Lucy O’Brien - She Bop: The Definitive history of Women in Popular Music (Jawbone Press, revised third edition)
David Katz - Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae (Jawbone Press, revised & expanded edition)
Ann Witherall - FLY (www.annwitherall.com or Amazon)
Adam Sharp - Daddy Was a Punk Rocker (Amazon Kindle edition)
Binky Phillips - My Life in the Ghost of Planets - The Story of a CBGB Almost- was (Amazon Kindle edn £1-44)
Ginger Baker - Hellraiser! The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer (Amazon Kindle edn 0-99p)
Lucy O’Brien - She Bop: The Definitive history of Women in Popular Music
The two books really demonstrate how much can happen in ten years. Lucy O’Brien’s “She Bop” is a really well written look at women’s role in all areas of popular music, taking in ageless themes like exploitation and gender-stereotyping - so it makes a change to have subjects and styles like dancehall, hip hop, and soul given the same cultural and intellectual clout as scenes like singer/songwriters, punk and Riot Girlll. She’s carried out masses of interviews in assembling the text, and it’s great to read people like PJ Harvey, Poly Styrene, speaking direct and first-hand. She’s written biographies before of the legendary Dusty Springfield, as well as Madonna & Annie Lennox.
The book takes us from the jazz era to now, along the way featuring in-depth looks at Madonna and the MTV era (Lipstick Traces) punk (Final Girls) and Can the Can (whatever happened to the rock chick), with other chapters looking far beyond UK/US horizons to deal with topics like women in world music. In bringing this new edition up to date, she looks at the influences of digital listening and marketing and the role of the internet. The previous edition closed much around the time of the Spice Girls’ exercise in marketing and branding was at its peak, and the general Nineties diva cult of Whitney, Britney, Mariah Carey, Madonna and co. Lucy O’Brien gently applies a pin to the hot air nonsense of “Girl Power“, though that all looks pretty tame now compared to the endless stream of hard-sell auto-tuned clones given their day in the sun before the next big thing comes along. Another less anticipated development has been the big showbiz fight back thru the medium of tv shows like “X-factor“, that often resemble some 1950’s holiday camp talent night, and their manufacture of unlikely stars like Adele and Susan Boyle. She writes perceptively about Amy Winehouse’s progression from stage-school jazz lover to the self-destructive popstar who’d bought into all the Billie Holliday/Janis Joplin myths with fatal results. There are perceptive observations too about some of other artists of note who’ve appeared in the last decade, like Pink and Lady Gaga, or shallow self-publicists like Rihanna and Katy Perry.
“She Bop” has been hailed as the definitive study of women in popular music, and its hard to disagree. There’s a strong political and social awareness to the writing, as well as the love and knowledge of music that inspires & informs the work. It isn’t encyclopaedic, and no doubt some people will find name or style missing, but whether you’re into Beth Ditto, Chrissie Hynde, Laura Nyro - to name a few at random - this is a book that tells the eternal story of women’s battle for creativity, respect and survival in a business that’s still generally dominated by chauvinist attitudes. There’s a very good discography too. It’s all here, from Bikini Kill to Laura Marling.
David Katz - Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae
David Katz has been one of the ranking reggae writers for some time now, notably with the superb Lee Perry biography, “People Funny Boy” as well as a Jimmy Cliff biog. He’s also well known as a DJ, selecter and quality journalist. Like Lucy O’Brien’s book, there’s about a decade’s worth of reggae action and history to catch up with. Compared to books about other musics, reggae’s been poorly served in the past by both quality and quantity, so it’s great to have a really comprehensive view like this. The emphasis here is on the oral nature of the story, told from a Jamaican perspective -the author’s conducted over 300 interviews in the course of his travels around Jamaica. Interviews have to be transcribed of course, and he’s opted to be true to his interviewees by leaving their statements in their original patois rather than polishing them up into ‘proper English’. This is clearly the right decision, but it does lead to the occasional impenetrable or ambiguous passage.
