Despite opinion and insight related to music being more abundantly available than ever before, there’s still something about books that holds an appeal that other forms never. Much like the enduring appeal of vinyl over MP3 or CD, there’s something special about a good read. With one eye on providing you some holiday reading over the coming months, we’ve run down five books we think are well worth the effort this summer…
Energy Flash: ‘A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture’
by Simon Reynolds (Faber & Faber, 1998)
It’s no over statement to label Simon Reynolds the most revered music scribe around today. Cutting his teeth at Melody Maker magazine back in the 80’s he built up a reputation for himself with an impressive breadth of musical knowledge, strong criticism and a stunning analytical imagination. His books such as ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’ looked at the history of Post-Punk and it’s detailed relationship with music from the 70s/80s era, whilst ‘Retromania’ studied the Pop industry and it’s stifling obsession with it’s immediate past.
However, his most significant text is ‘Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Music Culture’. The book reads as part cultural history, part personal memoir with Reynolds tracing the origins of Dance music in Detroit, New York and Chicago, through The White Isle, Madchester and the lawless free-party scene, to the pirate-radio of Jungle and UK garage, and then onto 2000s and Grime. Starting out as observer of these movements, Reynolds finds himself suddenly consumed by rave, popping pills and crusading motorways with fellow disciples, all the time using his links as a journalist to document the pivotal moments in this crazy period of UK Pop culture history.
Last year, 15 years on from it’s first publication, Faber & Faber published an expanded version of ‘Energy Flash’. The 2013 edition came packaged with new material on the meteoric rise of Dubstep and examination of America’s current crush on EDM.
The Last Party: ‘Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock’
by John Harris (4th Estate, 2003)
Whatever your thoughts on Britpop, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, its historical significance as a cultural and socio-political movement remains undeniable – a fact which renders Rock critic and author John Harris’ book inherently compelling. Tracing the evolution of independent British guitar music from the anti-establishment leanings of the mid 80’s up until its cocaine bloated creative nadir just before the turn of the millenium, Harris crafts a narrative that is gripping for those with even the vaguest interest in music. Its to his advantage that the musicians covered were to a man (and woman), an outspoken and interesting bunch – all of them lending themselves nicely to the characterizations which he constructs in the book. The lead members of Blur and Oasis all of course feature prominently, but particularly interesting are the portrayals of relatively overlooked figures such as Suede’s Brett Anderson and Elastica’s Justine Frischmann. The love triangle between Frischmann, Anderson and Albarn forms an engrossing subplot to the book’s main musical arc, with the drug habits of the former pair -as well as to a degree pretty much everyone involved in the scene, providing a grisly denouement to their own artistic legacies (athough both are thankfully much happier and healthier presently).
To his and the book’s credit Harris also incorporates a commendably impartial insight into the significant role that politics played in the Britpop era. Culminating in Labor’s landslide election victory in 1997, Tony Blair and co. sought to manipulate the cultural capital of this new coterie of bands and artists for their own gain and in doing so frequently brushed shoulders with the musicians themselves. Re-reading this more than 15 years on from the original events its hard to escape the sheer ridiculousness evoked by the mental image of Blair and Noel Gallagher quaffing champagne at No.10 or to not be amused by the exchange Harris relates between spin doctor/sleazeball Alistair Campbell and Albarn. With these unforgettable stories just two of many interwoven into the narrative of this excellent book, its pretty safe to recommend this as essential reading to anyone regardless of whether or not they still belt out ‘Champagne Supernova’ at pub closing time.
Please Kill Me: ‘The Uncensored Oral History of Punk’
by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain (Abacus, 1997)
If you like your music books to be heavy on juicy details and low on philosophizing, then there’s much to enjoy about McNeil and McCain’s account of the American Punk scene during the 1970’s. Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll are very much of the order of the day here, with the sheer number of sexual conquests listed and heroin users individually identified bordering on the mind boggling. Whilst this focus is at times uncomfortably voyeuristic its also unavoidable given the debauched reality of the era.
