With summer holidays ahead, Nick Bollinger and Kiran Dass recommend eleven music books worth keeping beside your hammock.
Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for the Real James Brown, James McBride
Is James Brown the most complex personality ever to rise to superstardom? Or is this just the rare music biography that gets close to showing its subject in its true complexity? James McBride builds his portrait of the artist by seeking out the people whose lives were changed by close encounters with the so-called Godfather of Soul, and reporting on what he learned about this intensely guarded genius in finely observed detail. NB
In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, Roger Shepherd
Not the first book to tackle the Flying Nun phenomenon (see Matthew Bannister’s Positively George Street) or even the only one to come out this year (see Ian Chapman’s The Dunedin Sound), but as the label’s founding visionary Roger Shepherd is certainly uniquely qualified to tell the tale. In his case, it’s a tale fraught with anxiety, interspersed with those moments of transcendence that music can bring, and that make it all worthwhile. NB
Grant and I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens, Robert Forster
Sort of a Brisbane equivalent of Roger Shepherd’s In Love with These Times, Grant and I is a whip-smart, insightful and thoughtfully written personal account from Australian singer-songwriter Robert Forster. He recalls the dynamics of his friendship and musical collaboration with the late Grant McLennan in their group The Go-Betweens, and how two brainy film and literature obsessives joined forces to craft some of the most enduring and intelligent pop music of the 1980s. KD
What Happened Miss Simone?, Alan Light
‘Young Gifted and Black’ and ‘Please Don’t let Me Be Misunderstood’ are two of the songs Nina Simone will always be remembered for. (She wrote the first, recorded the definitive version of the second.) Simone was gifted, black and misunderstood. Drawing from material gathered for the documentary of the same name – including the singer’s unpublished diaries – Light comes closer to an understanding than any biographer of Simone so far. NB
Dream Baby Dream: Suicide: A New York Story, Kris Needs
“We were living through the realities of war and bringing the war onto the stage… Everybody hated us, man,” says Suicide co-founder Alan Vega who died this year. The synth duo was one of the most singular groups to emerge from proto-punk New York and Dream Baby Dream is a thrilling celebration of the group who had an immense influence on punk rock, sythpop, dance, ambient, techno and electronic music. Kris Needs examines the group’s beginnings in confrontational and sometimes violent performance art and the grubby city that inspired them. KD
Psychedelia and Other Colours, Rob Chapman
With the pop explosion of the mid ‘60s at its nexus, this rich and readable book explores the impact of psychedelics on music and the surrounding culture. Full of imaginative connections (a typical paragraph will start at The Ventures and end at Sun Ra) and startling theories (the Beatles, Chapman argues, were a girl group who just happened to be men!) One of those books that has you scurrying back to hear the records. NB
Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys, Lol Tolhurst
A revealing, honest and often hilarious insider’s account of the creative processes behind the recording of The Cure’s records and the personal toll touring took on sensitive band member drummer Lol Tolhurst, who formed the group with his childhood friend Robert Smith. From their reductionist, DIY beginnings to touring the world, Tolhurt’s beautifully written memoir paints an evocative portrait of coming of age in the suburbs of Thatcher’s Britain and candidly explores the close, brotherly but sometimes fraught relationship between Smith and Tolhurst. KD
Small Town Talk, Barney Hoskyns
In the 60s and 70s, music svengali Albert Grossman had an artist roster that included Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren. These musicians, among others, gravitated to Grossman’s home base of Woodstock, which gradually changed from a genteel artists colony to a drug-ravaged bastion of rock star excess. British writer Barney Hoskyns uncovers the history, the myths and the music that came out of that time and place. NB
The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise, Brix Smith Start
There have been many books written about post-punk group The Fall but Brix Smith Start - who was married to grouchy frontman Mark E Smith - is in one of the most unique positions to report about her time in the group. She introduced pop hooks and glamour (but sadly also shiny shirts to Mark E. Smith) to The Fall and in this rollickingly entertaining memoir she writes about growing up in the Hollywood Hills, her love of music, her work in fashion, and her relationships with MES and virtuoso violinist Nigel Kennedy. KD
Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen
Testimony, Robbie Robertson
Robbie Robertson and Bruce Springsteen may be the greatest proponents of the story-song that rock’n’roll has seen. Does their gift extend to prose?
In each of these hefty memoirs, the best yarns are of the early years. Robertson recounts life-risking escapades with his mob-connected uncle and thrill-seeking bandmates, while there is much hilarity in Springsteen’s account of his first cross-country tour. (Though not yet licensed to drive, the future writer of ‘Racing In The Street’ takes the wheel of the band truck, almost killing himself and the rest of Steel Mill in the process.) Springsteen is witty, perceptive and self-analytical, but was no editor able to tell him not to capitalise so many words or use so many exclamation marks? I guess no one says ‘no’ to The Boss.
Robertson, who apparently penned his 500-page tome in longhand, writes evocatively about his wild years on the road and generously about his former Band-mates, but there’s never any doubt who the hero of the story is supposed to be. NB