It’s an ambitious book, taking in the reggae story from its beginnings, which the author locates in the first stirrings of ska in the 1940’s, through its 70’s heyday, to the digital styles of today. Along the way, we learn about ska itself, then blue beat, rock steady, roots rockers, dub, lovers, dancehall, ragga and digital (to name a few!), and meet originators like the Skatalites, the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and of course Lee Perry. The book’s been updated throughout, which is an achievement in itself, given the anarchic nature of the reggae music biz and the backdrop of political and social upheavals on the island. The additional chapters detail the music’s fraught relationship with major US labels, the increasing hip-hop influence, and tells how the desire to achieve the Bob Marley jackpot of going “Outer-national” often came at the cost of compromise or being dumped the moment another novelty came along (see Shabba Ranks as one example).
David Katz brings it all up to date by looking at the current ruling dancehall mc’s like Elephant Man and Bounty Killer, and the Bobo Dread revival of Rasta/roots music and values through the emergence of “Conscious Reggae” artists like Luciano, Capleton and Sizzla. As he points out, reggae’s been changed by the introduction of digital technology and influences like hip hop, but in the end the music is a continuation of everything that’s gone before, reflecting the changing times.
Ann Witherall - FLY
Normally here we’re looking at all actual factual stuff, but music writing doesn't just have to be the biographies, histories, visuals and theories we usually write about here. This month we’re taking a bit of a new direction with two new writers - Ann Witherall and Adam Sharp - although I’m hoping this’ll just be the beginning of Mudkiss’ role in encouraging and promoting new writing. All over the world there are huge amounts of people who‘ve lived the life - playing in bands or solo, writing songs, thru good times and bad - without ever thinking of going mainstream. Then there‘s all the subcultural stuff that gathers around music like body art, fashion and hair styles, lifestyles, dope and so on, so many stories waiting to be told… both these books tell stories in which music is always a large part of the scene, but look beyond it too. Anyone who’s “lived the life” will recognise the punk and squatting scenes here. It’s one of the many things I liked about the book, how Ann Witherall captures the universality of these experiences. I was squatting in London most of the time from ‘75-’84 but although set in Melbourne, it could be Camden, Brixton or Harrow Road with a bit more sunshine.
I’ve got to be careful not to do any “spoilers” on the story - it’s not like the usual non-fiction stuff here, where I’m trying to describe the books as much as possible - but basically “FLY” is the story of Annie (later nicknamed Agro on account of her feisty, no crap nature) escaping suburban suffocation and worse. She heads to Melbourne with a best mate. They find an empty house, but her pal soon bales and Annie’s adventures start…....squatting can mean escaping a lot of society’s usual restrictive crap, but by its nature, the scene’s an open door to all manner of random elements. There are series of very perceptive chapters and stories of people like the earth-motherly Lillian, the generous guy who turns out to be a pickpocket, and so on. There’s also a stream of cool nicknames running through the book, such as Pepe la Puke It’s one of the book’s main strengths that it doesn’t idealise the scene, but is prepared to take an honest look at the whole deal. Squatland abounds with the addicted and screwed up as well as the cool and creative, and of course drugs. Ann perceptively sketches the different nuances of the weed, speed, pills and opiate factions. There are also fascinating - and at times very funny - descriptions of all the different subgroups on the scene, from Rockers, Bikers, Heads, Surfies (what teenager wouldn’t want a F*cktruck?!?) and Speedfreaks. A personal favourite is the very precious anarcho-punk commune where bonged-out debates about freedom collide with endless rules and rotas. And of course there’s always the grown-ups to contend with, whether police, parents or thuggish property owners.
The book’s great at conveying a sweaty dusty vibe for Melbourne, with some really convincing gig and pub scenes. Great too that she incorporates real acts like the Angry Samoans here, playing at real venues. I don’t want to give the story away by saying too much though. She’s great at capturing teenage alienation and outsiderdom, what happens when that’s combined with the literally marginal status of squatting, and not ducking the tough stuff, like what can go wrong when you opt to live outside the law. Suffice to say it’s a perceptive and passionate piece of writing - there’s more to come, so watch out…… and if anyone’s got a spare copy of “The Not-So-Lucky Country“ (Reactor Records), Melbourne 80’s punk compilation, as recommended by Ann Witherall, give me a shout…FLY is available from the author at www.annwitherall.com
Adam Sharp - Daddy Was a Punk Rocker
Long ago I reviewed a really impressive, atmospheric biography of legendary Joy Division producer and hardcore waster Martin Hannett by Colin Sharp (“Who Killed Martin Hannett?”), so naturally I was intrigued when I got an email from his son Adam asking if I’d have a read of something he’d written.
