“Too embarrassed even to try as long as everyone was looking at me, I made what was probably a fairly unique request. ‘Um, I’ll have a go. But I can’t do it if you’re all looking at me. Can I go inside the wardrobe and sing from there?’”Tracey Thorn, Bedsit Disco Queen
Never have I ever identified with a line in a book more… Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star, up until a certain point read like my life reflected. I didn’t go on to mirror her enviable music career but I did try for a bit to be a band member and just like Tracey, a shy one too. Music memoirs are a thriving genre that often read like page-turners, you really couldn’t write the stories that some people have to tell.
I love reading about the creativity and this is why there are books related to Joy Division in this post. This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else by Jon Savage brings you into the raw and prolific world of Joy Division as if you were there in person. I love reading about the zeitgeist, milieu and political landscape that songs become soundtracks to in a Wichita Lineman kind of way. And I love the wild and brave stories that make me laugh and take life a little less seriously, I’m talking about the memoir Clothes, Music, Boys by The Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine.
Here I have collated some of my favourite books related to music, some are memoirs and others are collectable things of beauty, holding lyrics and artwork together.
Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn. I was only sixteen when I bought an electric guitar and joined a band. A year later, I formed an all-girl band called the Marine Girls and played gigs, and signed to an indie label, and started releasing records. Then, for eighteen years, between 1982 and 2000, I was one half of the group Everything But the Girl. In that time, we released nine albums and sold nine million records. We went on countless tours, had hit singles and flop singles, were reviewed and interviewed to within an inch of our lives. I’ve been in the charts, out of them, back in. I’ve seen myself described as an indie darling, a middle-of-the-road nobody and a disco diva. I haven’t always fitted in, you see, and that’s made me face up to the realities of a pop career – there are thrills and wonders to be experienced, yes, but also moments of doubt, mistakes, violent lifestyle changes from luxury to squalor and back again, sometimes within minutes.
Clothes, Music, Boys by Viv Albertine. In 1975, Viv Albertine was obsessed with music but it never occurred to her she could be in a band as she couldn’t play an instrument and she’d never seen a girl play electric guitar. A year later, she was the guitarist in the hugely influential all-girl band the Slits, who fearlessly took on the male-dominated music scene and became part of a movement that changed music. A raw, thrilling story of life on the frontiers and a candid account of Viv’s life post-punk – taking in a career in film, the pain of IVF, illness and divorce and the triumph of making music again – Clothes Music Boys is a remarkable memoir. Once you have finished, the follow-up memoir To Throw Away Unopened will bring you back into Viv’s life and her obsession with the truth: the truth about family, power, and her identity as a rebel and outsider.
In This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else, Jon Savage has assembled three decades worth of interviews with the principle players in the Joy Division story: Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Deborah Curtis, Peter Saville, Tony Wilson, Paul Morley, Alan Hempsall, Lesley Gilbert, Terry Mason, Anik Honore, and many more. It is the story of how a band resurrected a city, how they came together in circumstances that are both accidental and extraordinary, and how their music galvanised a generation of fans, artists and musicians. It is a classic story of how young men armed with electric guitars and good taste in literature can change the world with four chords and three-and-a-half minutes of music. And it is the story of how illness and demons can rob the world of a shamanic lead singer and visionary lyricist. This searing light, the sun and everything else presents the history of Joy Division in an intimate and candid way, as orchestrated by the lodestar of British music writing, Jon Savage.
Leading us to… So This Is Permanence, edited by Jon Savage with a foreword by Deborah Curtis, presents the intensely personal writings of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. The songs of Joy Division, infused with the energy of punk but steeped in a resigned longing, were born of Manchester in the late seventies – a once flourishing industrial city in decline. They were the songs too of Ian Curtis’ inner tragedies, as he battled depression, epilepsy and debilitating stage fright. Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, on the eve of the band’s first American tour. Interspersed with the lyrics are previously unpublished facsimile pages of Ian’s notebooks, which throw his highly emotive lyrics into fascinating relief and cast light on the creative process of this singularly poetic songwriter.
Formed as a New York City hardcore band in 1981, Beastie Boys struck an unlikely path to global hip hop superstardom. Here is their story, told for the first time in the words of the band. Adam “AD-ROCK” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond offer revealing and very funny accounts of their transition from teenage punks to budding rappers. For more than twenty years, this band has had a wide-ranging and lasting influence on popular culture. With a style as distinctive and eclectic as a Beastie Boys album, Beastie Boys Book upends the typical music memoir. Alongside the band narrative you will find rare photos, original illustrations, a cookbook by chef Roy Choi, a graphic novel, a map of Beastie Boys’ New York, mixtape playlists, pieces by guest contributors, and many more surprises.
The Wichita Lineman by Dylan Jones. The sound of Wichita Lineman was the sound of ecstatic solitude, but then its hero was the quintessential loner. What a great metaphor he was: a man who needed a woman more than he actually wanted her. Written in 1968 by Jimmy Webb, ‘Wichita Lineman’ is the first philosophical country song. It was recorded by Glen Campbell in LA with a legendary group of musicians known as ‘the Wrecking Crew’, and something about the song’s enigmatic mood seemed to capture the tensions in America at a moment of crisis. Mixing close-listening, interviews and travelogue, Dylan Jones explores the legacy of a record that has entertained and haunted millions for over half a century. What is it about this song that continues to seduce listeners, and how did the parallel stories of Campbell and Webb? Part biography, part work of musicological archaeology, The Wichita Lineman opens a window on to America in the late-twentieth century through the prism of a song that has been covered by myriad artists in the intervening decades.
How Music Works is David Byrne’s bestselling, buoyant celebration of a subject he has spent a lifetime thinking about. Drawing on his own work over the years with Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and his myriad collaborators – along with journeys to Wagnerian opera houses, African villages, and anywhere music exists – Byrne shows how music emerges from cultural circumstance as much as individual creativity. It is his magnum opus, and an impassioned argument about music’s liberating, life-affirming power.
Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton. For over six decades, fans around the world have looked to Dolly’s songs for entertainment, inspiration, and comfort. Now, in Songteller, they can discover the personal stories behind the lyrics – in her own words – along with never-before-seen photographs and memorabilia, bringing Dolly’s fans closer to her work than ever before.
How To Be Invisible is Kate Bush’s lyrics published for the first time ever, as personally selected by the artist herself. Kate Bush is a true iconoclast and one of the most revered contemporary musical artists of recent years. Since her emergence in 1978 she has forged a creative path which has proved to be both highly innovative and hugely inspiring.