Putting all these books together, there's a common theme of people who are committed to going their own way, awkward customers who weren't prepared to play along with the strictures of the music biz. Sadly three of the subjects are no longer with us, so let's start with someone who's still very much in action.
Wilko Johnson with Zoe Howe: Looking Back at Me
It's great to get a new book from Zoe Howe, one of Mudkiss' fave writers after her books on the Slits and rock star progeny. This time she's collaborated with Wilko Johnson on writing and assembling the visuals for a really impressive project, and to show there's much more to Wilko Johnson's life and music than the Dr Feelgood era that he's mostly remembered for.
Hammersmith Odeon, early '75 I guess - a mate had given us a couple of tickets for what was probably one of Dr Feelgood's first big shows. Last time I'd been there was probably for Van Morrison or Blue Oyster Cult. This was one of the first tangible signs of the undercurrents that would coalesce into punk over the next couple of years - a much younger audience, shorter hair, general absence of denim & flares, alcohol rather than spliffs, and a more "up for it"/confrontational atmosphere. Wilko's accounts of how the group came together, battled their way out of Canvey Island and built their reputation on the London "pub rock" scene really capture the changing vibe and sound of the times. Later chapters recount his disappointment with his first post-Feelgood outfit, the Solid Senders, before finding his way home thru a lengthy stint with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Now he's back rocking hard in his own name, along with former Dury-men Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe (who also took some of the Canvey pics in the book).
Naturally a lot of the book is taken up by the Feelgood story, recounted by an older and wiser Wilko as he reflects on how the group fell apart just when they’d kicked open the door to success when the punk scene got going. There are some very perceptive and moving thoughts about where it went wrong, given added poignancy by Lee Brilleaux’ death in 1994. There are also some great ‘wild card’ elements in the book in the form of a series of digressions on various subjects close to the man’s heart - whether astronomy, his time as a teacher, adventures on the old Afghan hash trail, Shakespeare or his favourite clouds.
Anyone who's ever done an interview knows that the real business doesn't start until you sit down to transcribe it. Getting the right words down in the right place is one thing, but conveying the nuances and rhythms of someone's speech and personality is altogether different. In some ways, Wilko is an interviewer's dream, as a relentless stream of stories, thoughts, jokes and digressions tumble forth - but you realise he's actually a pretty private guy, and all this doesn't come at the push of a button or as part of a well-honed PR exercise. Zoe Howe has a great ear for the particular feel of Wilko's discourse - like the man himself, a free form mix of strong basic instincts and a formidable intellect.
It also makes a really nice change to find a book that’s totally bursting with illustrations, photos and all kinds of ephemera (has Wilko ever thrown anything away, one wonders?!?). Notebooks, sketches, exercise books full of lyrics, the man’s impressive paintings, and of course, some really good atmospheric shots of Canvey Island & the brooding Essex coastline - all help to really bring the book back to life.
If your appetite for this was whetted by Julien Temple’s "Oil City Confidential" film and want more, you won’t be disappointed as this book takes you further into the life, sounds and mind of a true original with many a great story along the way
Tim Mitchell: Sonic Transmission: story of Television
Tim Mitchell's “Sonic Transmission” is a workmanlike account of the Television story, with a main focus on the lives and careers of Tom Verlaine & Richard Hell. It's very good at describing the NYC scene that produced great bands like Television, the Ramones, Blondie, and the Heartbreakers, and the clubs like CBGB's that gave the scene a home in the early days. The depressed economic climate meant there wasn't much else to do other than music, and there were cheap downtown living and rehearsal spaces. It's a solid cuttings job, but suffers from the lack of direct involvement by the group’s main men Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, with the result that Tom Verlaine particularly remains an elusive and rather aloof figure (despite several assurances that he has a great sense of humour). Still it’s always good to get “Marquee Moon” out again, and the book even inspired me to get “Adventure” again thirty years after my vinyl was nicked.
Clinton Heylin: No More Sad Refrains: The life and times of Sandy Denny
Clinton Heylin has done several punk-themed books, such as “Babylon Burning” (as well as Dylan and Van Morrison biographies). This is a new revised edition of his Sandy Denny biography, and it’s a fascinating read, though sad and frustrating in equal parts. Sandy Denny was a strange mixture of arrogance and insecurity, with a big self-destruct button in the form of alcoholism and abusive relationships. Having made her name with three classic Fairport Convention albums (What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking & Liege and Lief) she went on to develop a solo career, which had its moments without ever fulfilling her full potential. Her record companies didn't seem to know what to do with her once she'd hung up the long folkie dress and traditional material in favour of her own songs, so that albums like “North Star Grassman” were punctuated with mistakes like Fotheringay - a disastrous Fairport-lite/Steeleye Span clone formed with her husband, poorly handled by Joe Boyd (of Nick Drake and Incredible String Band fame) - and a couple of Fairport reunions. In true 70’s style she wanted to match the boys drink for drink & line for line in the rock'n'roll lifestyle, but also to have a stable family life in the country - tricky!. This was doomed to failure, culminating in a sad and messy death in 1978, aged 31, at a friend's place in London. There's a huge amount of research gone into this impressive book. Have things improved for women in rock since then, I wonder?