“Daddy Was a Punk Rocker” is mainly a personal memoir based on Adam Sharp’s endless and often futile lifetime quest to establish a relationship with his father Colin. This is never easy due to both parents being heavily addicted to heroin early on, before separating. Colin Sharp was singer in Durutti Column for a while, and closely involved with the main Factory Records players like Tony Wilson and Martin Hannett. These Manchester scenes absolutely ooze the early-80’s post-punk vibe like a Joy Division album on repeat. In many ways, how father and son bond over music like Roxy, Iggy, the Stones, and Bowie becomes a symbol of all that’s good between them and all Adam hopes for from a dad who seems serially incapable of sustaining a relationship.
There are large parts of this book that aren’t do with music, and some of it is quite a painful read - especially for anyone who’s experienced issues like addiction, alcoholism, depression, family dysfunction, or physical and emotional abuse in relationships. What lifts “Daddy…” above the dreaded “misery memoir” category is the honesty and clarity of the writing, and the author’s ability to change gear, so it’s not just unrelenting despair. I don’t want to give away too much here - Adam’s quest for his dad, his relationship with violent alcoholic mum, and his grandfather are centred on Manchester and Newcastle, but take him much further afield as he gets older. He even fetches up in Melbourne for a while, maybe he met Annie? At times while reading I felt I could have done with a few more landmarks as to what the year was or how old he was (although by the time he’s 12 or so it gets a lot clearer). In the same way there are some early childhood scenes I wasn’t too sure about, but they’re dealt with in an epilogue at the end of the book. There are some really nice bits of writing where Adam sets up a scene, only to confound you in the next chapter, and I’d love to say more about a couple of favourite episodes - (oh well ok, the post-punk band in Berlin, then) - but it’d be much better all round if you read it yourself.
At the moment its only available on kindle, but there’ll be a paperback version later in the year. Adam Sharp has more works in progress, so it’ll be great to see where his writing takes us next. He asks readers to spread the word if they like the book as I‘m doing here, check it out and you’ll be doing the same. Get it here for £1.99 on Kindle
Binky Phillips - My Life in the Ghost of Planets - The Story of a CBGB Almost-was
Talking of kindle... If you’re looking for a bargain read, there are a couple of interesting titles, telling very different stories of the musician’s life, and at bargain price too. Binky Philips’ book recounts how he and his group The Planets made their way from the suburbs to the heart of the New York CBGB scene in the mid to late 70’s, but were condemned to be ever the bridesmaids as the prizes went to Talking Heads, Television, Ramones, Mink de Ville and co. The book is another message from under the floorboards, as it were - it’s a familiar tale of suburban kids in love with music, obsessed with the early Who, and trying to make it. They have some great adventures along the way, before real life takes over. Binky is generally an engaging storyteller, once you get used to his slightly arch style and ’voice’. At first I found some of the humour and anecdotes a bit smug, but once the story gets going any such ideas are soon banished when he describes how the Planets kept getting to key breakthrough points - whether gigs, recording, signing up to management or recording deals - and invariably took the wrong decisions and blew it. The Planets come to specialize in missed opportunities, such as Brian Eno’s “No Wave” foray. It’s one of the author’s strengths that he’s prepared to admit that the guilty party was usually him.
The story is a really lively account of the whole NY/CBGB’s scene which seemed so cool and entrancing to any UK NME readers c’73-74 desperate to read about something other than the new triple album from ELP or Elton John‘s latest season at Empire Pool. He makes a couple of really important points, such as the lengthy pre-punk gestation period leading up to the emergence of groups like the Ramones, and demonstrates punk’s US roots (despite the claims of a certain UK haberdasher). He also reminds us how scenes get dumbed down as time goes on, so that there’s now a shorthand autopilot version of the New York scene that’s all about the holy trinity of Ramones, Television and Talking Heads. People like Willy de Ville, Wayne County and the Heartbreakers are already being edged out of the story. Bi nky points out that there were hundreds more groups around then, whether from the city or pouring in from the suburbs and out of State, all trying to make it. There are some really good anecdotes, characters and locations along the way, like a nightmarish Mob-run bar they get booked to, or the two cool cops who interrupt a group practice to ask “So you got the drugs and the rock’n’roll, where’s the sex?!?”
