Books about music
Writing about how music sounds is hard. When I lived in Bath there was a promoter who would describe his acts as ‘Pavement jamming Stooges’ covers in a shipping container’, or ‘The Pixies riffing with Pere Ubu at a boozy barbecue.’ You get the formula: band A meets Band B, with a nod to Band C and/or scene, in an usual venue (think toy factory). Drop a ‘seminal’ here, a ‘legendary’ there and press send. It was, and still continues to be, nonsense. As much as I enjoy Shellac of North America’s self deprecating ATP programme descriptions, I find the Spotify playlists and Soundcloud mixes the festival posts up way more useful.
It’s something I tried to grapple with fairly recently. I’m writing about a fictional band and after a couple of purple attempts to describe their music, I decided to simply not bother, shifting instead, to focus on the story of the band.
To me, this is where music journalism is at its best; interviews and lately, oral histories of scenes, bands and movements. Here are some of the best:
Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
Legs was the man who gave the world ‘Punk’ (as the title for his magazine), Gillian worked at St Mark’s Church where Patti Smith and Jim Carroll gave their first readings – there are few people still alive who could match the amazing oral story they’ve curated about the birth of East Coast punk.
Starting with The Velvet Underground, the book tells the story of the Stooges, CBGBs, Television, Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders, the rise and fall of the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and how David Bowie basically picked him up, dusted him down and wrote for him a whole bunch of classic songs. I have missed some acts out, but if they lived in New York from 1970 to 1990, you’ll find them in these pages. You’ll learn about the sheer resilience of the human constitution, the last hours of Sid Vicious’ life and why Johnny Thunders couldn’t tour more than three hours from New York (hint). Not surprisingly, at times it’s a sad read, but certainly an essential one.
Gimme Something Better by Jack Boulware & Silke Tudor
Punk may have found a home in New York, but that didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of angry young men pissed off with just something. While Hermosa Beach was the home of Black Flag (the Lewis and Clark of punk rock), further up the Pacific coast in San Francisco’s Bay Area, bands were busy getting their own frustrations down on tape. Gimme Something Better is a pretty broad effort at capturing an oral history in a similar manner to Please Kill Me.
This book does suffer from poor layout – you’re forever flipping to the Who’s Who section to work out what these bands are talking about, but it’s worth persisting. As the title suggests, this an altogether more optimistic scene. I mean, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys ran for city mayor. The all pervading sense of NYC gloom is missing.
There are still homeless gang kids fighting, awful squats and Flipper’s astonishing capacity for hard drugs, but there are also women in bands, promotors trying to set up unique spaces such as the Gilman and the story of Maximum RocknRoll magazine. It’s more about ‘make’ than ‘destroy’.
Aside from Dead Kennedys, Operation Ivy, NoFX and Green Day, most of the bands will probably be unknown to most. But the story of Avengers, MDC, Flipper and others, is an important part of the story of American hardcore. Talking of which…
Get In The Van by Henry Rollins
Where to start. Why are Vans popular? Why did Nirvana make it? How did independently made and distributed music actually start? The answer to all these questions could easily be Black Flag. They were the first band to kickstart hardcore – fast, guitar punk underpinned with a oompah, oompah beat (see, told you describing music is really hard), and they did it by getting in a van and playing pretty much everywhere, all year round for about seven years.
The book starts with Henry Garfield, manager of a DC Haagen Daaz ice cream store catching a Black Flag show in New York. Pretty soon (and perhaps this is an indication just how ‘out there’ they were as a band), they ask Garfield to sing for them. Enter, Henry Rollins, lead singer of Black Flag. This is his diary and it ends with the band’s acrimonious break up.
It’s an incredible read. The work ethic of the band mirrored that of its relentless leader, guitarist Greg Ginn. When the band weren’t crossing the country on sixty-date tours, they practiced eight hours a day (including Christmas), lived in abandoned offices, poured all their money into their record label SST and some of them ate dog food balled up in buns. Oh yeah, the LAPD utterly hated them. Their music was fast because the cops would turn up and start hitting the audience twenty minutes into the set.
Reading Henry’s account of how he went from a fairly earnest fan, to a tattooed, muscled unit who basically hated humanity, the first question that trips across the mind is, ‘why’d you do it man?’ As much as I like some of Black Flag’s music, their habit of recording loads of albums (four in ’84 alone), means a lot of their output is quite poor (and sloppily put together). It can’t be the legacy. No, the answer is ‘freedom’ and ‘hey, ‘I was in Black Flag – it was incredible journey’. Can’t argue with that.
Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad.
If you’re my age, this is an essential book. Named after a Minuteman lyric, the book starts with a concise history of Black Flag and it’s worth reading this chapter to discover what the other band members really thought of Henry Rollins.
Then you’ve got a history of the Minutemen – perhaps one of the few examples of a perfect band, albeit one destroyed by the horrific car accident that tragically took guitarist, D Boon’s life. And this sense of unfairness is carried into the story of Mission Of Burma, a band who were simply before their time.
Black Flag’s SST label exerts it influence in the chapters on Dinosaur Jr (who it seems hated one another except on stage) and Husker Du who would be one of the first acts to sign to a major label.
This is an incredibly comprehensive book – there are chapters on Sonic Youth, Mudhoney and Big Black, but also those of less known acts; the bitter sweet tale of The Replacements, and the optimism of Beat Happening. The chapter on psychedelic punk rockers, Butthole Surfers is worth the price of the book alone. You will drop it laughing.
And let’s not forget a fair slice of Our Band is devoted to DC Kingpin, Ian MacKaye. Minor Threat are my favourite hardcore band and it’s interesting to see how they split from the scene that threw them together to form another influential label, Dischord (still going), and then one of my favourite bands, the intense post-punk outfit Fugazi.
But it doesn’t matter if you’ve only heard of just a few of these bands, this book throws a light on what it’s like to earn money from art. It’s hard, often tinged with sadness (especially when the drugs start appearing), but it seems it’s always worth it. The world in this book has disappeared – the indie radio stations are gone, the music press is fractured into blogs, even the venues are not there anymore. It’s hard to imagine bands climbing into vans and slumming it like they did. I’m not saying it’s worse, just different. Recording engineer, Steve Albini, (Big Black, now Shellac) equates music to, ‘like playing tennis’. Most acts go for the bucks, embrace corporations and sponsorship, rather than reject it. Is this right? Can you survive on your own terms as a purely new act? Maybe the genre of witch house is one exception. Depending on what you read, It’s either a joke or a rejection of music categorisation as many of the proponents chose to name themselves using unsearchable diacritical marks. Anyway, I bet Madonna’s made some calls.
331/3 Spiderland by Scott Tennet
There’s precious little written about Slint, so Scott’s book covering their sophomore album fleshes out the story of the band and why such a young group of men from Louisville managed to craft what’s arguably one of the most influential rock records in the last 20 years.
It would be a mistake to think it was happenstance. This book squarely establishes Slint as not just competent musicians, but experienced ones. The band was born out of local favourite act, Maurice (who never recorded), and Squirrel Bait (who are also worth checking out). Every element of the Spiderland was considered – right down to whether the guitars would pick up or down on a given song.
This level of detail is fascinating. Spiderland although beautiful, is an uncanny album – one part balls out riffing and one part whispered confession that’s so solemn in its intensity. This book perfectly captures the spirit of this jewel of a band.