Comprised of interviews with hundreds of participants and the occasional interjection from McNeil, ‘Please Kill Me’ is an unapologetically biased account of Punk’s progression that finds itself hopelessly enamored with the romantic myth of Rock n’ Roll. Accordingly this means that the authors (whom were personally involved in many of the events featured) afford somewhat undue space to bands they may have been friends with at the expense of including more influential figures such as Television’s Tom Verlaine or Talking Heads’ David Byrne – meaning that as a faithful historical account the book does come up rather short. Nonetheless its key strength-and it is a big one, is the way the authors capture the sheer chaos and excitement of the era, a feat they achieve through their own words and interviews with big players like Patti Smith, most of The Ramones and lesser known but worthwhile contributors such as fanboy turned manager Danny Fields and groupie extraordinaire Bebe Buell.
McNeil’s eagerness to discredit the impact of British bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash is based on a fundamental disdain for them-something some UK based readers may find off putting, but this bias is all part of the passionate outlook that also makes the book so immensely enjoyable. Full of tales of relationships, mind bending excess, brushes with the law and of course music-‘Please Kill Me’ is an entertaining look at the essence behind one of the modern era’s most intriguing sub cultures.
‘Audio Culture Readings In Modern Music’
edited by Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004)
This extensive and inspiring book tracks the evolution of avant-garde music through a collection of fifty-seven essays from groundbreaking composers and experimentalists. ‘Audio Culture’ draws comparisons between early sonic experiments and contemporary compositional techniques, focusing heavily on electronic music. Whilst this may sound daunting for the musically inept or technically apathetic, each essay begins with a short introduction and the book includes a comprehensive glossary explicating terms such as Afrofuturism, Plunderphonics and Illbient.
Essay contributions come from vanguards and innovators such as John Cage, David Toop, Luigi Russolo, Ornette Coleman, Brian Eno and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Diverse topics covered include ‘The Joys of Noise’, ‘A Nihilistic Theory of Improvisation’ and ‘The Studio as a Compositional Tool’. Contemporary subjects also feature, including sections on DJ culture and modern electronica. Creative and innovative articles such as Iain Chambers’ ‘The Aural Walk’ convey the idea of a participatory ever-evolving aural composition that can be appreciated through active listening. Musique Concréte pioneer Pierre Schaeffer depicts Acousmatic Sound (‘a noise that one hears without seeing what causes it’) and the way twentieth-century technological innovations such as telecommunications gave the ear isolated responsibility of sensory perception.
Readings in Modern Music documents a historical account of audio culture in a philosophical fashion, which makes an absorbing read regardless of musical inclination. An incredible resource for students, music lovers, artists and anyone interested in cultural developments and their creative utilisations.
‘The Story Of The Streets’
by Mike Skinner (Bantam Press, 2012)
This autobiography is an engaging, funny and highly illuminating account of how one talented and obsessive young man rose to fame from obscurity in Birmingham and subsequently dealt with that over the course of ten years. Skinner weaves a tales of adolescent adventures: Getting mugged on busses in Birmingham, making beats for the Jamaicans living in his neighbourhood, dealing with intense epilepsy, fleeing to Australia when he was 22, making his first track on a laptop, the rise and fall of the Garage scene & the clubs that inspired “Original Pirate Material”.
He delves deep into production methods and delivers it in a fashion that would engage even the most unmusical of readers. One of the best things this book has to offer is the deep insight it provides into the operations and politics of the music industry from the inside looking out. He also speaks freely about his great admiration for Burial and Daft Punk, his idols Wu-Tang Clan and Nas and his strong distaste for Aphex Twin.
The book is complemented with two photo sections, the first a collection of family photographs and the very beginnings of his musical career, himself decked out respectively in Fred Perry gear and sovereigns, the second half career highlights and tour photos. Some hilarious captioning reads, “I have no memory of where or when this is, but it looks dangerous and I don’t condone it.” & “That polo shirt got a massive stain on it which is not in this photo, so it’s a bit like looking at a picture of someone who died.”
Skinner is an emotional character and shares all, making no excuses for outbursts and falls from grace. The book is split into five sections, once for each of his albums. A light read, this is recommended reading for anyone looking to learn more about the man or with even the slightest interest in music. Lock down your aerial & whatever you do, don’t forget the Rizla…