It’s in Rhino records’ Single Notes series, so it’s a fairly concise read. Give it a go - at worst it’ll get you backtracking to some very fine music - though sadly I haven’t been able to find any Planets yet online.
Ginger Baker - Hellraiser! The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer
Ginger Baker might be 73 now, but I’m sure he’s still drumming away on his Premier kit somewhere around the planet. As with Binky, the clue’s in the title. No false modesty there whether its fighting, drumming, sex, he‘s the man! I used to love Cream and Blind Faith, but often cursed Ginger Baker for starting the whole 20 minute drum solo craze that blighted many a gig I went to back then (although it did give you a chance to get to the bar and back I guess). This self-penned book is a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest, but at 99p who’s complaining? The parts about his early life, coming up thru the Soho jazz scene en route for rock mega stardom with Cream via the Graham Bond Organisation are fascinating. I also really liked the account of his childhood and teens in South East London - an area I know well - and he really conveys the vibe of places like Woolwich, Lewisham and Eltham in their post-war bomb-damaged bleakness.
When the book sticks to music it’s generally a very enjoyable read, but for me it tails off after the demise of Blind Faith and Airforce. I’d been looking forward to reading his accounts of working with PIL and Hawkwind in the 80’s but both episodes are dismissed in very short order: he didn’t even meet the rest of the group when he did his drum parts for the fine ‘86 PIL “Album”, and although he admits to being well-paid by Hawkwind, he reckons they had the worst bass player in the world, and were more interested in how their shows looked than the music.
Along the way there are perceptive portraits of forgotten but important figures like drummer Phil Seamen, and of course we hear all about his lifelong feud with Jack Bruce, his respect for Eric Clapton and love for Steve Winwood. Heroin addiction was the backdrop to most of Baker’s rock’n’roll years and he’s frank about some of the mistakes he made thru drug or alcohol abuse (as well as 20+ attempts at getting clean). There’s also an increasingly confusing cast of wives, lovers, other ex-partners or encounters (and some children too) and business confederates.
All this is generally a good read, but in the second part of the book, I found myself skipping more and more as music gives way to rally driving and polo-playing, two subjects of less-than-zero interest to your reviewer. There are some good stories about local legend and all round wild card Fela Kuti, beside whom Baker for once looks like a pretty average guy. After the Airforce group there were various efforts at setting up recording studios in West Africa, but soon a familiar pattern emerges - Ginger does all the work (as always) but is too trusting and gets ripped off, although’ after a few such mishaps, it starts to feel like a lot of these plans were pretty doomed to begin with. I’d always thought that Wings’ “Band on the Run” was recorded there, but no - they ended up re-recording in London after the usual wrangles.
He’s always emphatic that he’s a jazz player, coming from that context and tradition, and it’s clear that the respect and friendships he has there mean a lot more to him than any of his rock success. In some ways, it’s like a flipside to the Pete Townshend book reviewed here a while back - it covers the same time span and a lot of the characters overlap. There’s the same rather bewildering offhand attitude to money (houses, horses, studios, endless vehicles are bought and discarded at an amazing rate), but without Townshend’s imaginative vision or more compassionate attitude to life and people. There’s some quite amusing score-settling and nit-picking with other 60’s stars’ books, more often not his nemesis Jack Bruce. He does enjoy playing up to his sourpuss role, but at times you’ve got to love him, like when he refuses to come onstage at a major US venue until they’ve taken town all the Bruce Springsteen posters in the auditorium (he and The Boss don’t get on, apparently)!
Ginger Baker is never the man you’d go to for a sober assessment of his life and times, so the quality here is variable, but for anyone into 60s/70s rock, there are enough pearls among the dross to make this worth reading.
Thanks for bearing with me on a longer trawl than usual - but there are still millions of words out there, and they keep on coming. See you next time!
FLY is available from the author at www.annwitherall.com