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Music

The 8 best music biographies and books from the backroom

@TomTaylorFO

It’s Read a Book Day, which in some ways might sound almost like a meta symptom of George Orwell’s 1984, but the truth is the popularity of our printed companions has indeed waned. However, if this pandemic has taught us one thing (in fact, it’s taught us many), it’s that a bit of quiet introspection is an essential treat to devour.

As it happens, reading time went up by a whopping 35% in the pandemic making it just about the only thing that grew (aside from hair and waistlines).  

When the world of fiction gets a little bit exhaustive on the imagination, it’s always good to bolster the book bank with a trusty old tale or two grounded in the evergreen solace of music and the salacious or celebratory tales that imbue it with vibrancy.

Admittedly, we’ve played very fast and loose with the term biography in the list below, which is why the murky adlib of ‘backroom’ has been affixed, but the point is that we have assorted a selection that absolutely will not disappoint. 

Whether ferociously torn through in a few tea-laden sittings of a Sunday, or dabbled in and out of before bed, these titillating tales from the cutting room or coat tails of musicians are jammed with all the goods to make a cracking musical read. And if you’re after something a bit more direct then you can always find our memoirs list here.  

The 8 best music biographies and books from the backroom:

8. Songs in the Key of Z by Irwin Chusid

An important part of any music biography is an interesting subject. Rather than stick with one, Irwin Chusid stretches his scope to incorporate mini-biographies on some of the most interesting characters that music has ever offered, all heralding from the edified world of Outsider music.

From the scatting postman Shooby Taylor to a Swedish Elvis impersonator who neither looks nor sounds anything like him, Chusid had his work cut out investigating these stars who by their very definition are pretty much off the grid. In the end, he heartily crafts a manual on the subject of Outsider music itself and it is much more of a doting moral celebration that tempers the inherent laughability with a humanising eye.

Songs in the Key of Z

7. In Search of the Las: A Secret Liverpool by Matthew Macefield 

The La’s enigmatic leader Lee Mavers went from the pinnacle of proto-Britpop to missing in a twisted tale that begs many questions and offers very few answers. This set Matthew Macefield searching, and as he scoured the underbelly of murky Liverpool music scene he depicts an enchanting tale of sonic shaman’s and the due empathy that fallen heroes are owed, just like the rest of us. 

This, however, is not a mystery book or some sordid text exaggerating the scope of Mavers’ withdrawal, it is a tender but uncompromising look at the scenes that helped to shape us. Thus, although it is grounded in Liverpool, it resonates with a universality that we can all get on board with. 

In Search of the La’s

6. Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio by James Young

In a strange way, Nico almost exists as the legacy that the Velvet Underground could have had if it wasn’t for the fact that David Bowie, Brian Eno and others celebrated them before they had a chance to fully drift into obscurity. During her time in the bohemian Greenwich Village, Nico was a phenom who influenced the full gestalt of art in one of its most important periods in history. 

James Young met her in the 1980s when she had drifted even beyond the demimonde that she sang of with the Velvet Underground and was a broke heroin addict still propagating beauty but now to half-empty pubs, and worse still, embarking on disastrous tours of the Soviet Bloc. Young’s intimate account of such times is a send-up to the salvation of friendship and a hymn to the deliverance of music. 

Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio

5. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra by John F. Szwed

Herman Poole Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, albeit he believed that he was never really born. At one point in his metaphysically unending journey, that is hard to determine (but roughly translates to the early 1940s in layman’s terms), he was baptised in the hectic zeitgeist of the jazz scene and took up the legal moniker of Le Sony’r Ra, later shortened to Sun Ra in homage to the Egyptian God of the Sun. He believed that he was an angel from Saturn.

A biography on such a character is never likely to be dull and with Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, John F. Szwed joyously delivers on that promise with glowing prose and societal inference. 

Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

4. Music From Big Pink by John Niven

It’s not all that easy to define John Niven’s novel, so perhaps it’s best if the official blurb does the talking: “Music From Big Pink is faction: real people like Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman rub shoulders with fictional characters and imagined scenarios. Music from Big Pink gives us a unique and vivid insight into the birth and legacy of The Band’s debut album.”

The record itself seemed to be a culminating point for music in the period where everything coalesced in a defining maelstrom of musical talent and soul. The same can be said for John Niven’s novel that swirls the palette of biography and fiction to create an encapsulating tour de force of an era in prose. 

Music from Big Pink

3. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon

When it comes to salacious stories, very little beats this unflinching look at the life of the very troubled and talented Warren Zevon. Take, for instance, the horrendous scene whereby Warren has developed an infatuation with Bruce Springsteen and a hitch in his plans prior to a night out with The Boss results in him mercilessly slapping his wife while continually yelling: “You’re gonna ruin my night with Springsteen?! You’re gonna ruin my night with Bruce?!” 

All of this is amplified by an overture of intimacy and empathy owing to the fact that, as you might have already guessed from the author’s name, it was written by his ex-wife and friend Crystal Zevon. This unique viewpoint imbues the whole book with a rather more tortuous perspective of the highs and lows, mercies and misgivings of musical fame and the follies of artistry gone awry. 

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

2. Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards by Al Kooper

It is a measure of the sheer page-ripping beauty of this book that the headline was juggled with just to fit it in, for even the pedants will be thankful for its inclusion if you can get your hands on a copy.

The title essentially says it all with this one. From Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, Al Kooper has played on some of the most significant recordings in the history of art but to many casual listeners, he’s a name that might not register… and boy is he pissed off with everything!

The perfect paradigm for the novel comes from his tale of the adulation he received for playing the organ on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and how people lionised his clunky effect, only for Kooper to curse and scorn the sycophants for not realising that essentially that effect was just bad organ playing because he hadn’t played for a while. This cursed detail seemingly stops him from realising that it was, in fact, an integral part of one of the greatest songs ever written, and he continues in richly visceral tones of vitriol throughout.

Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards

1. I Wanna Be Yours by John Cooper Clarke

If we were stretching the waistband of the headline a little bit with Al Kooper then John Cooper Clarke might just about make it snap, and hopefully, in the process, it will take a few pedants eyes out, because his novel is a thing of joy that ought to be shared with as many people as possible. 

Its inclusion in the list boils down to this rather lame excuse: Seeing as though the doctor wasn’t technically a musician, his memoir could be classed as a biography owing to the many bands he encountered on his poetic journey in immortalised in sumptuous stories. With anti-decadent tales of Joy Division in Australia and equally opulence-reversing reveries on his days with Nico, the whole swirl of music history is wrung out in his sui generis kaleidoscopic tones from the unglamorous ground level.

His tome of musical history is the sort of life savouring journey that led Nick Cave to remark: “Check out John Cooper Clarke and have your faith in humanity restored. A brilliant, brilliant man.”

I Wanna Be Yours

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