Hook’s Substance: Inside New Order. It’s impossible to not read the two at the same time and come away thinking that both of them are absolutely telling the truth, even if they see the exact same event in completely different ways. The creative tension that made their music so incredible still crackles from these pages. Unsurprisingly, Sumner is the more reserved writer, but he also gives more insight into the actual process they undertook to create these groundbreaking songs.
Hook has proven to be both a prolific and chewy writer, giving the reader a lot to bite into with every chapter. Warts and all, he is filled with regrets, and his treatment of other people at times takes a backseat to being the life of the party. Combined with his excellent The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club, you get a front row seat to gritty Manchester getting off it’s tits on E and morphing into the deliriously trippy Madchester, along with the grim repercussions. You also get a reminder that even though they rarely acted like major stars, that New Order were one of the biggest bands in the world, with the financial power to bailout the UK indie sector, or to try to revitalize their hometown. That notoriety also meant that Hook’s relationship with Caroline Aherne made for tabloid fodder, and Hook doesn’t shy away from any aspect here, and he readily admits that all three of the books he has written have concluded with unhappy endings.
Playing Bass With Three Left Hands
Most people will arrive at Will Carruthers’ collection hoping for insight into the later years of Spacemen 3 and the birth of Spiritualized, and this book more than delivers on both fronts (Carruthers chapter on the live performance that was captured for the Dreamweapon album is already legendary in those circles). However, it is his stories of knocking around with a mix of devil may care attitude and a need for desperate survival that truly stay with you. His dark humor shines most when recounting the horrors of working for a slaughterhouse, or digging the trenches for the power lines to the stage so Oasis can play their massive concert at Knebworth.
Girl To City
The tale of a Pittsburgh kid making her journey into NYC as a student at Parsons and joining the music scene benefits from the timing, as Amy Rigby arrives as CBGBs and The Mudd Club are electric with creativity, but it all serves as a backdrop to her charming personality. From the early Elton John worship to finding your first true partner in crime to traveling across the ocean for married band managers to playing in a wildly out of style band (what could be more punk than the rustic old time country of The Last Roundup?) to eventually finding out that even when you try to retire and raise a baby that the songs won’t loosen their grip on you – Rigby remains the girl that paints over the giant black “Fuck Everything” on her dorm room wall so that her visiting parents won’t notice. That sincerity and catholic guilt have always informed her best work and they conspire to make for one of the most infectious (sorry!) reads of the past year.
So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star
Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter’s book manages to perfectly encapsulate two fascinating aspects of the music industry. The first is being the supporting player drafted in to basically just compliment and not compete with the two most talented musicians in his music scene as they team up and try to finally conquer the industry. Slichter was very aware of his role in the band, but that doesn’t stop him from wondering if the video editor is including enough images of him in the final cut, or what he should write down when signing CD’s for fans. The second is the rollercoaster ride that comes with having a smash hit as you tour the world and try to capitalize on the sudden fame, while still trying to master the ability to play keyboards with one hand and drums with the other.
Your Band Sucks
Bitch Magnet’s Jon Fine has penned a kind of postscript to Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life (also highly recommended but disqualified from this list as each chapter is a different band). Covering an era of music and touring that hasn’t been trodden all over just yet, he recounts his experience in a band that decides to continue down the post-hardcore indie rock path of those before them, like Husker Du and Mission of Burma, even after the entire music industry has completely changed since the heyday of those acts. Fine applies a biting insight into the business side of things, but where he really leaves his mark is in the angry frustration that emerges at times, whether directed at twee bands or a drummer that can’t lay off the heavy metal fills in his playing. Like the good repressed midwestern ex-hardcore kid that he is, he is not about to let someone have sex with half of Germany, start a cuddle club, or wear a too tight Soundgarden tour t-shirt without commenting on it. That Fine laughs off a near death icy car wreck, or simply runs the windshield wipers to sweep away leftover blood from a brawl atop their tour van while they were inside playing, should resonate with anyone I grew up with in the DC scene.
Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys
Viv Albertine takes us through her fascinating life, from the early days of The Sex Pistols and The Clash, to her innovative work with The Slits and her filmwork onward, but this book really heats up when all of those things feel like distant memories and she has settled into a suburban existence. That is, until a letter from Vincent Gallo arrives…
Ska’d For Life
The Specials will always hold a special place in my heart, and that soft spot has extended to everything from various Terry Hall projects to the paintings of bassist Horace Panter. That predisposition allowed me to look past the cutesy title and dive into this breezy and engaging read. Panter brings you back to the quick rise (and collapse) of the multi-racial band at a time when they were desperately needed. With the backdrop of the UK race riots, The Specials took on a unique importance, and their 2 Tone sound, bridging reggae bounce with songs about the bleak and dire existence of Britain’s youth could only have come from industrial Coventry. Not unlike Steve Hanley’s book (are bassists the most mentally stable band members? Oh right, we have those books from Hooky too…) it is Panter’s humble humor that carries the day.
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