Crystal Zevon: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead - the dirty life and hard times of Warren Zevon
On a fairly similar theme, "I'll Sleep When I‘m Dead" by Warren Zevon's former wife Crystal, particularly deals with the familiar paradox of why creative and highly talented artists are often such total swine as people, and come fitted with a Self-Destruct button. Zevon left a trail of shattered relationships, neglected children, and abandoned friends behind him in a trail of booze and coke (the Sandy Denny prescription, btw), but always managed to use his musical and song writing talents as a 'get out of jail card'. Generally he was all too aware of his talent, and how it enabled him to exploit and abuse those around him. Still, there are some good rock'n'roll Babylon tales, and the author is very good at evoking the LA music scene in the Asylum Records era (when Warren Zevon’s mates like Jackson Browne and the Eagles were total gods). I'd normally put a "handle with care label" on books by exes, but here Crystal Zevon has talked to a huge amount of people involved in his life and music. The book’s edited together in the form of extracts from interviews, which adds to the feeling of immediacy. There are also some really good photos, as well as intriguing insider stuff like reproductions from his notebooks and diaries.
Polly Marshall: The God of Hellfire - the crazy life and times of Arthur Brown
Reading Polly Marshall's "Fire" I felt guilty that I've been so unaware of Arthur Brown's life and music since his late-60's heyday. It's a well told story, often very funny, and adept in its handling of the suitably strange course of his life and career. The proverbial elephant in the room here is the 1968 global megahit “Fire”, and Polly Marshall isn’t afraid to take on the paradox of a man whose career is defined for most people by that one incredible song. After the Crazy World group finished, he went on to work as Kingdom Come, got involved in many collaborations with the likes of Hawkwind, and he’s also had quite a life outside music as a carpenter, counsellor and all-purpose spiritual seeker. At times (for me anyway) the 60's cliché of the spaced-out rock star guru on his quest for cosmic wisdom gets a bit silly, but his motives are always positive and life-affirming. Inevitably with such an original character, there's no shortage of weird and intriguing stories, like a Thin White Duke-era Bowie visiting Brown in his Rotherhithe asbestos prefab to discuss a collaboration which sadly never happened.
Tom Doyle: Glamour Chase - the maverick life of Billy Mackenzie
Bowie was the main inspiration to Billy Mackenzie of Associates' fame, who did a cover of “Fashion” for his first self-released single. It gives an idea of the young man's “front'“- but given how his life went on, it’s one of many sad and poignant moments. Tom Doyle's book recounts the high days of the wonderful Associates, Mackenzie’s gradual professional and personal decline, until he took his own life in 1997, overwhelmed by depression following his mother's death. Fellow Dundonian Doyle really gives a sense of the time and place that produced Billy Mackenzie and influenced his music in the post-punk early 80's. Records like “Party Fears Two” and “Country Club” still sound extraordinary - and they were Top Twenty hits too! For a while he and musical partner Alan Rankine were way ahead of the game. Go back to albums like “Sulk” and “The Affectionate Punch”, and hear how they're just bursting with ideas - so it’s sad to see that after Rankine left, Billy Mackenzie's career staggered on erratically, through highs like writing "The Rhythm Divine' for Shirley Bassey, false dawns like working with Yello, and the lows of endless aborted or under funded projects. I often felt like crying out loud while I was reading this at his infallible knack of falling out with people or squandering the opportunities that came his way. Apart from the music, Tom Doyle skilfully weaves the other main themes of Mackenzie's life into the story - his family and his second career, breeding whippets. While I've tried to convey the sadness that runs thru the book - so many 'might-have-beens', or as his hero Bowie put it 'so many dreams/ so many breakthroughs' - the author still manages to convey the careless joy of much of Billy Mac's life. There are probably even more great stories here than in the other books - two personal favourites are him and Alan Rankine playing specially-commissioned chocolate guitars while miming on TOTP (until they started to melt under the studio lights), and the time Warner Bros ended his contract at which point he asked if it was ok to take a taxi home. Once agreed, he hailed a cab - which took him all the way from London to the Highlands!
Neil Taylor: Document and Witness - an intimate history of Rough Trade
I think it'd probably be a safe bet that anyone reading Mudkiss owns something on the Rough Trade label. "Document and Eyewitness” gives a pretty good account of how Rough Trade evolved from a shop into a label, and for a brief frenetic spell (at the height of Smiths-mania) was able to take on the majors blow-for-blow. There's a real story to be told about how and where it all went wrong, but this book doesn't quite do it in my honest opinion. It’s strongest on the formation and early years of the shop and then the label, with really good portraits of people like founder Geoff Travis and the other pioneers. The first half of the book is a really inspiring read, with some great anecdotes and insights, but in the second half business gradually takes over from music, and the cool people are replaced by accountants. In many ways it's a story of how they got too successful for their own good, mainly when the Smiths volume of sales meant that they had to start dealing with corporations like Warners. But if words like "escrow" have you reaching for the dictionary, or you have trouble remembering the difference between "Rough Trade distribution" and "Rough Trade Distribution" (like me), you're likely to find diminishing returns as the book goes on. Once again the text is enhanced by masses of photos & other illustrations.
Hope you've found something of interest here, and see you again next time: already lined up are Mike Skinner's "The Story of the Streets", and James Fearnley's inside Pogues story, "Here Comes Everybody".